Grammar in Memoirs: What Are Flat Adverbs?

list of flat adverbs in squashed font

I learn a lot about people’s current grammar concerns from the Facebook page “Grammar Matters,” which I help to admin. Recently someone asked why adverbs are being sloppily replaced by adjectives. Examples:

  • Drive slow.
  • Act quick.
  • Play safe.
  • And the kicker: You did amazing.

The complaint was that the “ly” is missing. The word answers the question “how,” which calls for an adverb. How should I drive? How should I act? How should I play? How did I do? These people wanted the adjectives slow, quick, safe and amazing replaced by the adverbs slowly, quickly, safely and amazingly so that the phrases would read: drive slowly, act quickly, play safely, you did amazingly.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Adjectives vs. Flat Adverbs

“They’re not adjectives,” other members of the page schooled the complainers. “Those are flat adverbs.”

According to the MacMillan Dictionary Blog, “flat adverbs may sound less formal, but grammatically they’re fine.” The blogger explains it further:

“Indeed, flat adverbs have a venerable history. Centuries ago in Old English, they were marked by inflections (usually –e), which were gradually dropped. This left the adverbs resembling adjectives, so –ly was sometimes added to mark them more explicitly as adverbs again. And so we ended up with pairs like bright and brightly, slow and slowly, soft and softly, wrong and wrongly.”

Keep in mind that flat adverbs are also adjectives. You are a “safe driver”—here, safe is an adjective describing the noun driver. The blogger further notes that the pairs are “sometimes interchangeable (drive safe/safely); in other cases their meanings have diverged, as with late and lately, right and rightly, hard and hardly. We might kick a ball hard, but if we hardly kick it we mean something quite different. Sometimes one form appears in certain idioms and expressions while the other form does duty elsewhere.”

Our Approach to Flat Adverbs

At Write My Memoirs, do we think that flat adverbs have earned their place in formal writing and, specifically for our purposes, in memoir writing? As you may know from taking our Writing and Grammar Course, we approach formal writing pragmatically. We apply grammar rules as they are generally regarded by people who make it a point to use proper grammar. That means people who know just enough about grammar but not more than that.

What do we mean by that? Flat adverbs are a good example. Most people who believe they use proper grammar will prefer drive slowly or shine brightly, choosing the traditional adverb safely over the flat adverb safe. So our editors at Write My Memoirs advise writers to mostly avoid flat adverbs. However, if you’re writing dialogue, you did amazing might sound more natural than you did amazingly so, in that case, you might want to choose the flat adverb.

English grammar is always a moving target!

5 Memoir Writing Tips We Can Glean from Tina Brown

Vanity Fair Diaries

I just finished Tina Brown’s memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries, about her time as editor-in-chief of the magazine Vanity Fair from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. I liked it. You can read my Goodreads review here.

Brown is recognized as one of the best magazine editors of all time, but she’s a very good writer as well. Here are five lessons we can learn from this memoir:

1. Keep a diary.

You can’t go back to your childhood and start writing down everything that happened throughout your life, but if you’re thinking that you may “someday” write a memoir, start keeping a diary now! Then you won’t have to rely on your memory. Imagine that! What if you opened a book of entries you’d written right at the time the events were taking place? Your memoir would be rich with detail. That’s exactly what you find in The Vanity Fair Diaries. Tina Brown kept an account of everything, from what she wore to what she ate, from the dinner party conversations to her impressions of the other guests. It’s like fiction, the way the writer can just make it up and mention all of those things, except these details are not made up.

2. Don’t worry so much about naming names.

One very common question we get is whether a memoir author should obscure the identity of people presented in an unflattering way. Maybe if you change the name and the description, and say in your memoir that some people’s identity has been disguised, that will keep them from suing you for defamation of character or libel or whatever authors are so afraid of getting sued for. Tina Brown throws caution to the wind and tells it like it is whether the person she’s trashing is famous or not. I don’t necessarily encourage you to be as harsh as she is in this book, but tell your truth. If it’s the truth, that’s your defense. And if it’s your opinion, as Brown presents a lot of her trash talk, then you’re free to express it how you wish.

