Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

Grammar Day 2018

I love grammar.

More precisely, I love grammar, usage, syntax, semantics, and mechanics.

I’m one of those bitchy editors who will point out that “grammar” as used by Average  Robin encompasses all of those things, which is why “grammar quizzes” are usually bullshit. Most of what’s in them isn’t grammar. It’s mechanics or spelling or usage or style. And that last one has a lot of gray areas, so making a generalized quiz about it is fucking cruel. No, it’s NOT wrong if you don’t use a serial comma. Not as clear as it could be, perhaps, but it’s not wrong. Continue reading “Grammar Day 2018”

G-string, but g-force

In the category of “things editors need to fact-check,” today we have “G-string.”

First, a bit of culture. Please enjoy this video of “Air on the G-string” by J. S. Bach, played on original instruments. I suspect that means “on instruments originally specified by the composer” as opposed to “instruments the original composer used in his own lifetime,” but I could be wrong. It happens.

When we write about strippers (see why I shared some classical culture first?), we probably write about what they wear. Those little bits of fabric that keep the dancers just on the proper side of the law (except where total nudity is legal, that is) are called “G-strings” with a capital G. According to Chambers, the original spelling was “gee-string” (1878), but by 1891 it had changed to “G-string.” It’s very possible that the term’s related to the string of a violin tuned to G. They’re both about the same width. ::cough:: I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point. Or the picture. Whatever. Also according to Chambers, the first recorded use of the term to refer to something a stripper wears dates to 1936, in Big Money by John Dos Passos.

By comparison, “g-force” is styled with a lower-case g because that’s how gravity is referenced in physics equations. It’s not an arbitrary editorial decision. We need to be aware of why terms are styled the way they are.

And now, I have to get back to this project with the G-string. Something about a demon dancer in a strip club. No Bach, I’m sure.

Ginger Page? No thanks.

Pursuant to a discussion with Google+ user Fiber Babble about proofreaders and grammar checkers, I looked into Ginger Page, a free grammar and spelling checker (and supposedly much more) that I heard about on Twitter.

What follows is an edited version of a series of posts I made at G+ earlier this morning. You can read the original here. Continue reading “Ginger Page? No thanks.”

The Beatles had it right — for a pun, anyway

Today’s tour of Homophone Hell visits several words: core, corps, corpse, and corp (the latter properly styled Corp.).

Why the Beatles? Some readers will recall the company founded by the Fab Four in 1968: Apple Corps. “Corps” is pronounced like “core,” and we know what an apple core is, right? The name’s a wonderful pun on that, in addition to playing on “Corp.”, which is short for “corporation.” More on those two later.

“Core” isn’t the real issue here. I very seldom see this one misused in print. Apparently it’s pretty easy for folks to grasp all around: the core of the matter, a reactor core, etc.

Now, to the problem children.

“Corps” is the word you see when someone talks about the full name of the U.S. Marines: The United States Marine Corps. It’s not an abbreviation. That’s the whole word, right there: corps. It’s also used in the Peace Corps and Job Corps. “Corps” isn’t always capitalized: The press corps was kept waiting for three hours while the Congress threw spitballs across the aisles at one another.

Say “core” when you see “corps,” and know that it means either an organized part of the military, a military group with two or more divisions (in the technical military sense of the word), or a group of people involved in an activity (that’s the press corps). It’s not the Marine Corp., unless you’re talking about a company (Marine) that uses “corporation” in its name (Corp.) — and then you’d say “Marine Corporation.”

“Corps” and “Corp.” seem to be the biggest problems, based on my experience as a copyeditor. (I’ll blame the words, not their users. It’s kinder to all concerned.)

Then we have “corpse.” It’s pronounced as you’d expect: korps. It means a dead body. While you might think it is a homophone for “corps,” it isn’t. (Or, think of it the other way around: “Corps” isn’t a homophone for “corpse.” Whichever way works for you is how you need to think of it.) While dead bodies are certainly offensive to some folks, the word “corpse” isn’t a big offender in this particular arena — I seldom see it misused.

