Have you decided whether to give the verb first or the name first in speech tags? And what about their position? Should they always go after a line of dialogue, or is there something to gain by placing them elsewhere? Here, I discuss these subjects, getting some input from thriller-writing royalty in the shape of the great Tess Gerritsen
Be Your Own Copy Editor #9
When you write speech tags in your novel, do you put a character’s name first, then give the verb, or do you give the verb first, then a name? Here’s an example of the name-first style to make it clear what I’m talking about:
‘What we’re gonna do is break into Paris Hilton’s mansion and kidnap Tinkerbell, her chihuahua,’ Jez said.
Here, the verb comes first:
‘No, man,’ said Reginald. ‘Bad plan. We should wait till the maid be walking that bling-encrusted rat out on the street, then go scoop it up.’
Maybe you haven’t actually considered the order in which you give the name and verb in your speech tags. I say that because a fair number of authors whose work I copy-edit haven’t thought the issue through and mix the two styles without realising they’re doing it. Sometimes they write ‘Character X said’, and sometimes ‘said Character X’. Yet the issue deserves attention, because each of the two approaches produces a different effect.
In their classic book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King describe the verb-first style as having ‘a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavour . . . After all, “said he” fell out of favour sometime during the Taft administration.’ They do have something of a point. (Note to fellow Brits: Taft was president of the United States from 1909 to 1913.) Writers of contemporary genre fiction usually opt to give the name first – ‘Jez said’ and so on – and advocates of this style include the late, great Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. This way of ordering speech tags has a tougher edge to it than the verb-first option, and it’s particularly suited to streetwise crime fiction. I would say it’s pretty much the convention in genre fiction in general, in fact. However, Browne and King are stretching their point when they talk about ‘said he’ and President Taft, since no writer I’ve ever come across who puts the verb first when using a name also puts the verb first when using a pronoun. Instead, when a pronoun is used it always goes first, as in the following passage.
Jez looked out the window of the diner and scanned fifty yards of sidewalk Paris Hilton’s chihuahua passed along each day. ‘There’s one big problem with your plan,’ he said. ‘And that big problem weighs two hundred forty pounds and got a concealed-carry permit.’
Which brings me to another way of ordering speech tags – one I’m calling the Tess Gerritsen approach. What the thriller writer Tess Gerritsen does is mix the noun-first and verb-first styles in a consistent and logical way. If she’s using a character’s name, 99 per cent of the time she gives the verb first, but if she’s using a pronoun, she puts the pronoun first. Let’s look at that approach in action.
Reginald stopped eating his chicken burger for a moment and frowned. ‘The chihuahua got a bodyguard?’ he said.
‘A Muay Thai instructor they call Stone Foot,’ said Jez, nodding.
I don’t detect a first-grade-reader flavour there.
When I noticed Tess Gerritsen does something different from most authors with her speech tags, I sent her an email asking her about her approach. Now, Tess Gerritsen writes at more or less the pace of a novel a year, she has sold over 25 million books, and her crime-fiction series has been adapted into a highly popular TV series called Rizzoli & Isles, which is going to run for a fifth season in 2014. What I’m building up to saying here is that though I sent Tess Gerritsen an email, I didn’t expect her to actually reply. Yet she very kindly did, saying she wasn’t aware she has a system for speech tags. She also talked about her approach to them in general.
‘My general philosophy is to use as few of them as possible, only for clarity, and make the dialogue itself do most of the work,’ she said. ‘But sometimes you just need to identify who is talking, and my favourite word is, simply, said at the end of the sentence. It’s unobtrusive and gets the job done. However, that gets really repetitive after a while (“he said”, “she said”, “he said”, “she said”). So, just to inject a change in rhythm, I’ll sometimes move the tag to the beginning of the sentence.’
Avoiding repetition and getting the rhythm right are clearly important considerations for Tess Gerritsen (I’ll talk about how she therefore varies the position of the tag in a moment). Since she restricts herself to using said as her speech-tag verb most of the time, by placing said before characters’ names but after pronouns, she has found a way to avoid hitting the reader with said after names and pronouns again and again. Instead of, say, writing a sequence like ‘Jez said,’ ‘Reginald said,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, she would write ‘said Jez, ‘said Reginald,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.
