Saturday 15 December 2018

Inclusive Language: Disability and Neurodivergence

We’ve all read something like this:
  • Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.
It may seem inoffensive, but a number of ableist assumptions are packed into that sentence.

Photo of wheelchair users in Atlantic City, 1898

Burdened by Glasses

First, the phrase confined to a wheelchair suggests something akin to a prison sentence. Like any assistive technology, a wheelchair is a tool. I am very short-sighted and would have considerable difficulty navigating the world without my glasses, but I’d never describe myself as confined behind eyeglasses or glasses-bound. A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t say it about glasses, don’t say it about wheelchairs (or prosthetics, hearing aids, white canes, etc.).
  • Despite using a wheelchair, Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.

Second, the sentence opens with Michonne’s disability, as if that’s the most important thing about her. What, if anything, does it have to do with her being a snail expert? Why mention it at all?
  • Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.

Now if, for example, you were writing a piece about people with disabilities in the sciences, then Michonne’s wheelchair use might be relevant. Or you might choose to include it as a way of broadening the representation of disabled people in the media.
  • Michonne, who is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails, uses a wheelchair.
  • America’s thirty-second president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used a wheelchair.
This phrasing informs the reader of the subject’s disabled status without elevating it above their accomplishment or personhood.

Photo of FDR in wheelchair from 1941 at home with dog and child

Inspiration Porn

In the first two example sentences, the word despite points to another ableist pitfall: the “overcoming disability” narrative. You may have seen those posters of anonymous Paralympians or cute disabled kids, blazoned with What’s your excuse? In other words, “If I can run a marathon on prosthetic legs, then you can do whatever you set your mind to!” In this genre, dubbed “inspiration porn” by disability activists, the raison d’être of people with disabilities is to inspire the non-disabled. As such, they are expected to be overachieving, uncomplaining, and preferably photogenic. Slackers need not apply.

Of course disabled people do have to overcome obstacles that non-disabled people don’t: inaccessible spaces, inadequate transportation, and high medical costs, to name a few. But these societal inequities don’t fit neatly into the you-can-do-it, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative our culture prefers.

“Inspirational” stereotypes not only objectify disabled people, they penalize anyone who, for whatever reason, can’t superhumanly transcend their disability. No amount of determination and positive thinking will wipe away a chronic illness or magically summon an entrance ramp.

Variation Is the Norm

There are as many experiences of disability as there are disabled people.

Among deaf people, some use the term hard of hearing while others identify as Deaf—that is, part of the Deaf community and culture. Whether someone signs or speaks, uses hearing aids or doesn’t, calls themselves hard of hearing, deaf, or Deaf—all this is highly individual.
  • Beethoven famously went deaf by age forty-four.
  • The Deaf storyteller signed and her interpreter translated for hearing audience members.

And just as there are multiple spoken languages, there is more than one sign language: American Sign Language (ASL), langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), Australian sign language (Auslan), British Sign Language (BSL), Navajo Sign Language, Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL), and so on—around 300 altogether, according to Wikipedia.

Photo of ASL fingerspelling class, probably late 19th century

Similarly, visually impaired can mean anything from partially sighted to completely blind. Many people with limited vision use assistive technology such as screen readers or Braille displays, so when you’re adding visual content to your writing, be sure to include descriptive text below your images or in the alt tags.

Mental Illness and Neurodivergence

Avoid using words like crazy or psycho, which are dismissive at best and hurtful at worst. And disregard myths about violent behaviour: people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Try to keep your language focused on the person rather than the illness.
  • Schizophrenics may show a variety of symptoms. 
  • People with schizophrenia may experience a variety of symptoms. 
  • Her sister Trinh is bipolar. 
  • Her sister Trinh has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

Avoid struggles with as a general description; save it for situations of actual distress.
  • Branislav struggles with depression. 
  • Branislav lives with depression. 
  • Branislav manages depression. 
  • During that year, Branislav struggled with depression off and on. 

Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1894-96

The adjective neurodivergent is used to describe people with autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, and other conditions. It means “neurologically different from the majority,” and its opposite is neurotypical. The advantage of this term is that it casts people as acceptably different rather than “defective.” In the same vein, avoid phrases like suffers from or afflicted with in favour of has or lives with.
  • My teacher, who has cerebral palsy, sometimes comes to class in a wheelchair.
  • Diana shares a house with six other people with intellectual disabilities.

There Are No Perfect Words

In this post I’ve mostly followed the “people first” rule of thumb (e.g., people with chronic illness instead of the chronically ill ), but many people consider their disability part of their identity. For them, disabled people is preferable to people with disabilities, and I’m autistic (or Autistic) is more empowering than I have autism.

If you’re writing about a real person, always ask what terms they prefer. If you’re inventing a character, then you’ll have to do your research to determine how they would describe themselves. Follow blogs by disabled writers and read articles by disability activists. Since the popularity of different terms changes over time (as in all corners of English), your research is never really over.

Illustration from England circa 1790 of a Black disabled flower-seller driving a mule-drawn cart and selling his wares

This is the third post in the Inclusive Language series. The others are the introduction, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Race and Ethnicity, and Class and Income.

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Thursday 15 November 2018

Inclusive Language: Gender and Sexual Orientation

There’s a lot to cover here, from avoiding sexism to gender identity to the LGBTQ rainbow. So let’s get to work!

Photo of women wielding firehose, Pearl Harbor, WWII

Sexism in Language

Most writers nowadays understand they should use humanity instead of mankind, synthetic instead of man-made, firefighters instead of firemen, and so on. But even if you avoid sexist language, it’s still easy to let sexist assumptions creep into your writing. Quick: think of an animal. Is it male or female? Why?

When I write example sentences for this blog, I like to notice which gender immediately springs to mind—and then choose the opposite. Or I don’t specify gender at all.
  • The little dragon’s father picked her up from school every day.
  • We infiltrated the soirée by posing as “Dr. and Mr. Opeyemi.” 
  • The chef’s swearing could be heard in every corner of her restaurant.
  • Never come between a grad student and their coffee.
  • The Rampaging Rabbit rode her trusty snail, Sparkles, into battle.

Illustration of rabbit with spear riding giant snail, Netherlands, 1650

You can find more examples of nonsexist language at the Canadian Style website.

She, He, and They

It used to be that he was considered acceptable for all situations; obviously, that is no longer the case. Some writers use he or she or he/she, but these are verbally and visually awkward. Another choice is to alternate between she and he, either paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter, which is better but not ideal. One can come across as too formal or just clunky: One should always clear one’s browser history after one has finished one’s transactions on the dark Web.

Then there’s they. Most guides to formal writing insist they should be used with plural subjects only. To avoid gendered pronouns, they advise, you should make your sentence’s subject plural, or address your reader directly, as you.
  • Each student must bring his own wand. X
  • All students must bring their own wands. 
  • You must bring your own wand. 

