Category Archives: style

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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Dialogue tags and how to use them in fiction writing – by Louise Harnby…

Here’s an excellent discussion, via Chris the Story Reading Ape, of one of the simplest and most useful tools in a writer’s kit: using and abusing “said” and other dialogue tags. I also note that “said” can control rhythm, acting as a strong beat at the end of a scene sequence or before a break. Try it!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Dialogue tags – or speech tags – are what writers use to indicate which character is speaking.

Their function is, for the most part, mechanical.

This article is about how to use them effectively.

Continue reading HERE

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To This I Say Amen!!

I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.

The grammar policeman will enforce the grammar rules!

Visit from the Writing Police!

I bet you have an opinion on this!

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“‘No’ Dialogue”??? What the Hey?

I was scrolling around today and found some good cautions for us all about creating realistic story lines in our fiction. I especially like the first warning: Stop having characters read each other’s minds by looking into their eyes!

It has often occurred to me that it’s not “the eyes” that carry emotion anyway. It’s the facial muscles around and below the eyes that make them cruel or sad or joyous. So note to self: be careful about using this trope.

Today, though, I especially want to pick up on the point that it’s okay if characters can’t always tell exactly what the other person is thinking.

Question mark in the clouds: What is "'No' Dialogue"?

Ambiguous communication opens the way for that revealing dialogue tactic, “‘No’ Dialogue.”

I’ve scoured the remains of my film-writing library (used only for one intense period in my writing life) looking for the book that introduced me to this terminology. You won’t find this phrase with search terms, which return sites about films without dialogue. In contrast, in “‘No’ Dialogue” one character refuses to give the other what he or she wants without ever quite saying so.

The technique delivers “subtext,” what’s really going on below the surface, without the characters having to stop the story to explain. At the same time, it builds tension, as the main character cannot get what he or she wants. Here are a few lines from that wonderful scene between Bud White and Lynn Bracken in L. A. Confidential (warning: I’ve ** the bad words, but you’ll still know what they are):

BUD

Miss Bracken, don’t ever try to f**king bribe me or threaten me or I’ll have you and Patchett in s**t up to your ears.

LYNN

I remember you from Christmas Eve. You have a thing for helping women, don’t you, Officer White?

BUD

Maybe I’m just f**king curious.

LYNN

You say “f**k” a lot.

BUD

You f**k for money.

LYNN

There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?

BUD

Yeah.

LYNN

Do you enjoy it?

BUD

When they deserve it.

LYNN

Did they deserve it today?

BUD

Last night. And I’m not sure.

LYNN

But you did it anyway.

BUD

Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.

LYNN

Actually, it was two.

Dialogue like this is a verbal contest—instant conflict—in which each character refuses to acknowledge what is actually being asked, which is “What kind of person are you?” because answering that question would set in motion a terrifying commitment. Yet we know from their refusals to state the obvious what it is that bothers them about themselves, what they’re struggling with behind the repartee, what they’re trying to deny.

In only one place in this exchange does Bud answer the question Lynn actually asks: “Did they deserve it today?” And when Bud finally answers, his tough-guy façade slips. “I’m not sure.” That uncertainty has been there all along, as she throws him off balance and disrupts his self-image. When his doubt emerges, it’s a surrender he didn’t plan and a giveaway to what lies ahead.

And note that we get this many-layered interaction between two people searching for the possibility of something more than what lies before them without a single reference to the look in their eyes.

Although many writing coaches don’t use the term”‘No’ Dialogue,” several suggest ways of incorporating this technique into your stories.

  • Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction (I’m looking at the 5th edition), analyzes examples in which “[t]ension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other.”
  • Lew Hunter, in Screenwriting 434, suggests “180-degree dialogue,” in which a writer looks for “the most obvious line a character can say,” then “flip[s] it upside down.” “See where that takes the moment,” he says.
  • Jack M. Bickham, in Scene & Structure, discusses “dialogue at cross-purposes,” in which “the antagonist either doesn’t understand what’s really at issue, or is purposely nonresponsive to what the lead character keeps trying to talk about.”

In my own case, when I’ve felt that a scene has really delivered at least some of the impact I hoped for, I’ve looked back to see that “‘No’ Dialogue” has played a role in that success.

Do you have favorite scenes where one or more of these versions of “‘No’ Dialogue” has served the story well? Share!

 

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Working on Your First Page? Here’s Good Advice

Writers in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critiqueWoman writing that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers don’t need, details they do need–what about you? How would you rate this first page?

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Something Fun! “Hemingway” Does Hemingway!

Via Jane Friedman and Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I came across this delightful exercise from The New Yorker. Dave had reviewed four top “editing” programs, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid. He linked to an article in which writer Ian Crouch takes Hemingway the App on a spin in Hemingway’s actual prose.

