Thursday 22 December 2016

Rein vs. Reign and Strait vs. Straight

Have you ever written about being in “dire straights” or giving someone “free reign”? Read on to find out just how wrong you were.

Mary Cassat: The Tea
Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.

Rein and Reign

We’re all familiar with a horse’s reins, which keep it from bolting off into the blue. The word rein is used in expressions having to do with control or restraint, such as “rein in” or “keep a tight rein on.” Conversely, giving a horse “free rein” means it can go where it likes—just as a decorator given free (or full) rein may fill your bathroom with gold-plated fixtures and wall-to-wall mirrors.

To reign is to rule; the word comes from the same Latin root that gave us regent and regency. Use reign when you’re talking about domination: reign of terror, reign supreme.

  • Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.
  • Chaos reigned at the Laus’ house on the night Jenny’s pet rat, Cocoa, escaped.

Strait and Straight

A strait is a narrow passage between two bodies of water, like the Strait of Magellan or the Georgia Strait. Metaphorically, it refers to anything tight or restricting: straitjacket, straitlaced. “Dire straits” could be literally a difficult route to sail between rocky cliffs, or a figurative tight spot. The idea of restriction is also present in “straitened circumstances,” a euphemism for poverty.

Straight means “without deviation”: a straight line, straight up, straight to the point. Straight also implies honesty—no detours from the truth.

  • After the bust, Knuckles swore he was going straight.
  • Straitlaced men are like catnip to the succubus.

Having said that, some dictionaries list straightjacket and straightlaced as variant spellings, as they’ve become so common. But that’s no reason not to learn the difference, and using the more irreproachable spelling will earn you points from straitlaced grammarphiles.

P. Burne-Jones: The Vampire
Straitlaced men are like catnip to the succubus.

Monday 12 December 2016

How to Capitalize Titles

The rules for capitalizing titles are collectively known as headline style, which is used not only for titles of works (books, movies, songs, etc.) but also for headlines and subheadings. Mastering this style isn’t so much a matter of learning what words to capitalize as learning what words not to capitalize.

Krampus postcard
Flying Monsters: A History

Headline Style: The Basics

Not all publications use headline style; some use sentence style, in which only the first letter is capitalized. Others say “the hell with it” and capitalize every single word, no matter what it is (Buzzfeed, I’m looking at you). But most editors follow the rules laid out in The Chicago Manual of Style.

Chicago recommends capitalizing all the important words: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. They also capitalize the first and last words of both title and subtitle. 

  • Flying Monsters: A History

What Not to Capitalize in Headline Style

Articlesthe, a, and an—should be lowercase. Unless, of course, they’re the first or last words of the title or subtitle, like A in the example above.

Chicago uses lowercase for all prepositions, no matter how long; however, many editors capitalize prepositions of more than a certain number of letters.

Conjunctions, such as and, but, or, and nor, are lowercase.

To is lowercase when it’s part of an infinitive verb (How to Twerk).

As is always lowercase.

• Bits of foreign names like de and von, if they’re lowercase in the original spelling, are lowercase in titles (The von Trapp Family Singers).

frog crime postcard
Unconscious Robber Comes To and Flees

When to Capitalize Prepositions

Here’s where it gets tricky: the same word can perform different roles, some of which are capitalized and some of which are not. To, for example, can be a preposition (Come to Our Krampus Party!), part of an infinitive (I Have Come to Mourn My Wasted Youth), or part of a phrasal verb (Unconscious Robber Comes To and Flees).

Phrasal verbs (like come to) happen when a verb + preposition(s) forms a kind of unit, one whose meaning is distinct from what its words mean separately. Other examples of phrasal verbs are turn down, put off, hang out, put up with, and sit in for. These prepositions have been transmogrified into (parts of) verbs, so they get capitalized in headline style.

  • Timothy Leary titled his spoken-word album Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.
  • In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant dons a negligee.

Prepositions are also capitalized when they serve as adjectives.

  • Push the On Button
  • No Running up the Down Escalator

Prepositions in Latin phrases like in vitro and per capita are treated the same as English prepositions: they’re lowercase except when the phrase functions as an adjective or adverb.

  • Fertilization in Vitro but About In Vitro Fertilization
  • Clowns per Capita but Measuring Per Capita Clownage

Participles, you may recall, are verb forms ending in –ing or –ed. Some of them may act as prepositions, such as including, regarding, given, and based on. In that case, Chicago doesn’t capitalize them.

  • Four Theories concerning the Gospel according to Matthew

However, lots of editors think this looks clunky and choose to capitalize prepositions over a certain number of letters (usually three or four). This policy has the bonus of cutting down the number of words you need to agonize over. Is around being an adverb or a preposition? Who cares! It’s six letters, so cap that puppy!

  • Four Theories Concerning the Gospel According to Matthew
  • Haberdashery Around the World

Bashi-Bazouk by Jean-Leon Gerome
Haberdashery Around the World

When a Conjunction Is Not a Conjunction

Conjunctions, as you might remember, join two clauses to form a sentence. So and yet are conjunctions—except when they’re adverbs.

  • Darkness Has Prevailed, yet All Is Not Lost but We Have Not Yet Begun to Fight
  • You’re Annoying so I Left but You’re So Vain

Whenever a word is being discussed as a word, it’s functioning as a noun, and is therefore capitalized.

  • On the Abbreviations of “And” and “In” in Text Messages
  • No Ifs, Ands, or Buts!

Capitalizing Hyphenated Words

Should you capitalize both words in half-baked? What about post-coital?

Chicago capitalizes both parts of compound words, except when the first part is only a prefix—something that can’t stand alone—in which case the second part is lowercase.

  • Half-Baked Brownies: Cooking with Low-THC Marijuana
  • Le Petit Mort: A Study of Post-coital Lassitude
  • Hacking Government E-mails for Fun and Profit

Other publications capitalize only the first part of a compound—except, obviously, in the case of proper nouns (Ali, French, Google), which are always capitalized.