But while it’s frowned upon by formal style guides, the singular they is gradually gaining acceptance (see How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singular They). Unless your audience is particularly fastidious, this is the most natural-sounding choice, since English speakers use it all the time in conversation.
  • Each student must bring their own wand. 
  • Someone left their superhero costume in the phone booth.

Another reason to embrace the singular they is that it doesn’t exclude nonbinary people. A nonbinary person doesn’t identify themselves as purely male or female. While a variety of alternative pronouns have been coined, they is probably the most widely used. (That said, you should favour whatever pronouns the person themself uses.) The most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has approved the singular they—along with themself—for this purpose.
  • We’re going out for drinks to congratulate Sloane on their promotion.
If you find yourself getting confused or flustered by this concept, take a deep breath. It’s really not that hard. You’ve been using the singular they in speech all your life; this is just a slight expansion of its application.

Caricature of the Chevalier d'Éon dressed half in women's clothing and half in men's, London Magazine, 1777

Transgender Terminology

Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans) is the appropriate descriptor, not transgendered. Its counterpart for people who are not transgender is cisgender (or cis). Use transgender as you would any other adjective.
  • Jim is a tall man.
  • Jim is a trans man.
  • The woman leading the sensitivity workshop is South Asian.
  • The woman leading the sensitivity workshop is transgender.

A transgender person hasn’t changed their gender—they’re expressing the gender they’ve always been. The only change is between living as the gender they were mistakenly handed out as a baby and living as the gender they actually are.
  • Tony was born a girl. X
  • Tony was assigned female at birth. 
  • At four years old, our son told us he was really a girl. X
  • At four years old, our daughter, who we’d believed was a boy, told us she was really a girl. 

Transitioning is the process of altering one’s birth sex. This may involve hormone therapy, surgery, both, or neither. The details are personal and irrelevant to anyone else; when someone tells you their gender, that’s all you need to know. Using someone’s name or pronouns from before they transitioned is disrespectful, even when you’re writing about the past.
  • Before Selena became a woman, he was a male tennis player named Alfonso. X 
  • Before Selena transitioned, she won several trophies in men’s tennis. 

Just as we need to unlearn the cultural myth that there are only two, rigidly defined genders, we need to let go of the idea that sex is dictated by biology. As much as 1.7 percent of people are born intersex, with chromosomes or genitalia that don’t correlate with either sex as it’s usually defined. The choice of “male” or “female” is often made by parents and doctors before the child can have any say in the matter.

Given the variation in sex and gender, it’s important to make sure your language includes all possibilities. For example, don’t assume only women menstruate or get pregnant.
  • On the bus, always give up your seat to pregnant women. X
  • On the bus, always give up your seat to pregnant people. 

For more on trans-inclusive language, visit The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People.

Illumination of cross-dressing saints, from Legenda Sanctorum, Germany, 1362

Sexual Orientation

LGBTQIA2S (or LGBTQ+) stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, asexual, and two-spirit. It’s a broad term for a community that includes more than just gays and lesbians, and it’s not only about sexual orientation—transgender and intersex people may identify as straight.

The LGBTQ acronym is the term most commonly used when discussing this group, as it’s much more inclusive than, say, gay. Another broadly inclusive word is queer, which is preferred by lots of people whose identities straddle one or more categories.

Two-spirit, a translation of an Anishinaabeg word, is an umbrella term coined in 1990 to describe Indigenous members of the LGBTQ community. A person can be two-spirited in terms of their gender, sexuality, or spirituality. While each Indigenous language has its own words to describe such people, having 2S in the LGBTQIA2S acronym reminds us that binary ideas of gender and sexuality were imposed on Indigenous cultures by colonialism and don’t reflect their traditional views.

Using inclusive language means not assuming your reader is straight. Spouse is preferable to husband or wife not just because it avoids sexism but also because it makes room for same-sex couples.
  • The mad scientists usually bring their wives to the supervillains gala. X
  • The mad scientists usually bring their spouses to the supervillains gala. 

Other options are partner and significant other, both of which include long-term couples who aren’t married.
  • Husbands should discuss major criminal decisions with their wives. (excludes same-sex and unmarried couples, assumes roles based on gender)
  • Men should discuss major criminal decisions with their spouses. (excludes unmarried couples and still gives primacy to men)
  • Couples should discuss major criminal decisions together. (includes same-sex couples, unmarried couples, and nonbinary people, and doesn’t assume roles based on gender)

When you’re writing for or about young people, who may still be figuring out their sexuality and gender (or working up the courage to express them), it’s important to leave room for multiple possibilities.
  • Are there any boys you have a crush on? X
  • Is there anyone you have a crush on? 

Such possibilities include asexuality. Asexuals, who make up about one percent of the population, don’t experience sexual attraction to others, or they feel no desire to act on such attraction. Try not to perpetuate sad-sack stereotypes about people who prefer not to pursue sex and/or relationships.
  • Though successful as a painter, Marie-Victoire Lemoine never married. X
  • Single all her life, Marie-Victoire Lemoine successfully supported herself with her painting. 

Even when you’re writing about an opposite-sex couple, don’t assume they’re straight. One or both of them might identify as bisexual; dating or marrying a person of the opposite sex doesn’t negate someone’s bisexuality. Or they might be asexual, or genderqueer, or nonbinary, or . . .
  • Women swooned over Cary Grant. (not inclusive)
  • Women and gay men swooned over Cary Grant. (more inclusive)
  • Women, gays, and bi men swooned over Cary Grant. (even more inclusive)
  • Filmgoers swooned over Cary Grant. (most inclusive)

Assume nothing.

Photo of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

This is the second post in the Inclusive Language series. The introductory post can be found here. Still to come are Disability and Neurodivergence, Race and Ethnicity, and Class and Income.

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Friday 19 October 2018

Inclusive Language

Using inclusive language, also called bias-free language, means choosing words that don’t exclude any marginalized people. We like to think standard English is neutral, but that’s very far from the case. If it feels neutral to us, it’s because we’re not one of the people being left out, erased, or unconsciously denigrated. Either that or we’ve become so used to it we don’t notice.

Japanese woodcut illustrating fashionable English words, 1887

Why Use Inclusive Language?

Ethical imperatives aside, bias undermines credibility. If you’re not willing to go to the trouble of considering other people’s points of view, why should readers consider yours? Writing for an audience made up exclusively of people whose experiences mirror yours is just preaching to the choir. It may feel good, but what’s the point?

Of course, most of us use exclusionary language without being aware of it. We all have blind spots, dictated by things beyond our control, such as our birthplace and ethnicity. But those of us in the majority can sail through life without noticing these blind spots, because our stories are loud enough to drown out everybody else’s.

