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Superman to the Rescue: The It’s and Its Problem:

It’s and its confusion consistently hits the top of the most common error charts. But wait, Superman can help you remember when to use the contraction it’s.

It’s is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb:    it’s  =  it is

Using contractions in our speaking and writing makes our language flow more naturally. Without contractions, our language sounds more formal, rigid, stilted, and unnatural. If you want to sound conversational in your writing, use contractions but remember to use the apostrophe correctly.

Here’s how Superman sees it:

Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015
Stop and think about Superman when you use the contraction it’s. Superman loves apostrophes.

Special thanks to Mandy Heck for her artwork.

Happy New Year’s Day

Happy New Year – 2015!

May your new year be filled with joy and blessings. May you be comforted in any sadness.

free images photos dot com

photo: free images-photosdotcom

Did you stop and think about using an apostrophe for this New Year’s Day?

Apostrophes on holidays can be confusing. Some holidays use them; some do not.

If you say “Happy New Year,” don’t worry about an apostrophe. You don’t need one.

But if a noun follows “New Year,” use an apostrophe:

  • New Year’s Day
  • New Year’s Eve
  • New Year’s presents
  • New Year’s wishes
  • New Year’s parades
  • New Year’s fireworks
  • New Year’s celebrations

Other holidays that use apostrophes:

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Saint Patrick’s Day
  • Mother’s Day
  • Father’s Day.

If you have a holiday with plurals, remember to put the apostrophe after the s.

  • Presidents’ Day
  • April Fools’ Day

Tricks and Traps on holiday apostrophes: some holidays do not have an apostrophe:

  • Veterans Day
  • Armed Forces Day
  • United Nations Day

And now that you have rested up from your New Year’s Eve celebrations, what do you have planned for New Year’s Day?

First Five Pages: Love, Hate, and Murder and Mendelssohn

Have you ever read a book you loved and hated at the same time?Kerry Greenwood, Murder and Mendelssohn: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

Kerry Greenwood’s, Phryne Fisher Mystery, Murder and Mendelssohn, fell into that category for me.

I picked up the book from the new-book shelf at our local Mays Landing Library and decided to read it because I loved its exquisite cover: an exotic damsel wearing an elaborate, colorful, parrot-hibiscus-fern fringed shawl.

And I loved the title. Murder and Mendelssohn. Mystery and music. Nice alliteration.

As soon as I got home from the library, I snuggled down in my cozy reading chair all set to be enthralled by a mystery with musical overtones.

Disaster. But only at first.

Being an editor myself and a fan of Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, I read the first five pages of Greenwood’s book, unfortunately, with a critical eye.  (My bad habit: I can’t separate editing and reading!)

Here’s what grabbed me.

1. First Five Pages: Too many characters

Perhaps I am too much of a critic and not enough of a story line follower, but I got lost in the shuffle of at least eleven characters sprawled on the first two pages. Thirty choristers came ten pages later.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher; tired-out police detective Jack Robinson (unnamed until page 3); Dot, Phryne’s companion who was set to marry Detective Sergeant Hugh Collins; Tinker and Jane, Phryne’s adopted children; Mr and Mrs Butler, butler and cook (what a handy name!); Ruth, of unknown and unexplained personage; Ember, the black cat; and Molly, the sheepdog.

Why so many people (and animals) on the first two pages? Can all these people be essential to the plot? (No.) Where is the hook to keep me reading?

My initial thought was that this might be a first novel of a self-pubbed writer. I checked the book’s spine. Hmmm. Poisoned Pen Press, an established publisher of mysteries (since 1997) with numerous awards to their credit.  Greenfield is an Australian author so favors different spelling on words like colour and favourite. Perhaps they published an early draft, and perhaps there are more differences between American English and Australian English than I had realized. I will check on that.

Turns out that this book is Greenwood’s twentieth in her Phryne Fisher Mystery series and her 62nd book(!). These characters in M & M join the parade of characters from earlier books. Although series readers might enjoy an update on Phryne’s household menagerie, as a stand-alone book, these characters form a roadblock, deadening the beginning of the story.

But wait. Read on, and you will find a great story.

