Showing posts with label punctuation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label punctuation. 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?





01 April 2018

Punctured Punctuation

by Leigh Lundin

➊ Commencing today, Tribune Publishing (which includes our local Orlando Sentinel) and Hearst Magazines (consisting of Cosmopolitan, Elle, Car & Driver, Redbook, and Woman’s Day) initiate a program of ‘punctuation reduction’, both as a cost reduction measure and a nod toward modernization in recognition of “cell phone exigencies of post-Millennial Generation Z.”
Happy Easter!

➋ In addition, a number of Tronc (Tribune On-line Communications) properties such as The New York Daily News, tabloids and magazines (including a revitalized Newsweek), will begin experimental use of emojis (aka 😀 emoticons) in limited sections of their publications such as editorials, letters to the editor, and personal ads.

Background

Punctuation reduction is nothing new. On the 1st of December 1896, The New-York Times removed its logo hyphen in a bid toward modernization, thus raising eyebrows among readers. Technically, a newspaper’s stylized heading is called a nameplate. Nameplate should not be confused with masthead, which contains owners’, editors’ and publishers’ names and disclosures.

nameplate– The New-York Times.

Again, on the 21st of February 1967, The Times removed its famed period (fullstop) from its nameplate. Often discussed in business courses, the newspaper gave two justifications. Once again it modernized the famous nameplate, and The Times’ finance department calculated it saved an inordinate gallonage of ink and a corresponding reduction in operating cost.

nameplate– The New York Times.

Hearst and Tribune plan to gradually reduce or even eliminate punctuation in ‘non-ambiguous contexts.’ The reduction will begin with Oxford commas, semicolons, double-quotes, and slowly advance, allowing older readers an opportunity to grow accustomed to the removal of punctuation at the end of paragraphs, much as occurs in present-day cell phone novels. Tribune publications expect to experiment with mid-paragraph sentence termination by using three spaces instead of periods. It is believed spaces combined with a following capitalized word will improve ‘literary flow’ and ‘rapidize comprehension’.

boy, girl
He Said, She Said

As reported a year and a half ago, the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst publication, moved to add ‘non-binary’ gender pronouns to its reporting.

Historically, colleges have led the charge toward evolving language. The University of Michigan officially supports non-binary gender pronouns comprising such examples as ze, zie, zim, sir, miz, ve, ver, vis, ou, pers, and they (singular). ‘It’ (regarded fondly by fans of The Addams Family), once considered a potential pejorative, is becoming acceptable. (“The driver parked its truck.”)

Meanwhile, the disparaging word ‘woman’ knots the knickers in Mount Holyoke Women’s College:


Outside the US

‘Genderless’ pronouns, limited to the ‘American language’, aren’t expected to impact proper English spoken on other continents. Not so with punctuation reduction and emoticons. One need look no further than James Joyce, notably Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, 3684 words punctuated with two fullstops.

Likewise, Shakespeare himself seldom used periods, as seen in Hamlet’s monologue.

James Murdoch, son of publisher Rupert Murdoch, told the Sunday Times, “Amongst news producers and consumers, News Corp faces an existential crisis of credibility, not limited to The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and– especially acute here in Britain– News of the World. Our former MySpace asset demonstrated demographics of age 25 or less attach greater believability to modern, minimalist communication. We’re eyeing emoticons (emojis), sentence simplification and eradication of superfluous punctuation as a means of engaging younger Generation X & Y readers. Within ten years, what remains of the reading public will find punctuation peculiar and outdated.” Murdoch added, “The British public has largely forgotten the NotW perceived misstep, and we may relaunch it on-line through social media.”

What To Expect

Adapting J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit from cell phone novel to the larger screen results in the following. We’ve taken the liberty of capitalizing proper names.

