YOUR STORY IS YOUR MESSAGE: YOUR MASTERY OF THE LANGUAGE IS YOUR MESSENGER.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

How to Insert Action Narrative Into Dialogue Using Em Dashes



"But if you try to drive across the creek bridge, the flood waters come across it very fast," I pointed to the downstream side, "and the water can push your car off."

Okay, most readers would be looking for a dialogue tag where the narrative is, but the writer never intended that. The writer has instead placed some amplifying narrative inside the dialogue to relate some action during the the speech. Now, inserting some straight narrative without a tag into dialogue is a good way to indicate action that occurs during the speech, but you can't do it with commas. When you do, you end up with something like a comma splice between dialogue and narrative and another one from narrative back to dialogue. I guess. Well, anyway.

You imbed action narrative into dialogue with a pair of em dashes. The information below is covered in more detail in my little eBook, but  a continuing curiosity among writers is that many of them will pay an uncredentialed "book doctor" a thousand dollars to tell them they didn't develop the transvestite's character enough, but will flinch at the thought of paying much less to have their grammar and usage—the things that cause manuscripts to be rejected more often than for any other reason—checked and fixed. Those writers would probably also balk at shelling out ten bucks for Writers' Devils to learn things they would say shouldn't matter to true literary artists anyway, so here might be the only place those folks will ever get this information, where they can have it free and benefit from it with the anonymity that doesn't require them to openly attach any importance to it.


Let's say you want Tom to say something to Dick, and you want him to begin to get up and walk toward Dick at some specific moment as he says it.

Not before he says it:
Tom got up and started walking toward Dick. "If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

Not after he says it:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach." He got up and started walking toward Dick.

Not at some indeterminate point during the speech:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach," Tom said, getting up and walking toward Dick.

If you want to pick a particular moment when the simultaneous action begins, action that doesn't interrupt or cause a pause in the speech but simply begins at some specific point during the speech, use a pair of hyphens to imbed the descriptive narrative:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find"—he got up and started walking toward Dick—"that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

Here's another one:
Preacher shook his head and said, "You can't settle anything with a gun."
"Oh, you'd be surprised"—Yulin lowered his right hand onto the handle of his holstered Colt—"just how much you can settle with a gun."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

choosing a or an as your indefinite article


      Select a or an not by whether the adjective or noun that follows it begins with a consonant or vowel, but whether its beginning sound is that of a consonant or vowel.

     Words like fellow and tall and chair begin with consonants that have consonant sounds, so it's easy to see they take a when they use an indefinite article:
     a fellow    a tall building    a chair
     Similarly, nouns and adjectives beginning with vowels that have vowel sounds clearly need an as the indefinite article:
     an ornament
     an impossible situation

     It's not always this cut-and-dried, though.

     Nouns and adjectives beginning with the hard h sound, including historic, and historical, always take a as their indefinite articles in American English:
     a happy family
     a hippopotamus
     a historic event
  (not an historic event, as you've probably heard or read sometime)
     But one that begins with a silent h, like honor or hourly, is pronounced beginning with the vowel sound that follows the h, so, even though the word begins with a consonant, it takes an, not a, as its article:
     an honor to be nominated
     an hour-long show

     Sometimes, a vowel has a consonant sound at the beginning of a word. Examples: the beginning e sounds like a y in eulogy, and the o in one is sounded out like a w. So, even though each of these words begins with a vowel, it needs a, not an, as its article because the sound is a consonant sound:
     a eulogy that inspired everyone
     a one-night stand
 
An initialism, such as CIA or ACLU, which is spoken by pronouncing its letters individually, takes its article according to the sound of the first letter. If the first letter is individually pronounced with a beginning vowel sound, it takes an; if the first letter is pronounced with a beginning consonant sound, it takes a:

     an EPA regulation
     an IRS form
     an FBI agent

     a PTA meeting
     a UPS driver

     An acronym is an abbreviation that is pronounced like a word. And this can make a difference in your selection of article. For instance, if FEMA were treated as an initialism its individual letters would be pronounced and it would take an as its article because the initial sound would be the vowel sound (ef) of an individually pronounced letter f:
     an F-E-M-A (ef ee em ay) announcement
     But FEMA isn't an initialism. It's an acronym. It's pronounced as a word, FEMA (FEE-muh), so it takes a as its article:
     a FEMA announcement
     Another example: MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). If it were an initialism it would be pronounced letter-for-letter and would need an as its article:
     an M-A-S-H (em ay ess aych) unit
     But because it's an acronym and always pronounced as a word (as in sour mash whiskey), a is the article:
     a MASH unit

 -------------------------------------
excerpted from
WRITERS' DEVILS
available from Amazon's Kindle store 

Saturday, March 16, 2013


     An author found a dusty brass lamp in his attic. As he rubbed it to remove the tarnish, a genie appeared and said to the astonished author, "I am bound to grant you one wish of anything you desire."
     The author pondered that and finally replied, "Well, I'd like to see my parents in Hawaii more often, but I can't afford to go by cruise ship and I'm afraid to fly. I think I want an ocean highway from California to Oahu so I can drive over any time I like."
     The genie thought about it a minute and blew out his breath in consternation. "That's three thousand miles. The enormous amounts of concrete and asphalt and the engineering challenges by themselves would strain even my ability to use magic in its construction. Nothing approaching this has ever been asked of me."
     After some thought, the writer said, "All right, then, I'll settle for a publisher who won't fictionalize my royalty statements and will treat me fairly and won't try to change my book into something different from what I wrote."
     The genie instantly answered: "So, do you want two or four lanes on this highway?"



