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.”


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.

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.