Showing posts with label mistakes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mistakes. Show all posts

29 September 2018

Where's a Grammar Cop When You Need One?


by John M. Floyd



I doubt the Grammar Police are always pleased with me. I make a lot of mistakes, stylewise, in my fiction writing. Some of them are intentional, though--I love to splice commas, split infinitives, fragment sentences, etc.--and most of the others I try to catch and correct during the rewriting/editing phase, so overall I hope the final product wouldn't have made my late great high-school English teacher too unhappy. I also try to be lenient in forgiving some of the errors I see in the speech and writing of others.

But let's face it, there are some things about grammar, word usage, punctuation, etc., that we as educated adults really ought to know, and that we as writers are expected to know. (Newscasters are a whole different story. They should know the rules, too, but usually don't.)

After a lot of thought, a short nap, and three cinnamon rolls, I have put together a list of grammar issues that a lot of folks seem to find difficult. Some of the items that involve word choices are easy, and have a definite right-or-wrong answer. If you violate those, you probably deserve a visit by the Grammar Squad ("Hands up, bud, and step away from that keyboard!"). Other items are sort of iffy; you say tomayto and I say tomotto. On several of them I'm sure we'll disagree.

Even so . . . here's my list:



nauseated/nauseous -- They don't mean the same thing. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

feeling badly about something -- It's impossible. You might feel bad about it, but feeling badly is no more correct than feeling goodly.

everyday/every day -- Everyday is a one-word adjective, and shouldn't be used any other way. "These are my everyday shoes--the ones I wear every day."

into/in to -- You get into your car and drive in to your office. Unless maybe you crash into your office. I still remember the news article I read about someone turning himself into police. A shapeshifter, maybe?

prostrate/prostate -- One's a position and one's a gland. "He's prostrate because he's having trouble with his prostate."

irregardless -- It's a useless word. It means regardless. Same goes for inflammable (which means flammable), utilize (which means use), and preplanning (which means planning).

alright/all right -- It's not all right to write alright. If there is such a word, there shouldn't be. Same thing goes for alot.

blond/blonde -- There's a lot of disagreement about this one. Yes, blond is masculine and blonde is feminine, but I prefer to use blonde as a noun and blond as an adjective. "The blonde had blond hair."

continuous/continual -- They're not the same. Continuous means uninterrupted and never stopping. Continual means often repeated, or frequently.

momentarily -- This means for a moment, as in "I was momentarily speechless." It does not mean soon. If your pilot announces, during takeoff, "We'll be in the air momentarily" . . . that's not good.

hone in -- You can't hone in on something. You home in on it, like a homing beacon.

principle/principal -- Educational principles are upheld by the principal (your "pal"). NOTE: As the person assigned to change the weekly motivational message on our high-school bulletin board, I once posted "It's not school we hate, it's the principal of the thing." I thought it was clever. The administration did not. (An unfortunately true story.)

with baited breath -- It's bated breath. Unless you've eaten a can of worms.

loath/loathe -- I'm loath to tell you how much I loathe seeing this misused.

peaked my interest -- Should be piqued.

slight of hand -- Should be sleight of hand.

If worse comes to worse -- Should be if worse comes to worst.

to all intensive purposes -- Should be to all intents and purposes.

wringer/ringer -- Why do half the writers I read say "He looked like he'd been through the ringer"? Those of us who remember old-timey washing machines prefer wringer.

wrack/rack -- Personally, it's nerve-wracking to see this written nerve-racking. But apparently either spelling is acceptable. Oh well.

comprise/compose -- Comprise means to include. Compose means to make up. According to The Elements of Style, "A zoo comprises animals, but animals compose a zoo."

convince/persuade -- Convince involves thought. Persuade involves action. "He convinced her she was wrong; he persuaded her to go home."

literally -- This means actually, not figuratively. If you say, "I literally jumped from the frying pan into the fire, " I wish you a speedy recovery.

restauranteur -- No such word. It should be restaurateur.

expresso -- Should be espresso.