     Office workers used to keep more cute signs on their desks than they do nowadays. I recall one that said, “There's no reason for it. It's just our policy.” This pretty much covers the attitude of the grammar “authorities” who like to badmouth split infinitives and split compound verbs. As everybody who's ever asked the question knows, nobody can tell you why you shouldn't use them. There's a good reason for that. These “rules” are not rules at all, but stylistic choices that gained the unmerited status of prescriptive pseudo-rules for no good reason whatsoever. Nevertheless, few things will make a tightly wound Language Arts teacher go zombie on your ass faster than splitting an infinitive, and not much will draw a bad look from some journalism professors quicker than squeezing an adverb between the auxiliary and main parts of a compound verb. As a fiction writer, ignore these people; if you listen to them you'll needlessly limit your writing by trying to “fix” something there was nothing wrong with in the first place.

Split Infinitives
     The injunction against the split infinitive is based on the specious argument that the English infinitive is a single unit and should not, therefore, be split. This misguided notion probably arrived in our language as a stowaway in the back pocket of verbs of other languages, primarily Latin and Romance languages, as they were adopted into English. In such languages, “to” is a part of the root verb—in Spanish, for example, “ir” literally means “to go,” so it's impossible “to boldly go” anywhere. You'll have to settle for going boldly. The un-splittable infinitive is part and parcel of these languages and somehow came to be expected by many English grammarians who figured that if it was good enough for Latin it was good enough for them and didn't take the couple seconds needed to look at an English infinitive form and see that it's not chained to a single expression, that it is comprised not of one word but two—the introducer and the verb. Far from being a weakness of our language, this ability to convey more nuances of meaning by inserting an adverb or a modal between “to” and the root verb has always been a strength, one more thing that separates and elevates English from less powerful languages like Spanish and French where such possibilities don't even exist.
     Everybody knew what Harvey was going to do. He was going to flatly refuse the offer.
     Of course, this could be rewritten as
     He was going to refuse the offer flatly.
     Alternatively, the infinitive issue could be sidestepped entirely by rephrasing it as
     He would flatly refuse.
     But you don't have to do either thing, see, because you are a user of English, the world's most powerful language. The English infinitive form—which is, in a very real way, already split—allows its users to express narrower shades of meaning than are available to writers of more limited languages.
     “. . . there has never been a rational basis for the objection to the split infinitive . . . .”
     Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

     So, is there anything grammatically incorrect about the split infinitive? Of course not. There never was.

Split Compound Verbs
     In English, there are only two plain verb tenses that are marked by use of the verb only. Those tenses are the present (I go, you go, etc.) and the past (I drove, you drove, and so on). All of the couple dozen other verb tenses are compound expressions using auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs) before main verbs. I will go, you have gone, he had gone, they will have gone, she can go, we would have gone, yada yada yada, are all compound verb expressions, called compound verbs. Most of us regularly insert an adverb between the helper and the main verb to more narrowly define the action: he had gone becomes he had already gone, I will go becomes I will probably go, and the like. These adverbs inside compound verbs serve us well; indeed, for many of us they're essential to our speech and writing, and we'd have a hard time getting along through a single day without them.
     Nevertheless, certain folks, especially in the journalism community, discourage the split compound verb for the same reason they dislike the split infinitive, which is to say for no good reason at all. The Associated Press Stylebook, under SPLIT FORMS, cautions writers to generally avoid “awkward constructions” caused by splitting either infinitives or complex verbs. At the end of the entry, in the usual vague fashion of all critics of things they don't have an actual reason to criticize, the AP guide sits foursquare on the fence and says it's okay to use a split form “occasionally” when “necessary to meaning” and “not awkward.” This begs the question: How often do you strive to write things that are not necessary to meaning and things that are awkward? The answer is, of course, never, and so, as is the case with split infinitives, you can and should split compound verbs any time you feel like it.

       What, you're still here? Split something. Go. 

Excerpted from
WRITERS' DEVILS
The Grammar and Usage Guide for Fiction Writers
$4.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store
Don't Have a Kindle Reader? Get a
Free Kindle Reader App From Amazon:
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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Part One:
Common Uses of the
Comma, Colon, and Em Dash
in Fiction


     A writer died, and St. Peter offered her the option of going to either heaven or hell. First he showed her other writers in hell: as she descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were beaten with thorny whips.
     "Sweet mother of pearl!" she said. "Let me see heaven now."
     A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw more rows of writers, likewise chained to their desks in a steam-filled room where they, too, were whipped continuously as they worked.
     "Wait a minute, wait a minute!" the writer said. "This is just as bad as hell!"
     "Not so," replied St. Peter. "Here, your work gets published."


     You should observe the conventions of the language unless you have a reason not to—there's no point in using nonstandard English toward no literary purpose whatsoever, right? You wouldn't make a run-on sentence or a comma splice or omit the quotation marks in dialogue unless you had some perceived good reason, would you? Of course not. When you write with nonstandard English for no discernible good reason at all, editors and readers are left to infer that you're using it for the only remaining reason: that you just don't know any better.

     With that said, I'm not going to even try to tell you to do something the “right” way every time according to some punctuation rule as if you were writing an academic research paper or a refrigerator manual. In your trade of fiction writing, you might not always use standard punctuation—in fact, you might use hardly any punctuation at all if it doesn't fit your creative plan (Cormac McCarthy, anyone?). However, you do need to know what some standard applications of punctuation are in fiction so that when you depart from them in your writing you'll know it. You'll understand what you've done and why you've done it.

The Comma
Use a Comma and a Conjunction to Separate Two Independent Clauses
     When two clauses that could each stand as a complete sentence are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, and, less often, yet, for, and nor), use a comma before the conjunction.
     We arrived on time, but Jamie wasn't there.
     The cliffs prevented any forward movement, and the pursuing bears made going back impossible.
Use a Pair of Commas to Enclose Internal Parenthetical Content
     A nonrestrictive clause or phrase, meaning that the sentence would still be grammatically correct if it were removed, takes a comma before and after.
     My father, whom I never met, had a tremendous impact on our family.
     Amos, a devout Calvinist, wouldn't have a radio in his home.
Use a Comma After Introductory Elements and Before Ending Elements
     Participial modifiers, interjections, and other nonessential elements at the beginning or end of a sentence are distinguished by a comma.
     Leaning against a lamppost, Raddich coughed and gasped.
     Timmy was a brown mummy from head to feet, a muddy mess.
     Well, I guess so.
Use a Comma Between Items in a Series
     When a sentence has three or more items in series order, separate them with commas; this includes placing a comma after the next-to-last item, before the “and” or “or” conjunction that precedes the final item.

