Which or That? All About Relative Pronouns

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Albert Einstein

 

First, let’s identify exactly what a relative pronoun is. In English, there are 3 main relative pronouns common in speech and writing: who, which, and that.

That is by far the most commonly used relative pronoun in speech as well as writing. However, that is also one of the most misused and overused words in writing. That is considered more colloquial or informal than which, and when we use a word in conversation, we automatically insert the more commonly used word in writing. Which is a more formal relative pronoun often used in academic writing, and less often used in day-to-day speech.

When to use each is influenced by a number of factors, but in general, that is used with restrictive relative clauses, while which is used with both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Who is a personal pronoun used when referring to a person. Inserting that when who should be used when referring to a person is one of the most common errors related to relative pronoun use, though many writers and even instructors believe it to be more of a judgment call. However, one must know the rule first before breaking it.

It’s usually easy to distinguish when to use who (or whom, whose). In the examples below, the relative pronoun who always refers to a person or people:

The woman who painted the portrait is waiting in the lobby.

The playoffs were great for the fans, whose support never wavered.

The chef, who has a new cookbook, is on the Morning Show tomorrow.

The use of that and which is a bit more complicated, and often simply a matter of preference. That is considered a general use restrictive relative pronoun. The term “restrictive” means that the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, as it limits, or restricts, the noun or thing it refers to.

The truck that I want is too expensive.

In the previous sentence, the clause “that I want,” further defines the noun clause, “The truck”; it limits which truck the speaker is referring to.

The boots that are red leather are the only ones I want.

In this example, we wouldn’t know which boots the speaker is referring to without the clause “that are red leather.”

So when considering restrictive relative pronouns, if the clause “restricts” or limits the meaning of preceding noun clause, it is a restrictive relative pronoun.

The previous examples show that used with inanimate nouns, but that can also be used with animate (living/human) nouns, and are considered flexible:

She is the girl that lives down the road.

He is one of the boys that always wants to play soccer at recess.


Review
: Both of the previous examples are restrictive clauses, meaning the relative clause (that. . ._)  limits the meaning of the preceding noun clause by offering identifying information for “she” and “he.”

A non-restrictive clause is considered “non-essential”; this means that the relative clause offers additional information that the reader doesn’t really need to identify the subject. It’s info that’s nice to have, but not necessary to identify the subject of the noun clause.

Ernest Hemingway, who wrote The Sun Also Rises, is considered a minimalist writer.

He looked into her files, which she never locked.

The airline, which added flights to Omaha, is seeing an increase in passengers.

Each of the noun subjects do not need the additional clause to identify who or what they are. If you lift out the italicized clause, the sentence’s meaning is retained:

Ernest Hemingway is considered a minimalist writer.

He looked into her files.

The airline is seeing an increase in passengers.

In speech, you might notice that the use of “that” as a relative pronoun is by far more common than “which.” However, in written or academic prose, “which” is much more common. So how do you know when to use each?

If removing the words would change the meaning of the sentence, use that.

If removing the words would not change the meaning of the sentence, use which.

Let’s look at the following examples:

Trucks that have hybrid technology are gaining popularity.

If you ask yourself, do all trucks have hybrid technology? the answer would be no. So we need to have that have hybrid technology to know which trucks we’re talking about. In this case, “that” is the correct relative pronoun.

I signed the contract, which was sent certified mail.

The non-restrictive clause, which was sent certified mail, isn’t limiting the noun clause or identifying it in any way. It’s simply offering the reader some extra, interesting information. In this case, “which” is the correct relative pronoun.

 

Review

If you’re not sure when to use that, which or who, follow these guidelines and you’ll be right most of the time:

Who = (whom, whose) refers to a person or people.

That = Introduces a restrictive clause.

Which = Introduces a non-restrictive clause offering extra information. You can omit the “which” clause with no harm done.

