Verbs for Carrying Dialogue: ‘Said’ Versus the Rest

How much thought have you given to the verbs you’re using to carry dialogue in your novel? Elmore Leonard believes said is the only verb you should use, yet there are accomplished writers out there ignoring his recommendation. Who’s right?

Be Your Own Copy Editor #8

Dialogue picture blogIt’s impossible to talk about choosing verbs to use for speaker attributions in the context of writing genre fiction without taking into consideration what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject. You may have read Leonard’s highly influential essay ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’, first published in the New York Times in 2001 and later published as a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In case you haven’t, though, and you’re also unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard and his novels, let me explain that he’s about as ‘show, don’t tell’ as it’s possible for a writer to be without completely disappearing in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Leonard’s characters receive his book royalties, not Leonard. Anyway, in the New York Times essay, Leonard talks about how he makes himself invisible in his work. One of his invisibility cloaks is rule three: ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ He says, ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’

Most of the writers of the novels I edit more or less follow Leonard’s injunction. Said is definitely the verb du jour. Some writers who have a strong preference for said also use an occasional asked or replied, but that’s usually about it. However, there are authors out there doing good work with a bigger verb palette than Leonard recommends you use. Ian Rankin, whom I talked about two blogs ago, is one of them. A few percent of the way into Standing in Another Man’s Grave (I read the book on my Kindle), Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, we’ve racked up intoned, repeated, asked, replied and muttered, as well as said. Like Leonard, Rankin is both a great stylist and writes cracking dialogue. He’s also at the ‘show, don’t tell’ end of the storytelling spectrum, and no one’s going to get far accusing him of making schoolboy errors in terms of craft. So who’s right? Leonard or Rankin?

Of course, really there is no right or wrong. Leonard writes like Leonard, Rankin writes like Rankin, and their choice of language works for them and the type of characters and worlds they are trying to portray. Using said alone is entirely in keeping with the macho dynamics of Leonard’s novels, whose characters keep their cards close to their chests and are more likely to pull a gun than gasp or grumble. But if, say, you were writing a novel set in the world of haute couture and writing scenes in which make-up artists, fashion designers, hairstylists and models flap about and have hissy fits backstage during a runway show, you might not want to use said after said after said.

That’s not to say, however, there aren’t both good verb choices and choices of the not-so-great variety.

Let’s take a good look at Leonard’s position. He’s certainly right that said is the most transparent, most discreet verb available. It sits unobtrusively in a sentence containing direct speech, usually nestling after the most important bit, the dialogue itself. Part of the reason said has such a discreet presence in dialogue-giving sentences is it’s also the main verb we use in informal conversation when we report direct speech. When was the last time you had a coffee with someone and he or she relayed gossip by saying things like ‘Then I commented . . . Then she stated . . . Then he probed . . . Then I countered . . .’? Doesn’t happen, does it? Usually said is used. Said is so bedded in, in both fiction and speech, that it is hardly noticeable. It performs the function of linking speaker to spoken in as mechanical a way as is possible with a verb. So said is definitely a good choice if invisibility is what you’re after.

However, like people often do when they’re trying to make a point, Leonard skews the debate somewhat. He backs up his argument for only using said by rattling off a few highly undesirable verbs when he gives examples demonstrating the perils of veering from said, and he ignores verbs for which sounder arguments can be found.

First, let’s look at a couple of those bad verbs Leonard cites and pin down why they aren’t good. If you look up to gasp at Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), you will find it says it can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech – in other words, it’s acceptable in grammar terms to use to gasp to carry dialogue. Of course to gasp can also be used as an intransitive verb – one which doesn’t take an object – that means, quoting ODO, to ‘catch one’s breath with an open mouth’.

Before we continue, let me run through that grammar, since it underpins the discussion a little. When you write a line of dialogue and couple it with a speaker attribution, the dialogue is the grammatical object. Look at this:

‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever,’ Ian said.

In that sentence, Ian is the subject, said is the verb, and ‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever’ is the object. The verb to say is transitive; it needs an object. Someone has to say something. In this case, the something someone – Ian – says is the line bigging up Timothy Dalton. Now look at this:

‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,’ Rita gasped.

