The Dreaded Grammar

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarStill haunted by your high school English teacher? Elmore Leonard can help. Print out his Ten Rules for Good Writing and invoke as often as necessary.

I was already–uneasily–employing Nos. 3 (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”) and 4 (“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . .”) in my own writing, and I was thrilled to have had my instincts validated by a master.

To be a competent writer you must understand the rules of grammar and apply them appropriately. No matter how brilliant you are, you’ll be a bit hampered in life if you can’t write a decent business letter or error-free resume.

But great, compelling writers use language to capture essential truths; to paint vivid pictures; to thrust us into worlds we’ve never known existed and make us believe in them; to get inside the heads of anything that can even remotely be regarded as sentient and make us feel what motivates them.

The writing of young children is often remarkably effective because it’s unconstrained by rules. When you don’t know you “can’t” do something, your creativity soars.

But those rules aren’t intended to beat all the life out of your expression. They’re just an armature from which you build outward.

Part of becoming a fine writer is learning when to ignore good advice and follow your instincts. It’s dreadfully frustrating, because there’s such a very fine line, sometimes, between awkward misuse of language and the stunning power of authentic feeling.

Just keep writing til you get it right.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Jim Harrington


Today, I want to comment on two quotes by William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well. Even though he’s commenting on nonfiction, these quotes apply equally to fiction.

 Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

I know you’ve experienced this. So have I. You read through your story and always get stuck on the same sentence. It might be the rhythm, or a word meaning, or a phrase that doesn’t seem to fit. You try changing the offending word or phrase, sometimes successfully, other times not. Often, there isn’t a word to express what’s required by the story. It’s a metaphor or simile that’s needed. And occasionally, the solution is to get rid of the word or phrase (or maybe the entire sentence) altogether, even though it is the best phrase/sentence you’ve ever written. If the latter is the case, save it for another time. There’s a story out there somewhere that’s a perfect fit. You just haven’t written it yet. Or maybe that wonderful phrase is the perfect title to kickstart another narrative.

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.

This is one of my favorite sentences in the book. I’ve read a number of stories lately in various critique groups where the only problem with the piece is that many of the sentences are so long and convoluted they get lost within themselves. From my point of view as the reader, it seems the easiest way to correct this is to get to the period sooner.

Yes, there’s a place for long sentences. I use them to set the mood of a story or to drag out a feeling just that little bit longer to build tension. A good mix of long and short sentences can provide an excellent reading experience. However, writing long sentences isn’t easy.

There may be times where that mammoth rolls through the fingers and onto the page with ease and makes perfect sense to you, the author. Now, how about the reader? What is that experience going to be like? I’ve read a few sentences that I’m sure make perfectly good sense to the author. After all, that’s the one person who knows the entire backstory of the character and the events that occur in the story. At least, I hope that’s true. But from the reader’s side, there may  be something missing. Perhaps this something, the purpose for the sentence say, would become clearer if the author broke the ideas presented into smaller, more digestible chunks. Doing this also helps the author ensure nothing is omitted unintentionally.

The other thing to consider when writing long sentence after long sentence is boredom or angst on the part of the reader. The mind needs frequent places to pause and digest–at least mine does. When reading a series of sentences containing phrase after phrase after phrase, I tend to fade out the longer the sentence goes on, wondering when I might finally be given a reprieve, when the sentence finally reaches its end point and I finally get to take a breath, as indicated by the period. Truth time: raise your hand if you began to wonder when in this millenium that last sentence was going to end?

I’ve mentioned my musical past before. Back in the seventies, I played trumpet in a number of local big band concerts (think the music of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Count Basie). One evening, the drummer de jour played an extended solo; and as I listened, I realized something was missing–silence. The drummer had excellent technique and performed many technical riffs; but as a listener, I never got the chance to (figuratively) take a breath. While a good musician, the drummer didn’t realize silence is a musical note, too. If you listen to any of the great jazz drummers, you’ll notice they use silence to enhance the experience. In writing, this is the period’s job. It offers the reader the opportunity to take a breath and assimilate what has happened to this point before moving on.