  • Half-baked Brownies: Cooking with Low-THC Marijuana
  • An Exhibition of Anti-Soviet Propaganda from World War II
  • Post-Freudian Dream Interpretation

If a hyphenated phrase contains a word that would normally be lowercase, like an article or a preposition, keep it lowercase.

  • The Out-of-Work Actors’ Fund
  • Dyed-in-the-Wool Marxist Refuses Knighthood

The Bogey-Owl by P. Burne-Jones
Post-Freudian Dream Interpretation

Knowing headline style isn’t useful only for bibliographers; it’s an indispensable skill for any writer. You need it to write the name of your favourite song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ”), the TV show you’re currently obsessed with (Game of Thrones), or the work of art that best sums up this year (Edvard Munch’s The Scream). You’ll probably use it in the titles of your blog posts and the subheadings on your website (see above). And you’ll find it handy should you ever need to quote a sign (Beware of Dog) or a motto (Keep Calm and Carry On). Headline style’s somewhat arbitrary rules may vary, but be consistent and you won’t go wrong.

Friday 25 November 2016

Effect vs. Affect

The easiest way to tell these homonyms apart is to remember that, most of the time, we use effect as a noun and affect as a verb. In other words, an effect is usually a thing, while to affect usually involves doing something. (Mnemonic tip: affect = action.)

  • The effects of the transporter have never been fully explained.
  • Geraldo’s love spell had no effect on the handsome gargoyle.
  • Carrying the Righteous Sword of Truth within my body does not affect my digestion. 
  • Mr. Rogers’s affecting monologue had us all in tears.

However, English being the gloriously contrarian language it is, there are other, less common definitions of both words that don’t follow the same rule.

Aurora Consurgens 1420s Germany
Carrying the Righteous Sword of Truth within my body does not affect my digestion.

Effect as a Verb

The verb effect is most often seen in bureaucratese as a pompous way of saying “to bring about” or “to make happen.”

  • Pipe Kleenerz Inc. was able to effect a change in its fuzziness policies.

This is not to be confused with the verb affect, which means “to influence.”

  • EvilCorp affected the environmental legislation through nefarious means. (EvilCorp influenced the legislation.)
  • Our municipal government effected its anti-mime legislation last week. (The legislation was put into effect.)

Affect as a Noun

An affect (pronounced AF-fect rather than af-FECT) is an emotion or, in psychiatric circles, the manifestation of an emotion. For example, descriptions of depression or autism will sometimes mention a “flat affect,” that is, not showing visible evidence of feelings.

  • As a chef, Mandeep’s usual affect is of barely restrained fury.
  • The movie villain’s lack of affect was more disturbing than clichéd moustache-twirling.

Affect as Another Verb

Beyond “to influence,” the verb affect can also mean “to pretend (a behaviour) in order to impress.” This meaning is related to the noun affectation, “a contrived manner.”

  • Randy affects a British accent at gallery openings, but no one is fooled.
  • At seventeen, Zahra decided to affect a plumed hat whenever she went out.
  • Keiko affected a limp so no one would suspect she was a cat burglar.

Shaykh Abbasi(?), Woman in a European Hat Holding a Flower
At seventeen, Zahra decided to affect a plumed hat whenever she went out.

So, you might affect a certain affect in order to create an effect that will affect those around you, thus effecting your master plan.


Wednesday 16 November 2016

Sex and the Single Quotation Mark

Yes, okay, single quotation marks don’t actually have sex as far as we know, but they certainly do seem to be proliferating these days.

Portrait of Ambassador Admiral Abdelkader Perez 1737
“The king himself called my beard ‘enviably luxuriant,’ ” boasted the ambassador.

Keeping Singles in Their Place

The Chicago Manual of Style says there’s no call to use single quotation marks except within existing double quotation marks.

  • “The king himself called my beard ‘enviably luxuriant,’ ” boasted the ambassador.

Well, there are a couple of other reasons, namely if you’re writing something technical about linguistics or philosophy—but let’s face it, you’re probably not. Also, if you’re in the UK (or you’re in America but like being kind of pretentious), then you might permissibly use single quotation marks where the rest of us use doubles. All other uses, according to the Chicago Manual, are incorrect.

Meet the Press

But journalists operate out of a different rule book—literally: The Associated Press Stylebook (usually referred to as AP style) uses single quotation marks in headlines to save space.

  • ‘I Am Not a Vampire’ Says Mayor

Since headlines don’t include italics, words that would normally be italicized, like movie titles, are put in quotation marks instead.

  • Local Citizens Confused, Nauseated After Watching ‘Un Chien Andalou’

Twitter Wreaks Havoc on Punctuation

Single quotation marks tend to be the go-to in any medium where space is at a premium, such as Twitter (although that site is a bit of a punctuation free-for-all).

Merriam-Webster uses single quotation marks on Twitter as a replacement for italics, which aren’t available for the site. Thus you get tweets like the one below, where the word-as-word is in single quotation marks, and its gloss, or meaning, is in double quotation marks.

Merriam-Webster tweet
Merriam-Webster tweet

The logic is clear, but the effect is a little confusing.

Oxford Dictionaries declares both single and double quotation marks are acceptable in American usage, but urges writers to stick to one or the other. However, most authorities lean towards double quotation marks under ordinary circumstances.

Stills from 'Un Chien Andalou'
Local Citizens Confused, Nauseated After Watching ‘Un Chien Andalou’

If all this has your head spinning, just remember that the raison d’être of punctuation is clarity. First ask yourself, do you really need quotation marks around that word or phrase? Would italics work just as well, or better? (See Quotation Marks, Parts One and Two.) Second, will using both single and double quotation marks in the same piece make things more or less comprehensible for your readers? Is what you gain in precision worth what you’re losing in visual coherence?

Once you have pondered these questions and come to a decision, punctuate as you see fit. But be prepared to defend your choices to the death. Or at least on Twitter.