     I want pancakes, sausage, eggs, and coffee.
     He had to leave by either the back window, the door, or the fire escape.

 The Colon and Em Dash
     In setting off material from what comes before it in creative writing, colons and dashes are mostly the same in use; the colon has a more formal, measured look, while the em dash is the “drama queen” of the two. Since fiction is usually informal or even colloquial in tone most of the time, and since fiction writers usually want set-off matter to have a more dramatic presentation, the em dash is probably the better choice in most cases. Your call, of course.
Use a Colon or an Em Dash to Set Off an Idea From What Precedes It
     Notice below that either works, but the em dash makes a more abrupt and emphatic lead-in to the information that follows it.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up: somebody else was in the house.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up—somebody else was in the house.
Use a Pair of Em Dashes to Set Off Internal Material
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson, the only person we considered to be above suspicion, called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson—the only person we considered to be above suspicion—called to confess.
     Above, we've replaced the commas around a nonrestrictive clause with em dashes to direct more attention to the clause. However, what you can put between a pair of em dashes is certainly not limited to this. It's important to bear in mind that anything inside a pair of em dashes is grammatically insulated from the larger sentence around it. It can be just about anything you want it to be—a word, a phrase, a sentence fragment, or even, as we see below, an entire independent clause that could stand on its own as a sentence, but is here used as emphasized internal content.
     The Ames brothers had deserted him when things got tough—he was disgusted with himself now for not having seen that coming—and now he was alone.
     A pair of em dashes is also handy to clarify the distinction between internally punctuated items.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team, and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     The example above has series items separated by commas. Are “Jim and Bobby Thomas” and “the new bobsledding team” two separate series items separated by a comma, or is “Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team” a single item with an internal comma? There's no way at all for us to know.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas—the new bobsledding team—and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     Above, we've changed “the new bobsledding team” from just another item in a series list of separate items into emphatic apposed matter that amplifies on what comes immediately before it, in effect giving it the weight of a nonrestrictive clause. It's now crystal clear that Jim and Bobby Thomas are the bobsledding team.

Excerpted from
WRITERS' DEVILS
The Grammar and Usage Guide for Fiction Writers
$4.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store
Don't Have a Kindle Reader? Get a
Free Kindle Reader App From Amazon:
Kindle for PC, Mac, Android, iPad, and Blackberry

Saturday, September 29, 2012

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Indefinite Articles A and An

       The simplest way to choose which indefinite article to use in front of a noun or adjective, one still used in some quarters, is to use a when the word begins with a consonant and an when it begins with a vowel. The trouble is that this doesn't work very well. Vowels don't always sound like vowels, and consonants don't always sound like consonants. The correct way to choose between a and an is not to note whether the following noun or adjective begins with a vowel or a consonant . . . the correct way to choose is to note whether the word begins with a vowel sound or a consonant sound. If the word begins with a vowel sound, use an; if it begins with a consonant sound, use an.

       Words like fellow and kayak and chair and really begin with consonants that have consonant sounds, so they obviously take a when they need an indefinite article:
     a fellow     a kayak     a chair     a really nice neighborhood
       In fact, most nouns and adjectives are like this. Most beginning consonants have consonant sounds, and most beginning vowels have vowel sounds, so most of the time it's easy to assign the right indefinite article. Like most things in this world, though, it ain't necessarily so.

        A word that begins with a silent h, like honor, heir, hour, or homage, is pronounced beginning with the vowel sound that follows. Hence, even though it begins with a consonant, it takes an, not a, as its article:
     an honor to be nominated       an hour-long show

       Sometimes, a vowel has a consonant sound at the beginning of a word. Examples: the beginning e sounds like a y in eulogy, and the o in one is sounded out like a w. So, even though each of these words begins with a vowel, it needs a, not an, as its article because the sound is a consonant sound:
a eulogy that inspired everyone       a one-night stand

        A straight abbreviation, which always has all of its letters pronounced individually, takes its article according to the sound of the first letter. If the first letter of the abbreviation is individually pronounced with a beginning vowel sound, it takes an; if the first letter is pronounced with a beginning consonant sound, it takes a:
     an ACLU lawyer
     an EPA regulation
     an IRS form
     an FBI agent ( f is pronounced with a beginning vowel sound, ef)

      a PTA meeting
      a UPS driver (u is pronounced like you, with a beginning y consonant sound)

       All of the above examples are straight abbreviations, meaning you speak every letter individually: F-B-I, I-R-S, like that. An abbreviation that's spoken as a word--called an acronym--is treated like a word. And this can make a difference in your selection of article.
       For instance, if FEMA were treated as a straight abbreviation, its individual letters would be pronounced and it would take an as its article because the initial sound would be the vowel sound (ef) of an individually pronounced letter f:
     an FEMA (each letter pronounced separately: ef ee em a) announcement
       But FEMA isn't treated as an abbreviation, is it? It's universally treated as an acronym--it's pronounced as a word: FEMA (FEE-muh). Now, when f functions as the first letter of a word it has the firm consonant sound, so, while FEMA would take an if it were treated as an abbreviation, which it isn't, FEMA the word, which is the way it's always used, takes a as its article:
     a FEMA announcement.
       Another example: MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) would take an as its article if it were pronounced as a straight abbreviation because the m would be individually pronounced with the beginning vowel sound (em). It is, however, always spoken as a word, so the m has the consonant sound and a is the article:
     a MASH unit, not an em-a-ess-h  unit


