06 June 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 2

Back again. This is the second part of a two-column discussion about the craft of writing and the so-called "rules" writers should follow. Last Saturday's post featured some of the things I think writers should NOT do, plus a few of my own pet (and petty?) peeves. Today's column will cover, in no particular order, things I think we SHOULD do when we write fiction and submit it for publication. Especially short fiction, since that's the kind of storytelling I do most.

Here we go.


- Do hyphenate most multiple-word adjectives. Easy-to-read story, locked-room mystery, one-horse town, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, child-abuse center, out-of-town guest. This streamlines your story and, yes, makes it easier to read. Sometimes it even provides clarity. Unhyphenated, high school age students could be taken the wrong way.

- Do put the most important part of a sentence at the end of the sentence. The tornado caused extensive damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths. (Passable: The monster was standing in the weeds at the edge of the woods. Better: Standing there in the weeds, at the edge of the woods, was the monster.)

- Do make your verbs agree with your subjects. That stack of books is in my way. Neither Joe nor Mary is going to the party. Here are your instructions. Ten years is a long time. My macaroni and cheese was delicious.

- Do use parallel structure when items are in a series. Wrong: You can relax in our sauna, the lounge, or by the pool. Right: You can relax in our sauna, in the lounge, or by the pool. Passable: I like hunting, fishing, and movies. Better: I like hunting, fishing, and watching movies.

- Do use m-dashes instead of hyphens or n-dashes in your manuscript.

- Do include an s after the apostrophe with most possessives ending in sRoss's truck, Mr. Sims's house, Ms. Jones's refrigerator, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken. Don't include the extra when the word following it begins with an s. Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.

- Do choose a or an based on pronunciation, not spelling. An hour and a half, an umbrella, a European vacation, an MBA, a uniform, an SASE.

- Do use the serial (Oxford) comma. Red, white, and blue. Yes, it's optional--but believe me, its use can prevent misunderstandings and, in some cases, embarrassment.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife, and her sister . . . means there were four attendees.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife and her sister . . . means there were two attendees.

- Do make sure those leading apostrophes for things like 'em'tis, 'twas, 'course, '90s, etc., are "curved in the right direction." MS Word tends to aim those the wrong way, and you can fix this problem by typing an extra letter just before the word, typing the apostrophe, and then deleting that letter. That's bassackwards, but it's a good workaround.

- Do use a dash--not ellipses--to indicate interrupted speech. Ellipses suggest a hesitation, or a gradual fade to silence. (I like interrupting my characters because it happens so often in real life, especially in tense situations.) "What exactly do you--" "You know very well what I mean." "Now, wait just a min--" "No, YOU wait a minute."

- Do use an ampersand in certain company names and abbreviations, but not in usual writing. Spell out the word and instead. Correct uses of ampersands: B&O Railroad, AT&T, Tiffany & Co., R&D, Q&A, B&B. 

- Do use commas correctly with names and titles. Grammatically correct: My friend, Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also correct: My friend Tom is retiring tomorrow. I prefer the second sentence; in the first, the commas surrounding the name are acceptable but needless (and might even imply that you have only one friend). INcorrect examples: My friend, Tom is retiring tomorrow. My friend Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also incorrect: Author, Lucy Cooper will speak to our book club next month. I actually saw that one recently, in a Facebook post.

- Do feel free to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon, depending on the desired impact of that second sentence. The verdict is in: No more stimulus payments. If no added emphasis is needed, leave it uncapitalized. My brother worked hard last night: he dreamed up a story in his easy chair.

- Do feel free to use the word till instead of until, as in I'll be there from noon till three. To me, it's far better than the odd-looking 'til.

- Do use T-shirt instead of tee-shirt. An editor told me the way she remembers this: when you hold the shirt up to look at it, it's in the shape of a T.

- Do remember the difference between convince and persuade. Convince means to cause a person to believe something; persuade means to cause a person to do something. (One involves thought; the other involves action.) I convinced my sister of the importance of social distancing. Helen persuaded her husband to wear a mask. 

- Do capitalize the first word in a title and all other words except short prepositions, short conjunctions, and articles. (Short usually means three letters or fewer, although some sources say four letters or fewer). The Day After Tomorrow, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, Gone With the Wind. I opted for the "four or fewer" rule when I submitted my short story "On the Road with Mary Jo" because I thought a lowercase with looked better there.

- Do use italics for the titles of books, novels, novellas, plays, albums, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines.

- Do use quotation marks for the titles of short stories, poems, articles, book chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

- Do put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks--even if you're also using single quotes within double quotes. "I want to re-read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Jane said. The British put their periods and commas outside the closing marks.

