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A small grammar question

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A small grammar question

Postby AlexSivier » Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:42 am

Hi there
Here are several mutations of a basic sentence:

"Good evening," he said, running his hand through slick black hair.
"Good evening," he said as he ran his hand through slick black hair.
"Good evening," he said. Then he ran his hand through slick black hair.
"Good evening," he said; he ran his hand through slick black hair.
"Good evening," he said, while running his hand through slick black hair.

I always seem to overuse the first one in my writing, leading to many 'ing's. It just sounds more natural and artistic. But I am unsure. Is there a preferred construct? Are they all grammatically correct? Are there any I should avoid. Should I mix them, or stick to one voice/style?
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Asp Zelazny » Tue Aug 30, 2011 8:08 pm

Don't think I would want to shake, and definitely not high-five, that hand.

Still, while not being a grammarian (though I've got a copy of Strunck and White around somewhere), the first, second, and and last seem to be essentially equivalent, placing the speaking and hair-running as simultaneous. Subjectively, the second iteration seems to put a bit more emphasis on the hair-running than the other two. The third version separates the two actions in time ... speak, then hair-run. The fourth to me seems a bit clumsy, perhaps the hair-running is an afterthought. Though I use semicolons to death, they are troublesome little devils.

I suspect that all are grammatically correct, with a caution about #4. You could probably use 1,2 and 5 nearly interchangeably to vary sentence construction.

(all that said, somehow this is probably one of those "I don't know anything about [grammar], but I know what I like" kind of bits of advice.)
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby The Master » Wed Aug 31, 2011 1:25 am

So I'll give it my best shot...

One caveat is that its better to specify "his slick, black hair" if that's what you mean. Also note the comma I added.

I believe the ; in #4 is grammatically incorrect. Regardless, it is very awkward and I wouldn't use it.
Number #3 is correct, but isn't very natural or flowing to me so again I wouldn't use it.

"While" could be substituted for "as" here without changing the meaning. This isn't always true, but it is pretty common:
"Good evening," he said as he ran his hand through slick black hair.

Using "running" (the present participle) is subtly different from using "as/while he ran" (past tense) because a present participle suggests that the action has not yet finished.

"Good evening," he said, while running his hand through slick black hair.
"Good evening," he said, running his hand through slick black hair.
The above are essentially the same sentence. "While" as it is used here isn't technically wrong, but it is superfluous because running doesn't require the additional modifier to suggest ongoing action in this context.

If you notice that you are routinely using a similar construct then yes it is a very good practice to try and mix things up a little to keep your prose lively and interesting. So for example:

Instead of:
"Good evening," he said, running his hand his through his slick, black hair. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long?" he asked, looking her over carefully.

Try:
"Good evening," he said, as he ran his hand his through his slick, black hair. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long?" he asked, looking her over carefully.

Hope that's helpful.

[EDIT: Fixed my comma(s). Thanks Merle and Bmat!]
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Bmat » Wed Aug 31, 2011 5:12 am

For #4 I'd break it up into two sentences with a period between them.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Merle » Wed Aug 31, 2011 7:35 am

#4 is technically correct. You can use a semi-colon to join two independent clauses. It is, however, awkward. You also definitely need a comma between slick and black. I also agree with the Master that you should further modify "slick, black hair" with the personal possessive pronoun, "his."

I agree with the Master that #1 and #5 are the same, and that "while" in #5 is superflous. The Master's final suggestion requires a comma between "asked" and "looking," however. "[L]ooking her over carefully," is a dependent clause and requires a comma to be joined to the rest of the sentence.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Asp Zelazny » Wed Aug 31, 2011 9:53 pm

re: "His" ... Clearly an alternate universe Dr Evil is speaking, and he is stroking a greasy, black Persian female cat.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby AlexSivier » Mon Sep 12, 2011 3:03 am

Thanks everyone for replying. Lots of useful advice for me to digest.
OK, I have another related question. I am currently reading "Writing Horror", edited by Mort Castle. There is an article by David Morrell regarding dialogue. All his examples are like this:

"Blah blah," Jane said.

For me, that sounds very clunky. It sounds much more natural to say:

"Blah blah," said Jane.

But in the article Mr Morrell specifically states that you shouldn't 'invert a speech tag' like that.
In addition, I would never write:

"Blah blah," said he.

That sounds Shakespearean to me. So in that case, it should be pronoun verb.
I am confused. Is it a British/American style issue? Is it just an irregularity of the language? Is it an example of older, obsolete grammar?
I'd appreciate it if someone could shed light on this issue.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby The Master » Mon Sep 12, 2011 2:34 pm

I am not familiar with your reference nor do I know if there is a formal reason, but I think the awkwardness you note with "said he" is useful. First, it doesn't feel natural if you speak it, which is often a big indicator that it shouldn't be written that way either. Second, if you invert the order of the quote and attribution the awkwardness becomes even more apparent.

Jane said, "Blah Blah."
vs
Said Jane, "Blah Blah."

He said, "Blah Blah."
vs
Said he, "Blah Blah."
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Bmat » Mon Sep 12, 2011 3:33 pm

I've mainly seen "said he" etc in children's poems and stories.

"Quack, quack," said the duck. "Go away!" said he. It could well be an older form.

In lyrics: "I am the Lord of the Dance, " said he.

Some poetry: e. e. cummings
may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she ...

It wouldn't surprise me if the form is used in period works also, to lend a more exotic sound.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby nightlock » Tue Sep 13, 2011 6:39 am

The Master wrote:I am not familiar with your reference nor do I know if there is a formal reason, but I think the awkwardness you note with "said he" is useful. First, it doesn't feel natural if you speak it, which is often a big indicator that it shouldn't be written that way either.


"I feel no such thing", he said, "It feels natural enough to me".





Ps. Granted, I am not a native speaker.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby Asp Zelazny » Tue Sep 13, 2011 11:44 am

The "said he" construction is simply more mannered, more poetic; not incorrect, but adds a specific flavor to the statement. If you are looking for a sense of courtliness/poetry/stultified atmosphere in the passage, then it fits. Clearly The Master is neither poetic nor courtly in his speech patterns. But he does have his uses.
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Re: A small grammar question

Postby The Master » Tue Sep 13, 2011 2:07 pm

The question appeared to be one of prose,
and I never claimed the rule to be canon.
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