       We can't get out of a discussion of indefinite articles without talking about the use of an with certain words that begin with h, such as historic, hotel, and horrific. Once in a while you  see or hear someone write or say something like "an historic event" or "an horrific accident," and you probably wonder if that's correct. The answer is no, it's not any longer considered correct in any usage at any level of writing, but there's a pretty simple reason why people still say this here and there that you may not have heard before. So, now you can know the real reason why.
       Well into the 20th century, it was fairly common for English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic to use a variant pronunciation of these and similar words, i.e., with a silent h: horrible was pronounced orrible, historical was istorical, etc. This was an allowance for their pronunciations in their original French; when these words came into English and the h was pronounced, the old French silent-h pronunciations came along for the ride as an optional variant. Because these silent-h pronunciations began with a vowel sound, the article an was used . . . and was appropriate.
     an historical document (an istorical document)
     an horrible sight (an orrible sight)
As these variant pronunciations, which have never had much use in English except to muddy the waters, were dropped from standard English usage, some recalcitrant individuals kept on saying them that way. A sparse handful have kept right on saying them that way to this day. They see them in old books, or they hear some crusty old grammarian say them, or they find them on the beach in a message in a bottle, and they adopt them. Pay them no mind. Don't use an with these words--they begin with a consonant sound, the quick guttural exhalation while blocking the larynx somewhat with the trunk of the tongue deep in the throat--the h sound--and require a, and no reputable guide will tell you different. If you find one that does, remember to mock it publicly.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Practical Benefits of Grammar for the Professional Fiction Writer in Telling Effective Stories

       Fiction writers play fast and loose with the rules of standard grammar and usage all the time. Indeed, creative writing wouldn't be very creative if novelists and short-story authors couldn't leave out a conjunction, use a dependent clause as a sentence, or commit any other crime against grammar, be it misdemeanor or felony, any time they think it's called for.    
       One can't hand down prescriptive edicts to you that must be obeyed at the risk of being cast into grammar hell; you're a storyteller, and by that virtue you aren't obligated to follow "the rules." But you need to understand that using nonstandard English constructions will have consequences, either favorable or otherwise.    
       We're all educated throughout 13 years of schooling in the structural order, spellings, punctuation, and more-or-less universally used idioms and slang (idioms and slang that we all know and occasionally use no matter what region of the country we call home) of what the linguists and grammarians who write Language Arts textbooks call “current standard American English,” and we expect to hear or see it when we listen to or read what others say or write. It's what makes bayou Cajuns and West Virginia mountain people—me, for example—and Texicans and all of the other speakers of the 26 distinct dialects of our United States able to step out of those dialects and communicate with one another in a common flavor of English. No matter how unintelligible some our regional slang, idioms, constructions, and pronunciations might be to some folks in some other region, we can all speak and write the standard American English we were all taught in school, and we can understand one another via this common medium of cultural communication.    
       When a writer does not present our language to us in the standard way we've been taught, we can get lost, confused, or, worst of all, irritated with the writer unless it's done skillfully. For example, English adjectives come before their nouns. We say “black crayon” or “long speech,” not “crayon black” or “speech long” (as Spanish speakers do). Now, when songwriters write about the “river wide” or the “mountain high,” we get along well enough with that nonstandard arrangement in the literary and poetic environment of the song. However, if, in an ordinary social setting, you were to say your friend Tim arrived in a “car black long,” the person you were talking with would probably make a face and say, “Huh?”
       When you play around with the standards, know there will likely be some effect because you've stepped out of the language structures readers have been taught and are familiar with. Know, too, that before you can have a reasonable idea of what effect breaking grammatical or stylistic “rules” might have, you first have to be familiar with those rules so you'll know when and in what ways you depart from them. You have to master the elements of conventional grammar and style in order to know what you're doing when you bend or break any of those elements at the behest of your literary muse.
       Then, too, there's an elemental question that fairly begs to be asked: if proficiency in the language isn't important to you and you don't work hard to excel there, why in the world are trying to insinuate yourself into an area of endeavor where language expertise is as elemental as a painter's brush and palette or a sculptor's chisel?

What do you think? 

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This blog entry was adapted from the Introduction of Writers' Devils: The Grammar Guide for Fiction Writers, by Dan Persinger, available in Kindle eBook format at Amazon

Friday, August 31, 2012

Punctuation Inside Dialogue



       You can use a comma, a colon ( : ), an em dash (—), or an ellipsis ( . . . ) to help readers infer nuances of how a speaker is saying something.
   
       Use commas as you do in narrative: lists, related thoughts with a conjunction between them, etc.
       “We went to the drugstore and the post office and then to the market, and that's where we ran into Harvey.”
       “Yeah, Ted told me he saw him there, too. He said Harvey was acting nervous, looking at his watch every two seconds, talking fast, things like that.”

       A colon or an em dash represents an anticipatory pause that sets off and draws attention to what follows it in the sentence of dialogue.
       “I'll tell you one thing: he'd better be waiting for us when we get there.”
       “I'll tell you one thing—he'd better be waiting for us when we get there.”
       The em dash and the colon are identical in function when used in dialogue, so your choice of which to use is more of a stylistic than a grammatical one. Most fiction writers use the em dash in dialogue, but some do use the colon, and nobody's going to have a breakdown if you do. And possibly, the copy staff at a publication you submit to might change your em dash to a colon or your colon to an em dash. Doesn't matter. You lose nothing in what you communicate to your readers. The two punctuations mean the same thing in dialogue.
       A single em dash can also be used to indicate an abrupt end to speech through interruption. The interruption can be self-induced:
       Lance was sure Pritchett knew where Nora was. He had to know. He walked across to where Pritchett was seated and stood over him.
       “Where's Nor—” The rest of the word froze in his throat as he saw Pritchett bring up an ugly-looking knife into the space between them.