- Do put a question mark outside closing quotation marks if whatever's inside the quotes (a song title, say) isn't a question in itself. Jack asked, "Do you like the song 'Good Vibrations'?"   Sue said, "I prefer 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?'" (Note that the question mark ends that second sentence even though the sentence is not a question. There's no additional period.)

- Do use who if it could be replaced in the sentence by he, she, or theyI didn't know who was going to be there. Use whom if it could be replaced by him, her, or them. For whom the bell tolls.

- Do feel free to use contractions in the narrative of a story, not just in dialogue. You're writing fiction, not a legal brief.

- Do use may to imply permission and might to imply a choice. Billy may go to the dance means his mom said it's okay. Billy might go to the dance means he hasn't decided.

- Do use a.m. and p.m. to indicate time. Also acceptable are AM and PM, though I prefer the lowercase letters and the periods.

- Do use combined words like everyday and anymore correctly. The first is an adjective; the second is an adverb. Bob comes home from work every day and puts on his everyday shoes. Since you don't live here anymore, I don't plan to cook you any more meals.

- Do use blond as an adjective and blonde as a noun. The blonde had blond hair. (Blond can also be a noun if you're talking about a male, though I've rarely seen it used that way.) Feel free to disagree--it won't bother me a bit--and if you simply must use blonde as an adjective, use it in reference to a woman.

- Do use sensory input in your story wherever possible. Have your characters hear, feel, touch, taste, and smell things around them. This isn't something that comes naturally to me, so when rewriting I try to make sure I've included it.

- Do use little "beats" of action in scenes. He scratched his beard, she drummed her fingers on the desktop, he shifted in his seat. They let the reader picture what's happening, they allow you to vary the rhythm of the dialogue, they can help reveal a character's appearance or personality, and they can help identify who's speaking without the need for a dialogue attribute. If you insert one of these beats between two lines of the same speaker's dialogue, you can even use it to change the subject in the middle of a paragraph. "I don't want to talk about this anymore." Jenny leaned her head against the passenger-side window. "Turn here, this is my street."

- Do choose as your POV character the person who will most likely learn the most and/or be impacted the most by what happens in the story. The POV character does not have to be the title character or even the main protagonist. Reference The Great Gatsby, Shane, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

- Do provide details of physical description (if you absolutely must) via dialogue, or reveal it in bits and pieces. Avoid a missing-persons-report info-dump, and if it's a first-person POV story don't have your character stand in front of a mirror and tell the reader what she sees. That, except for the "it was all a dream" plot, might be the biggest land-mine a fiction writer can stumble onto.

- Do try to start your story with some kind of change. A divorce, a marriage, a death, a relocation, a meeting, a promotion, a firing, a financial windfall, a reunion, a diagnosis, an accident, a summons, a new opportunity, a contest win, a career change, an announcement, a phone call, a letter, a visitor, a stranger's arrival in town.

- Do try to identify the five W's--who, what, where, when, why--as soon as possible, in your story. In Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, this is the opening line: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

- Do consider giving your story a "circular ending," in which the character winds up in the same location as where he or she began. Examples: The Lord of the Rings, The Searchers, The Wizard of Oz, Unforgiven, Escape from New York, Lonesome Dove, many others.

- Do end your story as soon as possible after the point of highest tension. This was one of the late screenwriter William Goldman's strictest rules.

- Do create "gray" and relatable characters by giving your protagonist some bad qualities and your antagonist some good qualities.

- Do make your villain at least as powerful, and as motivated, as your hero or heroine. (Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant.) Always remember that it's the villain, not the protagonist, who drives the plot.

- Do give your characters appropriate names (when possible) that provide a clue to their personalities.  Darth Vader, Stephanie Plum, Thomas Magnum, Draco Malfoy, Holly Golightly, Remington Steele, Frank Bullitt, Barney Fife, Luke Skywalker, Uriah Heep.

- Do consider giving your protagonist a spouse or friend or sidekick with whom to share information. And maybe even to add yet another level of conflict.

- Do convey emotions by "putting them on the body." Her jaw dropped, his heart thudded, her eyes widened, her throat tightened, his knees went weak.

- Do indicate dialect in your dialogue by word choices like Y'all grab them two shovels and carry 'em to the barn, or We don't got to show you no stinking badges or I have happy feeling about you come to visit (an actual email I once received before going to teach an IBM class in Manila)But be careful not to overuse misspellings--editors hate that.

- Do speed up the pace, if needed, by inserting either (1) dialogue, (2) shorter, choppy sentences, or (3) active voice.

- Do slow the pace, if needed, by inserting (1) description, (2) exposition, (3) longer, complex sentences, or (4) passive voice.