The Hobbit
The Hobbit
Excitable little fellow said Gandalf as they sat down again   Gets funny queer fits but he is one of the best one of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch
If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit even to Old Tooks greatgranduncle Bullroarer who was so HUGE for a hobbit that he could ride a horse   He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields and knocked their king Golfimbuls head clean off with a wooden club   it sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment

Editorials

We can only imagine how an emoji op-ed might appear.
Dear Editor, Sir! I’m irate, nay, outraged. 😤 Your incompetent investigative reporting of pet psychics exemplifies the worst in fake news. ☹️ Medium Sylvia Greene predicted my Eric 🐠 would die and sure enough, within two years it floated belly-up in its bowl. So there!!! 😝
— A Disappointed Reader 😖😡🤬
Agony Columns

Likewise, what might personal advice columns look like?
Dear Prunella, The 😍❤️ darling of my life packed up his family and moved to Alaska. 💔😫 He always dishes out silly excuses: I’m nuts, I’m scary, he’s not attracted, he’s happily married. 😒 Also, I didn’t use a real knife🔪, more like a cleaver. 👿 Would it violate my restraining order if I snip off my ankle bracelet and move to Fairbanks? 🤔
— Most Definitely Not a Stalker 😭
Happy holiday, everyone! 🐣🐥

28 September 2014

I Learn Something New

by Louis Willis

In these postmodern times of information overload, I find it almost impossible to discover anything new under the sun because everything is moving so fast in cyberspace that I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. One part of my brain urges me to pause and read information on a webpage. Another part whispers, “Click that link and you just might discover exciting new information about a subject that interests you.” That is how I stopped and read about the new way young people are using the slash (/) in conversation and on the Internet.
The use of the slash dates back to ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe one / represented a comma, two // represented a dash, which evolved into the equals sign and was eventually simplified as a single dash (— ). In English prose, the slash is usually used as a conjunction. Of course, it is used in other ways too, such as in poems to show a line break. It also has many nonlinguistic uses.
As with many other punctuation marks in this cyberage, the slash is now used somewhat differently. I discovered the new use in the article, “The One Word In Everyone’s Texts/Conversations Right Now” by Sara Boboltz on the Huffington Post website. The slash, she says, is being used in texts, instant messages, emails, and face to face conversations. 
Boboltz links to the article “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 24, 2013, by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Professor Curzon requires the students in her history of English course to teach her two new slang words before class every day. In one class, a student mentioned “slash.” The slash is used as a conjunction, and slang doesn’t often create a conjunction. Instead of using the symbol /, the students used the word “slash” in their writings on Facebook, blogs, and Tweets as a conjunction. The students also used “slash” to mean “following up” and to indicate an after thought or topic shift.
It seems only the forward slash is currently used. I wonder how in the future the kids will use the backward slash. Maybe they’re already using it, and I just haven’t stumbled across an example. 
I imagine that at this very moment a graduate student is trying to earn his slash her degree studying the use of language on the Internet, and calling the study “netdialectology.” Maybe he slash she will come up with a name for this new way of speaking and writing that is evolving on the web. 
My candidates are netspeak, webspeak, cyberspeak, or nettalk, webtalk, cybertalk.
What are your thoughts on what we should call the language used on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites?

27 July 2014

The Workhorse Punctuation Mark

by Louis Willis

When I began researching the colon, I expected to find, like the other punctuation marks, some controversy. I googled “punctuation marks colon” and got only about 30,000 hits (semicolon resulted in about 101,000 hits). The websites I visited defined the colon’s many uses and explained how to use it. I didn’t find any negative or positive articles about the little ubiquitous punctuation mark. To generate conversation don’t you need two opposing views, something to argue against? On the other hand, I could just provide information with the hope it may be useful.

The academic website of the Russia Federation says, “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” Since the information is in English, I assume it is aimed at students learning to write English. The site goes on to note that an Italian Scholar, Luca Serianni, “helped to define and develop the colon as a punctuation mark, identified four punctuational modes for it: syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive, appositive, and segmental.” Serianni wrote the guide for the Italian language, but the rules are applicable to English as well as many other languages.

A definition wouldn’t feel right without something from that authoritative website, Wikipedia:

The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line. A colon is used to explain or start an enumeration. A colon is also used with ratios, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in bibliographies, business letter salutation, hours and minutes, and formal letters.

More from Wikipedia: “Use of the : symbol to mark the discontinuity of a grammatical construction, or a pause of a length intermediate between that of a semicolon and that of a period, was introduced in English orthography around 1600.”

As usual, the Internet finds a way to use a punctuation mark in new ways. I turn again to the Russian academic website for an example: “A colon, or multiple colons, is sometimes used to denote an action or to emote, similarly to asterisks. In this use it has the inverse function of quotation marks, denoting actions where unmarked text is assumed to be dialogue. 
“For example: 
“Tom: Pluto is so small; it should not be considered a planet. It is tiny! Mark: Oh really? ::drops Pluto on Tom’s head:: Still think it’s small now?
“Colons may also be used for sounds, e.g. ::click::, though sounds can also be denoted by asterisks or other punctuation marks.
“Colons can also be used to represent eyes in emoticons.”

