There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words in the English language, and many mistakes even make it onto the page, especially in these days of self-publication and rushing into print. It’s very difficult to proof your own writing, as I know all too well. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of these mistakes. So, each month, I highlight a few of the errors I see most often.
Its going to be a long night in the car with it’s motor running.
The most common mistake I see in print (and on websites) is the use of “its” and “it’s”. It’s confusing because using an apostrophe before an “s” is used with nouns to indicate possession: Mary’s, Ted’s, the cat’s, etc.
However, that’s not true in this case. “It’s”( with an apostrophe) is always a contraction, never a possessive. The possessive form of “it” is “its”—no apostrophe. So, the sentence above says its (possessive) going. How can “it” possess going? It’s not possible. The sentence also says it’s (it is) motor running. That’s just bad grammar. Instead, “it” should be possessive (the car owning the motor). This is how the sentence should read: It’s going to be a long night in the car with its motor running.
Still confused? You can remember it this way: other pronouns such as his and hers don’t have apostrophes, so neither does its. Or grab the graphic I made for you and post it where you can always see it and refer to it often.
Prose Pointers: Dialogue
Using Other Verbs Instead of “Said”: Using synonyms for said such as retorted, answered, yelled, replied, etc. are fine if not overused. But there’s a problem with using other verbs to tag dialogue, such as sigh, laugh, nod, snort, or pout. You can’t really laugh or snort dialogue—go ahead, try it. A friend tried laughing dialogue as an experiment once in a workshop, and it was amusing, but definitely not natural. Instead, have your characters say something with a snort, laugh, sigh, or pout, then speak. An example:
Incorrect: “So funny,” George chuckled.
Correct: “So funny,” George said with a chuckle.
Or: George chuckled. “So funny.”
And please don’t have them hiss dialogue unless it has an “s” in it. It’s almost impossible to do unless you add a sssss at the end, and then you risk them sounding like a snake.
This is a pet peeve of mine, but I often see characters offering dialogue . . . as if the other person has the option to accept it or reject it. I recommend you eliminate your “offers” unless the character really is offering something to the other person. Example:
Incorrect: “He could have gone to the mall,” Sam offered.
Correct: “Would you like me to take that for you?” Linda offered.
Internal Thoughts: If someone is thinking something to himself, you don’t need to tag it with “he thought” or “she reflected.” If you’re firmly in your character’s point of view—firmly in their head—we know who is doing the thinking and reflecting. While there’s nothing grammatically wrong with these phrases, they have a tendency to distance the reader, which is exactly the opposite of what you want. Here’s an example, assuming you have already firmly established whose head you’re in.
Don’t do this: The secret door opened into a wine cellar. He could go for a bottle of wine, he thought.
Okay, but the tag isn’t needed: The secret door opened into a wine cellar. I could go for a bottle of wine, he thought.
Do this instead: The secret door opened into a wine cellar. I could go for a bottle of wine.
Next time, we’ll talk about action tags.
Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite), now available in digital form. Learn more about her at pammc.com.