Friday, October 7, 2011

How do you solve a problem like prepositions?

Can we talk about pet peeves of writing or should I say reading writing? There are many writing do and don’ts and grammar rules, of which we need to pay heed. Then there are those rules, that when broken, actually work well.

In English class, back in my youth, we were taught to never start a sentence with "And" or ''But". But,or should I say, however, there are few authors who do not breach this rule. In all my first drafts, I find the "And/But" rule broken considerably. Although, on closer inspection, I realise, they are mostly unnecessary additions to the beginning of my sentences. So I remove them.

Stephen King, in his book, “On Writing”, rants about the misuse of adverbs in describing speech.  He means when an author writes something like, Peter asked fearfully, ‘Are you going to kill me?' or, Kelly said mockingly, ‘So, you think you are the boss?’ 
King suggests adverbs are for the meek writers who are uncertain of their writing, who are just not sure if the reader is getting the message.  And, King has a point—or, King has a point, as my “And” is really superfluous.  (Although, that “And” does add a tone of familiarity, which is one of the times I will allow it to stand.)
Sometimes, breaking the rules adds something to your character and pacing.  I can’t say why that is.  I doubt most writers can.  A writer simply hears a rhythm in their head and, somehow, you just know that that word needs to stay, even though all the rules tell you no.
But back to the adverbs—now I’ll let that “But” stand; it seems to work.  King says they are not all bad.  Unfortunately, though, they are like weeds, where once you let one grow in your lawn, pretty soon your entire backyard is covered in them. 
It is a good lesson and any time I go to use an adverb, whether it be for describing speech or even an action, I question its necessity.  Have I done my job well enough that the reader will know how that character will speak that sentence or move across a room or lean across the table?   And if I think I do need the adverb then I’ll go back and check on the previous paragraphs to find a way to lose it.  No weeds will take root in my garden.  No way.
Now that brings me to prepositions.  The misuse of these, I find hard to forgive.  Prepositions are in the adposition class of words whose most central members characteristically express spatial relations.
For example,
Jill sat upon the hill.  Bill ran to the gate.  Mary came from another planet. 

Writers drive me crazy when they place preopositions at the end of a sentence.  They shouldn't be there and I think it is just sloppy to leave them.  It is not a rule that is broken to help with rythm or pacing.  It is a rule not to be broken because the sentence always reads clumsy and cluttered.
The annoying thing is, this adposition misuse is turning up everywhere, and the more I see it, the more I notice it.  I’m reading along happily and then, bam, preposition at the end of the sentence and I’m back in reality and out of the story.
Here’s what I’m talking about.  Oh, sorry, I mean, here’s about which I am talking.  No that is a bad sentence, too.  What about, here’s what I mean.  (See, short and sweet.)
Try these examples taken from a short story in a national magazine.
Susan said, ‘They might want to fire me, if they find out.  But they aren’t going to’.   How much better would this sentence read, if the writer just wrote, ‘But they won’t.’  It’s also a passive sentence but I won’t get into that right now.

Another example to look at—I mean, another example...
‘You can get it back next Friday,’ she said patiently, raising an eyebrow, indicating she didn’t expect to be argued with.  It should read ‘she didn’t expect an argument.  And following Stephen King’s rule, the writer could lose the adverb, ‘patiently’ as well.  In fact, she doesn’t really need to tell us that the character doesn’t expect an argument.  Her behaviour in the previous paragraphs should have told us that, with just a raise of her eyebrow.  It certainly would read as a much cleaner passage with, ‘You can get it back next Friday,’ she said, raising an eyebrow.  Oh and for the record, ‘to be argued with’ is also passive writing.
However, I have no problem with ending sentences with prepositions if it is a character speaking.  Nobody says, unless you are English gentry perhaps, ‘From where is that noise coming?’  Of course, we would say, ‘Where is that noise coming from?’  Above all, you need to keep speech real.  
My issue is with the lazy authors who don’t clean up their little weeds, leaving me to rearrange their sentences in my head, when I should be continuing with their story.  Then again, maybe, I shouldn’t bother grammatically correcting them but simply take their misuse as a sign that this is a story I shouldn’t continue with—with which I shouldn’t continue—which I should stop reading.

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