Monday, November 14, 2016

Jungle Reds sweat the small stuff

HALLIE EPHRON: Retreating to a safe topic: grammar and punctuation. Recently, when I was in Hamilton, Ohio, giving a writing workshop for the Mad Anthony Writers, agent Victoria Skurnick told the assembled aspiring authors to mind their Ps and Qs (P's and Q's?) when writing a query letter. She told us she stops reading if the author mixes up that and which.

That and which? I confess I often don't know which (though here I do) is correct. Sometimes I pray that (here I know again) I get it right. But the thing that (which??) gets me is that(!) some people seem to know by instinct and I don't.

Commas are a bewilderment, too. Whenever I put them in my editor takes them out and vice versa. (Or is it , and vice versa?)

And while we're about it: 

Is a dog a he, a she, or an it?
Can I avoid the odious s/he (when the gender is unknown) by replacing it with they?
And does punctuation at the end of a parenthetical statement go inside or outside the parentheses?

These are the nits that haunt me. What are yours, and can you offer me any nifty rules of thumb?

RHYS BOWEN: I suffer a double impediment in that I was taught British grammar rules (as in different from, and not different to), British spelling (as in towards, not toward) and I have never gotten the hang of commas either. Or should it be commas, either?

I just let copy editors take out every comma I've put in and insert every comma I've left out.

One thing I can do is know the difference between lay and lie (which apparently most newscasters can't do any more):

Lay is transitive. It requires an object. I lay the cup on the table.
But I lie on the bed.
Of course the confusion comes from the past tense of lie, which is lay!
So yesterday I lay down. Today I lie down.
What a stupid language.

HANK PHILLPPI RYAN: It depends. The parenthesis thing depends on what you're modifying.
She put mayonnaise on her peanut butter sandwich (horrible!) and then went home.
She was a terrible eater. (She put peanut butter on her mayonnaise sandwich!) 
She was such a finicky eater. She'd put peanut butter on her sandwich, and then give it to her brother (sometimes)!
Semi-colons are easy. Just never use them.

Dashes--I am trying to break the habit.

Ps and Qs. Because not possessive.

Not talking about apostrophes. Because I am trying to unsee a menu I saw in Dallas which said BREAKFAST TACO'S.

HALLIE: Speaking of tacos (weren't we?) the best (really) taco place in NYC is in Brooklyn in Sunset Park. RICOS TACOS. They forgot the apostrophe, right? Not so. RICOS is Spanish, an adjective for rich/delicious, plural to modify tacos. There is no Mr. Rico.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, I'm laughing.  I actually like peanut butter, mayonnaise, and banana sandwiches. (My mom loved them, but couldn't stand anything with cooked banana. Or should that be "bananas"?) And, see, I was tempted to use an M-dash (is that hyphenated?) but resisted.

But, really, if you're avoiding semi-colons, what are you going to do?? Is there a new commas only rule?

I'm a fan of the Oxford comma (the serial comma used before "and" and at the end of a list, but American copy editors often don't like them (it?) As for punctuation within or without parentheses, I just figure whatever I do the copy editor will change.

I do know "that" from "which", and "lay" from "lie", and "sit" from "set." The thing that drives me absolutely mad is the use of "me" for "I'. "Me" and Danny went to the shop. Arghhh. "ME" went to the shop??? NO.

But I have to admit that I can't tell you punctuation rules or parts of speech.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Same here, Debs, which is why "helping" Youngest with her Latin and French homework is increasingly challenging. (Yes, she's taking two languages.) (Or should I have left off the parens there?) I have a substantial Latin vocabulary from school/choral work/attending Latin masses, but I have NO sense of the grammar. Nor do I have much of a memory for French grammar, despite the fact that I studied it every year from 6th grade through the end of college.

Transitive? Vocative? Genative? I don't know Whatthative.

However, I do have my own grammar and punctuation favorites: I love semicolons; I will never surrender -- never -- my M-dashes. Em dashes? I love intentional run-on sentences, mashing together compound nouns like woodstove, and I stand firmly alongside the Oxford comma. 

Maybe we should all be required to take a yearly grammar course to keep up our Fiction Writer licenses?