But the field that most interest me and, I think, you is English syntax. In this respect, it is used to introduce a logical consequence (syntactical-deductive); a description (syntactical-descriptive); an appositive independent clause; and the segmental i.e., introduction of speech (at one time, it did so for quotations without the marks).

I think I knew all these syntactical uses of the colon without really thinking about them. I certainly never thought about the “syntactical-deductive” or “syntactical-descriptive,” although I suspect I must have encountered the terms in one  or more of the many books on grammar I’ve read.
The colon is not neglected. It should be but is not praised for its versatility. It’s just there, always present, used without thinking, which means it’s probably occasionally misused. I probably misuse it more often than I misuse its cousin the semicolon.

In my next post, I shall return to detective stories. This punctuation stuff gives me a headache.
:)

30 March 2014

Slow Death by Disuse

by Louis Willis

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. 
Oxford Dictionaries.

In his article “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” on the Slate website, Paul Collins relates a brief history of the semicolon:

       The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.  

Collins notes that the advent of the telegraph in 1850 might have “radically” changed language use because punctuation marks cost the same rate as words ($5.00). As far the semicolon, his perusal of “telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion.” He never quite says that in these modern times the Internet is killing the semicolon but strongly implies that it is. He believes, nevertheless, that “semicolons serve a unique function,...” but fails to say what that function is.
Matthew Kassel believes the semicolon isn’t dying but is “the perfect punctuation for the digital age.” In his "The Semicolon Is the Perfect Punctuation for the Digital Age" article on the New York Observer web site, Kassel argues “that the semicolon is...perfectly suitable for text messaging, instant messaging and online correspondence via Facebook and other social networks, where disparate ideas roam free and ‘unexpected juxtapositions’ are the norm.” He felt “compelled” to defend the semicolon because he “often uses semicolons in digital communication and [has] encountered some unexpected pushback.” Further, for him “the semicolon’s breezy informality… captures the unstructured, colloquial nature of digital correspondence more so than any other punctuation mark out there.” I didn’t find a whole lot of semicolons in his articles on the Observer site, and I couldn’t access his Twitter account, which was probably due to my unstructured, colloquial nature. 
The goal of communications on the social networks is to get the message out as quickly as possible and don’t bother about those little pesky things called punctuation marks. Way back in 1999, one writer, Amy Harmon, in an article "Internet Changes Language" published in the New York Times on February 20 noted that “Although judgments vary, what seems clear so far is that the Internet has propelled the traditionally deliberate pace of language evolution to higher speeds.” 
The semicolon doesn’t lend itself to the speed Twitter and Facebook requires because it insists on a brief pause to allow the reader to think. Readers who, like me, sometimes want, not just dip into an article, story, or essay, but to savor it, would, in these times of instant gratification, miss the semicolon. I have faith, though I don’t know if it is “the perfect punctuation for the Digital Age” as Kassel suggests, that its demise is not imminent. 
To you semicolon; may you live forever.

26 January 2014

Attacks on Punctuation

by Louis Willis

After reading Leigh’s post on the comma, I remembered reading two articles about the changing way the period is being used, and an article on the uselessness of the apostrophe. I decided to write my first article on the attacks on punctuation.

THE PERIOD (FULL STOP)
Certainly no one could have anything against the period,could they? At least if you’re an old fogey like me, you’d think the period, the most effective punctuation mark, would always find a place even in today’s world of texting and tweeting. Who would the most useful punctuation mark offend? In the world of cybertalking, the challenge comes from texters, those who talk with their fingers and thumbs on their smartphones and smarttablets.
From the article “The Rise and Fall of the Lowly Period” by Kevin Drum, on the Mother Jones site, I learned that texters stopped using the period because it is so small on smartphone keyboards. In texting, to end a sentence you just stop, kind of like in speech. Ending a sentence with a period is either confusing or offensive.
From the second and longer article “The Period Is Pissed” by Ben Crair writing in the New Republic, I learned that “In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive.” Crair also notes, “On text and instant messages, punctuation marks have largely been replaced by the line break.” 
I haven’t learned to talk with my fingers and thumbs and I’m reluctant to give up on the lowly period because that little pissed off rascal might just find a way to fight back. I wouldn’t survive in the world of texting because I’d confuse and hurt people’s feelings with my habit of ending sentences with a period.