If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought through how to order verbs and nouns in speech tags at all, it’s a good idea to give the subject some consideration when you self-edit your manuscript and adopt a well-thought-out and consistent approach that suits your style and the kind of novel you’re writing. You might want to check on what approach authors who influence you take, too. Whatever style you decide to use, remember to align your thought tags – the tags you use with inner monologue, if you use them – so they follow the same pattern as the speech-tag one. For example, if you opt to give the name or pronoun first in all cases, you should write thought tags like the one in the passage that follows:
Jez took out his smartphone and looked at photos of Tinkerbell’s crib on Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. That mutt got a better home than I got, he thought.
Let’s now look at the topic of the positioning of speech tags, which Tess Gerritsen talks about, saying she sometimes likes to put the tag before a line of dialogue to change the rhythm. Here are the three options, starting with tag first:
Reginald said, ‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money,’ Reginald said, ‘we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’ Reginald said.
An advantage of the first style is it tells the reader who’s speaking straightaway. A disadvantage is that, since the speech tag comes before the line of dialogue, the tag isn’t as discreet as it could be, and it takes some of the limelight away from what the character says. The second style is interesting in that the speech tag acts as a brief interruption, creating a beat and thereby spotlighting what comes after it. The line of dialogue I’ve used in my examples has a punchy second clause, and by positioning the speech tag just before that clause, creating a pause, it’s given just a little bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have.
The advantage of the third style is that the line of dialogue is given in a fluid flourish and takes centre stage. The disadvantage is that the speech tag is there to tell the reader who’s speaking, and placing the tag after the line of dialogue delays the delivery of that important information. On the other hand, the reader usually has a good idea who’s speaking, often because what’s being said and the way it’s being said make that obvious, or because characters are conversing in a clear pattern – for example, Jez says something, then Reginald says something, and then Jez speaks, and so on. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes, when using the third style, there’s a risk the reader won’t be absolutely sure who’s speaking till after he or she has read the actual dialogue, which is not good. Also, if you use a particular verb because you want to indicate how a line is said (shouted, whispered, etc.), the third style isn’t particularly satisfactory, because the reader will read the line and only afterwards discover that he or she was supposed to imagine it shouted or whispered or whatever.
By far the most common style, of course, is the third, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which either of the first two styles is used exclusively. Some writers opt to use the third style most of the time and mix in a few examples of either the first (Tess Gerritsen, for example) or the second, or both (Elmore Leonard liked to do this) to change the rhythm. If you’re a writer who always uses style number three, you might want to consider using the other two styles as well for the same reason.
Look through your manuscript to see if you’ve adopted a consistent and logical approach to the order in which you use verbs and nouns in speech tags and thought tags. If you find you haven’t, think the matter through and decide on a style. You might want to read novels by your favourite authors for inspiration. The usual style in genre fiction is to give the name or pronoun first in all cases. The Tess Gerritsen approach is well worth considering, too.
If you always place your speech tags after lines of dialogue, think about using the other two positions illustrated in the examples above to vary the rhythm.
So, this blog has been a long time coming – was my last one really six months ago? Oh dear. I promise to try to up my blog rate from a pitiful twice a year to once a month.
Dot dot dots are dot-dot-dotted around everywhere these days. While those of us who get passionate about punctuation have been discussing whether semicolons have a place in fiction, or decrying the overuse of exclamation marks in emails, behind our backs the three-dotted fiend has been evolving and spreading.
And some readers of this blog are not going to be happy with what dot dot dot has been getting up to. Those of you who consider themselves sticklers for proper punctuation may want to stop reading here. Sticklers might wish to peruse WordPress’s Freshly Pressed section instead, where there’s sure to be another blog about leveraging social media to increase book sales any . . . second . . . now. (Sorry to use ellipses in an unconventional way there, sticklers. I fully intended to wait till those of you who wanted to leave this page had been given a proper opportunity to do so before unleashing the dots. Bad me.)
Should any sticklers decide to stick around – and it goes without saying I’ll be delighted if you do – I recommend you have a Mozart CD or bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy at hand, because you might need something to calm you down in a moment or two.
I would now like to extend a warm welcome to all you readers who’ve made it as far as this paragraph and inform you we’re going on a journey of discovery today. Well, perhaps not a journey of discovery exactly but more a journey of acknowledging something that’s been going on for a long time yet doesn’t get discussed much. A journey of confirmation, if you will. Because our three-dotted friend the ellipsis (also known as ‘ellipsis points’ and ‘suspension points’ in the States) has been busy, busy, busy out there on the frontiers of written communication – particularly in emails, comics and the place we concern ourselves with here, genre fiction.