1980's -- Should be 1980s.

less/fewer -- Yes, I know, we learned this as children. Even so, people get it wrong all the time. Fewer refers to units. Less refers to things that can't be counted. "I've been reading less fiction and buying fewer novels."

first come, first serve -- Should be first come, first served.

give them free reign -- Should be give them free rein.

I could care less -- I have no idea where this got started, and I couldn't care less.

compliment/complement -- To compliment is to praise. To complement is to enhance or add to. "He complimented her on the way her scarf complemented her outfit."

insure/ensure -- If money or a policy is not involved, use ensure.

affect/effect -- Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.

data and media -- Since the form is plural, these nouns supposedly need verbs like are or were. BUT . . . when I worked for IBM, we burst into hysterical laughter anytime we heard someone say "The data are correct." I think collective nouns like this should be treated as singular, and use verbs like is or was. (And it's dayta, not datta.)


Gone With the Wind -- In a title, capitalize all words (even prepositions) that are longer than three letters.

a two bit operation -- This makes for slow, tedious reading. Hyphenating multi-word adjectives like two-bit (or multi-word) can increase the pace: one-horse town, easy-to-read book, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, high-risk operation, holier-than-thou smirk. It can also prevent misunderstandings: I'm a short-story writer, not a short story writer. My five-year-old grandson is a short story writer.

a/an -- Pronunciation, not spelling, should determine which one is used: a uniform, a European vacation, an SASE, a historical site, an hour and a half.

the Internet -- Some capitalize it, some don't (especially when it's used as an adjective). I usually capitalize it.

From Noon Till Three -- The use of till (instead of until or 'til) is perfectly acceptable.

Texas/TX -- Unless you're addressing an envelope, don't use two-letter postal abbreviations for state names. Spell them out.

imply/infer -- A writer or speaker implies. A reader or listener infers.

hopefully -- This is an adverb describing hope. "The survivors listened hopefully for the sound of a search plane." It's incorrect to say "Hopefully, I'll finish this column by Saturday." (But I still say it. This is one of those rules that I happily ignore.)

i.e./e.g. -- I.e. means "that is" or "in other words." E.g. means "for example."

ironic -- A hurricane during your wedding reception isn't ironic. Getting run over by a Budweiser truck on your way to an AA meeting is ironic.

T-shirt/tee shirt -- The correct term is T-shirt. Hint: the shirt looks like a T when it's on a coat hanger.

writing time -- I prefer using a.m. and p.m., rather than AM and PM.

dialogue and fellowship -- These are nouns, not verbs. Don't say, unless you're a Baptist minister, "Come fellowship with us."

invite -- This is a verb, not a noun. Don't say, "I just received my invite to the party."

y'all/ya'll -- It's y'all. The apostrophe stands in for the missing ou in you all.

Miss Jane/Ms. Jane -- It's Miss Jane, and has nothing to do with whether she's married. The Miss along with the first name is a polite expression of familiarity, especially in the South, and is used when Ms. Doe or Mrs. Doe might sound too stiff and formal. Think "Miss Ellie" on Dallas.

italics/quotes -- Use italics for the names of novels, novellas, plays, books, movies, TV series, ships, aircraft, albums, court cases, works of art, newspapers, comic strips, and magazines. Use quotation marks for the names of poems, short stories, articles, chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

short-lived -- This deals more with speaking than writing, but short-lived should be pronounced with a long "i" as in "life," not with a short "i" as in "give." (I think James Lincoln Warren is the only person who's ever agreed with me on this, but he's a good ally to have.)

Seamus -- Another pronunciation thing. Everyone knows Sean is pronounced "Shawn," but only Irish private eyes seem to know that Seamus is pronounced "Shamus."

may/might -- May implies permission. Might implies choice. "Johnny may go to the movies" usually means his mom says it's okay. "Johnny might go to the movies" means he hasn't made up his mind.

historic/historical -- Historic means something that's famous or important. Historical just means something that happened in the past.