3. Write in specifics, not generalities.

I explain this point in the Goodreads review, so I’ll just quote it:

For example, why call someone a girlfriend when you can call her a seductress? From “seductress,” the reader learns so much about Brown’s regard for the person. It’s not fiancée or lover, paramour or gold digger, not even temptress. Another example: Brown observes that it had become fashionable for women to remove their earrings before dessert. She tries in vain to make sense of this odd trend, but concludes simply that when “the creme brulée arrives,” the earrings come off. She could have just said “when the dessert arrives,” but she never would do that. I get it. Don’t repeat a word when you can drill into it and hit something specific instead.

4. Write a good first line—and a good last line.

I wouldn’t say this book has a great first line: “I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity.” But it does set the stage for the decade she’s about to roll out. It makes you want to read at least the next sentence. It’s the last line that I like: “But I also hear something else, something I can’t resist—the sweet Gershwin strings of a new opportunity.” An epilogue follows, but this is the last line of the main book. Again, Brown gets specific with “the sweet Gershwin strings.” It’s a true ending, closure. She lets us know that we’re leaving her in a good place. And she sets herself up for a possible sequel.

5. Show and tell.

The conventional advice to writers is “show, don’t tell.” Describe what’s going on in an objective way. Don’t say it smelled good in the room; tell the reader it smelled like freshly mown grass after a rain. The reader will get the idea that you think that smells good, since who wouldn’t? This is all great advice. But it’s a memoir, not a piece of fiction. You can tell the reader how you felt about seeing someone after so many years or how tasting the soup reminded you of your mother. You can let the reader into your brain and do a lot of showing but also some telling, as Tina Brown does in this book.

Memoir Writing Tip: Avoid Parentheses

Meme about use of parentheses

No matter how you’re structuring your memoir, I can predict one thing about it: you don’t need parentheses to write a good memoir.

Now, I’m not talking about brackets, which look like this: [ ]. In academic writing and for other reasons, you may need to use brackets. Let’s say you’re quoting a note someone wrote to you, and you want the reader to know that the word spelled incorrectly is from the original note rather than your typo. To indicate that, after the word you can use: [sic].

But ordinary parentheses look like this: ( ). They come in handy when you’re trying to give the reader information pertinent enough to include at that moment of reading but extraneous enough that it sort of interrupts the flow. Enclosing that information within parentheses lets the reader know that you are aware it’s not directly related to what they just read.

Why Writers Use Parentheses

Memoir authors and other writers use parentheses for one of three bad reasons:

  1. The information is essential, but the writer is trying to wedge it into the wrong spot. This is lazy writing. As you’re writing, something has come to mind that is tangentially related to the topic at hand, but it would work much better somewhere else.
  2. The information is so non-essential that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. You’re indulging yourself with something you want to include that has little to do with the narrower memoir topic.
  3. The writer is just a parentheses person, and the parentheses serve as a crutch. We all tend to have our go-to punctuation, whether it’s an em dash, a semicolon, a comma, or parentheses. By relying heavily on em dashes and parentheses to set off phrases and clauses, you’re just revealing that you don’t know how to use commas. I admit to being a fan of what these days has become the hardworking em dash; I also like mixing it up and not relying on the same punctuation all the time. But so often parentheses and em dashes are the writer’s way of not having to figure out where commas would go.

Examples of Parentheses

When I google examples of parentheses use, I see sentences that I would edit to drop the parentheses. So let’s do that exercise together. I’m taking these examples either verbatim or edited from grammar.monster.com and grammar.yourdictionary.com. I have nothing against these websites; they’re just two that came up in my search.

Here’s a justified use of parentheses for some audiences, although it can be condescending if the target reader already knows the explanation. The information contained within the parentheses gives a quick explanation without taking up its own sentence:
Sometimes numerals (1, 2, 3) are used instead of writing out the numbers (one, two, three).

