Inconceivable Diction: an Intervention with Inigo Catoya

This post is brought to you by:

I know, I know: he’s not a cat. Can we nonetheless agree that Mr. Montoya makes an excellent point about some of our ability to choose words in a way that you won’t lose your readers?


Fine. Here’s Inigo Catoya:

Image You killed my father. Prepare to cuddle.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s say you’re writing about your cat–not a stretch, right? You’ve got the cat right in front of you, lounging decadently yet sophisticatedly on the windowsill, and all you want, with every iota of your being, is to communicate the grace and beauty you see before you. Your task now is to pick the right word.

Then this happens:

She walked into the room. She saw the cat. The cat looked directly at her with a smoldering green gaze.

Here’s how that works when I read it:

First sentence: cool. Second sentence: cool. Third sentence: ooh, smoldering! Nice word cho–what is “gaze” doing there?

A screeching halt, that’s what happens. No one is going to get carried away by your verbiage if they have to stop and process what’s happening. And this is what I imagine when I see “gaze” used that way:


The gaze is the invisible line between your eyeballs and whatever you’re looking at. “Invisible” is the key word. Eyes can be blue; a gaze cannot be blue. (“Cannot” in this case meaning, “your editor will be imagining blue lasers beaming from your character’s eyes.” If this is your intention, by all means, carry on.) A gaze can, however, be intense or glassy or passionate or whatever. A gaze can also travel at will. “His eyes wandered across the room” is ambiguous at best and requires immediate medical attention at worst.

A look and a gaze are close relatives. Both of them work as verbs and nouns:

The cat looked at me incredulously.

The cat gave me an incredulous look.


The cat gazed at me, murder in its eyes.

The cat’s gaze was murderous.


What you see right before you die.

Even eye works this way:

The cats eyes were full of promises of what was to come.

The cat eyed me like he knew what he was doing.



But when the thing you’re picturing in your mind is your character’s eyes, for the love of cats, say “eyes.” Don’t say “look” or “gaze” or something weird like “scan.” If you use “scan” as a noun, this is what I will picture:


Cat scan. HEH HEH.

“But but but,” I can hear you saying, “I have to talk about my cat’s eyes for six sentences! If I keep using, ‘eyes’ every time, it’ll be really repetitive!”

First of all, if your paragraph is dwelling so heavily on one thing that you have to dig deep into the pits of the thesaurus to avoid repetition, one might choose to take it as a sign that something needs to change. Something that is not word choice. Second, there are still plenty of other things you can use to describe the thing on your cat’s face that it uses to watch birds out the window. Let’s use as our example a confused cat, because it turns out there are a lot of those on the Internet.

The cat’s face showed his confusion.



Confusion radiated from the cat’s countenance.


The cat looked severely confused and alarmed.



There you have it: gaze and eyes (and some other stuff). Mess it up and Inigo Catoya will give you scans of withering scorn…


…or something.


Let Sleeping Cats Lie

You’re not going to like this, grammar cats. I don’t like it either. I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off:

“Lie” and “lay” are two different words.



Lay and lie get confused because even though they have slightly different meanings, they share the word “lay.” The present tense of “to lay” is the same as the past tense of “to lie.” So we can say:

Frank decided to lay the cat on the dog while the dog lay sleeping.

catTerrible idea, Frank.

The first “lay” is from “to lay”; the second is the past tense of “to lie.” Are you confused yet? Well, it gets worse: Speaking as someone who has to look this up four or five times a week even though I know the rule, I’ve realized that you just have to memorize it.


But it’s okay! Cats can help us. If there’s one thing in the world cats are good at, it’s being motionless.


Like a goddamn champion.


Though we all know cats are noble and honest by nature, they’re good at lying…on things. The present tense of to lie is lie; the past tense is lay; the past perfect tense is had lain.


When you use lay, it should usually take an object. So if you find yourself typing lay, ask yourself, “laying what?” (If you’re not laying anything, you probably want to use lie.) The present tense of to lay is lay; the past tense is laid; the past perfect tense is had laid.

Now I’m going to bombard you with examples.

Present Tense:


Lie: The cat lies on the book.

Lay: She lays the cat on the book and realizes she’s not going to get to read it anytime soon.

Present Continuous Tense:


Lie: The cat is lying on the floor, minding its own business.

Lay: Someone is laying office supplies on that poor, long-suffering creature.

Past Tense:


Lie: Grumpy Cat lay in some jerkface’s hands.

Lay: Jack laid Grumpy Cat down and apologized.

Past Perfect Tense:


Lie: The cat had lain too close to the tracks because it thought it had eight lives left.

Lay: He had laid his cat down in the subway station, so he no longer had a cat.

There you go! Repeat those examples to yourself a few thousand times (or put it on a sticky note and attach it to your monitor) and you’ll be ready to navigate treacherous examples like:

The standing lion laid its mouth on the lying lion.

big cats

I’m sure it’s an affectionate gesture.

