Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I'm a Contraction Junkie

I'm a contraction junkie. There, I've said it! It's in the open and I can deal with it. Inherently lazy, I like contractions.
I know as an English teacher, contractions are supposed to be frowned upon. Avoiding contractions in formal writing is important. Avoiding them in informal writing makes the work sound awkward and stiff.
What's the difference between informal and formal writing?
Informal writing: novels, poems, friendly letters, texts to friends.
Formal writing: term papers, newspaper articles, speeches, textbooks. In short, anything that isn't a novel, poem, friendly letter or text.
What's the big deal with using contractions in formal writing?
The big deal is IT'S FORMAL. Think of it like the difference between dressing for prom or dressing for a casual party. You're not going to wear ratty jeans and a T-shirt to prom. (At least I hope not!) Nor are you going to wear a tux to a casual party.
In formal writing, the author does not directly address his/ her audience. There is a degree of separation not found in informal writing. One avoids the use of I in formal writing, as well as avoidance of the pronoun you. It is impersonal and usually non-fiction.
Contractions are strictly forbidden in formal writing—anathema, the plague. An pox on contractions!
Informal writing is more about engaging the reader, involving him/ her in the story, poem, letter or text. It's a very personal involvement, using I and you freely. There is no degree of separation as the goal is to bring the reader into the writing/ reading experience.
Contractions give a casual aspect. They're relaxed, laid back, cool. People think and speak in contractions. Avoiding their use in dialogue makes it sound really weird. (Example, Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek the Next Generation) Listen to conversations and you'll immediately understand what I mean. I very much doubt you'll hear strict adherence to formal literary conventions in the grocery store or at your favorite restaurant.
Meanwhile, embrace contractions, making friends with them. They're fun! Contractions are our friends. Play with them, you'll see what I mean. Leave those stuffy old nouns and verbs behind. Hoorah for contractions!

© Dellani Oakes

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

That's So Cliché

                                                         Why Using a Cliché Isn't Always a Bad Thing

There are “conventions” in writing. No, I don't mean the great big gatherings of authors & their fans, though these are also conventions. What I mean are the things you MUST NOT DO if you want to be an author.
I'd love to know who decides these things. Who set the rules in the first damn place? My theory is that a bunch of frustrated, would-be writers got together and decided that they would set standards in order to hamper the creativity of others. Level the field by making it harder for the competition. Well played.
Grant you, there are some conventions that are valid. (I can't think of any right now, but give me a little while. I'm sure there are some.) One standard that has some validity is the use of clichés. Not familiar with the word? I could give you a big, long dictionary definition, but why bother? A cliché is a phrase that's over used. Tried and true. True blue. Nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. You get the idea.
As a general rule, it's good to avoid these hackneyed phrases. They make your work look cheap and unloved. My father would have said, “Like a whore at breakfast.” That was one of his favorite clichés.
Sometimes, it's all right to use one. When?
Dialogue. Think about it for a moment. They are as common as the day is long. There are as many different clichés as there are hairs on your head. People think and speak in clichés all the time. There are variations depending upon geographic location. Obviously, English doesn't corner the market on trite language.
Because people think and speak in clichés, avoiding them in dialogue can make the words sound stilted. Not every character will use them. Not every book lends itself to them. In these cases, the clear choice is not to use them.
Don't be afraid to use a cliché from time to time. It's okay—really! Tell your story the way it needs to be told. Have your characters speak in a believable fashion. Too often, we are afraid to break the mold and think outside the box. It's not a crime. What are they going to do? Send the Grammar Police? I don't think they have jurisdiction over clichés. Sorry. No arrests shall be made today.
As with anything, use clichés sparingly. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way.

                                  I'd love to hear from you. What's your favorite cliché?

© Dellani Oakes
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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Makes a Sentence a Run-On?