HALLIE: So do you find yourself occasionally lost and confused along the byways of punctuation and grammar? What are you bugaboos, and please weigh in on the Oxford comma and the semicolon.


  1. Oh, I think (I hope) I get the word usage right, but the comma/semi-colon thing makes me crazy. I write it the way I think it should be and the (annoying) Word program changes it. (Or, more properly speaking, it puts little blue lines under all the things it thinks I should change.)
    As for commas in a series list, I put a comma before the “and,” but I often think it’s a preference thing. When I am reading, it seems to be a toss-up as to whether or not an author does the same. (Or, after reading your comments, perhaps the ubiquitous editor took them out?)

  2. Love it. Always Oxford, never semi. I insist. Also on the me/I continuum is this kind of usage: He gave it to Joyce and I. No! As Debs did, if you remove the other person, does it still work? He gave it to I. No, it does NOT still work. Sigh.

    But now to dust off my long-dormant doctorate in linguistics to get on my wobbly hobby horse and say, this is simply evidence of language change in progress. Yes, we hate it, and no, it won't fly (yet) in written English. But the fact that nobody knows when to use whom anymore, or that they say He gave it to Joyce and I, simply means knowledge of the accusative case (I only know about cases from high-school German), which marks direct objects as different from subjects, is dropping out of English. And there ain't nuthin you can do about it. It has been ever thus. Languages change, which is why we have all those daughter languages of Latin, and so on.

    Hopping back down to go back to writing good old murder fiction. ;^) (Great to see, and dance with, some of the Reds at Crime Bake this weekend!)

  3. Long live the Oxford comma! I've always used it -- much to the dismay of my Jurisprudence Professor! But never knew the proper title until two years ago when I fell in with a bunch of rowdy writers at a retreat center. In retirement, I have ceased to worry about grammar as my "audience" is mainly friends who are just glad to hear from me. And never did understand "lay" and "lie"or semi-colons. Thank you Jungle Reds (and your editors) for stringing words and punctuation together in such wonderful ways.

  4. You're welcome, Eliabeth!
    And Edith, I count on you to be the first (with me and Lucy) on the dance floor at Crime Bake and the last to leave.

    My current rant: Since when did gift become a verb? As in: He GIFTED me the book.

    I hear it ALL the time. OK, IBM might GIFT a million dollars to a worth charity. But otherwise: Feh. Though it's in the dictionary as a verb, I agree with this article (by Megan Gaber) in the Atlantic which says "Gifting" is the "moist" of the action-word world: Those who hate it do so with a fervor that is excessive and irrational and 100 percent correct."

  5. Sorry to miss commenting--on the way home from another wonderful New England Crime bake conference. I don't know the names of proper grammar and punctuation, but I completely agree on mixing up me and I, and like Julia, I love my commas, semi-colons, and dashes.

    The silliest thing I ever had done to me by a copy editor was changing "red brick" to "redbrick." I fought this all the way up to the top, but lost. And now I notice it in lots of books. But why why why?? We don't say yellowbrick road or blackasphalt driveway...

  6. Lucy, my editor hyphenates red-brick. As in "the red-brick house was..." BUT also correct: "the house was made of red brick." In other words when red and brick are modifying a noun, you hyphenate. So if that's the rule it should be yellow-brick road... if it's a description. But if it's the NAME of the road it's Yellow Brick Road. IMHOP.

  7. Oxford comma, semi-colons, commas, em dashes--use them all. I had an editor once, who said, 'put them where they make the most sense in terms of what you are trying to communicate.' And so I do. Also, I have some rather pretentious relatives--one of whom once told me that he was now 'pastoring.' Another is a young woman who enjoys ranting on facebook about other people's grammar, yet this same person enjoys saying "Thank you for the lovely gift to my husband and I."

    I know the times they are a'changing, Edith--but I don't have to like 'em! ;-)

  8. Hyphenation is maddening. There needs to be a book/reference for which words are, and which words are not hyphenated. One error I see all the time is for age: "six-year old Charlie" is correct. "Six-year-old" is not, and neither is "Six year old". Why? Who knows.

    Like Julia, they will wrest the semi-colon and M dashes from my cold, dead typing fingers. And I taught my daughters the difference between "who" and "whom" (always refers to the object of a verb) when they were learning to talk, along with the proper use of "she and I".