 

 

 

 

Writing About Poetry

 

 

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Writing a poetry analysis is one of the most dreaded assignments for students. Poetry is often intimidating to the untrained reader and it often takes time and practice to learn how to critically analyze a poem. Once you understand some of the basic principles of literary analysis and learn some simple poetry vocabulary, writing poetry analysis won’t be so daunting.

First, let’s review some vocabulary that we’ll be using –

Basic Vocabulary

Below are some basic poetic devices that are commonly used in analysis. Some you may be familiar with:

Simile: Comparison using like or as.

Metaphor: a direct comparison.

Tone: the emotion that the speaker uses when he/she talks

Personification: human qualities attributed to non-human objects

Imagery: A way to create pictures with words, often using sensory detail

Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sound

Assonance: Repetition of the same vowels sound

Stanza: A grouped set of lines in a poem

 

Now that you’ve learned some simple vocabulary, let’s look at some ways you might analyze a poem.

Title

The first thing you read is obviously the title. This is your first clue as to what the poem might be about. The title often reflects the subject of the poem, so come back to the title after you’ve read the poem to analyze the connection to the content.

Close Reading

To begin, it’s important to read the poem several times, at least 3. Each time you read a poem, you might find something different you didn’t notice from previous readings. Try reading it aloud. Take note of words you are not familiar with so you can look them up later. Circle nouns or phrases that stick out to you.

Who is the Speaker?

Don’t confuse the speaker or narrator of the poem with the writer. The voice could be that of the writer, expressing thoughts or feelings, but not necessarily.

The speaker of the poem may be an old man, but the person who wrote the poem might be a twenty-year-old. Is the speaker a man or woman? Is he or she addressing someone in particular? Is there more than one speaker? What is the speaker’s mood? Angry? Cynical? Happy? If you can easily pinpoint the mood, how did you know?

Do you have any clues as to the main idea the speaker wants to communicate?

What is the Subject?

The title might be the first clue to the subject of the poem. If you’re still confused, ask yourself simply, “What is the poem about?”

You could uncover clues to the subject by the speaker’s tone. What is the speaker’s attitude about the subject? Angry? Hurt? Resentful? Sad? Scared? Joyful?

What is the Situation?

Is there an event in the poem the speaker is reflecting on? Or is the speaker simply discussing a memory? The weather? A long lost love?

Often, but not always, a poem tells a story. Did something happen? Does the speaker want something to happen? Why is the speaker talking about this?

Structure

How is the poem organized or divided up? You might be familiar with traditional stanzas, or several groups of 4 or 5 lines each, but there are as many different ways to organize a poem as there are poets. A poem might have numbered stanzas, or each stanza line may have no end punctuation and flow into the next stanza.

Poems are a unified piece of writing, and for the most part, don’t jump in topic from stanza to stanza, but are usually connected in meaning. You might see some kind of link in emotions, ideas, or images, a common thread that runs through each stanza. Do you notice any common thread?

If there are no stanza divisions, try looking at the poem line by line or sentence by sentence. Do you notice any patterns of repeated words or images?

Theme

The theme is the central idea of the poem, and often the theme conveys the poem’s message. As you put all of these ideas together, what does the poem mean as a whole? What do you think is the “take away” or the big “so what?” of the poem?

Language and Imagery

The conclusions you draw about the poem will come from the language and imagery of the poem. So it is imperative to understand the denotative meaning, as well as the connotative meaning of the words.

Denotative Meaning: This is the literal, or dictionary definition of a word.

Connotative Meaning: This is the emotional or associative meaning of a word. For instance, a snake is often associated with evil. Hollywood is associated with glamour. Blue birds are associated with happiness. The color white or a cross is associated with goodness or holiness.

Poets rely on language and imagery to convey meaning. Understanding the denotative and connotative meaning in language is important to understand the meaning of a poem.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the tip of the poetic iceberg on how one might analyze poetry. Once you learn a few simple terms, you’ll find there are dictionaries devoted to poetic vocabulary. One good resource can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website, who has a large glossary of terms, found here. Another good source is Poets.org.

