Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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 is the simple past of sing.
They sang until their throats were raw.
Use sung for the perfect tenses.
Swam is the simple past of swim.
We swam past the second buoy.
Use swum for the perfect tenses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Which Verb Is It
This one has less to do with verb tense than with the verb choice to start with.
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.
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.
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.