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Editing Odds and Ends

August 14, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 14, 2014

Just a few pointers today, most based on items I’ve recently read in manuscripts. They have nothing in common other than confusing writers, thus the title about odds and ends.

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Past or Present

No matter if your narrative tense is past or present, you want to be consistent with verb tense throughout your story. (I’m talking about the majority of verbs that correspond to the narrative tense for the story, either simple past and simple present. As a matter of course you will also include verbs in other tenses, including future and conditional.) Here are a few words that can trip up a writer, especially in the simple past.

may/might

Use may for present tense and might for past.

I peek through the curtains, but can’t see far enough. I may move closer in order to make out the details of the exchange.

He skated with skill. But at the speed he was going, he might fly right off the track.

Even in past tense, however, you can use present tense in dialogue.

He skated with skill, but at the speed he was going, I expected him to crash.

“Hey, slow down. You may go flying on one of those curves.”

can/could

Use can (and can’t)  for present tense and could (and couldn’t) for past.

Ginger looks at her friends. She can tell they don’t believe her.

Ginger looked at her friends. She could tell they didn’t believe her.

The same holds true for other pairs. Present tense is listed first in these pairs.

do/did—I do it now/I did it then

does/did—he does it now/he did it then

don’t/didn’t—I don’t like ham today/I didn’t like my lunch yesterday

doesn’t/didn’t—she doesn’t want a cookie/she didn’t sleep in her own bed for weeks

will/would—he says he will eat with the family/he said he would feed the dog

won’t/wouldn’t—we won’t drink anything now/two hours ago we wouldn’t eat

Admittedly, these are unusual verbs. A couple are modals, which behave irregularly, to say the least. Will and would actually point to the future, showing intent. But don’t let that confuse you—you still need to be able to use them correctly with your simple past and simple present narrations. (And we aren’t even going to look at the conditional use of would.)

He will do it, I tell myself. I can’t believe otherwise.

He would fulfill his promise. He wasn’t one to fail.

He won’t tell on me, will he? I hope not.

He wouldn’t tell on me, would he? I hoped not.

Take care when contracting these words—you still want to maintain the correct tense.

He’ll do it, I tell myself. He’s that kind of guy.

He’d fulfill his promise. He was that kind of guy.

A few other verbs seem to give writers trouble, especially with the simple past.

sank/sunk

Sank is the simple past of sink.

You sank my battleship.

Use sunk for the perfect tenses.

present perfect—have or has sunk

past perfect—had sunk

future perfect—will have sunk

sang/sung

Sang is the simple past of sing.

They sang until their throats were raw.

Use sung for the perfect tenses.

swam/swum

Swam is the simple past of swim.

We swam past the second buoy.

Use swum for the perfect tenses.

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This Past or That Past

Some verbs have more  than one word for the simple past. And for some words, deciding on the correct form for the past tense is tricky. But there are tips for making informed decisions.

shined/shone

We use shined when we want to say we polished something such as shoes or a mirror. (This may be more common to AmE than BrE.) We would never say—

He shone his shoes. X

The correct wording is—

He shined his shoes.

We also used shined (with the meaning to emit light) when it’s used as a transitive verb, when it performs an action and that action is performed on a direct object.

He shined the glaring light straight into my eyes.

The sun shined its rays into the scorched earth.

His explanation shined light on the confusing subject.

We typically use shone (emitting light) when the verb is intransitive, when there is no direct object.

The sun shone every day for two weeks.

The sun shone over the scorched earth.

However, the use of shined and shone when the verb means to emit light seems to be in flux. Some people are using shined for shone and shone for shined.

The sun shined brightly every day for two weeks. ??

Is this always wrong? Certainly not if you put it into a character’s mouth as dialogue. A character can say whatever fits the character’s personality, education, and experiences. Yet shone is the typical choice for this construction.

And then what about those instances when we’re not really talking about a light being emitted and we’re definitely not talking about polishing something?

Sam’s daughter shone in the school play.

His explanation shined understanding on the confusing subject.

