The Infamous Gave

Hi Folks,

Note: Many  beginning writers still believe they can publish a novel and make a living. Nope. Not even through traditional publishing. One of the best quotes I’ve ever seen on the topic is from Dean Wesley Smith: “Here is the thinking if you expect to make a living from one book. Put $2,500 in the bank and then wonder why you are not living off the payment from the interest.” Think about that. Okay, here’s the scheduled post.

You know I used to be a freelance copyeditor. Often, I happened across the inappropriate use of the verb “gave” in a manuscript.

Anytime that happened, I immediately conducted a global search to find each instance all the way through so I could repair those sentences up front. It was a task, because most often, when I found one such instance, a lot more of them were lurking later in the manuscript.

The fact is, folks who misuse this infamous verb usually misuse it a lot.

Using “gave” inappropriately creates the same kind of diversion as saying “umm” a lot during the course of a speech.

After a while, audience members stop listening to the speech and start counting occurrences of “umm.” Likewise, readers find themselves wondering when you’re going to quit “giving” things that can’t be given.

A writer once asked, “Which sentence is correct, or are they both correct?”

 “I gave a quick look at Nick Campbell, and he gave me a subtle nod for me to continue.”

 “I gave a quick look at Nick Campell, and he gave me a subtle nod to continue.”

 Well, I didn’t care for either of them. Here’s why:

“Give” is most often a transitive verb, meaning you actually give (or hand or grant) something to someone. Using it as the writer used it in those sentences is all right occasionally, if it isn’t overused.

And of course, anytime a character uses it this way in dialogue, that’s fine. It’s wrong, but most people misuse various words and constructions when they speak. So that’s good.

What is written in narrative should be correct so it doesn’t call attention to itself and away from the story. And no, most of the time it doesn’t matter whether the narrator is also a character.

In the examples the writer provided, “nod to continue” was also awkward.

To fix both problems (verb and phrase), I recommended he write, “I glanced at Nick Campbell and he nodded, indicating I should continue.” (Nick didn’t indicate the speaker should continue. Nick’s NOD indicated he should continue.)

When you “give” someone a nod or a smile or a look or a glance, that indicates to the reader that the recipient has something now that she didn’t have before, as if you “gave” her a dollar or ring or a house.

So if you’re one of those writers who bathes in “gave,” stop it. (grin)

If you look at the third or fourth word after “gave,” most often it will be a noun (smile, wave, shake) that you can turn into a past-tense verb (smiled, waved, shook) and use in place of gave.

So don’t writeI gave him a smile.” Write “I smiled (at him).”

Don’t write “I gave her a wave” (unless you work in a hair salon). Write “I waved (to her).”

Don’t write “I gave his hand a shake” (unless you work at Sonic). Write “I shook his hand.”

However, PLEASE write “I gave him a dollar.” Not “I dollared him.”

Please write “I gave her a ring.” Not “I ringed her.”

Yeah, I know you didn’t need the last two, but a little fun never hurt anyone. Probably.

Using “gave” inappropriately is a habit. It’s akin to using the unnecessary “what it was that” phrase as in “I forgot what it was that I wanted to tell you” instead of just saying “I forgot what I wanted to tell you.”

So if you have the habit of using “gave” inappropriately, you’ll have to pay attention to your writing for a little while, maybe even consciously looking for instances of “gave.” But very soon you’ll develop a new habit: writing leaner, cleaner, more active prose.

‘Til next time,



8 thoughts on “The Infamous Gave

    • I would not personally, in my own writing, write that I “gave him the finger” unless I had just lopped it off his annoying hand and presented him with it. Of course, you also know that I lean toward dialogue whenever possible. So I might write something like this combination of narrative and dialogue:

      As I raised my right hand and flashed the international sign indicative of general annoyance, I yelled, “Hey, fo guck yourself.” But that’s just me. Ahem.

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