Often, you can’t express the thought as succinctly without the parentheses. Still, unless you’re under a restrictive word count, I don’t consider that a good enough reason to use the parentheses.
I got a great deal on a used camper (just $500).
I would rewrite it:
At just $500, the used camper I bought was a great deal.
Or:
I got a great deal on a used camper, which cost me just $500.
Even the em dash works better, I think:
I got a great deal on a used camper—just $500.

Take this quote from H.L. Mencken:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
This is the use I see the most. All it does is avoid commas or using two sentences instead of one. Why? I have no idea. Mencken sticks “hence” in there, which connects the parenthetical to the rest of the sentence. Why also set it off so dramatically? Another problem is that “hence” should be enclosed in commas. I would edit it to be:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and, hence, clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

One last example:
This month’s sales figures are sure to wow you. (Chances are, you’ll be really impressed.)
Oh, come on! Repeating what you just said in a new way is the worst reason to use parentheses. The parentheses mean you’re admitting that the sentence is completely unnecessary.

I urge you to look over your memoir and see whether you can eliminated any parentheses. I bet you’ll find at least a few instances.

Like these tips? You’ll love our grammar course. Just $39.

Grammar Help: Subjunctive/Conditional Tense

As we get closer to offering a complete online grammar course here at Write My Memoirs, I want to give you a sneak peek at some of the topics we’ll be covering. The subjunctive tense, also called the conditional tense, is a minor grammar point in real life and conversation. But when you put your name as author on a book, you want your words to reflect current best practices in grammar and writing. So let’s go over this.

The subjunctive tense is a verb tense just like present, past and future. Instead of concerning a time perspective, however, the subjunctive tense applies to any hypothetical situation. Typically, you can identify a hypothetical situation by the use of a word like “if,” “suppose” or “imagine.” When you’re just imagining something might occur, or you’re wondering whether it could happen, rather than the singular “was” you should use the past tense plural “were” to construct this type of sentence, even when the subject is singular.

Probably the most easily recognized example is the phrase, “If I were you.” In any other context, you’d pair the singular pronoun “I” with the verb “was” to indicate past tense. You’d say, “I was going to ask you a question,” or “I was happy that we had a nice day for the picnic.” It’s not natural to say “I were…,” but it does sound natural in the phrase “If I were you” because it’s correct. You’re imagining “if I were you.” If it’s not hypothetical, you’d say, “I’m pretty sure that I was you in my past life.” In that case, you’re stating an assumption, not posing a hypothetical. Another recognizable example of the correct construction is the song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man.”

So if I were going to make sure I learned the finer points of grammar, I would practice the conditional/subjunctive tense. Suppose a man were to sign up on Write My Memoirs, and imagine that a woman were intending to do the same—they both would be welcome here, where correct grammar is always appreciated!

 

My “Strongly-Expressed” Mandate: No Hyphens After Adverbs!

Sometimes a grammar error seems to catch on as if it’s contagious. I suppose people see something in writing, think they’ve been doing it wrong and obliviously copy the error. This is how these epidemics spread. I’ll begin to notice the error more often and in more respectable places, and then finally just about everywhere. We all have our grammar pet peeves, and mine intensify when the error starts to blanket the universe. This is currently happening with hyphens following adverbs.

The key term in this blog’s headline, Strongly-Expressed, provides the example of the erroneously inserted hyphen. Strongly is an adverb, and an adverb’s entire job is to modify. That’s what adverbs do. They modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Sometimes they modify an entire clause. They don’t need a hyphen to do their job. Let’s stuff a sentence with adverbs and see what we have:

Luckily, a genuinely nice person found Lola’s wildly colorful jacket and very kindly immediately returned it to her before Lola had a chance to miss it too desperately or to sob uncontrollably at discovering it inexplicably gone.

