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Elegant English: Polishing your skills

It is with good reason that the French call modern languages ‘les langues vivantes’, or ‘living languages’. Languages are kept alive through usage and they change, evolve, grow or decline, depending on how widely and frequently they are spoken. Each individual speaker needs to practise the language regularly in order to improve or remain fluent otherwise, like a body without exercise, the brain’s linguistic ‘fitness’ will fade over time. With that in mind, how can we, as writers, keep our written language skills in good condition?

First of all, reading is essential. Reading helps to familiarise us with the language, and the more we do it, the deeper its patterns and subtleties become imprinted on our subconscious memory. If we want our knowledge of the language to be of the highest possible quality, though, it is also important to read plenty of good quality writing. Traditionally published books, magazines and newspapers are best for this purpose, as they are more likely to have been thoroughly edited and checked for errors before publication, whereas the language used on social media and the internet in general, although useful to a certain extent, will vary greatly in quality. Reading too much unedited material with lots of mistakes may have a detrimental effect on our own command of the language, normalising errors so that we are less likely to spot them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, reading should go hand-in-hand with writing. Any writer who wants to improvise their writing skills should practise by…. writing. Regularly. Having picked up good examples of language usage through reading, the mental and physical process of writing consolidates everything you have learned, making it your own. That way, using the language becomes increasingly natural and hopefully easier, as the more you do it the less you will have to keep stopping to think and question yourself.

As I have already mentioned in ‘Another Pair of Eyes’, feedback from another person can be a valuable learning tool. If someone else is able to look at your work and highlight any errors, the number of mistakes made should gradually reduce over time. Additionally, any comments about things you have done well will encourage you to do more of the same, so that you build up your arsenal of really good things you can do. Formal feedback, from a language tutor or editor, for example, will give a more thorough and methodical guide to help steer you in the direction of sure and steady improvement. Informal input from friends, relatives and the reading community can also be helpful, so make the most of opportunities to let others read what you have written.

There is a vast range of resources that can help writers to polish their work, and the list is constantly growing. Perhaps, though, the most basic requirement is a good dictionary and a reliable guide to grammar and usage. For UK English, I would personally recommend the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Oxford Style Manual, but there are many other worthwhile references available both in print and online. On the internet, writers’ groups can be a good place to turn for support, and there is an endless supply of advice and information out there for writers. However, always approach online sources with caution and beware of marketing traps, scams and unhelpful advice which are just as freely available.

Although this is the tenth and final instalment of ‘Elegant English’, it is most certainly not the end. Watch this space for more news, information and advice coming very soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your writing!Elegant English lettering copy

 

Elegant English: Another pair of eyes

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Another pair of eyes is an essential tool for writers of any language background. Regardless of whether an author is writing in his or her native language, the old saying that ‘you can’t see the wood for trees’ is often very apt. An overconfident writer may be adamant that he has checked the text thoroughly himself and he is convinced that it contains no errors, while a more timid author may be hesitant to ask another person to take the trouble to read her work. From personal experience, even though I check my work several times in different ways before submission, sometimes the occasional small mistake still seems to slip through the net. It is as if they hide when they see my eyes coming, no matter how carefully I read. A wayward comma, or a mistake the spellchecker missed because it is listed in its memory as an acceptable word, such as ‘of’ when I meant ‘off’ or ‘tat’ which was supposed to be ‘that’, occasionally manage to pass under the radar without being detected.

Because we get used to our own most common errors, our brains don’t always notice them. However, the things we spot most easily vary from one person to another, so this problem is easily solved by asking someone else to take a look at our work. There are various categories of people we could ask for help, depending on the desired outcome. These include:

  • A friend or relation
  • A stranger willing to help for non-monetary payment
  • A paid beta-reader
  • A professional editor or proofreader
  • A native speaker

Each of these groups have different services to offer, so who we decide to approach will depend on the type of text and its intended purpose. A letter or story for a personal blog, for example, will certainly benefit from some degree of checking, but it may not be necessary to spend a lot of money on this process. A novel that is intended for publication and sale to the public, either through a publisher or via self-publishing channels, will probably fare better if it has been thoroughly reviewed by several people from a variety of backgrounds first. So, let us take a look at what each of these groups can offer.

Friends and relatives may well be the first port of call for most of us. Usually, they will be willing to do the work for free, or perhaps for some kind of favour in return. For the most part, they will do it because they like us, they care about us, and they want to help us succeed. This group will probably be quite happy to point out the occasional spelling mistake or errors in continuity, but they may find it more difficult to tell us that they didn’t like something, or that large parts of the text need substantial revising. Because they are nice, they may be reluctant to tell us the harsh truth, or they may simply be biased and think it is great, just because it is a part of you.

