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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Multiple Paragraphs in a Single Instance of Dialogue

    I was reading a short story at an online literary magazine, here, a couple days ago. The author had elected to write the story in present tense, which I make no secret of disliking because a great many writers seem unable to handle the tense shifts. A lot of this particular story was a recollection of an earlier time, and that past experience itself contained a character's recollection of an even earlier time. Put another way, what I was dealing with was a tale with present-tense narration that incorporated not only a flashback but a flashback within the flashback. This sort of multi-tiered time-hopping is a recipe for disaster unless the writer is skillful in the handling of the transitions. One of the absolute necessities for accomplishing this feat is the ability to compartmentalize dialogue within dialogue, a skill that wasn't on conspicuous display in this story. It was pretty tough to keep tabs on who was talking in some of the flashback and flashback-inside-flashback. For me, anyway. Inserting an opening quote mark at the beginning of paragraphs 19, 20, 21, and 22 fixed this, but it reminded me of just how much and how often this point of punctuation gives fiction writers grief, including those who get published a lot. As seen in this example, the expertise to catch and correct this is not obviously present at some publishers, so writers themselves have to possess it.

    And this is how you do it . . .

    When you express a speaker's words in more than one paragraph, there's an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each one, but only one closing quotation mark—the one at the end of the last paragraph.
    There's nothing to it: just make sure that, when your speaker's words extend across more than one paragraph, you use an opening quotation mark at the beginning of every paragraph but use a closing quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph.

    Here's a multiple-paragraph dialogue example, with explanations in brackets:

    “Flo Johnson will be at the party, and I want you to stick to her like flies on flypaper. Don't let her out of your sight. [This isn't the only paragraph, so there's no concluding quote mark here.]
    “Her sister will probably be there, too. Our best information says she doesn't know about any of the caper, but I've put Julian on her anyway, just in case. [This isn't the last paragraph either, so it likewise doesn't get a closing mark. Opening mark, yes—closing mark, no.]
    “I want you to remember that your job here is to observe and report. No matter what happens, you're to take no action. Do all of you understand that?” [This is the final paragraph, so it does take a closing mark.]
    
    Here's the whole multi-paragraph instance of dialogue without my bracketed comments:

    “Flo Johnson will be at the party, and I want you to stick to her like flies on flypaper. Don't let her out of your sight.
    “Her sister will probably be there, too. Our best information says she doesn't know about any of the caper, but I've put Julian on her anyway, just in case.
    “I want you to remember that you job here is to observe and report. No matter what happens, you're to take no action. Do all of you understand that?”

    See how it works? For a single instance of speech by a single speaker that extends for more than one paragraph:
  •    Each paragraph takes an opening quote mark, but
  •    Only the last one takes a closing mark. 
    You're probably thinking:: Jeez, you've only repeated all this about half a dozen times already. True, but there's method to my tedium. Most points of punctuation can be learned well and forever by simple rote repetition. And in this you've played right into my hands, al la Blue's Clues. Remember that kids' show, where the information was repeated to your kids--or maybe even to you--several times over a couple sequential days? Those reruns were examples of rote memorization. Seriously, check your brain. See, the rule for quote mark placement in multiple paragraphs, which is an extremely important part of dialogue punctuation, is now in your head there for all time, and you don't even have to try to remember it anymore, ever.
    You're welcome.   
      

Monday, March 28, 2016

Do You Write as Well as a Ninth-Grader?

