Separating a subject from its verb with a comma

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With very few exceptions, commas should not be inserted between the subject of a sentence and the verb.

A comma indicates a break in the sentence, and since the subject is linked to the verb (the subject carries out the action expressed in the verb), it is incorrect to separate the two by using a comma.

Writers may be inclined to insert a comma in speech because the speaker may pause at this point in the conversation. With regard to narrative, however, the insertion of a comma between the subject and the verb separates the direct link between them. This makes for awkward reading as the reader has to understand the reason for the break, and if there is one, it can spoil the flow of the sentence and then the enjoyment of what is being read.

Just to put all of this in perspective, recently, I had to proofread a novel that had already been copy-edited by one of the largest publishing companies in the world. The copy-editor persisted in placing commas between the subject and the verb.

Here are just a few examples of what I found:

Doris stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, and sighed.

The pain was slowly making its way up his jawline, and was now pounding like a pneumatic drill in his temples.

She didn’t argue this time, but slipped outside the workshop and spoke with the two men waiting outside.

He felt so guilty, and vowed never to abandon his brother again.

He glared at her, but didn’t speak.

Suffice to say that in none of the above examples should the comma appear.

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Using the adverbs any more and anymore correctly

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In the last two books I have read the adverb any more was used instead of the adverb anymore. Is this correct? Here are some examples of what I read:

I tell him I don’t want to talk any more.

She didn’t love Alexander any more.

Nobody was singing any more.

Nothing mattered, not any more.

She felt nothing for Hugh any more.

Any more and anymore have related meanings but they are not interchangeable.

Any more

We use any more as a determiner to mean an indefinite quantity of something. Any more is similar to ‘some more’ in some contexts. And any more is common in questions, in clauses with if, and in sentences with negative words such as hardly, never, and scarcely.


Do you need any more advice?
Would you like any more wine with your meal?
If you find any more stains on the carpet, will you tell me, please?
We’ve hardly had any more rain than last month.
We were never any more than good friends.


Anymore may be used as an adverb, meaning ‘no longer’ or ‘in the past but not now’, ‘still’, or ‘any longer’.


The cost of our central heating is not cheap anymore.
We don’t go abroad anymore.
He used to be a good, solid worker but not anymore.

Notice that as an adverb anymore, more often than not, comes at the end of a sentence.


Use any more when talking about quantity and use anymore when talking about time. And when using the adverb any more, ask yourself how important the word ‘any’ is. Is the word ‘any’ really necessary?

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Less versus fewer

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Here are examples of where the two words are used incorrectly:

The town has less cars entering the centre, now that it has decided on a policy of pedestrianisation. [Incorrect]

The town has fewer cars entering the centre, now that it has decided on a policy of pedestrianisation. [Correct]

There are less runners in the race today. [Incorrect]

There are fewer runners in the race today. [Correct]

The express lane is only for shoppers with ten items or less. [Incorrect]

The express lane is only for shoppers with ten items or fewer. [Correct]

The rules:

Less should only be used with mass nouns that cannot be counted, such as less money, less time, or less energy.

Less means not as much.

Fewer is used with countable things such as people, books, or clubs.

Fewer means not as many.

Over ten years ago, Tesco had signs in its stores saying “10 items or less” for customers wanting to avoid standing in lengthy queues.

This came to the attention of the Plain English Campaign. Their members came up with an alternative which was “Up to 10 items” to avoid the grammatical error.

Are there any exceptions to the rules above?

Well, yes there are!

The tendency is to use less than rather than less. This phrase is correct when less than is used before a plural noun.  


He has less than 5 minutes to finish his speech.

They had less than three miles to complete the race.

She earns a salary of less than £20,000 per year.

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The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags

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Dialogue tags are used in different ways and to varying degrees in fiction writing. One writer, I noticed, regarded them in a metaphorical sense as ‘seasoning’ and not ‘the main ingredient’ in writing. A dialogue tag is also called an ‘attribution’ — a small phrase that is used before, or after, or in between the dialogue. And this is important because it enables the reader to identify the speaker, which can be quite difficult if you have more than two people having a conversation. 

The said tag is probably the most common one, having the advantage of being neutral in its application. It becomes almost a silent tag — one which the reader resonates with but one that equally becomes almost invisible in its use.

However, the said tag is often criticised for its overuse in fiction writing. And the maxim ‘Show, don’t tell’ is not easily followed when using said bookisms.