Deep Thoughts with Muffie the Cat

Grammar Kittens, they tell me it’s a new year. A time for fresh starts and resolutions. While many of you may be working on your vows to exercise more…


…or something, let’s make a collective grammar resolution, okay? Okay. Here it is:

We are all going to get it together when it comes to writing about characters’ thoughts.

Is this the biggest problem that English literature faces? No. Does it make me want to shoot laser beams out of my eyes?



What am I talking about, you inquire? As a matter of fact, I can show you many problems with one example:

Why had his owner given him such a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought to himself?

Though fiction editors are notoriously well-adjusted individuals, this sort of thing will make your editor get emotional in the margins and have to do a little deep breathing.

Direct thoughts are pretty much what they sounds like: you are showing exactly what a character is thinking, as they think it. Dialogue shows what a character is saying; a direct thought shows what he’s thinking.

A lot of the problems in the example above can be avoided if we simply pretend that the direct thought is dialogue. If Muffie were whining to his friends about his predicament, he would probably say this:

“Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?” Muffie the cat asked.


This cat is probably named Muffie.

You will notice several key differences:

1) Verb tense: If a thought is being portrayed as the character thinks it, it should be in the tense the character would actually use. That sounds simple. Apparently it is very difficult to remember, because sometimes it comes up. Since Muffie is as stupid a name now as it was yesterday, we’d say, Why did his owner give him such a stupid name?

2) Person: If you think of yourself in third person, we have bigger fish to fry. Let’s change that to: Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?

3) Punctuation: Remember that thing about dialogue? You would never put the final punctuation on a sentence after the dialogue tag (though sometimes that comes up too) (deep breaths). Hence, Why did my owner give me such a stupid name? Muffie the cat thought to himself.

4) Extraneous crap: “He thought to himself” is repetitive like “ATM machine” is repetitive.” Under no set of circumstances can the inclusion of something like “to himself”–or “silently” or “in his mind”–avoid confusion that the reader would otherwise have been plunged into.


“But did he think it out loud or silently?”

No. No one is going to be confused about that. The absence of quotation marks and the word “thought” are blinking neon clues that what is being thought is being thought deep, deep inside Muffie’s head. Once again, you may think that surely this has never in the history of all literature come up in an actual manuscript, but you would be incorrect. (More deep breaths.)

Speaking of italics, they’re a handy tool for conveying direct thought. In much the same way that quotes stake out the beginning and end of dialogue, italics can be used to show the boundaries of the thought. A common practice, and generally a pretty foolproof one, is to omit the italics when a direct thought tag is present. Thus:

Muffie is a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought.


Muffie is a stupid name. Muffie gazed out the window, feeling tragic.

Note the comma in the first example and the period in the second. “Thought” functions the same way “said” would if “Muffie is a stupid name” were spoken aloud. Call it a thought tag, like a dialogue tag. “Muffie gazed out the window,” being a regular old sentence, should keep its distance from the direct thought with a period.

So there you have it. All the rules. Now it’s up to you, Grammar Kittens. Make 2013 the year of writing direct thoughts properly:



Or make it the year of editors with laser eyes.:


If You Want Me to Understand the Sentence, Maybe You Could Put the Words in the Right Order.

We have our first requested topic:

My cat is fascinated with dangling modifiers, and pretty much anything else dangling, but my professor, who is normally very much like a cat, is not a fan at all. What are they and who should I believe?


Osten makes a good point: dangling modifiers, like other dangling things, are highly attractive to cats. But Grammar Cats know better than the fall for the ploy.

cat with string


Dangling modifiers come in many flavors:

Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

You will notice these sentences have one thing in common: each contains a phrase that should be connected to a particular word in the sentence, but is instead connected to something else. That phrase is the dangling modifier. Why dangling? Maybe because it’s not attached to the word it’s supposed to be attached to. Or maybe because that’s kind of how it feels to read it, like you’re dangling.


Like this, but less comfortable.

On the off chance that you see nothing wrong with those example sentences, let me break this down.

First example: Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

Stepping out through the cat door must refer to the cat, because birds do not go through cat doors (the very idea!). But as soon as your eyes slide from the participle phrase, where do they land? On the bird. A reader ignorant in the ways of cats would assume the bird is the one stepping out through the cat door, which is preposterous.

Second example: The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The friends don’t have a bird clamped in their mouths; otherwise why would they be jealous? But even once readers work out that the phrase must refer to the cat, there’s no noun to which we can attach the bird clamped in his mouth. “The cat’s hunting skills” aren’t holding a bird in its (their?) mouth either.

Third example: The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Either the cat or the bird could be chasing its tail. Birds don’t really chase their tails, but how would you know from the sentence?

Fourth example: Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

Tall, dark, and handsome appears to be grammatically attached to the bird. In fact, those ignorant readers might float along, believing it does refer to the bird. This is obviously incorrect, as cats alone can be tall, dark, and handsome, but the sentence doesn’t point the reader in that direction.