     Aspiring fiction writers like to invoke the maxim, "Story trumps grammar every time." This is true . . . sort of. Storytellers break the rules of grammar all the time. Indeed, creative writing wouldn't be very creative if fiction writers approached their stories in the manner of authoring academic theses or technical manuals. But this implicit "literary license" for storytellers holds true only for the departures they commit deliberately at the behest of their muses toward some literary purpose. It doesn't apply to the mistakes they make because they simply don't know any better. A lot of developing writers extrapolate the notion of more leeway for creative types to mean fiction writers don't need to possess as much grammar and spelling and punctuation and usage talent as nonfiction writers because such talent isn't as important for them, because they somehow have a higher artistic calling that reduces such pedantic concerns to annoying side-issues. Essentially, that they don't need to be experts in the language as long as they can tell a dynamite story. This begs the question: just how in the blue perfect hell do they expect to tell a dynamite story without being experts in the language? Really, we're all sitting here patiently, with bated breath, waiting for them to explain just how they figure they can do that.
     My open question to fiction writers, then, one that wouldn't even be considered worthy of serious discussion among most journalists and nonfiction authors, is this: do you think a professional writer needs to be a journeyman of the language? More specifically here, do you think a professional's functional skills should be at least equal to those of, say, a high school freshman: a ninth-grader? 
     Hemingway sometimes wrote at sixth- or seventh-grade levels. The question here is not whether or not you believe you, as a professional writer, should always write at any particular readability level. No, the question here is whether or not you think it's reasonable to expect you, as one claiming to be a professional writer,  to be able to write at that level; whether you think you, as a professional, ought to know how to write at least that well; whether you think you should have the available functional language skills of the median fifteen-year-old American schoolkid.
     If you want an idea of what ninth-graders are supposed to know to become tenth-graders, and possibly an idea of whether or not you seem to possess these skills, here are fifty practice sentences derived from textbooks, class handouts, practice sheets, and other grade-level materials to help you find out. 
     Answers are here.
     

 1.  Many streets here doesn't / don't even have names.
   
2.  The committee has / have reached a decision.
   
3.  Who was / were the first settlers in this area?
   
4.  The dog and the horse is / are made of plastic.
       
5.  A number of the nails has / have loosened.
   
6.  Neither Marie nor Earl cooks / cook as well as I do.
   
7.  Many a decision has / have been made in haste.
   
8.  Both of the officers has / have specific duties.
   
9.  Each of the men raised his / their hand to vote for the proposal.
   
10.  The coach, as well as his players, is / are anxious about the game.
   
11.  We couldn't find Louis / Louis's saxophone.
   
12.  Macaroni and cheese is / are popular in school lunches.
   
13.  Kevin sent both Josh and I / me an invitation.
   
14.  We / Us Kramers tend to be on the tall side.
   
15.  He stared at she / her and I / me.
   
16.  Denise was depending upon Sheila and they / them.
   
17.  Shannon told us who / whom the police were looking for.
   
18.  Give the envelope to whoever / whomever shows up first.
   
19.  Carlos has already lain / laid the groundwork for the operation.
   
20.  Remember, we're having dinner with the Williams' / Williamses tonight.
   
21.  Lexington is fewer / less than thirty miles from here.
   
22.  We hid behind the barn til / till sundown.
   
23.  Exercising has had a positive affect / effect on my blood pressure.
   
24.  My grandmother / Grandmother is taking me to the museum.
   
25.  She remembered the conductor from a previous performance of The barber / Barber of Seville.
   
26.  According to grandmother / Grandmother, Dr. Kournikova had immigrated to Milltown from Bosnia.
   
27.  I've finally finished reading "The Grapes of Wrath" / The Grapes of Wrath.

28.  The article was titled "Yesterday is Gone" / Yesterday is Gone.
   
29.  Which one of you said,  "Charlie did it?" / it"?
   
30.  "Ouch" / "Ouch!" she yelled. / yelled!
   
31.  Which is correct?
   Harold will conduct the interviews Francine will meet the managers and Charles will guide the plant tour.
or
   Harold will conduct the interviews, Francine will meet the managers, and Charles will guide the plant tour.
or
   Harold will conduct the interviews, Francine will meet the managers and, Charles will guide the plant tour.

32.     Which is correct?
   Her low soft whisper could not be heard in the big noisy room.
or
   Her low soft whisper could not be heard in the big, noisy room.
or
   Her low, soft whisper could not be heard in the big, noisy room.

33.  Which is correct?
   The witch doctor wore a mask, of which this is a copy, only during special ceremonies.
or
   The witch doctor wore a mask of which this is a copy, only during special ceremonies.
or
   The witch doctor, wore a mask of which this is a copy, only during special ceremonies.

34.  Which is correct?
   Please try to arrive before dark; otherwise call ahead.
or
   Please try to arrive before dark; otherwise, call ahead.
or
   Please try to arrive before dark, otherwise, call ahead.