The purpose of this post is very briefly to look at ways in which the said tag works well and where it doesn’t and to look at alternatives such as said bookisms.

The said tag for identification

Example one:

‘Hi,’ said Richard. ‘How’s it going?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jessica said.

Richard said, ‘Well, all I wanted to know is how’s the revision going?’

‘What? You must be joking!’ said Jessica sarcastically. ‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you coming with me?’

As one can see, the overuse of the said tag is quite overwhelming. It becomes repetitive, stilted, and very annoying. It also takes the reader away from the point of the conversation, making them focus on the said tags. It does a disservice to the writer in trying to communicate their story because if the focus is on the said words, the point of the story is lost!

Where there are only two people having a conversation, the said tags are only necessary for identification unless there is a considerable amount of conversation taking place.

Example two:

‘Hi,’ said Richard. ‘How’s it going?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jessica said.

 ‘Well, all I wanted to know is how’s the revision going?’

 ‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you coming with me?’

Here, the said tag is almost invisible in so far as it has any noticeable effect on the reader. Used sparingly and appropriately, it works well.

The use of said bookisms

A said bookism is a way of avoiding the word said in the tag. Go on the internet and you will find literally hundreds of these alternatives to the word said. It is even possible to purchase said books, hence the name said bookism.

Verbs like laughed, sighed, replied, exclaimed, and hissed will be familiar with readers as alternative ways of overcoming the repeated use of the word said. Some verbs like asked, and, to a lesser extent, replied are perfectly acceptable substitutes.

However, verbs such as laughed, shrugged, or smiled are not acceptable at all because the character cannot say these words.

Actions in place of said tags and said bookisms

Using phrases in place of said tags or said bookisms is a great way to keep the reader interested in the story and not become irritated by the way the action is spoken. Here is the same set of speech written in a different way.

Example three:

Richard came bounding over to Jessica, who was on her way to the university library to revise for her sociology exam.  

‘How’s it going?’

Richard was keen to coax his friend Jessica to go into the library with him to revise for end-of-year exams.

Jessica flung her bag over her shoulder and flicked her head towards Richard, somewhat annoyed by his enthusiasm. He always studied, she thought bitterly. Richard was the college bookworm. She waited for him to come up to her.

‘Are you coming with me, then?’

 ‘Where to?’  She knew that was a dumb question to ask.

‘The library, of course.’

Picking up her bags she gave Richard a cold stare.

‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you joining me?’

Looking at the above conversation, the verbs said, asked, replied, and exclaimed could have a place in the story, but they are not needed. The actions of the characters speak for themselves.

Remove unnecessary dialogue tags, which slow this part of the story down, in favour of emphasising the action

Example four:

‘I want you to keep me company tonight,’ Max said. He kissed his girlfriend on the lips.

But better still and easier to follow:

‘I want you to keep me company tonight.’ He kissed his girlfriend on the lips.

Don’t use dialogue tags to repeat what the dialogue has just told the reader

Example five:

Sam and Alice, who were engaged, were embroiled in a fierce argument about Sam messaging a girl on Facebook.

‘Who is she?’ asked Alice.

‘Just someone I knew years ago,’ replied Sam.

‘That’s not good enough. You’re always so evasive. Tell me her name and where she lives. I’ll throttle the bitch!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘No you won’t because she’s your best mate!’ hissed Sam.

As can be seen, the use of each dialogue tag is completely unnecessary.

A good tag doesn’t impair how natural the speech sounds

Example six:

The said word makes perfect sense when the writer wants to focus on the way a character speaks and on what he / she says without using said bookisms.

Mike forced the gun into the back of Raff as they walked into the lounge and said, ‘Ya know I’m going to shoot ya, if you so much as open that big gob of yours, don’t ya?’

‘Please, Mike, mate,’ said Raff. ‘Do I look that bleedin’ stupid?’

The said words could be replaced with said bookisms such as whispered, hissed (Mike) and spluttered, whined (Raff), but both the context and the action render such words as unnecessary.

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The Double Possessive

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This is the first of two parts, in that I believe it is easier to grasp somewhat complex grammatical issues in bitesize chunks wherever possible. At least that is the theory.

One of the websites below discusses this issue in the encapsulating title Double Genitive: Twice as Much Possession.

Here we go then.

My author, Kerry Barnes, wrote these sentences in her latest book: The Rules.