Luckily: modifies the clause that follows
Genuinely: modifies the adjective nice. How nice? Genuinely nice.
Wildly: modifies the adjective colorful. How colorful? Wildly colorful.
Very: modifies the adverb kindly. How kindly? Very kindly.
Kindly: modifies the verb returned. How was it returned? Kindly.
Immediately: modifies the verb returned. How else was it returned? Immediately.
Too: modifies the adverb desperately. How desperately? Too desperately.
Desperately: modifies the verb miss. Miss in what way? Desperately.
Uncontrollably: modifies the verb sob. Sob in what way? Uncontrollably.
Inexplicably: modifies the verb missing. In what way was it gone? Inexplicably.

The error of my obsession occurs when the adverb modifies an adjective. In the sample sentence, the error would be to write “a genuinely-nice person” and “her wildly-colorful jacket.” That hyphen is not just unnecessary; it’s wrong. My guess is that it grew from the correct construction of hyphenating a two-word thought with an adjective or noun as the first word. I just did that—two-word. Here’s a sentence full of word duos with correct hyphens:

We typically arrive at each data-driven decision after a late-night, full-team, anxiety-filled session that leaves all of us mentally exhausted and emotionally drained but more closely knit within our committee as well as able to forge close-knit ties to the greater community.

In that example, the first word of the hyphenated pairs is either an adjective or a noun, whereas there is no hyphenation in mentally exhausted and emotionally drained, because in both cases an adverb is modifying a verb. I used both closely knit and close-knit to further illustrate the distinction.

If you go around hyphenating adverb-starting word pairs, I’m begging you to please stop. If you’re wondering whether the hyphen is correct and you should start using it, the answers are no and no. If I’m telling you something you already know and you would never insert a hyphen after an adverb, thank you so much and keep up the good work!

The 12 Days of Memoir

On the first day of Memoir, my memoir coach gave to me….

Here’s a checklist for writing your memoir that just happens to count to 12. It’s from Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir.

  1. Paint a physical reality that uses all the senses and exists in the time you’re writing about—a singular, fascinating place peopled with objects and characters we believe in. Should include the speaker’s body or some kinesthetic elements.
  2. Tell a story that gives the reader some idea of your milieu and exploits your talent. We remember in stories, and for a writer, story is where you start.
  3. Package information about your present self or backstory so it has emotional conflict or scene. All the rest of these are interior:
  4. Set emotional stakes—why is the writer passionate about or desperate to deal with the past—the hint of an inner enemy?
  5. Think, figure, wonder, guess. Show yourself weighing what’s true, your fantasies, values, schemes, and failures.
  6. Change times back and forth—early on, establish the “looking back” voice, and the “being in it” voice.
  7. Collude with the reader about your relationship with the truth and memory.
  8. Show not so much how you suffer in long passages, but how you survive. Use humor or an interjecting adult voice to help a reader over the dark places.
  9. Don’t exaggerate. Trust that what you felt deeply is valid.
  10. Watch your blind spots—in revision, if not before, search for reversals. Beware of what you avoid and what you cling to.
  11. (Related to all of the above) Love your characters. Ask yourself what underlay their acts and versions of the past. Sometimes I pray to see people I’m angry at or resentful of as God sees them, which heals both page and heart.
  12. And one big fat caveat: lead with your own talent, which may cause you to ignore all I’ve recommended.

Try Garner’s as a Reference for Grammar and Usage

Try Garner’s American Usage as a Reference
So many questions about grammar cannot be answered simply yes/no, either/or. While we tend to think of grammar as cut-and-dried, it’s really more of a reflection of preferred usage at this moment in time—preferred rather than absolutely correct, and only at this moment because a living language is constantly changing. So a grammatical construction you learned in school 40 years ago may be less valid today. That’s less valid, not exactly wrong. Also, word choice, usage and even punctuation vary widely depending on your geography. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own rules.
For all of those reasons, for American writing I like a usage guide that’s not on everyone’s radar: Garner’s American Usage. Most people rely on a stylebook such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, or a dictionary like Webster’s or American Heritage. But unlike those references, which provide right-or-wrong information, Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the immensely helpful and sensible “Garner’s Language-Change Index,” a five-stage continuum of acceptability ranging from unacceptable to commonly preferred. Garner’s also is a fun read, adding information about the language and elaborating its points with humor.
A review by School Library Journal published on the Oxford University Press website calls Garner’s “the best of its kind in that it simply reports the facts in an engaging way; language evolves and usage changes. An invaluable ready-reference tool.”
http://www.amazon.com/Garners-Modern-American-Usage-Garner/dp/0195382757/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366214307&sr=8-1&keywords=garner%27s+modern+american+usage
http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Reference/EnglishUsageGuides/?view=usa&ci=9780195382754