At that point, we must turn to strangers for the next level of feedback. The very fact that they do not know us means that their response will be more subjective. There are plenty of people out there willing to read books for no monetary payment. On the internet, for example, try looking in online writers’ groups for advice. The people there may be happy to help you out in return for free copies of books or, if they are a writer as well, you could offer to reciprocate by reading their book and giving them some kind of review. However, the degree of feedback this group is able to offer varies immensely, according to each person’s education, experience, and personal and cultural background.

A paid beta-reader will fulfil a similar function to the previous category, but for financial payment instead of favours. There are numerous sites on the internet where people offer this kind of service, from Goodreads and work-for-hire sites e.g. Fiverr, to personal websites and social media pages. Being an unregulated market, the prices and services on offer will vary immensely, so do proceed with care and take all possible precautions before entering into a contract and handing over any money. Beta-readers are generally people who enjoy reading, and many will specify the particular genres they prefer to work with. They will probably give you an honest report on what they thought about the book, which may be a useful guide to how readers might react to the book, but beta readers are not usually qualified professionals and unlikely to provide thorough and methodical feedback about every aspect of the style and language.

At this point, professional editors and proofreaders step in. Although this service will cost more, it will help you to ensure that your manuscript is the very best it can be in readiness for submission to a publisher or for self-publishing. Editing and proofreading, it must be noted, are not the same thing, and, if possible, it is advisable to have your work checked by at least one of each. Editing is more in-depth and time-consuming, and as a result it will have a higher price tag. Even within this category, there are different levels of service, such as copy-editing and developmental editing. A developmental edit will examine your book as a whole, checking its overall structure, setting, characterisation, plot and pace, and providing a report outlining any recommended major revisions. A copy-editor, meanwhile, will look more closely at the text, systematically checking features such as style, points of view, dialogue, consistency, use of language, etc., usually inserting comments and recommendations directly into the text.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is a final check before submission. During the editing process, it is possible that smaller errors may have be overlooked, or even introduced whilst adding, deleting and amending. A proofreader’s task, therefore, is to give the text one last tidy-up to eliminate any of these and, if the editor has done a good job, the proofreading stage should be relatively straightforward and less time-consuming.

Like beta-readers, editors and proofreaders are very easy to find on the internet, but aim to find someone reliable and highly-skilled who will provide good value for money. Look out for membership of professional bodies (such as CIEP in the UK), academic qualifications, past experience, etc. Personal recommendations from other writers can be very helpful here, too. Many editors will offer to edit a short extract free of charge, or at a reduced rate, as a sample of their work, which can be a useful way of seeing who that editor works and whether they are a good fit for you.

For anyone writing in a language that is not their native or main language, it is always a good idea to have your writing checked by a native speaker, especially if it is intended for publication. Even if the spelling and grammar are accurate, a native speaker can highlight anything which might sound slightly awkward or ‘foreign’, helping you to give your writing a more natural flow, and making it more pleasant and compelling to read. Native speakers, though, are not necessarily a separate category, as they can also be friends, beta-readers, editors or proof-readers as well.

In short, the more people who look at your work before submission, the better. Every person will look at it with a different pair of eyes, from their own relative angle and point of view, each one adding an extra layer of polish to the final draft. The publishing market is huge and highly competitive, and an under-prepared manuscript will have the odds stacked against it from the outset. The more eyes that have looked at it and helped to revise it before it is released into the world, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by publishers and/or readers.

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Elegant English: Believable dialogue

