Saturday, August 31, 2013

HAD IT !!!

Every reader harbors writing pet peeves, and one of mine is the word, HAD.
Not that it isn't a perfectly good word; it has its uses. It is overuse that drives me nuts...and I'm already pretty far down that road.

So here I was, all tucked in and happily reading a new novel on my Kindle when chagrin formicated* into my bed. (No, I don't have a dog, and the hubby already slept soundly by my side.) I was infested by a horde of dreaded and dastardly HAD monsters! Totally distracted from my almost-favorite thing to do, which is reading myself to sleep, I doggedly counted the buggers.

Needless to say, I am not about to name the book here, and I have heavily edited the example so as not to have some author flaming me all over social media. This is what sent me into snitdom:

She had grown very old in the four years since he had walked away. They had married young, and for the most part, were happy. He had worked hard, while she had kept house and had babies. They had had an ordinary life until the day he had walked out.

Luckily my husband sleeps like the dead, for my scream was loud. In the good old days I'd've launched the book across the room, but Kindles are far too expensive to bounce off walls, so I girded my loins (I've always wanted to say that) and read on, albeit now highlighting HADs as I went.

I lasted for fifty more HAD'S until this sentence steered me into a ditch: He HAD grown very old in the four years since he HAD walked away from BLAH BLAH BLAH. Not only HAD he grown old, the almost identical sentence was used before to describe the wife.

The next morning—after reading another, much better, book long enough to stabilize my blood pressure and go sleepy-eyed—I Googled information on using HAD in writing, and learned I was not off my rocker. At least about the overuse of HAD. Scholars on the Internet (so they must be right, right?) agree that overuse of the word is an indication of TELLING, rather than SHOWING, something we've all been warned about. Also, said they, too many HADs make for blah/bland writing, and any sentence that begins with He had should be exterminated faster than a bed bug at the George V.

Here's my take. Once the writer establishes a paragraph, or even a chapter, as taking place in the past, one well-placed HAD is enough. Then, by using the proper verb tense, the reader knows they are being told about something from another time frame.

Am I being too harsh? Maybe, but I hereby vow to stop reading anything after the third HAD in a flashback. Take that, HAD!

*The other thing that ticks me off is having to look up a word:-)

10 comments:

Polly Iyer said...

No, you are not being too harsh. It's one of my pet peeves too. Chris Roerden in her excellent book, "Don't Murder Your Mystery," says once you set the time--in the past--that's all the "had"s you need. I had an editor with one of my publishers--and this was the third edit--who added 31 hads to a one and a half page flashback. I hit the roof and took most of them out. I'm sure the publisher rejected my next book because they thought I was such a pain in the ass, I wasn't worth the trouble. Another publisher picked it up. Too bad, because that book received the best reviews. You rant. I'll be right with you.

Jenny said...

Great post. Those paragraphs would drive me mad if I read them in a book. Now checking my manuscript to see if I overdid it on the HAD's.

Ellis Vidler said...

Agree! One is usually enough to establish the time frame. Readers can take it from there without having their hand held.

Jinx Schwartz said...

Polly, Jenny and Ellis...thanks for your comments. I enjoy a little rant now and again, but especially if I hit a nerve:-)

Susan Hawthorne said...

I so agree! Another thing that drives me nuts is seeing "your" instead of "you're"

And speaking of having to look words up - I'm a fan of fantasy and for some reason many fantasy writers think they should name characters things like " Fgkrrtvph". What? Every time I come to that totally unpronounceable name I have to stop reading and try to figure out how to say it. Finally I just have to give up on the book because I get so stumbled up over the name I can't remember the storyline anymore!! Grrr!

Patricia Knight said...

Comment: Agree 100% with your thoughts on "had".

Question: Why do you dislike looking up a word?

Earl Staggs said...

Jinx, I'll gird my loins alongside yours and join your Anti-HAD Army. Every time I see a gaggle of them, I get grumpy and can't enjoy what I'm reading.

Shalanna said...

I have had (heh) the opposite experience. I find that many authors now delete "had" from sentences that DO need to be in the past perfect. I agree that to go into a flashback (which shouldn't happen too often--they've been out of style since Herman Wouk went off the best-seller lists around the 1990s), you only want to use the past perfect for the first couple of sentences, and then you've established it's in story past. That's fine.

But people are now afraid to use "had" when they ought to. Worse, the erroneous use of "would have" is all over the place. "If he would have called me" when it should be "If he had called me" or "Had he called me" is all over the place. This is not "Evolution Of Language," either, as it muddies the meaning. There is already a perfectly good way to say both things. Clarity above all.

We must not let current faddism such as an aversion to "had" or the "be" verbs confuse the reader! We must not obsess over the idea that every "be" verb is bad. "The tire is flat" or "The tire was flat" is idiomatic in English. Is there another way you can say that without going into convoluted stuff? I don't believe so. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the parts of the language that have been around forever are there for a reason.

Again--introducing a flashback or mini-flash calls for only a couple of instances of past perfect. Agreed there.

However, when authors delete all instances of "had" the way I have seen in some Kindle books, it muddies the meaning and is wrong.

Shalanna said...

I'm with Patricia. Why don't you like looking up a word? I love discovering useful new words.

The way I was taught to read seems different from the way many people were taught. What was I taught to do when I encounter an unfamiliar word? First, I try to get meaning from the context. "The fleep hopped across the grass" is pretty easy. It's like a rabbit or a grasshopper (duh). Further context clues should tell me which. If this doesn't work, though, such as in the case of "It was a numinous morning, the gloaming full of shiny pennies," I like to look up the word later. I generally make a guess as to what it means so I can compare later how close I was. Usually you can tell if the root word is Latinate or from the Greek or whatnot, so you can make guesses from there sometimes. Made-up words are fun for me. Always have been. "Leebossa" for "really great and wonderful," for example. That one's out of Ursula Nordstrom's THE SECRET LANGUAGE.

But we're all different. I think it's good to look up words at least now and then. On the Kindle, I find it amusing when the Kindle constantly offers definitions of any word the cursor is next to. E-readers make it really easy to look things up, which is one big plus for them!

Jinx Schwartz said...

Actually, I love new learning new words...I was being facetious, thus the :-)
I just wish they would not crop up when I'm dozing off, thereby making me look them up. Doesn't happen often, but I guess leaning something new is worth it.