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!

How Important Are Grammar Rules?

How Important Are Grammar Rules?
If you’re writing a memoir, by definition you’re now a writer. For the first time since high school, you may be thinking about grammar. But is that really necessary?
My quick answer is that, yes, most of us could use a grammar refresher course. I found an audio course for $179 that you can take right from your computer on September 20. Click here to learn more. (We do not have any connection to that company; we neither receive a share of the profits nor have taken any courses there ourselves to recommend.)
This particular course aims to help you get rid of some bad writing habits like splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and using passive voice. Are those habits so evil? Not really. If anything, these rules are losing favor and become antiquated. But as a writer, you should be aware of them. You should recognize these “flaws” when you see them and limit them in your own writing. But I would not say you must eliminate them altogether. Take this sentence: “I want to always know where you’ll be.” While that demonstrates a split infinitive—always splits the infinitive to know—it’s probably the clearest and most efficient way of expressing that thought. However, it’s not the only way; there are lots of ways to say the same thing. Learning these rules will open your eyes to all of the options, and you can improve the impact of your writing if you avoid “breaking” these rules as much as possible.

If you’re writing a memoir, by definition you’re now a writer. For the first time since high school, you may be thinking about grammar. But is that really necessary?

My quick answer is that, yes, most of us could use a grammar refresher course. I found an audio course for $179 that you can take right from your computer on September 20. Click here to learn more. (We do not have any connection to that company; we neither receive a share of the profits nor have taken any courses there ourselves to recommend.)

This particular course aims to help you get rid of some bad writing habits like splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and using passive voice. Are those habits so evil? Not really. If anything, these rules are losing favor and become antiquated. But as a writer, you should be aware of them. You should recognize these “flaws” when you see them and limit them in your own writing. But I would not say you must eliminate them altogether. Take this sentence: “I want to always know where you’ll be.” While that demonstrates a split infinitive—always splits the infinitive to know—it’s probably the clearest and most efficient way of expressing that thought. However, it’s not the only way; there are lots of ways to say the same thing. Learning these rules will open your eyes to all of the options, and you can improve the impact of your writing if you avoid “breaking” these rules as much as possible.

Video Lists Top Ten Rules of Writing

Video Lists Top Ten Rules of Writing
This week’s WriteMyMemoirs blog post started out as a post to discuss the writing rules noted in a YouTube video called Top Ten Writing Rules From Famous Writers, which was posted last year by Lyra Communications. Instead, I’m on a rant! These are the ten rules listed:
10. Stephen King: Write a draft; then let it rest.
9. Stephen King: Read a lot.
8. George Orwell: Never use a long word when a short one will do.
7. George Orwell: Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice.
6. Pierre Berton: Know your audience.
5. Pierre Berton: Recycle and read the good stuff before you write.
4. Andrew Morton: Honor the miraculousness of the ordinary.
3. Stephen King: Good copy = Draft minus 10%.
2. Bob Cooper: Look at every word in a sentence, decide if all are really needed and, if not, kill them; be ruthless.
1. Al Kennedy: Writing doesn’t love you; it doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.
I suppose those ideas are worthy of discussion—although I’m not sure they’d be my top ten—but I’m finding that I’d rather critique the video itself than the rules. I have a lot of problems with this video. First, there seems to be a “famous writer” shortage. Wouldn’t you be more interested in ten rules from ten different writers? Here, only six writers supply all ten rules. I also question how well these writers meet the title’s definition of “famous.” King and Orwell are the only famous writers, and that Cooper guy was the narrator’s professor; I don’t think that credential qualifies him. Also, speaking of Cooper, I had to reword his writing tip to make it grammatically correct! For the #1 writing tip, which is really not a tip but a plea, the narrator refers to the author as a “he” when really the person actually is a woman. The communications lesson from this video is not what the company intended but, rather, to make sure your information is accurate and compelling before you post on YouTube.

This week’s WriteMyMemoirs blog post started out as a discussion of the writing rules noted in a YouTube video called Top Ten Writing Rules From Famous Writers, which was posted last year by Lyra Communications. Instead, I’m on a rant! These are the ten rules listed:

10. Stephen King: Write a draft; then let it rest.

9. Stephen King: Read a lot.

8. George Orwell: Never use a long word when a short one will do.

7. George Orwell: Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice.

6. Pierre Berton: Know your audience.

5. Pierre Berton: Recycle and read the good stuff before you write.

4. Andrew Morton: Honor the miraculousness of the ordinary.

3. Stephen King: Good copy = Draft minus 10%.

2. Bob Cooper: Look at every word in a sentence, decide if all are really needed and, if not, kill them;  be ruthless.

1. Al Kennedy: Writing doesn’t love you; it doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

I suppose those ideas are worthy of discussion—although I’m not sure they’d be my top ten—but I’m finding that I’d rather critique the video itself than the rules. I have a lot of problems with this video. First, there seems to be a “famous writer” shortage. Wouldn’t you be more interested in ten rules from ten different authors? Here, only six writers supply all ten rules. I also question how well these writers meet the title’s definition of “famous.” King and Orwell are the only famous writers, and that Cooper guy was the narrator’s professor; I don’t think that credential qualifies him. Also, speaking of Cooper, I had to reword his writing tip to make it grammatically correct! For the #1 writing tip, which is really not a tip but a plea, the narrator refers to the author as a “he” when the person actually is a woman. The communications lesson from this video is not what the company intended but, rather, to make sure your information is accurate and compelling before you post on YouTube.

More Grammar: The “They” Issue

“Everyone can find something they like on the menu.” Right or wrong? I hope you don’t mind another grammar discussion as you plug away at writing your memoir.

Today’s column by New York Times blogger Philip B. Corbett tackles the continuing dilemma of the gender-neutral singular pronoun. I’m among those who bristle at pairing the singular “anyone,” “everyone” or “no one” with the plural “they” or “their.” Corbett mostly agrees but also discourages resorting to the old-fashion “he” or the cumbersome “he or she.” I’m guessing he wouldn’t much like “s/he,” either. The problem is that English leaves you no good option. Or does it?

I’ve long advocated for just switching up the sentence. English is a rich language, and it’s not that difficult to say the same thing in a different way. This is Corbett’s solution as well. He tends to simply pluralize everything. For example: Should every student design their own curriculum? He changes that to: Should all students design their own curriculums? That’s good with me, except I would use curricula rather than curriculums, but I prefer his second suggestion: Should every student design an individual curriculum?

When we apply this to the first sentence above, we can come up with a few choices: All diners can find something they like on the menu; Anyone find something on the menu to enjoy; Everyone can find a satisfactory choice on the menu; The menu addresses all tastes and diets. Etcetera!