Snucking Threw the Poring Reign: Mechanical Errors in Writing (Part One)
by John Robert Marlow
“Mechanical errors” have to do with the nuts and bolts of writing. If concept is your flashy car, plot the engine, characters the driver and passengers—then story mechanics are the fasteners holding your engine together. They’re not exciting, glitzy, or personable, and no one pays them any mind. Until something goes wrong.
That’s when you hear an annoying clank, somewhere under the hood. Soon, it becomes difficult to hear the passengers or enjoy the scenery. Before too long, that clank-clank-clank is all you can think about. And if someone doesn’t climb under the hood and fix the damned thing, it will eventually stop your engine.
So let’s take a look at some of the more common mechanical errors…
There are two ways to use the wrong word. The first is simple inattention; we’re buzzing along, lost in the moment, and inadvertently type a real word that’s quite similar to—but not—what we intended. Common culprits include here/hear, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, through/threw, passed/past, and lightning/lightening. There’s no misunderstanding involved; somewhere between our brain and our fingers, the signal gets scrambled.
In other cases, the wrong (usually similar) word is employed because the writer is unclear on the word’s actual meaning. Frequently, the correct term is one not often seen in print, making an error that much more likely. A few common culprits in this category:
Peaked/Piqued: It’s easy to get this one wrong, and many writers do. While the phrase “peaked her interest” may seem correct, it is not; the proper phrase is “piqued her interest.” This is because her interest is not peaking, but being aroused, which is what piqued means. (Just to make things complicated, pique can also mean to arouse anger or resentment, but this usage is rarely seen.)
Pour/Pore: Rain pours down. People pour water, soup, tea and other liquids. One does not pour over a document, unless one has a fondness for runny ink. Instead, one pores over the document. To “pore” is to study intently. (Pore has other meanings as well; fortunately, none of them are relevant here.)
Reign/Rein/Rain: Reign is what a king, queen, or other dominant entity or force does. “The king reigned for fifty years” means the king was, well, king for half a century. A reign ends when the reigning entity is replaced. In the computer industry, IBM reigned supreme—until Microsoft came along. Ideas can also reign.
Reins are straps used to control horses. When you see a carriage driver in a movie, holding a bunch of leather straps in his hands as he drives—those are reins. He who controls the horses “holds the reins.” Pulling on the reins signals a horse to stop; hence the phrase “rein him in.”
Rain falls on your head from the sky. Or falls on your umbrella, if you’ve planned ahead. Most of the confusion occurs between reign and rein. For a prominent example of this, look closely at the Forbes magazine cover in the Iron Man movie—where you’ll see the words “Tony Stark takes reigns at 21.”
Hoard/Horde: Neither of these is oft-seen in print, making for a constant source of confusion when writing off the cuff. You can’t horde gold, nor can you be attacked by a hoard of angry editors. A horde of angry editors is another matter altogether, because a horde is a vast crowd or mob—usually of people, but sometimes of other creatures: A horde of orcs spewed from the cave like a raging river.
A hoard is a great amount of something (typically inanimate) that has been gathered up and kept (and often hidden): a dragon’s hoard of treasure, for instance. Hoard can also mean the act of gathering up a great amount of something: The dragon hoarded trespassers, thus ensuring a steady supply of knight flambé to see him through the winter.
Sneak/Sneaked/Snuck: Snuck is not a word. Examples of proper usage in various tenses: “We’ll sneak into the morgue tonight and say our goodbyes to Ignatius.” “I sneaked into Ignatius’ house this morning, and grabbed his favorite hat.” “Ignatius sneaked into the lion’s cage last night, but he didn’t sneak out.” The past tense of sneak is sneaked. Always.
Some would argue that, by sheer dint of recent widespread usage, snuck has sneaked into the lexicon and is in fact a real word—which is sort of like saying that someone who sneaks into the final semester of medical school is a doctor. Whatever the case, it is appallingly bad form—the grammatical equivalent of saying “He ain’t got none”—and should be avoided, outside of dialogue spoken by characters with appallingly (and intentionally) bad grammar.
There are two ways to go astray here: too much, and too little. When two characters are conversing, there’s no need to use the speaking character’s name with every line of dialogue. Give the reader credit for being able to follow along for a few sentences. Identifying the speaker every third or fourth time someone speaks is a good rule of thumb.
In situations where more than two characters are speaking, on the other hand, you’ll almost always want to identify the speaker with each spoken line, and also let the reader know which character is being addressed. Without this, it becomes very easy to lose track of who’s saying what. When that happens, the reader backtracks and rereads to clarify—and that’s always bad.