In the same way Canadians know a lot about the US, because we’re constantly exposed to US media, but many Americans don’t know much about us, people in minority groups are well informed about the dominant culture (they don’t have a choice) but people in the dominant group may know very little about them. Or what they do know may be based on stereotypes and clichés. That’s why it’s up to us to educate ourselves. This isn’t a one-time info dump but an ongoing learning process, since people’s preferred terminology naturally changes over time, just like the rest of language.

Illustration showing readers on a train, c. late 19th century

Some General Principles of Inclusivity

There are no “bad” words; everything depends on context. But just because you’ve heard a Black person reclaim the n-word, or a feminist use the c-word, that doesn’t mean you can use it. Be aware of your own position within the structures of power, and choose your words accordingly.

If you’re not sure what words are okay for you to use, consult a style guide (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). The Canadian Style, for example, will tell you that the words Indigenous peoples and First peoples are currently preferred to Native people. As I said, language changes, so be sure the sources you consult are up to date. Most guides will also provide examples of gender-neutral wording and “people-first” language.

  • Each dragonet must finish his dinner. X
  • All dragonets must finish their dinners.
  • My uncle is a schizophrenic. X
  • My uncle has schizophrenia. 
  • A Muslim starred in the film. X
  • The star of the film was Muslim. 
  • Our party’s wizard is transgendered. X
  • Our party’s wizard is a trans woman. 
  • Very few old women actually eat children. X
  • Very few women over seventy actually eat children. 
  • The spy was confined to a wheelchair. X
  • The spy used a wheelchair.  

Who decides which words are best? The people they describe. Everyone should be able to say for themselves what they’d like to be called, and to have that choice respected.

Of course, no group of people is a monolith, and there may be different preferences depending on who you ask; but it’s generally not hard to find out which term is preferred by most of the group’s members. The word Gypsy, for example, is used to self-identify by some people in the UK, but the majority of people belonging to this ethnic group consider it offensive—a racial slur—so most official organizations in Europe have chosen to omit it from their documents. Instead they use Roma, which is the term preferred by the international Roma community.
  • My grandfather was born into a Gypsy family in what was then Czechoslovakia. X
  • My grandfather was born into a Roma family in what was then Czechoslovakia. 
  • Claudette was a gypsy—an artistic type who never stayed long in one place. X
  • Claudette was a free spirit—an artistic type who never stayed long in one place. 

Photo of Roma family at Bondy by Henri Manuel, France c. 1910

But it’s not enough just to learn the right word—context still matters. A number of US journalists have called Star Wars actor John Boyega “African American,” probably thinking it’s more respectful than Black. But Boyega is British, so in this case Black is more appropriate.

How Do I Avoid Ever Being Offensive?

You can’t. Accept it: you’ll make mistakes. I’ll make mistakes. The only thing we can do is take criticism graciously (i.e., listen), and try to do better next time.

You can start by doing your research: if you’re writing about a group you don’t belong to, google the most common stereotypes so you don’t unconsciously repeat them. Read writings by members of that group. Consult friends, family, or colleagues who belong to that group—remembering that they don’t owe you their time or opinion. Take an online workshop from an organization like Writing the Other. Hire a sensitivity reader, someone you pay to review your manuscript and point out anywhere you might be courting offence.

But before you do all that, ask yourself, Is this my story to tell? A good rule of thumb is that telling a story about a character who belongs to another group is fine; telling a story about the experience of belonging to that group is problematic. For example, it’s fine for a white writer to write a story with Indigenous characters (assuming they do their due diligence), but when white writers write about The Indigenous Experience, they’re continuing a long colonial tradition of putting their words into other people’s mouths.

More Posts to Come

Because this topic is such a broad one, I’m spreading it out over several posts, all of which will include links to sites I’ve found helpful. Topics will include gender and sexual orientation, disability and neurodivergence, race and ethnicity, and class and income.

“That’s Just the Way It Was Back Then”

Before I go, I’m going to talk about a pet peeve of mine: the “that’s just the way it was back then” excuse. If a story is set in historical Europe—or a close analogue—its characters can’t be diverse, right? As a reader of fantasy and historical fiction, I’ve encountered this misconception a lot (and once laboured under it myself).

In fact, historical Europe was quite diverse—there were people of colour, there were trans people, there were people with disabilities. Certain people were often oppressed, yes, but that doesn’t mean none of them ever had agency or did anything interesting. There were women who defended castles and ran businesses; there were peasants who started political movements and rioted for their rights. In short, history is much, much more varied and complex than our popular representations would suggest.

Have a scroll through the excellent blog People of Color in European Art History to see an abundance of carefully sourced images showing all kinds of people playing a variety of roles in Europe’s past. Or take a look at Pocket Miscellanies, short guides to the representation of various marginalized groups in the medieval era. You’ll find it eye-opening, I promise.

Two-page spread from Pocket Miscellany: Transgender

But you don’t need to prove historical realism in order to include marginalized people in your stories. A fantasy setting can include anything you want. Why is it so much easier for us to accept a world with dragons—animals that breathe fire without scorching themselves—than a world without sexism, racism, ableism, or homophobia? Why is one considered more realistic than the other?

If you’re writing something that sticks closely to history, consider whose perspective you’re choosing. There’s no reason they have to be an average representative of their place and time—someone whose views your readers are probably already familiar with anyway. Why not write about early Scotland from the perspective of a Roman soldier from Africa stationed at Hadrian’s Wall? Or why not write about medieval France from the perspective of a queer abbess wielding considerable power from the head of her wealthy nunnery? History is full of fascinating people, and they’re not all white dudes on horses.

Medieval illustration of Jael hammering a spike through Sisera's head, France, c.1290

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Saturday 15 September 2018

How to Use Ellipses . . . Correctly

The symbol of three periods in a row ( . . . ) is called an ellipsis (plural: ellipses). There are two reasons you might use an ellipsis. In journalism or academic writing, you can use an ellipsis to show where you’ve left words out of a quotation. In narrative or dialogue, you can use it to show a pause or a trailing off.

Some style guides distinguish between these two uses of ellipses by calling the second suspension points. But most dictionaries consider the two terms synonymous (suspension points as a synonym for ellipsis is used more often in the UK).

Ellipses in Quotations

You can replace any word or words in quoted matter with ellipses, provided you don’t twist the meaning of the original. The edited quotation should still follow grammatical logic; that is, it should read like a plausible sentence or paragraph.

Original quotation:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Quotation with ellipses:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its . . . mission: . . . to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Photo of Star Trek's Enterprise

Ellipses in Narrative and Dialogue

In narrative and dialogue, an ellipsis is a moment of silence. It usually implies there’s something left unspoken.

  • “Well, if you want . . . ”
  • “Well, if you want.”

The first example could be the prelude to a suggestion or invitation. The second is more like a dismissal; you can picture the speaker shrugging.

Ellipses can be used when a narrator or speaker is trailing off, hesitating, or pausing for dramatic effect.

