First, be awake.

Conscious: Awake; aware and knowing that something exists.

Conscientious: “Governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience”; concerned with doing something correctly.

Before I can be conscientious about taking a specific action, I need to be conscious of the possibility. Here’s an example: Before I can be conscientious about recycling batteries, I need to know (be aware) that there are special rules in place for that. I can’t be concerned with following the rules until I know they exist.

First, I need to be conscious of the recycling statutes in my community.

Then, I need to be conscientious about adhering to those statutes.

Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 3, Interrupted Dialogue

“Whaddaya mean, interrupted? I’m talkin’ like I al—” Nick jumped as a heavy book flew off the shelf behind him and landed at his feet with a thud.

Forgive me, but it’s Halloween. I had to do something seasonal.

As you can see in that first paragraph, there’s an example of a common type of interrupted dialogue: an intrusion of an action into someone’s speech.

You need to provide some kind of ending punctuation to the speech if the interruption occurs in the middle of a word. Here I’ve used an em dash. There’s not much choice, honestly. I can’t use a period, because the sentence isn’t finished. He’s not questioning, so I can’t use a question mark. It’s not an exclamation, either. Nick is cut off in the middle of the word “always” by what I suspect is poltergeist activity (or perhaps a mischievous cat with back-shelf access and strong muscles). I’ll wager you think you need to use a hyphen, but a case like this one uses an em dash.

When an action intrudes into dialogue this way, an em dash signals “Hey! Watch this!” (I’ll even give you chapter and verse. Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition, 6.86.) It goes where all terminal punctuation for speech goes: inside the closing quotes. There is no space on either side of it per Chicago style. (AP is different, but if you’re writing anything other than news copy, you probably aren’t using AP anyway.)

There could be a need for two em dashes, if the action is in the middle of one person’s speech. Then it looks like this:

“So you don’t believe in poltergeists, Nick? Funny, I’d figured you for one of those”—Phoebe waggled her fingers at him like a cartoon witch casting a spell—“paranormal fanboys.”

Sure, you could put that beat after the speech, but then you lose the effect of her waggling her fingers at him while she’s talking. Consider where the beat needs to go, and write accordingly. Play around with it if you need to. No one will ever know how many iterations you went through (unless you whine about it publicly on social media).

Look at that example. It’s a little different from Nick’s interrupted speech, isn’t it? Phoebe finishes a word before that beat shows up, so there’s no need for an em dash before the closing quotation marks of her first speech. Instead, place an em dash after the closing quotation marks and before the beat, and then place another after the beat and before the next opening quotation marks. Those em dashes punctuate the beat, not the speech. The first word of the second direct speech (paranormal) is not capitalized; there’s no reason for it to be. It’s the next word in her sentence. If that beat hadn’t intruded you wouldn’t capitalize it, so there’s no reason to do so now. The normal rules apply, even when there’s an intruding beat.

What about when someone trails off and doesn’t finish their speech? That’s when you want suspension points or ellipses. Here’s how they work:

Nick glowered at her. “I’m not a fanboy. I’ve never been a fanboy. Just because I have a healthy . . .” His annoyance flagged as his gaze moved, drawn to the flickering lamp in the opposite corner of the room. “Was that lit before? I don’t think that was lit before. I could swear that when we came in . . .” He swallowed hard as the lampshade rotated slowly, clockwise.

As usual, the suspension points go inside the closing quotes. They’re punctuating the speech.

She snickered and walked over to the side table, taking the fringed lower edge of the lampshade between thumb and forefinger to stop it. “You’re a nervous Nelly now, aren’t—OH MY GOD!”

Pheobe had been so sure of herself until . . . something happened. I’ll let you decide what it was. That’s a different kind of interrupted speech, which begins with one tone or subject and suddenly switches to something entirely different. As usual, use an em dash to indicate the change.

Those are the main types of interrupted dialogue, the ones you’re most likely to encounter while reading or to use in your writing. The main things to remember are:

  • Use an em dash if the speaker stops mid-word, in the same way as you’d use a hyphen. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash if the speaker’s able to complete a word, but someone or something stops them before they finish their thought. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash to indicate a sharp change in tone or subject within speech.
  • Use em dashes to punctuate the intruding beat. Place them outside the quotation marks and don’t put spaces on either side of them.
  • Use suspension points to indicate faltering or trailing speech. Put them inside the closing quotation marks. (You can use spaced periods as I did, or you can use the single three-dot glyph your word-processing software provides. If you use the glyph, put a space before and after it.)

Paragraph-Spanning Speech

This doesn’t merit a post of its own, so I’ll include it here. When a single speaker’s speech continues over two or more paragraphs, you don’t put closing quotation marks at the end of each. You put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each, and closing quotes at the end of the entire speech. It looks rather like this:

“What did you expect? We come to the town’s most famous haunted house on Halloween, and you thought what? That nothing would happen?” Pheobe was more than a little irritated. She paced around the coffee table in the middle of the parlor like a panther in a pit trap. “And now that something has happened, you want to—I don’t know, call the cops? I’m really disappointed in you, Nick. I thought you had cojones or something.