- Do include as many levels of conflict as your story will bear. The shorter the story, the less room you have for this kind of thing, but there are plenty of possibilities for conflict: between the hero and another character, between the hero and himself (or herself), between the hero and society, between the hero and the elements (The Perfect Storm, Twister, Everest), between the hero and a nonhuman character (Cujo, Jaws, Alien, Moby Dick), etc.

- Do include full contact info at the top left corner of the first page of your short-story manuscript: name, postal address, phone number, email address.

- Do put the wordcount of your story in the upper right corner of the first page. Either make it the exact wordcount--2785 words--or round to the nearest 100 and type about 2800 words.

- Do center your title and byline between a third of the way and halfway down the first page. I always put one double space between my title and "by John M. Floyd," and then I go down two more double spaces and start the text of the story. I also put the story title in all caps, although Shunn's guide says to use proper case.

- Do number all pages in your manuscript. I never use a footer, but I always put a header at the top right corner of every page except the first, as follows: Floyd / STORY NAME / page#.

- Do use your pseudonym, if you have one, as your byline and in the header of each manuscript page, but use your real name in the contact info on the first page.

- Do use either Courier or Times New Roman font unless the guidelines tell you otherwise. I always use 12-point TNR.

- Do type a centered character of some kind--asterisk, pound-sign, etc.--as an indicator of a scene break, rather than just inserting an extra double-space. I learned this lesson when the published version of one of my stories left out a needed scene break. Now I always use a centered #, except in my book manuscripts, where my publisher prefers ***. My problem with three consecutive asterisks is that if you happen to hit RETURN immediately afterward, Word sometimes automatically inserts a whole line of asterisks and teleports you into Page-Break Hell, a place from which it is hard to escape. (Anyone else ever run into this?)

- Do space down three double-spaces and center the words THE END on the last page of your story. If these words wind up alone at the top of a page, go back to the first page and fiddle around with the vertical placement of the title and byline (move them up or down several spaces in that top third- or half-page) until the problem's fixed.

- Do include a cover letter with all submissions, unless instructed not to. If it's an electronic sub, your cover letter is in the body of your email or the text box provided in the online submission form.

- Do remember, in cover letters, etc., the difference between an anthology and a collection. An anthology is a book of stories by more than one author. A collection is a book of stories by the same author.

- Do include the editor's name in the salutation of your cover letter. Dear Ms. Anderson, Dear Mr. Price, etc. Don't just type Dear Editor or Dear Fiction Editor. If it's not clear whether the editor is male or female, include the entire name: Dear Lee Russell. Also, after the editor has responded to you using only your first name or only his or her first name, feel free to use the editor's first name in all correspondence.

NOTE, for writers of mystery short stories: Do include the apostrophe in the names Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Editor Linda Landrigan says the official titles have apostrophes, although they are occasionally left out for design purposes on covers, etc.

Breaking the rules

- Do feel free to use comma splices (two complete sentences separated only by a comma) if/when needed. In dialogue a spliced comma can capture the exact rhythm of normal speech. It's best used when there's no pause at that point in the spoken piece. I don't care what Dad says, I'm going to the party. Hurry up and finish, I want to go eat. Take your time, I'm just looking. The wrong way to use a comma splice: We finally got home, Fred came over to visit.

- Do use sentence fragments when needed, whether it's in dialogue or not. Because I said it was. So I did. Which turned out for the best.

- Do use a split infinitive if it makes the sentence sound better. To boldly go where no man has gone before has a more pleasant rhythm than To go boldly where no man has gone before.

- Do feel free to use "who" instead of "whom" in informal writing, even when it's not grammatically correct. Sometimes whom just sounds too stiff and proper, especially in dialogue. Picture a ghostbusting service with the slogan Whom you gonna call? 

- Do repeat a word once or more in a sentence if it makes more sense to do so. I once heard this called the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome. I was offered a banana and an orange, and I chose the slender yellow fruit. Better to just repeat the word banana.

- Do use rambling sentences when needed (especially effective in high-tension scenes). Joe untied his ankles and grabbed his gun and sprinted down the hall and into the den and threw open the window--and saw the thief's taillights topping the hill at the end of the street.

- Do feel free to use multiple points of view in your short story. The often-heard advice to stick to one POV with shorts is not a requirement.

- Do end a sentence with a preposition if it improves clarity or believability. Especially in dialogue. Nobody at the dance would say, in real life, Is that the guy with whom you came?

- Do use one-sentence paragraphs if needed. Their very isolation can increase their impact, and that's sometimes a powerful way to end a scene or a story.

- Do use very short scenes if needed, or short chapters in a novel.

