Welcome back to the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about pronouns.

Here’s Jim!

Personal pronouns let you know who’s being referred to: Walter told Judy he would give the giraffe to her.  No question here about who gets the giraffe, because “her” refers to someone of the female gender, and Judy is the only such person mentioned.  That’s the thing about personal pronouns—they’re specific. Gender is one of the details that personal pronouns specify.

Gender is a tricky concept.  Anyone who’s ever studied Spanish or French or German knows that gender in those languages has very little to do with whether your baby blanket was blue or pink.  It’s a way of creating clarity of expression, linking nouns to modifiers with a sort of team colors technique.  In English, gender is about…well, gender.  And that’s where the problem comes in.

Just as there are personal (and therefore specific) pronouns like him and her, he and she, there are also impersonal (that is, general) pronouns.  Not only should he mind his p’s and q’s, she should mind her p’s and q’s as well.  In fact everybody who’s got any p’s or q’s should mind them.  That’s a general statement. When I was a lad in school, Sister Mary Paragraph taught me to say, ”Everyone should mind his p’s and q’s.”  “His” was a stand-in for the singular impersonal pronoun.  That’s what she had been taught when she was a lass in school.

But times change.  Feminist thinkers said using “his” excludes all the females.  It’s sexist; it’s discriminatory. It betrays a male cultural bias that should not be perpetuated.

OK, so what do we do?

This is not a problem in other tongues.  Lots of other languages have a singular impersonal pronoun that’s neither pink nor blue.  In fact, English has one too.  It’s the word one: “Everyone should mind one’s p’s and q’s.”  They use it all the time in England.  Nobody gets offended and everybody knows what’s being talked about.  But on this side of the Atlantic, “one” just never caught on.  It sounds pretentious and highfalutin’ to American ears.

I repeat: OK, so what do we do? We’ve got to come up with something else.  Here are some possible plans:

  • Ignore the whole thing.  Go on using “he” and “his” like nothing ever happened. This will win the approval of traditionalists, but it may get you in trouble with others who are not quite so grammatically-minded.
  • Mix it up.  Use “his” and “him” sometimes, and “hers” and “her” sometimes.  Or do something like this: him/her. This seems cluttered and confusing to me, but some people like it.
  • Use “their” and “them”—that is, use these words as singular impersonal pronouns. Sister Mary Paragraph, God bless her, would tell you this is wrong.  The fact of the matter is, it’s a usage of long standing going all the way back to Shakespeare.  A short list of English authors who have used it would include Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde. The Oxford English Dictionary, Doris Lessing, and the King James Bible.  Somewhere along the way, some nit-picking grammarian said, “You can’t do that—‘them’ and ‘their’ are plural.”  We’ve been living under that rule ever since.

This is a hard sell.  If you go this route, you’ll meet resistance from grammar purists who will insist that “their” and “them” can’t be used in this way.  However, because of the way language works, if enough people adopt this usage, it will become acceptable in time.  It’s your call if you want to join the fight.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they’re likely to attract attention to your method rather than your message.  These approaches can all become distractions.  The careful writer wishes to avoid distractions, so readers will concentrate on the message.  That leaves us with the last possibility.

  • Compromise. If you don’t want to join the fight, and you don’t want to create distractions, you can sidestep this whole mess by recasting your sentence.  Remove the need for a singular impersonal pronoun, like this: “People should mind their p’s and q’s.”  Whenever you need to make a general statement, try to make it in the plural.  Then the problem goes away, and you can devote your attention to more important aspects of your writing.

Jim Cort has been writing since someone invented the pencil. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords:

Cindy here again!

Great post, Jim. I usually try to rewrite my sentences to avoid stuff like this. 🙂




Welcome to the GWN blog! Today I have Jim Cort talking about passive voice.

Here’s Jim.

There’s no question that the prime whipping boy of English grammar is the passive voice.  “Avoid the passive voice,” the writing manual says.  “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” says George Orwell.  Well, what’s the big problem?  What’s so bad about the passive voice, anyhow?

Let’s find out.

First of all, we need to understand how an English sentence is put together.  The normal word order for a sentence in English is: subject, verb, object.  We can put this another way: actor, action, and thing acted upon.  This is known as the active voice.  Here’s an example: I ate the pizza.

A sentence in the passive voice is arranged: object, verb, subject.  Or, again: thing acted upon, action, actor.  Like this: The pizza was eaten by me. So, here’s the first stumbling block: the passive voice takes the normal word order in a sentence and stands it on its head.  It’s cumbersome.

Next, let’s do a simple word count.  The active sentence has four words.  The passive sentence has six words.  So the passive sentence takes more words to say the same thing.  Two extra words may not seem like a lot, but look at as a percentage. The passive sentence is fifty percent longer but conveys the same information.

Now, consider the verbs.  In the passive sentence, the short, strong verb eat has been replaced by its weaker past participle eaten, and hobbled with the auxiliary verb was.  It’s a less forceful, less direct way of speaking.  And remember the paradox of helping verbs: The more you help your verb, the weaker it becomes.