            “All right, then. You want to leave, we’ll leave.” She strode across the room and grabbed the door latch. It didn’t budge. Rattling it harder, she glanced back to Nick, who was still staring at the lampshade. “HEY! I said you want to leave, we’ll leave. Help me get this door open.”

Will they get the door open? Will Nick snap out of his fugue? And what about Naomi?

I hope these three posts have helped answer the most common questions about punctuating dialogue. Don’t hesitate to contact me either via email (karen.conlin15@gmail.com) or G+ if there’s something I didn’t discuss that you want to know. I’m always happy to explain and educate.

 

Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 2, Tags and Beats

A tag can comprise as few as two words. He said is a tag. So is she screamed. So is they chorused.

Now, some folks will tell you to never, EVER use any word other than said as a tag. They’re entitled to their opinion, of course. I happen not to share it. A well-placed he muttered, especially in books aimed at younger readers, says far more than he said. My opinion is that tags work better for less-practiced readers, and that “tagless” dialogue is a method better used with adult audiences who are (one hopes) more sophisticated, more used to extracting information from the dialogue itself. A middle-grade reader might be able to do that, sure. But one can’t count on all middle-graders to be that advanced. The reverse is also true: Not all adult readers are well versed in gleaning information from surrounding text, and indeed might prefer to be explicitly told how someone is saying something.

There are no rules, and the guidelines are awfully flexible. You’ll need to feel your way through and find your own best answers.

What follows here, then, is mostly my personal philosophy about tags and beats. Of course there are a few guidelines that aren’t mine, such as “don’t use a tag after every line of dialogue.” That’s what some would call common sense. Cluttering up the page with he said and she replied (OH MY GOD SHE DIDN’T USE SAID! Shaddup, you) is stealing thunder from your dialogue and insulting to the reader. You don’t need a beat after every line, either. Use them when you need them. Use them instead of tags to help the reader see and hear your characters. Let’s explore this a bit.

The Tag

“Hello, Charlie,” she said.

There. That’s a line of dialogue with a tag. (Tags are also called “attributions.” They attribute dialogue to a specific speaker.) As I discussed yesterday, the dialogue is enclosed in double quotation marks, and there’s a comma before the closing quote. Her statement would normally end with a period, but it’s dialogue so it ends with a comma; the period at the end, after said, is the terminal punctuation for the entire sentence.

If you’re really good at dialogue, you might be able to write an entire section (not necessarily a chapter, but a good-sized chunk of text) without using a single tag or beat. I’ve seen it done. Not often, mind you, but I’ve seen it. That comes with practice and not a little talent. I don’t recommend it for beginners.

Now consider this:

“Hello, Charlie,” she whispered.

That’s different from said. I can hear the difference in the words because the tag indicates to me that she’s whispering, not merely speaking. Beats can do this, too, but I don’t want to discuss those just yet. There’s more you need to know about tags.

Tags can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of dialogue. So far I’ve shown them at the end.

She said, “Hello, Charlie.”

Place a comma after the verb in the attribution, and enclose the dialogue in quotes like normal using appropriate terminal punctuation placed inside the closing quotation marks.

“What I want to know,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “is how you got out without help.”

There it’s in the middle, interrupting the direct speech. The first clause is punctuated with a comma, because there’s more coming after the attribution. The attribution itself is punctuated with a comma (after cup in this case) because there’s more speech coming; the sentence isn’t done, yet. In this example she’s making a statement, so the terminal punctuation is a period before the closing quotation marks.

“But Karen, why isn’t it a question mark? She’s asking a question, right?” Wrong.

She says she wants to know how he got out. She’s stating that. She’s not asking. If she were asking, she might say the following (take note of the change in punctuation):

“So tell me, Charlie,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “how did you get out without help?”

Now she’s asking a question. The attribution still interrupts her speech, so the first part ends with a comma (after “Charlie”), and we still use a comma after cup because there’s more speech coming, but now the sentence ends with a question mark just as it would if it wasn’t speech. It’s a question. Put a question mark before the closing quotation marks.

There are other ways of punctuating interrupted speech, but I’m saving those for the next part of this series. Right now I want to stick with the basics of commas and quotation marks.

The Beat

If you have too many tags, you can swap some of them out for beats. A beat is, simply put, an action performed by the speaker. It might help us hear how the speaker says the dialogue. It might provide us with some additional information about the speaker’s mental state. It might just tell us what the speaker’s doing while talking.

“What I want to know, Charlie, is how you got out without help.” She took an elaborately etched vintage Zippo from her Coach clutch, opened it with a flick of her wrist, and lit an unfiltered Camel. “How about you tell me that, okay?”