2. Verb Tense: Overuse of past progressive, with a switch to simple past

Notice the verb tense starting with the second sentence on page 1: the boring past progressive tense. Greenfield uses it to catalog the activities going on in her home, making her writing wordier than need be.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting…
She was wearing…
She was nibbling…
[Ember, her cat} was waiting…(in two sentences of 63-words) …[and] was contemplating…
She [Miss Phryne] was reading an autopsy report…
…the tired-out police detective was eating… [We don’t find out the detective’s name until page 3.]
Dot…was embroidering…
Tinker and Jane were playing chess…
Ruth was in the kitchen with Mrs. Butler shelling peas and discussing ways to cook pineapple.
Molly (the sheepdog) was lying under the table…

The deadly clue: overuse of the word was (seven times in eleven lines on the first page alone) with the progressive -ing form on verbs. This quickly becomes tedious reading because of its repetitive monotone nature.

But then. a switch:

…Mr. Butler sat down on his comfortable chair and sipped his after-breakfast cup of coffee.

What happened? Why the switch to simple past tense? Why not use simple past from the beginning and declutter the opening?

3.  Too much description

A barrage of details of Miss Phryne’s glamorous (ostentatious?) garden, morning outfit, and breakfast fill page one, leading one to believe that the main character is, well, quite a character.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting in her jasmine bower, drenched in scent. She was wearing a pale green silk gown embroidered with golden phoenixes, the symbol of the empress. Flaming pearls of longevity burned their way, comet-like, upon her fluttering sleeves. Her hair was as shiny as patent leather, cut in a neat bob which swung forward as she read. She was nibbling a croissant and drinking café au lait. With her pink cheeks and red lips and green eyes, she looked like a hand-coloured French fashion plate.

Other equally eye-catching and attention-getting outfits throughout the book receive similar mention. But not to be identified as a policewoman or inspector, Phyrne packs her .22 Beretta in her petticoat pocket.

A Queenscliff fisher boy, a minor character who “had attached himself at heel, like a small scruffy terrier” to the Fisher household, receives almost a full-page of description detailing why each member (including the pets) of this extended family likes him. Quite a lot of info for a minor character who occasionally brings fish for dinner. His role in the story: He occasionally asks questions that help move the mystery-solving process along because he is, as Phryne says, “endearingly intelligent.”

4. The Plot (or should I say Plots?)

A lot happens in Murder in Mendelssohn.

For me, the story started on page 2 with Miss Phryne reading an autopsy report. Immediate questions popped into my head that drew me into the story.

The much-hated and maligned choir director, Hugh Treggennis, gets murdered. Twice? Two murderers? Phyne called the murderer “flamboyant” and “with a point to prove.” Subtle humor throughout this book adds to its increasingly delicious flavor.

Someone has stifled an orchestral conductor with really quite a lot of sheets of Mendelssohn’s Elijah stuffed down his throat.

Seems excessive, even as musical criticism, ” commented Phryne.

The antics of the eccentric choir members ring true. They hated Tegennis (caricatured as a pig-in-a-suit by one anonymous chorister) and didn’t mind that he was dead, and all proclaimed their innocence in the matter. Of course.

Miss Phryne takes on the case. Oops. Miss Phryne gives tired-out police detective, Jack Robinson, assistance in solving this musical mystery. Let’s keep the record straight on that. Okay? *wink *wink.

One subplot has our heroine aiding and abetting John Willson, her former and current pro tem lover (complete with clothing ripped off in a frenzy of passion), in his bid to gain the attention of his currently unresponsive heart’s desire, Mr. Rupert Sheffield. This subplot comes with its own complete back story.

Mr. Rupert Sheffield is highly suspect for other possible international crimes, and hit men are on his trail attempting to silence him, that is, until John Wilson inadvertently foils their plans. Phryne unselfishly jumps in to solve the heart-throb problem when she realizes John is hopelessly enamored with Rupert.

Along the way to solving this mystery, you will receive music, etiquette, French cuisine, and French language lessons, all thrown in for extra measure. Phryne had been a poor nude artist’s model in France after the war so she is well-versed in all of these areas. Sorry, no recipes.

5. Overuse of Adverbs

Tinker, the fish boy, may be “endearingly intelligent,” but the adverbs in this book sound a bit high schoolish. Check these examples.

would undoubtedly award
occasionally making
confidingly laying her head
unexpectedly stung
endearingly intelligent
slightly failed
confidingly laying her head
reliably voracious
utterly uninterested
pleasantly free
rather meanly taken
really unsafe to eat
brooding darkly
particularly
extremely bitter
naturally bitter
unusually fraught rehearsal
thinking deeply
really quite a lot

Honest, I found all these adverbs in Chapter One. Greenfield uses “really quite a lot” of them. Treasure-hunting for adverbs added to the fun of reading this book! A sneak peak into Chapter Two tells us that Phryne had a “slightly sprained” ankle causing her to walk a little “gingerly” up the stairs,  dressed in a “decently quiet turquoise dress.” Well, you get the idea. The adverbs march on and on.