Writing about poetry can be demanding, but learning a few simple terms and strategies will hopefully take the fear out of your next poetry analysis.

Practice!

Considering the questions above, analyze the following poems-

Tattoo by Ted Kooser

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

 

 

Kin by Maya Angelou

We were entwined in red rings
Of blood and loneliness before
The first snows fell
Before muddy rivers seeded clouds
Above a virgin forest, and
Men ran naked, blue and black
Skinned into the warm embraces
Of Sheba, Eve and Lilith.
I was your sister.

You left me to force strangers
Into brother molds, exacting
Taxations they never
Owed or could ever pay.
You fought to die, thinking
In destruction lies the seed
Of birth. You may be right.
I will remember silent walks in
Southern woods and long talks
In low voices
Shielding meaning from the big ears
Of overcurious adults.
You may be right.
Your slow return from
Regions of terror and bloody
Screams, races my heart.
I hear again the laughter
Of children and see fireflies
Bursting tiny explosions in
An Arkansas twilight.

 

All About Semi-Colons

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DON’T BE AFRAID TO USE A SEMI COLON!

Semi-colons are arguably the most misused punctuation in writing; they can be quite confusing.

Do you know why a semi-colon is used in the first sentence? It is separating two independent clauses, or complete sentences. A semi-colon creates a full stop in a sentence, unlike a comma, which is used as a pause.

When it comes to using semi colons in writing, most errors are made when the writer fails to understand the difference between an independent and dependent clause. The name of each clause offers clues to their uses. Once you understand clauses, semi colons are a snap.

Let’s review:

INDEPENDENT CLAUSES         

Independent clauses, or main clauses, can stand alone as a sentence. They will always include a subject and a verb:

The window is open.

 James plays the guitar.

 The dog barked. 

I went to the gym.

Even a short three-word sentence can be an independent clause if it contains a subject and verb, as the examples do above. Don’t be fooled by the length of a sentence, but consider, is it a complete thought?

DEPENDENT CLAUSES

Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. They are dependent on other words to complete a sentence.

When James plays the guitar.

If the window is open.

Beginning with the files.  

These examples are dependent clauses. They are not complete thoughts and need more information in the sentence for them to make sense.

When James plays the guitar, it reminds me of Jimi Hendrix.

If the window is open, flies will get in.

It’s time to organize the office, beginning with the files.  

Now each of those dependent clauses makes sense, as we added independent clauses to complete the thought.

Below the dependent clause is italicized:

Because the window is open, the room feels cold.

I’d love to go to dinner, although I’m not dressed appropriately.

When you fix the tire, we’ll ride our bikes around the block.


USING SEMI-COLONS WITH INDEPENDENT CLAUSES

Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses when the ideas of the two clauses are closely related.

Don’t drink and drive; you could lose your license.

The dog escaped from his pen; I hope I find him soon.

Dinner was a great success; everything turned out perfect.

In the above examples, the second independent clause is closely related to the first part of the sentence, so keeping them “linked” with a semi colon makes sense.

You cannot separate two independent clauses with a comma, or you would create a comma splice, which is incorrect punctuation and will always be marked as an error. However, you could use a period, creating two sentences.

Wrong: Dinner was a great success, everything turned out perfect.

Correct: Dinner was a great success. Everything turned out perfect.

Correct: Don’t drink and drive. You could lose your license.

Correct:  Don’t drink and drive because you could lose your license.


How to Determine When to Use a Period or Semi Colon

If both a period and a semi colon would be correct punctuation, how do you know which to use in different situations?

As stated earlier, the rule for a semi colon is you can use it if the second clause is closely related to the first clause. In many cases, using a period may sound okay, and not really affect the flow of the sentence. However, if you had several short sentences and you used periods to separate each one, the sentences become choppy and tedious to read. Read the paragraph below and see how it sounds with all periods:

Dinner was a great success. Everything turned out perfect. The steaks were tender. Mine almost melted in my mouth. I wish Mom could have come. She wasn’t feeling well. I hope it’s nothing serious.