I don’t know about you, but I think that gal means business. And she either has money or knows what resale shops carry high-end leather goods.

“How I got . . . well . . . actually, I did have help.” Charlie was studying her so closely he nearly missed the table with his tumbler. His right foot tap-danced against the table leg.

Nervous fellow, isn’t he? I could have used a tag like Charlie said nervously, but this is much more useful to the reader.

Recap

Tags, or attributions, are (usually) two or three-word clauses that tell us who spoke. She said. Charlie replied. They cheered. Tags are fine, but beware of using too many of them. If there are only two speakers, you don’t need a tag after every line of dialogue. Each change of speaker begins on a new line; let that guide the reader, rather than explicitly stating he said and she said (or whatever words are appropriate, of course).

Beats are actions performed by the speaker. The gal up there a few paragraphs smokes unfiltered Camels and owns a pretty pricey handbag, as we see from the beat. Charlie’s the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs as he’s talking with her, nearly missing the table when he sets his glass down. Those actions, those beats, help the reader form a more complete mental image.

In the next part of this series I’ll talk in depth about interrupted dialogue and the ways you can choose to punctuate it. I’ll show you how to use em dashes to insert beats. Additionally, I’ll cover single-speaker dialogue that spans paragraphs. (That’s not really interrupted, but it’s confusing for a lot of people.) It’ll be fun. Promise.

 

Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 1, Quotation Marks

Why write yet another series of posts about dialogue, when there are myriads out there already for the reading (if one bothers to search)?

Because a) many folks don’t bother to search, and b) I always have a slightly different take on subjects, a take that many people seem to appreciate. So, I’m tackling this subject from the chair of a freelance editor who sees things. Terrible things.

(All right, not always terrible things. Sometimes I see amazing things, uplifting things. But there’s plenty of terrible to go around.)

Let’s get down to business.

I’m breaking this into a series because, let’s face it, there’s just too much to cram into a single entry. There are too many variables, too many options, too many ways to correctly punctuate depending on other active factors. And I’m still deciding, as I write, just how to tackle this in the most meaningful, useful manner. Bear with me; we’ll get there.

I think I’ll begin with the most obvious punctuation for dialogue: quotation marks. I’m a US editor, and while I have experience with UK style, I am writing from a US perspective and using US rules and guidelines. If you need UK rules, you can find them with an Internet search or in any number of style guides readily available at libraries and online. (Tip: They’re not as different as many people seem to think they are. Most of what I have to say here will apply equally to both sides of the pond.)

Part 1: Quotation Marks

“But Karen, we already know this part!” If that were true, I’d not be seeing errors in manuscripts.

Quotation marks enclose direct speech. In the first sentence of this part, I used them to enclose what I hear my thousands of followers saying, as if they were actually saying it. (As if my thousands of followers actually care what I say.) Notice that the terminal punctuation, in this case an exclamation point, goes inside the closing quotation marks. Notice also that there is no additional terminal punctuation outside the closing marks. That exclamation point punctuates the sentence.

Here are a few examples with different kinds of punctuation: some incorporate beats, some use tags. I did not create any examples of interrupted speech. I’ll be covering beats/tags and interruptions in detail in their own dedicated parts.

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing,” Mary said.

(Mary’s statement is a declarative sentence that would normally end with a period. Because it’s in dialogue, and because there’s a tag [Mary said], the period becomes a comma. The terminal punctuation for the entire sentence is the period following “said.”)

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary snorted and shot him a dirty look.

(Here I’ve used a beat—an action—rather than a tag. It’s an issue of personal preference for me. Saying “asked” when there’s a question mark already letting us know someone is asking something is redundant, if you think about it. Why not tell us what the speaker does after she speaks? In this case, Mary’s pretty ticked off about whatever her companion is doing, so she snorts at him and gives him a nasty look. The question mark serves as terminal punctuation for the dialogue, which is contained in quotes as usual. The beat gets its own terminal punctuation in the form of the period at the end.)

“Get out, now!” he shouted as he ran down the stairs.

(The dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation point inside the quotation marks. “He shouted” is a tag, and it’s followed by a modifier in the form of two prepositional phrases [as he ran and down the stairs]. Notice that there is NO COMMA following “shouted” in this construction. There’s no requirement for one, and if I see one there, I will delete it. Now you know. However, look at the next one:)

“Get out, now!” he shouted, running down the stairs.

(The dialogue is exactly the same, but the tag is different. This time, “shouted” is followed by a different kind of modifier—the participle running. The rules require a comma after “shouted” in this construction, and if I don’t see one, I will insert one. Again, now you know.)

What about nested dialogue? You know, as in when someone’s reporting exactly what someone else said? It’s not all that difficult, either. Look at this.