Move over Tom Swift!

Reviews

I checked Amazon reviews of this book and found a range of love-hate opinions. Die-hard Greenwood fans love the book; first-time Greenwood readers hate the book.

Personally, I love Phryne’s quirky and flamboyant personality, and I even got to love her adverbs. The solid plot kept me invested in the book from page three to the end.  And, to be honest, I really love those flaming pearls of longevity. I have got to have some for myself!

Obviously after twenty Phryne Fisher books, Greenwood is onto something. She has steady followers who look for the next title in the series despite (my) perceived writing problems in this volume.

Now, excuse me, I’m heading to the library to see if I can find more of Greenwood’s books. Her writing style intrigues me, including her bad habits. But as Novelist Elizabeth McCracken says “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits” (quoted in Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page). That’s what makes Greenwood’s book memorable for me. But please, don’t copy her. Go find your own bad writing habits.

Related article: I is for Izzies, Arzies, Wazzies, and Werzies

Janice Hall Heck, retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ, is quite possibly a grammar geek. You can also find her at    janiceheck.wordpress.com., on Twitter @janiceheck, and on Facebook at Janice Hall Heck.

Weekly Photo Challenge: It was a dark and stormy night…

Daily Post. WordPress Photo Challenge: Night time

Even though literary critics sharply criticize this line as clichéd, I still like it. Even a dark and stormy night can be exquisitely beautiful.

Janice Heck photo

It was a dark and stormy night. Janice Heck, photo

 

AAA – Avoid Apostrophe Atrocities – Go to Gary’s for Breakfast

After church services most summer Sundays, our little bunch of Margate-by-the-Sea (NJ) choir members (one soprano, one female tenor, two basses, and two choir groupies) goes out for breakfast.

We gather around the shiny black piano after services and begin our conversation.

Janice Heck, photo of Gary's Restaurant

Gary owns the restaurant so it is called Gary’s Restaurant, or just Gary’s for short.

Well, where share we go today?

Sal’s? Gary’s? Fitzpatick’s? Ozzie’s? Isabella’s, Jon and Patty’s?

Fitzpatrick’s, Sal’s, Ozzie’s, Isabelle’s, and Jon and Patty’s get nixed rapidly. The shoobie crowd (summer visitors to the shore) pack out these places on summer Sunday mornings.

That leaves Gary’s, our favorite offshore breakfast place.

Not only does Gary serve good breakfasts, his quaint, offshore restaurant is far away from the madding beach crowds. And, best of all, Gary knows how to use apostrophes correctly!  Five stars for him.

Common Writing Error: Substituting Plurals and Possessives (Apostrophes)

Although it seems like a simple matter to a grammar geek like me, people constantly confuse words that need or don’t need apostrophes. Facebook, Twitter, other social media sites abound with this apostrophe atrocity.

And greengrocers? They thrive on making this common error. But don’t let sign makers or bumper sticker printers off the hook. They help to perpetuate this mistake. Check out this especially egregious example of incorrect apostrophe use.

apostrophe abuse found by Tina in Naples, FL. Posted on Apostropheatrocitiesdotcom

Apostrophe abuse found by Tina in Naples, Florida. Posted on Apostrophe Atrocities dot com

Most common writing errors lists include the notoriously abused, misused, or totally ignored apostrophe. Blogs dedicated to finding and posting pictures of blatant misuse of apostrophes ridicule this particular writing error. (See Apostrophe Catastrophes and Apostrophe Abuse.) The misuse of the apostrophe is high on the list of a grammar geek’s pet peeves.

Strunk & White, in The Elements of Style, list the possessive apostrophe on nouns as the first item of importance on their list of “Elementary Rules of Usage.” In fact, apostrophes are taught in school at about the third grade and reviewed every school year after that, ad nauseum. (See Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader?)

Yet apostrophes are still frequently misused, much to the horror of Lynn Truss. This author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003) calls apostrophe errors

satanic sprinklings of redundant apostrophes that cause no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse…

Her book is about stuff we grammar geeks love but non-geeks and grammar-phobes don’t care about.

