Tag s | Grammar

Nagging Grammar Questions

Some time ago I asked my clients what publishing terms or concepts they wished someone would define or explain for them. I covered some of those in my September 16 post on this site. Some, however, asked for help with some nagging grammar questions. (We all—even the most accomplished—have such questions.) So I was going to answer them, but then I thought, Why not ask my friend, editor, and grammar nerd Nancy Lohr to do the actual work? Not that I’m afraid of work; I just avoid it whenever possible. So, let me steal—er, borrow from—her expertise to answer these three questions my readers and clients have thrown at me:

Question 1: I never feel completely confident about when to use simple past tense and when to use past perfect. “I talked to Mary” or “I had talked to Mary”? Does past perfect always require a sequence of events, i.e., “I had talked to Mary before I left for the store”; otherwise, simple past will do, “I talked to Mary.” What about, “I talked to Mary, then I left for the store?” When is that troublesome “had” necessary?  

Answer: Of course you don’t feel confident. That’s because English is consistently inconsistent. I’ve even heard of authors and agents who want someone else to explain grammar for them, but I think you’ve got it. Here’s how I compare past and past perfect tenses.

Past tense simply refers to events that have already occurred: “It rained all night” or “I watched a movie yesterday.”

Past perfect tense (also called pluperfect if you want to sound as smart as Bob) refers to actions that occurred before a certain point in the past, so not only in the past, but also before a specific time in the past. The sentence will look like this: subject + “had” (the past tense of “to have”) + the past participle: “She had published five books before she turned thirty,” “A tree had fallen on our garage.”

So now you want to know what a past participle is—a verb form that typically ends in “-ed” and is used to form perfect and passive tenses.



Bottom line: If you need to indicate that something happened before a certain time, then you need past perfect. If you don’t, simple past tense is fine.

Here’s a bonus tense:
Historic (or historical) present tense is also called dramatic present or narrative present, and you have probably seen it. This is when present tense is used to narrate past events. So, for example, someone might write: “Paul hears footsteps on the stone passageway, and then the jailer calls out, ‘Paul! Silas! Are you still in there?’” This reads as if it’s present tense, but we know this took place long ago, so it could also be written in past tense with “Paul heard” and “the jailer called out.”

So, when do you use historic present tense or simple past tense? If you want to heighten the drama of the text or make it appear that events are unfolding at this moment, use the historic present. This is a conscious choice you need to make as a writer. Just stay consistent. If you toggle back and forth between tenses, you’ll give your reader literary whiplash.

Question 2: I can never seem to wrap my brain around what a past participle is. I think I know, but ask me to define it, and I’m always stumped on a good, clear answer. 

Answer to #2: Good thing we talked about past participles above, right? They’re verbs that end in “–ed” and are used to form the past perfect tense. I don’t want to speak for Bob, but he would probably want me to add that the past participle forms the past perfect tense in the active voice. It is also used to form all of the tenses in the passive voice.

Question 3: Tell me about gerunds—those pesky “–ing” words. I’ve heard they’ve fallen out of favor in today’s writing world. Why? Is it because they often travel with a tagalong passive partner that’s unnecessary and easily eliminated? “He was running,” instead of, “He ran.” What if you use an “–ing” word as a noun for sentence variety: “Turning the corner, he crashed into a little old lady coming from the other direction”? Is this bad? In or out? What’s the scoop on “–ing” words?

Answer to #3: In English, words are generally considered one part of speech. But with a modification or two, they can function as another part of speech as well. (Because we wouldn’t want this to be too easy, right?)

Gerunds are made by adding “–ing” to a verb and then using it as a noun.

E.g.—Let’s walk to the park. (walk=verb)
Walking is good exercise. (walking=gerund used as a noun, the subject of the sentence)

But who am I to say whether they have fallen out of favor? I just learned this week that periods at the end of a sentence can be considered hostile. I can’t keep up. I say, use gerunds accurately to add strength to your writing and adjust if your editor pushes back.

That’s exactly what I would’ve said if I’d felt like it. Thanks, Nancy. What about you? Are there nagging grammar questions about which—despite your many accomplishments and accolades—you still wonder? 

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476 Ways to Avoid Writing “Said”

The folks over at ProofreadingServices.com created the incredible infographic below. Four hundred and seventy-six alternatives to the word “said.” Take care not to use all 476 in your manuscript! Very often “said” is all that is needed. In fact, overusing alternatives can weigh your manuscript down unnecessarily. However, I do …

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.


“I said, get the gun.”


“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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The Editorial Process

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggest that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.


“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

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Oxymorons can be fun. Two words that can have contradictory meaning are put together to create a new phrase. Or it can be expanded to mean two separate thoughts or ideas that are in direct conflict with each other but when combined create something new.

For example, if you’ve ever worked in a cubicle you can see the humor in the description “office space.”

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A Writer’s Best Friend

If I asked you what you considered to be a writer’s best friend, what would you say? Please don’t say “Wikipedia.” My clients would probably reply, “Bob Hostetler.” But that can’t be everyone’s answer. You might consider “a fine fountain pen” or “a blank page in a brand new journal” …

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Grammar and the Singular “They”

Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:

“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”

Fill in the blank. Should you use his, his or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”

Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.

So what is correct?

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