That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence in terms of grammar, since, as ODO says, to gasp can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech. You can say someone gasps a line of dialogue, in other words. However, though it may be acceptable grammatically, try catching your breath with an open mouth and speaking at the same time and you quickly realise it’s not actually possible to do both those things at once. (Even if it were, you’d need to use to gasp in conjunction with a verb like to say to reflect two actions are being performed simultaneously.) In which case, when an author writes that a character gasped a line of dialogue, what does he or she mean to say happened?

Ever seen someone gasp what they're saying?
Ever seen someone gasp what they’re saying?

I have no idea, and I suspect the writer of a line like that hasn’t thought through what he or she is saying either. A sentence like the one above has no connection with the real world. It exists in a category of artificiality marked ‘literature’; it doesn’t represent an attempt to accurately evoke the world out there on the page.

But in my imagination I can see and hear a character gasping in horror or astonishment, then saying something, a sequence of actions to gasp can help convey in its guise as a no-object verb.

Rita gasped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’

Other verbs writers sometimes try to use in the same way as to gasp include to chuckle, to sigh and to laugh (I say ‘try to’, since we copy editors are likely to cull them). None of these three verbs bear the fig leaf of respectability conferred by a listing in ODO as an object-taking verb used in conjunction with direct speech. All three are no-object verbs, which means they don’t have the grammar credentials to carry dialogue, though I have to say it seems somewhat arbitrary to me that we green-light gasped in grammar terms but not chuckled and sighed. So, chuckled, sighed and laughed should be rejected as dialogue carriers before you’ve even thought about whether it’s possible to chuckle, sigh or laugh a sentence, which of course it’s not, and so should other verbs of their kind. On the other hand, if you do think someone can, say, both laugh and speak simultaneously – and I advise you to try whatever combination of action and speech you wish to portray – you might want to add a present participle after the dialogue-carrying verb, like this:

‘I can’t believe you think Timothy Dalton was a better Bond than Sean Connery,’ Rita said, laughing.

Now let’s take a look at lied, another verb Leonard cites in his essay as a bad choice. First, let’s imagine our Timothy Dalton fan, Ian, later has a conversation with a woman he fancies who’s got a crush on Daniel Craig. Our imaginary author writes this:

‘I think Timothy Dalton was a crap Bond,’ Ian lied. ‘Daniel Craig represents the very pinnacle of 007-ness.’

In this case, the lied is redundant; we know Ian is lying, because he told Rita earlier he thinks Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever. Here we have a bad case of show and tell. The dialogue shows the reader Ian is lying, then the verb reiterates he’s lying. The author is over-managing the story and not letting it unfold by itself, perhaps because he or she isn’t confident the reader is really following what’s going on. Lied could also be used to tell the reader for the first time a character is lying, in which case the author using it would be guilty of the lesser offence of telling alone.

A lot of the other verbs used by authors also tell the reader something the dialogue shows. Imagine Ian and two friends have just seen Skyfall, last year’s Bond film, and afterwards they’re sitting in a bar, discussing the movie.

‘That opening fight scene on the train was ridiculous,’ Ian said. ‘Totally unrealistic. Though I’m sure Tim Dalton could’ve pulled it off.’

‘It was a James Bond film, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary,’ Blake countered. ‘The whole point of Bond films is they’re not realistic.’

Sean shook his head slowly and stared into the distance. ‘I’m never going to pay to see a Bond film again,’ he avowed.

Both countered and avowed tell us things we already know from having read the dialogue. Let’s look at the sentence containing avowed. Since to avow means to declare frankly and openly, we get that Sean is declaring something openly and frankly because – yes – the opinion he’s giving can be characterised as both frank and the utterance of someone who’s being open. We’re back to show and tell.

But not all verbs other than said should necessarily be treated with suspicion. Here comes a line from Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Inspector Rebus is listening to music in the car and realises he’s misheard a song lyric. He’s on his own.

‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus muttered to himself.

By using the verb to mutter, Rankin tells the reader exactly how Rebus says the line – in a low voice with a note of irritation in it. I don’t know what a Leonard disciple would do here.

‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus said to himself.

Actually, in this case, a Leonard disciple might conclude the line of dialogue can be given without a speaker attribution, since Rebus is alone in the car and there can be no confusion over who’s speaking. But either way, the reader wouldn’t get that Rebus speaks in a low voice with a note of irritation in it – two qualities conveyed by the verb to mutter. In this case, said is too blunt an instrument; the author needs a more precise verb to tell readers how he or she wants them to imagine the line is spoken. Here are three more verbs that fall into the same category as muttered: whispered, shouted and intoned. These kinds of verbs give information about the volume at which a character says a line or the way he or she says it, or both.