Wait! But what if the introductory phrase can only refer to one noun in the sentence, just not the nearest noun?

That’s a good question, cat that’s making a face at me. Let’s say we have a sentence like:

With his furry tail and long whiskers, Mrs. Bird knew Mr. Cat was a fine specimen of god’s greatest creature.

Obviously “furry tail and long whiskers” does not refer to the bird. Furthermore, the “his” in the prepositional phrase tells us that this must refer to the male creature in the sentence, which would be Mr. Cat. Though the phrase is grammatically attached to the bird, deduction can tell us it describes the cat.

So sure, readers can figure it out. But why make them work any harder? If you are an author, your readers’ poor, feeble brains are overtaxed by the broad reach of your vocabulary. If you’re Osten, your professor is annoyed to have been woken from his extensive napping regimen in order to grade a paper. Don’t make them struggle to figure out what you’re talking about.


F minus.

To avoid angering a cat/your professor, restructure the sentence to place the offending phrase closer to what it’s intended to modify. Here are our original examples with the former dangling modifier in bold:

As the cat stepped out through the cat door, he was hit in the face by a bird. (The cat, not the bird, steps through the cat door.)

While chasing his tail, the cat looked at the bird. (Now it’s clearly the cat’s tail, not the bird’s.)

With his tail held high, the cat impressed all the ladies. (The cat’s tail is held high.)

The bird was very impressed by the cat, who was tall, dark, and handsome. (Damn straight.)


Tall, Dark, and Handsome Cat is pleased to meet you.

As these examples illustrate, restructuring a sentence is sometimes either necessary or expedient to avoid other problems. The first example, for instance, could have been revised by simply switching “bird” and “cat,” like so: Stepping out through the cat door, the cat was hit in the face by a bird. But now we have passive voice, and guess what? Cat professors don’t like that either.


Do you have a topic for the Grammar Cat? Send us your questions here.


Official Endorsement: Our Style Guide

hell yes CMoS
Grammar Cat is too broke for the 16th edition.

If you were wondering, we here at Grammar Cat have sworn blood oaths to the Chicago Manual of Style, namely because it is a thing of such beauty that even cats are wonderstruck in its presence.

If, however, you see us refer to CMoS, we are speaking of the Cat Manual of Style. Obviously.

The “Perfect” in “Past Perfect” Does Not Refer To How You’ve Been Using It.

Hello, grammar kittens.

I’d like to start off our inaugural post with something that worries my editorial sensibilities deeply: verb tense abuse.

One verb tense in particular. One that drives me insane both when it is used incorrectly and when it’s used correctly but too much:

Past perfect.


But it’s perfect! How can it be wrong for any situation?

And yet it usually is.

Let’s say you’re writing a story in simple past tense. The cats walked down the street, you might write. Walked is in past tense. You go on:

The white cat said, “Something strange happened to me yesterday.”

“What was it?” asked the black cat.

All of this is fine. Your editor is pleased that you have mastered dialogue tags. But then:

“Well,” said the white cat, “I had been walking down the street, just like we are now, and a big, ugly dog had leapt out of a doorway at me. I had puffed up to show it I was a mightier creature, but it had made a noise at me. Then the strange thing had happened: it had flapped its wings at me.”

Now your editor is getting emotional in the margins. She may raise any number of issues, among them:

  • reading a long passage in past perfect like wading through cold molasses*
  • this distances the reader from the action
  • no one talks this way, not even talking cats

also a cat

But wait. The narration is in past tense. The white cat is describing something that happened before that. Shouldn’t it be in past perfect?

While I admire your efforts at logic, no. If we imagine the cat to be a living, breathing (talking) creature, it is thinking present tense. It would say, I am walking down the street. And it would say, Yesterday I walked down the street. Odds are, simple past tense will serve you best. The only time you’d say, I had walked down the street would be to make a comparison (I had walked down the street, but now I prefer to skip) or to differentiate between two distinct periods of time (I had walked down the street weeks earlier, but only yesterday was there a dog).

Which brings me to the next problem:

The dog had actually been a bird, the black cat had said. The white cat’s reference to wings had told the black cat that it had not been a dog. The reference to strange noises, which the white cat had gone on to describe as “chirping,” had confirmed this suspicion.

Overuse past perfect obscures the sequence of events. The black cat’s “had said” takes place a day later than “the dog had been a bird,” but you can’t tell that from the verb tense.

As for the “like wading through cold molasses” part, if you find that you have no choice but to write a long anecdote into your story about events which took place long ago–let’s say you’re being held at gunpoint–you can introduce the anecdote with some past perfect and then fade gently into simple past tense. Do it skillfully enough and the reader will never know and your editor will never have to shank you.**


*Whether or not this passage would be readable in any other tense is beyond the scope of this post.

**Gently and with love.