APOSTROPHE
“Apostrophes show possession (except for personal pronouns), mark omissions in contractions, and form certain plurals” (Harbrace College Handbook, 13th edition).
The fight to eliminate the apostrophe has been going on for a long time and it naturally continues into the 21st century. On the web site “Kill The Apostrophe” the unnamed author wants to eliminate the apostrophe because “The fact is that apostrophes are redundant and consume considerable time and resource and wed be better off without em.” It is also wasteful, a tool of snobbery, time consuming, impedes communication and understanding, and is a distraction “for reasonable and intelligent people.” The author doesn’t want to pass a law but wants to effect “some change down on the ground.” He wants us to wage war against the apostrophe.
John McWhorter, an American linguist and political commenter according to Wikipedia, strikes back at those who want to kill the apostrophe in his essay “The Foolish, Malicious War on Apostrophe’s” on the New Republic web site. He admits that “More than a few understand that apostrophes serve no function and could be eliminated from writing with ill effect.” However, “The only reason the apostrophe will always be with us… is not clarity but the mere fact that writing without it looks funny to us.”
Im the kind of person who wants to protect the language from the language police and I hope youre too. I’d like to agree with McWhorter that “the apostrophe will be with us forever.” But texting and tweeting give me no hope. Even The Apostrophe Protection Society, which reminds “all writers of English text, whether on notices or in documents of any type, of the correct usage of the apostrophe should you wish to put right mistakes you may have inadvertently made,” may not be able to protect it.
I wonder how in 50 years talking with fingers and thumbs will change written language. Will the period become a weapon of aggression? Will the apostrophe finally disappear? Will punctuation disappear?
Maybe the apostrophe has no practical use, but we should keep it but I’ve no idea why. Which side of the apostrophe fence are you on?
Finally, while surfing the web looking for more articles on punctuation, I stumbled on an interesting tidbit of information: September 24 of each year is “National Punctuation Day.”

Period. Full stop.

08 December 2013

Professional Tips: Speech! Speech!

by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been tutoring new writers in the basics. Realistic dialogue is difficult enough, not to mention outside the purview of my lessons, but I’m amazed how many writers haven’t mastered the ‘mechanics’, the essential punctuation required to make dialogue readable.

Punctilious Punctuation

The most obvious indicators of dialogue are the quotation marks that wrap the spoken words themselves. That seems simple enough, but situations arise that flummox many students, including the simplest declarative statement plus a speech tag identifying who spoke. It’s not uncommon to see:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” he said.
The fullstop (period) confuses writers when adding a speech tag naming the speaker. If the phrase ended with a question mark or exclamation mark, then all would be well:
“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?” he said.
Recognizing the end of a declarative sentence, many students want to simply add He said or he said, rather than the correct form, a comma:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son,” he said.
Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

Roughly half of students omit commas setting off the person being addressed. This can confuse the reader and can change the meaning of the sentence:
“Beware the Jabberwock my son.”
Is the speaker implying he fathered the Jabberwocky? Consider:
“Would you like to eat Mary?”
This works only if Mary is the victim, not the listener. What about the following? Is the speaker referring to a former king?
“Edward I swam the English Channel.”
Always set off the person addressed with commas:
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Beyond a Single Paragraph

What happens when a speaker’s dialogue breaks into uninterrupted paragraphs? The correct response is to place a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but place a closing quotation mark only after the final sentence of the last paragraph.
“Has thou slain the Jabberwock?
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
Momentarily stepping outside the realm of dialogue, we often wish to enclose words or phrases within quote marks as I did in the first paragraph above. When a comma or period is required, many authors simply write in this form, the ‘always inside’ rule:
(open quote) word/phrase (comma/fullstop)(close quote)
Other writers such as James Lincoln Warren argue that where you put the terminating punctuation depends on context and meaning, and I agree. (JLW also writes convincingly in support of the ‘Oxford comma’ indicating that its exclusion can alter the meaning of a list.)

The Stratemeyer Stain

“Everything I learned about writing, I learned from Edward Stratemeyer,” or so it seems from new writers some days.