Another verb you can make a good argument for using is asked. On the one hand, a question in direct speech is self-evidently a question – the question mark is one big giveaway – so adding an asked does come across as another case of show, then tell. On the other hand, I suspect some authors feel said isn’t appropriate for questions, because they think it only works with statements. I notice, for instance, that Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective novels, is a said purist in his novel The Drop until he has to attribute a question, in which case he rolls out an asked.

Asked is actually a fairly invisible verb. I suspect that if Leonard did go stir-crazy as a reaction to the claustrophobia of using said all the time and treated himself to a new verb, it would be asked. Again, asked is a verb that is bedded in because it’s used a lot in conversation as well as fiction. Also, asked doesn’t do anywhere near as much telling as verbs like avowed and countered, because it doesn’t give an interpretation or summary of what a character is asking. Similarly, replied, responded and answered also mechanically state the relationship between one unit of discourse and another, but no more. They don’t say anything about the content of the response they are tagged to. It’s more difficult to justify using these three verbs than it is to justify using asked, however, since they are only ever attached to statements, and said would work in their places.

Incidentally, said actually falls into the same category as verbs like asked and replied in that it, too, states the obvious. Just as the question mark at the end of a line of dialogue indicates someone’s asking a question, quotation marks enclosing dialogue tell the reader someone is saying something. So said, too, tells the reader something he or she is also being shown, but the verb is so bedded in that it’s almost transparent.

Another category of verbs authors sometimes use consists of ones that are more or less synonyms for said. I’m thinking here of verbs like commented and stated, and I say ‘more or less synonyms’ because when a writer uses commented, for example, I tend to hear the line of dialogue it’s attached to in a comment-giving type of way. But maybe that’s just me – I don’t know. We’re entering highly subjective territory here.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

So, I’ve established some categories we can use when classifying dialogue-carrying verbs and thinking about their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll summarise what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the verbs or verb in each category, starting with what I consider the good and working my way towards the bad and the ugly.

1. The workhorse, said. The advantage of said is that it’s almost invisible. A disadvantage is it’s something of a blunt instrument. You may also feel said pulls against the question mark at the end of a direct question and wish to use asked instead.

2. Verbs such as muttered, whispered, intoned and shouted. These serve a legitimate function in that they fine-tune the reader’s understanding of how a character says a line. They are more precise than said, but not as discreet and invisible.

3. Asked. This verb is pretty invisible, though perhaps not quite as discreet as said. Some writers might feel the fact asked states the obvious – that a character asks a question, something indicated by the question mark – is outweighed by the drawback of using said in its place, which they may maintain only works with statements.

4. Replied, responded and answered. Again, these state the obvious – in this case, that a character is answering a question – but, like asked, they are not that noticeable (I would say replied and answered are the least visible of the three, and responded is both the most visible and most formal). But said can be used in the place of these verbs and is less visible.

5. Synonyms or near synonyms for said, such as stated and commented. These are not as discreet as said, but writers who aren’t said purists might use them for the sake of variety, and perhaps they provoke readers into hearing a character say a line in a slightly different way from how they would were said used. (You tell me.)

6. Verbs like avowed and countered that summarise and interpret a line of dialogue. It’s very hard to justify the use of these. They usually tell the reader something he or she has just been shown, and they are therefore redundant. They are also intrusive.

7. Verbs like gasped, chuckled and laughed. These may be sanctioned as verbs you can use to carry dialogue (gasped, for example), or may not (laughed), but whatever the case, they’re to be avoided, since they don’t convey how people in the real world speak.

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR VERBS

1. Does a particular verb help deliver a line to the reader in a way that reflects how people actually speak?

2. Does the verb tell the reader something he or she is shown by the line of dialogue it’s attached to?

3. How discreet is the verb?

4. How precise is the verb?

5. Does the verb pass the grammar test of being an object-taking verb?

6. Are the verbs you’re using a good match for the fictional world you’re trying to portray?

My next blog will carry on from here. I’ll assume you’ve made your decisions about which verbs you’re going to use to carry dialogue and turn my attention to speaker attributions as a whole (‘Rita said’, ‘Ian asked’, etc.). As always, I’ll focus on issues I commonly see in manuscripts.