  9. I could certainly use that yearly grammar class.

    that/which trip me up every time, and I know I still get it wrong often. But I have yet to read an explanation that makes it seem sensible to me.

    Always Oxford comma. Please - I don't ask for much.

    I tend to overuse M-dashes (em dashes). Both of these are correct, I believe. In my day job work with academic journals, I have to deal with N-dashes as well. Shaking my head.

    I guess my schooling was decent, as most of this comes naturally to me and if I can just keep from overthinking it, nature takes its course. The trouble is, sometimes I write so quickly that what my mind is thinking and what ends up on the paper are not the same thing. Thus editing, re-reading, and proofing!!

  10. Mistaking which for that drives me crazy, as do all the other issues you've raised. (Good thing I offer freelance editing services, including copy editing. Hope you don't mind the plug!) The one rule I will break is splitting infinitives. I simply don't believe the rule has merit.

  11. I hate gifted. I will never say it.

    I will also never say "Let's circle back to..." Or "I reached out to him and..." Argggh.
    And I am not a fan of forthcoming when it is supposed to be forthright.

    Redbrick is not a word. Seriously. I hate is as much as I hate faceup.

    I had an editor who wanted to make it dining-room table, chocolate-chip cookie, and crew-neck sweater. All of those look wrong to me.

    But the times I want to put hyphens IN, like "She stopped, mid-sentence," They take them out. Midsentence? That cannot be even semi-right. Which they would want to be semiright. Which clearly is NOT a word.

  12. Karen, Six-year old is right? Ah.....I guess I see why. But I don't hafta like it.

  13. Actually, six-year old is not right. When dealing with ages, hyphenate as follows:
    She is a forty-year-old woman
    She is a forty-year-old. (Here it's still hyphenated because woman is implied.)
    She is forty years old
    She is forty.

  14. Grammar Girl on gift as a verb:

    Sorry for all the posting. I just love this topic.

  15. See the problem also exists that different style manuals have different rules. Chicago Manual prefers six-year-old or six years old.

  16. Can we nominate Barb Goffman for Secretary of Punctuation?

  17. Thanks, she says, embarrassed that in her examples above some periods are missing.

  18. Barb, I salute you (and march...)
    Speaking of which, what about ellipses which has made a roaring comeback in the age of social media?

  19. Barb, that's interesting. I was taught the other way.

    "Whom" is used as the object of a preposition: "of whom", " with whom", "to whom". That made it easy to remember. I meant to add this to my earlier post, but I was trying to get out the door.

  20. Thank you Barb! Thank you for six-year-old. WHEW.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Hallie, use an ellipsis to indicate trailing off. Use an em dash to indicate interruption. With an ellipsis, if the sentence is a complete sentence, first you have a period, then the ellipsis. If the sentence is an incomplete sentence, you just use the ellipsis.

    So: After ranting for an hour about punctuation, Bill grew exhausted, saying, "One day I'm going to teach everyone about the proper use of ..."

    In contrast: After ranting for an hour about punctuation, Bill grew exhausted, saying, "One day I'm going to teach everyone about the proper use of ellipses. ..." He wanted to say more, but he had no strength left.

  23. I'm pretty good with grammar and punctuation. I drove all my friends crazy in college. And after my writing stint was done at the college paper, I was senior copy editor. I'd change something and the writer would say, "well, the AP style book says..." My response was always, "The AP style book does not trump basic rules of English grammar."

    Which/that, who/whom, lay/lie - generally not a problem.

    Long live the Oxford comma, and I have no problem with semi-colons.

    Things I hate:

    - "they" as a singular pronoun. Yes, yes, I know English changes (to Edith's point). But I hate this, even though I've been forced to adapt in my day-job. Still hate it.

    - "Verb-ing" nouns. The Girl used "incentivize" in a conversation with a friend of hers over the weekend while I was driving back from the mall. I told her to never, EVER use that word in front of me again. Not only is it "verb-ing" it's a horrible corporate buzz word that makes my skin crawl.

    - "irregardless" - I'm sorry, I don't really care if it's in the dictionary now, it's not a word! If you break it down into etymological pieces, it doesn't even make sense!