Two Questions Solve the Apostrophe Problem

When it comes to apostrophes, ask two questions.

1. Are there more than one?  If so, just add -s.

Two or more of the same thing = plural.

Two copies of one noun.

Two aardvarks, three curmudgeons, four geezers, five egomaniacs, six gastroenterologists, seven hyenas, ten apes, eleven orangutans,
…and last, but not least, twelve grammar geeks…

You get the idea. Two or more copies of one noun. Just add -s.

If you can count it, just add -s.

2. Does someone own something? An apostrophe shows ownership, possession, or connection of some sort.

When two distinct nouns have a connection, the first noun is the owner and earns the apostrophe.  See Abbey’s Alphabet for a quick review of possessives.)

Gary owns his little breakfast money-maker, so he calls it

Gary’s Restaurant.

Same with Fitzpatrick’s, Sal’s, Ozzie’s, and Isabella’s.

Fitzpatrick’s Deli
Sal’s Coal Fired Pizza (yes, they serve breakfast and pizza)
Ozzie’s Luncheonette
Isabella’s Ventnor Café

Here’s Where It Gets Tricky:  Possessives with Two Owners

What about restaurants that have two owners and both want their personal names in the restaurant name?

What should Jon and Patty call their restaurant?  What should Steve and Cookie call their restaurant? How about Chickie and Pete?

The rule is that only the second owner’s name gets the apostrophe, so the restaurant name should be written like this:

Jon and Patty’s Coffee Bar and Bistro
Steve and Cookie’s (Restaurant) By the Bay

Gary gets his apostrophes right on his kid’s menu as well. Five more stars.

Menu with apostrophes. Photo, Janice Heck

Of course, you will see this rule broken from time to time:

 Chickie’s and Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar

Chickie and Pete couldn’t agree on who got the apostrophe, so they both (incorrectly) claimed one.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to make this error in neon lights!

Instead of going to that crab house next time you want a good breakfast, go to Gary’s. You’ll love his omelets. Or, if you’re not so hungry, have a grilled cheese sandwich from the kid’s menu. And thank Gary for getting his apostrophes right!

Summer sunday-GAry's 017 (2)

 

Your Turn:

What are your English grammar, usage, and punctuation pet peeves?

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If you are a grammar geek, or just a person who wants to be sure that you use the best grammar and punctuation in all writing situations, then consider following this blog. Just click on the link on the sidebar to the left of this post. Thanks.

This post is one in a series on Writing Quirks. More Writing Quirks can be found on my other blog: Janice Heck

Graphic by Janice Heck

 

Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? Plurals and Apostrophes

During the course of my weekly Mahjong game with Linda, Suzanne, and Cathy, the conversation shifted to our English languageGraphic by Janice Heck error pet peeves.

Linda said, “I hate it when people misuse apostrophes. Don’t they learn about apostrophes in third grade?”

Well, no, in third grade the kids just want to get outside for recess to play ball. You don’t need apostrophes out on the field, just a good pitching or catching arm and fast running. With those three key ingredients, you can be a star.

Plurals and Apostrophe Confusion

It’s around third grade that apostrophes start their mischievous and devious lives.

Plurals come easily to young children, that is, until about third grade when they half-learn about apostrophes. Apostrophes look so grown up in writing that children begin to use them everywhere, forgetting what they have learned earlier about plurals. Many children get plurals and apostrophes straightened out after some patient teaching, but alas, many get stuck in third grade using apostrophes on plurals or omitting them on possessive nouns.

There’s Hope!

Teachers use an old rhyme to help children decode words with double vowels (rain, brain, pea, speak, teach, boat, coat, glue, and so on).

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

Thus in words like speak, teach, coat, and glue you pronounce the sound of the first letter (long vowels say their own name) while the second letter remains silent.

We can make up a similar rhyme to help us remember how to use apostrophes:

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

The Apostrophe’s Function

The apostrophe answers this question:   Who owns this (book, ball, pen, house, car, whatever)?

Who?   A person = Noun                Owns what?  A thing = Noun

Blaze this in Your Memory Banks: 

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

To use the possessive apostrophe correctly, you must have two nouns.

Here’s Abbey’s Alphabet to help you check out this guideline.