Incidentally, Leonard’s New York Times article was one of a series called ‘Writers on Writing’ that the paper ran. It included contributions by Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, and the pieces are a real gold mine. You can find the articles here. Also, inspired by Leonard’s ten rules, the Guardian asked a number of well-known authors, among them Neil Gaiman, PD James and Jonathan Franzen, to share their own ten rules for writers, and you can find those here.

Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. ‘Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, and so on,’ Marcus asseverated (sorry, Mr Leonard).

Get a Free Sample Copy Edit

Profile pic

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 copyedit 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 the material back to you within 48 hours.

Are All Your Actions in Order?

plane and shavings

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.

Fire axe pictureTo 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.

Self-Editing Checklist

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.

3. Rewrite any sentences that have gone wrong.

Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a carrier pigeon, Morse Code and a torch, etc.

 

Are Your Danglers on Display?

Man in Stocks

Big mistake. Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. There I was, perusing the online edition of The Guardian, looking through the books section, when I chanced upon an interview with Sharon Olds, a poet apparently. (I’d never heard of her and still know nothing about her, for reasons about to become clear.) This was the piece’s intro:

Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.

Normally I switch off copyediting me when I’m reading for pleasure, but that second sentence activated copyediting me and put him on grammar alert. What we had here, people, was a living, breathing dangler. Not only that, but this baby was big. And so I made the silly mistake of adding a smart-arse comment at the bottom of the article.

So I’m going to have to wait till I’m 70 to see the young woman in Sharon Olds, since that’s what the second sentence of the article says. Will it be worth the wait? I’ll get back about it in 25 years’ time.

I naively imagined the writer of the article, Kate Kellaway, or a Guardian sub-editor would see the comment and amend the second sentence. What actually happened was I got a good pillorying – in a polite Guardian arts pages sort of way, of course. Someone called Cathy replied with:

How boring can some people get? A marvellous interview, some really subtle and complex ideas shining through, and then your response.

Frankly, she had a point. I was being a bit of a bore. Making the comment was out of character for me. I’m not one of those people who think civilization is in jeopardy when I see a misplaced apostrophe on the menu board at the local pub. In my defence I wasn’t drawing attention to something trivial, such as a typo, but to a dangler, front and centre, that made unfortunate, unintended sense. Anyway, it was too late. I’d said what I’d said, and I had to live with the consequences. It wasn’t long before Cathy’s comment had accumulated over 20 recommends, and I felt like a social pariah. It was as if I was languishing in the village stocks, and each recommend was a rotten tomato splatting me in the face. I hit back with:

You’re making the point behind my comment. The problem with bad grammar is that it makes you focus on the grammar and not the content. Some people won’t be able to read past that second sentence. I couldn’t, so I’m never going to know whether it was an interesting piece or not.

But the tomatoes kept splatting me in the face, and next someone using an alias that was a combination of numbers and letters wandered over to have a go at me:

But it doesn’t say what you think it says at all. Failure to understand non-simple sentence structures says more about your failure as a reader than the writer’s failure.

Ouch. Not only was I boring, but I was also failing as a reader, something that, were it true, would be fatal in my line of work, as would an inability to understand non-simple sentence structures, which I’m guessing is a non-simple way of saying complicated sentences. I’m more of a go-for-the-ball-and-not-the-man kind of guy, and I came back with an explanation of the problem:

It doesn’t intend to say what I know it says, more like. What you have at the beginning of the sentence is a dangling modifying phrase. The subject of the sentence, ‘you’, comes after the initial comma, and that’s what the modifying phrase modifies in grammar terms – ‘you’. If you’d like to refute my analysis, please go ahead, but do so in grammar terms. As a professional editor, I ‘succeed’ at reading all the time, thanks.

I braced myself for more criticism and wondered what would happen if the situation spiralled out of control. What if clicking Recommend on Cathy’s comment became the cool thing to do, sweeping the Internet with the viral virility of the ‘Gangnam Style’ video and even spreading to the remote village where I live? If that happened, would the guy with the farm on the corner ever sell me fresh eggs again? Or would he instead pelt me with them the next time I approached him with an empty egg box in hand? 