       The speaker can be interrupted by someone else:
       “Oh, sure, and did Grayson explain how a salt water creature happened to be thirty miles inland living in clear water?”
       “Stranger things have happened. I know—”
       “Look here, Ben,” the sheriff broke in, “you work for the state. Now, why don't you keep your nose out of county business, is that clear enough for you?”
       You can use two em dashes to set off an internal part of the dialogue from what's around it, presumably with abrupt, momentary pauses.
       “I don't know where he is—nobody does—so I'm going without him.”

       The ellipsis ( . . . ) indicates a pause, and is handy for stop-and-go or disjointed speech or thought such as thinking out loud, pausing for effect, and the trailing off of speech. (Remember, the soft pause or fade of the ellipse is different from the abrupt break of the em dash.)
       “Hurricane coming?” he said softly and mostly to himself as he adjusted and centered his glasses. “Well, I don't suppose . . . there's much we can do about that, with . . . .” His tenuous interest in the conversation dissolved, and he was once again lost in the artifacts from the day's dig.
       Note that the second ellipse, the one at the end of the quote indicating the final trailing off of the speaker's words, apparently consists of four dots, not three. This is not the case. What you actually have here is the ellipsis—three dots—and a concluding period. The closing quotation mark is outside both. Over the years, I've seen a fair occurrence of ellipsis/closing quote/period, like this:  . . .”.  That's incorrect—don't do it.  . . . .” is the correct order.

       Here's some dialogue that uses several different punctuations to convey how something might be vocalized. Notice the use of the em dash to introduce and set off the final part of a sentence, the placement of commas between items in a list, and the pause for effect between the next-to-last and last items in the spoken list, facilitated by the ellipsis.
       “When we came here a few hours ago, the only thing we had in common was the ten thousand dollars we'd get. Now, however, we share something else—the death of Mrs. Loren.
       “So far tonight, one of us was almost killed by a falling chandelier, one of us was mysteriously slugged, one of us has been driven to the brink of absolute hysteria . . . and one of us is dead.”

       You probably noticed that there's no closing quotation mark in the passage above at the end of the first paragraph, after Mrs. Loren. This is how dialogue with more than one paragraph is handled: place an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but a closing quotation at the end of only the final paragraph.
       Here's another bit of dialogue with more than one paragraph. Notice that there's an opening quotation mark at the beginning of all three paragraphs, but a closing quotation mark at the end of only the final one:
       “Before we go in here, I want all of you to keep two things in mind if you don't remember anything else I've said.
       “First, Edgar James has broken no laws, and you will respect his home and property. If I see any of you disrespect either, I will personally make sure your life changes for the worse.
      Second, Parker James is absolutely no good to me if he's dead. If we find him here, he goes back to Prestonsburg, and he goes back alive.”

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This blog entry is reprinted from the section "Dialogue: Forms, Tags, and Punctuation" in Writers' Devils: The Grammar Guide for Fiction Writers, by Dan Persinger, available in Kindle eBook format at Amazon

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Serial Comma or No Serial Comma?


       The serial comma, also called the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, is the comma before the conjunction that comes in front of the last item in a series of items.
Like this:
       We went to the laundry, the grocer, the hardware store, and the hair salon.
       It became fashionable a few decades ago for high school English teachers to counsel their young charges that the serial comma is redundant because the conjunction alone—usually and—is sufficient to separate the final two items. They've been doing it ever since. This seems reasonable at first glance but doesn't bear close scrutiny. Without the final comma, the last two items of a serial group are not distinguished from each other as emphatically as are the other items in the group, and this carries a potential for confusion in certain constructions.
       The biggest inspirations in my life have been my parents, John Kerry, and Hilary Clinton.
       The sentence above takes on a whole new meaning when you omit the final comma:
       The biggest inspirations in my life have been my parents, John Kerry and Hilary Clinton.
       One very good “rule” in writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, is to be consistent in your stylistic choices. All that means is that, when you have a choice between more than one acceptable way of doing something, you should do it the same way every time—pick a style and stick with it. If you write the possessive “James's” in one place, don't spell it without the final ess—“James'”—somewhere else. If you write “advisor” with an “o” over here, don't write “adviser” with an “e” over there. Be consistent. Now, you already know you can't completely omit the final serial comma from your writing; you have to use it whenever necessary to avoid confusion. When you don't use it you save nothing more than a single comma, hardly a huge gain in conciseness. Since the use of the final serial comma is always considered correct and is endorsed by the highest authorities, including the ultimate “big gun” of such things, The Chicago Manual of Style, your better choice is to be consistent and always use it and never have to worry about when you need it. There's no downside.
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This blog entry is reprinted from the section "Certain Matters of Form and Usage" in Writers' Devils: The Grammar Guide for Fiction Writers, by Dan Persinger, available in Kindle eBook format at Amazon.


Monday, August 27, 2012

"Grahmmar? We don' need no steenkeen' grahmmar!"