All right, then. “Core” and “corps” are homophones. The latter means an organized group (military or otherwise). “Corpse” is pronounced with the final -s aspirated (meaning it’s a hissing sound). And “corp” isn’t correct unless it’s styled “Corp.” and is used instead of “Corporation.”

Now I think it’s time to check on the press corps, and perhaps send a few nasty emails to the Exxon-Mobil Corp. while I’m at it. Better yet, I’ll pack up some apple cores and ship ’em off to my representatives. They didn’t earn fruit baskets this year.

Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)

If it ain’t got style . . .

“Style,” as I am using it in this post, refers to the standardization of word presentation. Some styles call for titles to be underlined; others call for them to be italicized. Some styles use what is termed “sentence case” (first word capitalized, all others lower case unless proper noun/adjective), others use “title case” (capitalize all words except articles and conjunctions, unless the title begins with one) for journal articles in a bibliography or a foot-/endnote. Readers come to depend on the style to give them clues about the nature of the work called out by title. I see italics, I assume the work is a book.  I see quotation marks, I assume the work is a musical piece or perhaps a film. (My intent here is  not to discuss preferring one style to another, as you will see shortly. It is to explain that style is needed for multiple reasons, of which one is contextual clues. Stick with me, please.)

My daughter is taking her English course online. One of her lessons last week dealt with analogies (presented in the common “A:B :: 1:2” format). Here is the one that threw her (and me), as it appeared on the screen.

Romeo and Juliet : drama

No punctuation of any kind. No identifying clues whatsoever. Before you say “But Karen, that’s obviously a title!” let me continue with the first possible answer provided.

Zeus : mythology

“Hm. Romeo and Juliet are characters in a drama, and Zeus is a character in mythology. Given the other options here, that one seems pretty good. One of these down here farther is a title and a genre, but that title’s not set off in any way, either . . . so the best answer seems to be the first one, because we can’t know which meaning–characters or title–is intended, since there’s no style applied to the words Romeo and Juliet.”

This harks back to my rant about poorly written worksheets. There’s no excuse in my book for not setting off the title “Romeo and Juliet” in some manner, whether as I just did or in italics. (Remember, I’m not advocating for any particular style. I’m advocating for style, period. What I learned in junior high and high school isn’t the same as what I used on the job in educational publishing or the game-publishing field. The kind of presentation is not important. The existence of a consistent-within-the-work style is.) Had that been done properly (whatever was deemed proper in this instance by the writer/publisher of the electronic course), this high-school sophomore wouldn’t have been left guessing. She could have chosen the right answer the first time, instead of being made to weigh options. If the point of the exercise is to learn to choose the best answer, weighing options is a good thing. If the point of the exercise is to choose the right answer, that answer should be easy to choose from the list (assuming one’s been paying attention to the lesson, of course).

Here endeth today’s rant.

From soup to nuts (with a proofreader)

A dear friend of mine just purchased a franchise from Zoup! (They use the exclamation point the same way our blog does, as part of the name.) I jokingly commented to him to please tell me their menus will be professionally edited and proofread–and then, of course, I went to the franchise’s site to see a menu for myself. My friend won’t have any control over what’s printed on his restaurant’s menu, sorry to say.

It’s nowhere near the eyesore provided by Alice Cooperstown, but it’s not perfect, either.

The first question I have is: If the name of the place is Zoup!, why isn’t “soup” spelled that way as the menu category? It’s probably some copyright/licensing issue, but it really looks odd to me. I expected to see the “cute” spelling carried through. They’ve replaced the “s” on “greens,” and the “es” on “sandwiches,” so why not the “s” on “soup”?