Fortunately, it was at this point that Billy Mills, a contributor to The Guardian, and a poet and publisher to boot, got my back. 

Spot on; if ‘At 70’ was replaced by ‘Today’ the ambiguity would disappear and everyone would see that it qualified ‘you’, as it is, we know what it means to mean, and so make a mental adjustment.

And once Mr Mills had spoken, the public pelting came to an end. 

So what did I learn from the experience? Well, I’ve returned to my default position of avoiding pointing out these kinds of errors, even if they are big ones. If I was really bothered by the dangler, I should’ve sent a private message about it to the subs’ desk at The Guardian, which was what I wanted to do originally, but because I couldn’t find an email address for the subs, I went ahead and made a comment in public. Kate Kellaway’s article also reminded me how easy it is for writers to go into print with danglers. I should know, because I’ve done so myself. If the online edition of The Times didn’t operate behind a paywall these days, I’d sheepishly provide a link showing an article I wrote a while back in which I erred, too. In the first sentence. What was that about throwing stones and people living in glass houses? I can’t say I remember exactly. 

Danglers are discussed a lot by people offering grammar advice, but I haven’t seen them talked about specifically from the perspective of writing and editing genre fiction – and they need to be. Also, though I’m sure you authors have been listening to the advice out there telling you to avoid writing danglers, you’re not being completely successful in following it, because – believe me – they’re getting through. I would say there are danglers in eight or nine out of every ten manuscripts I see. I sometimes work on novels that have already been copy-edited once or twice, and I usually see danglers in those, too, so these critters have a habit of holding on. 

I suspect that one reason danglers get there in the first place is that they are a feature of spoken English, and there’s a tendency for authors with a conversational style of writing to use them in their fiction without realising. (By the way, has anyone ever picked you up for using a dangler in conversation? No, I didn’t think so. Wait a moment; who said yes? Did someone say yes?) Imagine, for example, a guy called Tony is telling a mate what he did Friday night in Highbury, and he says the following five minutes into the conversation: 

Walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Euston, we have a dangler. Tony, the person going home by foot, isn’t mentioned where he should be, after the comma – which means the phrase Walking home from the pub is dangling, since strictly speaking the sentence doesn’t tell us who was walking home from the pub. But it sounds like a natural thing to say, no? And we get the intended meaning, even though the syntax is a bit wonky. Look at how wordy the following corrections are in comparison:

As I was walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Walking home from the pub, I was struck by the fact I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

These sentences are also more formal in register than the original, and they sound like writing rather than chat. All the essential scene-setting information was actually contained in the original opening phrase, Walking home from the pub. The guy who’s listening to Tony knows Tony’s talking about himself, because that’s what he’s been doing for the past five minutes, so who was walking home from the pub doesn’t need to be established again. 

Have I just gone and justified the use of a dangler? I think I have. However, I’m talking about danglers in speech rather than writing, so this discussion isn’t relevant to fiction, right? Well, no, it is. Since dialogue is a big feature of fiction, if the reality is that people speak in danglery sentences, then maybe danglers have a right to make it into print in dialogue. Maybe they should even be allowed in narration in some cases. Perhaps you’re writing a book using first-person point of view and your narrator has a colloquial, conversational way of expressing himself or herself, and danglers are right for that person’s voice. 

It’s at this point that I hold up my hands, smile and say that the decision whether to include danglers in your novel is a creative one for you, the author, and I’m not getting involved. I suspect, however, that most – if not all – of the writers who submit manuscripts with danglers in them simply don’t realise they are there and didn’t consciously decide to include them for creative reasons. You would have to be brave to intentionally allow danglers in your novel, because unless you can engineer a way to make it clear to readers you know you’re using them, you risk losing credibility in the eyes of people like that pedantic middle-aged guy who comments on the Guardian website – though everyone says that dude’s boring and incapable of grasping the non-simple, so maybe you shouldn’t care what he thinks. 

Dangler Dynamics

Before you search your manuscript for danglers, you need to know what they look like. Kate Kellaway’s second sentence is a good starting point, because it betrays a couple of traits frequently shared by sentences containing danglers in both journalism and fiction.

At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice. 