What's irritating is to carelessly misspeak or miswrite something even though you really know the right way to say or write it. Long ago, an English teacher (another true story) asked a question of one of my classmates, and got what she considered to be a not-specific-enough response. She looked at the offending student and said, too quickly, "I want a pacific answer." The guy replied, "Hawaii."

With regard to written mistakes, a magazine editor once told me she doesn't mind seeing an extra apostrophe in "its" or an apostrophe missing from "it's" in a manuscript--she just assumes the writer happened to type it wrong. But if she sees that same error two or three times in the same manuscript, that's a different matter. Suddenly the writer isn't careless--he's dumb. And the manuscript gets rejected.



Okay. Had enough of this? Me too. My interest may have been momentarily peaked, but I would literally be loathe to hone in on it everyday.

Irregardless, what are some of your pet peeves, about misuse of the written/spoken word? Does it make you feel badly? Continually nauseous?

Or could you care less?





19 September 2015

Mystery Missteps


by John M. Floyd



Over the past few weeks, I've finished three mystery-writing projects: a 7500-word short story, a 110-page screenplay, and a 90,000-word collection of thirty of my stories. The short story will be submitted soon to one of the mystery magazines, the collection is scheduled to be released by my publisher next year, and the screenplay will probably be used to prop up a table leg--but all three were great fun to put together. What wasn't fun was proofreading my late-to-final drafts. I tend to make silly mistakes when I write, and the sheer volume of those mistakes gave me the idea for this column, which will probably contain even more mistakes. Believe me, I try to find and correct these before they go out into the world, but still . . .

Thorns in my side
Here are some writing errors (some minor, some not-so) that show up a lot in my fiction manuscripts:

Pet phrases. For some reason I apparently enjoy writing things like "she narrowed her eyes," "he scratched his chin," "she plopped into a chair," "his face darkened," etc.--there are a couple dozen of these--and I find myself using them over and over. Why? Who knows. My characters also seem to like sighing, staring, shrugging, and turning. Especially turning. They turn and leave, turn to reply, turn and look out the window, turn to answer the phone, and so on. It's the kind of repetition that annoys me when I discover it in my drafts, and if I left it in it would certainly annoy editors and readers. (Actually, if it bothers the editors it'll never get a chance to bother the readers.)

Overuse of dashes. I love dashes. Maybe because it's hard to use one improperly: under the right conditions they can be substituted for semicolons, colons, parentheses, and almost anything else. I use them often for asides--like this--and I also like the notion of "interrupted speech" (because real people interrupt each other all the time when they talk), and dashes are an effective sentence-ending way to indicate that. Even so, too much of anything is not a good thing.

Cliches. Boy do I like cliches. My excuse, I think, is that I use so many in real life it's only natural to want to put them into my writing as well. But if it's not in dialogue, a cliche probably doesn't belong in the story. When/if I come to my senses, I try to locate them and weed them out.

Backward apostrophes. This error occurs only when using certain fonts, but in Times New Roman, an apostrophe before something like em (Round 'em up and cuff 'em) winds up turned in the wrong direction--which looks ridiculous. To correct it, I type a letter immediately before it, then put in the apostrophe, then delete the preceding letter. A good way to remember it: type th'em and then delete the "th."

Too many combined words. This is something else I love, probably because it speeds up the pace. Examples: doublecheck, halfwit, ballplayer, dumptruck, kindhearted, mothership, workboots, overanalyze, mumbojumbo, coattails, thunderclap--and especially when they're used as adjectives, like smalltown politics or livingroom furniture or quartermile run. But I have to be careful not to do it when it really shouldn't be done (bluejeans, divingboard, machinegunfire, etc.). Being innovative goes only so far.

Extra spaces between words. This is pure carelessness. They're hard to catch, and they're distracting if you don't. If, for instance, you prefer to put only one space after a period, you should be consistent and do it every time.

