How to avoid a misused present participle

octopuspicWhat is a misused present participle? I’m so glad you asked. First, the present participle verb form is simply a verb with “ing” on the end, indicating continuous action.

• “I was writing.” 
• “The man was running.”
• “My friend and I were chatting.”

Those are all examples of present participles, and in those simple sentences, the actions continued to take place. The writing, running, and chatting were ongoing.

But for some reason, writers like to misuse these present participle verb forms and try to get them to mean something they don’t really mean. The sentences often go something like this:

• “Writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.” (Really? You’re able to write while getting up and making a cup of coffee? No? Then try this: “After writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.”)
• “Closing the door, I walked to the mailbox and fetched a package.” (“After closing the door,” methinks, is what is meant here. Unless the speaker has really, really long arms.)

• “Taking a sip of tea, I told my husband what I wanted for my birthday.” (Excuse me while I mop up the tea dribbling down the front of my shirt, which would surely be the case if I were to tell my husband anything “while” I was taking a sip of tea.)

If you train yourself to think of those “ing” verb forms as the continuing actions they are, you can see the problems immediately. You’ll also note that I like to mentally insert the word “while” before the present participle.

My favorite example of a misused present participle—several of them, actually—comes from a short story by an author I know well—me. I initially wrote this:

“Drying my hands on the dish towel and untying my apron, I gathered my pocketbook and reached for my old blue hat.” The woman who did all that would have to have been part octopus, wouldn’t she? I was so happy that I learned about misused present participles before I ever published such a dreadful sentence.

If you’re interested in learning more about this particular grammar issue, I recommend a fine blog post by Jordan McCollum, which helped me learn to avoid misusing present participles. Maybe it will help you as well!

When InkJoy turns to InkSorrow

InkJoy2I’ve been singing the praises of Paper Mate’s InkJoy gel pens for about a year now. I love to use brightly colored ink pens, and these gel pens have become the go-to pens I use for jotting down my daily list of tasks in my desk planner. The tasks are written in one color, and a check mark beside that task is written using another color. Some weeks I stick to two colors, and other weeks I’ll use a whole rainbow of colors. My favorites are currently Teal and Slate, but then this week I discovered the Berry color was missing from my collection and had to add it. So yes, I’m a fan of InkJoy pens. But I’m sorry to report that my InkJoy has turned to InkSorrow because Paper Mate had to go and put this label on my new pen: “For less smears.”

How, how, I ask you, does an august pen manufacturer like Paper Mate not know that it should be “fewer” smears? The simple rule is this: Use the adjective “fewer” for things you can count (such as my beloved InkJoy pens) and use the adjective “less” for things you can’t count (such as the smearability of gel ink). “Fewer smears” or “less smearability.”

Years ago, a friend commented that she appreciated Publix for having signage about its line reserved for shoppers with “15 items or fewer” since most store signs would have read “15 items or less.” I though she had a great point, and I smile and silently praise Publix whenever I visit and see their polished prose.

Every rule has its exceptions, however, and if you’d like to learn more about when to use “less” and “fewer,” I recommend you go here and here.

Meanwhile, I have removed the offending label on my new Berry-colored pen, and I’m happy to report that a state of InkJoy has returned once more. (But I do hope to see fewer such mistakes in the future, Paper Mate!)

Newsletters for writers

Newsletter collage

Do you subscribe to any newsletters for writers? I do, and I thought I’d share a few of the ones I’m currently enjoying.

• PW Tip Sheet. From Publishers Weekly, this e-newsletter includes topics ranging from the serious (picks of the week and Best Sellers) to the silly (weird things that librarians tell us people leave in books: bologna, paychecks, divorce papers). Sign up here.

• Signature. From Penguin Random House, this e-newsletter for readers (and thus writers) has as its tagline, “Making well-read sense of the world.” Again, you never know what each issue will contain. A recent one featured eight words “that have fallen out of the public consciousness” (including “swivet” and “gruntle”), a man who has never read a book by a woman, and quotes about spring. Sign up here.

• Copyediting Weekly. This e-newsletter is probably most of interest to those of us who actually commit some copyediting every now and then, but the free newsletter is so full of great tips on such topics as vocabulary, lexicography, and style manuals that I would recommend it to any serious writer as well. Sign up here.

• The Writers Network News. Last but not least, the newsletter I enjoy the most happens to be one with no glitzy graphics and just simple, helpful information. Its editor, Bobbie Christmas, was a guest speaker at a Sisters in Crime Atlanta chapter meeting I attended a few years ago. I liked her immediately. A lot of people these days claim to be editors, and since I’m an editor myself, I have to check out the quality of someone’s work before I can say I’m a believer. Bobbie, however, made lots of spot-on observations at that SINC meeting, and I have enjoyed reading her well-written and often humorous monthly newsletter. (At SINC, she also introduced me to a new word, “manuslips,” that I use for some of the funny errors I’ve come across in manuscripts. I keep these in a folder on my desktop so I can enjoy a chuckle every now and then.) You can subscribe to her newsletter here.

Looking for pleonasms

pleonasmLast year I learned a wonderful, new-to-me word that has helped me be a better writer and editor. The word is “pleonasm,” and it means “the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense.”

Here are a few examples of pleonasms:

• The woman squinted her eyes in the sunlight. What else would she squint but her eyes? Her ears? So instead, I’d say, “The woman squinted in the sunlight.”

• The little boy clapped his hands together. Two pleonasms are present here. First, what would he have clapped but his hands? His kneecaps? And can he clap his hands apart? No? Then the word “together” is not necessary. I would change this sentence to say simply, “The little boy clapped.”