Sometimes you’ll do this with one character saying another’s name to get his attention. (“Go to hell, Bartholomew.”) More often, you’ll drop a clue into narration. (“”Hildegard glared at Ignatius. “Well I guess he’ll see you there,” she said.”)
Timing is another important aspect of speaker attribution. One of the most common mistakes is giving a character a lengthy bit of dialogue, and identifying the speaker at the end of it. (“”Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought blahdeblahblahblah,” said Lincoln.”)
The problem here is that the reader is unable to place the line(s) into context and character voice until the entire passage has been spoken. This, in turn, cuts them loose from the story, leaving them to wonder “Who’s saying this?” when they should be carried along in the moment.
The solution is simple: move the attribution forward. (“Four score and seven years ago,” said Lincoln, “our fathers blahdeblahblahblah.”) Problem solved.
“Flippers” are sentences that are (more or less) written backward. Because portions of the sentence are presented in a less-than-ideal sequence, they have to be “flipped” in order to read well. Most sentences can be put together in more than one way. There may even be several grammatically correct options. But there is only one best way to say what needs to be said.
With occasional exceptions, sentences should be constructed like this: who-what-how. Character first, followed by what they’re doing, followed (if at all; most of the time this isn’t needed) by the way in which they’re doing it. “John opened the door slowly,” not “Slowly, John opened the door.” The first reads smoothly; the second forces the reader to break rhythm, so to speak—which is why I didn’t just say “Smoothly, the first reads.”
Put another way: if someone asked you how you went to the lottery office to cash in your million-dollar ticket, would you say, “Quickly, I went?” (If so, you really need to be reading this.) Of course not. Why? Because it’s backward. Instead, you’d say “I went quickly.”
Let’s look at all three possibilities” “Quickly, I went to the lottery office” (how-who-what) is an awkward mess with a built-in pause, and is difficult to read. “I went quickly to the lottery office” (who-how-what) is better, but unnecessarily awkward. “I went to the lottery office quickly” (who-what-how) is smooth, easy to read, and has the kind of structure we’ve all been conditioned to expect. The first two sentences are flippers; the third is what you’re looking for.
If you want to drive your reader (or editor) bonko in the shortest possible amount of time, write like this: “Slowly, he got out of bed. Leisurely, he dressed for work. Jauntily, he walked to the car. Casually, he started the engine. Happily, he smiled.” (This is also a great way to increase the price of a line edit or polish, because it ensures that every sentence will have to be restructured.)
There are exceptions to this, and it is perfectly possible to write a smooth-flowing how-who-what sentence that doesn’t need to be flipped—but even seasoned pros use this technique sparingly, because a string of them gets really annoying, really fast. Unpublished writers, on the other hand, are frequent flippers.
Apostrophes are often misused. It’s hard to tell whether this results from inattention or misunderstanding, but here’s the rule: with few exceptions, apostrophes signify contractions and possessives—and nothing else.
Contractions are shortened words: that’s for that is, wouldn’t for would not, could’ve for could have, you’re for you are, that sort of thing. By far the most troublesome word in this category is it’s, a shortening of it is. The confusion likely stems from the fact that, unlike other contractions, it’s looks like a possessive.
Possessives are words that signify possession. Some of these—his, her, their—sport no apostrophe. Others do: John’s, Marie’s, Smith’s, Jones’, building’s, truck’s (“The fire truck’s front end was buried in the building’s north side, where John Jones’ office used to be”).
Its is a possessive with no apostrophe: “The fire truck was on its side.” “The fire truck was on it’s side” makes no sense; what this actually says (because it’s is a contraction) is that the fire truck was on it is side. It’s and its are so commonly misused that it’s worth the effort to do a search on your finished work, and eyeball every instance of each word.
Further confusion arises when the word being designated as possessive already ends with an s. Is it Jones’ or Jones’s, fortress’ or fortress’s? A simple apostrophe after the s is better form, and makes for an easier read. (Technically, you can do the same with words ending in z, but that tends to look silly without a concluding s.)
Exceptions are debatable, and typically relate to things that aren’t really words: 1940′s—which can also be written as 1940s. The latter avoids the appearance of being a possessive.
“There were two hundred Jones’s in the phone book” doesn’t look good (but does look like a possessive, which it’s not)—but then neither does “Joneses.” In this case, consider using Miller instead of Jones, and the problem goes away. Or, if you’re stuck on Jones, rearrange the sentence: “There were two hundred listings in the phone book under Jones.”
Mechanical errors can pile up quickly, and often escape automated spell-checks. Fortunately, they are among the easiest problems to fix—once you know what to look for. So grab your toolbox and climb under the hood.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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