Following the rules, these sentences are correct. Yet Sam’s daughter is not emitting light, nor is the explanation. And while Movie star Rachel Kelly shines on stage (present tense) sounds great, Movie star Rachel Kelly shone on stage sounds awkward. You could write around this construction—maybe using something such as glowed instead—which is what I would often recommend. But you could also try Movie star Rachel Kelly shined on stage.

After a very quick search, I found shined used in this way in online materials by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and NBC News, among other sources. It seems that Lady Luck often shined down—she didn’t shone down.

I do like shined for the example shined understanding on. Its meaning is very much like shining a light on something else.

So . . . Follow the rules when they fit. When they don’t, when Lady Luck or someone similar is metaphorically shining down on something or someone, or a person excels brightly (as on stage), try shined for the past tense of shine.

wove/weaved

Weaved and wove are both correct words for the past tense of weave, but they are used for different actions.

Use wove for weaving materials, making cloth, or even when metaphorically weaving a fabric.

She wove a blanket for her graduation project.

Nelson patiently wove his stepdaughters into the fabric of his family.

Use weaved when a person or object is moving in and out of something or twisting and turning to avoid a collision.

A tray in each hand, Bernard weaved through the three crowded ballrooms, never spilling a crumb.

hanged/hung

While hung is the usual past tense of hang, you might have heard that hanged is used when we refer to a person who was sentenced to die by hanging. At one time, hung apparently was used in all instances. But today many people point out the distinction between hanged and hung, whether it’s a true one or not.

Since you can’t argue with readers that hung works just as well as hanged to refer to people who are purposely killed through hanging (if that is your opinion), used hanged for that purpose and only for that condition. Yet use hanged only for executions (lawful or not) when death is the intended outcome. Otherwise use hung.

They hung their coats on hooks on the wall.

Marty hung up the phone before Amber said goodbye.

He was hanged for his crimes.

The lynch mobs hanged fifteen men that year. They hung them from oak trees.

He hung by his toes.

They hung him up by his elbows.

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Which Verb Is It

This one has less to do with verb tense than with the verb choice to start with.

set/sit

Set means to put something somewhere or place it on something else; sit means the action or activity of sitting. Typically we have people and animals sitting (as opposed to standing or lying down) and things being  set down.

Set is (usually) a transitive verb and therefore requires a direct object. Sit has multiple meanings, so it can be intransitive or transitive, but the act of sitting is intransitive (unless you’re saying something such as sit yourself down or sit your butt down).

Use set for moving objects from one place to another or for arranging objects. Use sit for plopping a character into a chair.

Set is the form of the verb set in almost every tense for every person. The only exception is present tense for he/she/it, and for that we use sets.

Neither sit nor sat is a conjugation for set.

For sit in the present tense, use sit for every person except for he/she/it; for those use sits.

Use sat for every person in the simple past.

Set is never used for any conjugation of sit.

These are two different verbs used for different purposes.

However . . . While we do usually use set with objects and sit with people and animals, we can actually use sit with objects under particular conditions.

After all the years and all the moves, the jade figurine still sat on his mother’s dresser.

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Comma or No Comma with the Word As 

Deciding about commas to go with the word as can be confusing, but there are hints to help you decide when as gets a comma.

When as is a subordinating conjunction meaning since or while and the dependent clause it starts comes before an independent clause, we put a comma between the clauses.

As (since) Tetra had asked politely, he handed over the cookie.

As (while) Liliana slept, the burglar cleaned her out.

When as is a subordinating conjunction meaning since or while and the dependent clause it starts comes after an independent clause, we don’t put a comma between the clauses.

He handed over the cookie as (since) Tetra had asked politely.

The burglar cleaned Liliana out as (while) she slept.

When as means in the manner promised or agreed on and begins a nonessential (nonrestrictive) clause, separate the nonessential clause from an independent clause with a comma. Do this whether the nonessential clause comes before or after the independent one.

As he had promised, he turned himself in.

He turned himself in, as he had promised.