Repetition. Especially in early drafts, I repeat so many things it's hard to believe: ideas, words, phrases (see "pet phrases," above), even locations and character names. In my defense, I think some of this comes from trying to make things extremely clear to the reader--but the truth is, today's readers are smart enough not to require everything spelled out for them in detail, or--to use another cliche--to have writers beat them over the head with something in order for them to understand it. Cutting out repetition is a large part of my self-editing process. It becomes even more important when putting previously published stores together in a collection, because those stories, when first written, weren't expected to ever be read back-to-back with other stories.

Omitted quotation marks (usually close quotes). More carelessness.

Using a for an, and vice versa. Why do I encounter this so often in late drafts, since I truly do know when to use one and when to use the other? Probably because I've gone back and changed things in the manuscript, and when I happen to change a noun that doesn't begin with a vowel sound to one that does, etc., I might've unintentionally created an "a vs. an" error.

Thorn removals
Some of the missteps I seem to have gotten better at avoiding, over the years:

Overuse of semicolons. I think semicolons are a great way to divide two complete sentences that are too closely related to be separated by the finality of a period. But semicolons do look a bit formal in genre fiction (certainly in dialogue), and too many of them can be distracting. These days, I go through my manuscripts-in-progress and try to turn most of my semicoloned sentences into two separate sentences, or add a "comma followed by an and," or substitute one of those overused dashes. But--just shoot me--I still like semicolons.

Too many "ly" adverbs. There's always been a difference of opinion as to whether this is even a problem, but most writers agree that it's better to use stronger verbs than to have to prop them up with modifiers.

Too many back-and-forth lines of dialogue without identifying the speaker. The reason I don't commit this error as often as I used to, I think, is that it irritates me so to find it in stories/books that I read. Nothing is more maddening to a reader than having to count lines backward to find out who's saying what.

Too many italics. Thank God I'm finally beginning to bring this weakness under control. You don't always need to put emphasis on a word, or italicize an unspoken thought; sometimes it's obvious from the way the sentence or paragraph is written. (Oh no, she thought, flattening her back against the wall. Did anyone see me?)

Overuse of ellipses. Unless you're hesitating . . . and even if you are . . . too many of these can become bothersome.


Unnecessary exclamation points. I almost never use an exclamation point anymore. When I do, it's in dialogue, and it has to be something like Your socks are on fire! or Look out, it's a werewolf!

Overuse of dialect. There's a fine line here. Some writers feel that any use of dialect is overuse. I maintain that using too many misspelled words to convey dialect can be a mistake. Sho nuff.

POV switches. These still sneak through at times, especially in stories with third-person-limited viewpoint. (Example: Judy looked at him, and her face turned red. If we're in Judy's POV, she can't see her own face turn red, even though she might "feel her face grow warm.") Other switches might include, in a third-person-multiple story, two characters having a conversation and jumping from one's POV to the other's too abruptly, without something like a scene break in between.

Afterthoughts

Not that it matters, but here are some things I find fairly easy to write, probably because I like them so much: dialogue, humor, plot twists, weird characters, action scenes, and surprise endings.

Things I find hard to write, probably because I don't like them much: descriptions of people and places, backstory, exposition, unspoken thoughts, flashbacks, and symbolism. I realize how necessary these can be, and I hope I'm getting better at them, but for me they require a lot of effort.

What are your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes? What are some writing errors that constantly seem to find their way into your stories and novels even though you know better? Which ones bother you the most when you encounter them in the writing of others?

Whatever they are, here's to better mysteries and fewer (mys?)steps. For all of us.







06 December 2011

Oops!

By Dale C. Andrews (with a lot of help from Kurt Sercu)

3. 11/22/63 (Scribner, $35)
By Stephen King.   A modest English professor is offered the chance to change history — by preventing the JFK assassination.
Washington Post, description of the number 3 book on the bestseller list, December 4, 2011

*    *    *    *


Add to that sense of ho-humness the fact that the secret in question turns out to be rather murky, and many readers will be left wondering exactly what is “the most dangerous thing” referred to in the title. (Beats me.) 
 Quoted from Maureen Corrigan’s review of Laura Lippman’s “The Most Dangerous Thing,” Washington Post, October 9, 2011

     What do these two quotes from the Washington Post have in common other than referring to two recently published bestsellers?  At least one other thing:  they each contain errors unpardonably obvious to anyone who has actually read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing.  In King’s book the protagonist is a high school English teacher, not a college professor.  And no reader who actually finishes Laura Lippman’s latest novel The Most Dangerous Thing (which I liked a lot) could have the smallest doubt as to what the most dangerous thing is.  That question (and the title) is explicitly explained, for anyone who hasn’t already figured it out, in the last sentence of the book.  (You know me, no spoilers – just telling you where you can find it, not what it is!)

