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
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
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