Saturday 5 November 2016

Quotation Marks, Part Two

[Part One]

Quotations marks are not, as some people seem to think, a good way to sexy up your signage with bizarre offers of “free” merchandise (meaning you have to pay?) or “special” deals (sounds suspicious). 

Thrashed by a Lady Cyclist, 1899
Though a member of the “weaker” sex, Claudette routinely thrashed bullies before breakfast.

Sneer Quotes

Putting quotation marks around a word is another way of saying “just kidding!” These so-called sneer quotes give a word an ironic or sarcastic spin. 

  • Though a member of the “weaker” sex, Claudette routinely thrashed bullies before breakfast.
  • Mikhail “borrowed” her Snuggie six months ago and has no intention of giving it back.

But don’t use quotation marks after the word so-called; that would be overkill.

Unfamiliar Words 

The first time you use a word or expression that might be unfamiliar to your readers, you may want to put it in quotation marks. It could be a technical term, a bit of obscure jargon, or a slang expression that’s out of keeping with the tone of your piece. You can skip the quotation marks for subsequent uses of the word. 

  • For the Caesar salad dressing, you will need to “coddle” an egg.
  • It is safe to say that Mr. Buckley was not “woke.”

Use this device sparingly, or you risk distracting your readers with too much punctuation. And don’t use it with widely familiar words, because that’s just annoying. 

  • X   I’m “hip” to the kids and their “funky” slang!

Words as Words

If you want to talk about a word itself rather than its meaning (for example, “Do you spell ‘color’ with a u?”), quotation marks are a good way to clarify your intention and avoid confusion. Or you can do as I do and use italics instead; both are correct.

  • Ming’s eight-year-old nephew confuses “cinnamon” with “synonym.”
  • He won the spelling bee with syphilis.

Definitions and Translations 

You can put the meaning, or gloss, of a word in either quotation marks or parentheses. The same goes for English translations of foreign words.

  • Blandishments is a word used here to mean “tight jeans and come-hither glances.”
  • After achieving satori (sudden enlightenment), the monk dedicated himself to practical jokes.

The monk Ikkyu and the courtesan Jigoku Dayu by Yoshitoshi
After achieving satori (sudden enlightenment), the monk dedicated himself to practical jokes.

Quotation Marks with Other Punctuation

While commas may go before dialogue, they don’t belong in front of words or phrases that are closely integrated into the rest of the sentence. 

  • Armin never would have told her to “keep the home fires burning” if he’d known her history of pyromania.
  • He told her, “Playing with matches is all very well, but a good insurance policy will keep you warm at night.”

Though the British would disagree, Americans and most Canadians put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks. However, exclamation points, question marks, colons, semicolons, and dashes only go inside quotation marks if they’re part of the element—whether dialogue, title, or expression—being enclosed.

  • Sulamith titled her essay on climate change “We’re All Doomed! Doomed!” 
  • How could you forget the words to “Kumbayah”? 
  • Coach’s pep talk included an inspiring line from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?” 
  • For the next class, read “From Weapon to Toy: A Concise History of the Yo-yo,” published in Modern Collector; the pamphlet “Walking the Dog and Other Tricks”; and “Yo Yo Ma: American Cellist.” 
  • With typical ebullience, Emily Dickinson wrote “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—” 
  • “Lice have certainly”—Mr. Jenkins paused and scratched his head—“never been a problem at this school.”

La Jeune Fille et la Mort by Marianne Stokes
With typical ebullience, Emily Dickinson wrote “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—”

When Not to Use Quotation Marks

As covered above and in Part One, you don’t need quotation marks for epigraphs (quotations at the beginning of a work or chapter), after so-called, or for widely known terms and expressions.

You also don’t need quotation marks for proverbs, titles at the head of a document, or the words yes and no—unless they’re presented as dialogue.

  • The guillotiners gruesomely embraced the adage that practice makes perfect.
  • How could anyone say no to that scaly little face?
  • Smiling widely, Puck replied, “Yes.”

Next time: The mysterious persistence of single quotation marks

Thursday 20 October 2016

Quotation Marks, Part One

Much as you may love the little wigglers, you can’t simply throw quotation marks at any word or phrase you feel like decorating. This two-part post will cover all the socially acceptable uses of quotation marks.


Let’s start with the obvious: Quotation marks show when a character is speaking aloud.

  • “Meet me at the orgy,” said Cristóbal. “I’ll be under the third owl on the left.”

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights [detail]
“Meet me at the orgy,” said Cristóbal. “I’ll be under the third owl on the left.”

Don’t use quotation marks after the word that. Describing what someone said (called indirect discourse) is not the same as quoting them.

  • Ziyi said that the end of the world would have to wait.

(See also How to Punctuate Dialogue.)

Nesting Quotation Marks

What if you need to put quotation marks around something that’s already in quotation marks—say, a word within a piece of dialogue? In that case, put your word in single quotation marks, keeping your dialogue in double quotation marks as usual. If you need yet another set of quotation marks inside your single marks, use doubles again, and continue to alternate until you run out of room or run mad, whichever comes first.

  • “I just saw him giving his ‘sister’ a snog!” snapped Sybil.
  • “The word waning here means ‘dim, and making everything look extra-creepy.’ ” (Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy)

Literary (or Not-So-Literary) Quotations

That last sentence is an example of another common use of quotation marks: to quote a work of literature—or a blog post, or a bit of graffiti.

  • As Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

However, if your quote is an epigraph (a quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter), you don’t need quotation marks. The same is true of a long quotation that’s indented from the rest of the text:

As they passed Gertrude raised her head and directed towards the young nobleman two eyes so eye-like in their expression as to be absolutely circular, while Lord Ronald directed towards the occupant of the dogcart a gaze so gaze-like that nothing but a gazelle, or a gas-pipe, could have emulated its intensity. (Stephen Leacock, “Gertrude the Governess,” Nonsense Novels)

Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock
Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels (1911) includes “Gertrude the Governess.”

Titles of Works: Quotation Marks or Italics

Use quotation marks for titles of articles, essays, short stories, poems, songs, and television episodes.