We've already spoken of fragments. The next offender is the run-on sentence. These are the sentences that don't quit. The author, apparently, had no idea how to contain these suckers and kept adding onto them, rather than curtailing the culprits and putting a leash on them, she kept adding commas and conjunctions until the sentence was, surprisingly, a paragraph long. That, my friends, is a run-on
Run-on sentences come in a variety of guises. Above, my sentence is pretty obviously a run-on. What makes a run-on sentence? It is characterized by having more than one subject and verb pair. Though compound sentences are acceptable, run-ons should be corrected.
Let's look at my sample sentence again:
The author, apparently, had no idea how to contain these suckers and kept adding onto them, rather than curtailing the culprits and putting a leash on them, she kept adding commas and conjunctions until the sentence was, surprisingly, a paragraph long.
You probably can't see the commas I've highlighted, but they are problematic just as the conjunctions are. Run-ons are often easier to fix than fragments. As you're dealing with a bunch of sentences, you whack them apart, add periods and you're done.
The author, apparently, had no idea how to contain these suckers. She kept adding onto them. She didn't curtail the culprits and put a leash on them. She kept adding commas and conjunctions until the sentence was, surprisingly, a paragraph long.
The final sentence is a bit long, but it's not a run-on like the rest.
To test for run-ons in your writing. Read it aloud. Do you have time to stop and take a breath? If not, it's probably a run-on.
There are different types of run-on sentences. Wikipedia and other internet sites can give you a full-on grammatical explanation for them. The explanations are so confusing, even I, an English teacher, have trouble with them. There's a time for technical and a time for simple. I like simple.
If a sentence has two subject and verb pairs, it might be a run-on. Look carefully. If it has a proper conjunction (see link below for common conjunctions) it is probably a compound sentence. However, if you see three or more subject & verb pairs, you've got a run-on.
Let's examine our sample sentence again. See if you can find the subject and verb pairs. Keep in mind, the subject and verb won't always be right next to each other. Also, given the way it's written, the subject may be implied.

The author, apparently, had no idea how to contain these suckers and kept adding onto them, rather than curtailing the culprits and putting a leash on them, she kept adding commas and conjunctions until the sentence was, surprisingly, a paragraph long.


Find them?
The author, apparently, had no idea how to contain these suckers and (She) kept adding onto them, rather than curtailing the culprits and putting a leash on them, she kept adding commas and conjunctions until the sentence was, surprisingly, a paragraph long.

Did you find them all? Did I miss any? I could have, it's been a long time since I did this. Even if you don't see all of your pairs right away, recognizing that the sentence goes on too long, is a useful skill. Read your work aloud as part of your editing process. It's amazing what you catch when you do that. Your mind processes the information differently and errors you'd miss just reading through, hop out at you when you hear them.
Also keep in mind—just because a sentence is long, that doesn't mean it's a run-on. A prime example is in the prior paragraph. Can you spot it? It's a long one and seems like it might be a run-on.


Give up?
Even if you don't see all of your pairs right away, recognizing that the sentence goes on too long, is a useful skill.

No one is saying you must write in short, choppy sentences. That can provide its own set of unique problems that I won't go into here. Instead, I'm suggesting that you keep an eye on your writing. Watch for run-ons and fragments so you can make your work the best it can be.


© Dellani Oakes


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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Fragmented Thoughts

Most people don't know a sentence fragment if it comes up and bites them in the face. What makes a fragment? To explain that, I need to explain what a sentence is.
A sentence is a complete thought expressed with a Subject (someone who does something) and a Verb (the action the subject takes)

I sit.
You run.
He eats.

