Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Comma Splices and How to Avoid Them

Like a botched Apparition spell, a comma splice happens when a comma is unequal to the task of carrying you from one clause to another.

Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast
Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, he could hardly help it given his physiognomy. X

A comma is not strong enough to join what would otherwise be two complete sentences.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy. 

A period is often the cleanest fix for a comma splice. There is nothing wrong with short sentences. However, if you want to convey a tighter relationship between your clauses—cause and effect, for example—you can use a coordinating conjunction, dash, colon, or semicolon instead.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, but he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed—he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed; he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed: he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

Medieval illumination of hugging demons
Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug.

Coordinating Conjunctions


Coordinating conjunctions are the joining words and, or, but, so, yet, for, and nor. Using them makes the relationship between your clauses explicit, which is no bad thing.

  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, sometimes they need a hug. X
  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug. 

See Commas and Conjunctions for more.

Dashes


Dashes have a lot of uses, but in this case their interruption suggests an aside or a punchline, like an elbow to the ribs.

  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp, even Death couldn’t beat her. X
  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her. 

See How to Use Dashes for more.

Colons and Semicolons


Colons introduce, while semicolons join. Use a colon when the second clause explains or expands on the first. Otherwise, use a semicolon.

  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight, he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight. X
  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight: he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight.  
  • It couldn’t have been easy, no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. X
  • It couldn’t have been easy; no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. 

See Colon vs. Semicolon for more.

Death and the Lady photo 1906
Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her.

All that said, if your clauses are very short, and if their structures match, you can get away with only a comma between them.

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
  • Mum was in the orchestra, Dad in the ballet corps.
  • She played, he danced.

What you don’t want to do is make your sentences flimsy paperclip chains of clauses hooked together by commas. Clarify your thoughts, then use the appropriate punctuation.



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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 2

Check out Part 1 for phrasal connectives, mass nouns, and bickering fairies.

Dancing dervishes
Each of the dancers has his own style.

Indefinite Pronouns


Would you write “Each of the dancers have their own style” or “Each of the dancers has his own style”? Keep your eye on the subject—in this case, each.

  • Each of the dancers has his own style.
  • Of course both of the pirates have eye patches.
  • Which of us hasn’t yearned for a shrubbery? 

But

  • Meilin is one of those people who aren’t afraid of spiders.

In this case, Meilin is one of X (X being those people who aren’t afraid of spiders). Meilin is the subject and is is the verb. Compare that sentence with the following:

  • One of those people isn’t afraid of spiders.

None can be singular or plural, despite those who claim a singular verb is the only correct choice (“None of us is drunk”). While a singular verb isn’t wrong, even The Chicago Manual of Style thinks it sounds “possibly stilted” (5.220). Chicago’s recommendation is to make the verb agree with the noun following none

  • None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.
  • None of the creamed corn is edible.
  • Are you telling me none of them know how to crack a safe?

Alternatively, you could dodge potential arguments by using not one or not any instead.

  • Are you telling me not one of them knows how to crack a safe?
  • Not any of the creamed corn is edible.

Horrifyingly violent illustration from Der Struwwelpeter
None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Predicate Nouns


“The bait was chocolate-chip cookies” or “The bait were chocolate-chip cookies”? Here cookies is what’s called a predicate nominative or predicate noun: it renames or identifies the subject. Bait is the subject, so the verb should be singular to agree with it—was

  • The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.
  • Jivika’s weakness is kittens.

If the correct version still sounds weird, you can reword it.

  • Fred Astaire movies were the general’s passion.
  • Kittens are Jivika’s weakness.

Nouns That Look Plural but Act Singular


Nouns like mumps and news are plural in form but are treated as singular: “Mumps was prevalent,” “Good news is always welcome.” Others are less clear-cut. Mathematics, for example, is usually treated as singular but may be plural when used in the operational sense.

  • Mathematics is the underlying language of the universe.
  • Her theory’s mathematics were indisputable.

Similarly, politics is usually singular when it refers to political science or the process of governing, but it can be singular or plural in the sense of an activity or a set of principles.

  • Politics is for people who have too much idealism or none.
  • That man’s politics are distasteful.

Compound Subjects Revisited


Although subjects joined by and take a plural verb (as covered in Part 1), they can sometimes be treated as a singular unit. 

  • Skipping and jumping were his favourite hobbies. (Two subjects)
  • Skipping and jumping was her recess activity of choice. (One subject)
  • Battered and fried is how I like my Mars bars.
  • Wine, women, and song was all the poet cared about. 

Of course, smoothing your reader’s path is more important than impressing them with your grasp of grammar, so always consider alternate wordings.

  • Her recess activity of choice was skipping and jumping.
  • I like my Mars bars battered and fried.
  • All the poet cared about was wine, women, and song. 