Notice that it reads a bit like a galloping horse, plodding. This becomes quite boring to read after a while. Partly this is due to the repetitive subject-verb-object construction, but some of it could be alleviated with the use of a semi colon or two. See if you can tell a difference:

Dinner was a great success; everything turned out perfect. The steaks were tender. Mine almost melted in my mouth. I wish Mom could have come; she wasn’t feeling well. I hope it’s nothing serious.

Did you notice you took less of a pause when you got to the semi colons in the second example?

USING SEMI-COLONS FOR ITEMS IN A SERIES

Most often, commas are used to separate items in a series. Sometimes though, the items themselves contain commas, so using a semi-colon to separate the items makes the sentence clearer and easier to read.

I bought shiny, ripe apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm, Anjou pears.

I have been to Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon in the North; Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi in the South; and New York, Connecticut, and Maine in the North East.

The newest additions to the cast are Josey Wales, who will play Will Davis; Deborah Farr, who will play his wife; and Tom Duffy, Farr’s young love interest.

Using semi-colons to separate the items above prevents confusion that might come from an abundance of commas.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Take care not to use a semi-colon too often. Any punctuation, if used too often, can become distracting. Sometimes it is simply a matter of judgement when and where to use semi colons. If you do incorporate them into your writing, use them sparingly and make sure you are using them correctly.

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 EXERCISE

A semicolon belongs in each of the following sentences. Determine where the semicolon belongs. Then select the word that comes just before the semicolon.

 

  1. It is raining outside I will bring my umbrella with me.

raining

outside

umbrella

 

——————————————————————————–

  1. There is a lot of financial aid around you just have to know where to look for it.

lot

aid

around
_______________________________________________

 

  1. It’s such a beautiful day I will walk in Memorial Park.

beautiful

day

walk

——————————————————————————–

  1. We will play tennis tomorrow then we will go out for dinner.

play

tennis

tomorrow

 

——————————————————————————–

  1. She had very high grades in high school she applied to Harvard University.

grades

school

applied

 

[Some examples and exercises from The St. Martins’ Handbook and OWL Online Writing Lab.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brackets and Braces and Parentheses – Oh My! (How & When to Use)

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Have you ever wondering what all those symbols are for on your keyboard? If you are sitting in front of a desktop computer, you are most likely looking at what’s known as a Qwerty keyboard, which is simply a standard English keyboard that has the standard layout of letters, numbers, and punctuation, including braces, brackets, and parenthesis.

Generally, braces, brackets, and parenthesis are used to set off additional or optional information in sentences. The writer may need to add words to clarify meaning, make the sentence read more clearly, or make a comment or correction to quoted material. For informal writing, you might have seen them used interchangeably. However, in more formal writing, such as academic writing, each symbol has a specific usage for specific situations, in specific fields of research.

Brackets  

There are two types of brackets you might use in an academic paper: Square [ ] and Angle < >

Square [ ]

In academic writing, square brackets have many uses. When the writer feels the need to add clarifying information, to provide context, or to correct printed mistakes, square brackets are used to indicate the change in the original text.

In the example below, square brackets are used to add context or clarify meaning:

Mary Constance, in an essay on extraterrestrials, states, “Some people [who have UFO experiences] may have very clear, vivid memories of their captivity” (98).

In this quote, “Some people” is taken out of context, so the additional information, “who have UFO experiences” is added for clarification so that the read knows exactly who some people are.

Square brackets are also commonly used by writers who feel the need to italicize certain words for emphasis:

Researchers at the Institute of Technology walked out of the presentation, saying they were extremely [emphasis added] disturbed by the images.

The brackets above indicate to the reader that the italics that are emphasizing “extremely” have been added by the writer, and not the original author.