Check. Does every example have two nouns? (a person and an object)

Possessive nouns and apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Possessive Nouns and Apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Alas. Of  course, there are more apostrophe rules. We will talk about them in future posts. But for now, just remember that you need a possessive noun and an object noun to use an apostrophe to show possession.

Your Turn:

What writing quirks do you find in writing? What’s your pet peeve in writing?

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and the Ghostly And

In previous posts, Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior and Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire, we learned: use a comma before the conjunction and in a series (list) of three or more grammatically similar words, phrases, or clauses (even though journalists, Brits, and Aussies do not follow this convention). And remember to check the style guidelines of the publishers for whom you write to see which way they want you to use the serial comma.

The classic example using the serial comma before the conjunction:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

American flag

But you know writers. They like to mix it up a bit. Once they master this basic rule of using a comma and conjunction in a series (list), they proceed to make variations on the rule.

One Variation: The Ghostly and.

Instead of using a final conjunction before the last element in the series (list), the writer simply drops the conjunction and.Death Warmed Over

Eliminating the and in a series in a sentence can be an effective style choice. Let’s go back to the Unnatural Quarter and see what Zombie Private Investigator, Dan Shamble is investigating now. (Kevin J. Anderson, Death Warmed Over, 2012)

List of Nouns and Noun Phrases with the Ghostly and

Note: The parentheses indicate the placement of the ghostly and.

I look pretty good for a dead guy, or so I’ve been told:
well-trimmed dark hair,
striking eyes accentuated by bold eyebrows, (    )
just the right amount of “rugged.”

I like the bustle and little distracting noises around the office:
the ringing phone,
the slam of file-cabinet drawers, (    )
the clacking of a keyboard as Sheyenne’s ghost types up reports.

In the back room of the flat, behind a closed door, I could hear
a whimper,
muffled screams, (    )
the sounds of a struggle.

List of Verb Phrases with the Ghostly and

The ghostly and with a series of verb phrases builds tension in the story.

I spotted the silhouette of a large hairy form
loping among the graves,
sniffing the ground, (     )
coming closer.

Without me in the office Robin threw herself back into her cases,
filing more briefs and appeals,
appearing in court, (     )
speaking with fiery vehemence on behalf of her clients.

List of Independent Clauses (complete sentences in a series) with the ghostly and

Businesses sprang up that catered to the specialized clientele:
Commercial blood drives commissioned fresh supplies for vampire customers;
processing plants developed seasonings and treatments to make chicken “taste just like human”; (     )
restaurants and bars served the proper food choices.

In order to live peacefully together, unnaturals had learned to control their base urges and get along with one another…
Werewolves no longer killed human victims each full moon,
vampires gave up drinking all but voluntarily donated blood, (    )
zombies and ghouls foreswore eating human flesh.

The Fragmented Spirit: The Serial and, the Ghostly and, and the First Word of Sentence and.

Why not throw in another way to use the word and in a sentence (or not)?

Our grammar school teachers frowned when we innocently began sentences with a capitalized And. But writers nowadays regularly use that capitalized And to begin sentences, thumbing their noses at their grade-school teachers, I guess.

In this next example, Kevin J. Anderson throws in three different ways to use the word and:

  1. the compound sentence and,
  2. the ghostly and,
  3. and the first word of sentence And.

I’m dead, for starters—it happens.
But I’m still ambulatory, and I can still think, (     ) still be a contributing member of society (such as it is, these days).
And still solve crimes.

Thank goodness for P. I. Shamble. What would this world be like if all those zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and other assorted created had no legal assistance to solve their life’s problems?

Restless unnaturals instead of placated unnaturals? Let’s not go there! Keep up the good word, Shamble. In the meantime, the rest of us may borrow some of your writing stylistics using the conjunction and.

(Note: While zombie books are not especially a favorite of mine, I do believe it is important to read widely across all genres. Sometimes we can learn new things when reading in a genre that is not familiar to us. And, these books are funny!)

Introducing Kathryn Ross, Performance Storyteller, and her New YouTube Video

KathrynI count among my friends Kathryn Ross of The Writer’s Reverie.

Kathryn, a Performance Storyteller, is passionate about literature, history, and biblical truths, giving performances to both home and public schooled children in the Southern New Jersey area.

Dressed in the clothing style of her time frame, she dramatizes her stories and brings them to life, much to the delight and wonder of her audiences.

Kathryn’s words describe her work:

I’m Kathryn Ross, an Enrichment Artist with a passion to bless and inspire others to a life more abundant and purposeful in all good things and beauty.