When we graduate to complex sentences and more complicated ideas, we start to see how passive constructions can do some real mischief to the clarity and ease of reading we want:

This handbook should in no manner be construed as a fixed or binding contract between the Company and you, and its provisions can be considered as no more than general summaries of the benefits, work rules, and policies they address. No reliance should be placed on existing policies in making your determination to accept or continue employment with the Company.

This a lot to slog through.  The sentences are so long and so convoluted, that it’s hard to keep things straight in your head as you go along.  Also, it’s a real challenge figuring out who’s doing what.  Things that happen in the passive voice are like acts of God or forces of Nature—they just happen.

So, if the passive voice is so nasty, why do we keep it around?  Why hasn’t it become extinct long ago?  The plain truth is the passive voice does have its uses.  Here are a few instances where you might not want to resist the passive:

1. For variety.  A sentence in the passive every now and then adds variety to your writing.  It breaks up the monotony and keeps up the reader’s interest. Just think of it as a strong spice like cayenne or cumin—a little goes a long way.

2. For emphasis. As we mentioned, the passive voice describes an action as if it were an act of God, or a condition that has existed for all time.  Because of this, the passive is useful for setting policy or laying down the law: Neckties will be worn in this area.  That’s it.  It’s carved in stone.  No room for argument.

3. For evasive action. Since the passive can describe an action without identifying the actor, it’s useful for writing about something you don’t quite fully understand yourself.  (Not that this is a good practice, but we can’t walk the straight and narrow all the time.) It’s also handy for delivering bad news—you can admit that something bad happened without actually confessing to it: Mistakes were made.

Generally speaking, however, you’re better off steering clear of the passive.  Review what you’ve written and look for forms of the word be–is, are, was, were, has been, had been–coupled with a verb form.  This is a warning flag for the passive voice.  Consider if these sentences might read better in the active voice: subject, verb, object.  Most of the time, I think you’ll find they will

Jim Cort has been writing since dirt was invented. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords:

Cindy here again!

Great information, Jim! Thanks for being here today.

Happy writing!



Getting Dorothy in the house

Welcome to the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about getting your characters to do what you want them to do.

Here’s Jim!

How can you get your characters to do what you want them to do? How can we get Dorothy in the farmhouse all alone, ready for the Cyclone Limited to whisk her away to Munchkin land?

This is an important question for any writer of fiction, and not always an easy one to answer. A common problem in novice’s stories is that characters behave in response to the needs of the story, instead of their own needs.  This rings false.  It hurts the story.  The characters seem less three-dimensional, and less deserving of our sympathy.

In the best fiction, motivation arises organically from the desires of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.  Character and plot unite seamlessly, and it never occurs to the reader to question why so-and-so did such-and-such.

How do you achieve this?

One way is to view your plot as a series of problems and solutions that form a chain of events.  Each of the characters has an overriding problem to solve or goal to accomplish, and the working out of these problems forms the structure of the story.  There are certain key scenes or events that figure prominently in this structure.  But there are also countless smaller events that lead up to and away from these key scenes.   As in real life, working out the big problems is a succession of smaller steps: small problems and small solutions.

But here’s the trick: In fiction (and in real life, too) the solutions are not perfect.  Inside each of the solutions lurks another problem that needs solving. Your characters are propelled through the plot by this rhythm of problem/solution/problem/solution. Their actions grow from their responses to the constant stream of problems.  Their motivations spring naturally from these cascading events in the story.

This idea is similar to the concept in law called the chain of causation.  Simply put, it says, “Event C would not have happened if Event B had not happened, and Event B would not have happened unless it was caused by Event A”.  It’s a clever method lawyers have devised to sue people for things they didn’t do. This chaining of cause and effect can provide a sturdy and dynamic framework for your story or novel.

The best way to explore this technique is to apply it to a book you’ve already read or a movie you’ve already seen.  Let’s get back to The Wizard of Oz.  We’ll use the movie instead of the book because it’s more widely known.

Let’s consider the first key event in the story: Dorothy’s house gets picked up by the cyclone with her inside, and dropped in the land of Oz on top of the Witch of the East. But the story doesn’t start there.  We first find out who Dorothy is, and where she lives, and what her situation is at home.  Ultimately, however, we have to get Dorothy in the house by herself so the cyclone can carry her off.  Here are the first few minutes of the movie, laid out in problem/solution format:

Problem:           Toto bites Miss Gulch

Solution:            Miss Gulch takes Toto away

Problem:           Toto escapes from Miss Gulch

Solution:            Dorothy runs away with Toto; meets Professor Marvel

Problem:           Professor Marvel tells Dorothy that Auntie Em is sick

Solution:            Dorothy heads back home

Problem:           There’s a cyclone

Solution:            Dorothy’s family goes in the storm cellar

Problem:           Dorothy arrives home; can’t find her family; can’t get in the storm cellar

Solution:            Dorothy seeks shelter in the house

Problem:           House flies away with Dorothy in it

Solution:            House lands in Oz on the witch


Granted, we can detect the heavy hand of coincidence in that cyclone that pops up just when it’s needed, but coincidence has its place, and a cyclone in Kansas is not all that unheard-of.  With that exception, the problem/solution structure works quite well.  Five links in the chain, and Dorothy is back in the house where we want her. We’re ready to set the stage for her main underlying motivation: her need to get home again. The characters react to the things and events around them, and not to the off-screen commands of some author-puppeteer.