‘Victor was a close and trusted friend of my father’s. He’s now on my payroll, so we can speak freely in his company.’

‘You hoped to brainwash me into believing that you had my back, that I couldn’t survive without you, while you picked and clawed away at my business and my money, but, most of all, my name and that of my father’s.’

Why, you might ask, does a second possessive need to be included in the phrase trusted friend of my father’s and my name and that of my father’s?

Isn’t the fact that the word ‘of’ is sufficient by itself to imply possession in each of the above cases? The purpose of this post is to answer this question.

So, what is a double genitive?

It occurs when the preposition ‘of’ and the apostrophe plus s are shown in a phrase, clause, or sentence.

Grammar has structure, and so you won’t be surprised to find that there are rules here that help a writer to get the double possessive right every time!

One rule is that the object of the preposition ‘of’ has to be be definite and human. But where it is inanimate, we do not use the double possessive.

The second rule is that what precedes the word ‘of’ will be indefinite.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Where the double genitive is used

The chambers contain photographs of the judge’s.

  • Where the double genitive is not used

The chambers contain photographs of the judge.

Immediately one can see why a double genitive is needed in the first case but not in the second. The double possessive enables the reader to distinguish very clearly the semantic meaning of the sentence. In the first example, the reader should grasp that the photographs in the judge’s chambers belong to the judge. In the second example, the reader is expected to interpret this as meaning that in the judge’s chambers there are photographs of the judge.

Clear then, I take it?

Well, let’s see, shall we? What about the examples below?

I am a friend of Kerry Barnes’s.

Actually I am her editor, but I am also a friend of hers.

I am a friend of Kerry Barnes.

Are these meanings the same? Actually, they are not, and so the double genitive has a useful purpose in avoiding ambiguity.

In the first example, I am saying that Kerry Barnes looks upon me as a friend of hers. In this example, the reader will interpret this as Kerry Barnes being instrumental in having a more active role in the relationship. In the second example, I am saying that I see her as a friend of mine.

As alluded to above, when referring to inanimate objects, the double possessive is not permitted.

So, for example, he is a friend of the cricket club’s is incorrect: it should read he is a friend of the cricket club. The clue here is in the word ‘a friend’ which makes this definite and of course ‘cricket club’, which is inanimate.

The second and related post will look at possessive pronouns: mine, thine, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs.

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Sat versus Sitting … and Stood versus Standing

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Sat versus Sitting . . . and Stood versus Standing

I cannot count the number of times I have heard a reporter use the phrase was sat instead of the correct phrase was sitting. And here’s another incorrect phrase: he was stood at the bus stop instead of he was standing at the bus stop (unless, of course, he was physically put there!). Broadcasters, newspapers, and writers, it seems, are at fault for the misuse of these verbs. So do people say these phrases because they do not realise they are speaking ungrammatically, or do they say them because they are seen as an acceptable form of speech?

Personally, and this is anecdotal, I feel these words have crept into misuse only in the last few years. And as more and more people see these words in print or they are heard on the airwaves, they will be accepted as correct. As far as dialogue is concerned, if this accurately portrays the person, I haven’t a problem with it, but I feel writers have a duty to write correctly in narrative.

Here are some examples I have read. Both books, incidentally, are published by worldwide publishing companies. God help us all!


Daisy was sat on the edge of her bed, done up to the nines.

Her children were sat at the table behind her, throwing their food around like hand grenades, and she just didn’t have the energy to stop them.

Saskia was sat bolt upright in the single easy chair . . .

But right now she was sat in the kitchen of a man who’d said his wife was out . . .

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Using advanced punctuation in direct speech

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Should punctuation in direct speech mirror that of punctuation in the narrative of novels?

Firstly, it needs to be made clear that the kind of punctuation being discussed here applies only to semicolons and colons — in other words advanced punctuation. Secondly, other punctuation (such as the comma, full stop, em dash, and exclamation mark) appear so regularly in novels that it is pointless to argue against the inclusion of these forms of punctuation.

So back to the use of semicolons and colons.

For my part, I do not see why they are entirely necessary, although, on occasions, I understand they do provide another way of communicating an author’s thoughts through their characters. And, when the dialogue is lengthy, varying the punctuation (by using a semicolon for example) may help to communicate the character’s thoughts better.

One reason why I do not think they are necessary in the main is that the comma and full stop do an adequate job of addressing the punctuation of phrases, clauses, and sentences themselves. Another reason is that when I read what a character is saying, I am also putting myself in the place of that character, and I would not speak in such a way that semicolons and colons were necessary — for the most part.