So many questions about grammar cannot be answered simply yes/no, either/or. While we tend to think of grammar as cut-and-dried, it’s really more of a reflection of preferred usage at this moment in time—preferred rather than absolutely correct, and only at this moment because a living language is constantly changing. So a grammatical construction you learned in school 40 years ago may be less valid today. That’s less valid, not exactly wrong. Also, word choice, usage and even punctuation vary widely depending on your geography. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own rules.

For all of those reasons, for American memoir writing I like a usage guide that’s not on everyone’s radar: Garner’s American Usage. Most people rely on a stylebook such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, or a dictionary like Webster’s or American Heritage. But unlike those references, which gauge each case as right or wrong, Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the immensely helpful and sensible “Garner’s Language-Change Index,” a five-stage continuum of acceptability ranging from unacceptable to commonly preferred. Garner’s also is a fun read, adding information about the language and elaborating its points with humor.

A review by School Library Journal published on the Oxford University Press website calls Garner’s “the best of its kind in that it simply reports the facts in an engaging way; language evolves and usage changes. An invaluable ready-reference tool.”

Verb Tenses, Part III

Verb Tenses, Part III
To finish up this three-part series, we’re going to talk about the “perfect progressive” tenses. Instead of using the past participle as we did for the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, for the progressive tenses we’ll need the present participle. For example, the past participle for to sing is sung, as in, “She has sung professionally in front of thousands of people”; the present participle is singing, as in, “She has been singing professionally since her teen years.”
Present Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys current, ongoing action that began in the past, continues in the present and may continue in the future.
Formation: has been or have been + the present participle of the verb
I have been thinking about writing my memoirs.
We have been learning about verb tenses.
Past Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys past, ongoing action that began in the past before another action.
Formation: had been + the present participle of the verb
I had been thinking about writing a novel before I changed my mind and decided to write a memoir.
She had been reading her book for three hours before she finally broke away to have dinner.
Future Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys future, ongoing action that will be completed before another future action.
Formation: will have been + the present participle of the verb
As of June, I will have been working on my memoir for a full year.
If he starts his homework now, he will have been studying for three hours when he finally breaks for dinner.
I hope you found these tenses useful! Write if you have questions!

To finish up this Write My Memoirs three-part series, we’re going to talk about the “perfect progressive” tenses. Instead of using the past participle as we did for the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, for the progressive tenses we’ll need the present participle. For example, the past participle for to sing is sung, as in, “She has sung professionally in front of thousands of people”; the present participle is singing, as in, “She has been singing professionally since her teen years.”

PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys current, ongoing action that began in the past, continues in the present and may continue in the future.
Formation: has been or have been + the present participle of the verb

I have been thinking about writing my memoirs.

We have been learning about verb tenses.

PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys past, ongoing action that began in the past before another action.
Formation: had been + the present participle of the verb

I had been thinking about writing a novel before I changed my mind and decided to write a memoir.

She had been reading her book for three hours before she finally broke away to have dinner.

FUTURE PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys future, ongoing action that will be completed before another future action.
Formation: will have been + the present participle of the verb

As of June, I will have been working on my memoir for a full year.

If he starts his homework now, he will have been studying for three hours when he finally breaks for dinner.

I hope you found these tenses useful! Write if you have questions!