As they had agreed to do, both parties contributed one million dollars.

Both parties contributed one million dollars, as they had agreed to do.

In my experience, when the as clause comes first, there’s usually no problem including the comma. But when the as clause comes midsentence, after the independent clause, many writers either want to always use a comma or always not use a comma.  Yet there are times when a comma is called for and times when it is not needed.

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I may add to this article as I think of other odds or ends—feel free to contribute like items. Or I may just collect another handful and have a Part Two.

Use the  tips here as you work through your edits. As always, use consistency across a manuscript.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Editing Tips, Grammar & Punctuation

10 Responses to “Editing Odds and Ends”

  1. Ibn Akbar says:

    Finding the right editor is absolutely essential for a writer. Chemistry between writer and editor is highly important. No writer wants an editor that completely alters the originality of the writers words. A good editor has a firm understanding of the writer’s premise, and moves forward with that in mind.

    Remainder of comment edited out by Beth

    While I agree with your observation here, I’m sure you understand why I edited the rest of the comment since it was an ad for an editing service. B.H.

  2. This isn’t quite relevant to the topic of the post but I was wondering if you could help me.

    I am proofreading for someone and they have written, as an example:

    “Let’s sing and dance!” say Kitty and Mitty.

    Is ‘say Kitty and Mitty’ okay, or should it be ‘Kitty and Mitty say’? I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be ‘says’ because there are two speakers.

    • Elizabeth, say is correct. As for the word order, both are grammatically correct, but the feel can be different from one to the other.

      Kitty and Mitty say would be common American English (AmE) order, although that order is not a requirement, and you would find the other order in AmE books..

      You’d find the reverse—say Kitty and Mitty—more often in British English (BrE), although, again, that word order is not a requirement for BrE and both options are common.

      Putting say before the names can give the story an old-fashioned feel since that order was more common in the past. It may also be the first choice for a children’s book that uses an omniscient narrator rather than a first- or third-person POV—

      “Let’s sing and dance!” say Kitty and Mitty.

      “Let’s play our instruments!” says Seymour.

      “Let’s do it all,” says Thomas. “Let’s have a parade!”

      ——-

      If you’re looking for the most common word order for stories written today, it’s the names first. But as I said, you aren’t locked into that. And if there’s an explanation of who the character is rather than just a name or in addition to the name, you’d want the verb first.

      “I forgot where I put it,” said the carpenter in the pink overalls, the pink cap, and the shiny silver shoes.

      ——-

      I hope that helps.

  3. Omg. Tense drives me mad. I am working on a manuscript that has been edited twice already; however, I am seeking serious technical perfection. Does anyone know of someone who has a talent for checking tense consistency? The story is ready to be submitted to Kirkus, but I would love a “tense glance”. Thanks!!

  4. Lee says:

    I have spent hours trying to find an answer to my question regarding mixed tenses in a sentence.
    Please tell me if the following is acceptable and if possible explain why or why not.

    – A primeval cry meshed with the scream spewing from below.

    It has the simple past ‘meshed’, but then there’s the progressive spewing. I was told to not mix tenses in a sentence, so please help.

    Thank you

    • Lee, this combination is perfectly acceptable, and we use it all the time.

      You don’t want to mix past and present tenses if you’re referring to events that are supposed to be happening at the same time, but otherwise we can mix and match many verb tenses and forms. You also want to maintain the narrative tense—past or present—throughout most of a story. That doesn’t mean that you won’t use other tenses or verb forms, just that the bulk of the story is in either past or present tense.

      He juggled while she sings. X This doesn’t work because the two actions are supposed to be happening at the same time. He juggled while she sang and he juggles while she sings are both correct.

      The following combinations all work:

      She twiddled her thumbs while he was washing the car.

      She would be going to Paris later in the week, but today she was working from home.

      She’ll be going to Paris later in the week, but today she’s working from home.

      The murderer ate dinner while his victim lay dying in the street.

      ——-
      You’ll find all sorts of combinations when you use a present participle.

      Let me know if that doesn’t answer your question.

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