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Bad writing

Here are two sample sentences from a novel which I am reading.
But it was the sight of the creature looming over the two corpses that caused Miller's knees to almost buckle in terror.
That misplaced "almost" is really jarring. You don't cause something to "almost happen"; it either is caused to happen or it isn't. "Almost caused" would have been an improvement, though not much. Better yet would have been a more restrained "made his knees go weak with terror". Or indeed, why should poor Miller not be struck to his knees in shock? He is about to be killed anyway.

From a few chapters later:
He raised his cane and brandished it before him like a sword, as if warning the creature to keep back.
Many problems here. First off, one normally brandishes a cane like a cane; a sword is brandished in quite a different way. Is it significant that in this instance the cane is brandished like a sword? Or just, as I suspect, bad writing?

Second, that "as if" clause drops us out of the tight-third viewpoint of the rest of the sentence (and indeed this whole passage) to external narrator. The viewpoint character presumably knows what he is doing, and "as if" confuses the issue.

Third, the "as if" clause implies some potential uncertainty about what follows. But there can be no uncertainty here; our man is absolutely brandishing his cane, whether like a cane or like a sword, as an attempt to warn the creature to keep back. What other possibilities are there?

Rather than create a tight image of a man using the sole means at his disposal to try and warn off a threat, the sentence raises questions about his real intent, about the focus of the narrative, and about brandishing techniques, and leaves those questions unanswered.

Don't editors have a duty to watch out for this kind of thing? Or, shudder, perhaps this already is the heavily-edited, cleaned-up version...

(This is the same author who in another book wrote that someone's wounds "looked like huge purple welts", probably because they actually were huge purple welts.)


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2012 07:41 am (UTC)
I am far more forgiving of the second than the first, but even that isn't worth getting het up about.

Yes - the "almost" is unnecessary and jarring. The sentence is far better without it.

The second example is trying to convey that the owner of the cane was *holding* it like a sword and pointing it towards the person coming at him. I am ok with that. But yes - the "as if" is superfluous and unhelpful there. It *is* warning.

I have a feeling that you are upset by this because the writer is doing the same sloppy thing several times in quick succession.
Apr. 5th, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
I'm not losing-sleep upset about this! But it was irritating enough for me to fire off a blog post when I got onto my commuter train this morning rather than getting stuck into one of my other books.

(And surely those are slightly different sloppy things?)
Apr. 5th, 2012 08:11 am (UTC)
I read a book recently that included the wonderful phrase "she set off along the corridor then double-backed and went into [some room or other]", and another that said "The precise meaning of her words alluded him". The second also included an "it's" where "its" would have been correct. Gah!
Apr. 5th, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
"Double-backed" is rather delightful, though one is surprised that she was acrobatic enough to walk at the same time.
Apr. 5th, 2012 08:35 am (UTC)
Maybe he was actually waving the creature into a parking space.
Apr. 5th, 2012 08:49 am (UTC)
That's a possibility, though the scene is set in 1910. (Then again, the bloke with the cane is supposed to be retired from the Secret Service, which is impressive as it was only founded in 1909.)
Apr. 5th, 2012 09:08 am (UTC)
If I recall correctly - according to the Authorized history of MI5 - the British Empire effectively bluffed the global community into believing they not only had a spy network but that it was so good, that naturally, no-one found evidence of them. Wishful thinking on the subject was fairly rife at the time.

As for the sentences, it's a literary quirk that annoys me. Mulitiple 'nearly', 'almost' and 'close to''s littering a work will sour me on it because the author sounds confused and uncertain about what happened and I don't want to spend the time trying to work out if they're serious this time.
Apr. 5th, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
It's known to be a high-stress occupation.

All that aside, the language you quote suggests tentativeness on the part of the writer or character, like he can't quite believe what he's getting up to.
Apr. 5th, 2012 09:06 am (UTC)
Apr. 5th, 2012 01:06 pm (UTC)
You almost sound annoyed about this!

The first one doesn't bother me. Almost buckle means they feel weak, unsteady, but don't QUITE get to the point of buckling, which would drop him (probably rather inconveniently) to the floor.

The second: the "like a sword" is perfectly fine. It tells us that instead of waving his cane in the "get off my lawn or I'll hit you" pose, he's waving his cane like a rapier or something. Perfectly good image.

The "as if", though, that's not good at all.
Apr. 5th, 2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in English Literature and Language, I wholeheartedly agree with this (there is nothing grammatically incorrect with either of the sentences, seawasp sums it up perfectly here)
Apr. 7th, 2012 10:37 am (UTC)
I don't have a problem with 'almost buckle', but the construction of the phrase is rather clumsy. The following would be big improvements, in my opinion:

"[...] the sight [...] almost caused Miller's knees to buckle in terror."

"[...] the sight [...] almost buckled Miller's knees in terror." [Why does the 'caused' need to be there at all?]

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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