“How to Escape From That Wicked Which” Published in The Ghouls’ Review

Hi everyone,

Disney's Tangled - Horse and Rapunzel smirking at the prince

(Image from Disney’s Tangled)

My grammar story “How to Escape From That Wicked Which” has just been published by Grammar Ghoul Press in the spring edition of The Ghouls’ Review. Editor-in-Chief Suzanne Purkis (who also writes the wonderful blog Apoplectic Apostrophes) has pulled together an entertaining collection of fiction and creative non-fiction for your reading pleasure. Check it out – it’s free!

P.S. For those of you who like to write (or read) short fiction, Grammar Ghoul Press runs weekly micro and flash fiction challenges. Anyone looking for some great writing prompts should swing on by.

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

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How to Escape from That Wicked Which

Once upon a time, there was a golden-haired princess who lived in a tiny room at the top of a tall tower. She never needed to choose between which or that when she wrote sentences in her diary. This was because she didn’t have many choices at all.

When she was a baby, she was stolen from her parents by a wicked witch, who locked her up in the tower. The witch had told her all about the scary place called Outside, and she hadn’t tried to leave while she was growing up. But now she was a teenager, and getting bored with solitude. She was also getting tired of writing the word which.

***

Dear Diary,

Nothing ever changes around here. The witch has warned me not to leave this place, but I am so bored! The rocking chair, which is over by the fireplace, is still empty.  I want to meet someone! I tried putting my old doll, which has red hair, in the chair to keep me company. But it’s just not the same. When will anything ever happen in this place?

***

The princess used the word which a lot in her diary because most of the things in the tower were unique. She didn’t have to single out a thing from all other things of the same type, so she used the word which to describe them. (Otherwise she would need to use that, which distinguishes between things.)

She didn’t need to write “that doll with the red hair” because she only had one doll. She provided the information that the doll had red hair, but the reader wouldn’t need to know this to identify the doll.

And she didn’t need to write “that rocking chair by the fireplace” because there was only one rocking chair, and it always sat by the fireplace.

Anything described using which is considered “non-essential” information. It can be removed from the sentence without affecting its meaning. (This is why this information is generally placed between commas or parentheses.) The princess could just as easily have written the following:

***

Dear Diary,

Nothing ever changes around here. The witch has warned me not to leave this place, but I am so bored! The rocking chair, which is over by the fireplace, is still empty.  I want to meet someone! I tried putting my old doll, which has red hair, in the chair to keep me company. But it’s just not the same. When will anything ever happen in this place?

***

One day, a handsome prince hacked his way through some vines (ruining his fine sword) and discovered the princess in the tower. He called up to her and told her not to worry—he would find a way to rescue her. She cheerfully yelled down that there was no need. She had figured out how to unlock the tower years ago, and now that something exciting had happened, she was ready to leave. The prince was a bit nonplussed by this, but recovered (and started preening) as he saw her striding towards him with a beaming smile on her face. Maybe it’s a good thing that he didn’t know what she was thinking.

***

Dear Diary,

Today something exciting finally happened. I got to meet a horse! He isn’t like the horse that is in my picture book. He is gleaming white, rather than being black all over. The horse is very nice—not at all like those girl-eating horses that the witch described to me. Oh, and I met a boy, too! He said I could decide which path to take. I was so happy to choose! I asked him, “What’s at the end of the path that follows the river?” He told me it led to his castle. It turns out that he is a prince! Then I asked him, “What’s at the end of the path that goes over the big hill?” He told me there was a town, and they were having a festival today. I’ll bet you can figure out where I went!

***

Our resourceful princess finally got to use that instead of which. She needed her reader to understand that the white horse was not the same as the horse in the book or the horses described by the witch. The reader also needed to know which of the two paths the princess was describing. All of the information is essential, so nothing can be eliminated. (That’s why the information is not surrounded by commas.) Otherwise, we’d have this wonderful nonsense:

***

Dear Diary,

Today something exciting finally happened. I got to meet a horse! He isn’t like the horse that is in my picture book. He is gleaming white, rather than being black all over. The horse is very nice—not at all like those girl-eating horses that the witch described to me. Oh, and I met a boy, too! He said I could decide which path to take. I was so happy to choose! I asked him, “What’s at the end of the path that follows the river?” He told me it led to his castle. It turns out that he is a prince! Then I asked him, “What’s at the end of the path that goes over the big hill?” He told me there was a town, and they were having a festival today. I’ll bet you can figure out where I went!

***

The princess enjoyed her time at the town festival. There were so many activities to choose from.

She danced with many of the townspeople.

(Dear Diary, The boy who had short brown hair danced especially well.)

Then she watched a stage play.

(The sole actress, who played the witch, was not very talented. But I enjoyed it anyway!)

She also fed apples to the magnificent horse.

(I wish I had a horse just like this one!)

***

You can see that the idea of essential vs. non-essential information also applies to the word who. If the information is placed between commas or parentheses, it is non-essential and can be eliminated. (Dear Diary: The sole actress, who played the witch, was not very talented.)

***

Eventually, the prince got bored. He said that it was time to go home to his castle, where he would marry her. She told him that he was crazy—why would she marry him, when she had all of these choices before her? The prince attempted to ride off in a snit, but the horse decided he would rather stay with the princess. So the prince ended up limping home.

Disney's Tangled - Horse and Rapunzel smirking at the prince

And they all lived happily ever after!
(Image from Disney’s Tangled)

THE END (for now – look for more grammar story excitement in future posts!)

P.S. The rules that I describe for which and that are based on North American style guidance. So don’t be surprised if you run into which in a text from England where others would use that. The rules about using commas for non-essential information, however, are still the same. Please feel free to share any of your which (or witch) stories below. Your comments are always welcome!

Tale of a Sentence Vampire Hunter

All my life, I’ve been warned about the danger of sentence vampires. They suck the lifeblood out of words until you are too lethargic to read anything. Their paths are littered with the corpses of dynamic verbs and the ghosts of active clauses. Sentence vampires fly under the radar, hoping that people won’t notice their existence until it’s too late.  But I know better. Family writing lore has told me that I am destined to fight them. I am a sentence vampire hunter. And you can become one, too!

Edward Cullen from Twilight

They may be sparkly, but they’re still vampires. Beware!

Where to Find Sentence Vampires, Part 1: Linking Verbs

To hunt sentence vampires, you need to know where to find them.

Linking verbs are a good place to start, because they are a primary source of low-energy sentences. These verbs describe the subject of a sentence. They talk about what someone is thinking, feeling, sensing, or becoming. The most common linking verb is to be, but there are many others.

Linking verbs are very different from high-energy dynamic verbs, which describe actions. (I staked the vampire.) Using too many linking verbs on a page creates the perfect environment for sentence vampires. These literary predators are constantly in search of passive victims who don’t have the energy to run away. Let me tell you a tale of linking verbs, to show you what I mean.

***

In a sleepy small town, a sentence vampire weaves his way through the party guests at a local bar. He is searching for young people who use linking verbs. Linking verb users are his preferred victims. They are too lazy to do anything but talk, and are easy to capture. He zeroes in on a group of self-absorbed young girls who are gossiping using linking verbs.

“She seemed out of it today.”

“And didn’t she smell weird?”

“That’s because she is weird.”

“I think she’s crazy.”

The other guests near the girls are bored listening to their low-energy linking verbs. Their attention is on the football game, where action is happening. This is a perfect opportunity for the vampire to strike.

One of the girls catches sight of the vampire. She thinks he looks handsome. As he mesmerizes her with his glowing eyes, she murmurs, “I feel funny.” She passively follows the vampire. Her friends are too busy talking. They don’t notice anything. They are surrounded by linking verbs and are unable to act. Eventually they look around, but she is already gone.

***

Where to Find Vampires, Part 2: Passive Voice

Sentence vampires also like to hang around the passive voice. In a passive voice sentence, the person performing an action goes at the end of the sentence, or is left out altogether. This is in contrast to the active voice, where the acting person comes first in the sentence. The passive voice creates long sentences that wear out a reader. It can be hard for the reader to identify who performed the action.

Vampires love low-energy passive voice sentences. These sentences make it easier for them to avoid responsibility for their actions. Wondering what happened to the vampire victim in my earlier tale? Let’s find out, and see how the passive voice makes the vampires happy.

