Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Three Common Faults, and How You Can Make Them Work For You

Today I'm going to look at three common faults - sentence fragments, monotonous structure and comma splices. Yes, you need to know about these things, and most of the time you need to avoid them. Most of the time.

There are, however, situations in which each of these things can be made to work for you. Let's take them one by one.

Sentence Fragments

Look back at the end of my opening paragraph. Do you see what I did there? It's a sentence fragment, and it is bad grammar. A well-formed English sentence must have at the very minimum a subject and a verb.

When people are actually talking, however, they use sentence fragments all the time. The average conversation between ordinary people is full of them. If you listen to educated people discussing some intellectual topic, there will be fewer fragments - but there will still be some. That's just how we humans roll.

In written English, sentence fragments have traditionally been seen as a grave fault. However, written English was traditionally far more formal than is always the case today. A hundred years ago, there was no email, no Facebook, no IMS. A good case can be made for shifting the distinction away from whether the English in question is written or spoken, towards the nature of the writing. Chat sessions, for example, have far more in common with a telephone conversation than with an exchange of letters. There is the synchronicity, the short length of information packets, the immediacy of the whole thing. 

A blog post arguably falls between the stools of formal prose and conversation. It is more like giving a talk, and therefore a greater degree of laxity is allowable. I'm quite sure that if you go through a number of my blog posts, you'll see many more sentence fragments than the one I deliberately inserted above, and I don't feel there is anything wrong with that; it gives a casual, conversational tone to what, after all, should be an easy read. Of course, given my usual subject matter, I do hold myself to a higher grammatical standard than I would expect from someone writing about, say, dogs, or fashion, but it doesn't have to be perfect English grammar all the time.

Monotonous Sentence Structure

This is a terrible flaw indeed. Consider the following passage:

Rover was on the hill. The hill was covered with grass. The weather was cold and wet. The wind was chilly. Rover was hungry.

It's like a litany, isn't it? You can almost hear the droning tones of someone reading it out, lifeless, completely without expression. 

It's truly awful, yes. But what if you wanted to evoke that feeling in your reader? That sense of unrelieved monotony? That complete lack of interest? Consider:

We went up the hill. We went down the hill. We carried empty buckets up. We carried full buckets down. We had lunch. We carried more buckets. By the time the day finally ended, I was ready to shoot myself. Was this going to be my life from now on?

The first six sentences in the above passage are about as monotonous as they can be. When you read the last two sentences, you can see why. The speaker is ready to shoot himself from the monotony of the day, the very monotony that I have conveyed in the mere repetitive structure of the foregoing sentences. The ability to manipulate your style like this gives you a whole new set of tools to get more meaning across to the reader, without using extra words. 

Comma Splices

I received severe criticism from one reviewer for using comma splices in two of my books. He was right, too. There are many, many comma splices in Dance of Chaos and Gift of Continence, and there will be plenty in the third book in the trilogy, too, when I get it finished. 
Plenty of comma
splices in this book

You do know what a comma splice is, right? Just in case you don't, it is when you use a comma where a semicolon would normally be called for. Here is an example from Gift of Continence:

I wished the whole business was over, it had been nothing but dramas ever since we'd decided to get married. No, actually, that wasn't fair, the hassles started when we told my mother.

And in this one, too.
They enhance
rather than detract.
In perfect English, the comma after 'over' would be a semicolon, and so would that after 'fair', because in each case the two parts that are joined are both capable of being well-formed sentences. When a comma is used instead, it is called a 'comma splice', because we have used a comma to 'splice' two sentences together.

Now, why did I, the person who blocks people on Facebook for using 'lay' intransitively, and has a generally low tolerance for mangling our language, deliberately do this, you ask. I did it to underscore the nature of my protagonist.

You'll have noticed in the passage quoted, even if you haven't read Gift of Continence, that it is first person, and it is that fact that allowed me to use the comma splices the way I did. My intention was to underscore in the narrative, which of course in first person doubles as the protagonist's internal thought stream, the nature of my protagonist. She's flighty and a complete dimwit. She rambles on, and daydreams a lot, and I used the comma splices to mimic the rambling monologue of a self-centred person. How successful I was, my readers may judge. There's a happy medium with this sort of thing; as with any gimmick, if you overdo it the reader will start to notice, and it won't be long after that before he will become irritated, then intensely irritated. But, as with other little writers' tricks, if you use it sparingly it can be extremely powerful.

There - three faults, but also three opportunities. Go and do good with them.

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