35.  They hurried to finish their / they're song.
       
36.  Its / It's a remarkable day!
   
37.  The children's / childrens' toys were everywhere.
   
38.  Your / You’re welcome.

39.  Even though I was tired.
     Fragment
     Run-on
     Complete Sentence

40.  He asked for a raise she got it.
     Fragment
     Run-on
     Complete Sentence

41.  She is a good mother she pays attention to her children.
     Fragment
     Run-on
     Complete Sentence

42.  When Alex calls.
     Fragment
     Run-on
     Complete Sentence

43.  He laughed.
     Fragment
     Run-on
     Complete Sentence

44.  Craig likes cars more than her.
   The sentence directly above means
     Craig likes cars more than he likes Sheila.
or
     Craig likes cars more than Sheila likes cars.
or
     Impossible to know from the sentence’s form.

45.  Craig likes cars more than Sheila.
   The sentence above means
     Craig likes cars more than he likes Sheila.
or
     Craig likes cars more than Sheila likes cars.
or
     Impossible to know from this sentence alone.
   
46.  Craig likes cars more than she.
   The sentence above means
     Craig likes cars more than he likes Sheila.
or
     Craig likes cars more than Sheila likes cars.
or
     Impossible to know from this sentence alone.

47.  Neither the students nor the teacher seems / seem to care much for Jude the Obscure.

48.  He’s one of those superior types who always needs / need to have the last word.

49.  Henry lay / laid around the house all day yesterday.
   
50.  Which is correct?
   We arrived at the McNameras house at seven.
or
   We arrived at the McNamera's house at seven.
or
   We arrived at the McNameras' house at seven.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

WHO and WHOM

Two indefinite pronouns that cause definite problems

     Most of us routinely ignore the object pronoun “whom” and use the subject pronoun “who” for both object and subject uses in our speech. This pervades all educational levels and is regarded as perfectly acceptable colloquial English. In your written work intended for publication, the way your characters speak determines how closely the prescribed who/whom uses are observed in dialogue and in first-person narrative that reflects the speech habits of the narrating character. But virtually all publishers will expect you to know the proper uses of these two pronouns and to apply those uses when appropriate, and you’d better believe it. So get over any lurking notions that using “whom” is archaic and silly and that your publisher won’t care if you don’t do it. Writers have been debating the need for the use of “whom” for an awful long time now, but it has managed to endure through the centuries as an element of standard grammar and is not going anywhere anytime soon; you can set your mind to that.

     Who is a subject pronoun. It executes a verb; it does something. Therefore, if the pronoun is in the subject role—is doing something—use “who”:
Who showed up last?
I don’t know who broke the door.

     Whom is an object pronoun. It has something done to it. If the who/whom pronoun is playing the part of the object, use “whom”:
Whom did you email about this?  “Whom” is the object of the verb “email.”

     A who-or-whom pronoun that is the object of a preposition is usually “whom.” However, when the object of the preposition is not only the pronoun itself but, in effect, an entire relative clause containing the pronoun, make your who-or-whom decision based on the pronoun’s function within that relative clause. If that sounds screwy, here’s how it shakes out in practice:
Give the envelope to whoever arrives first.“whoever arrives first” is a clause that is the object of the preposition “to.” Within that clause, “whoever” is the subject executing the verb “arrives.”
Give the envelope to whomever you like.  “whomever you like” is the object clause. Within it, “whomever” is the receiver of the action, i.e., the object, of the verb “like.”

     Here are a couple of shortcuts that can help you in certain situations without the necessity of figuring anything out:
     First, if any verb immediately follows the pronoun, the right pronoun is who:
Who is that pecking at the window?
I don’t care who said it. I don’t believe it.
Whoever knows about the merger will be there tonight.
     Second, if any quantifier (many of, some of, all of, a few of, etc.) comes just before the pronoun, use “whom”:
The cowboys, many of whom had seen the shooting, weren’t talking.
Raquel looked in at the “New Fathers” class students, a few of whom were not men.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Anymore, Any More: Uses in American English

anymore or any more

     Some references will tell you that anymore and any more are interchangeable in American English, or that “any more” is preferred for formal writing. Neither of these things is true, and you don’t need to pay any attention to them. You shouldn’t pay any attention to them.
     In American English, the one- and two-word forms have different meanings.