Edward Stratemeyer has a lot to answer for. From the late 1800s through the first half of the twentieth century, the Stratemeyer Syndicate dominated the field of youth literature with more than 100 series and 1300 titles, books you’ve probably read: Nancy Drew (1930), The Hardy Boys (1927), Tom Swift (1910), The Bobbsey Twins (1904), The Rover Boys (1899), etc.

While you can find varied speech tags in Dickens and Doyle, Stratemeyer grew notorious for using any verb other than ‘said’. To wit:
Tom acquiesced, added, admitted, advanced, advised, affirmed, articulated, asserted, boasted, bragged, confirmed, demanded, demurred, frowned, grinned, gurgled, injected, murmured, queried, responded, shouted, smiled, snapped, snorted, whimpered, whined, whispered, “Stop the madness!”
When asked why writers shouldn’t use a full, glorious array of verbs, teachers find themselves unarmed. They say “You can’t frown words, you can’t smile an answer,” and hurriedly move on to the next topic.

Intrusion Alert

But there’s a better reason. Many editors and authors consider anything other than ‘said’ and perhaps ‘asked’ to be author intrusion. Instead of letting the words speak for themselves, the author inserts himself into the story to tell the reader how to interpret it. Rob Lopresti brilliantly identifies these as superfluous 'stage directions'. Many professional writers suggest readers don't 'hear' the verb 'said', that it's invisible to the eye and ear.

So it happens many students come prepared with thesauri-enhanced speech tags and they can’t believe it when instructed to slash them from their epics. “This can’t be right to replace our colorful, masterful, steroidal verbs with dull grey ‘said’?

More than one will decline, arguing “It’s just my style. I can’t change my style.” Fair enough, but don’t be surprised if your style might not be your publisher’s.

Low Marks

Here’s a little puzzle from ESLCarissa passed on from Post Secret. Jot your solution in the comments section!

I don't know how to punctuate.

12 November 2011

When the Grammar Cops Comma Calling


by John M. Floyd




Consider the following two statements:

1. The frustrated mother says, "Eat that cereal, period."

2. The frustrated writing instructor says, "Use that serial comma."

In my opinion, both are good advice.

A serial comma, for those who don't already know this, is the comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, etc.) that precedes the final item in list of three or more items. Example: the comma after Dick in every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Some writers always use it and some never use it, and I know a few who go back and forth. Personally, I like the serial comma, for one reason: it can prevent misunderstanding.

Here's what I mean. A writer friend suggested this sentence to me the other day, as an example:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear. It refers to four people.

Now consider what happens when you leave out the serial comma:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear too, except that it now seems to refer to only two people. I doubt Diane and Barbara would be pleased with that version.

Here's another example:

Every morning I have orange juice, bacon and eggs and toast.

There's nothing wrong with that, but the writer is probably thinking of three separate "items" rather than four. A serial comma after eggs would clarify the sentence--and the extra pause would probably change the way it sounds when spoken.

The clarity issue doesn't come up often. In The road was hot, dry and dusty, leaving out the serial comma doesn't hurt the sentence or our understanding of it. To be truthful, I'm one of those people who use too many commas anyway--I've been trying to cut back a bit. Unneeded commas tend to slow things down, and we all want sentences to flow well and sound right. But I can't help myself: I like serial commas.

What's the official position? Both The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style say the serial comma should be standard usage, but I believe the AP Stylebook discourages it. This goes along with the fact that writers of fiction and most nonfiction seem to favor the serial comma but journalists don't. It's my understanding that the British, by the way, almost never use it.

But the serial comma remains an interesting subject, if only because of the fact that it is optional. I never object when my writing students don't use it in the class stories that I critique and edit. I just tell them the advantages and disadvantages and let them make up their own minds. I myself will continue to use it, though, because that way I don't ever have to worry about whether there's a clarity problem in one of my sentences. (Or at least a clarity problem caused by the lack of a comma.) As my fellow southerner Forrest Gump would say, that's one less thang.

So . . . what will you do, if the Punctuation Police start banging on your door at three in the morning? When they whip out a manuscript page and point a flashlight at it, will you confess to being a user or an abstainer? Or maybe a commakaze?

Seriously, what do you think of serial commas? Are you for or against?

As I implied in a recent column, different strokes for different folks. Or, in the much wiser words of Kinky Friedman, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beer holder."