When quoting sources, it’s actually not uncommon to find an error in the original material. However, the writer cannot simply correct the error, but must transcribe it exactly as is with the error, inserting the word “sic,” a Latin term meaning “thus” or “so,” enclosed in square brackets. The use of sic indicates the error is not the writer’s, but from the original text:

Dr. Casey says of his research, “I strongly believe that animal-to-human tansplantation [sic] is widely underutilized in the US.”

Sic immediately follows the misspelled word above.

Angle < >

In MLA, a URL or web address is no longer required on the Works Cited, but if requested by the instructor or if it’s needed to locate the original source, you’ll need to include it in your citation. If you need to include one on your Works Cited, place it in angle brackets. Because a URL may contain letters, numbers, and punctuation, placing it in angle brackets makes it much easier for the reader to ascertain where the URL begins and ends:

Walker, Janice R. “Columbia Online Style: MLA-Style Citations of Electronic Sources.” 1.2, Nov. 1997. 10. Dec. 1997 <http://www.cas.usf.edu/english/walker/mla.html&gt;.

Braces { }

You’ll find braces, also known as curly brackets, on the same key as square brackets on your computer. In formal writing, braces have limited use in MLA and APA writing. You might have seen braces used in music or poetry, or even on an SAT or GRE exam. They are used to set off items in a set to show they are a unit, as in the example below:

Equal Choices: {red, blue, green}

Numbers: E= {3, 6, 9, 12, 15}

Music: [ {c, e, g} {e, g, c2} {g, c2, e2} ]

Note that in the music example, there are 3 sets of items, so the braces separate each set. Then the entire 3 sets are enclosed in square brackets, which serves to “hold” the 3 sets of items that are in braces.

Braces are also used in mathematics, logic, and linguistics to set off groups of numbers, letters, or items in a set. Braces are often used in computer programming to show what should be contained within the same lines.

Parenthesis ( )

Most everyone knows what parentheses are and has used them at some point in their writing. Of the three, parentheses are the most commonly used punctuation in formal and informal writing. Parentheses are most commonly used to enclose an explanation or afterthought which relates to the main message of the sentence. The use of parentheses is often a judgment call. If you feel incorporating an explanation might interrupt the flow of the sentence, place the information inside parentheses.

Jason B. has been ticketed three times for drunk driving, though he still holds a driver’s license (all three tickets were in school zones).

Starlight Bakery chain (in both North America and Canada) have reported a 220% increase requests for gluten-free products since 2010.

Use a comma between coordinate adjectives (adjectives that are equal and reversible).

In creative writing, parentheses are used as a literary device that separates words that the narrator might feel are secret, like an aside or internal thought:

Jessie (truant and a runaway) turned sixteen in the youth center.

Monique (was that her name?) never looked up from the ticket counter.

Parentheses are the only punctuation used for in-text citations and Works Cited pages:

Brown says that no textbooks were discarded after the regulations were put in place (78).

Parentheses also are used to indicate the plural of a noun, as in the following example:

If anyone has any information about the person(s) who committed this crime, please call the sheriff’s office.

In the following section of the exam, circle the grammatical error(s) in each of the sentences.

(examples from http://www.writingsimplified.com/2009/04/how-and-when-to-use-parentheses.html).

Acronyms are enclosed in parenthesis as well:

The mission of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is to stop drunk driving.


When Both Brackets and Parentheses are Needed

In MLA, square brackets surrounded by parentheses indicate the level of subordination, as in the example below:

The sect known as the Jansenists (after Cornelius Jansen [1585-1638]) faced opposition from both the king and the pope.

 

In many instances of informal writing (and even formal writing), you might find that curly brackets and parenthesis are used interchangeably. When writing in academic situations, however, be sure and follow the guidelines for the citation style you are using, be it MLA, APA, AP, Chicago, or others. Each style has its own preferences, but some make no determination of how each kind of punctuation should be used. In that case, use whichever works best for your situation.