    Thanks for letting me get those off my chest!

  24. My mantra is: that's what copy editors are for. Or should it be copy-editors?

  25. Having learned my grammar at the whack of a ruler across the palms I get real pain when I misuse something. Can make dialogue a bit of a problem.

    Rhys, we too were taught British grammar rules - now that's a go figure considering I went to school in the US.

    The s/he thing drives me nuts. Especially as the usage seems to be evolving as we speak. What's correct today may be glaringly incorrect (and perhaps offensive) by the time the publication date arrives. That and which are safe in my stories, I have an innate sense of those (see ruler note above) and rarely find editorial corrections.

    My bugaboos, split infinitives - probably comes from watching too much original Star Trek - em dashes, you'll note none appear here, just hyphens :) and do colloquialisms get double " or single'? Note the naked go figure here and above.

  26. What a great post, Hallie!

    As a young child, I would write letters to relatives, including those who were born when Queen Victoria was still Queen of England. Yes, they were quite elderly by the time I arrived in the world :-) My letters were always edited for grammar and I would rewrite my letters before we sent them to relatives.

    As an adult, I automatically edit as I write out of habit. I am shocked that educated people have grammar errors. For example, the other day I was watching a movie on TV. The story was about an author who also plays Santa. When someone sends a letter to Santa, he answers the letter. I was shocked that the character wrote "alot" instead of "a lot". I was taught that you have to write "a lot" instead of "alot". Unless I am mistaken?

    I have a question for JRW authors. What is the rule about using "and" in a story? I notice sometimes I see "and" three times in the same sentence. For example, it makes sense if I read "She ate an apple and a banana". But if I read "an apple and a banana and an orange", it throws me off. Why not "an apple, a banana and an orange"?


  27. Colloquialisms... hmmm. I woulnd't use either single or double quotes. Sometimes italics. Or just text.

  28. Diana, that multiple "and" thing can be used to good effect in an action scene. Here's from a Lee Child's novel THE ENEMY:

    I stood up and raced the last ten feet and hauled Marshall around to the passenger side and opened the door and crammed him into the front. Then I climbed right in over him and dumped myself into the driver’s seat. Hit that big red button and fired it up. Shoved it into gear and stamped on the gas so hard the acceleration slammed the door shut. Then I turned the lights full on and put my foot to the floor and charged.

  29. Recently my copyeditor has had me boggled with "each other" and "one another". I didn't even know this was a thing but it seems whenever I use either I am wrong. Struck and White's Elements of Style is my usual go to resource but I have misplaced my copy. Sigh.

  30. Hi, Jenn! Sometimes it's best to just surrender.

  31. Oh, I love this!
    Oxford comma forever!
    Elisabeth I heartily concur with your appreciation of the words these women string together, with or without commas, hyphens, etc.
    I/Me? Heaven help us! That makes my skin crawl.
    Hallie--The brick is red. So it's red brick. The dog is brown, not browndog. IMHOP? I like IMHBAO (in my humble, but accurate, opinion)

    If you can't write cogently, how can you think cogently? Texting and laziness is creating a world of sloppy thinkers, I believe.

  32. Diana, I think the "and" thing is about rhythm and subtext. I'll use multiple ands if I'm trying to indicate that whatever I'm describing is...endless, or overwhelming. So if she's stuffing herself, it'd be
    She ate apples and pears and beans.
    Otherwise, if it's an ordinary thing, it's She ate apples, pears, and beans.
    Unless it's franks and beans. In which case, it's she ate apples, and franks and beans. Which you would never write because it's confusing.

    And now I've confused myself.
    Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
    At the zoo she saw lions, and tigers, and bears.

    Off to get lunch. An apple, a sandwich, and a diet coke.


  33. I am by no ways a perfect grammarian; is there even such a thing? Doubtful. There are so many gray areas, especially these days. I'm most likely guilty of misusing em dashes, parentheses, and ellipses from time to time. (Notice that Oxford comma in there? ;)) I thought I was using ellipses correctly, but then a friend told me that it irritates her when people don't space them right.. (For some reason, I wasn't leaving a space between the end of the word and the ellipsis, which now that it's pointed out to me, seems obvious. *sigh*)

    I understand, Hallie, about the effectiveness of all the ands in an action scene, and I've even used them that way myself. It still looks wrong to me, though, and bothers me. A little.