    I am pretty unforgiving about errors such as those discussed above.  I mean, all the journalist assembling the list of bestsellers for the Washington Post had to do was write one correct sentence about 11/22/63.  And all Ms. Corrigan had to do was to actually read the book that she was reviewing, start to finish.  One can be more forgiving, however, when it is Mr. King or Ms. Lippman who get something wrong, or seemingly wrong, during the course of their novels.  These, after all, are not factual reviews, they are works fiction, and they come to us with the established leniency of poetic license. 

    One of the funny things about such seeming mistakes, therefore, is that sometimes they are not errors at all.  Laura Lippman, for example, in an afterward, discusses the liberties she has taken with the real-life town of Dickeyville, Maryland in The Most Dangerous Thing.  And Stephen King is famous for dropping snippets of information into his works that could be historical errors but that could also be references to other King works, usually clues hearkening back to his seven (soon to be eight) volume Gunslinger series.   Notwithstanding this, however, Stephen King can be a bit defensive when it comes to defending his own research. 

    In The Colorado Kid (which, as noted in a previous column, is not my favorite work by King) there is a reference to a Starbucks coffee shop in Denver, Colorado in 1980.  When a USA Today review of the book mentioned that there in fact were no Starbuck stores in 1980 Denver, Mr. King bristled, and posted the following retort on his website:  "The review of  The Colorado Kid in [the October 7, 2005] issue of . . . USA Today  mentions that there was no Starbucks in Denver in 1980. Don’t assume that’s a mistake on my part. The constant readers of the Dark Tower series may realize that is not necessarily a continuity error, but a clue.”

    Hmmm.  Allow me to digress for a paragraph.  For many years my brother and I gave my mother a gag gift as the last gift of Christmas each year.  These were really stupid things – a three foot tall plastic goose that lights up, a kit kat clock, an autographed picture of Dwayne Hickman (“Dobie Gillis” -- remember?).  We always told my mother that each gift was a clue to a secret message that would be revealed over the course of future Christmases.  We continued this silly stunt for twenty five years and every year my mother would fret over what the growing number of “clues” had in common, what they might point to.  Get the picture?  We were just winging it.  No secret message, just stupid disparate gifts.

    Okay – back to the issue at hand.   I have read all of Stephen King’s books, including all of the Gunslinger series, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out how the presence of a Starbucks in 1980 in Denver has anything to do with Roland’s grand quest in the Gunslinger.   So was that Starbucks a clue, or was it an “oops?”

    With all of this in mind, let’s poke around a little in Stephen King’s latest novel 11/22/63.  As I wrote two weeks ago, I think this is a stand-out novel, to my mind the best thing Stephen King has done in over ten years.  And I don't want to detract from the novel by trolling for errors.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with it!

    Given the novel’s time travel theme King in 11/22/63 is called upon to describe and re-create life in the era from 1958 to 1963.  Let’s take a look at how he does on just one aspect of that quest, his repeated references to another of my favorite authors (and characters) Ellery Queen. 

    I suspect that Stephen King is an Ellery Queen fan.  After all, Ellery pops up in many King novels, including in the aforementioned The Colorado Kid.  Indeed, in explaining that there will be no solution offered up in that novel to the mystery that is at its core, the heroine is admonished by one of her mentors that she should not expect Ellery “to come waltzin’ out of the closet” with a solution.  The solution to the mystery in The Colorado Kid remains a mystery to me, but so too the connection, if any, between that Denver Starbucks store and the Gunslinger.

