Still on my “grammar rules” kick, but this is pure glee.
As reported in The New Yorker. See what you now can and cannot do!
Still on my “grammar rules” kick, but this is pure glee.
As reported in The New Yorker. See what you now can and cannot do!
I often turn to Connie J. Jasperson for good common sense about writing, in this case an issue that looks as if it ought to be simple, yet plagues many of us. I also note the use of an em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue–another use that can be overdone! (em dash intended). Thanks, Connie!
Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.
I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.
Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.
So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t…
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One of those dastardly little conundrums of self-editing is the apostrophe.
Our writing center at the institution where I taught had a handout titled “Rogue Apostrophes,” in recognition of the way these nasty squiggles had a way of popping up here and there in student papers, wherever the mood seemed to strike them.
As with many punctuation marks, misplaced apostrophes don’t always get in the way of a reader’s understanding. But they can. When readers encounter something that looks as if it was a possessive but turns out not to be, they’ll mentally backtrack to clear up the confusion. Sometimes the reader doesn’t even notice the glitch in his or her attention, but it’s there all the same.
And even the slightest glitch in attention means that the reader has been kicked out of your story, even if just for a moment. Not good.
There are only three things you need to know about apostrophes, one easy rule and two with some complications that you can learn to handle.
Rule 1 (the easy one): NEVER USE AN APOSTROPHE TO FORM A PLURAL.
Not even when it looks as if an apostrophe might be helpful, as in numerals and letters. This rule reflects the most recent style preferences, so if you learned differently, it’s time to change.
Not “I earned A’s in my math classes.”
But “I earned As in my math classes.”
Not “My scores were all 2’s.”
But “My scores were all 2s.”
Not “I learned my ABC’s”
But “I learned my ABCs.”
Trickiest: In family names
Not “My cousins, the Simpson’s, are coming to dinner.”
But “My cousins, the Simpsons, are coming to dinner.”
Just apply this rule ACROSS THE BOARD.
Rule 2: USE APOSTROPHES TO FORM POSSESSIVES.
When something belongs to something else, that’s the time for an apostrophe.
“I used Jane’s cookie recipe today.”
“The house’s paint job needed touching up.”
Two situations can give you fits:
A) PLURAL possessives—where does that darn squiggle go?
Here’s a rule of thumb that will help you: FORM THE PLURAL FIRST, THEN ADD THE APOSTROPHE.
“I like the trees’ colors in fall.”
Family names are the worst!
The plural of the family name Simpson is Simpsons.
The plural possessive (something belongs to the entire family named Simpson) is Simpsons’ (Not Simpson’s—that’s Mr. or possibly Ms. Simpson, by him- or herself).*
So: “The Simpsons’ new car is really expensive.”
“We went over to the Simpsons’ yesterday” (“house” is understood).
“The families’ main concern was the change in their insurance premiums.”
Most annoying are family names that sound as if the possessive is built into the plural. For example:
The plural of “Wilkes” as a family name is “Wilkeses,” so if you want to talk about something that belongs to the entire Wilkes family, it’s “the Wilkeses’ house.”
Aggravating but true!
The position of the apostrophe is sometimes the only way you can tell whether you have a singular or plural owner:
“The girl’s dresses filled the closet” vs. “The girls’ dresses filled the closet.”
REMEMBER: FORM THE PLURAL FIRST.
B) Hidden possessives—you really need an apostrophe for that?
Yep. Think of it this way:
A wait of four days is something created by those four days, so in a logical sense, the wait belongs to the days.
So: “We had a four days’ wait.”
Remember: Form the plural first, where appropriate.
So: “It was a long day’s wait.”
Any mention of time used to modify (in front of) another noun should have this tricky apostrophe: weeks, years, months, centuries, etc.
Rule 3: APOSTROPHES INDICATE CONTRACTIONS—where a letter has been left out.
Most of these are straightforward, still so natural to us that we won’t mess them up often. I almost never see “cant” for “can’t” or “doesnt” for “doesn’t”—and I really have to discipline my word-processor if I want to deliberately make that mistake.
Two cases, though, tie us into knots:
A) Its vs. It’s
You’ve run into this one, I bet.
It’s maddening because “its” is a possessive and therefore, by Rule 2 above, should have an apostrophe. But it’s a special form of possessive, a possessive pronoun, like “her” or “their” or “his”: her dog, his cat, their pet lion, its paws.
So, as the sentences above illustrate, the ONLY TIME “it” and “s” get an apostrophe is when they form the contractions for “it is” or “it has.”
“It’s about time you got home.”
“It’s been a long time since you left.”
To be honest, this messy little exception gives so many people trouble that, if I were you and I had trouble remembering, I’d feel no shame in simply looking it up.
B) Let’s vs. Lets
This contraction may be in the process of disappearing. I admit to missing it from time to time, in writing I’m critiquing and even in my own. Still, “let’s” is a contraction for “let us,” so it’s legally entitled to an apostrophe.