***

The next day, the town is abuzz. A girl was found abandoned by the roadside, suffering from a rare combination of anemia and amnesia. The sheriff holds a press conference in front of the town hall. Despite the clear evidence of sentence vampires, she doesn’t want the town to panic. So she tries to downplay the situation by using the passive voice. Her use of the passive voice allows the sheriff to avoid talking about vampires and the police’s responsibility to find them.

“I can confirm that the victim was found by the roadside. It appears that the victim was abducted. All leads are being pursued. The public will be informed once further information is known.”

The sheriff escapes into her office. She is thankful that she didn’t have to say straight out in the active voice, “A vampire abducted one of our girls, and we have no idea what to do!” She’d never get re-elected.

Mayor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Plus, she’d have to tell The Mayor…and you don’t want to see what he looks like when he gets angry. (Or hey, if you do, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3.)

The vampire watches the news conference from his lair and laughs silently. Once again passivity has taken over the town, and he has avoided being noticed. He is going to get away with it.

***

How to Destroy a Sentence Vampire

The best way to defeat a sentence vampire is to use the two things that they hate the most: action verbs and the active voice. Start most of your sentences with the person performing the action, and try to make that action a dynamic one. Then you, too, can be a successful sentence vampire hunter!

***

I watch the sheriff deny the existence of vampires using wimpy passive sentences, and I think not this time. I grab my writing tools and head for the outskirts.

I kick down the door and confront the vampire in his lair. The vampire laughs at me and attempts to capture my gaze. I shake off the effects of his eyes and shoot a crossbow bolt through the west-facing window. Sunlight streams in and surrounds the vampire in a fiery haze. The vampire screams and disintegrates into a pile of inky black dust.

I’ve finally brought the sentence vampire to light. My work in this town is done. It’s time to walk off into the sunset and move on to the next page. Such is the wandering life of a sentence vampire hunter…

Go short

What’s your favourite line from a movie you love?

One of my favourite lines is from The Matrix, a movie that has generated many famous catchphrases.  There are posters all over the net asking us to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.  Fans debate the meaning of “There is no spoon.” For me, however, the best line comes when Trinity does a cool move and takes out an Agent: Dodge this.

This is a brilliant visual scene, with great angles and use of “bullet time” camera techniques. But the line itself is equally important. Why is this such a memorable line? I could answer this by talking about character, or plot, or scene context. But here’s an even better reason: it’s short.

Think about your favourite movie line. Is it short, too? Chances are it is. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t remember it.

When we communicate with others, we can choose from different styles. We can weave and dodge and come up with fancy words and meandering sentences. Or we can go for it and cut straight to the chase. Which style do you prefer to listen to? (Yes, this is a trick question.)

Here’s my first tip on communication: Go short.  Use short sentences with short words. This is the best way to truly connect with your audience.

You might think that going long will make you sound impressive. Unfortunately, you will likely end up distancing yourself from others. The human brain is constantly bombarded by information, and we don’t have the energy to sift through it all. It’s difficult for us to remember anything, let alone long and wordy sentences. And what’s the point of communicating if what you say won’t be remembered?

Many people find it’s hard to go short. If you cut your teeth writing essays in university (like I did), you may find it especially difficult. After years of trying to get great marks by using long phrases, suddenly you need to shift to a new way of thinking. So how can you do it? Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • Make sure each sentence contains only one idea. Every time you start to add on another idea, begin a new sentence.
  • Aim for sentences of twenty words or less. This doesn’t mean all of your sentences need to be this short—it’s good to break things up with a long sentence once in a while. Just keep in mind that twenty words is the general limit for most audiences. (Academics tend to be an exception, since they are dealing with complex ideas.)
  • Watch out for connecting words, otherwise known as conjunctions. These words connect ideas together, and are fabulous tools. But connected ideas don’t always have to be in the same sentence. Despite what your English teacher may have told you, it is okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and.” Or “but.” Or “or.” So feel free to break those ideas apart into separate sentences.

If you go short, you’re well on your way to communicating something memorable. Maybe you will even come up with the next catchphrase. And if you’re still not convinced that short is the new black, just think about the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite:

shirt1980

Leia: I love you.

Han: I know.

Five words. Basic character truths. What more could you ask for?