I would hazard a guess that, during the last 25 years or so, ellipses have been the most avant-garde punctuation marks out there. Not much competition, really, as far as I can see. When was the last time you saw a colon do anything new? ‘Look at me! I’m a colon! I’m introducing a list!’ (Yawns. Looks at watch. Thinks about what’s for dinner.) Ever see a semicolon getting into some daring punctuational mischief? (Don’t mention emoticons, please.)
Our three-dotted friend, on the other hand, has been innovating for England. If punctuation marks were people, Mr Ellipsis would prefer it if you referred to him by his first name, Eli, and be hanging out with jazz musicians and contemporary artists who make installations from seaweed and paint with blood. Dot dot dot even enjoyed a period of fame – or should that be three periods of fame? Or, became three famous periods? – when it was mentioned in the film Trainspotting, released in 1996. You don’t see commas being namechecked in tales about Edinburgh’s heroin-ravaged underbelly.
Let’s get eyes on an ellipsis (note that WordPress won’t allow me to generate an Alt-Ctrl-period dot dot dot, which is my ellipsis of choice, so I’m using what follows as a substitute).
. . .
Look at it. No other punctuation mark, aside from a dash, covers so much ground laterally. Okay, your question mark, a Victorian street lamp of a piece of punctuation, has got a lot more vertical action going on, as has an exclamation mark, but when it comes to the horizontal plane, an ellipsis really spans space. That’s important to note, because a key function an ellipsis can perform is that of adding a split second to the time it takes readers to reach the next word in a sentence. An ellipsis used in this way is ground the eye has to cover. In other words, it introduces a beat.
Let’s begin our field study of dot dot dots by looking at some well-established uses of them in fiction. (Sticklers won’t find any of what follows in the next part offensive. When we reach the threshold of the dangerous section, I’ll give a clear warning.) Right, I need someone I can rely on to speak in a nervous way. That would be the Snow King’s new cellmate, then. You’ll remember that John Dudley, he of the parish of Dunbad Prison, nicknamed the Snow King on account of his being a cocaine dealer, viciously murdered his cellmate a couple of blogs ago. It stands to reason that his new cellmate is going to be apprehensive about having to share a confined space with him.
Let’s have them meet for the first time.
The Snow King was sitting on the edge of his bed, reading Nuts. A short and stocky middle-aged man with a ginger beard walked into the cell carrying bedding and a copy of The Lord of the Rings.
‘I’m . . .’ he said. ‘What I . . . This is my cell. I mean, your cell . . . It’s our cell now, I suppose.’ He smiled, put down the bedding and the book and extended his right arm towards Dudley. ‘I’m Brian. I didn’t get your . . .’
The Snow King ignored him and turned the page of his magazine.
The first two ellipses indicate Brian trails off while speaking and doesn’t finish saying what he was going to say; the third also indicates he stops speaking, but in this case he stops after completing a thought.Note that the final ellipsis again indicates Brian stopped speaking before he finished what he was going to say – ‘I didn’t get your name’ in this instance – and not that Brian was interrupted by the Snow King. An em dash is used to show an interruption, not an ellipsis. Let’s rewrite the scene a little to show an em dash performing that function.
Brian said, ‘I didn’t get your—’
‘Hey, hobbit features.’ The Snow King slapped his magazine down on the bed, stood and grabbed Brian by the collar of his shirt. ‘Who gave you permission to talk?’
By the way, if you use an ellipsis to indicate a speaker trails off or pauses, try to avoid saying he does, too. Don’t do this:
‘I’m . . .’ Brian trailed off. ‘What I mean is . . .’ He stopped.
‘I mean, it’s your cell . . .’ Brian paused. ‘I suppose it’s our cell now.’
I see this type of thing a lot in manuscripts. You shouldn’t need to write ‘Brian trailed off’ or ‘He stopped’ or ‘Brian paused’, since the ellipses indicate those things happened. Have faith in the power of those dots, people.
Next on our list of conventional ways to use ellipses: phone conversations where the author reveals what only one of the two parties is saying. Here’s Brian talking to his wife on a payphone, which of course he had to queue for half an hour to use, since that’s always the way in prison-based fiction (prisoners in Brazil sidestep this problem by getting cats to smuggle mobile phones in to them – an obvious solution, really):
“I’ll be fine, really I will . . . My cellmate?” Brian cleared his throat and put a smile in his voice. “Yeah, nice guy, actually . . . No, I don’t know why he’s here, no, but I think we’re going to get along just fine. We’ll be playing Dungeons & Dragons together in no time.”
