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Step Away from the DeLorean: How to avoid "time travel errors" in your book

One of the things I love about my job as an editor is that every day is different. No two manuscripts have the same combination of strengths and weaknesses, so the work I do always feels new. But even so, there are errors that show up repeatedly, even in manuscripts that are nothing alike. One type of common error I call Time Travel Errors. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

Participle Phrases as Time Machine: I can hear you already. “What the heck does that mean, Erica?” Stick with me through a tiny bit of grammar instruction and I’ll explain. First of all, what is a participle phrase? A participle phrase is simply a phrase that acts like an adjective and starts with a word formed from a verb (a participle). If it’s a present participle, the verb will have an “ing” ending. For example:

“Hurrying down the path, James tripped over a tree root.”

In this example, “hurrying” is the participle and “hurrying down the path” is the participle phrase. The phrase is acting like an adjective, telling us something about the noun “James.” Present participle phrases such as this imply that things are happening at the same time. In the example, James is hurrying down the path and it is at that time that he trips. No problem there. The problem comes when we write sentences that imply that things are happening at the same time when they couldn’t possibly be. It is very easy to do. Take a look at this sentence:

“Opening the door, Sarah walked into the bookstore.”

Do you see the problem? Sarah can’t walk into the bookstore at the exact time she is opening the door. She can only walk into the bookstore after she’s opened the door. The easy fix here would be to change the sentence to:

“Sarah opened the door and walked into the bookstore.”

Here’s one more example, to make sure you get it:

“Pulling on his shoes, Adam took off after him.”

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to take off after someone while in the process of pulling on my shoes. I may be clumsier than the average bear, but I think most of us would find this problematic. The fix?

“Adam pulled on his shoes and took off after him.”

These are subtle errors, which is why they are so easy to make. Just be careful not to write sentences that force your characters to bend time.

“By the Time” vs. “When”: Authors frequently use “by the time” and “when” as if they mean the same thing, but they don’t. “By the time” indicates a time period and “when” indicates a specific time. Sometimes, this difference doesn’t matter. For example:

“When I get home, Mary is there.”

“By the time I get home, Mary is there.”

These sentences do have slightly different meanings. The first sentence says that at the moment I get home, Mary is there. The second sentence says that Mary may have been there before I got home, but she is definitely there when I arrive. Either way makes sense because it is possible for Mary to arrive at any time before I get there. Her arrival is a specific moment in time, but no matter when it happened, she is still there when I arrive. The problem comes when we combine “by the time” with an activity that has to happen at one particular time. For example:

“By the time I get home, Susan is putting the roast in the oven.”

The phrase “Susan is putting the roast in the oven” indicates something that it is happening at this moment, but “by the time” refers to a time range. How can she put the roast in the oven over a period of time? She can’t, so this is an error. It could be fixed in a couple of ways.

“When I get home, Susan is putting the roast in the oven.”


“By the time I get home, Susan has put the roast in the oven.”

In the first example, we have changed the arrival to a specific moment in time to match the specific moment in time that Susan puts the roast in the oven. In the second example, we change Susan’s activity so that the exact timing is no longer important. She may put the roast in the oven at the moment I get home or she may have done it a half hour before. Either way, she has done it by the time I arrive. (For the grammar geeks among us, “has put” is in present perfect tense.)

Again, this is a subtle difference, but it’s important. While your readers probably won’t say, “What was she thinking? The second half of that sentence should be in present perfect tense for that to make sense,” they will feel that something isn’t quite right. Give readers too many “that doesn’t feel right” moments, and it can affect their ability to connect with your book. With all the competition for a reader’s attention, we don’t want to give them any excuse to move on to the next book.

Some of you are probably thinking, “I have enough big things to worry about when writing my novel. The last thing I need is a small detail like this to deal with.” And while I agree this shouldn’t be your main focus while writing your first draft (or maybe even your second draft), once you have gotten the bones of your book pulled together, it is time to start polishing it. We should always strive to write better today than we did yesterday, and learning to spot and fix these Time Travel Errors is a good place to start!

If you want to dig a bit deeper into grammar, take a look at Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty (I use her website all the time for grammar questions) or The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage by Mark Lester and Larry Beason. (This is the book we used in my copyediting certification program, and it is comprehensive and easy to understand).

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