Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wording For Today

Here's a short passage from a book I'm reading at the moment - Sabriel, by Garth Nix, arguably one of the greatest fantasy authors alive today.

A small figure was busy climbing over the gate, nimbly avoiding the spikes that were supposed to stop such activities. She dropped the last few feet and started running, her pigtails flying, shoes clacking on the bricks. Her head was down to gain momentum, but as cruising speed was established, she looked up, saw Sabriel and the dead rabbit, and screamed.

... here's another, this one from a bloke called Tolkien ...

A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly; and Bilbo up in a bush, with his clothes and his skin torn, not daring to move for fear they should hear him.

... and a third, from a lady named Jo ...

Harry tried to turn back towards the gryffindor goal posts; he had half a mind to ask Wood to call time out - and then he realised that his broom was completely out of his control. He couldn't turn it. He couldn't direct it at all. It was zig-zagging through the air and every now and then making violent swishing movements which almost unseated him. Lee was still commentating.

To get these quotes, I stood up and grabbed three books from my shelf, then flipped to random pages until I found what I wanted. It didn't take long, maybe twenty seconds.


Recently, I've noticed a pattern in some of the reviews I've been reading on OWW. Someone, somewhere, has put it in people's heads that words ending in "ing" (technically known as present-participles) should be avoided at all costs, and that any sentence featuring the word "was" is automatically passive.

Now, I'm certainly no expert, but I don't need to be. All I need to do is point to the above three quotes. By my count, there's a total of 13 "ing" words, and 5 clauses with the word "was", just in this little selection, the one that took me all of 20 seconds to find.

Here's my understanding, and the quotes above back me up. No word is, in itself, bad. Every word in the English language is there to be used, nothing should be avoided. What should be avoided is overuse - where a word rattles around so frequently it becomes an irritation, a buzzing in the reader's ear. That doesn't just relate to "was", or words that end in "ing" - any word can be overused, and most writers have their pets (mine is "just").

Present-participles are used to express parallel, as opposed to sequential, action. "John picked up the book, looked around, then scratched his head." is sequential. It contains no "ing" words, but if you ask me, it's artificial and stilted. "John picked up the book, looking around and scratching his head." is parallel, three actions are happening together at the same time. In my opinion, the sentence is more alive, more natural. To discourage the use of such helpful verbs, simply because they end in "ing", is (as a teacher of mine used to say) really rather silly.

As for "was" - I think part of the problem is a general misunderstanding of the definition of a "passive" sentence. In a passive sentence, the subject has something "done to it", rather than the subject itself doing the action. Example - "The book was read by John." The subject (the book) has something done to it (it is read by John). Therefore the subject (the book) is "passive" - it just sits there and allows itself to be read. "John read the book." Here, the subject of the sentence (John) is performing the action (reading the book), the subject is therefore "active" - and so is the sentence.

Note (and I think that herein lies the confusion) that the passive version contains the word "was", whereas the active version does not. But it's not the presence or absence of "was" that makes the difference - it's who is acting and who is being acted upon. A sentence can feature the word "was" and still be perfectly active - as in: "A small figure was busy climbing the gate" or "It was zig-zagging through the air".

I don't normally clutter up these blog-posts with writing advice, simply because I don't feel qualified to give any. But I think this is a good encouragement for us to be wary of what we hear, and to think carefully before taking on board advice that could well be deeply flawed. There's nothing worse than a writer becoming hamstrung - their natural style restricted by a fear of using "forbidden" words. Writing is hard enough as it is.

So, if in doubt, go to the greats. Pick up the books on your shelf and see how the so-called rules you have heard stack up. With the likes of Garth, John and Jo on your side, you can hardly go wrong.

Update - I sat down tonight to read more of Sabriel, and this is the first sentence that greeted me.

Gray mist coiling upwards, twining around him like a clinging vine, gripping arms and legs, immobilising, strangling, merciless.

I am resting my case.


  1. Nicely done, Peter!

    I like it when other writers do articles on grammar and blindly following guidelines. When I first started posting on OWW, I was attacked by what I call "the no-backtory people" where all backstory was bad. It prompted me to do an article on backstory for my blog.

    Unfortunately, I did overuse participles in my writing and had to cut back. I try to really evauate each sentence and what I'm trying to say.

    Ursula K. LeGuin talks about not following guidelines blindly, too. I believe this is always a timely subject. Thanks for posting on it. ;-)


  2. Hi Teresa,

    I haven't encountered the no-backstory brigade yet, but it doesn't suprise me such a thing exists. I think all these literary-phobias start as a knee-jerk reaction to the overuse of something. Instead of calling for balance - it's easier to just ban something outright.

    I should probably say though - I do think Garth Nix overused 'ing' words in Sabriel. But it's still a brilliant read!


  3. Peter! Is one of your posts going to be on Nathan's blog next week?

  4. Yes! The hobbit agent letter I wrote ages ago. I'm so pleased!

  5. Well touch you! I told you that was a good one! ;-)

    Congratulations, I'm so happy for you, because that's going to direct traffic to your blog big time.


  6. I don't think anyone has ever dinged me for -ing words, but every now and then I get a lecture on the evils of adverbs. ;)

    Alas, the perfectly legitimate "to be" verb also gets jumped on left and right by critiquers, and I see writers going to cringe-worthy lengths to avoid using it.

    I think some reviewers latch onto rules (whether good rules or bad) because violations are easy to spot and doing so makes them feel they've done something. It's harder (and requires more tact) to list the reasons why you don't give a rip about someone's hero and the story is boring you to sleep. :P

    P.S. What's a hobbit agent letter?

  7. Hi Lindsay,

    Yep - I've seen a few adverb bashings too - although that rule makes more sense to me than the prohibition of 'ings - especially if the adverbs are used in place of good descriptive verbs. I haven't heard the "to be" one yet - I'll have to look out for that!

    The hobbit agent letter was a blog post from May - titled "Some Thursday Fun". Nathan Bransford is posting it on his blog on Thursday.


  8. I came over from Nathan's blog because I loved the Hobbit post. And I love this post, too. I've had crit partners who take all ING's and all WAS'es out of their manuscripts. What ugly writing they produce. I call it Browne and Kinging writers, but it's not really Browne and King's fault. Their advice is sound but some people just take it way too far.

    Anyway, I want to encourage you to do more writing advice posts. :)

  9. Hi Sally,

    Thankyou! I might just do that :-)