In a novel or short story, the dialogue is intended to reflect the way people speak. The more natural and realistic it sounds, the more believable it is, and the better the reader understands the character who is speaking. However, if an author were to write down a conversation exactly the way it sounded, the result would probably be very dull indeed, not to mention tedious to read.
Imagine two old ladies on a bus:
“Ee, Gladys, ‘ow are ye?”
“Oh, yer know. Ugh. Well, all right, I suppose. Ey, ‘ave you ‘erd they’re closing that shop down? Er… um… whatsitsname… Oh, you know. Next to the post office. That one.”
“Erm. Oh, ‘ang on a minute. I know the one. Pricewise. Is that the one you mean?”
“Yes. Pricewise. That’s the one. Pricewise. Well, anyway, er, I read in yesterday’s paper it’s going to close next week. Or was it the week after? I think they said next week.”
“Oh. Hum. I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? Oh, I pop in a lot. Well, a couple of times a week, maybe. Yes, about that. Well, not every week, I suppose. I only went in once last week. To get some tea bags. And a packet of biscuits.”
Not very interesting to read, is it? In real life, we use a lot of noises like ‘erm’, ‘hum’, ‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘ugh’, and all kinds of other sounds, as well as repetition and a selection of meaningless words and phrases, just to fill the gaps in a conversation. In spoken language, this is a good thing, because gaps are awkward and silence can be boring, and the sounds themselves express some kind of basic emotion or meaning as well. In written dialogue, though, these extra additions have the opposite effect, as they contribute nothing to the conversation itself, and simply make it drag on for longer, so that is uninteresting. Therefore, good written dialogue must aim to mimic only the most useful bits of a spoken conversation. The parts that drive the action forward, or add to a character’s portrayal. So, here is a more condensed version of the two ladies’ conversation:
“Hello, Gladys. How are you?”
“All right, I suppose. By the way, have you heard they’re closing that shop down? The one next to the post office.”
“Do you mean Pricewise?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I read in yesterday’s paper that it’s going to close next week.”
“I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? I pop in a couple of times a week.”
Did you find the second version easier to read and understand? With some added detail about their appearance, expressions, gestures and setting, the conversation might begin to come alive somewhat, so that the readers feel as if they are there on the bus with the ladies.
Another important point to bear in mind when writing dialogue is the style and register. Just because something works well for Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in a novel set in the twenty-first century. Language is constantly changing, and what was considered normal a few decades (or centuries) ago, may seem quaint, or even comical now. Tolkien’s beautifully eloquent prose, for example, would be completely out of place in a fast-paced Dan Brown adventure, while modern slang would be painfully wrong in one of Georgette Heyer’s period novels.
Similarly, language usage varies from one region to another, as already discussed in a previous section, so make sure that American characters do not use specifically British expressions, for example, and vice versa.
The way language is used even changes subtly from one character to another. While one person may speak rather formally, another may use slang or dialect, yet another may have a stutter or an accent, and some may be more verbose while others are timid and economical with words. The way people speak is often a good indicator of character, and in fiction it is a useful tool for portraying people by ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. When a character speaks, he or she is showing the reader what kind of person they are, without the author having to intervene by stating what the person is like. In a well-written piece of dialogue, it may be possible to tell the characters apart just from the way they speak, as we would when listening to a spoken conversation.
When used well, conversation can be an excellent tool to help the writer with characterisation, setting and plot development. However, to avoid dialogue which sounds incongruous or out of place, take care to use the right style, always bearing in mind the period, place and type of person who is speaking. Elegant English lettering copy

Elegant English: Punchy titles

The title of your book is the first part anyone will read. If it doesn’t immediately grab the readers’ attention, they might not even open the cover, no matter how interesting it may be on the inside. A bad title can destroy a book’s chance of success, whereas a good one will be an asset, the perfect accompaniment to an excellent story. Above all, make sure that the title is written correctly. A spelling or grammar error in the title will put readers off immediately.

A great title is generally short and catchy. While there are a few exceptions, brevity is usually best. Names can be an easy way around this, and you would be in good company, as many authors have chosen this option over the centuries, e.g. ‘Hamlet’, ‘Emma’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Anna Karenina’, and so on. Enigmatic titles work well, as the reader is intrigued and wants to find out more. If the title reveals too much of the story, there is no point reading on, as it is obvious what is going to happen. For example, if Jane Austen had called her famous novel ‘Falling in Love with Mr Darcy’, it wouldn’t seem anywhere near as appealing as ‘Pride and Prejudice’. If the first book in the Harry Potter series was called ‘Harry Potter: Year One’, it would sound quite dull and ordinary, whereas dropping ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ (or ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’ if you’re in America) into the title adds an air of mystery, teasing the reader.

Naturally, the title must be relevant to the story in some way, but the connection does not need to be obvious from the outset. Personally, I love that moment of revelation when, in the middle of reading a book, the title’s connection suddenly becomes clear.

Here are few titles I particularly like:

‘Dark Matter’, by Michelle Paver (mysterious, but also scientific, like the story)

‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the Biafran flag, as this book is about the Biafran war)

‘It’, by Stephen King (titles don’t come much shorter than this one!)

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, by Harper Lee (what does killing a mockingbird have to do with a rape trial and race relations? You’ll need to read the book to find out)

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Elegant English: English English and other variants

English, as its name suggests, originated in England, from a melting-pot of languages brought here by all the different races who invaded our country throughout history. Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans and Normans all came across the sea with their own languages, and left a lasting imprint on the way the native Britons spoke. Later, as the country developed its navigational and seafaring abilities, English itself was exported around the world, for better or worse, by all kinds of explorers, missionaries, traders, conquerors and settlers. As a result, English is now widely spoken in many corners of the globe, but particularly in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many former colonies in Asia and Africa. Although these places all share a common language, though, variations have gradually developed in the way it is used, brought about by cultural and geographical factors, as well as usage over a long period of time.