“That’s when he said, ‘Mary, I could throw you off this cliff if I really wanted to.’”

(Mary’s telling someone exactly what was said to her. Therefore, that speech needs to be enclosed in quotation marks as well. We use single quotes for this purpose. In typesetting the final version, it’s often suggested that a thin space be inserted between the final single and double quotes to improve readability. Notice, too, that there’s a comma after “said” and before the opening single quotation mark just as there would be if this were not nested dialogue. The rules don’t change.)

However, sometimes the speech is paraphrased or indirect. Then it looks like this:

“That’s when he said that he could throw me off this cliff if he really wanted to,” sobbed Mary.

(I assume she might well be sobbing, given the threat in the reported speech. Again, as with the first example, Mary’s speech is a declarative statement so the period that would otherwise be there becomes a comma before the closing quotation marks, and the period at the end punctuates the entire sentence. It’s the same concept we use for reported speech outside of dialogue. John said that he’d throw Mary off the cliff. No quotation marks at all, see? Cool.)

All right. This entry focused on quotation marks and terminal punctuation. Enclose direct speech within quotation marks. If direct speech contains quoted direct speech from another character, enclose the speaker’s words in double quotes and the quoted speech in single quotes. If the direct speech is a declarative statement and you’re using a tag after the speech, put a comma before the closing quotation marks and end the entire sentence with a period. If the direct speech is a question, put the question mark before the closing quotation marks. (And if you’re using a tag with that speech that’s a question, put a period at the end of it; that becomes the terminal punctuation for the sentence.)

Next time I’ll discuss more about tags and beats. See you then!

ESL and the pronoun

I’m editing a novel by a foreign author. His English is quite good (as one would expect from someone with a doctorate in media and communications), but still — I can tell he’s an ESL writer. The kinds of errors I find are peculiar, in my experience, to ESL speakers and writers.

Take the lowly pronoun “his.” This particular ESL writer often uses “his” to mean “belonging to the main character, the man whose point of view controls the narrative.”

The problem is, quite often “his” grammatically refers to an entirely different character, and when I dig into the sentence, that “his” needs to become “Name’s” (the name of the main character) instead to make the meaning clear. Let me see if I can construct an example. (I don’t have permission to use this author’s writing in this manner, so I’m going to create something that’s similar. Bear with me. It’s difficult for me to make this kind of error on purpose, let alone by accident. No bragging, just facts.)

They sat at the table, John and Sam. Sam could see the wound on John’s arm. John’s tunic was bloody from the cut, even though it had been stitched neatly by his sister.

This ESL writer would contend that “his sister” means “Sam’s sister,” since Sam’s the one doing the seeing. That’s not how English works, though; grammatically, the referent for “his” in this instance is “John,” since he’s the one wearing the bloody tunic. (And granted, it takes a little work to get there, too. I purposely made this a little unclear, to show you the issues as I find them in ESL writers’ work.) Even if we’ve never been told that John has a sister at all, and we know that Sam does, that doesn’t mean “his sister” always means “Sam’s sister.” For the reader to know without a doubt whose sister did the stitching, the sentence needs to read “by Sam’s sister.”

We had a rather lengthy discussion about POV when I edited his first novel in this series. It was difficult to persuade him that yes, English really does have rules about pronouns, and no, “his” cannot always mean “belonging to the main character whose POV controls the story.” Just because “he” is the one through whose senses we’re experiencing the events does not mean that “his” will always refer to “him.” That “him,” that is. I mean the “him” who is the main character.

See the problem?

YouTube! I am on it.

It came to my attention last night (thanks to my auto-tweets) that the link from two years ago was broken. Quelle surprise, non? Pursuant to that information, here’s an updated link. Just follow the trail if you want to see more.

Karen Conlin and David Arney, Professional Editors Podcast Ep. 101

We did eight or ten of these. I’m honestly not sure they’re still all available. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Feelin’ Alright”

If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.

You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?

I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.

Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.

My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”

Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953″ according to Online Etymology (http://etymonline..com).

And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.

There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.

 

 

I’m loath to admit I loathe most country music.

That ought to raise a few eyebrows, but at least it won’t be for poor diction. (Also: Honestly? I’m not in the least bit loath to make that admission. There. I said it.)

Loath is an adjective; it means “unwilling to do something because it’s disagreeable for some reason.” I’m loath to eat raw octopus because the texture is offensive to me.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster online dictionary indicates that (much to the frustration of many copy editors) “loathe” is an alternate spelling.

Why does that frustrate some of us? Because, you see, loathe is the verb.There is no alternate spelling for the verb. It’s loathe. That’s it. And it means “detest, abhor.” I loathe the fact that “loathe” is an alternative spelling for loath.

I may be loosening up a little more in my pragmatic grammarian stance, continuing my journey toward descriptivism, but I still loathe this particular situation.