Tag Archives: grammar

Stephen King as a Writing Teacher

I loved On Writing, and it surprised me just how much I embraced it. Now, even though I’ve read only a few of his books, Stephen King has become one of my favorite authors–not for his writing, but for his devotion, his thoughtfulness, and his brain. I wish I could meet him.

Stories like this one remind me of how much I like him and want to hang out with him.

He’s just very authentic, and honest, sometimes about things that people (writers) aren’t comfortable admitting.

For example, he says that grammar–while still needing to be taught–isn’t the most critical skill.

And, even more heretical, he says that not everyone needs to be a writer. The scandal!

(I’ll take it a step further: not everyone needs to be a self-published writer…)

But I think he’s right. Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching people what they need right now in their real lives; they have opportunities later to further develop their talents if their interests take them there. Fundamentals. (See what he says about teaching kids to write directions from A to B.)

Also, I just love his frank crassness, like this: “Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

Oh heavens, Mr. King, you’re givin’ me the vapors!

Anyway, he’s fabulous.

What do you think of King’s advice? Does it hold true in your experience?

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Grammar in the Cat-iest (Best) Way

Special thanks to grammarian extraordinaire and friend-to-cats Tex Thompson for her shout-out and grammar lesson featuring my very own cat! My own naughty kitty can now help you learn more about the “royal order of adjectives” (he’s the one who prefers Coke products and espionage).

Tex is a great resource for the fine and tricky points of grammar that can be hard to grasp and harder to explain. She’s one of my favorites, too. Check her out!

From her post:

“The what?  The royal what?  Don’t be coming ’round here with all your highnesses and majesties and HMS Jolly Longbottoms.  This is AMERICA, dammit, and we speak democracy!”

YES WE DO.  And that means we have the right to life, liberty, and a full, complete understanding of where all those dang commas go between the adjectives — including the reason why we have one in “full, complete understanding” but not in “all those dang commas.”

Read more to get all the deets!

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Editing Quick Hit: Like vs. Such as vs. Including

This is one of those times that spoken English has messed up written English, because casually, we do not care. But in writing, sometimes this one actually matters. (You’ll hope your lawyer understands this grammar rule.)

“Like” means “similar to but not including.”

“Such as” means “similar to AND including.”

“Including” means… including, or, as the dictionary likes to say “containing as part of the whole being considered” (that’s Google’s dictionary, btw). And works as a more flexible catch-all when you’re confused about whether you should be using “like” or “such as”

Let’s just assume the pomegranate is behind the pear back there, ok? Ok.

So putting this to work, an example: If you are picking out a fruit to eat and know you like apples but aren’t in the mood for one right now, you might say “Give me something like an apple” and I might hand you a pomegranate. (Because a pomegranate is similar to, but not, an apple)

If you are picking out a fruit later but now are more flexible on what you’d like, you might say, “I’d like a fruit such as an apple, orange or banana” and I might hand you any of the three or I might hand you a pear. (Because you want something similar to the things you listed, as well as the specific fruit you mentioned.)

If I’m offering you fruit from my selection and just want to list them off, I’d go with “I have a variety of fruits for you to enjoy, including an apple, banana, pear, orange and pomegranate.” If you wanted a grapefruit, I’d have to send you down to the grocery store to buy one yourself.

Got it?

Hungry now? Man, I want a strawberry after all that fruit.


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Editing Quick Hit: Month and Year

For some reason, people sometimes have a proclivity to write dates like this: “February of 1990.”

This flummoxes me, because the correct way is actually easier: February 1990. And you’d never say “February of 1990” aloud, would you?

I mean, no one says, “Oh yes, I got that cat sweater during the Christmas of 2011.” Unless you’re working on your Abe Lincoln impression, maybe, trying to sound old-timey?

Perhaps it’s an effort to aggrandize your writing. Well, stop it! Stop it, I say! Leave “of” out of your dates. They’re happier that way.

November 2013. Done.


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Editing Quick Hit: Latter vs. Ladder

This is an easy slip-of-the-fingers to make, because when said aloud, “latter” and “ladder” frequently sound pretty similar.
But “ladder” is for the thing with rungs you climb to get to a high place. “Latter” is the much less common word you use in the phrase “the former and the latter” (meaning the one prior and the one second).
I tried but failed to come up with a helpful mnemonic for this: anyone have suggestions?

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It’s Dictionary-Official, Guys.

Thank goodness there is something to talk about besides “twerking.”

Oh wait, no, there’s not, because even the good ole’ dictionary is in on the butt-oscillation trend. It was announced yesterday that a bunch of internet-originated terms, including “twerk” of course, have been included in the Oxford Dictionary Online.