Probably the two main variants of English in our modern world are UK and US English. Although British and American people generally have little difficulty understanding each other, there are some specific differences in usage, and it is often clear, even from accent-free written English, whether a person is Britain or American.

First of all, there are certain differences in spelling rules. Computer spellcheckers are usually equipped with both variants and will change colour to color, grey to gray, prioritise to prioritize, or vice versa, depending on the variant selected. There are also particular words which differ from one region to the other. For example, British people go on holiday, whereas Americans would take a vacation; here in Britain, we would eat biscuits, while Americans enjoy cookies, and in Britain, you might use a lift, but Americans go up in elevators. The list is very long. Then there are other words used in both variants, but which have different meanings. As a result asking for vests, pants and suspenders in a clothing shop/store, will get you quite different items, depending which side of the Atlantic you are on, so be careful what you ask for! The internet is awash with lists of equivalent US and UK vocabulary and spellings, so if you are interested, a simple search should bring up plenty of useful resources.

However, the difference between UK and US English goes much deeper than changing a few spellings and switching flats to apartments and rubbish to trash. American and British people also use subtly different patterns of speech with varying emphasis and syntax. For example, when speaking, Americans sometimes form questions by making a statement followed by ‘right’, whereas British speakers would be more likely to follow traditional grammatical patterns. Prepositions are often used differently, and the formation and meaning of idioms can vary, too. Here are a couple of examples:

US          ‘You’re joking, right?’

UK          ‘Are you joking?’ or ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’

 

US          ‘I get up at seven Monday through Friday, but later on weekends.’

UK          ‘I get up at seven from Monday to Friday, but later at the weekends.’

 

Although US and UK English are perhaps the most widely discussed, there are plenty of other variants, too, with a range of similarities and differences, making the English language incredibly rich in nuance and cultural flavour. In some fields, though, there is an increasing trend towards an international version of English. Particularly popular in the world of business and the global internet community, this style of English favours plainer expressions with fewer idioms, so that it can be more easily understood by people in any part of the world. In certain situations, this is a good thing, as it aids and promotes communication between the parties concerned, making business and other cross-cultural relationships more effective. In literature, though, it is not necessarily such a great idea, as it robs the writing of an extra dimension which could make it more interesting. Expressions and idioms specific to a regional setting add character to a text, and creative use of language makes it more interesting and compelling, whereas plain, easy-to-understand language may leave it dull, lacklustre, and not particularly exciting to read.

Identifying variants can be difficult, especially for someone who has not lived for a long time in an English-speaking country. For a writer, experimenting with different versions can be problematic unless the writer is familiar with the regional nuances. As a British native, for example, I can recognise American patterns of speech, but am reluctant to write anything which claims to be American English, as an American person would probably spot plenty of flaws I wasn’t aware of!

In the twenty-first century, the increasing influence of TV, internet and global travel is gradually blurring the boundaries between regional variants. Nevertheless, they do still exist, and an author wishing to make use of them must be aware of the effects they produce. A Victorian Englishman would not use ‘gonna’, for example, while a streetwise youth in downtown New York would be unlikely to refer to his friends as ‘chap’ or ‘fellow’. As a general rule, the best results are produced when writers use the version they are most familiar with. If fantasy or science-fiction are your speciality, though, you could consider experimenting with a whole new variant – a new language for a new world!

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Avana. The Red Dragon Awakens.

The English version of the Avana trilogy is now complete! The Red Dragon Awakens is the third part of this story set in ancient Ireland. Avana and the elementalists must help the people of the land of Erin to overcome the forces of darkness before the army of the Underworld invades the country. Annie Lavigne’s tale of druids and demons explores the nature of friendship and love as two warring peoples, the Ulaid and the Connachta, struggle to reconcile their differences and work together to free the Emerald Isle from the clutches of evil. I’ve had so much fun working on this romantic fantasy series which is simply and sensitively told, and would recommend it to anyone 16+ who is a fan of the genre.

The Red Dragon Awakens (Avana, book 3) by [Annie Lavigne, Helen Hagon]

Elegant English: Should I write in English?

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This is a question I have been asked more than once, by authors whose primary language is not English, and there are many different answers, depending on why, what and how you are writing. In some ways, it is a wonderful predicament to be in, as most writers are only able to write in one language and do not have a choice.