  • “Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

Most other titles—like those of books, movies, and TV shows—are written in italics (more on that here). The Associated Press uses quotation marks instead of italics, but you don’t need to worry about AP style unless you’re a journalist. Certain media don’t allow italic fonts—Twitter, for instance—and in that case you may use quotation marks as a substitute, but only if italics are unavailable.

Brady Bunch opening credits
“Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

Coming up in Part Two: Sneer quotes, punctuation soup, and common errors to avoid

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Lead, Led, and Lead: Past Tense or Pencil?

Don’t confuse the past tense of lead, which is led, with lead, which sounds like led but is spelled like lead. Clear?

Of course not. Like a Dickens character, the English language has a convoluted and improbable past. Which is why we have a verb like lead, whose past tense (led) sounds like another word spelled exactly the same as its present tense (lead).

Photograph of Paris catacombs
Our sinister guide led us down into the catacombs but gave no promise to lead us out again.

To clarify:

Lead (rhymes with bead): verb. To show the way

Led (rhymes with bed): verb. Past tense of lead

Lead (rhymes with dead): noun. A kind of metal, or the graphite core of a pencil

According to Word Origins by John Ayto, the verb comes from a Germanic word meaning “journey,” while the noun is probably derived from an Indo-European word for “flow” (because the metal is quick to melt). As for pencil leads, when graphite was first discovered, people mistakenly thought it was a kind of lead, and a pencil’s core has been referred to as a “lead” ever since.

  • “Lead on, Macduff” is a misquotation of Macbeth.
  • Agnes’s practical joke went over like a lead balloon.
  • Joachim’s leading lady led him astray.
  • “No, chewing on your pencil won’t give you lead poisoning,” said Hélène, “but it’s gross.”
  • Our sinister guide led us down into the catacombs but made no promise to lead us out again.

Mandragora, Tacuinum sanitatis, Rhineland 15th century
Agnes’s practical joke went over like a lead balloon.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

When to Put Commas Between Adjectives

A conga line of adjectives sometimes (but not always) requires the intervention of commas to keep things straight.

medieval dragon
Myfanwy’s dragon, Trevor, has multiple red heads.

In formal writing, coordinate adjectives—two or more adjectives that describe the same noun—should be separated by a comma. (Some people get a little carried away and put a comma before the noun too. These people are wrong. They deserve pity but not indulgence.)

  • The demon made a dedicated, insinuating telemarketer.
  • My ex is a low-down, no-good, lying rattlesnake.

However, sometimes two or more adjectives get by just fine with no commas at all.

  • The only one who can safely walk the halls of the cursed high school is Sven, the janitor-ninja.
  • Myfanwy’s dragon, Trevor, has multiple red heads.

How can you tell when your adjectives need a comma and when they don’t? Here are two helpful rules of thumb.

The Magic And

If you can put and between your adjectives, you should separate them with a comma. If and doesn’t sound right, no comma is needed.

  • The demon made a dedicated and insinuating telemarketer. ( use comma)
  • The only one who can safely walk the halls of the cursed and high school is Sven, the janitor-ninja. (X no comma)

The Adjective Switcheroo

Another approach is to swap your adjectives around. If your sentence still makes sense, use a comma. If not, leave it out.

  • My ex is a lying, low-down, no-good rattlesnake. ( use commas)
  • Myfanwy’s dragon, Trevor, has red multiple heads. (X no comma)

medieval scuba suit from Bellifortis
The only one who can safely walk the halls of the cursed high school is Sven, the janitor-ninja.

Why Adjectives Sometimes Don’t Need Commas

When one of the adjectives bonds with its noun to form a single idea, you don’t need to use a comma. Cursed describes “high school” as a unit, rather than the two adjectives cursed and high describing school. Similarly, multiple describes not just Trevor’s heads but his red heads.

  • Janelle attended prom in a jet-black three-piece suit.
  • Agnetha cannonballed into the dark blue depths of the space-time rift.

The colour jet black describes a three-piece suit, not a suit that happens to come in three pieces. In the second sentence, dark is describing blue, not depths. It’s acting as an adverb—describing an adjective—not a coordinate adjective.

  • It was a cold winter morning on Venus.
  • The Brontë sisters’ consumption worsened in cold, damp weather.

The first example shows us a winter morning that’s cold; winter is bonded with morning. The second example shows us weather that is both cold and damp, not damp weather that’s cold.

  • That little old lady is a kung fu master.

Common expressions like “little old lady” or “big bad wolf” don’t take commas.

How Much Do We Need These Commas, Really?

These days, writers—especially those working in more informal genres—tend to use as few commas as possible. It’s not unusual in modern novels to see a long string of adjectives with nary a comma in sight. So, say you’re a twenty-first-century Faulkner: when do you really need a comma between adjectives? When it clarifies your meaning or amplifies your tone.

  • The yeti was covered in matted white fur.
  • The yeti was covered in white, matted fur.

The first sentence presents us with white fur that is matted, the second with fur that is both matted and white. The first reads more quickly and logically, giving us a whole picture, while the second draws our attention to the whiteness of the fur.

Notice that “matted and white fur” sounds weird, but “white and matted fur” doesn’t. That’s an indication that the second sentence needs a comma (remember, if you can put and between adjectives, you probably need a comma). Another way to think of it is that “white fur” is a recognizable idea, a kind of unit. “Matted fur” is just fur in an untidy state—a description of fur, not a thing in and of itself.

cover of Tintin au Tibet
The yeti was covered in matted white fur.

  • Imogen had a passionate, lifelong love of Marmite, despite its taste.
  • Imogen had a passionate lifelong love of Marmite, despite its taste.

The first sentence implies a love that is both passionate and lifelong. The second implies a lifelong love that is passionate. Though the distinction is a subtle one, a writer might feel a strong preference for one version over the other, and their editor would be hard-pressed to say only one was correct.

  • What a long, strange trip it’s been.
  • Have you read Douglas Adams’s The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul?