‘At 70’ is a modifying phrase – a prepositional phrase, to be precise – and it’s supposed to be giving information about Olds. But it isn’t doing that. Instead, it’s modifying you, a pronoun referring to the readers of the article. In this case, the thing the modifying phrase should modify, Olds, is given, just not given in the right place; it should come after the comma. If the sentence were rewritten and the opening phrase retained, it would start like this:

At 70, Olds . . .

Or

At 70, she . . .

In this instance it’s not possible to rewrite the sentence that way and get in all the ideas Kellaway wants to. (Try it yourself; you’ll see what I mean.) But that’s not our concern here. Sometimes the noun a dangling phrase is supposed to be modifying isn’t present in the sentence at all. Here’s an example:

At 70 years old, life is good.

This sounds like something someone might say, doesn’t it? It is, however, a dangler. Life isn’t 70 years old; it’s Sharon Olds who is that age – and she’s not mentioned. Life, on the other hand, is billions of years old, apparently. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – At 70 and At 70 years old, in the cases above – and the noun it’s supposed to modify, which is either not where it should be in order to be read as the thing being modified, or simply not present at all. 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.

How I imagine you've been spending the winter.
How I imagine you’ve been spending the winter (posed by models).

I said that Kellaway’s dangler displays classic traits. Well, while you people have been drinking red wine and joking and laughing and frolicking on a sandy beach with a Dalmatian – which is how I imagine you’ve been spending the winter while I’ve been holed up in a cold farmhouse on Gozo without hot water or central heating, wearing a beanie and five layers of woollen clothing – I went the extra mile for you by scouring fiction manuscripts I’ve edited for danglers, stripping out 40 in total and placing them side by side in a separate document. Before I was forced to burn said document in order to provide myself with a fleeting moment of warmth, I analysed the sentences in which the danglers occurred and looked for common features. (Okay, 40 danglers isn’t a huge sample, but I think it’s large enough to allow me to harvest some useful information.) I’m going to share the fruits of that research with you here.

How I've been spending the winter (artist's impression).
How I’ve been spending the winter (artist’s impression).

Sentence Position

Out of the 40, two danglers came at the end of a sentence. (I’m going to put the subject of danglers at the ends of sentences aside for the moment. I’ll cover it in the next blog, since I want to clear up another common issue I see in manuscripts at the same time.) The vast majority of danglers in my sample – 33 of the remaining 38 – were initial modifying phrases followed by a comma followed by . . . Well, it was what they weren’t followed by that was the issue: the noun they were supposed to modify wasn’t there. So, over 80 percent of the danglers in the sample came in sentences with this structure at the beginning:

Initial modifying phrase + comma + something other than the thing that’s supposed to be modified by the modifying phrase

Types of Dangling Phrase

In ten sentences, representing 25 percent of the total number of sentences in the sample, the dangling initial modifying phrase was a prepositional phrase – a phrase beginning with a preposition – similar to Kate Kellaway’s one. Here’s a variation on the theme:

With her shiny hair and gentle voice, you can see the young woman in Sharon Olds.

At and with are common opening prepositions in prepositional phrases that have been stood up by the noun they were supposed to be on a date with. Just over half the danglers in the sample were dangling participles (21 out of 40), and most of these (13) were present participles. Dangling participles are the big-brand danglers that everyone talks about, and my sample demonstrated they do represent a real menace in genre fiction, so let’s take a good look at them. But first I’d better go back a step, since some writers won’t be familiar with what participles look like.

There are two types of participles: past participles and present participles. Let’s deal with the first kind first. If you study a chart for English verbs of the kind used for teaching English to foreigners, you will see that each verb has three forms given: the infinitive, the past-simple-tense form, and the past participle. For example: 

to riot, rioted, rioted 

Notice the past participle of this particular verb has an -ed ending. Most past participles do, but some don’t – for example, known, fallen and built. Here are a couple of sentences that begin with past participles:

Built in 1967, Dunbad Prison was a concrete monstrosity.

Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King, John Dudley was the cons’ drugs dealer of choice.

Built in 1967 and Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King are called participial phrases. Let’s intentionally create a dangler using the first sentence as our raw material.

Built in 1967, no one would choose to do time in the concrete monstrosity that was Dunbad Prison.

The sentence is saying that no one was built in 1967, which doesn’t make sense. The thing that was built in 1967, Dunbad Prison, is adrift from its correct position, after the comma.