So, first of all, why are you writing? If it is purely for personal enjoyment, then you should write in whichever language gives you the most pleasure. I know that my own written Russian, French or German are far from perfect, even though I read them very well, but I have occasionally penned a few lines in a journal, or written letters to friends, just for fun. On the other hand, if your writing is intended for publication and sales, the question requires more careful consideration. In this case, you need to adopt a realistic approach. How fluent is your written English, really? Speaking a language fluently and writing it are two very different skills, and a person who has mastered one of them is not necessarily equally skilled at the other. Would your written English require heavy editing to bring it to a publishable standard, which may cost a lot of time and money? If you are unsure, it may be worth showing a sample to an editor or other native speaker and asking their advice. Alternatively, would you feel more comfortable writing in another language and sharing your work with speakers of that language instead? Then you would have the option of having your writing translated into English later by a professional.

Secondly, what are you writing? The best solution for someone writing a business contract or scientific paper may not be the same as for the author of a novel. What matters most in a technical or business text is factual accuracy. This kind of document is intended to communicate information correctly and efficiently. As long as the details are conveyed effectively, and the reader is able to understand the content, then the writer has succeeded. A work of literature, though, requires much more. Readers will not want to buy a book if it is boring. A novel with style, flair, and natural, flowing language has a far better chance of selling well than something that feels awkward and artificial, no matter how accurate the grammar and spelling might be. That does not mean, of course, that you should not write in English, but do bear in mind that some extra input from native speakers may be a valuable ingredient to add to your mixture.

How you write could also indicate which language to write in. Do ideas come to you in a different language, and then you have to translate them into English in order to commit them to paper? If so, unless you have specifically been asked to write in English, or wish to set yourself an intellectual challenge, writing directly in your principle language may be easier, and therefore a much pleasanter experience with fewer potential headaches.

Many non-native speakers are tempted to write in English for financial reasons. English is the most widely-spoken language in the world, which means that the market for English-language writing is huge. However, it is also true that this market is already being supplied by a vast community of highly able writers and the competition is fierce. Fame and fortune are elusive treats reserved for the lucky few, and even the most talented writers can struggle to make money from writing. So, if money is your motivation, I would urge you to write in whichever language you are able to produce the most beautiful prose or poetry, thereby giving you the best chance of standing up to the competition. However, be aware that financial success is not guaranteed, regardless of the quality of your writing.

In short, unless you have specific instructions, the language you write in should be the same language that your soul sings in. Choose the language you feel most comfortable using to express yourself, and enjoy every moment of the process. If it still needs a little polish afterwards, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else’s input. But avoid being led astray by the elusive charms of money.Elegant English lettering copy

Elegant English: Pairing up

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Sometimes, when translating or editing, I find myself having to swap a pair of words around the other way. Usually, the original author is happy to simply accept my choice, but occasionally it is questioned. After all, it does seem like a mistake at first glance. The truth is that, in English, there are certain pairs of words, often opposites, that we always put in the same order. This is also the case in many other languages, but the equivalent pairs do not always follow the same pattern across languages. For example, in English, we would almost always say ‘hot and cold’, ‘black and white’, or ‘husband and wife’, whereas ‘cold and hot’, ‘white and black’ and ‘wife and husband’ just feel wrong.

The technical term for words that are generally used together, is ‘collocation’. This is just one of many kinds of collocation which encompasses all sorts of phrases and expressions where a particular pair of words generally go together. For example, a train is usually described as ‘fast’, but never ‘quick’, even though the two adjectives mean the same thing. Meanwhile ‘fast food’ and a ‘quick meal’ have subtly different meanings.

Pairs of words can, of course, be learned from lists, although there are so many of them that the best way to get used to them is simply through practice. The more you hear or see them, the more you begin to develop a feel for what is right. If in doubt, check with a native speaker. However, here are a few common ones to get you started:

Black and white
Hot and cold
Bride and groom
Up and down
Read and write
Cup and saucer
Fish and chips
Knife and fork
Ladies and gentlemen
Husband and wife
Salt and pepper
Bread and butter
Life and death
Adam and Eve
Love or hate
Right or wrong
More or less
Advantages and disadvantages
Backwards and forwards
Soap and water

That said, this does not mean that you should never use these words in the opposite order. If you wish to deliberately create a particular effect, such as making a character sound foreign, or placing unusual emphasis, then go ahead and switch them around. Just be aware that it will sound odd to a native ear, and therefore alter the flow of your writing.

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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.

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(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.