I share such treasures through the power of dramatized storytelling, blogging at The Writer’s Reverie, publishing my works through Pageant Wagon Publishing, hosting teatime hospitality retreats, and exploring handcrafted creative arts through Cameo Impressions at Etsy.

My love of God and Biblical values also permeates the original literature and history programming I write and perform for varied audiences as Pageant Wagon Productions LLC. Blogging has been a way for me to explore my craft and connect with kindred spirits where a constant stream of inspiration enriches me – so I can be an enrichment in the lives of others.

Here is a video that Kathryn has just released describing her picture books that explore biblical principles.

I had the pleasure of editing one of Kathryn’s posts: Blogging: The Proof is in the Prep. Read this for seven tips for writing better blog posts.

Kathryn and I met each other fourteen years ago at a meeting of the Cumberland County Chapter of the New Jersey Society of njscw-shield-transp-300x182Christian Writers, organized by Dr. MaryAnn Diorio. We were members of the group for several years, but then I moved to another state. We recently reconnected at the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference at Cairn University in Langhorne, PA, organized by Marlene Bagnull.

In September, Kathryn and I will take the leadership role for the Cumberland County Chapter of the New Jersey Society of Christian Writers. So we have come full circle as friends, and our writing efforts have grown stronger through the years. Now we want to share what we have learned with other developing writers.

If you live in our area and want to learn more about the writing process and writing craft, join us at 7 pm at Calvary Chapel, 4630 Mays Landing Rd, Vineland, NJ (between Millville and Mays Landing). We look forward to seeing you. Maybe Kathryn will give you a preview of her coming book: Mother Chicken’s Eggs!

 

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

In Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior, serial comma (aka Harvard Comma and Oxford Comma) combatants duked it out over correct usage.

On my scoreboard, the serial comma won, hands down. But journalists, Brits, and Aussies don’t all agree with me.

A Bigger Problem: Parallel Structure

But a major underlying issue compounds the serial comma problem: parallel structure.

To be grammatically correct, both serial commas and parallel structure must be right in your writing.

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft wickedly Effective Prose (1999), reminds us of the danger of not books on writing - Hale 001understanding parallel structure and appropriate punctuation:

Some of the most hilarious errors in English result from phrases that aren’t properly tracked. If you don’t know what you’re doing, phrases will deliver you straight to The Danger Zone.

Want to avoid errors with serial commas and parallel structure and keep June Casagrande’s nasty old grammar snobs from picking on your writing (Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, 2006)?   Read on.

Look for the Lists

My husband (My Heck of a Guy, affectionately known as MyHog for short) is set in his ways about just how to loads the eating utensils in the dishwasher.

Grammar graphic by Janice Heck

(Just don’t nest the utensils. They will get cleaner if they go every-which-way.)

Whatever. Makes no difference to me; he loads the dishwasher, so he can do it any way he wants.

I must admit (but don’t tell him I said this) his method of loading the dishwasher makes it easier to empty the dishwasher. Grab a handful of knives and plop them into their home base in the utensil drawer. Repeat. In six basic swoops, the utensils are happily nested in the silverware drawer.

Serial Lists: Like Parts of Speech Go Together

Serial lists are like loading silverware in the dishwasher: like parts of speech go together.

Grammar Graphic "Parallel Lists" by Janice Heck

These patterns, known as parallel structure, keep your writing organized and bring poetic flow to your sentences. If you mix grammatical words, phrases, or clauses in lists (non-parallel structure), you not only lose the flow of your sentence, but you become snickering fodder for the grammar snobs who lie in wait ready to pounce on any and all unsuspecting and naïve writers.

Writing lists in non-parallel structure to good writers is like throwing a teaspoon down the garbage disposal while it is running: it makes a terrible clunking noise, and you just want to make it stop.

Serial Lists in Zombie TerritoryDeath Warmed Over

Zombies? I follow my own advice and read widely in all genres. So when a zombie book came my way, I read it…and laughed the entire way through.

New York Times bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson, is a master at using serial lists in his book, Death Warmed Over (2012). (All quotes in this post are from this book unless otherwise noted.)

Zombie private investigator Dan Shamble, pronounced Chambeaux, despite being dead himself, hires out to other baffled “unnaturals” (zombies, vampires, ghouls, and other utterly dead or dying creatures), each with his or her own devastating problem, all the while keeping an eye out for his own double-dealing killer.