The results of my little research venture tentatively suggest that dangling past participles like the one above are less common in the genre fiction I edit than are dangling present participles. I imagine that’s because the use of past participles is characteristic of an information-giving style of writing that’s more the norm in, say, journalism. Anyway, let’s move on to looking at present participles. Here’s a correctly formed sentence that starts with a participial phrase with a present participle in it: 

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John blocked out any thoughts about the consequences of what he was about to do to his cellmate.

Raising is our present participle. It’s formed by adding -ing to the bare infinitive form of the verb – that’s the infinitive without to. (Here’s the math, as it were: to raise minus to equals raise, plus -ing equals raising, with the e erased.) If you’re scratching your head and wondering how raising can be called a present participle when it’s being used here to talk about something that supposedly happened in the past, keep scratching that head. Present participles can be used to talk about past, present and future events, as can past participles. Both terms are a little misleading, but you’ve got to work with what you’re given, even if that makes everything more non-simple than it might otherwise be. Here’s a danglerfication, as it were, of our example sentence:

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John’s thoughts were everywhere but on the consequences of what he was about to do.

That can’t be right, since John raised the axe above his head, not his thoughts. The guy may be a psycho and about to murder his cellmate – where did he find a fire axe in prison, by the way? Who writes this stuff? – but he’s not a psychic psycho with a talent for psychokinesis. Though a preposition will always be the first word in a prepositional phrase, a participle won’t always be the first word in a participial phrase. The following is a participial phrase, too, for instance:

While raising the fire axe high above his head . . .

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler I

You shouldn’t waste time and energy subjecting gerunds to interrogation in the hope of exposing them as dangling present participles; gerunds don’t dangle. The reason you might find yourself asking gerunds searching questions about their status is that both present participles and gerunds have the same spelling. The difference between them is in function: gerunds work as nouns. Look at this:

Murdering fellow prisoners diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Murdering is our gerund and it heads a gerund phrase, Murdering fellow prisoners, that is the subject of the sentence. A way to distinguish between present participles on the one hand, and lone gerunds and gerunds that head gerund phrases on the other, is to replace the word ending in -ing in question with it, ignore the extra words in the cases where you are probing what might be a gerund phrase, and see if what you’re left with makes sense. If it does, then you’ve struck a gerund. For instance, in the example above we end up with:

It diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Nothing to see here, then, and we can move along.

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler II

There’s a class of participles called absolute participles, and these can’t dangle. You are more likely to see absolute participles in dry forms of writing, such as news reports, corporate writing and academic texts, than you are in fiction, but they do crop up. Here are some examples of absolute participles: assuming, allowing, concerning, considering, given and providing. Here are a couple in action:

Considering how poorly equipped Dunbad Prison is to meet the needs of a modern penal system, it is scandalous that the government continues to support the establishment.

Given the high rate of recidivism among prisoners who serve custodial sentences at institutions such as Dunbad Prison, the question naturally arises, does prison work?

Well, I hope I haven’t managed to over-non-simplify the subject. There are other kinds of danglers you should look out for – dangling infinitives and dangling appositives, for example – but I’ve covered what I believe are the most common ones in fiction. 

Right, then. Next on the agenda for me: what else can I burn to provide heat? Actually, you know what? Now that I’m subscribing to Oxford Dictionaries Online, that copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelf does suddenly look redundant and more like a heat-giving brick of fuel than a source of spellings and definitions . . .

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Make a creative decision about whether you should allow danglers in dialogue and even, perhaps, narration. 

2. Should you decide not to include danglers, incorporate dangler patrols into your self-editing process.

3. Use the information I’ve given – and will give in my next blog – to spot them. Be on high alert when you come across a sentence that starts with a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase. Often the thing it modifies should come after the first comma, so be on the look out in particular for the following structures at the beginnings of sentences: 

prepositional phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

participial phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

4. Don’t concern yourself with gerunds and absolute participles. They can’t dangle.

5. Whenever you do come across a dangler, rewrite the sentence in which it occurs. I’m not going to try to tell you how to do that. You’re the artist in this relationship. Just make sure you don’t give birth to another bouncing dangler baby in the process, okay?

Assuming I continue to survive the cold this winter, I’ll post the next part of this blog in about ten days. Should there be a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.

Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, an Enigma machine, body language, etc.