What a liar, eh? I see John Dudley as more of a Scrabble kind of guy. Who cuts off your little finger and wears it around his neck as a trophy if you beat him.
In this case, the ellipses signify Brian’s wife is talking. Note how each ellipsis is being used to suggest Brian isn’t talking and instead is listening to his wife for a longer period than the time it takes the reader to cross the no man’s land of the ellipsis and reach the next word. The writer wants you to imagine Brian’s wife – let’s call her Samantha – is speaking in chunks. If we stopped and thought about it, we’d guess Samantha’s first question is ‘What’s your cellmate like?’ and her second is ‘What’s your cellmate in prison for?’
Right. Now comes the moment the sticklers will have been dreading. We’re going to cross a border and move on from talking about ellipses in dialogue to talking about them in narration. If you do decide to bravely continue reading, sticklers, now is the time to squeeze a few drops of that Bach Rescue Remedy into a glass of water, or tee up that Mozart CD. But if you don’t have either of those two relaxation aids at hand, read on without fear, because I have made provision for just that circumstance.
ELLIPSES IN NARRATION
While researching this blog, I read through 20 genre fiction manuscripts and looked at the use of ellipses in each one. Nearly every author used ellipses in dialogue, but only about seven or eight used ellipses in narration, and only four of these writers used them in what could be described as a full-bloodied way. Which means one in five authors wrote sentences like the following.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . . then butcher him.
Here’s a photo of a nice tropical beach I’ve been keeping ready to help the sticklers in moments of punctuational crisis like this one.
Easy, now. Take deep breaths. In . . . out. (Sorry about the punctuation there.) Look at the picture. Keep looking at the picture.
In an interview I gave recently, I compared this kind of ellipsis to the moment in the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when a contestant has given his or her final answer, and Chris Tarrant, the quizmaster, draws out the tension by taking his time to reveal whether that answer is correct. Since then I’ve taken to calling this type of ellipsis a Tarrant (a Vieira in dollars and cents). If that’s a Tarrant, the following is an extended Tarrant.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
. . . then butcher him.
Focus on the nice picture of the nice beach, sticklers. Don’t look at the dots; look at the picture. Nice beach. Nice dot-less beach in dot-less paradise.
Those of you who can stomach those ellipses should look at the second one now. Though it helps lengthen the beat between week and then, lengthening that beat is not its main purpose. So what is that second ellipsis doing? Its function becomes clear when we try leaving it out.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
then butcher him.
Horrible. We really don’t like to see an indented new line start with a word the initial letter of which is lower case. But we’re conditioned to accept that a word can begin with a lower-case letter when it’s preceded by an ellipsis, so the second ellipsis smooths the connection between the two parts of the sentence. The ellipses plug both sentence parts together.
Let’s look at the original sentence again.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
. . . then butcher him.
I often see Tarrants used to punch up passages containing less dramatic revelations, such as the reporting of a character’s transformation. Imagine the Snow King has been taking anger management classes – and let’s face it, the guy needs them – and is now spending his free time looking after cockatiels and budgies and making model ships out of matchsticks. If I were an ellipsis-happy author, I might write a few lines describing Dudley’s new hobbies, then add this:
The Snow King was becoming . . . mellow.
An example of someone who likes to use this kind of Tarrant is the highly successful British crime writer Mark Billingham – or at least he was partial to Tarrants in his novel Scaredy Cat, first published in 2002, which I read last year. Billingham is also a stand-up comedian, and of course beats are important tools in joke telling, where timing is everything, so perhaps Billingham’s use of beats in comedy has influenced the way he punctuates sentences in his crime fiction.
You will have noticed I haven’t made any value judgments about Tarrants. Well, we’re all grown-ups here. If authors want to use ellipses in the way I’ve shown above, then that’s their choice. For what it’s worth, though, Tarrants are not really my cup of tea. Tarrants, particularly extended Tarrants, come across to me as somewhat melodramatic devices, for which reason I place them in the same category as one-sentence paragraphs, stacked one-sentence paragraphs, and rampant italics. When I come across a Tarrant, I suddenly become very aware of the writer and how he or she is attempting to manipulate me. It’s not that I mind being manipulated, but I do mind seeing the levers being pulled.