Is that a Word?

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Although I am the last person you’ll find speaking formal, or “proper,” English, I probably do spend more time thinking about grammar and punctuation than the average person. Even though I speak what is considered slang or conversational English, as someone with a background in English, I admit I sometimes notice other people’s mispronunciations. Interspersing slang or colloquialisms in our conversations is a matter of preference and personality. Using made-up words in writing or speech, however, is an error, and that’s different.  Read on to see if you’re guilty of using words that aren’t really words.

Common Errors

“He supposably ended their engagement.”

This is one of the most common errors I hear in speech, and it often transfers to writing because it’s so darn common. It’s an error because supposably is not, has never been, a word. It’s supposedly.

 

“I am quitting my job irregardless of the consequences.”

This might be the second most common error, after supposably. Irregardless is not a word either. It’s regardless, which means “irrespective” or “nevertheless.” It could have started from the related meaning to “irrespective,” but that’s a guess.

 

“For all intensive purposes, I think my political views are the same as yours.”

This use is so common in speech that it has worked its way into written English. But it’s still an error. The correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes,” which translates to “for all practical purposes.”

Interestingly, the origin comes from King Henry VIII in 1546. The first recorded use was in an Act of Parliament, which reads, “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.”

 

“I will do my upmost to help support the president.”

This one is a bit tricky. In this example, “upmost” is describing the degree or quality that this person hopes to support the president. It should say, “I will do my utmost to help support the president.

Though “upmost” is a word in British and some English dictionaries, it’s used as a shortened version of “uppermost,” an adjective meaning “highest” or “top,” as in, “We are on the upmost floor of the building.” However, according to many grammarians, this is an old, archaic word that is only now used when the writer actually means utmost.


Not So Common Errors

“I pulled out the letters from my chester drawers.”

I recently read a student’s narrative essay that described his room’s “chester drawers.” This is one of those errors that we translate from spoken to written word, though even saying “chester drawers” will raise eyebrows in certain circles. It’s chest of drawers, which makes a lot more sense.

 

“I was hired to type, file, answer phones, excetera.”

This is a word that worked its way in to written form from mispronounced speech. The correct use is et cetera, which is Latin for “and” (et) “the rest” (cetera). The abbreviated version – etc. – is often used in academic essays, but many instructors will request you to omit its use when possible. If you are writing out a list of 3 or 4 items and feel “etc.” is needed, it most likely isn’t. Just write out all the items instead.

 

“I have two expressos every morning.”

Okay, I admit I’ve pronounced it with an “x” forever, but I don’t drink it, so no barista has ever corrected me. However, I’ve seen it infiltrating writing, so we have to stop. It should be, “I have two espressos every morning.” Most people, like me, pronounce it with a hard “x” – EXpresso, but it should be an “s” – espresso. But I’ll bet you coffee aficionados knew that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s shocking how quickly erroneous speech patterns can begin to creep into our written phrases. Even though we speak imperfectly, most serious writers agree on correct and preferred forms of a word. Carefully consider if your usage and spelling are correct before you turn in your final essay. You’ll undoubtably – I mean undoubtedly – have a better final paper!

 

Secrets to Effective Dialogue

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Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed how to format written dialogue for your narrative essay. This week, we’ll look at the qualities of effective dialogue.

When composing a narrative essay, dialogue is an essential component for creating an engaging story. Without the spoken words, the reader can’t “hear” the characters (the real people who you are introducing to your audience) and get to know them. Simply summarizing what a character said isn’t as engaging or interesting as direct dialogue between characters.

When composing a narrative, you’ll most likely be re-creating conversations from the past. Don’t get too caught up in whether or not you recall exactly what was said. That is less important as how you portray the people in your narrative with their language, mannerisms, and other characteristics of their speech. When trying to decide exactly where and how to incorporate written dialogue, there are 3 essential questions to ask yourself before you begin:

  • Is it AUTHENTIC?