Twerk it.

Cue massive moaning and gnashing of teeth and cries about how the world is probably coming to an end, or worse, English is so over.

There’s a whole crop of “new” words that have been officially recognized by an official-sounding dictionary linked to an actually official dictionary; you can read the whole list here.

(But you probably won’t; it’s TL:DR. Oh well).

And, as always happens when dictionaries do this, people freaked out, because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the point of dictionaries and the validity of language.

Here’s the truth: Putting a word in a dictionary does not make it “official.” It does not make a word acceptable to use in all cases, and it doesn’t mean it’s more or less legitimate than other words people use. It just means it is a word that has reached an arbitrary threshold of use in pop culture and someone thought maybe you’d benefit from having a definition to help you in the event that you run into it in the wild and don’t know what someone is saying.

That’s it! That’s all it means!

As for appropriateness, you should use whatever words you need to in order to tell your story. If that means inventive, morphine-induced Jabberwockys–power forward, friend! If that means a carefully culled vocabulary from your Scrabble dictionary? Blessings be upon you. One of my favorite books of all time progressively eliminates letters, making it amazing and a challenge I can’t wrap my head around. And that’s great!

As an editor and a reader, I might flag something that I don’t think fits or makes sense, but I’ll never tell anyone they can’t use a word if they want to, dictionary-approved or not. Go ahead! Have a ball!

Actually, I think the Oxford Dictionary Online deserves props for lighting the internet (temporarily) on fire. I mean, how often do you get people to talk about a dictionary, anyway?


Filed under Editing, writing

Is There an Echo in Here? Editing Out Repetition

Inspiration can come from the damnedest places, and so today’s editing lesson comes from a rather old inspiration: the Bible. Specifically, the book of Daniel, chapter 3.

You’ve probably heard this one, the story of the three guys who refused to worship a golden idol and were thrown into a blazing furnace but didn’t die because God was down with their loyalty. (Veggie Tales has a pretty fun take on it if you want a refresher–Rack, Shack, and Benny).

But this is an editing lesson, not a Bible lesson. Bear with me here.

If you go read that first link, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Daniel Chapter 3 is really repetitive.

  • “the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials” –stated 3 times
  • “the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” – stated 4 times
  • “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” -stated 4 times (one has a different tense, but close enough)
  • “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”–always listed together, just like that, is repeated 11 times.

To be clear, it’s not that long a chapter. Let’s just say the congregation got pretty restless during the reading. It was like “come ON already, get to the point!”

Shel Silverstein does repetition right. I love “Lazy Jane.”

Repetition has its place–it’s a fantastic way to provide emphasis, and you should certainly have repeating themes throughout your book. Stephen King in On Writing talks about how he specifically went back and added more mentions of blood and blood-related imagery to Carrie to help sneakily prepare the reader for the bloody mess at the end.

But often writers end up a bit more like the book of Daniel, just repeating things for the sake of it. I mean, I don’t think this chapter would have been changed at all had some of those “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”‘s been changed to “the three men” or, heaven forbid*, “they.”

A lot of the time, our repetitions are smaller: “crutch words.” Every writer has a certain proclivity to use the same word over and over and over and over. (Mine is “actually.” I shudder when I reread my manuscripts and find it everywhere. Bleah.) Another one I see a lot in my editing is “seemingly” or “seemed to.” (For the most part, if something “seems to be,” you can just cut it out entirely…if you’re locked into a character’s perspective, everything they perceive can just be reported.)

The problem with this kind of needless repetition is a) it bores your reader which b) makes them less likely to keep reading. It slows the pace down dramatically, which can kill your pivotal scene. Even if you don’t notice your crutch words, I guarantee the reader will.

Repetition, particularly of “crutch words” because they’re harder to notice when its fresh, is one of those things that justify an editor, or at least a second read after you’ve put it down for awhile. Your grammar and spelling can be perfect, but if you’ve got a bunch of repeated phrases, it’s going to throw the reader out of the flow. But take the time (and, often, money) to get it thoroughly edited, and you’ll cut down, if not outright cut out, a lot of the problematic repetition.



*This is a joke. Get it? Heaven forbid? Bible? I’m hilarious.

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Internet Famous

The inimitable Tex Thompson, who I met at DFW Con this year (she gave a killer presentation on grammar) does this brilliant thing I her blog: Grammaticats.
That’s right. She teaches good grammar through funny captioned cats, despite their storied Internet history as grammatically inventive ruffians.

