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.

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    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.