In the first example, the Grateful Dead’s trip is both long and strange in equal measure, something emphasized by the comma. Adams could have chosen to write The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, but he may not have wanted a comma cluttering up his title. When there’s no possibility of reader confusion, whether or not to use a comma is often left to the author’s discretion.

Repeated Adjectives

There is, however, no authorial leeway when it comes to repeating the same adjective. Always separate these clones with commas.

  • “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” is by the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
  • The movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was released in 1963.

movie poster
The movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was released in 1963.

Commas are probably our language’s trickiest punctuation, but they’re worth the effort to master, if only for the sense of personal satisfaction, and the crowds of fawning groupies.

Monday 29 August 2016

Loath vs. Loathe and Averse vs. Adverse

What a difference a letter makes.

from The Garden of the Hesperides by Frederic Leighton
Anoushka was loath to wake the sleeping basilisk.

Loath vs. Loathe

To loathe something is to despise it with every fibre of your being, to hate it with the fiery intensity of a thousand suns, to want to consign it to the lowest circle of hell. In short, to really, really not like it.

  • Felix says he loathes suburbia and everything it stands for.

While loathe is something you do, loath is something you are. It means “reluctant” or “unwilling.” To say you are loath to do something means you would really rather not, thank you very much.

  • Anoushka was loath to wake the sleeping basilisk.

Averse vs. Adverse

Averse means much the same thing as loath. If you’re averse to something, you don’t want to do it. You’d rather avoid it, or possibly push it away with a long stick. You have an aversion to it—a distaste, a dislike.

  • I’m not averse to the occasional prank, but flying monkeys in the cafeteria is taking things a bit too far.

Adverse comes from the same root as adversity, which means “hardship” or “misfortune” (as in “to struggle against adversity.”) Something that’s adverse is causing you harm or making your life difficult in some way.

  • The drug’s adverse effects include widespread hallucinations, carnivorous balloon animals, and bagpipe concerts.

devils playing musical instruments, from the Taymouth Hours
The drug’s adverse effects include widespread hallucinations, carnivorous balloon animals, and bagpipe concerts.

Monday 22 August 2016

How to Punctuate Dialogue

When you’re trying to decide which punctuation to put in your dialogue and where, start by looking at your sentence as a whole.

"That's not my ocelot."

For stand-alone dialogue, punctuation is pretty easy: just throw everything inside a pair of quotation marks.

  • “That’s not my ocelot.”

When the dialogue is part of a larger sentence (for example, when it’s joined by an attributive phrase like “she said,” also called a dialogue tag or speech tag), put a period at the end of the sentence and put a comma inside the quotes where you’d otherwise put a period.

  • “That’s not my ocelot,” she said.

You can only use one period per sentence, so save it for the grand finale. On the other hand, your dialogue should always start with a capital letter, even when it’s in the middle of a sentence.

  • She said, “That’s not my ocelot.”
  • Salomé drawled, “Fancy meeting you here,” and dove out the window.

In the first example, the period is doing double duty for the dialogue and the whole sentence, so you only need one. The same is true of question marks, exclamation points, and em dashes (used when speech is broken off or interrupted).

  • Ye-jun said, “What the hell’s an ocelot?”
  • He yelled, “That’s a wild animal, not a pet!”
  • Ye-jun asked, “Is that—” He was abruptly cut off.

Unlike periods, however, these marks can also sit in the middle of a sentence.

  • “Do mermaids get pruny fingers?” asked Rhyddian.
  • “Don’t stay in too long!” he yelled.
  • “Can mermaids—” he began, before thinking better of it.

“Do mermaids get pruny fingers?” asked Rhyddian.

Dialogue Plus Action

Sometimes speech tags muscle into the middle of a piece of dialogue. Set off the interruption with commas, the same way you would in a sentence without quotation marks.

  • Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
  • “The map,” said Javier, “is incomplete.”

Note how the commas stick to the preceding word, as commas are wont to do, tucking themselves inside the quotes with map and outside with Javier. Also note the lower case is. The word isn’t starting a new sentence of dialogue, so it isn’t capitalized.

  • “The map,” said Javier. “Is it complete?”

Now Javier’s dialogue has been broken into two sentences: “The map. Is it complete?” This gives his speech a faster pace and more abrupt tone.

  • “The map.” Javier frowned. “It’s incomplete.”

“Javier frowned” isn’t a speech tag—you can’t frown words—but a description of Javier’s action. So it can’t piggyback on the dialogue; it needs to be its own sentence.

  • “The map is incomplete.” Javier frowned.
  • He stood and began to pace. “We’ll need Salomé’s tattoo to find the Lost Kingdom.”

Suppose we wanted Javier’s action to happen in the middle of his dialogue. Then we could set it off with a pair of em dashes.

  • “The map”—Javier frowned—“is incomplete.”
  • “We’ll need Salomé’s tattoo”—he stood and began to pace—“to find the Lost Kingdom.”

Note the lack of commas. The em dashes are enough punctuation here—commas would be overkill.

    “The map,” said Javier, “is incomplete.”

    Period or Comma?

    A speech tag will hitch itself to a piece of dialogue using a comma, while an action phrase needs either its own sentence or a pair of dashes. But it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a speech tag and an action phrase. If you’re not sure, look at the verb. Is it some kind of verbalization—a way of speaking, no matter how unintelligible?

    • “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom,” Mira grumbled/mumbled/muttered/stuttered.
    • “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.” Mira winced/shuddered/smiled/rolled her eyes.

    The actions in the second example all happen apart from the dialogue, so they must form a separate sentence. If you want to convey action and dialogue happening simultaneously, you can combine your action with a speech tag.

    • Mira rolled her eyes and said, “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.”
    • “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom,” said Mira with a wince.
    • Smiling, Mira said, “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.”

    Of course, some verbs can convey either action or speech.

    • “I’m no adventurer,” he sighed.
    • “I’m no adventurer.” He sighed.

    The first example describes sighed dialogue, the second, dialogue followed by a sigh. A period or a comma creates a different sequence of events.