• The man looked down at his feet. If the man’s feet are, say, poking out of his neck, that’s an unusual location and news the reader will want to know. Otherwise, it’s better to omit the word “down” and say, “The man looked at his feet.”

As I’m reading books now, I like to look for pleonasms, and I see them rather frequently. I find characters “looking up at the ceiling.” (Unless there’s been some sort of natural disaster that upends the house, where would the ceiling be but up?) Cookbooks tell me to “mix the ingredients together” rather than simply saying to mix the ingredients. (Mixing them apart would be beyond my skill set.) In business magazine articles, people are often “making plans for the future,” which certainly beats making plans for the past, but I wish these folks would simply make plans.

Did you know the word “pleonasm”? I did not. I knew to look for wording that was redundant, but now that I have another word for “redundancy,” I’m even more aware of ways to trim the fat from writing—my own as well as that of others. And if you spot a new pleonasm, I’d love to see it!



On jargon and flagpoles

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 5.58.22 PMLast year I attended a meeting along with a gentleman I’ll call “Mr. J.” All of the people at the meeting were community leaders, all of them giving up some of their time to help make our community better. But I began to notice that Mr. J. had an unusual way of saying things. When one idea was presented, he said, “Let’s run that one up the flagpole before our next meeting.” I took that to mean, “Let’s see what others have to say about the idea.”

Another idea was offered to the group, but Mr. J. thought it was too early to test that idea. What he said was, “Let’s not get too far out over our skis.”

When a final idea was offered and Mr. J. wasn’t convinced it was quite the time for that idea to be tried, he said, “Let’s put that one in the parking lot till next time.” By that point, I found myself trying to suppress a grin. I had started writing a list of his jargonistic expressions, which I imagined he’d learned somewhere in the business world.

The word “jargon” has several definitions, and one of them is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” Maybe Mr. J.’s friends and colleagues all use that kind of language. Surely he didn’t just wake up one day and speak that way.

As a writer, I try to avoid jargon. For one thing, it calls attention to itself, and I want my words to be remembered for their substance, not their unusual style. (Unless it’s a nice literary style. That would be okay!)

Recently I showed up at a meeting of that same group, and Mr. J. was not present. I missed his unusual wording, if not him. And I suppose I’ll just have to park my jargon-collecting skills in the parking lot until next time.

Judging those who use poor grammar

ijudgeyouSeveral years ago, I hosted a bridal luncheon for a friend’s daughter, and my hostess gift was a copy of the delightful book I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar by Sharon Eliza Nichols (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Nichols created a Facebook group by that same title, and she shares some of the best of the thousands of the group’s photos of misspelled and ungrammatical signs. One photo is of a clearance bin in a store, but it’s marked “clearence.” It reminds me of the new antique store I visited where a door had an arrow pointing to the “Enterance,” which I thought was rather a creative spelling.


Quite a few photos in the book show the public’s propensity for sticking apostrophes where they don’t belong, like the sign that read: “TRAY’S — Please return your tray’s.” Other photos show funny typos, like the “clearance” one or the school banner for “Homecoming Spirt Week,” which made the author say, “Wonder what they’re spirting.”


I do notice grammar errors, and I am constantly tempted to comment on them, but I rarely do because if people want my help, they’ll ask for it. (And some do. Some even pay me for it!) Besides, when you start to feel superior to others, in grammar or in any other sphere, you are practically begging for a takedown, and I have enough opportunities in life to exercise humility without begging for more. So when I saw in a public forum on Facebook last week that someone was making fun of the intellect of Christians and those who are homeschooled, I stared at my computer screen and sat on my hands rather than point out that the writer had in fact misspelled both “Christians” and “homeschooled.” If someone wants to be snarky, getting upbraided by a snarky commenter probably isn’t going to help matters, is it?


Recently I read an old interview with Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, and she said, “I don’t believe in answering rudeness with rudeness under any circumstances.” I think that’s a great rule to follow, in grammar and in life. Do you agree?

Learning from mistakes

Some mistakes are just annoying. I read a decorating book last Christmas that was so poorly edited, I finally threw the thing down in frustration because I was tired of fighting the urge to get out my red pen and mark up the whole book. But other times, when I’m reading a blog post, magazine article, a book, or even a Facebook status update, the mistakes can be downright amusing.

Last year I was reading a blog post about vintage jewelry and noted that the author used the phrase “far and few between.” That immediately struck me as wrong, so I had to do a little research to learn that yes, the idiom is indeed supposed to be “few and far between.” According to The Free Dictionary online, “this expression originally was used very literally for physical objects such as houses appearing at widely separated intervals.” So I guess there were few houses, and it was far between each of the houses. Good to know. Yet somehow, I also kind of like “far and few between.” Under the right circumstances, I could even see this phrase working and making sense. (I’m tucking it away for future use.)

In my own community, some thoughtful soul was conducting a holiday coat drive one year, and the publicity for the drive included this sentence: “The Second Annual Coats for Coweta has begun accepting lightly used children and adult coats.” I was a little disturbed that they were a) collecting children and b) that they referred to the children as “lightly used.” Of course, the easy fix to that sentence would be to say that they were collecting lightly used coats for both children and adults. But if the writer had worded the sentence properly, I would have missed a chuckle that day.

One of the nice things about mistakes is that we can learn from them. I keep a file on my computer desktop that includes some of the more humorous errors I’ve come across over the years, and they serve as great reminders that writers aren’t perfect … and that the world would be a much duller place if they were.