Verb Tenses, Part II

Please read the Write My Memoirs blog post immediately preceding this one. Now that you have a handle on what a past participle is and, I’m going to assume, you pretty much know how to use the present and past tenses, we can move on to the difficult tenses that use past participles. Let’s example three:

PRESENT PERFECT TENSE
Conveys action that either began in the past and continues today or took place at an indefinite time.
Formation: has or have + the past participle of the verb

I have cooked [present perfect tense] dinner but have not served [present perfect] it yet.

You own [present tense] many books and have passed [present perfect] down the joy of reading to your children.

I sent [past tense] an email to my friend, and I hope [present tense] that she has read [present perfect tense] it by now.

PAST PERFECT TENSE
Conveys action that took place before another action in the past.
Formation: had + the past participle of the verb

I had intended [past perfect tense] to eat [infinitive] dinner at home until I decided [past tense] to go [infinitive] out instead.

I suppose [present tense] they had notified [past perfect tense] me earlier, but I neglected [past tense] to mark [infinitive] the date on my calendar.

FUTURE PERFECT TENSE
Conveys future action that will occur before another future action.
Formation: will have + the past participle of the verb

I will have finished [future perfect tense] all of my work when I end [present tense indicating a future event] my day with my favorite TV show.

I assume [present tense] that the teacher will have corrected [future perfect tense] our essays by the time class begins [present tense indicating a future event].

If anything is not clear, contact us or post on our Facebook wall! More tenses next time.

Grammar Lesson: Verb Tenses, Part I

Grammar Lesson: Verb Tenses, Part I
When our Write My Memoirs members hire us to edit their memoirs, we notice that verb tenses seem to be a tough grammar hurdle that trips up many writers. So let’s tackle these tricky little verbs one tense at a time. I’ll devote as many blog posts as it takes, starting with today.
When we list the forms of a verb, typically we list three tenses: present tense, past tense and past participle. The last one—the past participle—is the most problematic. To illustrate the three tenses of the regular verb to help, you would list: help (present tense); helped (past tense); and helped (past participle). In practice, this goes: today I help the customer; yesterday I helped the customer; over the past week I have helped many customers. You can see that the past participle takes a helping verb like have. For regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the past tense—in this case, both are helped.
However, there are many irregular verbs. Let’s try to take: today I take my temperature; yesterday I took my temperature; I have taken my temperature many times this week. In that irregular example, took is past tense, but taken is the past participle. To run also is irregular: today I run; yesterday I ran; I have run five times this week. That’s an unusual case, because the past participle run is the same as the present tense, first person. Keep in mind, though, that “person” presents another variable that can change the present tense, but the past participle remains the same. With to run, the past participle remains run when we change the example from first person to third person: today he runs; yesterday he ran; he has run five times this week.
Practice on other verbs until we dig into this again next time!

When our Write My Memoirs members hire us to edit their memoirs, we notice that verb tenses seem to be a tough grammar hurdle that trips up many writers. So let’s tackle these tricky little verbs one tense at a time. I’ll devote as many blog posts as it takes, starting with today.

When we list the forms of a verb, typically we list two tenses—present tense and past tense—plus the past participle, which is a component of the remaining tenses and is the most problematic.  The last one—the past participle—is the most problematic. To illustrate the three tenses of the regular verb to help, you would list: help (present tense); helped (past tense); and helped (past participle). In practice, this goes: today I help the customer; yesterday I helped the customer; over the past week I have helped many customers. You can see that the past participle takes a helping verb like have. For regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the past tense—in this case, both are helped.

However, there are many irregular verbs. Let’s try to take: today I take my temperature; yesterday I took my temperature; I have taken my temperature many times this week. In that irregular example, took is past tense, but taken is the past participle. To run also is irregular: today I run; yesterday I ran; I have run five times this week. That’s an unusual case, because the past participle run is the same as the present tense, first person. Keep in mind, though, that “person” presents another variable that can change the present tense, but the past participle remains the same. With to run, the past participle remains run when we change the example from first person (I) to third person (he/she): today he runs; yesterday he ran; he has run five times this week.

Practice on other verbs until we dig into this again next time!