And I am proud to say that one of my two is now Internet Famous. Here is my cat Sawyer, the orange striped rogue in the third image, in a new role as teaching aid in grammatical ellipses.

I can safely say this is the most brilliant he will ever be (which admittedly isn’t saying much; this is the cat who enjoys chewing through electrical cords, leading Amazon to assume I have infants in the house because I keep buying electrical covers).

So go, get your learn on!


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Fun with Grammar: Lessons from DFWCon

This is my cat, Tavi. He is not a Grammaticat. Maybe one day. We all need dreams.

This is my cat, Tavi. He is not a Grammaticat. Maybe one day. We all need dreams.

Five weeks ago (wow, has it been that long already?) I had the privilege of attending DFWCon, where I got to meet Tex Thompson, grammar-clarifier-extraordinaire. She runs www.thetexfiles.com, which, in addition to general greatness, is where she posts “Grammaticats”–cats teaching lessons in grammar.

I know. My mind was blown, too.

It is no surprise, then, that she led an excellent presentation on Grammar and Style. I hadn’t planned on attending, but my schedule worked out and I made it, and I am so glad I did.

I’ve been a copyeditor and proofreader for years, but I’ll tell you a secret: when editing stuff, we don’t typically talk about it in fancy grammarian-speak. Mostly we just say “ugh, you did that wrong.” For that reason, it was great to brush up on my grammar in Tex’s class: I don’t think I’ve heard some of the fancy titles since high school (if then).

Mostly for my own benefit (and because, who knows? Maybe it’ll help you out, too), here are my notes from Tex’s class.

  • modifier:
  • non-restrictive modifying phrase:
    • 1) Can be deleted
    • 2) must be close to the thing it modifies
    • 3) needs a matched set of commas or dashes
  • Types of modifiers and errors: relative clauses; restrictive vs. nonrestrictive modifying phrases; dangling modifiers; misplaced modifiers; ambiguous modifiers (the phrase being modified could be interpreted two different ways); implied simultenaety (which is fine as long as the actions being given really could be happening at the same time, eg. “Sally walked while talking to Jim.”)
  • Pronoun: subs in for a noun or noun phrase
    • Pronoun case error: using the wrong form of the pronoun (I/me, for example)
    • pronoun antecedent agreement: the pronoun needs to go with the thing it refers to (a group = them; he = Bryan)
    • pronoun reference error: it’s not clear what the pronoun is referring to (“I took my boat and my girlfriend for a ride. She’s a real beaut!” –the boat or the girlfriend?!)
    • wandering body parts (this one’s my favorite)-when anatomy causes confusing issues (is the eye literally falling on the jacket? Ew)
    • dialogue tag: said/ asked/hissed/etc. – it should describe how something is said
    • comma splice
  • Fragment: an incomplete sentence; it needs a subject
    • implied subject (ie. “Run!” The “You” is implied)
    • coordinating vs. subordinating conjunctions (rules for whether or not to use commas)
    • Fragments are often okay if you are writing in deep POV–we don’t always think in complete sentences.

Look at all the words you learned! Don’t you feel like a smart cookie now?


Filed under Conventional, Editing, writing

The Grammarian’s Five Daughters

I found this fabulous short story that uses a fairy tale/fable structure to examine the values of different types of words. It’s beautiful.

Once there was a grammarian who lived in a great city that no longer exists, so we don’t have to name it. Although she was learned and industrious and had a house full of books, she did not prosper. To make the situation worse, she had five daughters. Her husband, a diligent scholar with no head for business, died soon after the fifth daughter was born, and the grammarian had to raise them alone. It was a struggle, but she managed to give each an adequate education, though a dowry — essential in the grammarian’s culture — was impossible. There was no way for her daughters to marry. They would become old maids, eking (their mother thought) a miserable living as scribes in the city market. The grammarian fretted and worried, until the oldest daughter was fifteen years old.

Then the girl came to her mother and said, “You can’t possibly support me, along with my sisters. Give me what you can, and I’ll go out and seek my fortune. No matter what happens, you’ll have one less mouth to feed.”

The mother thought for a while, then produced a bag. “In here are nouns, which I consider the solid core and treasure of language. I give them to you because you’re the oldest. Take them and do what you can with them.”…

I’ll let you find out what happens next, but do go read it. It’s delightful.

It made me wish there was a similar story about punctuation. Maybe there is! I’m a fan of the way commas herd words together in small-but-appropriate-sized bunches, and the way periods are always there to give us a break. The interrobang (?!) is rare but mighty, and apostrophes help us cut the crap.

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