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Monthly Archives: May 2020

Elegant English: Repetition

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In my experience, attitudes towards repetition vary greatly among the writing community, ranging from those who seem neither to notice nor particularly care about it, to others who are keenly aware of every instance of repetition and check their work over and over again to comb out all offending words.

As a general rule, too much repetition is a bad thing, because it can make the writing seem dull and lacking in imagination, particularly in the world of fiction. If a writer describes a scene where the flowers are beautiful, the weather is beautiful, and the woman standing looking at it all is wearing a beautiful dress, the reader is unlikely to be hooked and eager to read on. Perhaps the flowers could be pretty, the weather perfect, and the dress elegant. Inserting synonyms here and there would be an improvement, but it may be better still to go a step further and vary not just the words themselves, but also to adjust the sentence forms as well.

So, the above scene could go from:

The woman wore a beautiful green dress as she looked at the scene in front of her. The brightly-coloured flowers at her feet were beautiful and the weather was beautiful, too.

…to:

The woman wore an elegant green dress as she looked at the scene in front of her. The brightly-coloured flowers at her feet were pretty, and the weather was perfect for the time of year.

…and then to:

The woman stood gazing at the scene in front of her, the deep green of her elegant dress enhancing the blue of her eyes. On the ground near her feet, pretty daisies and marigolds opened their petals wide to welcome the sunshine on this perfect spring morning.

Another point to bear in mind when avoiding repetition, is to make sure that the synonym used fits the tone of the rest of the writing. Care must be taken to select the right term, otherwise the end result may not be quite what the writer intended. For example, a thesaurus may list ‘beauteous’ as a synonym for ‘beautiful’, but that is a much more literary, archaic term which would not fit very well into a modern story. Similarly, ‘cute’ or ‘bonny’ are informal terms and would only work in certain colloquial contexts.

It is perhaps a good idea to avoid using a term more than once within a couple of paragraphs, although there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, repetition can be used deliberately, for emphasis or to create a particular effect. Also, smaller, common words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘and’, etc., can be used more frequently, otherwise it would be difficult to write anything coherent at all. Occasionally, though, finding an appropriate alternative can be hard, especially if the original term is quite specific. In these cases, I would argue that it might be better to simply repeat the word, rather than substitute it with something that is a bad fit and might spoil the tone of the narrative. The occasional repeated word is quite harmless (many of the best writers do it), and as long as the writing flows naturally, it may well go unnoticed by the reader.

Elegant English lettering copy

(Thank you to Lizzie Hagon for the lovely lettering!)

Elegant English: A tense situation

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In some languages, tenses can be manipulated in storytelling for dramatic effect. In Russian, for example, when it is clear from the context that the events are happening in the past, the author may suddenly switch to the present tense, even though the past is still implied. This gives the text a feel of immediacy, so that the action has greater impact, creating the impression that the reader has been transported back into the past and is experiencing events at first hand.

In English, however, this does not work in quite the same way. Mixing tenses can cause confusion and sound strange to the native ear. If something happened in the past, it is usually best to stick to the past tense. Consequently, the past tense is by far the most popular in fiction. For example:

He walked into the pitch-dark room and pressed the light switch, but nothing happened. Cautiously, he attempted to make his way across to the desk, arms out in front of him, feeling for obstacles, and feet shuffling in tiny steps to avoid bumping into anything. Finally, he felt the smooth surface of the writing table, located the top drawer and opened it as slowly and quietly as he could. Putting his hand inside, he fumbled around, searching for the object he so desperately needed. At last, his fingertips made contact with the cold, hard sphere and, as he picked it up, he couldn’t help letting out a sigh of relief.

The present tense, on the other hand, lends itself well to a journal-type narrative:

Dear Diary,

Everything’s so confusing right now. Why do I care so much about what he said? Surely I should just be able to brush it off and get on with my life, but for some reason I can’t. His words keep going round and round in my head, and the whole thing is making me feel sick with worry. What am I going to do?

In this case, it is as if the writer is having a conversation with the diary itself, in the present tense, so there is no need for the past, except to refer to events that have already happened, eg. ‘what he said.’