- Do use a prologue if you want to. Sometimes renaming it Chapter One just doesn't work.

- Do open your story with a line of dialogue if you feel that's best, no matter what you've heard otherwise. Dialogue can be a great "hook," and is a good way to show, not tell.

- Do feel free, in dialogue, to use the occasional gonna and wanta. You shouldn't overdo this--as mentioned earlier, misspellings in dialogue/dialect are taboo to most editors--but making speech sound realistic is a good thing to strive for.

- Do end your story with a twist, if you want. The surprise ending, if done well, is not as out-of-fashion as the critics would have you believe.

- Do leave out the question mark if a statement isn't really a question. "You're a jerk," she said. He replied, "Is that so." Editors often complain about this, but I've won most of those arguments. I happily substitute a period for the question mark if the spoken sentence doesn't lilt upward at the end, as it would if it were a question.

- Do use made-up words whenever needed (I love 'em). His head thunked against the pavement. The helicopter whopwhopwhopped through the night sky.

- Do feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction. Beginning a sentence with And or But can often help the flow of the narrative.

Summary: Sometimes we just have to write what sounds right, regardless of the rules of grammar and style. To use another pop-culture example, try to imagine the Stones singing "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction."

An unresolved issue (is it a Do or a Don't?)

I have a question for all of you. What's your take on this sentence?

Everybody does their own thing.

This bothers me. The writer part of my brain says that should be Everybody does his or her own thing, or his/her own thing, etc., in order for the singular possessive to agree with the singular pronoun. But the practical side of me says, sweet jumpin jiminy, why create a stupid-sounding sentence just to satisfy the rules of grammar? Just say Everybody does their own thing and be done with it.

I've read and heard from many sources that this single-pronoun-single-possessive issue is one of those grammatical rules that has been so universally violated that the incorrect solution has now become acceptable (and certainly more convenient). But the old ways die hard. When I encounter it in the course of writing a story, I've found that I usually choose to reword the sentence to avoid having to make a decision. Something like Everybody take their seats often becomes Everybody sit down.

So the question is, should you be correct and thus overly wordy (or, if you just use his, politically insensitive)? Or should you give in and be grammatically incorrect and use the plural possessive? We all know our language evolves over time--one example is the way certain separated words have eventually become hyphenated words and have then become single words, the way on line morphed into on-line and then online. Has the everybody/their situation done the same kind of thing?

What's your opinion?

In closing . . .

I mentioned last week, in Part 1, that you should take these so-called rules with a grain (or maybe a whole shakerful) of salt. Different folks, different strokes. Another way of saying that:

Good teachers don't say "This is the way you do it." Good teachers say "This is the way I do it," and then let you decide for yourself.

I don't know if I'm a good teacher, but the above is the way I do it. As some of my fellow SleuthSayers are fond of pointing out, your mileage may vary.

Let me know what you think, about all this. See you in two weeks.


  1. Another great tutorial, John. Glad I have it here so I don't have to take notes. They'd be as long as your post.

    I'd rewrite the "Everybody do/does..." sentence too. It's one of those weird little sentences that sounds wrong no matter what you do with it. Maybe make it a COMMAND and say "Everybody do your own thing." Nope, even worse.

    Can I suggest an edit to your early suggestion about putting the important words at the end (Thank you, Strunk and White), which I agree with whole-heartedly?

    "There in the weeds, at the ends of the woods, STOOD the monster." If we're going for a strong ending, I prefer stood (or even a synonym) as a stronger verb than the linking "was." Just me. I have to have the last word. ;-)

    I suspect lots of people are going to bookmark this post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Ooo, I like that rewrite of the monster sentence, Steve. The editor in you is showing through.

    Yes, I just have a hard time with the everybody/their issue. Best just to redo it than have to worry about right or wrong.

    Thanks for the early-morning comment. This "list" was fun to put together.

  3. Love this information. I'm reading through it again and learning stuff. Didn't know the apostrophe stuff with AHMM and EQMM. I've been going by the cover title since forever. No one gave me the secret handshake. I also don't have the super duper decoder ring for any magazine. I'm so far out of the loop. Good advice.

  4. Great stuff as always, John, and I agree with almost all of these.

    You say to hyphenate "most" multiple-word adjectives but don't explain when not to. The issue is: do the multiple words separately modify the noun, or must they go together in order to do the job of modification? So if I'm writing about a chef who is twenty years old, who is blind, and who is female, I'd write "twenty-year-old blind female chef." The chef isn't "twenty" or "year" or "old," so "twenty-year-old" has to be hyphenated, but the chef is blind and is female, so no hyphens. (When do you separate the modifiers with commas? When the word "and" would make sense there. It would make sense to say "He was a young and handsome man," so, if you want to leave out the "and," you would replace it with a comma: "He was a young, handsome man." You wouldn't say "I ate four and ripe bananas," though, so no comma between "four" and "ripe.")