It’s helpful to examine these events backwards, to better see the chain of causation:

7. Dorothy gets herself in a load of trouble by squishing the witch with her house, but she wouldn’t have been in the house when it flew away if she hadn’t sought shelter there.

6. She wouldn’t have gone in the house if she could have gotten into the storm cellar with the rest of her family, but she didn’t get back in time.

5. Dorothy was coming back because Professor Marvel told her Auntie Em was sick.

4. She would never have met Professor Marvel at all if she hadn’t run away.

3. Dorothy ran away to save Toto from Miss Gulch.

2. Toto needed saving because he had escaped from Miss Gulch.

1. Miss Gulch wouldn’t have taken Toto into custody if Toto hadn’t bit her.

And that’s where we came in.

Try this with a book or movie you know.  Try it with a story of your own.  Why does Blanche go back to the apartment, even though she knows Artie might be there? Why does Inspector Wainscoting ignore the obvious clue of the opera glasses in the punchbowl? Why would Marvin leave behind the golf clubs, but not the cribbage board? Let your characters find their own reasons for behaving as they do in what goes on around them.  Place them in a situation that will cause them to do what you want them to do. All it takes is a few problems and solutions.

And maybe a cyclone once in a while.


Jim Cort has been writing since God wore short pants. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords:

Cindy here again!

Thanks for a great post, Jim. I’m going to try this with my current WIP.

Happy writing.




Welcome to the start of another week at the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about the subjunctive mood.

Here’s Jim!

Verbs, in addition to number and tense, also have mood. Mood is the trickiest aspect of verbs.  The mood our verbs are in nearly all the time is the indicative mood.  They indicate; they make a statement; they tell the truth about something.

But it’s also possible to say something that is not true.  We can wish that things were other than they are.  We can suggest that things be changed. We can hope they would be. This is the business of the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive is kind of a stealth construction.  Most of the time it looks like the indicative. The present form is the same as the regular unadorned form of the verb.  This means you’ll notice it only in the third person singular (he, she, it), which has no final –s.  You’ll also see it in the verb be, which has the form be instead of am, is, and are. The past subjunctive is the same as the past tense except once again for be, which uses were for all persons.

So, how does this work?  Here are some examples: If I were ten years younger…  We propose the mayor remain in office. It’s essential that the Army do its part. If this boulder weren’t here, we could pass by.

All of these sentences express thoughts contrary to reality.  They are wishes; they are proposals; they are conditions or possibilities. The use of the subjunctive “defuses” the statements.  They are not as definite as indicative statements.

You’ll find the subjunctive used after verbs like:

  • to advise
  • to ask
  • to command
  • to demand
  • to desire
  • to insist
  • to propose
  • to recommend
  • to request
  • to suggest
  • to urge

or after phrases like:

  • It is best (that)
  • It is crucial (that)
  • It is desirable (that)
  • It is essential (that)
  • It is imperative (that)
  • It is important (that)
  • It is recommended (that)
  • It is urgent (that)
  • It is vital (that)
  • It is a good idea (that)
  • It is a bad idea (that)

Having said all this, there’s one more thing I need to say. Just about nobody uses the subjunctive in English any more.  Most grammar experts agree that it’s little used and hardly missed. H. W. Fowler, the Great Guru of Grammar, called it “moribund” in 1926, and it hasn’t gotten any livelier since.

Most English speakers aren’t even aware there is such a thing as the subjunctive until they study languages like German or French or Spanish, where it plays a more active role.  Interestingly enough, expressions in the subjunctive are commonly used today:

  • Be that as it may
  • God bless you
  • Long live the king
  • So be it
  • If it please the court…

Most people think of these expressions as old fashioned, not subjunctive.  And so, of course, they are.

What does all of this mean to you?  Nowadays, subjunctive constructions have largely been replaced with “should” or “would” constructions: Instead of We propose the mayor remain in office,the trend is We propose the mayor should remain in office.  Sometimes no helping verb is used.  If you write If I was ten years younger…, the Grammar Police won’t come knocking on your door. Chances are no one will notice at all

Of course there are still grammar sourpusses who insist on If I were…  These folks are in the minority.  The language belongs to the people, and the people have decided that subjunctive is no longer useful.  Don’t be thrown if you see it someplace, but don’t be bullied into using it yourself if you don’t want to.

The moral of the story is: if you use the subjunctive according to the guidelines here, you won’t be wrong.  And if you choose not to use the subjunctive, you won’t be wrong.

It’s a win-win situation.  How often do you find one of those?

Cindy here again!

Thanks for being here, Jim.  Thanks for the great information!

Happy writing!



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