  • Is it ESSENTIAL?

  • Is it DOING MORE THAN ONE THING?

 Is it Authentic?

Authentic dialogue realistically portrays the person speaking. If it’s authentic, the spoken words will sound exactly like the person would sound in real life. This doesn’t mean you have to incorporate slang in every sentence, but it does mean that the diction, word choice, phrasing, and other stylistic choices can easily be attributed to the person who is speaking in the narrative. It shouldn’t be too formal or precise. Below is an exchange of dialogue between a son and his mother:

“Jason,” my mother asked, “what were your activities and pursuits at your elementary school today?”

“I had a full day of activities, Mother.  My teacher was quite stimulating, and recess was especially delightful,” I said.

Doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Most likely, an exchange between a mother and young son might sound something like this:

“How was school today?” mom asked.

“It was okay I guess.”

The first example obviously sounds stilted and formal, unlike how most families speak. The second example is more realistic. Some writers might choose to even use slang in their speech, such as “I dunno,” or “Kinda good,” but be very careful of overusing phonetic substitutes, as it becomes a bit tedious to read and runs the risk of characters sounding illiterate.

Is it ESSENTIAL?

“Hi Jim. How are you?” I asked.

“I’m fine. How are you?” Jim said.

“I’m fine,” I said.

BORING! An exchange like the example above is not essential to the narrative. It’s not really doing anything toward moving the narrative forward or showing any kind of characterization of the speakers. Compare this with the following exchange:

“Hi Jim,” I said.

“What wrong?” Jim asked, concerned.

“It’s my dad,” I said, breaking down.

In this exchange, the everyday-ness of the previous example is avoided. There may have very well been niceties exchanged, but in written dialogue, the writer must compress time and get to what’s essential. Here we get tension, we get emotion, and the narrative is propelled forward. Which leads us to essential element #3.

Is It Doing More Than One Thing?

Dialogue, whether in fiction or nonfiction, isn’t meant to simply allow characters to “speak.” If this is all it’s doing, then it isn’t doing enough.

Dialogue should draw a characterization. This means that the dialogue works to show traits of the person speaking, or the relationship between the speakers.  What they say, how they say it, and the tone they use provides the reader with lots of information they wouldn’t get otherwise.

The following excerpt is from Beloved by Toni Morrison, an expert at characterization through dialogue. Notice in this example that Morrison mostly avoids using phonetic spellings, but simply drops words to characterize the speakers:

“Something funny ‘bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?”

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”

“She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

“That’s what I mean. Can’t walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.”

“You didn’t.”

“Don’t tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.”

In this exchange, Morrison avoids speaker tags, except in the first line to set up the exchange. This “he said, she said” can take away from an otherwise engaging exchange, and here, it isn’t necessary. Also notice that the two people speaking have distinctly different styles, so it’s easy to differentiate each speaker from the other.

Consider everything the following bit of dialogue is doing:

“What’s the capital of Spain?” Jerry asked, pausing over his crossword puzzle.

Susan looked up from her book and rolled her eyes. “Madrid, duh.”

“Why are you so sarcastic all the time?” Jerry slammed his pencil on table. He

looked like he was going to cry. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

Poor Jerry! You can cut the tension with a knife! What’s going to happen? Several things are happening with this dialogue-

  1. Characterizes speakers
  2. Shows relationship between characters
  3. Creates tension
  4. Moves narrative forward

When you’re writing dialogue for your narrative, consider why you are incorporating each exchange and know what your purpose is for including it. If it isn’t essential, leave it out.

There really are no secrets to writing effective dialogue, but knowing who your characters are and why you are incorporating every exchange will help you in determining what to leave in and what to take out. Avoid phony or forced speech, and use speaker tags thoughtfully. When you’re finished, read your essay aloud to “hear” what you’ve written. Try reading some essays or short stories to see how other writers do it. Follow these steps, and you’ll be writing dialogue like a pro!

