The Journal: The Inappropriate Use of “Gave”

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: The Inappropriate Use of “Gave”
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“[T]he old Hollywood wisdom still applies: Just tell the story. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.” James Scott Bell on writers who inject their political opinion into their fiction

“‘Said’ is not a dirty word: But ‘argued,’ ‘whined,’ and other dialogue descriptives usually are. A typical rookie mistake.” Marilynn Byerly

Topic: The Inappropriate Use of “Gave”

A few days ago, the topic here was “Glitches in Writing.” That was based on James Scott Bell’s post on the Kill Zone blog: “Three Things That Bugged Me in a Book.” Since then I’ve returned to Bell’s post again to read the excellent comments (I recommend them), and even added another comment or two myself.

This morning I read more of the comments on Bell’s post and added one on the inappropriate use of the verb “gave.” Then I remembered I wrote a whole blog post about that awhile back, so today I’m bringing that blog post forward.

An aside—Before I get started on the topic, I should note that I was especially annoyed recently while reading Stephen King’s If It Bleeds (the short sequel to The Outsider) to find that King himself uses “gave” inappropriately. And like most who misuse it, he does so  liberally.

How can that be? How can I know something about writing that the great Stephen King doesn’t know? Of course, there are still a few things I can learn about the craft of writing by reading his work, but his silly, inappropriate use of “gave”—a mistake even many rookie fiction writers don’t make—lowers my opinion of him considerably.

Unfortunately, it also renders learning from him considerably more difficult. Because it’s harder for me to trust him. I was disappointed for myself, but I was more disappointed because some younger writers will cite King’s inappropriate use of the word to validate their own inappropriate use of it. Please don’t be one of them.

Anyway, here’s my post on the topic, dusted off a bit and brought forward from October 2015, for your leisurely perusal:

Back when I was copyediting a lot of manuscripts, I often happened across the inappropriate use of the verb “gave.” Folks who misuse the verb “gave” usually misuse it a lot, so anytime that happened, I immediately conducted a global search to find and repair each instance all the way through the manuscript.

I did that before I started the copyedit in earnest. It was a necessary task, because most often when I found one such instance, a lot more of them were lurking later in the manuscript.

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, the use of “gave” is distracting anytime something isn’t changing hands or changing ownership. Readers find themselves wondering when you’re going to stop having characters “give” things to each other that can’t be given.

A writer once emailed me to ask, “Which sentence is correct, or are they both correct?”

“I gave a quick look at Nick Campbell, and he gave 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. I told him that, and I told him why: “Give” is a transitive verb, meaning you actually give (or hand or grant) something to someone.

Now, allowing a character to misuse “gave” in dialogue is fine. It’s still wrong, but most people misuse various words and constructions when they speak, so the misuse mimics real dialogue.

But what is written in narrative should be grammatically correct, not for the sake of correct grammar but 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, the phrase “nod to continue” was also awkward.

To fix both problems (verb and phrase), I recommended he write it this way:

“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 have a character “give” someone something, 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. If what the character “gave” was actually a nod or a smile or a look or a glance or some other intangible, stop it. (grin)

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

So don’t write “I 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 do write “I gave him a dollar,” not “I dollared him.”

Please do 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 just 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 and if you want to break that habit, you’ll have to pay attention to your writing for a little while. Maybe even consciously look for instances of “gave,” or do a global search after the fact. But very soon you’ll develop a new habit: writing leaner, cleaner, more active prose.

Of Interest

See “Non-Fatal Shootings are Failed Homicides” at

See “Saddling A Rocket” at

See “Only 27% Of Texans Trust Politicians’ Judgement of School Books” at See PG’s very informative take.

See “Two Days Left In MidWinter Workshop Sale” at

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: The Inappropriate Use of “Gave””

  1. Phew! I didn’t think I misused ‘gave,’ but I check the WIP – you made me go look. That’s a good thing.

    I have a few bad habits – I add them to a list when I notice, edit every scene to make sure I didn’t use any of them, and then find they are occurring less and less often as I keep writing. Good to be aware – you never know when you might pick up a tic.

    I’ve read King in the past – didn’t notice that glitch in particular – but I’ll probably be aware, if I read anything else he’s written in the future. I’m not a fan of horror.

    • King writes more than horror (at least not slash-and-gash) but he’s becoming increasingly a messenger instead of just a storyteller. Not good. Now that I’ve started looking, I’m finding other “glitches” in his work. And frankly, I’m both surprised and saddened. To continue learning from him, I suspect I’ll have to go back and re-read The Stand and other earlier works.

      • Unfortunately, fame tempts some to at least try leveraging it to expound upon their own personal opinions, especially political ones; even you appeared to fall victim to that temptation yourself a little bit at one point in your “The Journey Home” series. That didn’t bother me in the least because we seem to share much the same view, but I expect it would be somewhat off-putting to those who hold an opposing point of view. I have never read any King because I don’t care for the genre(s) he seems to be famous for, as evidenced by the few bits and pieces of movies based on his work that I have seen, and I am now even more unlikely to; as someone who is not a writer and has no aspirations to become one, I can’t see how not reading his work could be of any loss to me. While I’m not one to deny any the right to express their own opinions, I think entertainers of all stripes who have achieved any level of fame in that realm should bear in mind that while notable excursions beyond that realm may burnish their reputation among some of their admirers, they may also tarnish their reputation among others; fame achieved in one area can and often will suffer when one strays beyond the limits of the very thing which brought them that fame in the first place.

        • Thanks, Russ. Actually, in the post, I made a conscious decision not to talk about Stephen King’s (and others’) proclivity to forcing their political beliefs and biases on their characters.

          To the best of my recollection, I have never defamed or derided any political figure by name or even by political party in any of my fiction, including the Journey Home novels, with one exception: I wrote a strictly political short story titled “That Ain’t Right,” and the straightforward, intentional purpose of that story was to ridicule a dangerous politician.

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