       I get that a lot. 
       During the last dozen or so years, two things about writing and publishing have shown themselves to me to be true beyond serious argument:
  1. Aspiring writers--most of whom don't even admit to being aspiring writers--don't think grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other nuts and bolts of writing are anything more than collateral considerations in fiction writing, side issues that aren't very important as long as they tell an irresistably delicious story that will grab the house readers by the short hairs and won't let go, that will make them so intoxicated by talent that they won't give a damn whether the author knows the difference between "your" and "you're." And, big surprise, just about all aspiring writers think they write just that kind of  irresistible story that transcends the need for uninspired cookbook-type skills like language facility.
  2. Other than sending your story to the wrong publisher--science fiction to a gardening magazine, like that--the thing that will shoot you in foot faster than anything else is something most of you don't even believe is important. Grammar, spelling, yada yada yada, collectively comprise the single biggest reason manuscripts are quickly rejected by house readers within the the first few hundred words. More than for plotting, more than for storyline, more than for any literary or artistic aspect of your work. Ask any publisher's acquisitions editor and she or he will tell you the same thing. The way they figure it, and you can't blame them, is, well, why in hell should they care about your writing if you don't. Why should they show you the respect of a good read if you insult them by presenting them with such poor workmanship. You might have the greatest story in the world in your head, but it'll get you nowhere if you lack the functional writing skills to tell it.
       Now, Item (2.) above doesn't mean grammar and punctuation are the most important components of your story. They certainly are not. It doesn't mean your story and how well you tell it aren't the most important things. They certainly are. You might construct a short story with five hundred grammatically bulletproof sentences, perfectly assembled with nary a hanging modifier or misspelling or misplaced punctuation to be seen, but if your story isn't any good nobody is going to want it. A grammatically and stylistically pristine train wreck of a story is still a train wreck. But trying to tell a great story without expertise in the nuts and bolts of writing--grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.--is like trying to create a great painting without a knowledge of colors and brush techniques and other nuts and bolts of painting. In both crafts, you can't bend, interpret, or even ignore the "rules" as your artistry calls on you to do if you don't even know what the rules are. If you don't believe this, do future potential publishers and future prospective readers a favor and don't waste their time . . . or yours, either, for that matter. Just give up any notions you're harboring about being a professional author right now and enroll in barber college, because you're probably not meant to be a writer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Endangered Words List

by B.K. Stevens
 
      The English language changes constantly, often for good reasons. New words emerge to meet new needs—“astronaut” and “cyberspace” come to mind as obvious examples. The need for “bootylicious” may seem less urgent, but the Oxford English Dictionary now lists the word, so some experts must think it serves some purpose. And sometimes, when words pass out of the language, we needn’t mourn them much. True, when we hear King Lear’s faithful follower, Kent, condemn Oswald as a “whoreson cullionly barber-monger,” today’s insults sound merely crude by comparison. But “bastard” will do for “whoreson,” and “vile” may be even better than “cullionly.” We may regret the loss of “barber-monger”—“fop” isn’t nearly as colorful and concrete—but at a time when vain men favor stylists, we should probably admit that “barber-monger” no longer meets our needs.
      The loss of some other words, however, may do real damage by depriving us of concise, specific ways to express certain ideas. And it’s frustrating when words or their meanings are lost not because of changing needs but because of ignorance, laziness, or, in some cases, silliness.
      For example, if your friend Joan says she’s thinking of buying stocks, you might be tempted to tell her to get advice from a disinterested expert. If you do, however, Joan will probably recoil: “No! I want advice from an expert who cares!” It would take a long time to explain that a disinterested expert is not an uninterested expert; rather, it’s an expert who cannot profit from any decisions Joan makes, because he or she owns no shares in (has no interests in) any companies in which Joan might invest. So chances are you’ll tell Joan to seek advice from an objective expert, even though that won’t convey your meaning as precisely. That’s one way in which words get lost: So many people use them carelessly that one hesitates to use them correctly, for fear of being misunderstood. By now, it’s probably too late to save “disinterested.” After decades of abuse, it’s become an unnecessary synonym for “uninterested,” rather than a useful word with its own distinct meaning.
      “Fortuitous” is similarly endangered. “Fortuitously, both sisters arrived exactly at noon”—many people will assume that it’s fortunate the sisters arrived at the same time, not that their simultaneous arrival, for good or ill, happened by chance. In this case, I suspect, the confusion got started not because there was any need for a synonym for “fortunate” but because people thought “fortuitous” sounded fancier. I had an intelligent, well-educated colleague who always said “comprise” when he meant “compose”—“The committee will be comprised of six people elected by the faculty.” Usually, I don’t correct people when they make this sort of mistake, but once, when he drafted a proposal that would bear both our names, I had no choice. He listened impatiently while I explained the differences between the words and showed him the relevant pages in the dictionary and The Elements of Style. Then he shook his head. “But ‘comprised’ sounds better,” he said.
     Probably, to many people, it does, just as “infer” sounds like a more elegant way of saying “imply.” It’s ironic when mistakes become so common that the wrong words sound more impressive than the right ones.
      “Aggravate,” “hopefully,” “tortuous,” “anticipate,” “transpire”—in one sense, these words and many others seem in no danger of disappearing from the language, for we still see and hear them often. But they’re so widely misunderstood that their usefulness is disappearing. When “aggravate” degenerates into nothing but a synonym for “irritate,” we won’t need it any more—and we’ll have an unfulfilled need for a word that concisely expresses the idea of making something worse by intensifying it.
      How serious is this problem? It may not be a crisis, but I don’t think it’s trivial, and I don’t think editors and English teachers are the only ones who should be concerned. In George Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government tries to limit the range of citizens’ thoughts by limiting their vocabulary. If “double-plus-ungood” is the only word available for describing something that’s foolish, or unjust, or shameful, people’s ability to explain exactly why they oppose that thing is diminished—they’ll have a hard time articulating their objection for others, perhaps an equally hard time clarifying it in their own minds. If people have only a fuzzy notion of why they distrust Big Brother, how likely are they to rebel?
      Of course, we’re far from the sort of thought domination Orwell envisions. Even if all the words I’ve mentioned and dozens of others dissolve into superfluous mush, we’ll have a vast vocabulary to draw upon. Still, it makes sense to do all we can to stop the erosion. If we don’t, it might get worse. We should at least have the courage to use words correctly ourselves, regardless of the consequences. So you should tell Joan to look for a disinterested expert, even at the risk of having to explain; and I shouldn’t have waited so long to find a tactful way to talk to my colleague about “comprise” and “compose.”
      The connections between language and thought are so close, so vital, that we need to guard our words fiercely. As Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In challenging times—and that means, really, in all times—we recognize the need to make our thoughts precise. We should work hard to keep our words as precise as we want our thoughts to be.

