Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Excuse me, Your Participle’s Dangling!

By Catherine DePino
(reviewed by Linda Lane)

The preface of this book opens with these words: “No matter what your circumstances, Excuse Me, Your Participle’s Dangling! will give you the bare essentials of grammar that you’ll need to write like a pro. This book also offers a simple yet foolproof method of writing under pressure, the key to success in any college program or workplace.” While this sounds like a practical approach for many folks, how does it work for novelists, who rarely fit into the “academic” category and whose grammatical needs can sometimes be extensive and complex?

Chapter one appropriately addresses verbs. Why appropriately? Verbs empower sentences. Verb choice can determine whether a sentence lies on the page, soon to be forgotten, or rises up to compel a reader to digest its content and continue reading for more gems. This chapter focuses on verb types, weak and strong verbs, active and passive voice, and irregular verbs, covering the “bare essentials” — albeit it superficially for a beginning novelist who needs to fill up her writer’s backpack with vibrant verbs. A “quick quiz” challenges the reader to identify which verbs in the sample sentences are active and which are passive.

Chapters two and three discuss building sentences and avoiding run-ons and fragments; both chapters contain quick quizzes to help the reader apply the lessons learned. My experience as a fiction editor has been that a significant number of writers do fairly well at avoiding run-ons — although I've read some independently published books that contained an overabundance of them. Fragments, on the other hand, often abound in the manuscripts I edit.

While run-ons never qualify as acceptable, fragments sometimes do, especially when writing dialogue or recording a character's direct thoughts. A character who always speaks or thinks in complete sentences sounds stilted because we don't talk that way. The need for realism in writing dialogue (conversational or internal) trumps the grammar rule regarding fragments as long as the writer demonstrates good understanding and usage of that rule in the story's narrative.

Adjectives and adverbs, dangling and misplaced modifiers, and the much misunderstood comma appear in chapters four, five, six, and seven. Of these, the comma is misused most often. I frequently find it where it doesn’t belong, and I cannot locate it anyplace near where it is needed. Consider, please, page 48's sample sentences of restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives and their explanations; these should be read and reread by most writers until they understand how different sentence structures dictate whether or not commas should set off an appositive. Again, quizzes help to drive the grammatical points home.

Chapters eight through twelve address other punctuation, agreement problems, oft-confused words, writing style, and writing under pressure. Once more, the reader can take the quizzes to make practical application of the rules discussed. The answers to all the quizzes, by the way, appear in the back of this 119-page book.

Overall, Excuse Me, Your Participle Is Dangling! addresses numerous grammar issues confronted by writers. Of particular interest to some may be the chapter on homonyms and other words that are often misused. For example, there, they're, and their have different meanings; but the wrong homonym commonly shows up in sentences where it clearly does not belong. Other confusing words, such as further and farther, fewer and less, and loose and lose, are clarified for the reader. Stylistic topics include wordiness, clichés, euphemisms, and faulty parallelisms. These subheadings are worth a review by writers in all fields.

The book as a whole seems better suited to academic writing and the workplace, where its concise, easy-to-follow format has been designed to meet the student's and on-the-job writer's basic needs — just as it states in its preface. Serious novelists, on the other hand, may want to find a more advanced grammar book to meet their comprehensive requirements.

Catherine DePino has written a number of books about grammar, as well as books on dealing with bullies for parents and kids. She holds a doctorate from Temple University and has worked as an English teacher. Learn more about her and her books for teachers, parents, and young people at www.catherinedepino.com.

17 comments :

  1. Hi, LInda,

    Thanks for reviewing my book. I wanted to emphasize that the book mainly targets college students, working adults, and ESL students. If readers need a review of basic grammatical principles, they will find them in this book. I tried to present a practical manual for dealing with issues that come up when they're writing college papers, essay tests, and business reports, or learning English as a second language. I certainly didn't intend the book to address experienced writers although some writers have told me that the book was very helpful to them because they had learned grammar long ago and had forgotten some of the rules and how they applied to writing. I wanted to clarify this because I think by reading this review some writers may not understand my intention in writing this book. I believe that more than a few may find it useful.