    In your literary explorations, you may come across actions unrelated to speech being used as dialogue tags. Is this kosher? Can a character, for example, shrug a sentence?

    • “I dunno,” he shrugged.

    Call it artistic license. Part of creative writing, after all, is using language in unexpected ways. But we’re not all Shakespeare, so if you want to use this type of construction, be sure you know what rules you’re breaking—and that you have a very good reason.

    Semicolons; or A Good Excuse to Quote Jane Austen

    The question of how to use semicolons with dialogue is not likely to come up often, but that’s no reason not to quote this elegantly constructed sentence from Pride and Prejudice:

    • “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father; “she times them ill.”

    A little rearranging may clarify this structure:

    • “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs; she times them ill,” said her father.

    Alternatively, Austen could have used two sentences instead of one.

    • “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father. “She times them ill.”

    But where would be the fun in that?

    “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father; “she times them ill.”

    Punctuation is a powerful tool: used well, it can convey a world of information to your readers without their even being aware of it.

    To keep posts like this one coming, support Grammarlandia at

    Thursday 4 August 2016

    Common Spelling Mistakes: The Cockroaches of Language

    Some misspellings cling tenaciously to life no matter how hard you try to stamp them out. Here are three words to keep an eye on.

    Diner signs to the contrary, there is no Q in barbecue.


    The abbreviation BBQ has spawned the misguided yet persistent barbeque. While there’s a chance you might get away with the questionable q on a truck-stop sign or a fast food menu, you’d best avoid it in any sort of serious writing. As Bill Bryson put it in Troublesome Words, “Any journalist or other formal user of English who believes that the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q is not ready for unsupervised employment.”

    • From what I gather, Australia is awash in barbecued shrimp.


    Sacrilegious describes the disrespecting of something sacred. Maybe because of the connection between sacredness and religion, a lot of people misspell this word as sacreligious. However, its root is sacrilege, not religious. In spelling, as in life, one shouldn't insert religion where it’s not wanted.

    • Hilda’s sacrilegious ditties and shocking Bible marginalia got her booted out of the nunnery.


    Wring is often found missing its w in expressions like “through the wringer” and “wring (its) neck.” It has nothing to do with circles or bells; the action is of twisting or squeezing, as in wringing out a wet towel. Before dryers became common, many washing machines were topped with a wringer—a handle connected to a pair of rolling cylinders through which wet clothes were squeezed before being hung on the line.

    Putting wet laundry through the wringer

    As for wringing necks, I’m told you can kill a chicken by giving its head a sharp twist, though I’ve never had the misfortune to try the method myself.

    • Fifi fearlessly tackled the intruders while the rest of us stood around wringing our hands.

    Thursday 21 July 2016

    Capitalization, Honorifics, and Yo’ Mama

    If you tell your GP, “Give it to me straight, doctor,” does she deserve a capital letter? Should it be “Give it to me straight, Doctor”? It depends who you ask. When it comes to capitalizing titles like professor or miss (also called honorifics), there is dissension in the ranks of grammarians.

    "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a sushi chef!"

    Direct Address

    • “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a sushi chef!” protested Doctor McCoy.

    We can all agree that doctor should be lowercase here and Doctor McCoy should be capitalized. The first is simply an ordinary noun and needs no special treatment: a doctor, the doctor, my doctor. The second is an honorific in front of a name, and as with Captain Kirk, Mr. Sulu, or Lieutenant Uhura, it should be capitalized.

    Things get more contentious when the honorific steps into the shoes of a name. Dr. McCoy’s dialogue is an example of direct address (also called the vocative case): he’s speaking to someone—Kirk—directly. When he says “Dammit, Jim,” the use of a capital for Jim is obvious; it’s a name. But what if McCoy were addressing him as captain? What about buster?

    • “Dammit, C/captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
    • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, b/Buster!”

    Up Style vs. Down Style

    The Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of copy editors, is firm on the use of capitals in direct address. In an online Q & A column, Chicago’s editors write, “It doesn’t matter what the word is: captain, coach, aunt, joker, brain. If it’s used in place of a name, cap it.”

    • “Dammit, Captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
    • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, Buster!”

    On the other hand, well-known grammar arbiter Grammar Girl writes, “In cases where [honorifics] stand alone, even in direct address, they are lowercase.” She offers as examples “Hey, mister, look out for that pelican!” and “Gee, doctor, it hurts when I stick out my tongue.”

    • “Dammit, captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
    • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, buster!”

    The generous use of capitalization is sometimes referred to as up style, while using capitals more sparingly is called down style. Manuals like Chicago, which tend to embrace up style for direct address, are generally geared towards formal writing—say, for academic, government, or business contexts. Pick up any popular book, however, and you’ll most likely see down style.

    But that doesn’t mean capitalizing honorifics is a matter of personal whim. There are a few words that even the most formal style guides won’t capitalize, and some words that fiction editors would wince to see in lowercase.

    Do go haunt someone else, Mother!

    Relativity: Family Titles

    Mom (or Mum), Dad, Mother, and Father are always capitalized—when they’re used like names. Try substituting a name (we’ll use Spock) for the title in question. If it makes sense, cap it; if it doesn’t, use lowercase.

    • My mom said she’d drive us to the rave. (my Spock X)
    • Are you going to bake a file into Father’s cake? (Spock’s cake )
    • Do go haunt someone else, Mother! (haunt someone else, Spock ✓)
    • All the dads are wearing tutus to the barbecue. (all the Spocks X)

    You can apply the Spock method to other family members as well:

    • Who gave Grandmother a litre of vodka? (who gave Spock )
    • Phoebe inherited the time travel machine from her grandpa. (her Spock X)
    • One should not take advice from one’s disreputable uncle. (one’s Spock X)
    • I already knew you were a witch, Auntie. (you were a witch, Spock )
    • Don’t let Uncle bring his Jello salad. (don’t let Spock ✓)

    Of course, family titles are always capitalized when they’re followed by a name, in the same way you’d capitalize Doctor Zhivago or Captain America.

