Genus Panthera: How the Parts of Speech Can Improve Your Writing Style

Grammar is not boring–it can be useful for improving writing style, especially when it comes to the parts of speech. Think about these tips the next time you are trying to find just the right word:

Nouns

Say you are going on a blind date and you are getting ready in your room. Your sister is helping you. You hear a car pull into the driveway. You are too nervous to look out the window, so you ask your sister to look out the window and describe what your date is driving. She says, “A car.”

That doesn’t tell you much does it? That’s what a writer does when she uses vague nouns.

But if she says, “A sports car,” you get a more specific image. If she says, “A Mustang convertible,” the picture becomes even clearer. Now, what if she said, “A Volkswagon,” or “A sedan” or “A Brady Bunch station wagon,” or “A tractor.” You may even form some opinions about the date just from the description of the car. You form an image and maybe even an emotional reaction for each of these descriptions–more than just from “A car.”

Verbs

Let’s talk verbs. A skillful use of verbs can make your writing memorable. Forget the adverb. He is a nasty creature. An adverb is a part of speech that ends in –ly and modifies a verb. Sloppily is an adverb. Forget adverb-verb combinations like

He wrote sloppily on the page.

Instead, say

He scrawled on the page or He scribbled on the page.

Scrawled and scribbled are much more exciting than wrote sloppily.

The writer should look for the most interesting and appropriate verb possible. For instance, this:

The BMW went around the corner.

can become:

The BMW swerved around the corner.

Or the writer could use flew, careened, putted or screeched–any of them are more interesting than went.

Pronouns

When writing essays some students start using “you” instead of sticking to either the first person (I, me, we) or third person (he, she, it, they). If a student is writing a paper for a class–academic writing–writing in the second person conveys an inappropriate conversational tone.

Instead of:

You should review your budget a few times a month.

stick to the first person:

I review my budget a few times a month.

or use the third person:

The consumer should review her budget a few times a month.

Also, resist writing a sentence beginning with the pronoun this or that unless followed by a noun that refers to an element in the previous sentence. That should not be the subject of a sentence.

A marriage relationship has little chance of. restoration unless both the wife and husband commit to its survival. That is the foundation of a healthy marriage.

What does that refer to? Try “That commitment . . .”

Avoid the use of there is or there are to begin a sentence. Instead of this:

There are programs in our city to help single mothers who are struggling.

try something like this:

Our city has programs to help single mothers who are struggling.

Adjectives

Do overdo the use of adjectives in your writing. Instead of stringing together three or four adjectives in front of a noun, the writer should use just one adjective to give the reader the idea she is trying to get across.

Niles crinkled his nose when he walked into the dingy, musty, and smelly bathroom.

Better:

Niles crinkled his nose when he walked into the musty bathroom.

Another way the writer can avoid overusing adjectives would be to replace adjective-noun combinations with a specific noun. Here is an example from Scott Edelstein‘s The Writer’s Book of Checklists:

She laid the baby in the tiny, infant-sized bed with rockers.

Now what is a specific noun that can be used in that sentence?

She laid the baby in the cradle.

The second sentence is more concise; it creates more of a word-picture, too.

Ocassionally, the writer may want to play with her adjectives by writing them “out of order.” In his book Image Grammar, Harry Noden give examples of  using adjectives out of order:

And then, suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. –The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Pavilion was a simple city, long and rectangular. –The Alienist by Caleb Carr

I could smell Mama, crisp and starched, plumping my pillow, and the cool muslin pillowcase touched both my ears as the back of my head sank into all those feathers. –A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

Adverbs

When proofreading a first draft, the writer should mark out every very or really she comes across.

Conjunctions

What about them? I can’t say it better than this.

Prepositions

Prepositional phrases serve as the accessories for your sentences. A complete sentences does not require them, but when the writer uses them, they decorate the sentence and make the meaning more clear. The danger of using prepositions arrives when the writer creates a prepositional sprawl–using a long string of prepositional phrases together.

Professional Writing Style has a good example of too many prepositional phrases:

Aside from the need for adjustment of the allocations to new heads of departments in the company, the proper execution of all the details of the plan should result in no further increases in the funds necessary to expend on the implementation of the projects under the supervision of the various divisions of our organization.

Interjections

Many times, interjections are followed by an exclamation mark. Since the writer should avoid overusing the exclamation mark in her prose, she should just take them out of her early drafts and see if her writing stands without them. It probably will.

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