Category Archives: grammar rules

A.P. Says We Are Now Free To Boldy Go!

Cartoon policeman blocking social media posts

Caution: Grammar Police!

Still on my “grammar rules” kick, but this is pure glee.

The 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference!

As reported in The New Yorker. See what you now can and cannot do!

#amediting, folks!

 

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You Probably Don’t Fear Adverbs as Much as You Think You Do.

Every now and then, I just can’t resist a rant about hyper-devotion to “rules.” The many lists of THINGS YOU MAY NOT DO and surprising admonitions from writing-group colleagues (Eeek! A sentence that ends with a preposition!) remind me that such hyper-devotion thrives.

My topic today is adverbs. We’ve all been scolded about our adverbs, especially those frightful -ly words. I’ve been sensitized to the point that those two letters set sirens blaring in my writerly mind—even as here when the -ly word is not an adverb. The spirit of Stephen King will haunt you. Strunk and White will be over to flog you this afternoon.

Like all writing rules, this one should be applied judiciously. (Or should I say “with judicious attention?” Whatever for?) The slightest perusal of some excellent fiction reminds us that even the cursed -ly words have a place. For example, here’s a short passage from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. Theo is describing horseplay he and his close friend Boris indulge in:

I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong idea. (pages 300-301)

I could say a lot about this excerpt, not just about its use of -ly adverbs but also about how blithely it runs afoul of all sorts of rules. But here I want to note one quality that the passage owes to its adverbs: how natural, how human, how conversational, it sounds. The expressions sinfully adulterated by -ly adverbs are examples of the way people actually talk.

Yes, you could take out three of the four and lose very little. But these are common expressions by which we normally, instinctively, express exactly what Theo is grappling with. The emphasis added by “absolutely” and its counterpoint, the qualification inserted by “fairly,” lace in Theo’s discomfort, his lack of confidence in his own judgment. We’re all often “fairly sure” about some things, we all often want to be “absolutely sure” about others. The nuances differentiating those attitudes, so common in our everyday handling of our emotions, are the “very little” we lose.

The value of what’s lost by a too-pious fear of adverbs comes through even more vividly in a delightful short article I recently summarized for my other blog, College Composition Weekly. In this blog, I report on scholarship about teaching college writing from major journals in the field. My latest entry was Peter Wayne Moe’s “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences” from the journal Composition Studies.

Moe, who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, urges writing teachers to look beyond the gems produced by the “greats” to value the day-to-day work that unremarkable sentences do and to recognize how even first-year college writers naturally and skillfully use the tools such everyday language supplies. The article explores how choice of subject, insertion of parenthetical asides, the use of “and” and “but” all convey how the writer “places” ideas in relation to each other. His short section on adverbs I found particularly rich.

He deals only peripherally with the -ly words, focusing instead on the kinds of adverbs that disguise themselves. Adverbs, he notes, are the stuff of context. They are the scene-setters, the clarifiers, the words that position the content in the nexus from which meaning derives. He provides a striking illustration of the work that adverbs do.

Here’s a student sentence. The student is writing about classroom activities following the 2016 election:

Often times we talk about race, gender and identity and my professor is always willing to share her opinions on these issues. After the election, she firmly expressed her political views to our class.

Setting aside views on whether this teacher should have expressed her views, firmly or otherwise, here’s what Moe does that speaks to a writer’s craft: “These sentences could be pared of their adverbs and prepositional phrases [all of these prepositions are adverbial] and would remain grammatically sound—”

We talk and my professor is willing to share her opinions. She expressed her political views.

When we strip these adverbial elements, including “firmly,” Moe writes, “everything is lost. The sentences are decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (page 88). And I would suggest that in the subtle context that the adverbial components supply, we can see a hint of how the student feels about her teacher’s actions, a hint missing from the denuded lines.

I suppose if this student were John Updike, she could have come up with a single, forceful verb that would do the work of “always willing to share,” including the delicate emphasis embedded in that “always,” and we would applaud her, call her the next Updike. But I love Moe’s attention in this article to how we all speak and write everyday and how much work that ordinary writing can do if we use all the resources it provides.

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

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!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

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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3 Apostrophe Rules You Need!

One of those dastardly little conundrums of self-editing is the apostrophe.

The five basic comma rules

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.

Do you need the Oxford Comma?

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.

More comma rules

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).

And:

“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.

Do you need the Oxford Comma?

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”

The five basic comma rules

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.

Trick question:

6) Be sure to pick up the dog’s/dogs’ toys.

CONTACT ME AND I’LL EMAIL YOU THE ANSWERS IF YOU WANT!

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Punctuating Dialogue! Here’s How.

A single quotation mark.A single quotation mark.I wanted to write this, because I get so frustrated when I’m critiquing and I have to stop following the story line to correct the punctuation of dialogue. But I don’t have to write about dialogue because Reedsy has done it for me. If you’ve ever wondered, say, about what do with em dashes or how to punctuate a quote within a quote, it’s all here! Feast! The five basic comma rulesThe five basic comma rules

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‘Tis the Season for Pet Peeves: How to Make A Family Name Plural.

Here’s the primer. Save those apostrophes for the times you really need one—and that means NOT in plurals!

Check the five basic comma rules

SHOUTING:

NO APOSTROPHE IN THE PLURAL OF YOUR FAMILY NAME—OR YOUR CHARACTER’S FAMILY NAME. APOSTROPHES ARE FOR POSSESSIVES AND CONTRACTIONS. THAT’S IT!

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The Only Comma Rules You’ll Ever Need! Really!

The five basic comma rulesOne 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:

Use commas:

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.

So:

After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)

But:

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).More comma rules

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):Do you need the Oxford Comma?

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*:

  • After introductory elements
  • Around interrupters
  • In direct address
  • Before “and” or “but” in a list of three or more items
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**).Check the five basic comma rules

*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.”

What comma rule confuses you most? How do you decide when to include one? Share you solutions with us all!

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