I’m not suggesting you never write long sentences. On the contrary, they have a place in many stories in setting the mood and, as noted above, adding to the suspense. I am suggesting you consider such sentences carefully to make sure they are doing the job of moving the story along and not turning the reader off. As an example, here’s a one-sentence story by Len Kuntz I thoroughly enjoyed –


Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears,  Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog ( provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at

by Sheila Newton

There are so many opinions about the use of adverbs in writing that it’s difficult to know where to turn. As a writer, should I embrace the adverb or should I abhor it?

Henry James adored the adverb.  “They are the only qualifications I really much respect.  I think that the sense for them is literary sense.” I was ‘evidently’ in good hands because when I first began to write creatively, I loved the adverb too.  I stuffed an adverb into every bit of spare white space – and my writing was ‘absolutely’, ‘startlingly’, ‘amazingly’  full of them!

Ah, but then I found flash fiction.  “How could I ‘possibly’ write a whole story in one hundred words, or two hundred and fifty words – or even a thousand words?” I declared, ‘ponderously’.

“I’d have to cut it to the bone,” I said, ‘thoughtfully’.  “I’d have to scrap those ‘delightfully’, ‘magically’, ‘superbly’ descriptive words, ‘unwillingly’ forfeit them, then where would my ‘splendidly’ lovely writing be?”  Down the pan, I imagined.

Not a bit of it!  I was astonished by how, with the slash of my pen through the adverbs and making a few (lots of, ‘actually’) changes from weak verbs to strong ones, my short stories and flashes became tighter, better and much more inspired: my writing was improving in leaps and bounds.  I began to wonder whether the adverb was a pesky irritation on my pure white paper: a pimple on the face of my creativity.

Stephen King ‘famously’ said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” in his book ‘\On Writing: though it’s more the pity he didn’t stick to his rule in his latest penning, Under the Dome, a breathtaking story-line, spoiled ‘unceremoniously’, with a tragic littering of the dreaded adverb.  Henry James would have been proud.

But then, as Norman Mailer said, “What’s the use of being a writer if you can’t irritate a great number of people.”

Richard Nordquist, in his article, ‘Why the Adverb is not our Friend’, tells us, “The adverb is versatile: capable of modifying verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, even complete sentences. It’s flexible – likely to appear before, after, or nowhere near the word it modifies.”

Perhaps you’re right Mr Nordquist, but don’t you think the adverb is evidence of an idle writer’s lack of zeal in tracking down that special verb with a smidgen of ‘oomph’?

He is quick to cover his tracks, however, by adding: “Undeniably, the adverb is the poor stepchild …of the parts of speech enduring the scorn of writers and critics alike.”

Mark Twain was a huge critic of adverbs, saying they were ‘dead to him’.  He said there were some subtleties in life that meant nothing to him; that “this adverb plague is one of them.”  His sentiments match mine exactly with his adage, “To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. . . .” (Mark Twain, “The Contributors’ Club” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1880).

In fact, in Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape (1980) he discusses “the beastly adverb – far more damaging to a writer than an adjective,” and espouses the virtues of losing the adverb altogether.  I expect he meant that writing should be clear as crystal; tight as a nut.

Before Stephen King defected (‘literarily’ speaking, that is, not ‘literally’) from the anti-adverb camp, he likened the adverb to a dandelion on the lawn.  He alluded to the notion that one dandelion on the lawn looks very pretty, but if you leave it there, next day there’ll be more, next week there’ll be hundreds of the blighters!

“By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s – GASP!! – too late.”
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner, 2000)

Walter Bagehot (The First Edinburgh Reviewers, 1855, in Literary Studies) proposed the adverb as the timid, cautious part of speech, where words like ‘usually’, ‘nearly’ and ‘almost’ crop up with alarming regularity.  His description of adverb-prone writers, “…going tremulously like timid rider(s); they turn hither and thither; they do not go straight across a subject, like a masterly mind,” makes my mind’s eye teary with mirth.

That “the adverb preserves a monotonous character in a sentence,” (Zbigniew Folejewski in Futurism and Its Place in the Development of Modern Poetry. University of Ottawa Press, 1980) makes we wonder how I was ever so weak-willed and hungry for these superfluous add-ons.  Indeed, how was I ever captivated by them?  “Ah, but adverbs are so often such ‘irresistibly’ pretty words,” I argued ‘vehemently’.