These rules cover almost every situation you’re likely to find yourself in if you’re writing in Standard Written English (which is what editors, agents, publishers, and most readers expect). If you encounter something that doesn’t seem to fit, you can always search the web until you find a helpful rule.
It’s worth noting, too, that publications almost always specify a “style sheet” such as AP or Chicago Manual of Style, or provide their own. If you’re submitting to particular magazine, do what they say, regardless of “the rules.”
*One minor point I left out above so as not to add confusion: Current style specifies that possessives of PROPER NAMES take not just an apostrophe, but an apostrophe-s.
Not: “That is James’ car”
But: “That is James’s car”
Here’s a quick quiz you can try!
1) There were two Angela’s/Angelas in my high-school class.
2) We went to the Smiths’/Smith’s party last night.
3) The cat licked it’s/its fur constantly.
4) My friend made a lot of money during the late 1990’s/1990s.
5) I felt as if I’d put in a lifetimes/lifetime’s work.
6) Be sure to pick up the dog’s/dogs’ toys.
CONTACT ME AND I’LL EMAIL YOU THE ANSWERS IF YOU WANT!
Here’s the primer. Save those apostrophes for the times you really need one—and that means NOT in plurals!
NO APOSTROPHE IN THE PLURAL OF YOUR FAMILY NAME—OR YOUR CHARACTER’S FAMILY NAME. APOSTROPHES ARE FOR POSSESSIVES AND CONTRACTIONS. THAT’S IT!
One of my favorite posts—hope it helps with one of writing’s toughest little questions: When should you use a comma?
Commas are among my favorite tools for building meaning. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I’ve written multiple posts about them.
If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:
Rule 1: After introductory elements.
This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.
After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)
After he spent an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers know that “where” begins a new clause.)
Rule 2: Around or after “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers (this is a rule, not an option).
I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.
Short interrupters can be easy to spot:
Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.
However, Jane did not go.
Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.
The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.
The information about grandad’s car is incidental to the meaning of the sentence, which is that the car is now bright blue. Lift it out and only this incidental information is lost. The rule here, and it IS a rule, is TWO COMMAS, not just the first one. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.
Contrast the example above with this example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without eliminating the point of the sentence:
The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.
Without the modifier, we have:
The car is the one you should buy.
Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the meaning.
NO COMMAS around essential modifiers! They are integral to the sentence, not “interrupters.”
Sometimes confusion about what constitutes an essential or non-essential modifier can turn a sentence into nonsense. I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.
Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.
Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:
Author wrote a lot of books.
The trick: try taking out the modifying clause and see what remains.
Rule 3: Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):
Hi, Mr. Smith.
Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?
Louise, did you buy the bread?
Well, Mr. Smith, I guess we won’t be having any bread today.
Rule 4: Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the infamous Oxford or serial comma.) The elements of the “serial” or list can be words, phrases, or whole sentences.
Louise forgot the bread, cheese, and fruit; she did remember the wine, beer, and vodka.
My worries about her diet involved her lack of protein, her lack of vegetables, and her preference for liquid components.
If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence, which contains a compound predicate for the pronoun “you.” I’ve underlined the two components (and note the comma after the introductory clause).
Rule 5: Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.
I’d argue this is a judgment call, but this sentence illustrates how judicious use of a comma in a compound sentence like this one can tell readers which part of the sentence they’ve ventured into.
That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:
*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.
**There are actually several coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”
A great list that gives you a process for proofreading—and I can attest that these steps work for me. I especially want to echo Dave’s advice to read in hard copy. Not only will you spot errors you miss on screen (track changes be darned), you will see your work in a different light. Something changes in your head when you hold a sheet of paper and a pen in your hand. I can’t explain this, but I know it’s true for me.
When you’re done with this process, run your manuscript through my “Things You WILL Miss When You Proofread” posts. They’ll help you catch those little things your eyes will still miss but your computer won’t.
Proofreading. Some writers love it, some writers despise it. But whatever your feelings, proofreading is your final task when preparing to share your words with the world.
Writers often read their words the way they believe they wrote them, not how they actually wrote them. This means spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical errors, such as poor sentence structure, wrong choice of words and punctuation can all go unnoticed by the writer. These factors impact the context and readability of the work.
The good news is that proofreading skills can be learned, developed and improved. Where is the best source for information on learning how to proofread, I hear you ask (at least I hope you are).
Fear not my friends, help is at hand and The Haunted Pen is here to save the day!
The best source for hands-on information is a professional proofreader – someone who has spent years…
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I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:
“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”
“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”
Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.
Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.
On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.
At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).
And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).
The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools.
I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:
Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)
I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:
a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.
b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.
Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.
Try these two:
a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.
b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.
I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.
Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.
I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.
But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.
a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.
b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.
(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)
I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.
In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.
As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write
Joe was wounded in Vietnam
without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).
You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”
Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.