Tag Archives: verbs

How the Written Universe Works: 7 Rules of Construction #amwriting

Words, carefully chosen and arranged with care, have the power to bring your writing to life.

7 rules of constructionWe who write because we love words spend a great deal of time framing what our words say. We choose some words above others because they say what we mean more precisely, or they color our prose with the right emotion.

We take our chosen words and bind them into small packets we call sentences. We take those sentences and build paragraphs, which become novels.

The author’s job is to understand how the grammar of their native language works. The great authors use those rules to energize their prose.

However, when it comes to word choices, some things are universal to the best work in all genres, from literary fiction and poetry to sci-fi and fantasy, to thrillers and cozy mysteries, or even Romance.

The world is in a state of flux—money is tight. In the US, the cost of getting a university education is prohibitive, with students incurring massive debt that follows them for years afterward. Some people have the luxury and the desire to seek a degree in writing.

Others must rely on self-education. To that end, here are seven rules professional writing programs teach about sentence and paragraph construction.

One: Verbs—we choose words with power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and carry more power.

Verbs are power words. Fluff words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose.

Use Active ProseTwo: Placement of verbs in the sentence can strengthen or weaken it.

  • Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
  • Nouns followed by verbs make active prose.

I ran toward danger, never away.

Three: Parallel construction smooths awkward phrasing. When two or more ideas are compared in one sentence, each clause should use the same grammatical structure. They are parallel, and the reader isn’t jarred by them, absorbing what is said naturally.

What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered” in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela. Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of arriving, seeing, and conquering.

Buddha quoteFour: Contrast—In literature, we use contrast to describe the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. The blue sun burned like fire, but the ever-present wind chilled me.

Five: Similes show the resemblances between two things through the use of words such as “like” and “as.” The blue sun burned like fire.

Similes differ from metaphors, which suggest something “is” something else. The pale moon shone, a lamp in the sky that comforted me.

Six: Deliberate repetition used occasionally emphasizes emotion and atmosphere but doesn’t increase wordiness.

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in the opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of the same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition at both the end and beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • Repetition is a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry. [1]

alliterationSeven: Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of successive words, such as the familiar tongue-twister: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Alliteration lends a poetic feeling to passages and enhances the atmosphere of a given scene without creating wordiness.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe 1845) [2]

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, (Birches, by Robert Frost 1916) [3]

The way we habitually construct our prose is our voice, and that voice determines the impact of our work. Different readers have widely different tastes, but no one enjoys bad writing.

Constructing our work to fit the market we are writing for is crucial to finding readers. However, all readers want to find good writing and are attracted to work that tells a story with atmosphere and emotion.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteActive phrasing generates emotion. Sometimes, using similes, repetition, and alliteration in subtle applications enhances the worldbuilding without beating your reader over the head.

We all know worldbuilding must be organic and natural, but we don’t all know how to achieve it. Subtle application of these seven rules will empower your worldbuilding. The casual reader will be immersed but unaware of the mechanics. They won’t realize why the work is powerful.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published in 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (June 11, 2022)

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “The Raven,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Raven&oldid=908701892 (accessed June 11, 2022).

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Birches (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birches_(poem)&oldid=886359747 (accessed June 11, 2022).


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How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid #amwriting

Every now and then, the most paradoxical mystery in the written universe rears its head—the question, “Is it lay, lie, or what?” Today we will revisit one of the more misused verbs in the English language: the many tenses and uses of the verb ‘lay.’

How the written universe works 3In the written narrative, the many forms of this verb are what antimatter is to ordinary matter. When used improperly, things unravel. The problem is, we routinely use the words lay and lie and all their forms incorrectly as a matter of habit in our daily speech.

We are accustomed to hearing the wrong use of verb forms in conversation. However, we notice incorrect usage when reading. This paradox causes confusion for our readers when we misuse the verb “lay” and all its tenses in a narrative.

Don’t feel alone in this. Even editors struggle with the words lay, lie, and laid and regularly refer to grammar guides to remind themselves of the correct usage.

I often have to stop in my own work and make sure I am using it correctly.

Do I mean to lay down or lie down?

It boils down to a simple concept: is the object of the verb RECLINING, or was it PLACED THERE?

transitive verb“Lay” is a transitive verb that refers to putting something in a horizontal position. At the same time, “lie” is an intransitive verb that refers to being in a flat position.

“Lay” is a verb meaning to put or place something somewhere. It has a direct object. Its principal parts are “lay,” “laid,” “laid,” and “laying.”

The words refer to the action: If you place it (object) there, it is laying there. Lay it there. Lay it on the pillow.

If it is resting or reclining, it is lying there.

  • Lie down.
  • Lying down.
  • Lie down, Sally. (Clapton had it wrong? Say it isn’t so!)

The internet is your friend. The following is a quote from the website, Get it Write: 

[1] The verbs to lie and to lay have very different meanings. Simply put, to lie means “to rest,” “to assume or be situated in a horizontal position,” and to lay means “to put or place.” (Of course, a second verb to lie, means “to deceive,” “to pass off false information as if it were the truth,” but here we are focusing on the meaning of to lie that gives writers the most grief.)

Languages change, and we are certainly moving toward a time when style and grammar books no longer distinguish between lay and lie, but we aren’t there yet.

intransitive verbTo lie is an intransitive verb: it shows action, and the subject of the sentence engages in that action, but nothing is being acted upon (the verb has no direct object).

Put another way, the verb to lie does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything. Remember that it means “to recline” or “to rest.”

It is conjugated this way:

  • lie here every day. (Everyone lies here. They lie here.)
  • am lying here right now.
  • lay here yesterday.
  • will lie here tomorrow.
  • have lain here every day for years. [1]

Lay, Lie, Laid chart

This is where things get tense: present, past, and future.