    It also bothers me when people use lie/lay wrong, but it's understandable when the incorrect use has become almost common usage. I think I hear it used incorrectly much more than correctly.

    Possessives for plurals are a pet peeve of mine. I can kind of understand that people get confused using apostrophes or can't seem to get it's/its straight; but why, oh why, would you need to ADD an apostrophe when it's a simple plural??? And I see it on signage ALL THE TIME.

    I also see loose used for lose quite frequently. NO, you didn't loose it, you lost it!

  34. When did "impactful" become a word? Not only do I have to contend with the challenges of the English language, my hubby works at Microsoft, which seems to have a language all its own (was that which correct? How about the parentheses?) I'm waging a constant battle in my house to stick to English, not technical jargon used by thousands of employees the world over. I don't think my chances are good, Hank; I'm losing the battle.

  35. But Libby, if it's red brick the it's red brick But if it's a chimney made of red brick then it's a red-brick chimney. According to my editor. And Imhbowo (in my humble but often wrong opinion)

  36. Agreed, Ingrid - Impactful is awful. Actually, impact as a verb is pretty ugly, too. I also hate utilize, a perfectly good word by completely unnecessary when we have USE lying about.

  37. I'm the grammar geek who has always enjoyed reading grammar books. Yes, I take great delight in picking up a grammar book and perusing it. That doesn't mean I'm flawless in my writing, and I have given in to some of the laxity of computer generated casualness. However, I do strive to maintain a healthy respect for grammatical rules, and my love for the Oxford comma is unshakeable.

  38. Hank.

    Thank you!!!! I do not know why that throws me off when I see "and" more than once in the same sentence!


    I think I see what you are trying to say. I will have to try that mindset when I read that kind of sentence. It just throws me off when I see "and" more than once in the same sentence.

    When I see a book with many "and" in the same sentence, I stop reading because it gets harder for me to follow the story. I am sorry!


  39. Hallie - thank you! And you can be sure you will be quoted :). When is the revised edition of Writing and Selling Your Mystery coming out? My edition is in danger of falling apart.

  40. Kathy, I wish I shared your love for the Oxford comma. I just don't like the way it looks, but since it's part of my publisher's house style, I'm trying to get over it!

  41. "Retreating to a safe topic: grammar and punctuation."

    Seriously? Safe?

    I mental composed a dozen responses while scrolling down the comments, and then finally decided to just leave it all alone. Playing safe.

  42. Diana, we forgive you.

    Kait! Thank you for asking - I just looked it up and the Writers Digest web site says it's shipping mid December! Pre-order now!

  43. I was taught British grammar rules here in CT.

    The wrong use of apostrophes is aggravating, isn't it? I work in a building named in honor of someone whose last name was Parsons. You'd be surprised how much mail is addressed to The Parson's building.

    Deb Romano

  44. A favorite book of last year was Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. If you haven't read this, you must.

    Yes, I know book titles should be underlined. Try that on an iPhone. ��

  45. Hallie, you are right about red brick!

    And can I just say how much I hate "alright"???? It is two words. ALL RIGHT. Okay? :-)

  46. Late to the party, as I often am. I taught seventh and eighth grade English including lots of grammar and punctuation. We actually had an extra Study Skills class for the 7th graders, containing a workbook on the comma. The written-out text explanations were pretty complicated, but the time spent wrestling with the issue got us somewhere. Where? Personally I love grammar and punctuation. I try not to be judgmental, but there are certain things that I hate. They have been mentioned above. This was fun to read and think about. Thanks!

  47. I'm feeling very overwhelmed by all of this. Maybe you should've written about politics after all. :-P

    But no. I love this post. And I use too many commas, and way too many em-dashes. They're so convenient though.

  48. Hi!
    I was taught in school that P's and Q's have apostrophes, as they indicate letters of the alphabet. I just checked on google grammar sites and that appears correct.
    Thank you!
    Love the column!!

  49. I cringe when I hear the misuse of subjective and objective pronouns! I believe "I" and "me" have become so mixed up we'll never hear them used correctly again.