    There are also a couple of exceptions to the hyphenation rule. If the modifiers are capitalized, for example, don't hyphenate them. "She was a high-school student," but "She was a Walt Whitman High School student." And don't hyphenate if the modifier is an adverb modifying an adjective. So: "I prefer brightly colored wallpaper," even though "brightly" and "colored" don't operate independently in the sentence.

    Whew, more than anyone really needed to know, right?

    Finally, about that monster in the weeds: I'm not a grammar teacher, so if I get this wrong please correct me. My understanding, though, is that, whether you do it your way or Steve's way, putting the monster at the end of the sentence casts the sentence in the passive voice, and passive voice is almost always weaker than active voice. Standard English sentence structure puts the subject before the verb, so it's "the monster stood," not "stood the monster."

    Otherwise, though, I'm with ya all the way!


  5. Hey O'Neil. I've wondered about that apostrophe in the names of AH and EQ for a long time, and I wound up emailing Linda Landrigan a couple days ago and asked her about it. I've been using it both ways for years, going back and forth depending on how I'd last seen it used. She said the apostrophe is officially a part of the name of both magazines, but--as I mentioned--now and then gets left out for design reasons. I have a feeling neither they nor others are at all worried about it and we shouldn't be either--but I just sort of wanted to know, for sure, the correct answer.

    If you find the decoder ring for any of these magazines, I'd like to borrow it sometime.

  6. Everybody do your own thing after you shut the front door and get off my lawn!

  7. Thanks, Josh, for climbing aboard, here. As for the multiple-word adjectives, I didn't explain more because I was taking the easy way out! What I've always heard is that (as you said) if you can leave out one of the adjectives and the meaning is still there, you need commas between them (the tall, dark man). If you can't take out one of the adjectives and still get your meaning across, you need to leave the commas out (an endangered white rhino).

    As for the hyphens, I like your rule, about using capitalization and/or adverbs to determine whether the hyphens are needed. That makes sense, though I'd not heard or seen that before. I find myself hyphenating a great many multi-word adjectives only to speed things up a bit. A seven year old car, unhyphenated, just "reads" too slowly, I think.

    I think you are correct, about the monster sentence. I think the "better" way I suggested doing it, and the "even better" way Steve suggested, does indeed make that sentence passive rather than active, and yes, slows it down a bit, readingwise. Which means that the "use active voice, not passive voice" is yet another rule that we should break now and then. (I should've included that in the list!)

    Thanks so much for bringing all this up. This is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped we could have, and I ALWAYS learn from this kind of thing!

  8. Kevin -- Your comment came in while I was typing Josh's.

    Yes, do your own thing, but off my lawn! Man, the more I think about the everybody/their deal, I just want to always rewrite it. Who needs extra decisions right now?

  9. Josh, technically, my re-write of the monster sentence is an INTRANSITIVE verb, one that expresses action without a direct object, which is different from passive."Stood" is a stronger verb than "was," partly because it shows an action even though it's not directed at someone or something, and partly because the word itself has more distinct opening and closing consonants, so it calls more attention to itself. It's not onomatopoetic, but there's that kind of effect.

    This from my 30+-year-old Warriner's grammar book, still one of my main arbiters for such things.

  10. A great piece, John. Every time you do one of these I learn something.

  11. Steve, I'm sure glad you're here to explain things like that. I wouldn't know an intransitive verb if it bit me on the foot. The thing is, though, your version (or mine) probably does slow the action down a bit, and I really don't think that's a bad thing, right? The sentence is stronger as a result.

    Hang onto that Warriner's book--it sounds like a keeper.

  12. Hey Dale! Many thanks. The truth is, I wind up learning a lot myself, just from gathering this kind of info together, and strangely enough, it's the FUN kind of learning. (Unlike the calculus and physics classes I took in college.) I also learn a lot from the comments.

    You take care, my friend. Keep in touch!

  13. Great advice John.
    I was never sure about the tee shirt or T-shirt. I'm going your way from now on.
    And, as you say, don't be afraid to break the grammatical rules when it just sounds better.
    Lastly, I think everybody should go "their" own way.


  14. John, when I got a story accepted into the MWA anthology THE MYSTERY BOX, several years ago, in my bio, I mentioned having several stories in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. This posed a problem for the copy-editors as to whether on not HITCHCOCK should have an apostrophe. For some reason, they came down on the side of no apostrophe. Since then, I have left it off, but have seen it both ways on different issues of the magazine, so I guess either way is correct depending upon who you are conversing with at the time.

