Tag Archives: grammar

"Needs" Needs More Words

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn about writing was brevity. “Short writing is sharp, smart writing.” Use as few words as possible to convey your meaning, then edit again, because it’s still too many.

I still don’t do it well.

Writers cut unnecessary words to communicate their message with a concise yet powerful style. But sometimes people cut words a sentence requires.

There’s a structure I hear often lately which makes my inner Grammar Nazi rage:

“some (noun) needs (verb)-ed.”

What’s wrong with this? Why make an issue of it?

It’s missing two key words.

I think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (apologies to the Bard):

To be, or not to be? There is no question!
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous grammar failures, or to take arms against a sea of errors, and by opposing, end them! To correct, to edit! And by an edit to say we end the heartache, and the thousand grammatical¬†shocks that readers are heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished to correct, to edit. To edit, perchance to post! Ay, there’s the rub, for what posts may come¬†once we have shuffled off this rough draft must give us pause…

Alas, poor Eoric, I knew him well.  HE MADE GRAMMAR ERRORS!
Alas, poor Eoric, I knew him well.

A (noun) needs TO BE (verb)-ed. Or a (noun) needs (verb)-ing. Perhaps that distinction is where the trouble lies. “Needs” is actually the verb in any such sentence. And thus the action needed, though based on a verb, becomes a noun-form used as an instance of the verb being done.

The car needs cleaned is wrong, because you can’t have a “cleaned.”

The car needs to be cleaned. Now we are clearly stating that an instance of an action should be completed upon the noun in question.

The car needs cleaning. This is another way of saying an action must take place. You can have a “cleaning,” and either a single instance or ongoing basis is assumed in this structure. Even this feels like a violation of strict grammar, but it doesn’t have the same egregious quality as “needs (verb)-ed.”

For once, here’s a case where you can keep those extra words. Your inner editor may feel there’s nothing wrong with it. But your actual editor–and readers–will appreciate the clarity.

And that’s something all good writing needs.

Elements of Critique: Grammar

I play piano by ear.

When I took 8 years of lessons, I learned to read the notes but never really grasped how all the marks worked to interpret tempo. So I’d hit right notes with wrong timing. My teacher would say, “Let me show you how that’s supposed to sound.” He’d play the song, but instead of understanding the notation, I simply duplicated what he did.

I’m amazed at musicians who can sit down with an unfamiliar piece of sheet music and produce the song in question. I cannot. They can, because they’ve taken the time to learn the rules of notation: such a mark means a note of this length, those symbols mean a delay of a certain duration between notes, and so on.

This universal method of notation means musicians have a common language. Even if they’ve never heard a piece of music, they can read the notes on the sheet and duplicate the song.

So it is with grammar. Outside of English lessons in school, which many of us brain-dumped as soon as we passed those courses, we all learn to communicate “by ear.” We read something with poor grammar and say, “That sounds weird.” We hear someone speak and cock our heads. “That’s not how anyone says it…”

But this is vague and occasionally unreliable. Learning the rules lets us communicate clear and precise thoughts. Like the old tale about bankers identifying counterfeit money, perhaps the best way to learn to pick out what’s wrong is to study what’s correct, especially in any case where one feels uncertain. Grammar rules are facts (bonus points for a reference to yesterday’s post) worthy of a writer’s research.

However, English is notorious for its abundance of rules and exceptions, so there’s no room in this post for a thorough list. Staying true to verb tense is a frequent enough problem that it will get its own post, even though it falls into this category. Punctuation misuse or lack thereof will also be covered later.

So here are a few other examples of what catches my critical eye:

Misplaced modifiers – Word order can create or prevent confusion in the reader. In my second paragraph I originally wrote “delay between notes of a certain duration.” The delay is between the notes. It is a delay of a certain duration. But as written, this may raise the question, “Duration of notes? Or duration of delay?” I had to move the modifier.

Singular/plural verb matching – What’s the actual subject of the sentence? Many times we look at the noun immediately preceeding the verb. “The fireworks excite me” and “The display of fireworks excites me” are correct, even though “…fireworks excites me” sounds wrong since a plural noun precedes a verb ending in -s.

Sentence fragments – Every sentence consists of a subject and a verb phrase. Sometimes in description, in argument, or in haste, writers forget to include both.
“John turned at the low growl and saw a huge dog. Black and hairy, teeth bared, eyes fixed on the intruder in its home.”
“When you argue using circular logic, you have no case. Because the points you make depend on each other to prove.”
The second “sentence” is the sort I see often. In the first case, words are missing. I know the dog is the subject, but grammar demands the writer say so. In the second case, the problem is an extra word. The unnecessary “because” needs a phrase preceeding it in the same sentence. Taking it out fixes the problem.

When MS Word gives warning of a grammar mistake, wisdom pays attention. And if there’s any doubt, a web search will find numerous resources. Grammar Girl and any Oatmeal lessons are favorites of mine, as they take the time to explain the rules in a sharp and witty delivery. (The Oatmeal pictures and language sometimes get pretty coarse. You have been warned.)

Learning grammar to critique writing improves my own efforts. While I happily accept the title of “Grammar Nazi” at times, I make mistakes too. That’s part of why I go to critique group. No one is perfect.

Also, I use my understanding of grammar to my advantage. Sometimes that sentence fragment with bad grammar communicates exactly what I need in a scene, and I need to feel liberated enough to ignore the judgmental green squiggle of MS Word. (Besides, Word and Apple’s auto-correct love to suggest “it’s” for a non-gender possessive, so what do they know?)

There’s a quote attributed (perhaps in error) to Pablo Picasso that sums up this final point: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Speaking of artistry, tomorrow on this A-Z is all about looking in someone’s writing for the art of fishing. Answering “Will this piece of writing get readers to turn the page?” and explaining why.

(Did you catch the grammar mistake there?)