But some authors use advanced punctuation and it appears to work — notwithstanding the point that a comma and a full stop might do the job just as adequately. And here is a final thought that I found on the internet referring to the use of advanced punctuation in dialogue: there is no sense in buying a specialised tool when you can use a general one just as effectively.

The Direct Object, the Indirect Object, and the Object of the Preposition

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The eye and the ear: a short analysis of the direct object, the indirect object, and the object of the preposition

This post will not cover in detail issues relating to the direct object, the indirect object, and the object of preposition. I like to write short posts, and so perhaps, at another time, I will return to this area of grammar.

Sometimes a sentence seems to work semantically but not grammatically. It is the way the sentence is constructed that is the problem. Many books can now be bought in an audio format. Listening to a sentence that on the face of it is not constructed grammatically but which sounds fine to the ear shouldn’t be an issue for the narrator of the story or for the person listening to it. This will certainly be the case if the sentence makes perfect sense semantically but not grammatically. I have given an example below of what I mean.

On the other hand, when a sentence is written in a book that is grammatically incorrect, there is the potential for the reader to focus on the error rather than on the intent of the sentence. Rather like a poorly placed piece of punctuation – or even a lack of it – the reader may find their enjoyment of the story spoiled if the construction of the sentence lacks grammatical polish.

Skip this part, if you want to get to the thrust of the post

Were any of us taught anything about the direct object, the indirect object, and the object of the preposition, I wonder? It is quite possible you weren’t. I know I wasn’t!

In the examples below (just two), I am going into a little detail to define what is meant by these terms.

Example 1

I baked Margaret a cake.

Here the direct object cake is the result of the action performed by the subject I. It answers the question ‘what?’ or, in this case, ‘who?’ after an action verb.

An indirect object precedes the direct object and tells ‘to whom’ or ‘for whom’ the action of the verb is done and ‘who’ is receiving the direct object. And an indirect object is always a noun or pronoun that is not part of a prepositional phrase. The indirect object refers to Margaret as she is the one receiving the direct object. She is therefore the beneficiary of the direct object.

Example 2

I baked a cake for Margaret.

Notice the sentence is almost identical, but Margaret appears at the end of the sentence, and the preposition for precedes Margaret. In this case Margaret becomes the object of the preposition.

How can you tell if a word is an indirect object or the object of a preposition? If the noun or pronoun comes just after a preposition, then it is the object of a preposition. If it does not come just after a preposition, then it is an indirect object. The indirect object is usually followed by a direct object. The object of a preposition is not and is often found at the end of a sentence.

Hopefully, it is now clear how these three elements of grammar work in a sentence.

Back to the focus of the post

So to the point of the post. The sentence below focuses on the incorrect position of the indirect object.

Then she pulled from under her bed a photo album.

To me, this seems perfectly understandable. Semantically, I don’t have a problem with it. If I heard this said in an audiobook, I would be fine with it. But grammatically, it is expressed incorrectly. And it becomes a problem when the sentence appears in a book. It sticks out like a sore thumb. This is because bed, the object of the preposition in the phrase from under her bed, precedes the direct object photo album.

To express this sentence correctly, the prepositional phrase should come after the direct object. Like this:

Then she pulled a photo album from under her bed.

Examining the sentence in detail we have the following:

But now, the sentence below has been rewritten grammatically.

Then she pulled a photo album from under her bed.

The principal constituents of this sentence to focus on are the words photo album, from, and bed. The way this part of grammar works is as follows:

The direct object photo album receives the action performed by the subject she. It shows the result of the action. It answers the question ‘What?’ or, in this case, ‘Who?’ after an action verb. The phrase ‘from under her bed’ is a prepositional one; so it would be correct to refer to the word bed as the object of the preposition.

Pulling it all together

There may be people who disagree, but for me — and leaving aside direct speech, which has its own form of language depending on the genre — what is audibly expressed in the story does not matter to anything like the same extent as to what is read in the story.

Perhaps it is because when we listen to what the narrator is saying, we do not have time to think about the grammatical aspect so much. Or could it be that the narrator’s skill masks the incorrect grammar used?

However, when we read the story for ourselves, the author cannot hide their incorrect use of the English language!

So, I for one, do not mind at all seeing the following sentence said in an audiobook:

She pulled from under her bed a photo album.