But, hey, live and let live. Which I bet isn’t what the sticklers reading this are thinking. If you’re a stickler, right about now you’re probably wishing that imaginary stick you’ve been stickling with is a real one you can use to beat authors like Mark Billingham into punctuational conformity. (We all know sticklers are stick-carrying referees at Cornish wrestling matches, right?)
As with anything, ellipses can be used in good ways and in ways that are not so good. Should you wish to see a master of the ellipsis at work, I recommend you read some Ian Rankin novels. (Yes, sticklers, I’m really suggesting you might want to go out of your way to see more ellipses in narration. You need the photo again? Sure, here it is.)
Rankin is one of the best crime writers the UK has produced. He also likes the band Hawkwind, which makes me feel better than I otherwise would about my teenage infatuation with the space-rock combo. And the guy knows how to wield an ellipsis. Writing in The Guardian about Fleshmarket Close, the 2004 instalment of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said, ‘The reader is pulled in to the detective’s hunches by markers in the narrative – clues left by the author, we might say. We particularly know that we should feel for a deeper plot when there is an ellipsis, marked by three points.’
Look at that change in fortunes, people. A moment ago ellipses were basically described as cheap effects, but now they are being called ‘markers in the narrative’ and indicators that we should ‘feel for a deeper plot’ by a professor of English, no less. Context is everything, I guess. Here comes a hardworking ellipsis in a passage taken from Rankin’s Resurrection Men (2002). While Inspector Rebus is at a boring meeting, he loses interest in what’s being said and thinks about a case. I’m only going to quote a couple of lines either side of the ellipsis, by the way.
Five minutes into the lecture, Rebus let his eyes and mind drift out of focus. He was back on the Marber case . . .
Edward Marber had been an Edinburgh art and antiques dealer. Past tense, because Marber was now dead, bludgeoned outside his home by assailant or assailants unknown.
Nice. That’s an ellipsis doing good work right there, smoothing the transition from a direct scene to a nugget of backstory. As those of you who’ve tried switching gears like that in your own work will know, it can be a tricky thing to pull off.
So, it turns out there can be an art to this ellipsis business. I know the sticklers are going to hate me for saying this, but we need to embrace our three-dotted friends, not fight them as if they’re a punctuational plague. Battling against them is a waste of time anyway, since in this particular case, not only has the horse bolted, but it left the stables about 20 years ago and died of old age before presumably finding its way into Ikea meatballs, if we’re to believe the reports in the British media. What I’m trying to say, sticklers, is it’s too late. The ellipsis infestation is here . . . to stay. You need the photo again?
EDITORS’ HUDDLE: NAMING THE DOTS
Should we call what I’ve been calling an ellipsis ‘an ellipsis’? In the UK, it’s normal to do so. Things are a little different in the States, though, where our three-dotted friend is sometimes referred to as an ellipsis (see The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance), sometimes called ‘suspension points’, and at other times referred to as ‘ellipsis points’.
The Chicago Manual of Style makes a subtle distinction, saying dot dot dot should be called either ellipsis points or suspension points depending on its function (see rule 13.48). The manual rightly defines an ellipsis as an omission of text. Academic A quotes academic B in journal C and leaves out part of the quotation that isn’t relevant – that’s an ellipsis. Text has been elided; an elision has taken place. Words have been left out, to put it in plain English. When our three-dotted friend indicates an ellipsis, it should be called ‘ellipsis points’, not an ellipsis; an ellipsis is the thing ellipsis points signal.
Then the revered style manual appears to go a bit dot dot dotty.
When dot dot dot is used to indicate what CMOS calls ‘suspended or interrupted thought’, it should be called suspension points(13.48 again). But does CMOS really mean suspended or interrupted thought? Because though at first CMOS says suspension points should be used to indicate thought that’s suspended or interrupted, it switches to talking about using the dots to indicate ‘faltering or fragmented speech’ (my italics) in the rule, 13.39, where it expands on the pronouncement it makes in 13.48. Maybe CMOS meant to say both thought and speech.
In 13.39, CMOS appears to contradict what it says in 13.48 by stating that interruptions in thought are usually indicated by em dashes, not ellipses, a recommendation it indicates it talks about further in yet another rule, 6.84. But 6.84 talks about using em dashes for sudden breaks in thought, not interruptions.
And though CMOS goes to the effort of distinguishing between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48, it ignores the distinction in 13.39 when it says suspension points can be used to indicate an ellipsis.