     Anymore (one word) is an adverb meaning now in one of two slightly different senses:
1. “any longer,” anymore expressed in a negative way that suggests that something that used to be so isn’t so now . . .
The Amtrak doesn’t stop here anymore.
Look, I’m not a kid anymore.
2. “nowadays,” anymore expressed in a positive way that suggests that something that wasn’t so before is so now . . .
Everyone in this town looks so sad anymore.
Whenever we go skiing anymore, somebody gets hurt.

     Any more (two words) is:
1. an adjective phrase that means “some more,” “an additional amount or number of” . . .
I don’t want any more ice cream.
If any more ants show up, I’m out of here.
2. an adverb phrase, meaning “to any greater degree or extent,” that can be used to modify either a verb or an adjective . . .
I don’t like this any more than you do. Modifying a verb.
This car doesn’t look any more dependable than the other one. Modifying an adjective.
I don't want to hear any more about it.
Could they even possibly be any more annoying?

     Think of anymore in time contexts and any more for quantity, degree, or extent. One word for “when,” two words for “how much,” like that.
      Now, UK folks, who use only any more, two words, might look at this discussion with some amusement and wonder why we think we need a one-word version in the first place. Fair enough. But at least we don't say silly stuff like VITT-a-min and SHED-ule. 
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Dictionary Support:
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, American Heritage, Random House Webster's, Oxford American, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, et al. 
Text Support:
Little Brown Handbook, Harper Collins . . . New Century Handbook, Longman . . . Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press . . . et al.   

Friday, January 9, 2015

Commas with Coordinate Adjectives

The Order of Series Adjectives
     There’s an idiomatic order to follow when using more than one adjective in front of a noun, and commas aren’t used between the adjectives. 
(As an aside here: Never, ever place a comma between an adjective and the noun it is describing: for example, a long, black, car. The comma between black and car is wrong--it has always been wrong, and it will forever be wrong.) 
     Although, like everything else in this world, there are occasional exceptions, the conventional order is as laid out below with a couple examples of how this works out:

evaluation          \   cantankerous
 size                \
  shape               \
   age                 \   
old
    color      
blue     \
     origin     
German   \
      made of             \
       qualifier  
sports   \
        the noun  
car      \   codger
 

What Are Coordinate Adjectives?
      The matrix above is how we order series adjectives. We ordinarily say “blue German sports car,” we don’t normally say “German blue sports car.” Likewise, conventional English usage says “cantankerous old codger,” not “old cantankerous codger.” There are plenty of exceptions in popular use, of course, but this is the usual heirarchy of series adjectives. What kind of sports car is it? It’s a German one. What kind of German sports car is it? It’s a blue one. You can see that all of the levels of description except the topmost (evaluation) are more-or-less objective in nature: size, shape, color, age, like that.
     Sometimes we use two or more adjectives of the evaluation class (evaluation adjectives are subjective observations such as “an interesting theory,” “a beautiful sunset,” “effective methods,” etc.) in series. For instance, a person might be described as both kind and gentle. These are both evaluation adjectives; when two or more such adjectives are used in series, they’re called coordinate adjectives because they are of the same rank; they’re equal in position of precedence, so the series order is grammatically unimportant.
     If you want to use two evaluation adjectives in series, you can either place “and” between them and write
      a kind and gentle man
or you can place a comma between them and write
     a kind, gentle man
     Kind and gentle are coordinate adjectives, so they can be switched without harm if that better pleases your creative muse:
     a gentle and kind man
     a gentle, kind man
     There’s no injunction against using more than two coordinate adjectives in series, but the longer the string the more potential for looking overdone, so use your head:
     his energetic, efficient, ambitious assistant
     As coordinate adjectives, they can, if desired, be rearranged to suit you:
     his ambitious, energetic, efficient assistant   and so on
     Some writers would insert “and” after the last adjective, with or without the last comma:
     his energetic, efficient, and ambitious assistant
but it’s not needed with series coordinate adjectives. The conjunction is a stylistic choice: not wrong, just unnecessary.

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

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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
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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
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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