  • Holmes tapped his chin with a finger, murmuring, “I wonder . . . ”
  • Ratu made a face. “It feels . . . gooey.”
  • Astrology has all the answers . . . if you believe in that sort of thing.

When Not to Use Ellipses

The last example would also work with a comma or a dash instead of an ellipsis. If you find yourself overusing ellipses (which is easy to do), consider whether alternatives might be just as—or more—effective.

  • “No . . . I haven’t always been a pirate.”
  • “No. I haven’t always been a pirate.”
  • “No.” Shih turned her narrowed gaze out to sea. “I haven’t always been a pirate.”

In the first example, the ellipsis softens the no, drawing it out. In contrast, the second no is quite definite. The third uses action to convey a lengthy pause without any of the uncertainty implied by an ellipsis.

If you want to show broken dialogue, you’re probably better off using a dash. (Read all about the dash in How to Use Dashes.) Remember, an ellipsis indicates a period of silence.

  • “I think . . . Never mind.”
  • “I think— Never mind.”

The pause in the first example suggests the speaker is unsure of their conclusion: they hesitate, then change their mind. In the second, they catch themselves, thinking better of what they were about to say. The ellipsis is a pause; the dash is more like a glottal stop. Try reading both examples out loud.

Interrupted dialogue almost always requires a dash.

  • “Whatever you do, don’t touch that—” Boom!

Ellipses are a good choice for showing hesitant, uncertain speech.

  • “If . . . if you think you might like to . . . I mean, if you’re interested . . .”

But rapid, broken speech is better conveyed with dashes.

  • “You—! How dare you! I— I—” he sputtered.

And stuttering is best shown with hyphens.

  • “M-my t-t-toes are freezing!”

You can also use ellipses to show garbled or inaudible speech.

  • Pressing an ear to the vent, Letty heard, “. . . Make our move tonight. The old lady . . . never suspect.”
  • “Mayday, Mayday! This is . . . We are under attack! . . . Appears to be . . . giant squid. Repeat, giant—” kkssht.

If you want to redact a word for the sake of discretion, use a 2-em dash.

  • Lady A—— is at the centre of a most shocking scandal.
  • On the sound system Prince was crooning, “You sexy motherf——”

Spacing and Ellipses

There are different schools of thought on how to space ellipses. In this post, I’ve been following The Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends spaces before, between, and after the dots. The only problem with this style is that sometimes the ellipsis breaks over a line and you end up with a lone dot or two hanging at the margins of your text. To avoid this, you can insert non-breaking spaces between the dots.

Not everybody follows Chicago on ellipses. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, calls Chicago’s spacing “a Victorian eccentricity.” He prefers thinner spaces, ones that vary with the size and weight of the font. And the AP style guide likes to save room by using no spaces at all.

For most people, the easiest choice is to use the ellipsis glyph, or symbol, included in most fonts. In Word, three periods typed in a row are automatically changed to an ellipsis symbol; as a single glyph, it won’t break over lines. You’ll usually want to put a space before and after (but see the next section for exceptions).

Here’s what different approaches look like in the Times font:

  • Chicago style: “Yeah . . . I guess.”
  • AP style: “Yeah ... I guess.”
  • Word glyph: “Yeah … I guess.”

Punctuation With Ellipses

The “space on either side of an ellipsis” rule sometimes gets bent when other punctuation is involved.

In quotations (as opposed to dialogue or narrative), a period may be included to show the end of a sentence, creating a row of four dots. Note that there is no space between the final word and the period.


  • In the words of Beyoncé, “The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens.”

With ellipses:

  • In the words of Beyoncé, “The reality is: sometimes you lose. . . . You’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. . . . It happens.”

(Note that you’re is capitalized in the second version.)

This four-dots convention does not apply to sentences that are trailing off or deliberately left incomplete. So in dialogue and narrative, don’t use periods with your ellipses.

  • “I’m not sure . . .”
  • With friends like these . . .

Note in the first example the lack of a space before the closing quotation mark. With other punctuation, keep the usual spaces around the ellipsis.

  • “Are you . . . ?”
  • “No . . . ,” he said slowly.
  • “Oh! . . . Okay.”

Medieval illumination detail featuring a thoughtful monkey

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Tuesday 14 August 2018

How to Use Acronyms

Anyone who’s read a text or perused social media has probably seen an acronym—a word made out of the first letters of each word in a phrase. But before there was LOL and OMG, there was SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the senate and people of Rome”), radar (radio detection and ranging), and AWOL (absent without leave).

Some dictionaries insist that only an abbreviation pronounced as a word (e.g., NASA) can be called an acronym; if it’s pronounced as letters (e.g., UFO), it’s called an initialism. However, many people use acronym as a catch-all term for both types of abbreviation.

Photograph of mosaic including SPQR


Before you start throwing acronyms around in your writing, you have to decide whether or not you’re going to use periods. USA or U.S.A.? VIP or V.I.P.? Acronyms with periods used to be more common, but today most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, prefer them without.

Some editors will use periods in geographical acronyms like P.E.I. and U.S.S.R. but leave them out of words like DNA and TV. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage puts periods in initialisms (H.I.V.) but not acronyms (AIDS). The easiest way to resolve this issue is to pick a dictionary you like and follow its practice.


Some acronyms start life as all capital letters and then, after repeated use, become lowercase. For example, laser (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), and sonar (sound navigation and ranging) have in the past been written in all capitals, but today they’re treated as regular, lowercase words.

Illustration of early diving suit by Konrad Kyeser, 1459

Many British newspapers use all capital letters for initialisms (BBC) but only capitalize the first letter of acronyms (Gif). The New York Times Manual uses all caps for acronyms only if they’re under five letters—so they would write NATO but also Nafta. Personally, I find these rules unnecessarily complicated, and most style guides tend to agree, recommending all caps for both initialisms and acronyms. Again, consult your favourite dictionary if you’re not sure.

No matter how the acronym itself is capitalized, you never need to capitalize the words that create it (unless, of course, they’re words that normally use a capital, like the name of an organization). For example, BA is written out as bachelor’s degree, and HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.

  • From ages four to six, Nergüi lived almost exclusively on PB&J—Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. X
  • From ages four to six, Nergüi lived almost exclusively on PB&J—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 
  • No stranger to fanfiction, Zodwa had yet to dip her toe in the waters of Real Person Fic, known as RPF. X
  • No stranger to fanfiction, Zodwa had yet to dip her toe in the waters of “real person fic,” known as RPF. 
  • Brian’s friends in the PFJ (the People’s Front of Judea) despised the JPF (the Judean People’s Front). 

Photo from Monty Python movie The Life of Brian

On the other hand, unconventional capitalization is often used for humour. For example, in A. A. Milne’s stories, Winnie-the-Pooh calls himself “a Bear of Very Little Brain.” If you’re capitalizing words for a specific effect—humorous or otherwise—rather than because they happen to make up an acronym, go right ahead.