Lobby card from Top Hat
The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.





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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 1

Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before. Or should that be “have been”?

One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that a verb should agree with its subject: “We are going,” not “We am going.” If you’re a native English speaker, this probably comes naturally to you, but sometimes the correct verb isn’t obvious.

Pulp sci-fi magazine cover
Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

Compound Subjects


Two or more singular subjects connected by and take a plural verb. (There are occasional exceptions, but we’ll discuss those in Part 2.) This feels pretty obvious in practice.

  • The lion and the unicorn need to have a talk.
  • A lama, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

Singular subjects connected by or and nor, however, take a singular verb.

  • Yun or the dog has demolished the cake.
  • Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

When you have a singular subject and a plural subject joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with whichever is closest.

  • Neither the sensei nor his students were prepared for the monster.
  • The bicycle acrobats or their manager has broken the contract.

Phrasal Connectives


Phrases like as well as, along with, together with, and in addition to don’t make a singular subject plural. Whether set apart with commas, dashes, or parentheses—or not set apart at all—phrasal connectives don’t affect the rest of the sentence (see also this Q & A).

  • The samurai Noguchi, together with his cat, goes for a walk every day.
  • The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

If the correct sentence sounds awkward, you can always reword it.

  • The snake and Pia like a good story.

Illustration: Lady chats with snake
The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

Collective Nouns


Group subjects like family, team, and mob are called collective nouns or mass nouns. In the UK they’re more likely to be accompanied by plural verbs, and in Canada and the US by singular verbs: “My family are coming to visit” versus “My family is coming to visit.” According to The Chicago Manual of Style, collective nouns take a singular verb when they’re acting as a unit and a plural verb when they’re acting as a collection of individuals.

  • The murder of crows passing overhead looks ominous.
  • The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.

Media, in the sense of “mass communication,” used to always be treated as plural, and this usage is still preferred by the Chicago Manual.

  • The media are having a collective hissy fit.

But outside of formal writing, “the media” is so often treated as singular that lexicographers admit the word is becoming a collective noun, like data. Even the Associated Press Stylebook allowed in 2016 that when being considered as a group, media can take a singular verb.

  • Social media is both a blessing and a curse.

Arthur Rackham: The Meeting of Oberon and Titania
The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.


Coming up in Part 2: none, predicate nominatives, and chocolate-chip cookies



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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Clichés to Avoid: Orbs and Tears

“Tears rolled down her face” is a sentence I’ve come across more than a few times in the work of beginning writers. While it’s more descriptive than “She cried,” there’s a lot more to crying than tears, rolling or otherwise.

Photo by Man Ray: Tears


Of Orbs and Eyeballs


But before we get to tears, let’s talk about orbs. Orbs, which means “spheres,” is sometimes used instead of eyes, often accompanied by a colourful descriptor, as in “emerald orbs.” It’s true, eyeballs are spherical, but you’re not likely to notice unless they’ve been taken out of their sockets. Orbs makes me think of crystal balls and marbles; I’ve never looked into someone’s eyes and thought, “Ah, so spherical!” Unless you’re describing the eyeball manufacturer in Blade Runner, steer clear of orbs. It’s almost invariably a sign of bad writing.

Close-up of eyeball from Blade Runner
From Blade Runner: the only circumstances under which it’s acceptable to refer to eyes as “orbs”

In the same way that eyes is better than orbs, green is always an improvement over emerald or jade. (And for the love of all that is holy, stay away from cerulean—it’s a cliché of clichés.) Have you ever actually seen eyes that look like emeralds? Were they cold and hard? Multi-faceted? Most of the time, we don’t notice people’s eye colour beyond a vague impression of dark or light. Unless you’re gazing into someone’s eyes, you’re far more likely to notice things like expression and movement: smiling, squinting, bulging, darting, glinting, shifty, wide, and so on.

Weeping 101


Before the tears start rolling, people usually go through a few opening stages. If you’re writing from the crying character’s point of view, they might first feel a pressure or prickling behind their eyes. Their throat might tighten or their nose start to run. Water will probably fill their eyes, obscuring their vision, before it spills over their lower eyelids and eyelashes, often following a blink. Another character watching them might notice their red eyes and nose (if their skin is pale enough for it to show) before the wetness on their cheeks.

There are as many ways to cry as there are people to do it. Is your character a stoic type? They may blink rapidly, clench their jaw, look away, or swipe a hand brusquely across their face and pretend they just had something in their eye. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy is careful to put her handkerchief over her face before giving way to unrestrained crying. On the other hand, a character might be beyond caring what others think, letting the tears and snot slide down their face and drip off their chin without trying to wipe them away. Or maybe creating a scene is what they’re all about, like a toddler howling during a tantrum, or a bereaved mother wailing at a funeral.