Statistics, according to P. I. Shamble, show that these unnaturals are a serious problem:

According to the latest statistics by the DUS, the Department of Unnatural Services, about one out of every seventy-five corpses wakes up as a zombie…

With so many zombies and unnaturals around, sooner or later they will surely invade our sentences. Here’s how to root them out and get them the commas they deserve.

Lists of Words inside Sentences.

Key to success: Keep the parts of speech under control.

Private Investigator Shamble keeps these parts of speech under control with ease. Have a look:

1.  List of 3 or more single nouns.  Pattern:  …noun, noun, and noun…

The world’s a crazy place since the Big Uneasy, the event that changed all the rules and allowed a flood of baffled unnaturals to return—zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and the usual associated creatures.

I reworded Anderson’s  sentence to show that the list of nouns can be in the front of your sentence (the subject) or it can be in the back of your sentence (the predicate–as  above).

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, other baffled unnaturals, and other associated creatures have flooded the world since the Big Uneasy, making the world a crazy place.

2. List of 3 or more single adjectives. Pattern: …adjective, adjective, and adjective…

 [The werewolf hit man] was a smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human.

Lists of adjectives can go in the predicate as above or in the subject as in the reworded sentence below:

That smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human, is the werewolf hit man.

3. List of 3 or more single verbs. Pattern: …verb, verb, and verb…

The worst characters [the unnaturals] were arrested, tried, and sentenced…

Keep in mind that verb tense in series must be kept parallel too!

Lists of Phrases inside Sentences:

1. List of noun phrases: (noun plus descriptive details written here in list form so you can see the parallel structure easier)

A dead detective,
a wimpy vampire, and
other interesting characters from the supernatural side of the street
make Death Warmed Over an unpredictable walk on the weird side.
Charlaine Harris, Book Reviewer, Death Warmed Over

 Just before noon, the artist’s ghost manifested himself in our second-floor offices, wearing his preferred form:
 long ponytail,
 tie-dyed shirt, and
 paint-stained jeans.

The main door burst open, and a terrified-looking man [a vampire] ran in. He wore
a dark overcoat,
gloves,
a black floppy-brimmed hat, and
oversized wraparound sunglasses like the ones old ladies wear after cataract surgery.

Robin spread out the legal forms on the signing table. “I have
the property deed to the real estate in Greenlawn Cemetery,
the plat marking the location of the crypt, and
the ownership transfer documents for Mr. Ricketts to sign.” 

**Effective Writing Style Tip:  for added interest, vary the length of each item in the series. Most often, put your longest item last, but you can vary this arrangement to make it more interesting. Try different arrangements to see how they work.

**Bonus: Here’s a double series of adjective/noun phrases.

Many haunters, underground dwellers, sewer jockeys, and walking dead
don’t mind
ramshackle appearances, piled garbage, or thick shadows . . .

2. List of verb phrases. Pattern: …verb phrase, verb phrase, and verb phrase…

After returning to life, I had
shambled back into the office,
picked up my caseload, and
got to work again.

***

In law school, she [Robin, Shamble’s secretary, and a ghost, of course] had been able to
pull all-nighters;
study,
write a term paper,
go to class in the morning,
take an exam,
hang out with friends in the afternoon, and
party at night.

***

Days of investigation had led me to the graveyard. I
dug through the files,
interviewed witnesses and suspects,
met with the ghost artist Alvin Ricketts and separately with his indignant still-living family.

3. List of adverb phrases. Pattern: …adverb phrase, adverb phrase, and adverb phrase…

Popular writer of his own zombie novels, Jonathan Maberry, reviewed Anderson’s Death Warmed Over using a series of adverb phrases. (Note his choice of omitting the serial comma!)

Master storyteller Kevin J. Anderson’s Death Warmed Over is
wickedly funny,
deviously twisted and
enormously satisfying.
Two decaying thumbs up!
Jonathan Maberry, Review of Death Warmed Over

While the rest of us have been warned not to overuse adverbs in our writing, book reviewers seem to get thrills and energizing chills from using them willy-nilly! Oh well, when you are famous, you follow a different set of rules. (Read: Don’t Use Adverbs? Book Reviewers Use Them!)

Finally, Remember Four Key Principles when Using Parallel Structure

  1. Look for series/lists in sentences. Good writers use them.
  2. Keep like parts of speech together in series/lists (parallel structure).
  3. Keep verb tense the same in a series of verb phrases.
  4. Use the serial comma (the comma before the conjunction).