  • In the swamp they were beset by Rodents of Unusual Size, a.k.a. ROUS. 
  • As punishment, the kids were forced to put away their phones and spend the rest of the road trip listening to LMM, or Lame Mom Music, which was surpassed in awfulness only by LDM, Lame Dad Music.

AM and PM

AM and PM stand for ante meridiem (Latin for “before noon”) and post meridiem (“after noon”). Chicago prefers lowercase letters with periods—6:00 a.m., 7:15 p.m.—but many people use capitals instead, usually without the periods: 6:00 AM, 7:15 PM. Often the abbreviations are written in small caps (this is easy to approximate in Word but may be tricky in other programs or on the web).

  • No fan of the early bird, Lucifer set his alarm for 11:59 a.m.

Illustration of devil waking up, from Life Magazine, March 1909

BC and AD

Historical years may be written with the abbreviations BC (before Christ) or AD (anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”), or with the less religious BCE (before the common era) or CE (common era). These can also be written with periods, or in small caps. Note that AD goes before the year.

  • The Library of Alexandria is said to have burned down in 48 BC.
  • After seven years as regent, Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh around 1472 BCE.
  • In AD 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope.
  • Wu Zetian (624–705 CE) was the only empress to rule China in her own right.

OK and Okay

The word OK has been with us since at least 1839, when it was apparently an abbreviation for oll korrect (a joke spelling of all correct by nineteenth-century wags). Since its early days, OK has also been written okay. Both spellings are widely accepted; just be sure you stick to one throughout your document. Ok, on the other hand, is never okay in professional writing.

  • “Ok,” said Koharu. “Now you’re gonna get it!” X
  • “OK,” said Koharu. “Now you’re gonna get it”
  • “Okay,” said Koharu. “Now you’re gonna get it”

Photo titled Splash! by Koji Takashima, 1951

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Tuesday 24 July 2018

The Convoluted Rules of Canadian Spelling

Suspended between the influences of the UK and the US, Canada has a unique approach to spelling English. A Canadian would never write tyre or kerb, as the Brits do, but we firmly believe only Americans spell colour without a u. On the other hand, Canadians are flexible about a lot of words—we might write manoeuvre, but maneuver probably looks fine to us too. We’re used to reading books published in the UK (or other Commonwealth countries) and in the US, so we might write kilometre in one line and kilometer in the next, without noticing we’ve just switched orthographies. And spellcheck programs are no help—whether you pick US English or UK English, it’s going to be wrong part of the time.

Pity the poor Canadian copy editor!

Medieval heraldic beavers with sabre teeth over red shield

Who Decides Which Spelling Is Canadian?

The short answer is “the dictionary.” But which dictionary? The most common choice is probably Canadian Oxford, but different organizations can have their own references, like the Canadian Press Stylebook or the Government of Canada’s terminology and linguistic databank, TERMIUMPlus. Also, the last time the Canadian Oxford Dictionary came out with a new edition was in 2004, and Oxford has no plans to publish another one (as far as I can tell), so writers looking for newer words have to find something more recent, like the Collins Canadian Dictionary, whose second edition came out in 2016.

The long answer is that no one really “decides.” Dictionaries don’t include words because they’re “right” (or “Canadian”), they include words that are used. If a Canadian dictionary lists neighbour first, before neighbor, it’s because more Canadians (as observed in Canadian publications) use the -our spelling. This approach to lexicography is called descriptivism (as opposed to prescriptivism). It’s why spellings can change over the years, and why it’s futile to hang on to a distinction you learned years ago (like, say, the difference between trouper and trooper) when the rest of the world has decided to move on.

The Extra U

If there’s one thing Americans know about Canadian spelling, it’s that we love our u’s. In this, we follow the UK, preferring the spellings armour, behaviour, colour, favour, flavour, harbour, honour, humour, labour, mould, moustache, neighbour, odour, rancour, rigour, saviour, savour, smoulder, splendour, tumour, valour, vapour, and vigour to their u-less American counterparts.

Be aware, though, that such u’s often disappear when the word gets a new ending, as in honorary, humorous, laborious, rigorous, and vigorous. And rigor mortis never has a u, as it’s actually Latin (meaning “stiffness of death”); rigour is from the same root, but it came to English via French and collected a u on the way.

Poster for a play from c.1897 depicting Klondike prospectors on the Chilkoot Pass

More Anglophilia  

Canadians continue to follow British spelling on double-L words like counsellor, equalled, marvellous, pedalled, signalling, traveller, and woollen. But, also like the UK, we prefer a single L in enrol, enrolment, and instalment (but not enrolled or install—just to be contrary).

The -re ending is preferred in centre, fibre, manoeuvre (notice the o), meagre, ochre, sceptre, sombre, spectre, and theatre. This also applies to metre—when it’s a measurement (centimetre, kilometre); the device is spelled meter (gas meter, parking meter).

Then there are the -ce words: defence, licence (the noun; the verb is always license), offence, pretence (the Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefers pretense, but the Canadian Press Stylebook and the Collins Canadian Dictionary disagree). The UK and Canada agree with the US on the noun practice, but when it’s a verb, they change it to practise.

Further British/Canadian spellings include catalogue, cheque (as in money), disc (except for the computer kind, which is disk), flyer (in the US a pilot is called a flier), grey, pyjamas, storey (as in a floor, not a tale), and sulphur.

New World Spellings

So far, so British. But for some words we like to follow US spelling, just to shake things up.

We differ from the UK when it comes to appall, distill, fulfill, and instill, or words like analyze, glamorize, paralyze, and vaporize. And we don't add extra vowels to aging, anemia, estrogen, hemorrhage, judgment, livable, pediatric, or sizable. Canadian Oxford likes the British acknowledgement, anaesthesia, and orthopaedic, but the Canadian press and Collins both dump the extra vowels, US-style: acknowledgment, anesthesia, orthopedic. But most Canadians do throw e’s into likeable and saleable—because why not?

Further US-style spellings include airplane, analog (when used as opposed to digital), artifact, balk, cozy, draft, dryly, inquire, peddler, plow, skeptic, and skepticism.

Poster from a 1953 movie serial titled Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders

The French Influence

British English has already been substantially influenced by French, thanks to the Norman Conquest—witness cheque above. But Canadians have an extra-special relationship with French, even when they’re writing English.

Consider that famous Canadian contribution to fashion, the tuque (also spelled toque). The word toque comes from sixteenth-century French, and it’s still used in Europe and the US to mean a white chef’s hat, or toque blanche. Or it can mean a small type of women’s hat, though I’ve yet to see that meaning in the wild. Of course, you will find the Canadian tuque listed in US and UK dictionaries (usually with a “Canadian usage” note), but in those countries they’re much more likely to say beanie (US) or woolly hat (UK).