Indeed, the noise of crying is often more noticeable than the tears. Sobs can be loud or muffled by a pillow, hands, or someone’s shoulder. And crying doesn’t just happen in the face: shoulders slump in despair, limbs go limp. A person might collapse—onto the ground or a couch or a bed—or they might vent their feelings by punching or kicking something (or someone). People sniffle and blow their noses, unobtrusively or messily. And it might all wind down with hiccups or deep, shuddering breaths.

Illustration of weeping woman from 1844
A crying person might collapse onto a grave if one is handy.

To say that tears roll down a character’s cheeks isn’t really saying much. This is a chance to tell your readers more about the character and their circumstances. How they cry can show us their personality, culture, location, depth of feeling, and personal history. That’s a lot to pack into a few tears.




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Sunday, 9 July 2017

Q&A: Parentheticals and Subject-Verb Agreement

What is the grammatical correctness for a sentence such as:

George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) are making a strong contribution to the operations.

OR

George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations.

The question really is: Is the information in brackets included in the grammar of the rest of the sentence or is it ignored?

Illuminated demons carrying books
George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations.

The second version is the correct one: George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations. As The Chicago Manual of Style points out, any matter set off with commas, dashes, or parentheses does not affect the rest of the sentence.

  • Sarah, and of course her clones, has issues with authority.
  • Cyril—and Gussie too—is excited about starting school in the fall.

If the correct version sounds awkward, try rearranging the sentence.

  • Sarah and her clones have issues with authority.
  • Cyril and Gussie are excited about starting school in the fall.

After all, correctness isn’t much good without clarity.

Old photo of two boys wearing fish heads
Cyril and Gussie are excited about starting school in the fall.




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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks: Whose Line Is It?

I’ve talked about how to punctuate dialogue, but how do you know where in your dialogue to start a new paragraph? The general rule is that you should start a new paragraph for each new speaker. But of course there’s more to it than that.

Photo of dresses

The goal, as always, is to avoid confusing your readers. They should never be in doubt as to who’s talking.

  Standing side by side, Julie and her mother stared into the mirror. “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”

This paragraph opens with two characters. The speech tag (“said her mother”) makes it clear which of them is speaking. You don’t need to start a new paragraph for the mother’s dialogue, but you could if you wanted to—for example, if you felt the scene needed a pause there.

  Standing side by side, Julie and her mother stared into the mirror.
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”

However, you do need a paragraph break when it’s Julie’s turn, even if she’s reacting to her mother’s dialogue.

Less clear:
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.” Julie rolled her compound eyes.
  “I’m not wearing pink. That’s so cliché.”
Clear:
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”
  Julie rolled her compound eyes. “I’m not wearing pink. That’s so cliché.”

Whether a character’s action appears before or after their dialogue, both dialogue and action should stay on the same line.

  Her mother sighed. “I just don’t know about this one.”
  “What’s wrong with it?” Julie spread her front arms.

If you follow this rule, the speaker will be obvious even when there’s no speech tag. Dialogue without speech tags or actions reads quickly, making it effective for rapid-fire exchanges.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Julie spread her front arms.
  “Well, it’s a little tight through the thorax, honey.”
  “It’s supposed to be that way!” 

Of course, there is always room for exceptions. A second character’s reaction might not need its own paragraph if it’s short and, most importantly, doesn’t obscure who’s speaking.

  “How about this one?” Her mother held up something ankle length with ruffles. Julie chittered in dismay. “Fine!” said her mother. “I’ll stop trying to help!”

If you’re writing a very close point of view, for example first person, you might decide to follow another character’s dialogue with your point-of-view character’s reaction. (You can read more about point of view in How to Write Characters’ Thoughts.) But again, be careful not to confuse your reader, and use speech tags where necessary.

  “I thought you liked pink!” she said. I swear she still thinks I’m twelve.
  “Pastels are for sorority girls named Miffy,” I said.

Moon and Praying Mantis by Shotei

If you want to show more than one person speaking simultaneously, you can put their dialogue on the same line.

  The sales assistant scampered towards them on sticklike legs. “Can I help you find something? What style were you thinking of?”
  “Sexy.” “Tasteful.”
  “I’m sure we can find just the thing.” 

But if you're trying to show characters interrupting each other, then use em dashes to show where the dialogue is broken. (Read more about em dashes in How to Use Dashes.)

  “Okay, okay, whatever you want,” said her mother, clicking her mandibles placatingly. “It’s your big night. Listen, honey, if you and Jeremy decide to have sex—”
  “Mom!” Julie quickly rotated her head, checking to make sure nobody had heard.
  “—promise me you’ll be safe. It’s very easy to get carried away in the moment, but you must under no circumstances bite his head off.”
  “I know! God, Mom. They covered that in Sex Ed, okay?”