  15. John, one of the things I learned in a Shakespeare class using the First Folio was that Will frequently used monosyllabic words in the middle of a line to slow down a speech for more emphasis. The Winter's Tale gives us his only completely monosyllabic line, and I defy anyone to say it quickly. It's Paulina defending Hermione to Leontes when he accuses her of being unfaithful:

    Good Queen, my Lord, good queen, I say, good queen...

    Shakespeare constantly gave his performers guidance in how he wanted his lines delivered with little devices like this.

  16. The easiest way to determine the actual name of a publication is to check the masthead. The May/June 2020 AHMM masthead is on page 191.

    Several years ago I wrote for a monthly magazine that presented itself to consumers as two bi-monthly publications. That is, even-numbered months had one title on the cover and odd numbered months had a different title on the cover. The title in the masthead never changed.

    So, if you're ever in doubt about a magazine's name, check the masthead.

  17. Thanks, John. I always learn something. Here's a question for you. Do you capitalize all of the words in a chapter title? In the Woods or In the woods? Also so you place a period after the chapter title? In the Woods.


  18. Thanks, Bob.

    Aha, you're an everybody/their guy. I guess I'm easing over onto your side also, but--again--some of those old rules really are hard to break.

    As for T-shirt, I saw a "tee-shirt" used just the other day in a published novel, and I see "tee" a lot also, by itself. But T-shirt seems to be preferred.

    SO much of all this is personal opinion. As I think I've said before in this column, I find myself shunning some perfectly acceptable words like perhaps, frankly, periodically, commence, etc., in my story dialogue just because I don't use those words much myself, in everyday speech. So a great deal of this has to do with how comfortable an author is with using certain words and expressions. I also think it's better, in fiction (IF you're writing about regular folks and not, say, college professors) to err on the side of informality instead of formality. Again, my opinion only.

    Thank you for chiming in!

  19. R.T., I think you're right--the apostrophe seems to be left out as often as it's put in. If you base this on the covers, it's usually Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and that's the way I've usually been writing it, in bios for submissions. The point is, nobody's going to care much one way or the other. I just wanted to know what Linda's/Janet's take was. Hey, anybody with as many stories as you have in AHMM should be an authority anyway.

    Steve, I have a feeling Shakespeare might not approve of the way I write a LOT of things. I think he was exactly right about those monosyllabic words and their effect on pacing, and their added emphasis. (I'm a fan of old Will's as long as I don't have to watch too many movies where the actors say things exactly as he wrote them . . .)

    Good advice, Michael, about a mag's masthead. That'd be the go-to spot. Thanks!

    Hey Jody! I would say chapter titles are capitalized in the same way as any other title of a work. (Capitalize the first and last words and all other words except articles, conjunctions, and short prepositions.) And with no period afterward. If you're referring to it elsewhere, it would be enclosed in quotation marks, as in The reference comes from the chapter "In the Woods," from such-and-such a book. Is that the kind of answer you were looking for?

  20. I love both these posts. I'll recommend this one, as I did the last one, last week.

    In answer to your question, I've gone over to the Their side. It makes life so much simpler.

  21. Hi Kaye. Thanks for dropping in!

    I know, Their is simpler, but it sure doesn't sound right, after all those years of trying to match up the noun and the possessive. I wonder how much trouble I'd get into if I just went ahead and said Everybody does his own thing? Would the PC Police show up at my door?

    Then again, maybe I have enough headaches already. Let's hear it for re-wording the sentence!

  22. The simplest solution to the “everybody/their” problem is to pluralize the antecedent. So, instead of “every student should bring their textbook,” make it “all students should bring their textbook.” Wallah!


  23. Will this be on the test?
    Seriously, thanks for some great rules. Although, while I make it a point to use who whenever a person is being spoken about - "that person who always writes in the third person" - I have of late taken to use that for one category: "that troll that always lurks in the comments section."

  24. Re. “Everybody does their own thing,” for a long time you/your were used only for the plural second person, until they weren’t. We got used to it. The same change has happened in recent years for they/their to allow for gender neutrality, though it’s actually a throwback to much earlier usage. Verb agreement could make this clunky, as in: They runs from it. I doubt most editors would accept this type of construction without a bribe, but some people do use it. (The bribe.) The usage of blond/blonde is another indistinct holdover of gendered language. I was taught to use blond for all things male or neuter and blonde for feminine, due to the origin being French. I‘m still inclined to think of them as borrowed and use them that way. In the end, whatever an editor’s opinion is on the subject is fine with me. They and their is a much bigger deal though. Lack of acceptance of non-binary gender can lead to people dying from suicide or hate crimes. Lack of acceptance of blondness is unlikely to lead to anything worse than hair dying.