How do you spell that white stuff that women always seem to be chortling over in TV ads? Canadians often spell it yogourt, which is neither American (yogurt) nor British (yoghurt or yoghourt). Since it’s the same in French, our spelling is presumably a result of Gallic influence—or maybe just bilingual food-labelling laws.

Canadians seem likelier than Brits to keep the accents in French imports like café and château. The US does the same, but it pluralizes château as in English (châteaus), not French (châteaux). The UK loses the accent but, for some reason, keeps the French ending: chateaux. Canadians are the only English speakers who might write about their many châteaux.

Why Follow the Rules, Anyway?

In a word, consistency. Canadian readers may be flexible when it comes to recognizing UK and US spellings, but if you use center and centre in the same document, you’re going to look a little flaky. Of course, you could just let your spellchecker decide, going full American or full British. But if your audience is Canadian, they’ll appreciate that you went to a little extra effort to acknowledge their unique, if illogical, orthography.

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Saturday 16 June 2018

Ornamental Quotations

Those short quotations you see at the beginning of a chapter (or a book, or a section) are called epigraphs. Below I’ll talk about how to format them, where to source them, and when it’s okay to use them.

Sweet is revenge—especially to women.
Lord Byron, Don Juan

Illustration of woman shooting man at a ball, from Illustrated Police News, 1898

What an Epigraph Isn’t

Epigraphs are used to set a tone for what follows, unlike a regular quotation, which is usually included to support an argument. If you want to stick a quotation in the middle of your text because it perfectly expresses your point, that’s not an epigraph. Treat it as you would a normal quotation.

  • I’ve never felt the need to adhere to any particular artistic dogma. As Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

An epigraph, in contrast, always goes before something, like an appetizer to the main course.

How to Format an Epigraph

Epigraph styles vary with the tastes of typographers and book designers, but there are still a couple of rules you should follow.

First, throw away those quotation marks. Like a block quotation, an epigraph is differentiated from the rest of the text typographically—for example, with italics, a different font or font size, or (as in this post) extra indentation. Because of this, you don’t need quotation marks to tell the reader it’s not a regular part of the text.

Another reason the reader doesn’t need quotation marks is that the epigraph is followed by its source (i.e., who said it), usually on the next line. The credit line generally includes the author’s name (maybe just their last name if they’re famous enough) and the title of the work. (For formatting titles, see Italics, Hamlet, and Buffy and How to Capitalize Titles.)

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
—Thoreau, Walden

There are a number of other conventions in formatting epigraphs, but they’re largely optional. For example, many people put an em dash at the beginning of the credit line, while others simply hit the Tab key.

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

We read books to find out who we are.
Ursula K. Le Guin

In APA style, often used by publishers in the social sciences, the credit line is right justified, that is, pushed up against the right margin.

This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.
—Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Some sources, like religious texts, don’t lend themselves to the standard author-title format. They usually follow different conventions in the credit line.

My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
—Song of Solomon 2:16 (King James Version)

You may need to decide for yourself, case by case, what source information is most relevant.

Here’s looking at you, kid.
—Rick Blaine in Casablanca

Whichever epigraph style you choose, be sure all the epigraphs in your work are formatted the same. And if you decide to use an epigraph before one chapter or section, you should do the same for all of them. If that seems overwhelming, choose just one or two epigraphs and put them at the very beginning of your book.

Still from Casablanca

Sourcing Epigraphs: Did They Really Say That?

The Internet, as we all know, is a sink of misinformation. Any quotation can be posted online and replicated endlessly, whether it’s real or completely fabricated. There are even blogs that specialize in exposing misattributed quotations, such as That’s. Not. Shakespeare. and Fake Buddha Quotes.

If you’ve found a pithy quotation you think will make a great epigraph, before you use it, double-check the source. My rule of thumb is that the more detailed the attribution, the more credible the quote. Look for credit lines that include not just the author but the title of the work and, even better, the chapter and page number (or act and scene for a play, stanza and line for a poem, etc.).

Of course, the only way to be completely certain of an attribution is to find a copy of the original text yourself. E-books are extremely useful for sourcing quotations because you can use the Search function to find a specific phrase. Or you can go to your local library and find a book of quotations by a reputable publisher.

Sometimes a quote simply lacks any credible attribution. Maybe its origin has been lost in the mists of time, or maybe it’s been repeated so many times there’s no way to determine who said it first. In such cases, write Unknown in the credit line, or include whatever information is available.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
—African-American proverb

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (detail), c.1562

Epigraphs and Copyright

Should you worry about copyright infringement when choosing an epigraph? Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style has to say:

Quotation in the form of an epigraph does not fit neatly into any of the usual fair-use categories but is probably fair use by virtue of scholarly and artistic tradition.

So you probably won’t get sued, if only because the practice of using epigraphs is so well established. However, if you want to be completely safe, choose sources that are old enough to be in the public domain. The number of years varies by country, but generally speaking anything over 150 years old is probably copyright free.

Should you find a wise critic to point out your faults, follow him as you would a guide to hidden treasure.
—The Buddha

Finally, beware of getting caught up in thoughtless overdecoration. Ask yourself, Do I really need an epigraph here? Unless you’ve found a quote that’s particularly apt or that sets the perfect tone in a way nothing else does, you might be better off without one.

Exit, pursued by a bear.
—Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

Illustration by John Massey Wright of Antigonus fleeing the bear, from The Winter's Tale, Act III, Scene iii

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Tuesday 15 May 2018

Commas After the Beginning of a Sentence

If you start a sentence with an introductory clause like this one, do you need to follow it with a comma? In formal writing can you ever use an introductory phrase without a comma?

Obviously the answer to both questions is yes. The real question is, Which sentence beginnings need commas and which don’t?

Illustration of an army of women riding forth, France, 1480s

Dependent Clauses and Commas

When a sentence starts with a dependent clause, the clause should be followed by a comma. A dependent clause is a clause (i.e., it has a subject and a verb) that can’t stand alone as a sentence. It often starts with a word like if, because, until, or when (a.k.a. a subordinating conjunction).

  • Until our enemies are defeated, we will continue to protect the castle.
  • If Bao starts singing, everyone will join in.
  • Because it was raining, Elphaba brought her umbrella.

When the dependent clause comes after the main clause, you don’t need to worry about a comma.

  • We will continue to protect the castle until our enemies are defeated.
  • Everyone will join in if Bao starts singing.
  • Elphaba brought her umbrella because it was raining.

However, a comma is usual when the dependent clause doesn’t change the meaning of the main clause. (See That and Which for more on restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.)

  • We fought valiantly all day, until the sun set behind the hills.
  • I’ll take a pass on the kale smoothie, if it’s all the same to you.
  • Of course it was raining, because the universe hates me.

Participial Phrases and Commas

When a sentence begins with a participial phrase (a phrase starting with a participle, which usually ends in -ed or -ing), the phrase is generally followed by a comma.