In conversation, the rules are less strict, as people tend not to think too much about grammar while they are speaking. Mixing tenses in this way, though, sometimes creates a colloquial style. Tense-switching in dialogue can have a subtle effect on the character who is speaking, possibly making them appear less well educated, and may be coupled with non-standard grammar, plenty of slang and regional expressions. For example:

“I went to me mate’s ‘ouse last night, and ‘e says, “’ave you seen them new phones?” So I tell ‘im, “Yeah, nice aren’t they? But the price is a bit steep.” But when I got back ‘ome, there’s me girlfriend with one she’s just bought, and I wonder ‘ow she could afford it.”

Probably the best way to get a feel for informal dialogue like this is to listen carefully to the way people speak in different places, and notice the patterns they use. Regional variation, however, is a huge subject in its own right and I will explore this in a later instalment.

So, as a general rule, in English, if the action takes place in the past, use the past tense, unless you are using a journal format or similar. The present tense is for things that are happening now, or for dialogue, since the characters are speaking in what is, for them, the present. However, switching between past and present in the narrative may be confusing and is usually best avoided.

Elegant English: How to say ‘said’

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Do you write in English, even though it is not your native language? Could you use a few tips to help your English sound more natural? Or, is English your first language, but you feel your writing could do with a little extra polish?
Over the next ten weeks, I will be publishing a series of articles with ideas and suggestions to help writers working in the English language. I will look at some of the most common questions of style, which I encounter regularly in my work, and endeavour to give writers a better feel for what works well, so that their writing will have more impact. From repetition and use of tenses to regional variations and how to choose a catchy title, I will explore a different topic each week, so that your prose can sparkle as much as the ideas behind it.

This week’s article explores the different ways of saying ‘said:

How to say ‘said’

On the noticeboard above my desk, I have a list of words entitled ‘100 ways to say ‘said’’. I found it on the internet years ago (search for ‘100 ways to say ‘said” and you will find a whole range to choose from), and there are now well over a hundred since I have gradually added more as they have sprung to mind. In primary school, a very long time ago, I remember the teachers telling us that using ‘said’ too much when writing stories isn’t such a good thing, and that we should use other ‘reporting verbs’ to add variation and make our writing more interesting. I later discovered, though, that this is not always a good idea. Although repetition is usually best avoided (more to follow on that in a future article), the rules concerning the use of ‘said’ are not always quite so straightforward.

If I follow the teachers’ advice literally, I might end up with something like this:

“Oh, my goodness!” Sarah exclaimed.

“What’s the matter?” Pete asked.

“I’ve just remembered something,” Sarah stated.

“Well, tell me,” he urged.

“It’s just that I was talking to Sue the other day, and she mentioned she was going to the Nottingham office next week,” Sarah explained.

“Why should that matter?” Pete enquired.

“The thing is, she might see Geoff while she’s there, and then she’ll tell him all about what happened at the conference,” she commented.

“Oh, I see,” he acknowledged.

Not very exciting, is it? Although I have successfully avoided repeating ‘said’ each time, it feels as if I’ve been trying too hard to think of alternative verbs, and the result is not particularly pleasant to read. Even though I have managed to use a selection of different reporting verbs, I have used the same structure in each sentence, and this creates a similar, repetitive effect. The dialogue could be much improved by playing around with word patterns and introducing some variety. Using ‘said’ from time to time is not such a bad thing, as long as the rest of the writing is varied and compelling. Sometimes, it is not even necessary to use a reporting verb at all, if it is obvious who is speaking, and this may well improve the flow of the dialogue by removing superfluous interruptions.

So, here is a re-worked version of the same conversation:

“Oh, my goodness!” Sarah exclaimed.

Puzzled, Pete asked, “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve just remembered something.”

“Well, tell me,” he urged.

“It’s just that I was talking to Sue the other day, and she mentioned she was going to the Nottingham office next week.”

“Why should that matter?”

She reached out and touched him lightly on the shoulder before continuing her explanation.

“The thing is, she might see Geoff when she’s there, and then she’ll tell him all about what happened at the conference.”

“Oh, I see.” The sudden realisation brought his questioning to an abrupt end.

Can you feel a difference between the two versions? One is repetitive and dull, as all the sentences follow the same pattern, while the other version moves the word order around, uses fewer reporting verbs, and includes a couple of gestures or actions to add to the mood in a different way, to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. As the saying goes, ‘variety is the spice of life’, and it can spice up your writing, too!