  25. Josh, that sounds good to me. Now, should we say their textbook or their textbooks? Just kiddin'.

    Hey Eve! No telling WHAT might happen in the comments section.

    As for who/whom, I think it's interesting that I feel a lot more comfortable WRITING whom than SAYING whom. Which is probably the reason I hesitate to use it much during dialogue. Hey, maybe "whom" will follow "everyone/his" into the outdated bin, if enough people like me misuse it over and over again.

  26. Persephone, I only just saw your post--thanks for commenting!

    I'm tempted to say the answer to a lot of this is your statement that "whatever an editor's opinion is on the subject is fine with me." There are always going to be differences of opinion on these style issues. If we need to tailor our acceptance of certain rules to whatever publication we're submitting stories to, I can live with that.

    Discussing all this is fun, though, in a weird kind of way.

  27. What a wonderful list! Thanks for the blond explanation, in my case. Re the correct vs vernacular - I decide based on the character who is talking or thinking. If they are unusually well-educated, I'll show that by using correct. If they are average peeps talking breezily, I'll use the vernacular. For myself...I've had to teach grammar at college. I can forgive some things, but incorrect less/fewer usage sends me to the bottle. (another idiom - grin)

  28. Melodie, a lot of folks disagree with my take on the blond/blonde question, but this is still the prevailing rule, and I've tried to stick to it in my stories, to the point that it now looks a little odd to me to see someone writing about blonde hair. As for correct vs. vernacular, I'll do whatever's necessary in dialogue. Rules obviously go out the window when your character is of a certain background, from a certain region, etc.--and I like that freedom.

    As for less/fewer, those words are misused a LOT. I think what bothers me the most, though, is encountering the misuse of things like wench/winch, peek/peak/pique, ringer/wringer, etc. That'll knock me out of the story dream, and fast.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  29. Yes to everything, John. I do most of what you do and for much the same reasons, like following the rhythms of speech and doing whatever serves the voice. And I too was happy to know the solution to the mystery of the Dell magazines' (not "magazines's," surely!) appearing and disappearing apostrophe-s. Speaking of starting sentences with conjunctions, I've become hyper-aware that my contemporary New York Jewish voice (both narrative and personal) starts many, many sentences with "So." So what did she think would happen when she went into the dark cellar without her cell phone? So the last thing I was going to do was go home for Thanksgiving when I could investigate a murder instead. Anyone to whom this voice is not native, if you're going to use it, do not, I repeat DO NOT insert a comma after "So." It's like putting lox on Wonder Bread.

  30. Well said, Liz. I love those sentence-beginning conjunctions, and I too am surprised at how often you see a comma plugged in after a sentence-beginning So. Also--for some reason--after But! And something else just occurred to me: Should you ever use an exclamation point and a question mark together? I honestly don't know. Probably not--but I have done it on occasion, and I might continue to, if I think it's needed. How about that?!

  31. There’s a name for that, John: it’s called an interrobang. Seriously?! So you could look it up already!?


  32. Thanks for another excellent post, John! Re: use of "their." Still makes me cringe but I'm getting used to it. Okay for dialogue where commonly heard, otherwise I try to reword whenever possible. Re: "a/an." I like "a history of the world" but "an historical novel." What do you think? Re: "blond/blonde." A British reviewer/editor didn't like my use of blond as an adjective for a woman's hair. Since then, I've tended to use "blond" as the adjective for male hair and "blonde" for anything female (both noun and adjective). Re: grammar questions generally. Do you have a go-to source you like? I use Chicago Manual of Style. Thanks again.

  33. Thanks, Josh! An interrobang--I like that. I was thinking it was odd that I've never been scolded by an editor for doing it occasionally (?!), and now I find out it's a legitimate mark of punctuation.

    VS Kemanis, thank you for dropping in, here. As for a/an, I do like "a historical novel," but only because I like to pronounce the "h" in historical. And I see your point. My mother used to always keep the "h" silent in the word humble, so to her someone might be "an" humble person. To me it would be a humble person. It's all based on the way you choose to pronounce that following word.

    I too have heard folks say the British prefer using the masculine/feminine guidepost for blond/blonde, period. As for sources, I was pleased to see that the recent Dreyer's English (a wonderful book) agreed with me on the adjective/noun assignment for blond/blonde.

    My go-to source for most anything slylewise is usually the Chicago Manual of Style. I heard long ago that it's the Bible for fiction writers, whereas the AP Style manual is mostly for journalists. Whether that's true I have no idea.