    Kind regards,
    Catherine DePino
    www.catherinedepino.com

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    1. I agree with what you're saying, Catherine. I work a lot with ESL folks, and it would be a huge help to them. You've presented the material in logical, easy-to-understand language, and the examples add practical application to the rules you cite. Overall, it's a fabulous reference for anyone who needs to learn or review the basics. I had fun reviewing it and would certainly recommend it to anyone whose need is covered here.

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    2. Sometimes when we receive a book for review, it isn't a good match for this blog which is targeted to authors - aspiring and long-published both. I probably should have simply declined and returned your book, Catherine, because as you say, it's for students and business people who could use a brush-up. To that end, in the future you probably would be happier on blogs that focus on students and business writing. Makes sense, right? I'll take responsibility for making a bad call on this one. I think that's what Linda was trying to point out to our readers, and maybe it wasn't as clear as it might have been.

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    3. Thank you for clarifying this, Dani. You are indeed correct about what I was trying to say. This book serves a useful purpose in some arenas, just not so much in ours.

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  2. It never hurts to brush up on the basics. It's amazing how quickly we forget. If you want more on powerful sentence structure, you can check out http://www.amazon.com/Story-Building-Blocks-III-Revision-ebook/dp/B007SPPL68.

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    Replies
    1. The basics are vital, that's for sure, Diana. They're the foundation we build on to write great books. You're absolutely right that we do forget. When I went to work for a school district's language arts department in the 80s, I was amazed at how many rules had slipped into the dark recesses of my memory — and I had been an excellent English student back in the day.

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  3. Thanks for the review, Linda. This book does look like an excellent resource for some writing, but I agree perhaps not for fiction. Although it is always good to know the rules and when and how to break them. :-) Regarding fragments, I agree with what you said about the dialogue and internal dialogue, but fragments also work in narrative sometimes, especially in suspense and thriller. In those genres, there are times that a one word sentence or paragraph is very powerful.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Yes, I suppose fragments would work in suspenseful narrative. I'm not a frequent reader of that genre, but I do believe you're right about this. Again, successful breaking of any rule depends on the writer's showing a knowledge of that rule in other contexts.

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  4. These are the kind of tips that are so helpful ... too bad this book can't pry me off the couch and make me more productive!

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    1. Too bad, indeed. Productivity, what a challenge! When I had the energy to be productive in my writing, I didn't have the time. Now I have the time, but that energy departed some time ago for parts unknown.

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  5. What can I say? Fan of fragments. But literary writers, with their added attention to poetics, may use them for a variety of reasons. Could be a whole other post.

    But Catherine—Hi, and welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil!! Good to see my Philadelphia Writers Conference buddy here. I'd guess there might be many fiction writers who would like a quick desktop brush-up on their grammar without having to delve deeply into a thick guide.

    I'm appositve I would, since I don't know a lot of these terms. ;) Guess I've always assumed that if you once learned them, and you reinforce by reading a lot, that correct usage will simply be at your beck and call when the time comes.

    Do fiction writers actually take the time to sit and read grammar guides of any sort? I use them for quick reference anyway, not reading. So for those who don't already own such a guide, this might fit the bill.

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    1. Kathryn, I do not read grammar guides for enjoyment. LOL However, I do like them for reference. I agree that we absorb the correct usage, but sometimes I like to go back and find the right terminology. It helps when I'm editing for a client, and I want to point out a usage issue. I don't know how many times I've had to stop and ask myself, "Is that a split infinitive? What the heck was that other thing called?" :-)

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    2. I do enjoy delving into grammar books, but not cover-to-cover; I follow rabbit trails and get quite absorbed.

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  6. Even reviewers and grammar nerds have a hard time reading grammar guides from cover to cover! That's why it can be difficult getting reviews for them. Grammar Girl has figured out she can get ongoing publicity with her website, which parses it out in bits and pieces. Every little tip gets shared and links to the book's buy page. Ongoing publicity over a lengthy period of time. Brilliant concept really. That's how non-fiction titles become perennial. The right marketing for the title is half the game. I should blog about that.

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    1. Yes, that would be a helpful post, Dani.

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  7. This sounds like an ideal book for one of my grammatically-challenged clients.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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