Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Awkward Sentences

I was just trying to avoid a flame war about passive voice when I happened to pull an old, much-beloved book from my shelf, "The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense". So many people are was-phobic these days for absolutely no reason at all. And insist on confusing passive voice with the use of "was".

Anyway, I wrote about that a few blogs ago. There are many fine grammar references covering that topic in nauseating detail. Suffice to say passive voice has next-to-nothing to do with the use of the verb "to be". Passive voice is strictly about action. Active voice = the subject performs the action. Passive voice = The subject is the recipient (object) of the action.

So, I was reading this book again because it has very interesting information about how language is used. If you write, you really need to understand your medium and how people (your characters) use language. Books like the verbal self-defense ones give you insight into how language is used with a bit of grammar thrown in.

It's brilliant for coming up with speech patterns for bad guys or even those secondary characters who may not be all that nice, after all. Like the heroine's evil boss. Or the hero's rampaging mother.

What fascinated me, and gave me an A-HA! moment was a section on some of the things that make sentences awkward. Now, there are lots of things that can contribute to awkwardness, such as simply not understanding how to form sentences. But this assumes you do know how to form a decent sentence. But what you may not be thinking about is the number of words between the subject and the predicate phrases. If there are more than nine words, your short-term memory may have difficulty remembering which subject goes with which predicate, leading to re-reading and awkwardness.

Let me explain.
Here's your standard, complex sentence.
Beth told Larry that mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays.

That breaks down to these embedded sentences:
"The Theatre was closed on Sundays" is embedded in "mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays".
And that last sentence is embedded in "Beth told Larry that mom forgot the Theatre was closed on Sundays".

Most people can handle that--it's basically three sentences stuck together.

But if any of those pieces is longer than nine words--then we tend to forget what the subject was before we find the predicate. That makes the sentence awkward. For example:

That mom forgot to bake the cake even after we called to remind her several times and even sent her three e-mails about it made Beth furious.

The subject is "That mom forgot" and the predicate is "made Beth furious". You have to read through 21 words between "forgot" and "made" and remember "That mom forgot" to make sense of that sentence. That's hard for our short-term memory, and leads to folks having to read the sentence twice to pull it together.

Although this rewrite isn't great, either, it is easier on the reader:
It made Beth furious that mom forgot to bake the cake even after we called to remind her several times and even sent her three e-mails about it.

That's not as awkward since the subject and predicate are slam-bang next to each other--making it easy on our memories.

Another part of this is, best case scenario, you should try to make your sentential subject seven-to-nine words long or fewer.

Oops, forgot to define "sentential subject". Sentential subjects are basically subjects that contain another (embedded) sentence (or even two or three sentences). For example, That mom forgot made Beth furious. The subject is "That mom forgot". That means the subject = a sentence, making it sentential.
Versus a simple subject like: Wine makes Beth drunk. Where "wine" is the subject all by itself. :-) (And a very tasty subject, too!)

Anyway, I find language fascinating, even if I'm not the best grammarian in the world.
The interesting thing is that I find the best nuggets of information on grammar in books that are not about grammar at all, but about psychology and the use of language. Or books on how to spot liars and deception.

It's all about communication and language.

Very interesting, even if I do say so, myself!


Christine said...

This advice was so timely for me. Thanks! Now I need to read the book :)

Unknown said...

Hi Amy,
I saw your posts on the loop the first time round and thought they were incredibly helpful.

I had been told that was is passive and weak. Your explanation gave me a better way to look at what I've written and decide whether its the best way to phrase what I'm trying to say. If so, I appreciate being able to use was again without feeling like I'm doing something wrong.

Thanks so much.

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Amy said...

I don't see any reason why you can't feel happy about using "was". I doubt there is a published writer on this planet who has managed to avoid all use of "was". :-) It's necessary in some cases.
Just make sure you're using it where it needs to be used. Watch for passive--but identify it by whether the subject is taking action (active) or the object of the action (passive). Some passive is okay, but a lot of it can drag down the pace.
Good luck!
Hope this helps...