    Once again, thanks (to Josh and VS) for the thoughts.

  34. I'd never heard of "m" or "n" dashes! I learn something new every day!

  35. Hey Jeff. Yep, m-dashes, also written as em dashes, are long (the name comes, I believe, from the length of the letter m), and n-dashes are shorter. MS Word (or at least Word for Apple, which is what I use) is usually programmed to automatically substitute an m-dash for two adjacent hyphens. It happens, actually, when you hit the space bar after the word that follows the two hyphens. More than you wanted to know, right?

  36. John,
    First of all, I'm not sure if there's a proper way to comment on one of these pages regarding format, so please forgive my ignorance. I found your page very refreshing. I must have been some kind of dyslexic in the womb and the condition seems to be increasing with age. Because of that, I have an inherent desire to argue with English teachers when they make no sense to me, which is most of the time. (I'm talking about 60 years and a bit here.) I can't remember all the do's and don'ts, though I've printed out both pages for deep contemplation, but I appreciated your light-heartedness (my computer tells me that's not a word) in sharing them. I also appreciated your statement at the end that suggested these ideas are what you do and not the only way a person can ever approach the subject, which indicates to me that you are not an English teacher or are some new kind of one. Anyway, thanks for the humor and the suggestion that the writer might take these things into consideration rather than turn to stone if he/she/it doesn't follow your guidelines. That, of course, brings me to your question about who everyone might be referring to or to whom everyone might be referring. I see that problem escalating as literature is now adding pronouns slowly but surely to its family. Currently the words I am aware of are he, she, it, and zi. The pronoun zi was in the case of a writer that wanted to indicate that no one in his story should be locked in to a certain gender. If one was to include each possible pronoun that is making its debut at this point in history, one would surely run out of paper. Therefore, I vote for "Everyone has their own way of handling it", but that's mine. Thanks again for your article. I enjoyed it and the one on do's immensely (okay, so that sounds like you wrote an article on do's immensely), even though I'm sure I made enough mistakes in my comments that you could address them in another article entirely.

  37. Hi Mary! First, I'm glad you found my rants here to be helpful, and NO, many of these are not the only accepted ways to do all this. It's just the way I do it, and since I've been at it a long time I've come to believe that most editors are in agreement with me. (Some are not.) As for my background, I am most certainly not an English teacher--I liked math and science (not English) in high school, I graduated in electric engineering, and I worked for IBM for thirty years, as a systems engineer, a marketing rep, and a finance industry specialist. But I do love words and I dearly love writing fiction, and have dealt with a lot of editors over the past 25 years or so.

    By the way, thanks for the info. I like the pronoun zi. And thanks again for stopping in here at SleuthSayers.

    Take care, and keep in touch!

  38. John,
    This is all so wonderful. Thanks for giving me permission to use "till", not 'til. How many people today remember that it's a contraction of until?

    There is a nice gizmo in Word that I've been using for years. Click on the "insert" tab, then on the "symbol" menu, which on Office 2013 Word is accompanied by a blue omega symbol. You'll find all kinds of good things. So good that I've put the little omega symbol on my Quick Access tool bar. Anything you use will jump to the head of the line, so you don't have to search for it every time. In this highly extensive menu I've found the "curved in the right direction" apostrophe (it drives me crazy when people just use the one on their keyboard, especially when it's right next to quotation marks), as well as the em dash and the eńe for Spanish words which is handy if your books are set in Southern California.

  39. WHOA! Eugenia, I'd never even heard of that feature, in Word. Gotta go try that. All this time, I've been using the "workaround" I mentioned to curve those pesky apostrophes and quotation marks the right way. What I didn't mention is that the same problem happens when you "interrupt" speech with a dash followed by closing quotation marks. Like the leading apostrophes before words like 'em, those closing quotes are always (curses!) turned the wrong way too, until I insert that extra letter, type the quotation marks, and go back and delete the letter. I'm hoping your solution will help with that.

    And yes, keep using till, at least till somebody smarter than I am (and there are plenty of those folks) tell us both not to.

    Thank you so much for dropping in with your comment! Take care.

  40. Eugenia! Thanks! I never noticed that little teensy omega way over to the right. What I've done through changes in software and hardware is this: I search for the "character map" and put that on my bottom tool bar (task bar? whatever). The icon looks like a misshapen die with a lambda on it. I can insert accented Es and oomlauts, and whatever I need for other languages, including symbols, like dollar sign, less than, etc.

  41. Of course, those are all the things that do NOT translate well from Word to something else.

  42. Thanks to you also, Kaye! Putting that "character map" on the toolbar sounds good to me.

    I learn something new every day . . .


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