Below is a brief reading list of some of the greatest writers of dialogue you might study.

“Hills Like White Elephants” – Ernest Hemingway.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – Raymond Carver.

Anything by Elmore Leonard or John Steinbeck.

 

 

 

 

Dialogue 101: How to Format Narrative Dialogue

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When composing a narrative essay, you have to tell a story. In telling a story, it’s always more effective and engaging to tell the story in recreated scenes. In scenes, you’ll have people, and those people have to talk. Writing a scene where people talk to each other sounds simple, however, writing dialogue can be complicated. Do you include author tags, like he said/she said? If not, how can you tell who is speaking? If more than one person is speaking, how do you format the interchange between two people? How do you format the interchange between three or four people? What if you’re just talking to yourself? (I talk to myself all the time, but I wouldn’t want to put it in quotes!) Is talking to yourself considered dialogue? Are you confused yet?

Formatting with Speaker Tags

When beginning with the speaker tag:

John said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Note that in this example, a comma is placed after the speaker tag. The first word in the dialogue is treated like the beginning of a sentence, so the first word is capitalized. The quote is ended with a period which is placed inside the quotation marks.

When the quotation ends with speaker tag:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said.

Here, use a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence of the quotation. A comma is placed at the end of the quoted dialogue, inside the quotation mark, before the speaker tag. A period completes the sentence, but after the speaker tag.

When the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:

“I’ll call you,” John said, “tomorrow.”

In this example, a capital letter begins the quoted sentence. A comma is used inside the quotation mark preceding the speaker tag, and again after the tag, before the quotation mark that completes the quote. A lower case letter indicates the second part of the quotation is a continuation of the first part of the quotation.

When the speaker tag separates two complete quoted sentences:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

A capital letter indicates the beginning of the sentence, and a comma ends the quoted sentence before the speaker tag, followed by a period after the tag. The quoted sentence after the tag is again capitalized just as any sentence would be.

Note that the second part of the quote remains on the same line. This indicates that the same person is speaking. If a different person was speaking, the second piece of quoted material, “Have a nice day,” would go to a new line/paragraph.

Formatting Two (or more) Speakers

When two or more people are speaking, each line of dialogue must go to a new line or paragraph. It’s a new “paragraph” because each time a new person speaks, the line must be indented.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

“But I thought you might stay,” Diane said.

“I can’t. I have to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” Diane’s daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the lines are short, they each must begin on a new line. Note that two exchanges have no speaker tags. In this example, it is clear who is speaking, as each person’s name has been given previously, and the order of exchange established. Only drop the tags when it is clearly evident who the speaker is.

In the final quoted dialogue, notice that the quote ends with an exclamation point. The exclamation point (to indicate yelling) is placed inside the quotation mark, and no other punctuation is used until the end of the tag.

In this example, if the tag did not happen to include a proper name, you would not capitalize the first word, as in the following example:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” her daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the quote ended with an exclamation mark, the tag is not capitalized, as it is not a complete sentence. If it were a complete sentence, it would be capitalized, as in the example below:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” The young daughter, tucked in her bed, never went to bed without at least one request for water.  

Also note in this example that the tag remains on the same line as the dialogue, as the “action” described in the speaker tag is related to the speaker who has been quoted on the same line.  If any action needs to be described of John or Diane, that action would be placed on a new line.

Final thoughts

Even though we’ve all spent a lifetime reading, until we actually have to write dialogue, we don’t often realize the intricacies involved. How do you decide where to place a dialogue tag? That’s often a stylistic choice, and not necessarily any hard and fast rule. I often incorporate the tag where it seems least intrusive. A speaker tag, when necessary, should be as “invisible” as possible so as not to detract from a smooth reading.

Next week, we’ll delve further into writing dialogue, and discuss the secrets to effective dialogue.