This is all very, very strange.
The distinction CMOS makes between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48 is actually a good one. When dot dot dot is used in dialogue to indicate a speaker stops speaking for a moment, the author isn’t leaving anything out; instead, the writer indicates the speaker is taking his or her time to say whatever it is he or she has to say. Similarly, if someone doesn’t finish his or her sentence, and a writer uses dot dot dot to convey that, those dots don’t stand in for words that have been left out in the way that ellipsis points do.
The distinction may be logical and sensible, but personally I choose not to make it, since, as I said, we Brits call dot dot dot an ellipsis in all cases, and that works for us. Besides, if we started handing out names to dot dot dot for each function, we’d have to invent a lot of new names. Because our three-dotted friend does more than show text has been left out and indicate someone stopped talking.
It’s important that you find a copy editor who’s right for you and your novel and with whom you have good rapport. Not all copy editors are the same, and not all offer the same service, so it’s a good idea to shop around and find someone who meets your requirements and with whom you can develop a good relationship.
I’ve been copyediting since 1990, and I’m highly skilled and experienced. I only copyedit fiction, and I edit between 20 and 25 full-length manuscripts a year. I work with debut novelists, bestselling writers and everyone in between. As well as working with independent authors, I copyedit for publishers.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll edit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get them back to you within 48 hours.
Assuming you’ve been following the advice I’ve been giving in this blog series, when you fact-checked your manuscript, or went on dangler patrol, or eliminated those commas in compound predicates, it was a little like planing a piece of wood, and misspelled brand names, danglers and misplaced commas fell to the floor from your manuscript, so to speak. The advice in this instalment, however, could lead to some sweeping up of manuscript shavings on your part only if you’re an author who tends to write a certain kind of sentence – namely, the type using participial phrases containing present participles (I’ll go into what that actually means in a moment). If you are one of those writers, you might just be making a couple of mistakes I often see in manuscripts and which I’m going to discuss here.
Let’s nail down what I mean by participial phrases containing present participles – and no, I have no idea where this carpentry imagery is coming from, since woodwork is not my strong suit, evidenced by the fact that at school I couldn’t even produce a functioning dovetail joint. Nor was I any good at metalwork.
Now that I’ve somehow got on to the subject of making stuff out of wood and metal at school, and seeing as this is a blog about language, I think it’s only right I share my one abiding memory of metalwork lessons – conversations like the one that follows that came after my bewhiskered, Scottish metalwork teacher, whose name I forget, told me to do something, and I replied by saying ‘Alright.’ Scots Whiskers: ‘Stop saying “alright”, laddie. It’s not a proper word.’ Me: ‘Alright.’ Whiskers: ‘I said stopping saying alright!’ Me: ‘And I said alright. I’ll stop saying alright. Alright?’ Etc. Ad detention. Oh, the fun we had provoking the stick-in-the-mud teachers at our stick-in-the-mud school.
To demonstrate what the phrases in question look like, I suggest we catch up with our drug-dealing anti-hero from the last blog, John Dudley, the so-called Snow King and the guy who, last time we met him, miraculously found a fire axe in Dunbad Prison, where he’s currently doing time, then proceeded to bury the axe in his cellmate’s head. Incidentally, you’re about to discover Dudley is still running free, if we can use that expression to talk about someone in prison. The reason the murder by Dudley of his cellmate didn’t lead to severe punitive measures being taken against him by the authorities is that I’m out of ideas for situations and characters with which to conjure up sentences illustrating grammar points, and I needed a guy I could rely on – a guy like John Dudley – to be going about his business as normal. Which adds up to a sad indictment of my imagination. So, without further ado, here come more slivers of action from the Snow King’s sordid life.
Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, the Snow King realised he’d be in deep trouble if the warders caught him with illicit booze again.
The Snow King sat on his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex.
In these example sentences, our participial phrases are Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex. There’s a present participle in each phrase: hiding, smoking and thinking. (I explained how we form present participles in the last blog; scroll down if you want to see the explanation.) Notice how this kind of participial phrase tells us about things happening at the same time as what’s going on in the main clause. While the Snow King is hiding the hooch, he’s realising the depth of the trouble he will find himself in should he get caught with the booze. While the Snow King sits on his bed, he’s smoking and thinking about his ex, who presumably left him for another fella. (I wouldn’t like to be in that guy’s shoes and anywhere near a wood-chopping tool if Dudley gets out of prison.) These sentences are all fine and dandy. The following one isn’t.