 
      B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published almost forty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. One Shot, an e-novella published by Untreed Reads, is a humorous whodunit that takes a satirical look at issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. B.K.’s awards include a Derringer and first place in a national suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark. B.K. has a Ph.D. in English, has taught literature and composition at the college level for many years, and has published college textbooks on composition and on literary criticism and research.
www.bkstevensmysteries.com

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Some More Proofreading Examples from Works by Editors


All of the grammatical errors (the yellow text) in this article were found in The Editor Devil's Guide to Dialogue by Christine M. Fairchild, and are used here under the Fair Use provisions of title 17 U.S. Code.

Make it clear who is speaking by attaching dialogue to the character’s action. But don’t overdue this either.
Be careful of homophones.
. . . don't overdo this, either.

Again, moderation and variation of pattern is best to maintain reader interest.
A compound subject requires a plural verb.
. . . moderation and variation of pattern are best . . . .
The above is true UNLESS the two subject items are normally thought of as a single name, such as "macaroni and cheese." Such a pair is treated as a singular subject: it's "macaroni and cheese is tasty," not "macaroni and cheese are tasty."

Overall, women use more pronouns (I) and articles (it, them), while men use yes/no more often and name people, places and things directly.
This isn't actually a grammatical error, just wrong information about grammar. "It" and "them" aren't articles. They're pronouns. The three articles are the noun determiners a, an, and the.

Or the parent who allows their teen, who went on an under-aged joy ride in the Porsche, get arrested by cops to show the kid a lesson.
There's a word missing in that sentence; do you see it? Or, maybe more accurately, not see it? There's no "to" introducer in front of the verb "get," is there? You have sharp eyes. The words in red here are just misspellings: there's no such word as "under-aged," and "joyride" is one word. The goof you're most concerned with as a proofer is the wrong expression of the infinitive, because it makes the sentence ungrammatical. Let's fix it.
Or the parent who allows their teen, who went on an underage joyride in the Porsche, >to< get arrested by cops to show the kid a lesson.
Of course, there's also the use of the adjective--strictly speaking, possessive pronoun--"their" with the singular antecedent "parent," but if you want to do this and don't think anybody holding sway over your work's fate should or will mind, well, knock yourself out. The author of The Editor Devil's Guide to Dialogue (from which all of the examples in this article were excerpted) uses plural pronouns with singular antecedents for the sake of gender neutrality dozens of times in this book, sometimes resulting in sentences with split personalities wherein both the default "he" and gender-neutral plural forms are used in the same sentence, such as this:
This is also where the hero/heroine/protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses are inventoried and assessed, like a student getting graded and told what he still needs to learn to overcome their obstacles and reach their next goal.
Zealous devotion to imposing neutering plural pronouns on singular antecedents can also result in absurd-looking phrases such as this one from the book: " . . . during which time
the reader asks themselves what's so critical . . . ." Now, there's a clause that fairly begs to be recast in some way that doesn't  require doing whatever it takes, no matter how odd, to enforce gender neutrality. 
Maybe
. . . during which time readers ask themselves what's so critical . . . ."
or
. . . during which time the reader wonders what's so critical . . . ."
or
. . . during which time the reader asks what's so critical . . . ."  
Well, you get the idea. There are almost always plenty of construction options that make it unnecessary to use conflicting pronouns and antecedents, so one really doesn't need to draw this gender-neutrality line in the sand at the expense of pronoun/antecedent agreement very often. Still, it's your call. The practice has been in place for speech and informal writing since Late Middle English, and quite respectable authors have been writing things like "anybody can grow their own vegetables" and "no one gets everything they want" for hundreds of years, but name-dropping Jane Austen or Dan Brown or Shakespeare or anybody else who does it or ever did it won't make it okay for you to do it in the eyes of those who don't like it. Some style guides adopt a sort of resigned acceptance of it nowadays; some others, including no less an entity than the big gun of matters grammatical, The Chicago Manual of Style, don't care for it. Your prospective publisher may or may not care.

Tired of reading about pronoun/antecedent disagreement? Me, too. Let's finish  up with something simple. Here's a sentence that just needs a proper adjective and possessive.
And it's in his blood, as he uncle was the first to find the ring and bear it's weight.
Replace the pronoun "he" with the adjective "his." "It's" is the contraction of "it is"; lose the apostrophe to form the possessive "its."
And it's in his blood, as his uncle was the first to find the ring and bear its weight.




Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Simple v. simplistic; Apostrophe in a simple possessive; Faulty series list

All of the grammar mistakes for this article are excerpted from the website of Tiffany Lawson Inman, a freelance editor who also conducts online writing workshops, and from her guest article at jennyhansenauthor.wordpress.com. They are used under the Fair Use provision of Title 17, U.S. Code.


SIMPLE versus SIMPLISTIC
http://jennyhansenauthor.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/dramatic-fighting-by-tiffany-lawson-inman/
"Did it feel like we were in the front row for that fight? I wish I could have shown you more…Go buy the book! I’ve seen more embellished fights that I’ve liked just as much, but for this scene, her simplistic style works."

Even professional writers confuse simple and simplistic now and then. That's why there are copy editors in this world.

Info for those who don't know this already . . . when you call someone's style simplistic, you're not complimenting that person. SIMPLE means uncomplicated, straightforward, easily understood, like that, and is often used in a complimentary way. SIMPLISTIC means oversimplified, and is always used negatively. Did you pay attention to that? It is always used negatively. Don't use it when you mean simple, or even when you mean very simple. Use it only when you mean portrayed as being simpler than is actually the case . . . paying inadequate attention to applicable details or complexities.


APOSTROPHE IN A SIMPLE POSSESSIVE
http://tiffanylawsoninmanisnakededitor.com/2012/03/13/dirt-on-face-action-dirt-in-mouth-scene-writing/
"Get a fight choreographer/stuntman insiders view of writing fictional violence . . . ."

This is a possessive form. It requires an apostrophe between the r and the s.
"Get a fight choreographer/stuntman insider's view of writing fictional violence . . . ."


