Let’s talk about run-on sentences how do you know one when you see one?

First, know that it caused me psychological pain to type that title. It’s a run-on sentence, you see. There are two complete thoughts (“Let’s talk about run-on sentences” and “how do you know one when you see one?”), but they run together without any visual cue, without proper mechanics. The grammar is just fine. It’s the mechanics that are missing–except for that question mark at the end, and the apostrophe for the contraction of “let us.” (You knew that’s what “let’s” means, right? Good.)

Second, here’s why I want to talk about them: people don’t understand what they are. Oh, when they’re short, like the one in this title, they get it right. But when a sentence goes on for what the average reader considers “paragraph length,” that reader assumes it HAS to be a run-on. And many times, that reader is wrong. Continue reading “Let’s talk about run-on sentences how do you know one when you see one?”

Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?

Earlier this morning I had reason to look for this post from December, 2016, in which I talked about dialogue and reactions. In it, I said I’d be writing another one “soon(ish)” about when dialogue needs to start on a new line.

It’s soon(ish) now. (Hey, it hasn’t been a year yet. That has to count for something, right?)

I’m still seeing the thing that caused me to say this post was needed. No surprise there; the way teachers address dialogue in standard English classes (from, let’s say, middle school on through college) is sorely lacking in nuance and clarity, from my experience. They drill this information into students’ heads: “Always begin dialogue on a new line.” The missing part is “from a new speaker.” The way dialogue appears on the page is a cue to the readers about who’s talking. Every new line indicates a change of speaker.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Continue reading “Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?”

Back to basics: commas and appositives

I’ll bet I scared someone already with the last word in that title.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post came about because of a conversation on Twitter, begun by this tweet from Andy Bechtel (@andybechtel):

I’m not agreeing with that decision, either. Nor are many folks. But there are a few who don’t understand why it’s wrong. This post is for them. (Maybe it’s for you. I don’t know.)

So–appositives. What’s an appositive? It’s a grammatical structure in which two nouns or equivalents stand for the same thing. “This is my brother Bob.” Brother and Bob stand for the same person. “My first car, a Buick Century, burst into flames on the freeway.” My first car and a Buick Century stand for the same thing.

So what’s with the commas? There isn’t one in the first example, but there are two in the second.

The speaker in the first example has several brothers. We’re being introduced to the one named Bob. (Let’s say the others are Joe and Sam.)  If he had only one brother, we’d put a comma after “brother” to indicate that fact. (Mechanics are important, folks. They help us correctly understand what’s being presented to us.)

In the second example, the speaker (I’ll admit it, that’s my first car and that’s the fate it suffered) is talking about the first car they owned. There have been other cars afterward. The first one, though, was that Buick Century. Since there can be only one “first” of anything, there’s a comma setting off “a Buick Century” to show that it’s giving more information about that “first car.” If we removed that phrase from the sentence (commas indicate that we can pull out what’s set off by them), we still have a logical sentence. “My first car burst into flames on the freeway.”

Remember Bob? If he was the only brother, we’d put a comma after “brother” to indicate that fact. It’s consistent, this rule. (Not a guideline. A rule. There aren’t many, so those of you who like them should be happy at this point.) Then the statement “This is my brother” would be all the information we need. His name is a nice extra, but not required for understanding. If there are more brothers, though, we need his name to know which one we’re meeting. The name is required, so in that case it’s not set off with a comma.

Now, let’s look at the image in the tweet from Andy. During the Twitter conversation, he clarified that this is the first sentence in the essay. That makes a difference. We haven’t been told about this novel earlier in the piece. It’s the first mention. It’s not the only novel ever written, certainly, and it’s not the only novel ever written by Thomas Hardy (myself, I prefer The Mayor of Casterbridge). Because it’s not a unique entity, we need to indicate that to the readers. It’s THAT novel, not this one over here. We don’t use any commas on this first mention, just as we didn’t use any with brother Bob.

The way Andy’s son punctuated that sentence is correct. It’s that particular novel, which bears the title Tess of the d’Urbervilles. My brother Bob. The novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The film Gone with the Wind.

Now. IF (and this IF is important) the essay had begun differently, with a prior mention of the novel, we would set the title off with commas. Perhaps his son would have written:

Thomas Hardy was already a well-established novelist when The Graphic began publishing his most recent novel as a serial in 1891. That novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, has become a bane of AP English students in recent years.

NOW we need the commas, because the novel has already been introduced in a previous sentence. “His most recent novel” is the first mention. The second mention provides us with the title as an appositive (both “that novel” and the title refer to the same thing), and it’s set off with commas. We’re reading about one specific novel, which has already been mentioned; now we have more information about that same novel.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments or over on my Twitter feed. Writers need to understand the reasons behind mechanics. (So do editors, for that matter, but in my experience it’s the writers who ask the questions.)

Time to tighten up

Of course I’m talking about writing.

One of the main problems I see with new writers is a tendency to overwrite. Sometimes it’s like reading a play replete with stage directions. Every move is explained in excruciating detail. “He lifted the glass with his left hand, while his right hand idly stroked his thigh, which was covered by fine wool trousers in a shade of gray not unlike brushed steel. The ice cubes, square, not round, clinked against the glass as he sipped the single malt Scotch. His tongue darted out to catch an errant droplet, and then he wiped his lips with the back of his right hand before letting it come to rest on the hand-crocheted cotton armrest cover protecting the upholstered arm of the Chippendale chair.” Continue reading “Time to tighten up”

On peeververein and the burnishing of credentials

This post has been banging around in my head for a few days. I’m going to try again to get it out of my gray matter and into pixel form so I can stop thinking about it.

Perhaps I’m a bad editor, but I refuse to read the local papers’ columns by “grammar experts.” (When I say “local,” I mean local to anywhere; the tiny burg I live in has little more than a broadsheet filled with want ads, for-sale/giveaway ads, and minutes of the local school board and PTO meetings. However, the power of the internet lets me access papers from all around the country. But I digress.) Why don’t I read them? Continue reading “On peeververein and the burnishing of credentials”

Notional concord redux

I wrote about the concept of notional concord here. Refresh your memory if you like before reading farther. I’ll wait.

All right. I just encountered the following.

“Each of these disparate images have their own story […]”

The problem is that phrase “of these disparate images.” Without that, we know that “each” implies a singular thing, one item, and therefore takes a singular verb. However, as soon as we put a phrase after it that contains a plural noun, things get complicated. The MWDEU invokes Copperud and says that “notional agreement appears to be gaining ground over grammatical agreement.” Continue reading “Notional concord redux”