I won’t pick the whole thing apart, but I’ll speak to it in generality. Numerous hyphens are missing from compound adjectives (like “tomato-based” or “low-fat”). Nouns and adjectives are randomly capitalized (look at the kinds of breads, and the types of salad dressings). Then there are the other inconsistencies: Are the “Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette” and the “Raspberry Vinaigrette dressing” the same, or different? If they’re the same, they should be worded the same. Otherwise picky editors like me ask picky questions like this one. Parentheses are also apparently random. Some entries use the format “(prepared this way on that kind of bread)” and others use “prepared this way on that kind of bread.” (Add the random capitalization to that and you have a right mess.)

What’s with that “.” before “cobb” (sic)? If it’s supposed to be a joke of some kind, I don’t get it.

These are the things that keep this copy editor/proofreader from falling asleep easily. Menus are in need of correction somewhere in the world!

Will this keep me from visiting my friend’s restaurant? Not on your life. I won’t even take my red marker with me. (He’s been a friend too long for me to antagonize him that way–and as a former member of the legal profession, he’d find a way to get back at me. I’m kidding. He wouldn’t do that. At least I don’t think he would.)



Journalism Awards (but proofreading’s not part of that, obviously)

Thanks to Scott Douglas for sharing this via email.

the last paragraph is the best (or worst, depending on your point of view)

There’s plenty of painful verbiage in the first four paragraphs, but oh, my stars and garters–look at that final one. Apparently, the Hollywood Reporter arranged for two of its peeps to win awards. That’s what the sentence means, as printed. We’ve got random Capitalization, runaway boldfacing, out-of-place plurals, and more. Just feast on this smorgasboard of unproofed electronic copy. G’wan. I have a wafer-thin mint for you afterward.

A little rant for a Sunday forenoon

It’s a bit too late to call it “morning,” so “forenoon” it shall be.

When I see a post/article/tweet/what-have-you from someone purporting to be “professional,” and it contains one of my peeves (which may admittedly be dogmatic, pedantic, petty, and so on–but these are my peeves so that’s all okay), I twitch. Now that I have somewhere to vent about those occurrences, I can share my twitching with all of you.

Or not. If you’ve stopped reading, that’s ok.

Just today I found this: “We are comprised of college grad English Majors who are extremely proficient in writing, copy editing and proof reading.”

As they say on teh intarwebz: O RLY?

The zoo comprises the animals. The animals compose the zoo. “Comprise” denotes inclusion. “Compose” denotes–well, composition. (That’s why the words are so similar, after all . . . I will refrain from a lecture on etymology, however.)

So–first of all, “We are composed of” or “We comprise” would both be correct. (Note the lack of “of” in the second form. It’s unnecessary.) The reason we have two different words is they have two different meanings. Improper usage has been the death (slow, unkind, and agonizing death) of many a perfectly good differentiation over the life of this living language we speak. I fight to keep such words on life support because I think they’re important. The differences in meaning are important. If we hadn’t felt the need for different meanings to start with, we’d not have two different words. (And actually, “we are composed of” gives me a fit in this case for an entirely different reason. That’s another rant for another time, perhaps.)

::breathes deeply and evenly::

Second, what’s with that capital “M” on “Majors”? It doesn’t lend an air of importance; it only lends an air of . . . well, incorrect capitalization, to be honest.

And finally: “Proofreaders” is a closed compound word. “”Proof readers,” I suspect, are adept at reading liquor bottle labels. (And that could well be true of this group, I suppose. Not that that’s a bad thing. Sometimes we really do need 151, instead of 80.)

I hear grumblings out there among you (all two of you, I hear you, y’know) about my use of informal styles in a grammar-oriented blog. Get over it. It’s MY BLOG, and this is MY RANT (ooooh, I must be upset, I used ALL CAPS), and while I clearly am discussing grammar and usage, I’m doing so informally because I’m not writing an academic presentation. I’m blogging. That’s like talking to you on my front porch. It’s informal. Deal with it.

Or don’t. Your choice. I write this stuff anyway.