Striding across the exercise yard, John sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap.
John can’t be striding across the exercise yard, sitting down next to Big Phil and passing him coke at same time. What I’ve illustrated here with a sentence that exaggerates the error I’m trying to highlight is what goes wrong when writers try to indicate a sequence of events using participial phrases containing present participles. Unfortunately, sequencing isn’t something these phrases are capable of. Try to get them to show that an action takes place at a particular moment in a series of events and they’re all ‘Sorry, mate, that’s above my pay grade. No can do.’ Past-simple-tense verbs, on the other hand, positively lick the faces of sequences of actions that sentences like the one above fail to describe correctly.
John strode across the exercise yard, sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap.
Here’s another example of a sentence illustrating the problem I’m talking about, this time with three phrases with present participles stacked up at the end of it:
John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler, tearing the centre spread into small rectangles, placing a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapping up the powder.
I don’t know how John got the keys to whatever office that is, by the way. I suppose it goes to show that if nothing else, the guy’s resourceful and cunning. Anyway, let’s look at what’s gone wrong here. The first two actions – John going through the drawers and finding the magazine – are nicely arranged in sequence, but then our present participles come along and ruin everything. John can’t be going through the drawers and finding the magazine at the same time as tearing the centre spread into rectangles and wrapping cocaine in those rectangles. Nor can he be tearing up the paper, placing the coke on each piece he creates and wrapping up the powder at the same time, since though the guy is resourceful, he’s not some kind of human octopus. Once again, using the past-simple tense would bring clarity where currently there is discord.
John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.
I’m saying here that participial phrases containing present participles can only be used to describe actions that happen at the same time as the action in a main clause, but maybe there is a little bit of wiggle room. There certainly is according to Raymond Murphy, the author of English Grammar in Use. He says if one short action follows another short action, it’s okay to use a participial phrase containing a present participle, and he uses this as an example:
Taking a key out of his pocket, he opened the door.
I have to say I don’t like that sentence much. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but when I read that sentence I try to visualise someone taking a key out of his pocket and opening a door at one and the same time and I can’t, because that’s not possible. However, this is Mr Raymond Murphy talking here, so I have to sit up and listen – or prostrate myself in front of him and listen, because that’s the kind of respect he and his book deserve. English Grammar in Use is a legend within English teaching circles and contains probably the clearest explanations you’ll find of grammar rules formulated for people for whom English is not their first language. (I’m almost tempted to post another book-as-shrine photo, as I did for The Chicago Manual of Style, but the cover of my copy is too crinkled from use to serve as a model.)
Don’t confuse the participial phrases I’m talking about here with a similar construction, having + past participle, which is used specifically for sequencing. (If you need to know what past participles look like, scroll on down.) Here’s an example of having + past participle in action:
Having wrapped ten grams of coke, John made his way to the rec room to deliver five wraps to Tyneside Mac.
The opening phrase, Having wrapped ten grams of coke, is doing good work and indicating that an action happened before the action in the main clause – John going to the rec room. Nice one, having + past participle!
Now to the subject of dangling present participles at the ends of sentences, which I said I’d cover in this instalment. Let’s remind ourselves what danglers are. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – in the case we’re going to talk about, a participial phrase containing a present participle – and the noun it’s supposed to modify. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to. Take a gander at this:
John looked at the nudie picture, lying on his bed.
This sentence is a little ambiguous, no? It’s not clear whether the intention was to say John is lying on his bed and looking at the nudie picture, or John is looking at the nudie picture that is lying on his bed. Since it was I who wrote the sentence, I can exclusively reveal to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I was imagining myself as an author who meant to say the picture was on the bed. That means lying on his bed is dangling, because it’s not attaching properly to the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to, the nudie picture, and sort of attaching to John instead, but not quite really doing that either. (Maybe it should be defined as a hesitant and indecisive dangling participle.) There’s a simple fix:
John looked at the nudie picture lying on his bed.
If my intention had been to say John was lying on his bed and looking at the picture, which would presumably be on the wall in that case, a good way to rework the sentence would have been:
Lying on his bed, John looked at the nudie picture.
1. Check back over your work and establish whether you’re the type of writer who uses participial phrases containing present participles.
2. If you are, look out for two things. First, make sure you haven’t used participial phrases with present participles to indicate events happening in sequence. Second, make sure the phrases don’t dangle.