  • Exhausted from the gruelling flight, Nico hauled himself out of the airship.
  • Knowing her cards were unbeatable, the dowager staked her entire fortune on one hand.

Commas are also used when the phrase occurs in the middle of the sentence.

  • Nico, exhausted from the gruelling flight, hauled himself out of the airship.
  • The dowager chuckled, knowing her cards were unbeatable, and staked her entire fortune on one hand.

However, you shouldn’t use a comma when the phrase changes the meaning of the rest of the sentence (i.e., when it’s a restrictive phrase).

  • Nico always arrives exhausted from his gruelling flights.
  • Knowing her cards were unbeatable was no reason for the dowager to stake her entire fortune on one hand.

Detail of flying creatures from The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1501

Adverbial Phrases and Commas

An adverb tells you how, when, where, or why; an adverbial phrase is a phrase (a group of words that doesn’t qualify as a clause) that does the same thing. At the beginning of a sentence, these phrases can be followed by a comma, but they often go without—especially if they’re short.

  • In 1918 Lu Xun published “A Madman’s Diary.” 
  • Before the wedding Penelope plotted her revenge.

Do use a comma when it makes the sentence easier to read or when it prevents confusion.

  • After days and weeks of incessant worry, we finally discovered our cat had been living at the neighbours’.
  • For Clive, Owen was the ideal man.
  • After eating, the rabbits we adopted were returned to their hutch.

It’s often helpful to use commas when the adverbial phrase appears in the middle of a sentence.

  • We finally discovered, after days and weeks of incessant worry, that our cat had been living at the neighbours’.

But don’t use a comma when it’s at the end of a sentence …

  • Lu Xun published “A Madman’s Diary” in 1918. 
  • Penelope plotted her revenge before the wedding.

… unless the phrase doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence (i.e., it’s nonrestrictive).

  • Lu Xun published “A Madman’s Diary” the following year, in 1918. 
  • Penelope plotted her revenge that morning, before the wedding.

The Reluctant Bride, Auguste Toulmouche, 1866

Introductory Interjections and Commas

An interjection at the beginning of a sentence is traditionally followed by a comma.

  • Yes, it was a great day for disco. 
  • No, that is not what I meant at all. 
  • Well, it was the best we could do at the time. 
  • Okay, that’s settled. 
  • Oh, it was grand! 
  • Ah, youth! 

But the comma is often omitted in informal contexts, dialogue, and common expressions.

  • “No you don’t!”
  • “Yes I will!”
  • Oh my God!
  • Oh yeah?
  • Boy oh boy.
  • Oh brother!

You can also use closing punctuation instead of a comma, turning your interjection into a one-word sentence.

  • Well! What a shock!
  • Oh? I stand corrected.
  • Oh! I didn’t hear you come in.

Still from 1963 film Judex, of a sneaky woman in a black mask

There’s no particular phrase that is always—or never—followed by a comma: it all depends on the phrase’s function in the sentence. In this way commas point out a sentence’s structure. Readers subconsciously expect these flags, so using them consistently will make your prose easier to read. Of course, you can also choose to deploy an unexpected comma here and there, for dramatic effect.

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Monday 16 April 2018

That and Which

The choice between that and which can be confounding, especially if you include British usage (spoiler: the Brits use which in places where Americans insist on that). But before we can dive into the famous that/which rule, I need to introduce you to restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

Illumination of man in bed with two dragons fighting above him. Paris, ca. 1400

Obligatory and Optional Phrases

A clause, phrase, or word is called restrictive when it’s necessary in order for the sentence to work. Take it out, and the sentence doesn’t convey the same thing.

  • Animals such as bears should be treated with caution.
  • People who jump queues should be strung up by their toes.
  • The dragons fighting above my bed are keeping me awake.

Notice the lack of commas in these examples. Restrictive phrases are never set off with commas.

A clause, phrase, or word is called nonrestrictive when it’s not necessary for the sentence. You could take it out without losing any essential information.

  • Hibernating animals, such as bears, should be treated with caution.
  • Villanelle, who jumps queues, should be strung up by her toes.
  • The castle’s pair of dragons, fighting above my bed, are keeping me awake.

Nonrestrictive phrases, unlike restrictive phrases, are set off with commas.

  • The Earl, however, refused to be seen in a Volkswagen.
  • The double-action shotgun, not diplomacy, was Anika’s forte.
  • The giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, I understand, makes an affectionate pet.

Because of this, adding or deleting commas can change the information in a sentence.

  • Her romance novel, Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles, is a bodice-ripper. 

Commas tell us the title is nonrestrictive: you could take it out and the sentence would say the same thing. Which means this is her only romance novel.

  • Her romance novel Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles is a bodice-ripper. 

The absence of commas tells us the title is restrictive: without it we wouldn’t know which romance novel was meant. Which suggests she has written other romance novels, some of which may feature other kinds of lords with different muscles.

Cover art for Temptation in a Kilt by Victoria Roberts

That said, the current preference among writers and editors seems to be for fewer commas, and as long as leaving out the commas isn’t likely to confuse the reader, then it’s acceptable to do so even with a nonrestrictive phrase. For example, if you leave out the commas around Myrna in my wife Myrna loves taxidermy, your readers probably won’t assume you have more than one wife.

On the other hand, if you’re writing about, say, siblings or offspring, you might want to use commas to show you only have one: our son, Xiaoping; my sister, Susan. (For more on this, see Commas, Names, and Chopsticks.)

That vs. Which

Understanding the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses is essential for choosing correctly between that and which. According to the that/which rule, that belongs in restrictive clauses and which belongs in nonrestrictive clauses.

  • The UFO that arrived last week is still parked on our lawn. (Not to be confused with the UFO that arrived the week before.) 
  • The UFO, which arrived last week, is still parked on our lawn. (Only one alien craft has ever landed here.)

In UK-style English, which is as likely to be used in a restrictive clause as that.

  • UK: The dark cloud which hung over the mansion put a pall on their croquet game.
  • US: The dark cloud that hung over the mansion put a pall on their croquet game.

But in any country, nonrestrictive clauses always use which.

  • UK & US: The corpse, which was oddly familiar, gave Teuta pause.

Illustration by Elenore Abbott for The Marsh King's Daughter by Hans Christian Andersen, 1922

Do You Need That That? 

The that in a restrictive clause can sometimes be left out if the meaning of the sentence is clear without it.

  • Desta told him that it was time.
  • Desta told him it was time.
  • If I had known that the plant was carnivorous, I wouldn’t have bought it.
  • If I had known the plant was carnivorous, I wouldn’t have bought it.
  • Hari realized that that was the witch’s plan all along.
  • Hari realized that was the witch’s plan all along.

Eliminating superfluous thats can make your writing cleaner and easier to read, which is why some editors insist on deleting the word wherever it turns up; however, there are places where a that is necessary for clarity.