A ring lay on the pillow. 

  • Present tense: I lay an object on the pillow.
  • Future tense: I will lay an object on the pillow.
  • Past tense: I laid an object on the pillow.

But I needed to rest. In this context, lie is a verb meaning to recline. It requires no direct object, and its principal parts are lie, lay, lain, and lying.

  • I’m going to lie in bed for another hour.
  • I feel safe lying in my bed.
  • I had lain in bed long enough, so I got up.

So, what this all boils down to is:

matter antimatter LIRF04102022 The verb that means “to recline” is “to lie,” not “to lay.” If we are talking about the act of reclining, we use “lie,” not “lay.” “When I have a headache, I lie down.”

The verb laid must have a direct object. Something is put or placed: “I laid my papers on your desk after the meeting.” In our modern dialect, the verb laid is used far less often than put, set, or placed, so it has become confusing.

But just to confuse things a lot more:

A living body lies down and rests.

A dead body is cleaned up and laid out by other people if the said corpse is important to them. However, after being laid out, the corpse is lying in state to allow mourners to pay their respects.


Previous posts in the series, How the Written Universe Works:

How the written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

This post: How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid


[1] Quote from: To Lie, or To Lay, by Nancy Tuten, Get it Write online, To Lie or To Lay? | Get It Write Online, accessed April 10, 2022.


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#amwriting: verbs, gerunds, and infinitives

Hamlet Poster Benedict CumberbatchA dear friend and I have been discussing gerunds. “Gerund” is a term (from our roots in Latin grammar) for a verb form that functions as a noun. Gerunds are nouns formed from verbs and they describe actions.

The gerund in English is usually identified by the addition of the three letters “ing” added at the end of an infinitive. For example:

  • “to be” is changed to “being”
  • “to eat” is changed to “eating”

So what is an infinitive? Basically, an infinitive verb is a verb with the word “to” in front of it:

  • to be
  • to have
  • to hold
  • to walk
  • to dream
  • to sleep

Without the word “to,” each of the above words is just a base verb. They are finite, limited. They are the action, end of story. When you add the word “to” in front of the action it is no longer finite—it becomes unlimited, or infinite: an infinitive. This lack of boundaries creates a passive voice when telling a story, and for some narratives it is appropriate.

However, we want our work to have an active voice if we are writing modern genre fiction, so we must do our best to avoid the overuse of infinitives.

When we first begin sharing our work in writers’ groups, we are shown instances of where the use of infinitives creates a passive narrative, separating the reader from the action. We choose to combat that by eliminating as many instances of these words as we can, and in some places, changing them into a more active form: the gerund.

A side bit of trivia: in modern speech, expressions such as “can’t stand,” “couldn’t help,” and “it’s no use” are frequently followed by gerunds:

  • I can’t stand running in place.
  • It’s no use harping at me; I won’t change my mind.

Traditionally, the gerund has four forms: two for the active voice and two for the passive. Consider the word “love,” a word that can either be a thing (a noun) or an action (a verb). For this exercise we are looking at the verb form:


You will note that one form is referred to as “Perfect” and you are wondering how this relates to our gerund. The word perfect literally means “made complete” or “completely done.” Thus, the three perfect tenses in English are the three verb tenses which show action already completed.

  • Present Perfect: I have seen it. (This is done. Finished. End of story).
  • Past Perfect: I had seen it. (It happened in the past. It’s done, so get over it.)
  • Future Perfect: I will have seen it. (Okay, it’s not done yet, but when it is, I will be the one to report that it is finished).

Consequently, having loved indicates that the act of loving is completed.

I mentioned that we sometimes avoid using a passive voice, by changing infinitives to gerunds.  But when should we NOT use a gerund? This just came up in my own work, prompting this bit of research:

One of my personal first-draft sins is the infamous “subject-less gerund-participial clause that is left hanging in space without an understood subject (this is known as the dangling participle). It happens to me most often when I begin a sentence with a gerund:

Being desperately poor, chocolate was scarce, as was milk.

In MY mind, as the writer, the word “being” in the above sentence relates to my character’s poverty. But a reader might stop and say “Huh? What?” To clarify that, I should say, The family was desperately poor. Chocolate was scarce, as was milk.”

GerundsThis tendency to inadvertently create confusion is why I try not to start a sentence with a gerund, unless it is the only way to express that thought and can be done in a clear, unambiguous fashion.

Also, we should not use gerunds with infinitives (to be, to do, etc.) UNLESS the word “to” is being used as a preposition. Remember this quick trick: if you can put the pronoun “it” after the word “to” and form a meaningful sentence, then the word “to” in that instance is a preposition.

For example:

  • to look forward to (it)
  • to be accustomed to (it)
  • to get around to (it)
  • to be used to (it)

It is important to recognize that the word “to” is a preposition in these cases because it must be followed by a gerund. It is not part of the infinitive form of the verb. (Prepositions may be defined as any word or group of words that relates a noun or a pronoun to another word in the sentence.)

An excellent page on this subject can be found at the University of Victoria’s ELC Study Zone: Gerunds. A quote from this page regarding gerunds and prepositions:

“But… only gerunds can be the object of a preposition.

“We are talking about writing in English.” (end quote)

I graduated from high school, but my formal education was somewhat lacking in this area. Either I was staring out the window when the teachers were talking about proper use of gerunds, or it wasn’t a subject we discussed–I don’t know. But somehow I didn’t pick up on it then.

Forty years on, I’ve formed certain writing habits and often use gerunds incorrectly in my first, second and even third drafts, which leads to confusing prose. The words made perfect sense when I wrote them, and I can’t catch them all when I am making revisions.

This is why a sharp beta reader and a good line-editor are lifesavers.


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