Pick up any novel and there's a good chance you'll find one: a disembodied body part acting on its own. Eyes moving independently of their faces. Hands creeping of their own volition. Feet heading off on their own like they've got someplace to be. You probably don't even notice it in your own reading (and writing), but once someone points it out, then you can't not see it.
I've done it. You've probably done it. Sometimes it works fine, but sometimes it makes the sentence sound, well, ridiculous.
Her eyes followed him across the room.I picture this:
What's really going on, is that her gaze is following him. Or her stare. Or her attention. The body part is just the conduit for that to occur. But think about how silly these very common phrases are when you picture what that sentence means and what those eyes are actually doing.
Her eyes bounced around the office.It's not just eyes, though they do seem to be the most mobile of attached body parts. Hands, feet, and fingers get their fair share of mobility.
His eyes trailed her like a lost puppy.
Her eyes locked onto his lips. (um, ew?)
My hand inched closer to his. (I picture Thing from the Addams Family)I can hear some of you saying, "Oh come on, you know what I mean. You're being too literal." True, there are plenty of instances where a body part can act on its own and it sounds perfectly normal. Metaphorical even. I myself wrote a sentence with parts acting that has been well-praised:
Her shaking fingers wiped away a tear. (Did she use them like tissues?)
His feet wandered all over lower Manhattan. (And no one called the cops?)
My heart reached farther than my hands ever could.I think the difference between this sentence and say, "My eyes darted over the fruit stand," is the intention of the sentence. If you're trying to be metaphorical, or lyrical, or poetic, then a disembodied body part can work. It's clear you don't mean it literally.
(More on meaning what you say here)
But when you actually mean "I looked at the fruit stand" and a body part does the looking, it sticks out. That's the actual action you intended. It is literal.
Is anyone going to reject you for writing something like this?
Honestly? Probably not. Readers are used to this. Most won't even notice it. But if you're using the wrong word and writing a sentence that isn't actually saying what you mean in these cases, where else might you be doing it?
Is it wise to get into the habit of assuming the reader will just "figure it out?"
This is why I think it's smart for writers to notice when their words aren't saying what they mean--especially if they're saying something that might be comical. Words are our tools and the better we wield them, the better our books will be. Sure, we can assume the reader will know we don't mean the actual body part is acting, but what if they get jarred out of the story for just a moment? What if it happens several times and they decide to go see what's on TV?
(More on giving the wrong word giving the wrong impression here)
And a reason you might not have thought about...
A body part isn't a character. It pulls away from the point of view character and can make the sentence feel detached and impersonal. What if that small step between a personal "I the character looked at a fruit stand" and "my eyes decided to look at a fruit stand but I had no part of it" becomes the reason the reader could "never connect to the character but I can't say why?"
Readers don't always know why a book doesn't click for them.
Next time you catch yourself writing about a body part acting when you meant the character acted, it might be worth hitting the backspace key and saying what you really mean.
How do you feel about body parts acting on their own?