Apps for editing writing

Do these apps cut the fog from our writing?

You probably know somebody who claims to write like Hemingway (I do). Or who claims to want to write like Hemingway (I sometimes do). So it’s interesting to see that Ernest’s scores vary from a bad, bad 15 to an excellent 4—which means a fourth-grader could understand it— depending on which text you choose. Crouch’s analysis of a passage from The Sun Also Rises also shows how sometimes it’s the broken rules that make a passage work.

Hemingway the App has a free online editor you can play with. I thought that would be fun as well. In general, I find these editing apps annoying, not least because they miss some really basic stuff. For example, in the first page of my novel Blood Lies, published by Bantam/Doubleday way back when and republished by me online, the sentence that is tagged as VERY HARD TO READ (bad, bad, really bad) is actually two sentences connected with a semicolon. Yes, I know some people think there’s a rule: no semicolons. I’m not there yet.

On the other hand, I do find that much of my line editing involves simplifying those sentences that rolled so sonorously through my head when I wrote them. I find that I’ve become more skilled at hearing the ones that need a weed trimmer taken to them. The trick is to give yourself some distance from your prose and come back to it with a stranger’s ear, as much as possible.

In any case, here’s my annotated page with the Hemingway comments. They gave me a Readability grade of 3, only “good.” Crouch says, “The app suggests that anything under Grade 10 is a sign of ‘bold, clear writing.'” Maybe my writing is too simple! See what you think.

Key:

red—adverbs (I am supposed to cut one);

yellowish—my 4/51 “hard to read” sentences;

green—passive voice (they say I’m okay with only 3, but I take exception to “was scorched’; “scorched” is a predicate adjective in this construction;

purple—my VERY BAD HARD TO READ sentence. But I had only 1.

MY PAGE

Two days and a night. Bitter roadside coffee, the slimy stars of dead moths on the windshield. Poisonous truck fumes on 1-75. An hour’s fitful sleep in the back seat of the Firebird, an hour in which he dreamed that it was Holyhead that had burned.
 
He had never been to the trailer, but he knew exactly where it was. Alejo had said, “You know the big tree in Langston’s south pasture that lightning hit? Just down the hill from that, on the corner.” And Ted had answered, “Oh, yeah.”
 
Alejo spent every spring and fall in the fancy doublewide on the small square of land. “Now I am so rich,” he said, “all America is my home. But Keeneland Racetrack was always good to me. I will always ride there. Even when I am more famous than Willie Shoemaker, I will always go back to Kentucky.”
 
“Yeah,” Ted had answered. “And maybe one day Lexington will elect you mayor.”
 
“A statue in the paddock at the racetrack is all I ask.”
 
Alejandro Asolo had not earned his statue. He had not become more famous than Willie Shoemaker. He had not had time.
 
Ten years ago, Ted’s thirteenth summer, three broodmares had been killed when lightning struck that tree in Langston’s pasture. He found the trailer easily. Very little had changed.
 
The cops had stretched a large sheet of black plastic on the trodden grass. On the plastic they were dumping small, charred piles. Ted could not believe the framed win picture had survived. He reached to pick it up. It was scorched, blistered, but the row of familiar faces grinned bravely through the soot: Alejandro’s, Teresa’s, Sunny’s, his own.
 
One of the policemen turned and saw him. “Hey! Put that down!”
 
He straightened. The cop waved a buddy over and they both advanced, arms held out from their sides.
 
“Something we can do for you?” one of them asked. He had round, soft-looking cheeks, and a plump, pursed mouth, but his hard little eyes glinted under his hat brim.
 
Ted dropped the picture wearily at their feet. “I’m looking for Mrs. Asolo.”
 
“She’s gone. What’s your name?”
 
“I was a friend of Asolo’s. I drove up from Miami when I heard.”
 
“Friends got names,” the cop said.
 
He could smell it. He had told himself the spring wind and the harsh overlay of charred wood, fused metal, and melted plastic would have carried it off, but he had been wrong. He stepped backward, groping behind him. Maybe the fat-cheeked policeman thought he was bolting; he shoved him back against a tree. But the other policeman, a younger, leaner man, said, “Sit down on the ground a minute, kid. Put your head between your knees. You’ll be okay.”
 
The inner walls of the trailer had been reduced to gummy filaments; the cops sorting the rubbish brushed them gingerly aside, shaking their hands afterwards, as if freeing themselves from cobwebs.
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3 Ways The Verb “To Be” Is Your Friend

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

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.”

And this:

“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.

Police officer woman

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. Beware of writing contest scams!

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”:

1) The progressive tenses

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.)

2) The “it cleft”

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.

3) The Passive Voice

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.

For example:

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.”

Love for Literary Fiction!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.

(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)

 

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