    • our Grandma Eng (but our grandma, Eng)
    • his Uncle Ahmed (but his uncle, Ahmed)
    • Flora’s Cousin Judith (but Flora’s cousin, Judith)

    Some family titles are less obviously capitalized. Brother or sister, for example, could mean any old schmo.

    • Can you spare a dime, brother?
    • You’re a tough cookie, sister.

    Even when talking to your actual sibling, you might still prefer a more casual “Nice one, bro.” In some cultures titles like uncle and auntie are applied generally and not just to your parents’ siblings; an author might decide to convey this by keeping them lowercase.

    You’re a tough cookie, sister.

    Sir, Ma’am, and Nicknames

    For reasons lost in the mists of time (or at least not immediately findable on the Internet), the following words are never capitalized when used without a name:

    • sir
    • ma’am / madam
    • my lord
    • my lady

    (Hard-core grammar nerds can confirm this in section 8.32 of the Chicago Manual.) Even should you happen to speak to the Queen, she would only merit lowercase:

    • “Your corgis are eating my shoe, ma’am.”

    Nicknames, on the other hand, are always capitalized, since they’re another type of name—Bucky, Stretch, Chewy, Four-Eyes—but sometimes the line between a personal nickname and a generic descriptive term can get kind of fuzzy. Consider kiddo, genius, loser, killer, and sunshine. Of course, up style would cap these in any case (provided they were used in place of a name). If you’re using down style, you might want to think about the difference between a word that’s specific to an individual and one that’s used less discriminately. John Henry Holliday was known as Doc at the O.K. Corral, but Bugs Bunny says “What’s up, doc?” to a variety of characters.

    When to Capitalize Direct Address: The Takeaway

    Those of you looking for hard and fast rules on this issue are doomed to disappointment. As with so many grammar questions, the answer boils down to context and consistency. What degree of formality does your reader expect—are you writing a business letter or a blog post? Once you’ve chosen your style—up or down—apply it consistently. Remember to capitalize Mom and Dad where appropriate (calling on Mr. Spock for help as needed), and leave sir and ma’am lowercase. After that, dear reader, you’re on your own.

    Thursday 14 July 2016

    Colon vs. Semicolon: Punctuation Smackdown

    When a comma is too wimpy and a period is too severe, you need a colon or a semicolon—but which?

    Jeeves the Colon

    A colon is like a butler: it introduces things. It holds open the door and says, “Mrs. Herringbone to see you, ma’am.” The sight of a colon raises expectations for what is to follow.

    • A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.
    • Only one creature in these woods burbles like that: the Jabberwock.
    • “Your plan failed, Count Svitavsky, because you forgot one thing: Fifi is allergic to jujubes.”

    A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.

    A colon can introduce a list, an example, an explanation, or a conclusion, but remember this: what comes before the colon must be able to stand on its own as a sentence.

    • X Their date consisted of: hot dogs, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
    • Their date consisted of hot dogs, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.

    • X Over the course of the evening they stole: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
    • Over the course of the evening they stole hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
    • They stole only items beginning with an h: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.

    Semicolons Are for Lovers

    When you have two sentences so intimately related they beg not to be apart, join them with a semicolon. But be sure the clauses on both sides of the semicolon are independent—that is, able to stand on their own.

    • It was spring; they were in love.
    • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

    Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

    Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of using a comma where you should use a semicolon. Commas work with coordinating conjunctions like and or but (see Commas and Conjunctions); without a conjunction, you get a painful comma splice.

    • X It was spring, they were in love.
    • It was spring and they were in love.

    • X Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon, Tariq selected the spatula.
    • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon, but Tariq selected the spatula.

    Semicolons as Supercommas

    Semicolons are sometimes used instead of commas in long, complicated sentences holding multiple clauses, especially when those clauses are themselves already stuffed with commas. In those cases, the semicolons are like extra-emphatic commas.

    • Outside the agent’s door stood an astronaut, sweating under his helmet; a ballerina, patting her bun and fluffing her tutu; a nun, her wimple in danger of poking someone’s eye out; and a sasquatch, whose oversized footprints could be seen up and down the hall.
    • You could scale the wall with your grappling hook and creep through the mansion on silent feet, unnoticed by the sleeping baron, until you found the hidden room and, using your hard-won skills, opened its lock with your little picks; but you still wouldn’t have a clue how to get inside the safe.

    Semicolons with However and That Is

    A semicolon is often used before that is (or i.e.), for example (or e.g.), however, therefore, indeed, or similar expressions.

    • You’ve eaten the last olive; however, I won’t hold it against you.
    • I’m always a considerate neighbour; for example, I never practise the tuba after midnight.
    • His new fairy wings were a great success; that is, they worked brilliantly until he hit the ground.

    Again, notice that the clauses on both sides of the semicolons could work as separate sentences if they wanted to. Otherwise, the semicolons wouldn’t belong there.

    • Mitzi swore she’d become an evil enchantress however long it took.
    • Your grandmother is indeed running naked through the park.
    • Your grandmother is naked; indeed, she is running through the park.

    Mitzi swore she’d become an evil enchantress however long it took.

    Match Decision

    Sometimes the colon-or-semicolon question can be tough to answer. Does the second clause illuminate the first, or are they just holding hands?

    • The mailbox was empty: there was no squid.
    • The mailbox was empty; there was no squid.

    It’s a question of nuance, and one that you, as a writer, will have to decide for yourself. Or you could just avoid the dilemma by using a period instead.

    • The mailbox was empty. There was no squid.

    It’s your call.

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    Wednesday 29 June 2016

    Defuse vs. Diffuse

    When you tell a joke to cut the tension, are you defusing or diffusing the situation?


    The word defuse originally applied to bombs. To defuse a bomb is literally to de-fuse it: to take out the fuse, rendering it harmless. Metaphorically, defusing a tense situation means easing the mood—removing the danger, so to speak.