Though short, these are complete thoughts. They are sentences. Fragments are hard to spot. They may seem to express a full thought, but some element is missing. Fragments aren't necessarily short. What classifies them as a fragment is that they are missing one of the key elements – subject or verb.
I see these posts on Facebook a lot— “That moment when I realize I've just written a fragment.”
On the surface, this looks like a sentence, but it's not.
This is my sentence:
I realize I've just written a fragment.
This is what makes it a fragment:
That moment when
This is a dependent clause. They're sneaky buggers that attach themselves to sentences and make them look like they are legitimate compound sentences (where you take 2 sentences & combine them) Dependent clauses have to be correctly attached in order to make a proper sentence.
That moment when isn't a complete thought. It could go anywhere. There are too many variables here. That's what a fragment is – an incomplete thought, a dependent clause with too many variables. It needs a subject and verb.
But wait!” you say. “I see a subject and verb right there I realize I've just written a fragment. That's all kinds of verbs and I is obviously the subject. Why is it wrong?”
It's wrong because That moment when can't make sense on its own. Rather than adding to the sentence like a compound would, it attaches itself and makes a fragment of the whole business.
To correct a fragment, you need to add a subject or verb to the broken half. In the case of our sample fragment, the cure is simple.
It is that moment when I realize I've just written a fragment.
Or This is that moment when I realize I've just written a fragment.
Now, we have a properly crafted sentence. It is that moment is a complete thought. True, it's not a very expressive sentence on its own, which is why we add it to the second have using when to connect them.

This is that moment when I realize I've just written a correct sentence.


Fragments aren't always easy to spot. If you're not sure about whether something is a fragment or not, do this simple test. Divide the sentence at the joining word (conjunction). If the two halves can stand on their own, present a complete thought and have a subject and verb, you have a sentence. If they can't stand alone, you have a fragment. Look for alternative ways to word the sentence so it's no longer a fragment. Often, the solution is a simple one.

© Dellani Oakes



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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

What's a Part of Speech?

Q: What's a part of speech?
A: It's a word.
Q: Are all words parts of speech?
A: Yes.
Q: Are all words the same part of speech?
A: I'm glad you asked that question. No.

Words are words are words. Their functions vary. There are 8 common parts of speech – nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections.
It's important to know parts of speech. These are the pieces of the puzzle. The way they are combined creates the full picture. Unless an author knows how to combine these pieces properly, the finished picture will be a chaotic mess. You can't analyze your own work or understand a critique if you don't know what the parts are and how to put them together.
Below, I've given a simple definition of each part of speech with links to a site that not only goes into more explanation, it has exercises and teaching tools. I wish I'd had a page like this available to me when I was teaching. Life would have been much simpler.
Even if we teach this to kids in school, few of them retain the knowledge we try so hard to impart. I didn't really learn all this business until I was teaching and had to share it with a bunch of bored ninth and eleventh graders.

Noun – A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. A noun is a something. There are two types of nouns – common and proper.
A common noun is a general category. Hats, cats, bats, dishes, wishes, hands, feet. You name it, it's a noun.
A proper noun is someone's name. It is also the title of a book, poem, play, TV show, piece of music, work of art or movie. The Da Vinci Code, The Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci, these are all proper nouns.
Pronoun – A pronoun is used instead of a noun: I, you, he, she, it, we, them. There are others, these are merely examples. For a complete list of pronouns.
Adjective – An adjective is a word that is used to describe a noun. Pretty girl. Red wig. Happy dance. This site has a wonderful list of adjectives and how they are used.
Verb – A verb is an action, occurrence or state of being: I kick. It happens. You are. 
Verbs are our workers. These are the guys with something to do or say. For more on verbs.
Adverb – An adverb is a word that is used to describe a verb. Kicked hard. Ran quickly. Sang sweetly. Adverbs are often characterized by the –ly ending. For more on adverbs.
Prepositions – These are words used before a noun, often to show relationship between words. For a list of common prepositions.
Conjunction – Conjunctions are joining words. They are used to combine phrases and clauses to make sentences. For a list of common conjunctions.
Interjection – And interjection is a word that is added for emphasis, before the sentence. For a list of common interjections.

Dellani Oakes is an author with Tirgearr Publishing and Publishing Syndicate. Her books can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.

© Dellani Oakes

I Love Dialogue from The Maker by Dellani

"If we agree," Wil stood looking at the far wall, not at his wife or the Sentience. "What guarantee do I have that they wo...