But a pretty word doth not a story make.  And a punchy verb is more able to hold a story-line together; make it move forward like a lion at the wildebeest’s haunches.  As Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie, Outbreak, 1995) said to Sam Daniels (played by Dustin Hoffman), “It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind.”

If the cause of our folly in including the adverb in our writing is indolence, then Zbigniew Folejewski’s bold statement, “We must eliminate adverbs,” must be the path to follow.

Arthur Plotnik, a writer on varied topics, including the craft of writing, is ‘clearly’ an adverb enthusiast. He explores the notion that, “…certain adverbial forms are among the hottest locutions in contemporary prose. . . .” (Spunk & Bite, Random House, 2005).  He admits to being smitten by its use in book reviewing, quoting lavish commentary by critics from the New York Times:

  • Eye-crossingly voluminous (Michiko Kakutani)
  • Jesuitically contradictory (Bruce Hrierson)
  • Genetically goofy (David Carr)

Who would not be persuaded to enjoy the adverb in its critical form, after reading world-weary, shop-soiled, tired adjectives the like of ‘gripping’, ‘brilliant’ ‘unputdownable’?

So, is there no middle ground on which we can hang our proverbial, adverbial hats?  Roy Peter Clark’s (Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little, Brown and Co. 2006) balanced view is that “At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective.  At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it.”

Ah, but let us not forget that a story is not a critique or a review.  Let us not forget that in flash fiction, the writer can ill afford to waste words.  Let us remember to seek out the spiciest, most flavoursome verb in order to render the adverb useless.

Perhaps we should take Theodore Roethka’s advice (The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, Allan Seager. McGraw-Hill, 1968) that in order for a writer to write “good stuff” we have to hate the adverb – ‘malevolently’ detest it.


“You are an abomination, amigo.” The writer cocked his pistol, at high noon at the OK Corral, as he faced his enemy, the deadly adverb, “You are not my friend; you are my adversary and I will shoot you down like a dog.”


Sheila Newton lives in the North East of England with her husband and two cats. She acquired an RGN and a degree in Education throughout her nursing and teaching careers, then in 2010, she caught the ‘creative writing bug’.  She has been accepted for publication with the small press magazine, Debut, won first prize in an ‘about writing’ competition and around 20 of her articles and short stories have been published online.  An avid reader, walker and blogger, Sheila has recently been invited to blog for North East Life online: she also blogs for a local blues/rock band.  Catch up with her on her personal blog, – and her website,

I’m one of those nerdy types who actually reads software manuals from cover to cover. I know. I know. Anyway, when I decided to write fiction, I, of course, read a number of books and articles on the craft, including those containing the advice to purge the text of adjectives and adverbs. In the beginning, I revised my stories to delete every one of those dastardly intruders and replace them with strong nouns and verbs. It was an excellent challenge, and my writing improved.

However, I don’t completely agree–see, I used an adverb (an unnecessary one, either I agree or I don’t, but one I chose to use)–with this practice. Sometimes a precise noun isn’t descriptive at all. How many of you know what a Nashville Warbler looks like? If instead I write “a yellow-breasted songbird,” my readers will have a clearer idea of the picture I’m painting.

On the other side of the argument is the idea that, in flash in particular, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word has equal importance. Using precise verbs and nouns and not relying on adjectives and adverbs, strengthens the prose and allows the author to pack a big story into a few words.

Here’s an example of adverbial clutter.

“Harold inched slowly across the room.”

What’s wrong with this? “Slowly” is redundant. If Harold “inched” (to move slowly and carefully, by definition) how could he not do it “slowly?” “Harold inched across the room” says the same thing and saves a word—and is more precise than “Harold walked slowly across the room.” There’s a tension to “inched” that isn’t there with “walked.” Here’s another way to think about this. If your 400-word story contains thirty sentences and you save one word per sentence, that’s–oh yuck, math–a lot of words!

So, while I don’t subscribe to the dictum to delete all adjectives and adverbs from my prose, I do ruminate on each word until I understand exactly why I decided to use it.