FAULTY SERIES LIST
http://tiffanylawsoninmanisnakededitor.com/about/
"I am a freelance fiction editor. I concentrate on concept and line by line editing, writing teacher, blogger, writer, actor, and all around artist."

The second sentence is presented as a series list, but it makes no sense as one. Item 1 ("concept and line by line editing") is fine because it associates properly with the subject/verb setup ("I concentrate on"), but items 2-6 do not belong. Items 2-6 are not additional things the subject concentrates on, are they? After the first comma, the structure of the sentence inexplicably shifts from things the subject does to things the subject is.

I'm pretty sure I know what happened here. All of these things that the subject is--items 2-6 of the second sentence--were probably meant to be appended to the first sentence, but somehow ended up being tacked onto the second sentence instead. If we relocate them to their proper place, everything makes sense:
"I am a freelance fiction editor, writing teacher, blogger, writer, actor, and all-around artist. I concentrate on concept and line-by-line editing."

Friday, March 2, 2012

More Bad News for Paper

The AAP year-end figures and the Nielsen Bookscan reports for 2011 are out, and those who have made it their business to play down the decline of paper publishing and the burgeoning popularity of electronic books are finding their job getting tougher by the minute.

Every print category except religious has fallen in sales for multiple years now. I'll limit the numbers to the areas with which fiction writers may have more interest.

First, Nielsen (the same Nielsen with the TV surveys) Bookscan, which monitors about 75% of print transactions, reports that
total print sales were down 8.9% in 2011, after having dropped 4.5% in 2010,
and that
adult fiction in print fell by 7.2% in 2010, and from there
dropped 17.7% in 2011.
It further reports that
mass market paperbacks were down 23.4% for 2011,
now having plunged 60% since 2008.

The Association of American Publishers, the chief organization of the publishing industry that needs no further introduction to professional writers, released its 2011 year-end figures on Monday. Among other things, it says that
every print publishing category except religious books declined in 2011,
and that
2011's ebook sales were up 117% over 2010's, for the first time ahead of the paper categories of mass market paperback, children's hardcover, and religious titles.

Bear in mind that these aren't the figures of some group wanting the numbers to look bad, but those of the AAP itself, the organization with maybe the most interest in painting as rosy a picture as possible.

That kind of data is hard to put a minimizing spin on.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Homophone Hassles: Like Pronunciations, Way Unlike Meanings

Homophone Hassles:
Like Sounds, Way Unlike Meanings

Almost everybody has on a few occasions written a wrong word that sounds like the right word when spoken but has a different spelling and a different meaning. One of my favorite homophone goofs is “with baited breath,” which I see fairly frequently and which always gives me a mental image of a fishing lure or a worm floating in midair in front of someone's mouth—“baited breath,” get it? Well, anyway.
She stood with baited breath. Sorry, but I can't help it . . . that's just funny.
She stood with bated breath. Not funny. Correct usage, but no laughs.

Very few of the manuscripts I've proofread over the last dozen years have had nary a single misused homophone, and it doesn't seem to matter whether the writer was a seasoned author or a relative beginner. Nearly everyone does it. Just yesterday, I read at a professional writers' message board: "I'm hear to learn . . . ." A few days ago I came across this in Denise Dietz' novel Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread: " . . . I had a terrier named Rabbit. His brother--same litter--was named Hare, as in 'hare of the dog.'" It's pretty amazing how many folks write "hare of the dog." It's an extremely common mistake. Now, she probably knew that and did it on purpose as a pun to make the dogs-named-like-rabbits theme of the sentence work, but the expression in that form is still a good example of the wrong word that sounds like the right word. Everybody--almost everybody, anyway--uses the wrong word now and then. Probably including you. Certainly including me.

Homophone mix-ups are irrelevant in speech because they sound exactly alike. When we write, though, we have to take care because two or three or even four words with different meanings and spellings might sound exactly alike to our mental ear and fool us as we write but be seen as the mistakes they are by readers.
Here are a few more examples:
Claude has a flare [flair] for decorating.
Their [There] are two [too] many cooks in this kitchen.
I'm not sure you know what your [you're] doing.
We new [knew] we could depend on him for wise council [counsel].
Its [It's] a long drop from anywhere to here.
Something hurried passed [past].

Now, in case you're thinking that I made these up, that they're too obvious to have actually occurred . . . well, au contraire, mon frere. All of them are not only real mistakes, but real mistakes in professional writers' finalized and published work. There is no shortcut to avoiding problems with sound-alike words. You have to have the information in your head; you have to know. Your word processor's spell checker won't flag homophones.

Does any particular homophone misuse bother you more than another? Does some sound-alike word make you smile, as "baited breath" does to me? Do you personally screw up a particular one?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Never Give Up . . . Good or Bad Advice for Aspiring Writers?

I've read the titular tip for developing authors at least fifty times at different websites. So have you, probably. The wording varies a little, but the spirit of the thing spans all of them: keep trying, aim for the stars, you can have anything you want badly enough . . . never give up. With enough dedication and determination you can achieve anything.

But what about talent? Is it considerate to endlessly encourage people with little aptitude for writing to keep at it, thus setting them up for perpetual disappointments? And what about the agents and direct-submission publishers who must deal with the relentless deluge of inferior material from writers who have been told to never stop trying?

Like it or not, the most sincere desire to excel at a thing and a blood oath to work tirelessly and relentlessly toward that goal doesn't guarantee that one will ever excel, or even be much good at all, at the thing. We can't have whatever we want just because we want it a lot. I could paint pictures on canvas four hours a day for five years under the tutelage of the best painters in the country and still not be any damn good at it because I don't have the innate aptitude for it. No matter how badly I might want to be a professional painter, it's not going to happen. It doesn't mean I can't do lots of other things, just that I can't be an artist. Now, do you think my peers do me a service if they continue to encourage me to keep at it, even when they can plainly see I'll never approach much proficiency in it no matter how long and how hard I try?

What do you think?