Category Archives: punctuation for writers of novels

Helpful clues about pesky punctuation marks like commas and apostrophes

No-Comma Zones!

Cartoon policeman

Grammar Police do exist.

They’re called agents.

I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.

I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?

I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.

However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway

Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.

1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.

Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.

A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.

Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:

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 work the sentence is meant to do.

Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.

You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:

Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.

Author writes a lot of thrillers.

See?

If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,

The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.

Typewriter with question marks on the page

2. Between a subject and its verb

The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.

You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:

The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.

In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.

For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.

Big question mark in clouds

3. After introductory “And” or “But.”

If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be

But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.

The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.

The Bottom Line:

While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?

Book with pages folded like a heart

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The Hardest Comma Rule!

Check the five basic comma rules
Comma Love

Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.

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10 Good Grammar Resources by Melissa Donovan…

I’m not a fan of those apps and checkers that purport to “fix” your writing. They get way too hysterical about choices that should be judgment calls (e.g., starting a sentence with “But”). Here, however, is a useful list of common-sense sources to help with grammar conundrums. Thanks to Melissa Donovan, and to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it.

(Forgive a moment’s rant about people I see on various self-help social-media pages who claim that they can be good writers while dispensing with a thorough understanding of the “grammar rules.” Some of these “rules” are flexible, but some basic punctuation conventions and sentence-structure mandates like subject/verb agreement are not. Yes, commas can be tricky, and we can argue about which ones are needed and which are optional, but if you still don’t know where apostrophes belong and where they don’t. . . . Yes, there really are grammar police. They’re called agents. 😦 )

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Writing Forward:

There’s good grammar and bad grammar, proper grammar and poor grammar. Some writers have fun with grammar and for others, grammar’s a bore. But in order to communicate effectively and for our writing to be professional (and publishable), we all need reliable grammar resources.

There is no grammar authority, no supreme court of grammar where judges strike down the gavel at grammar offenders. Grammar is not an exact science (in fact, it’s not a science at all), and even among the most educated and experienced linguists, the rules of grammar are heavily debated.

Of course, there are some basic rules we can all agree on, and these can found in any good grammar resource. There are gray areas, too, which are skillfully handled by style guides.

As writers, we need these resources. They help us use language effectively. Good grammar ensures that our work is readable. And…

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10 ways to proofread your own writing – by Louise Harnby…

I always like the advice Louise Harnby offers, and when Chris the Story Reading Ape shares one of her posts, I dive in. This post is packed with ideas for catching proofreading problems. I tried out the free “Bookalyser” app included and downloaded Harnby’s free guide to using Find/Replace in Word to catch glitches. In my next posts, I’ll report on what I found useful in the Bookalyser, and I’ll compare my own free download for using Find/Replace to catch proofreading slips to hers. In the meantime, hope you find this helpful!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Fresh eyes on a piece of writing is ideal. Sometimes, however, the turnaround time for publication precludes it. Other times, the return on investment just won’t justify the cost of hiring a professional proofreader, especially when shorter-form content’s in play. Good enough has to be enough.

Here are 10 ideas to help you minimize errors and inconsistencies.

Continue reading HERE

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How to use quote marks in fiction writing – by Louise Harnby…

I’d saved this post from earlier and have just checked in. Harnby has a wonderful way of explaining clearly, with good examples. Not only did she note a problem I see often (U.S. writers thinking that “distanced” words should be in single quotes), but she also told me something I didn’t know, and I’m a grammar geek: that U.K. editing places quote marks inside the punctuation in nested quotes. I’d seen that practice but hadn’t made the leap to generalizing to the rule. Use this guide whenever you wonder what to do with those annoying ” and ‘ marks.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Here’s how to use quote marks (or speech marks) according to publishing convention in your fiction writing. The guidance covers both US English and UK English conventions.

In this post, I cover the following:

  • What quote marks are used for
  • Omitting a closing quote mark in dialogue
  • Whether to use single or double quote marks
  • Whether to use straight or curly quote marks
  • Where the closing quote mark goes in relation to other punctuation​
  • When not to use quote marks​

Continue reading HERE

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FREE Download: What You WILL Miss When You Edit!

Tricks for finding those pesky little slips your eyes skip when you read.An image for What You WILL Miss When You Proofread; clickable link to the download

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FREE Download! What You WILL Miss When You Proofread!

It’s a plain truth that our eyes skip over typos when we’re proofreading our own work. Words you left out or accidentally cut (or accidentally failed to cut) may be the hardest mistakes to catch. But the good news is that you CAN catch another type of invisible errors: punctuation and spacing glitches that detract from the professional manuscript you want to market under your name.

In this pdf, What You WILL Miss When You Proofread, I’ve combined three blog posts to show you some simple tricks using an old friend, Find/Replace, to search for and fix common typos from double periods to missing quotes. You won’t need any elaborate codes; all the commands you need are right there in the FIND box.

My fixes are based on Word, but you should be able to adapt them to any word-processing program you use.

Download!

An image for What You WILL Miss When You Proofread

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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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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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