My gift to you: LINKS! (Post the first of over a dozen!)

While I’ve been less than perfect about posting here, I’m very active over on G+. In fact, most of my business is done there, whether it’s getting referrals or discussing projects. Because I spend so much time there, I’ve embraced the Collections feature and set up sixteen groupings of posts. I won’t link to all of them here (my Editing Projects, for example, aren’t really germane to everyone in the blogosphere, and the GRAMMARGEDDON! posts are already here, duh), but I’ll post a link to each Collection with a brief description of it so you good people can see the rest of my inspiring content. ::cough::

I just realized I’m posting at least a dozen links over the next few weeks. Rather like an editorial “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

But not. Anyway . . .

First up, in keeping with the theme of this blog, is my GUMmy Stuff. These are all about grammar, usage, and mechanics. Some of them are original content, some are links to other folks’ blogs, some are cartoons, but all are focused on GUMmy Stuff.

Here you go. Don’t get stuck in there. It can be messy.

GUMmy Stuff (Grammar, Usage, Mechanics)

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.”

Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.

 

 

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.) Continue reading “Let’s chew some GUM.”

Guidelines Are Not Rules (and Vice Versa)

Just a friendly reminder that in English, there are precious few rules and a metric ton (which is a tonne) of guidelines. Style guides do not agree. Dictionaries might not even agree. Grammar guides will agree on most things but not on everything.

What’s a rule?

“Start a new sentence with a capital letter and end it with terminal punctuation.”

That’s about as close to a rule as you’re going to get. And even here there are exceptions. If the sentence is in dialogue, it might NOT begin with a capital letter (it could be an interruption of the previous speaker’s words). The terminal punctuation might NOT be a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point, if the speaker’s drifting off into thought or being interrupted — then it might end with an em dash for an abrupt intrusion or with suspension points to signal the drifting.

No one HAS to follow the guidelines YOU like. And they’re not WRONG if they don’t. They’re making their own choices. They get to do that, and so do you.

Here’s another rule. “An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.” A complete thought contains a subject and a verb (or a noun phrase and a verb phrase, to use different terminology for the same thing). But what about “COME HERE!”? That’s a complete thought, and there’s no noun phrase in sight. That’s because the subject/noun phrase is understood to be “YOU.” “YOU COME HERE!” The subject is clear but it doesn’t appear in print.

If you’re new to this writing thing, do yourself a favor. LEARN THE RULES of grammar before you go breaking them. Having to relearn grammar SUCKS. Learning it and THEN choosing to break the rules? That can be a lot of fun.

I’m all for more fun  in 2015.

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.

 

If it looks like a fragment . . .

. . . it might be a sentence, anyway.

Commands look suspiciously like fragments, but are complete sentences. “Put that down.” “Read this book.” “Feed the cat.” At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be a subject in sight. Each of those sets of words begins with a verb and includes a direct object (the thing being acted upon: “that,” “book,” “cat”). So where’s the subject? It’s understood to be “you” (the reader or listener). Back in my day — you know, when we were busy inventing dirt — that was known as “you understood.” Brilliant, isn’t it? On a grammar test about terminal punctuation, each of these would require a period.

“Putting that down.” “Reading this book.” “Feeding the cat.” These are not proper sentences. Again, there’s no visible subject to any of them; however, we could assume that “I” is the subject, and “I” is the person answering this question: “What in blazes are you doing over there?” We often answer questions with this kind of phrase. The person asking knows from context that “I am” begins each of those responses. However, on that grammar test about terminal punctuation, technically each of these would be marked incorrect if someone placed a period after the final word. They’re not grammatically complete, nor are they grammatically correct (except as I’ve noted).

In fiction writing, of course, those second sentences could very well appear in dialogue. Sentences of the first type — commands — often appear in technical writing. (Think about the last user manual you read. I’ll wait while you stop laughing . . .) As with so much of my advice, the same caveat applies here. Know your audience. Let your writing be appropriate for the audience and the purpose.

If it looks like a duck . . .
If it looks like a duck . . .