Here’s a story that first appeared in Static Movement. Are the adjectives distracting?

The Robber’s Fiance
by Jim Harrington

Dressed in a jogging suit, her hair damp from the shower, Inocencia sits on the sofa in her parents’ guest house and lays her head on Javier’s bare shoulder.

“I thought you loved me,” she says.

“I do,” Javier replies.

“Clareta says she heard you telling your friends you would have the drugs for the party Saturday night.” A purple-tipped finger traces a vein on his leg. “Am I going to this party, or just my father’s drugs?”

Javier sits her up and turns her to face him. “Of course, you’re coming to the party.”

“There may not be a party,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Javier turns at the sound of the door opening. Inocencia’s father enters, followed by two men each twice Javier’s size.

“Did you think I wouldn’t tell Daddy?”


Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For Blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, he serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre.

 I am not knowing what exactly my best beloved and also better half is doing during his office time; as a matter of fact I am suspicious that his job is getting almost null and void.  Maybe it is the world wide recession. Maybe it is the Madras summer. Who is knowing? I am making Tiffin in the morning every morning, pukka from Monday to Friday. I am making long Bengali lunch on Saturday and Sunday. I am doing wifely duty. But I am now getting worried. Who will feed me, clothe me, give me respect in society if better half is becoming jobless? 

You see, I am also working on becoming successful Indian Female writer. I am working very hard, but I am now thinking that maybe my type of English is not latest fashion item, which some British born and also some British educated Indians are using in their poetry and prose with very good success. That is why I am spending valuable afternoon writing time in writing this small type of essay in the type of English that is “colonizing English.”

Today the letter is coming from my better-half’s office; it is saying that Indians are not writing proper English. Below is given some examples. Please do the needful for the examples given below by reading them:-

“This is a collection of leave letters and applications written by people in various work places in India.”

(I have removed all identification from the letter excerpts.) 

1.    An employee’s leave application:  Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave. 

2.    This is from an employee who was performing the “mundan” ceremony for his 10 year old son:  “as I want to shave my son’s head, please leave me for two days..”

 3.    Leave-letter from an employee who was performing his daughter’s wedding:   “as I am marrying my daughter, please grant a week’s leave.” 

4.    From the administration dept:   “As my mother-in-law has expired and I am only one responsible for it, please grant me 10 days leave.” 

5.    Application for half day leave:   “Since I’ve to go to the cremation ground at 10 o-clock and I may not return, please grant me half day casual leave.” 

6.    Sick leave application letter –   “I am suffering from fever, please declare one day holiday.” 

7.    A leave letter to the headmaster:   “As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today” 

8.    Another leave letter written to the headmaster:   “As my headache is paining, please grant me leave for the day.”

 9.    Covering note:   “I am enclosed herewith…”

10.   Another one:   “Dear Sir: with reference to the above, please refer to my below…” 

11.   Actual letter written for application of leave:   “My wife is suffering from sickness and as I am her only husband at home I may be granted leave”. 

12.   Sample of Letter writing Indian style, sorry ishtyle: –   “I am in well here and hope you are also in the same well.”

 13.   A candidate’s job application: “This has reference to your advertisement calling for a ‘ Typist and an Accountant – Male or Female’… As I am both for the past several years and I can handle both with good experience, I am applying for the post.”

Now I am reading the above and becoming silent for long time and then I am writing the below:

 We have already won the Booker prize more than one time. We have got the writers like RK Narayan and poets like the Nissim Ezekiel. List is very long of illustrious Indian writers writing in the English. And before them all was our Kobi Guru Robindranath Thakur most popularly known as Ravindranath Tagore. But none of these writers have  equaled the genius of our unknown Indian writers.  This is post colonial English. This is 100% genuine Indian English, born and brought up on the Indian soil. This absolutely correct Post Colonial English. What a fun this is!

And this fun is spreading all over the world! Yes, yes! God promise! Don’t be sanguine. The revolution is happening; it is spreading from Tiffin time to Tiffin time. Jai Ho!


This post previously appeared in Rumjhum Biswas’s blog – Writers & WriterismsRumjhum Biswas lives and writes in Chennai.

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