Follow these simple guidelines, and you will keep the grammar meanies away forever!

Of course, there are more ways to use parallel structure, and future posts will give examples of these: Parallel structure with clauses coming soon.

**Effective Writing Style tip: Good writers use parallel structure to bring rhythm and flow to their writing.

And now, if you want to read more about the zombie invasion, here is another Kevin Anderson book., Hair Raising.book for blog - Anderson, Hair Raising 001

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote using parallel structure?

Can you use one of Anderson’s sentence patterns in your writing using your own topic-related words?

 

Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior

Academics and journalists duke it out when it comes to using serial commas in sentences.

Serial commas (aka the Oxford comma and the Harvard Comma)

…come before conjunctions (most often before and, or)

…when used in a series (or list) of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in sentences.

Commas in series, graphic

What are the colors in the American flag? The academics write it this way:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.       (with serial comma)

American flag

The journalists (along with the Brits and Aussies) favor this writing:

The British flag is red, white and blue.       (without serial comma)

British flag

The Battleground

Turns out there is a long history of wordy disputes between these two deeply-rooted warring camps.  Lynn Truss, a Brit and author of TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves, traces the conflict back hundreds of years and advises,

Never make the mistake of getting between these two groups, especially when the beer is flowing.

Trouble raises its ugly head when an editor from each group reads the same manuscript. The comma advocate will tsk-tsk through the writer’s masterpiece compulsively jabbing commas before the conjunction where they see a series of words, phrases, or clauses in sentences. The opposing editor, equally vociferous in his tsk-tsking, goes through the manuscript slashing out the serial commas that the comma advocate so rambunctiously inserted into the manuscript.

What’s a writer to do? Which warring faction should you join? Where will you throw your lance?

The AcademicsChicago Manual of Style

The academics have some pretty hefty backers sitting in their bleachers:  The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2004), Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (2000), and Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) all favor the serial comma

Garner puts it this way:

…virtually all writing authorities outside that field [journalism] recommend keeping it [the serial comma].

Though widely criticized for their simplistic approach to writing style and usage, Strunk and White post this as their number 2 ruleStrunk and White in The Elements of Style, 4th edition (2000).

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write:  red, white, and blue…

Others join the fray: Roy Peter Clark in his The Glamour of Grammar (2010) says this:Clark, Glamour of Grammar

…when it comes to the serial commas, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before and in a series. I need it.

casagrande4, sentencesTo seal the deal, June Casagrande, author of It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences, (2010) says:

fight to the death (or at least to the pain) for the serial comma.

The Journalists, Brits, and Aussies

Two American heavies weigh in on this serial comma issue on the side of the journalists: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2002) and The Associated Press Stylebook (2010).

The Associated Press Stylebook is the authority on this subject for journalists. Here’s what it has to say:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.

The flag is red, white and blue.

Newspapers fight to keep that extra comma out of their text lines because they, well, take up space. They do allow for adding the comma when their might be some ambiguity. Ambiguous advice, don’t you think?

Comma Middle Ground

Lynn Truss heads for the quieter and saner middle ground in this fierce rivalry:

One shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.

Truss does admit that the

comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves…is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest.

June Casagrande says in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (2006),Casagrande, Grammar Snobs

Most people don’t know [how to use commas], so they wing it.

In fact, most people dutifully (and ignorantly) follow the old misguided adage,

Put a comma in wherever you pause to take a breath.

Pity those poor non-fluent, word-by-word, mouth-breathing readers who pause after each word as they read!

So there you have it: two opposing camps (some dodging the arrows in the comma middle ground) with strong arguments (they think) for their own staunch positions.

What’s a writer to do?

Of course, you will find all three approaches to using the serial comma as you read books, newspaper articles, and blog posts. But what should a writer do?

Simple: If you write to earn money, follow the style sheet put out by the organization that you write for.

But truth be told, I hang out with the comma advocates. I love the serial comma, and I add them physically or mentally to everything I read. I advise you to do the same. That will save me a lot of tsk-tsking when I edit your manuscript.

Finally, just remember this: If you write to your mother, just wing it. She won’t care if you have that comma in her letter or not, just write the letter. But please, please stop that mouth-breathing. It’s annoying.

 

Coming Soon…

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

Seial Commas and the Ghostly And

 

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