    11/22/63 also contains several references to Ellery Queen, most notably to the NBC series “The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen,” which aired from 1958 through 1959.  The timing of certain events in the novel (I’m carefully avoiding spoilers here) are critically dependent on the timing of an episode of the series that, according to the storyline of the novel, was aired on Halloween night, 1958.  At the first mention of the television show in the novel I wondered whether the Ellery Queen series had, in fact, aired on Halloween night in 1958.  This sent me off to Kurt Sercu’s repository of Queen information, Ellery Queen – a Website on Deduction.  (Kurt’s site was the focus, many will recall, of an earlier article.)  And I was immediately rewarded – according to Kurt’s website on Friday, October 31, 1958 The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, starring George Nader as Ellery presented the following episode:
George Nader as Ellery Queen
Cat of Many Tails
         10/31/58 With John Abbott, Paul Langton
The mayor of New York City calls on Ellery to help solve a series of strangulations for which the police can find no motive but which they believe to be the work of one killer.
The story, based on Queen’s 1949 novel of the same title, is a perfect one for Halloween.

    However, about 100 pages further into 11/22/63 the hero secures a copy of TV Guide to check on the timing of the Halloween broadcast, and there the episode is described as follows:
8 PM, Channel 2:  The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, George Nader, Les Tremayne, “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead.”  A conniving stockbroker (Whit Bissell) stalks a wealthy heiress (Eva Gabor) as Ellery and his father investigate
     What happened to Cat of Many Tails?  Kurt’s website in fact identifies an episode of the series titled “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead,” and that episode otherwise meets the description in King’s book.  Except for one fact:  the episode aired one month later, on November 28, 1958.  “What is going on, here?” I thought.  Then I immediately sent an email across the pond to Belgium posing that same question to Kurt.

 
    Kurt dove into his archive of Queen documentation and came up with pretty irrefutable evidence that it was, indeed, “Cat of Many Tails” that aired on Halloween in 1958.  First Kurt pointed out that Francis Nevins lists the episode as the one appearing on Halloween in his definitive article "Ellery Queen on the Small Screen" which appeared in The Armchair Detective volume 12, 1979.  Second, the episode is also identified as having aired on Halloween according to the television archives maintained by the Theatre Arts Library at UCLA.  Third, from Kurt’s own archives he uncovered a 1958 NBC press memorandum that also identifies Cat of Many Tails as the Halloween episode.  And fourth, Kurt supplied me with a TV listing from Halloween week, 1958 also identifying Cat of Many Tails as the episode that aired that night. 


Halloween Week 1958
Halloween Week 1959
Another funny thing – 11/22/63 describes that Halloween issue of TV Guide as one “with Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase on the cover.”  This time I hit the internet, and uncovered the actual TV Guide cover for Halloween week of 1958.  It's reproduced on the left, and, as is obvious, it featured George Burns on the cover.  So what about Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase?

   After all of this Kurt and I sort of had a burr under our saddle so we went back to trolling the internet.  Just as the heroine in The Colorado Kid tried to solve her unsolvable mystery, so too Kurt and I got a little obsessed with what was going on back in the 1950s, at least according to King’s view.   Lo and behold, we eventually found the TV Guide cover above on the right.  Yep, it features Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase, and it was published on the week of Halloween.  But Halloween of 1959, not 1958.

    And that’s as far as we got.  So, just like the heroine in the The Colorado Kid, you should not expect Ellery to come “waltzin out of the closet” tying together all of those clues and making sense out of the 1958 TV schedule as set forth in 11/22/63.  Did Stephen King encounter a (minor) researching “oops” that caused him to miss the date of the Ellery Queen episode he refers to by one month, and the date of the cover of TV Guide by one year?  Or is the Gunslinger and his ka-tet sleeping just a bit easier under a desert moon in an alternative 11/22/63 universe where history has been set right and Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase’s Halloween TV Guide cover exists where it was supposed to, in 1958?

Oops?  or Ka?