In fact, as it is being said in the story, I can quite easily see in my mind what is happening.

However, I can also see why grammarians and those who do not consider themselves as such but who do know the principles of grammar may wish to see the sentence expressed correctly:

She pulled a photo album from under her bed.

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Parallelism and Fiction Writing

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Sometimes while reading novels I find myself stopping at the end of a sentence and saying to myself, ‘What is going on here?’  The problem isn’t necessarily because of the story itself. No, it’s more a question of the placement of words in the sentence that don’t seem to relate properly to one another.

Here are some examples:

A friend of mine likes singing, acting, and to read.

The policeman walked down the street, jumped over a fence, and sprinted away.

He ran after her, grabbing her by the arm and turned her around to find her face tear-stained and shiny.

Each of these sentences poses problems in the way they are written.

The first one would read better if the two gerunds singing and acting, which work well together, were linked by the last action read as reading (a noun) to produce three gerunds all linked with the same verb form likes.

In the second sentence, the verb endings are the same throughout, but the third action of the policeman would have been more interesting had we been told where he had sprinted.

In the final sentence, another mix of tenses is being used, the past participle tense grabbing and the past tense turned. And note there are actually three actions going on here, not two, so they would read better if they were all separated by commas.

Reviewing these sentences once more, they would read better as follows:

A friend of mine likes singing, acting, and reading.

The policeman walked down the street, jumped over a fence, and sprinted through a hedge.

He ran after her, grabbed her by the arm, and turned her around, to find her face tear-stained and shiny.

Mixing words that don’t quite work spoils the writing, in my opinion. To quote Alice E. M. Underwood from the link below:

A sentence with parallel construction makes your writing effective. A sentence with parallel construction makes your writing classy. A sentence with parallel construction makes your writing certain to impress anyone who reads your stuff.

I think that advice makes sense and I commend it to writers.

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Where two nouns or two noun phrases are placed side by side they are said to be in apposition. In writing fiction and in academic articles, the identification and renaming assumes great importance.

They are often introduced by such words as namely, or for example, or that is, or in other words. They help clarification.

The main issue for the writer is whether the second noun or noun phrase needs to be set off with commas. In other words, is the second noun or noun phrase essential to the meaning of the sentence? If it is, then commas serve no useful purpose because they would otherwise suggest that what is enclosed in parentheses is not strictly necessary, when, in fact, it is. If, on the other hand, the noun or noun phrase is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, they can be set off with commas.

Examples: non-restrictive appositive noun

My sister-in-law, Pauline, is experiencing problems with her car not starting properly.

Usain Bolt, Olympic champion, and a member of the Jamaican team, has fans across the world.

In both the above cases, the noun (first example) and the noun phrase (second example) illustrate how to use the appositive correctly. Each appositive is non-essential to the sentence. In the first case, the person in question is my sister-in-law, and she is the only sister-in-law I have. Readers who are unfamiliar with my family would assume, quite correctly in this case, that I have included Pauline’s name in the sentence to provide additional information, not essential information. In the second example, the person reading this sentence would have had to live under a rock all the time that Usain Bolt has been in action for them not to be aware of how well known Bolt is. So, placing his fame in parentheses is correct.

Examples: restrictive appositive noun

There are, however, occasions when the noun or noun phrase cannot be separated with commas because the information is essential for it to make sense to the reader. Here are some examples:

My friend Peter Thomas has his sixty-sixth birthday next April.

The story The Winner is written by David Baldacci. It is about a woman who cheats the United States Lottery.

The author Kerry Barnes has written a trilogy about the Vincent family.

There is another test that the writer can use to check whether they have punctuated the appositive noun or noun phrase in the sentence correctly. When the sentence is read either silently or aloud, the reader can often judge where a comma is required, just by the pronounced emphasis on where the comma needs to be placed.

Test yourself:

A Alex, one of my brothers, sang in the choir this morning.
B Athlete Iona Lake won the 3000-metre race last week.
C My friend John has bought over one hundred and twenty cars in his lifetime.
D Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, is often referred to as a minimalist writer.

Answers are as follows:

A Alex, one of my brothers, sang in the choir this morning. [non-restrictive]B Athlete Iona Lake won the 3,000-metre race last week. [restrictive]C My friend John has bought over one hundred and twenty cars in his lifetime. [restrictive]D Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, is often referred to as a minimalist writer.  [non-restrictive]

Rationale for this on request.

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