Like all punctuation, the paragraph break is a tool—for clarity, of course, but also for pacing. A new paragraph can create a pause in the conversation. Either of the following is correct; it all depends on the writer’s intention.

  “All right, I trust you. You’re a good girl.” She looked away, her antennae quivering. “You’re just growing up so fast!”

  “All right, I trust you. You’re a good girl.”
  She looked away, her antennae quivering. “You’re just growing up so fast!”

Occasionally, the action will move from one character to another within the same sentence. Start the second character’s dialogue on a new line to avoid confusion, even if their action closed out the previous paragraph.

  “Moooom,” said Julie, as her mother pulled her into a many-limbed hug.
  “I’m so proud of you, sweetie!”
  “I know.”

Midsummer Frolics illustration 1894

Do you have to start a new paragraph for each character’s dialogue? No. There are plenty of stylistic reasons an author might choose to ignore all of the above. But if you decide to go off the beaten path, make sure your readers will follow. The more often they have to stop to figure out your story, the more likely they are to stop reading it altogether.





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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Sentence Fragments: Shattering Your Syntax

Is it ever grammatically acceptable to leave a sentence incomplete? Sometimes.

Arachne, c. 1330

To be complete, a sentence needs a subject and a predicate. You can think of them as the protagonist and the drama1 or as the topic and its state of being. The subject is (or includes) a noun and the predicate is (or includes) a verb. Even very short sentences always have both.

  • Gregor awoke.
  • The sky is green.
  • I do.
  • It was.

These sentences may be uninformative, but they are complete. In fact, even one word can be a complete sentence.

  • Proceed.
  • Duck!

In commands like these (called the imperative mood in grammar circles), the subject you goes without saying.

Of course, an exclamation (or interjection) is considered a complete sentence even when it doesn’t follow the subject-predicate format.

  • Yikes!
  • Hey!

But interjections are a part of speech unto themselves.

Illustration of witches from The British Library
In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon was coming to a close.

Sentence Fragments


A fragment is a sentence that’s missing either a subject or a predicate. Just as a very short sentence can still be complete, a long sentence can still be a fragment.

  • The blind, white grubs inside the silk-lined bassinet, tucked under a yellow woollen blanket. X

This tells us all about the subject, grubs, but doesn’t tell us what they’re doing.

  • The blind, white grubs lay inside the silk-lined bassinet, tucked under a yellow woollen blanket.
  • The blind, white grubs inside the silk-lined bassinet were tucked under a yellow woollen blanket.

  • Heaving and pulsing in their sleep, their tiny legs whispering restlessly. X

Here we have a wealth of verbs, but we don’t know who or what is undertaking the action.

  • They heaved and pulsed in their sleep, their tiny legs whispering restlessly.

  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon coming to a close. X

Don’t be confused by the verb coming; it’s not a predicate. As part of the participial phrase “coming to a close,” it’s acting as an adjective, describing the subject, not driving the sentence.

  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon was coming to a close.
  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon came to a close.

Dependent Clauses


The presence of both a subject and a predicate doesn’t guarantee your sentence is complete. A clause can have its own subject and predicate, even though it’s part of a larger sentence.

  • We finished that bottle of chianti when the cats came over for dinner.

The clause “when the cats came over for dinner” has both a subject and a predicate, but by itself it’s still a fragment.

  • When the cats came over for dinner. X
  • The cats came over for dinner.

The word when sets up expectations the sentence doesn’t fulfill, leaving the reader hanging. When is a subordinating conjunction, which makes this a dependent clause; a dependent clause, as its name suggests, can’t stand on its own. To put it another way, clauses that begin with words like although, because, if, since, that, until, unless, and while will always be fragments by themselves.

  • When the cats came over for dinner, we opened a bottle of wine.

Dining with cats
When the cats came over for dinner, we opened a bottle of wine.

When Is It Okay to Use Sentence Fragments?


Although sentence fragments are a big no-no in English class, you probably see them all the time—in fiction, in advertising, in blogs. (Possibly even in this blog.) You wouldn’t want incomplete sentences in your cover letter or college essay, but in the right context they can add punch to your prose. For example, an author might use them to heighten tension during a dramatic scene, or you might use them for humour or as part of a casual, friendly style. And they can make dialogue sound more realistic, as few of us talk in complete sentences all the time.

  • Suki scanned the inky waves. There! Rising from the depths. A tentacle.
  • Would I babysit the larvae? Not for a million bucks.
  • Worst. Blog. Ever. 
  • “I feel weird,” said Gregor. “Kind of buggy.

As is often the case, you can get away with breaking the rules provided you understand them. A sentence fragment can be either a sign of sloppiness or an effective writing tool. How will you know which it is? Context.




1. Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax


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