  • I learned when she took her camera I was not to follow. 
  • I learned that when she took her camera I was not to follow. 
  • I learned when she took her camera that I was not to follow.

It’s good to question your thats, because we often overuse them without realizing it, but don’t assume any that is a bad that.

Photograph of woman with camera standing on high-rise construction beam, Berlin, 1910

In summary, use that when the clause is necessary to the sentence, and use which when it’s not. Unless you’re following UK style, in which case you can use which for necessary clauses too. But either way, when your clause is unnecessary, use which—and don’t forget the commas.

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Sunday 25 March 2018

Subjunctive Moodiness

When you write wish you were here, you’re using the subjunctive mood, as opposed to the indicative mood (you are here). The subjunctive is used in speculation and conjecture, for outcomes that are unlikely or even impossible.

If I Were You

In the subjunctive mood, verbs appear in the past tense.

  • Subjunctive: If I had a million dollars, I would buy a spaceship.
  • Indicative: If I have a filthy mouth, it is my grandma’s fault.

The first example uses the past tense to show the situation is purely hypothetical: I do not have a million dollars. The second example uses the present tense to show that I likely do have a filthy mouth (and that it’s my grandma’s fault).

Toulouse-Lautrec, La Loge au mascaron doré, 1895

An exception to this otherwise straightforward system is the verb to be. The subjunctive form of am and is isn’t was, as you’d expect, but were (if I were a rich man). Increasingly this use of were is being replaced by was, especially in informal contexts, but the two words can still have different implications.

  • If I were the murderer, where would I hide the body?
  • Even if I was the murderer, you have no proof!

The second example implies the speaker might actually have done it—though not as strongly as the present tense does: even if I am the murderer.

The Subjunctive in Past-Tense Narratives

This all may feel pretty instinctive, but when you’re writing a story in the past tense, the subjunctive can get confusing. Let’s start with a present-tense narrative.

  • Saru is standing at the edge of a ravine. He will make it if he jumps. (present tense means scenario is likely)
  • Saru is standing at the edge of a ravine. He would make it if he jumped. (past tense means scenario is hypothetical)

Now let’s shift to a past-tense narrative.

  • Saru was standing at the edge of a ravine. He could tell he would make it if he jumped. (simple past tense means scenario is likely)
  • Saru was captured at the edge of the ravine. He would have made it if he had jumped. (past-perfect tense means scenario is hypothetical)

The third example is looking ahead, predicting Saru’s success. The fourth is describing what didn’t happen; we understand Saru did not jump. In the past, the subjunctive mood is shown with the past-perfect tense (had jumped). For more on the past perfect see Using the Right Verb Tense.

Notice the second and third examples both use the same tense (he would make it if he jumped). You can use the simple past tense to talk about the hypothetical “now” or the likely “then.” This is what makes the subjunctive so confusing—your verbs can sound right and still be in the wrong tense.

  • If Gilda were a better person, she wouldn’t kill alien creatures.
  • If Gilda were a better person, she wouldn’t have killed those alien creatures.

These are both hypothetical scenarios (subjunctive mood) in the present. We’re arguing about Gilda’s morals, now, based on her past behaviour. Next we’ll shift to a past-tense narrative.

  • If Gilda was really a better person now, she wouldn’t kill the alien creatures.
  • If Gilda had been a better person, she wouldn’t have killed those alien creatures.

The first scenario is a real possibility: she hasn’t killed anyone yet, and she might not (indicative mood). The second is contrary to fact: she has killed and she is not a better person (subjunctive mood).

Cover of Planet Stories pulp magazine, featuring woman in armour swinging an axe at some alien tentacles

Can and Will, Could and Would

The verb will has popped up several times in this post. It’s a modal auxiliary verb, which just means it’s used a lot in the subjunctive mood (modal) and it’s often combined with other verbs (auxiliary), as in will buy and will make.

The past tense of will is would. This is why would is used in a present-tense narrative when speculating about something hypothetical (I know I would be a great leader). In a past-tense narrative, the subjunctive is shown by using would have + past participle—would have been, would have swung, would have jumped.

  • Taika will know the sigil if he sees it again. (present likely)
  • Taika would know the sigil if he saw it again. (present hypothetical)

  • Taika was sure he would know the sigil if he saw it again. (past likely)
  • Nothing looked familiar. Taika would’ve known the sigil if he’d seen it again. (past hypothetical)

Can (past tense could) is another modal auxiliary verb.

  • If Okoye can change, so can you. (present likely)
  • If Okoye could change, she would. (present hypothetical)

  • It showed that if Okoye could change, so could the rest of the Dora Milaje. (past likely)
  • If Okoye could have changed, she’d have done things differently. (past hypothetical)

Photo of Dahomey warriors, the all-female king's bodyguard from Benin, 1891

May and Might

May and might (also modal auxiliaries) can both be used in the present. The only difference is that might carries more uncertainty than may.

  • We may go ballooning tomorrow.
  • We might go ballooning tomorrow.

But only might should be used when you’re talking about a purely hypothetical scenario, especially one contrary to fact.

  • If it hadn’t rained, we might’ve gone ballooning.
  • If she were to ask me, I might spill the beans.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to use might rather than may in a past-tense narrative, unless the uncertainty is continuing into the narrative’s present.

  • Yihang’s ghost was seen walking the ramparts—and may haunt them to this day.
  • We never saw Talulla again. She may have joined the circus, but no one is sure.
  • They never saw Talulla again. She might have joined the circus, but no one was sure.
  • Vic passed out on the crafts table, so I think Felix may have spiked his tea.
  • Vic passed out on the crafts table, so I thought Felix might have spiked his tea.

Must and Had To

Finally, must is a modal auxiliary verb that’s used to show necessity (you must comply) or a conclusion (that must be the reason). In the sense of a conclusion, must can appear in either a present- or past-tense narrative.

  • That must be why Chidi’s so twitchy.
  • That must have been why Chidi was so twitchy.
  • Eleanor must have said something to upset him.

In the sense of necessity, must only works in the present; in a past narrative, use had to.

  • Wanda and Christiane must deliver the microfilm to the Resistance tonight.
  • Wanda and Christiane had to deliver the microfilm to the Resistance that night.

ID documents of WWII Resistance fighters Wanda and Christiane de Komornicka

More Examples

  • We were trapped, but if I could pick the lock, we’d be out of there in no time.
  • If I could have picked that lock, we’d have been out of there in no time, but I didn’t have a bobby pin.
  • Let me tell you, if I had a nickel for every time that dame lied to me, I’d be richer than Rockefeller.
  • Back then, if I’d had a nickel for every time that dame had lied to me, I’d’ve been richer than Rockefeller.
  • A wise man would have chosen his words carefully, but I blurted out the first thing that came into my head.
  • And I would’ve gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you kids!

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