    • Geneviève defused the awkward formality with a well-timed fart.

    Geneviève defused the awkward formality with a well-timed fart.


    To diffuse something means to spread it around. You know those department-store perfume ladies who used to lie in wait, ninja-like, to douse unwary shoppers with scent? Their spray bottles are also sometimes called diffusers, because they disperse the perfume in a cloud.

    • The breeze diffused fluffy white cottonwood seeds across the meadow, evoking delight in some picnickers and allergic crises in others.
    A diffuser: the perfume lady’s weapon of choice

    Monday 30 May 2016

    How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singular “They”

    Some of you may have noticed a shocking lapse of grammar in one of my recent posts, namely,

    Yes, I used the pronoun they (plural) with the antecedent reader (singular). Cue pearl-clutching.

    Thirty years ago my they would have been corrected to he, but today that kind of sexism looks antiquated at best. Most current guides advise using the gender-neutral but clunky he or she, or better yet, making the subject plural so it matches they.

    • Your readers instinctively expect parallel construction, even if they couldn’t define it on a game show.

    All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

    The best way to avoid arguments between your antecedents and their pronouns is usually to recast your sentences.

    • X Each astronaut must wash their own spacesuit.
    • All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

    • X If anyone needs ammo, they can use my toenail clippings.
    • If you need ammo, you can use my toenail clippings.
    • Anyone who needs ammo can use my toenail clippings.

    However, some sentences stubbornly refuse to be recast. Writers may find themselves creating syntactically convoluted rats’ nests in an effort to avoid either sexism or pronoun errors.

    The They Option

    Using they as a gender-neutral alternative to he has long been accepted in spoken English, and it has become more useful as folks with unconventional gender identities have emerged into greater cultural visibility. Even in written English, there are signs here and there of a thaw in attitudes. The Washington Post created a furor in grammar circles last year when it announced it would be allowing the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some editors have followed suit, but most are still firmly on the traditional bandwagon, and guides like The Chicago Manual of Style warn against using the singular they in formal writing.

    Certainly it would be the wrong choice for a government document or an academic paper, but in the fast-and-loose blogosphere the singular they hardly raises an eyebrow. You could even argue that such usage conveys an appropriate breezy informality. As always, it’s a question of audience and tone.

    Shall I compare you to a summer's day?

    Here’s a secret you probably weren’t told in English class: language changes. Once upon a time, most English-speaking people addressed each other as thou. You was reserved for groups of two or more, or to show polite deference—much like the French vous. Grammar is important, yes; but it’s not written in stone.

    So I’ve decided to embrace the singular they in this blog, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can go jump off a stack of dictionaries.

    Sunday 22 May 2016

    Designing the Page: Presentation Is Everything

    Now that anyone can produce a professional-looking document on a computer, how a piece of writing looks is as important as how it reads. In much the same way good grammar allows your readers to focus on the content of your writing, good design will keep them from being distracted by eye-pinching paragraphs or mystifying font choices.

    Sure, this page is pretty, but it could use some paragraph breaks.

    Spacing: the Final Frontier

    Do not put two spaces between your sentences—or anywhere else, for that matter. I know that’s what many of you were taught, and it’s a hard habit to break, but there is not a style guide in the world that will support you on this.

    Double-tapping the space bar after a period is a relic of the typewriter age. At one time, it helped reader comprehension, but now that we’ve moved beyond Remingtons and Underwoods, the double space is no longer necessary or desirable. If your fingers refuse to relinquish their bad habits, a simple Find and Replace All will clean up your documents after the fact and save you from copy editors’ dark looks.

    Spaced-Out Paragraphs and the Art of the Indent

    Your word processing program likes to put spaces between paragraphs, doesn’t it? This format is the convention for business documents—letters, memos, reports—but it doesn’t fit all occasions, regardless of what Microsoft may think.

    The advantage of separating paragraphs with spaces is that it presents content in easily consumed chunks, like informational dog biscuits. You’ll find this paragraph style in business documents, manuals, textbooks, and anywhere clarity is paramount. This is also the style most often used in websites (including this one), where a long wall of text is likely to send readers screaming. Short paragraphs surrounded by lots of space are friendly, and easy on computer-weary eyes.

    The other type of paragraph is the indented style, which is what you see when you open any novel or newspaper. These paragraphs are not separated by spaces; rather, each opens with an indent, created automatically or by hitting the Tab key. These indents signal a minor break without interrupting the text’s flow.

    This style is all about flow—about a lyrical train of imagery or a complex argument built up over several pages. It invites the reader to settle in and get lost in its words. It is immersive. (Note that in this style when you do put a space between paragraphs—as a section break, for example—you don’t need to indent the first line of the new section. Nor do you want to indent the first line of a chapter or story.)

    Nothing identifies a self-published novel as quickly as the use of space-style paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs. Unless it’s using both at once—spaced paragraphs with indented first lines. Designers everywhere will shudder at the thought.

    Choosing a Font: I Shot the Serif

    There are millions of fonts floating around out there, but they can all be divided into two kinds: serif and sans-serif. Serifs are the tiny tails that poke out at the ends of letters. See how the little feet on this m almost form a line? Those feet are serifs, and they help a reader’s eye follow the lines of the text.

    Sans is French for “without,” as in sans-souci (without a care) and sans-culottes (without underwear). So, sans-serif fonts are, unsurprisingly, fonts that lack those little tails. Comic Sans is probably the best-known example; use it if you want to give designers an aneurysm.

        •    Serif fonts look like this.
        •    Serif fonts look like this.
        •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.
        •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.

    Designers usually recommend using serif fonts for long lines or dense pages of text, as they’re easier to read without losing your place. Sans-serif fonts are often used for smaller, harder-to-read text, such as captions or Wikipedia. In either case, keep your reader in mind when choosing a font. The coolest font in the world will do you no favours if it gives your readers a headache.

    Like good grammar, good design doesn’t call attention to itself. It is a frame, a place setting. It’s there so you can enjoy the meal.