Kittie Howard

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pronouns and Verbs and Dialogue

Before today's post swirls in verbs and pronouns, I'd like to send prayers to the good people of New Zealand.  The horrific earthquake so sucked the breath out of Christchurch my heart cries.  I know the strong and resolute people of New Zealand will bury their dead wrapped in tears, rebuild at whatever sacrifice, and carry on with their lives, however painful.  A visit to Gallipoli several years ago defined and honored the national character of the New Zealanders and Australians (for they have suffered much from natural disasters.)  Each year, Anzac Day commemorates a spirit that neither retreats nor runs from adversity.  Sadly, this April 25th will be especially poignant.

I'd like to give a warm welcome to my new followers and a hug to older followers who've hung in there with me.  My eyes pop when I see the number, over 300!  Who, me? I think.  When I began blogging, I honestly didn't know where the experience would lead.  I thank you for the richness you've brought to my life, for all that I've learned from you, and for allowing me to be me.  Another day we'll celebrate the 300th Follower milestone. 

In the meantime, a conversation with sixteen-year-old Michelle, a neighbor's lovely daughter, triggered today's post.  When Michelle complained the YA book on their coffee table had made her "feel stupid", I asked to take a look.  The next day I returned the book, eyebrows raised.  Michele had spoken the truth.  If, however, the author (and, presumably, the editor) had paid attention to basic English grammar, an age-appropriate book with a strong plot and interesting setting would have elicited a different reaction.  Here's why:

Excessive pronoun usage caused the reader, yours truly, to flip pages to determine who was who in much of the dialogue, why a vague who said what to another vague who, and, by the way, this it referred back to . . . more flipped pages.  Without help from the author, I thought I'd fallen into Albert and Costello's Who's on First?  However, slapstick doesn't work in a non-comedic read.  The constant annoyance at flipping pages faded the plot and characterizations into a reader's survival blur, certainly not the author's intent.

The second dialogue problem I encountered involved the past progressive tense (was going, was looking, was thinking and so on.)  I knew, from teaching seventh through twelfth grades, that ninth graders (usually about 14 years old) live in the past progressive tense.  However, because all of the older characters in Michelle's book lived in this awkward tense, characterizations came across as forced and unbelievable. The past progressive tense (was going, was looking, was thinking and so on) can be an evasive tense which allows time to bridge a threatening why asked in the present progressive tense or to evade what's anticipated and so on.  Some real examples, with the teacher's thoughts, from classroom days:

Why are you standing near the window?
(When you should be seated at your desk. Hmmm.)
 I was looking to see if it was raining.        
(It's a bright sunny day. Hmm)

Why are you talking to X?
(While you're taking a test.  Hmmm.)                  
I was telling X my mother wants to talk to h/h mother. 
(While you're taking a test!  HMMM.)

Why don't you have your homework?       
(Again!  Hmmm.)
 I was cooking breakfast and an egg fell on it. 
(Really?  Hmmm.)   

The book I borrowed from Michelle, a book more for an eighteen-year-old, lived in the past progressive tense.  By the age of 18, a student's verb usage has evolved into more mature choices:

Ninth-grader:  I was going to see that movie, but my friend said it sucked.

Eighteen-year-old:  I heard that movie sucked.  Or, I've heard that movie sucked.

Michelle's book so frustrated, I thought I'd never escape that read.  I did, however, keep in mind what had irritated and made a point to listen intently to dialogues of all ages, both in real live and on television.  I found the past progressive tense common with young teens in real life turned into strong verbs on television.  Otherwise, I rarely heard the past progressive tense. . . except for one itty bitty observation:  I was just going is popular with everyone.

Hmmm, I was just going to Home Depot when the phone rang.  Honest!

No comments: