gwyn: (sharpe sad wizzicons)
Ugh, my head has been aching for days with the trying not to cry. I am so fucking down and feel so utterly worthless, useless, and hopeless these days that it's a constant battle to stay upright. And I don't want to try to go on antidepressants again because the side effects are just so damn awful I don't really feel like it's worth it (plus it doesn't help me much, and kills being able to write, but then, I don't think anyone would care about that and I'm not even sure I do either, so). I keep thinking of my sister lately, even though this isn't the time of year I usually think of her the most, but she was worthy and useful and everyone loved her and I don't know why I'm still here and she's not.

And then there's the pain, the never ending fucking pain. I finally decided to suck up my fears and get a cortisone shot in my spine but it's done nothing, really. It's a tiny bit less horrible, but not enough, and when I see that bill I'm going to be even more miserable having spent that money but still no relief.

OK, to actually do something besides be sad and pathetic, here is something useful: I've seen this question around a lot lately in my circles, where people are wondering how you pluralize proper nouns that end in y, like people's names or businesses or such. I haven't done a usage post in years, but here's your answer:

When you're pluralizing those types of proper nouns, you don't treat them the same way as you would a regular noun ending in y. So, for instance, "We picked blackberries" is how you'd pluralize the noun blackberry, but "We bought two BlackBerrys at Frye's today" is how you'd handle the proper noun (name) of the handheld device. Same thing for people's names -- "We had four Cindys in our class" or "What if we made an army of Buckys!" or "What would we do without the Nick Furys of this world?" There you go.


May. 30th, 2007 10:37 am
gwyn: (supposably iconomicon)
OK, class, for the last time:

It's Nights in White Satin, not Knights in White Satin. Since the Moody Blues were talking about nights ... never reaching the end, as in, you know, endless nights, I'm pretty sure they didn't have in mind a bunch of fabric-draped members of the order of the British Empire kneeling before the queen to receive their honorific title for acting or singing pop songs, or medieval guys in armor jousting at each other through silky sheets. (OTOH, it was the psychedelic '60s and '70s, so who knows.)

And it's Keira Knightley, not Nightly or Nightley, although lord knows she is appearing nightly at your local gargantuplex in the new Pirates movie. There's a big fat K in front of her name that's kind of hard to miss at 20 feet high.

[And the slashy old dance movie from the '80s with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines? White Nights. NOT White Knights. Because 1) it's not about a couple of white guys acting chivalric and heroic, since, you know, Gregory Hines was black; and 2) it's referring to those ... white nights (doh!) they get in the far north near the Arctic circle in summer, when sun doesn't set. Those nights that never reach the end. You know. Like the song says.]

It's not that hard! /end word rant
gwyn: (chief tyrol infinitemonkeys)
Why do people always lowercase the h in human, but uppercase the C in Cylon? I would like to start a campaign to stamp out the indiscriminate title-casing of selective species. When I realized this discrepancy, I started lowercasing the c, but people like to gently "correct" me in posts. Cylon is neither a product/brand name nor an organization (Firefly-class ship, Nexus 6 replicant, the Alliance, the Mounties, Browncoats), nor a nationality/continental/planetary identity (Canadian, African, Bajoran, Betelgeusian, Vulcan), nor a religious identification (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) though admittedly, it could become that eventually. It's a classification no different than human in the series, yet across fandom, people treat it as more significant by uppercasing the c.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
One of the hardest things to understand in usage are the words who/whom, and when to use them. It’s almost impossible to explain to an ungrammary audience, because there’s simply no way to talk about it without getting all “the predicate adjectival objectificational nominative whosit in Whoville” and then everyone’s eyes glaze over and the lesson is lost. I have avoided this for a really long time, because I know of no way to make it easy.

And frankly, if you asked me for a grammar thing to magically disappear, never to be heard from again, I would choose this. Since nearly no one, even seasoned pros, can get the more complex usages (at bottom) right, why even have this idiotic differentiation anymore? There’s no good reason that isn’t about pedantry, and you can try, but you will not convince me that whom isn’t ripe for taking a long walk off the short modern English usage speaking pier.

In most instances, though, you will run across the use of who/whom in sentences like this:
Who do you think is coming through the stargate?

Whom did you give the spell books to?

The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to say about how we decide which form to use: “The traditional rules that determine the use of who and whom are relatively simple: who is used for a grammatical subject, where a nominative pronoun such as I or she would be appropriate, and whom is used as the object of a verb or preposition.” (See what I mean about grammary?) Sentences will often have both a subject (the main thing or person you’re writing about) and an object (often linked up with the word to), which is sort of the person or thing the subject’s doing something with or to. I can’t explain that one, either, without going into a lot of boring detail.

So, we’d normally say: The actor who played Spike was excellent, because the who stands in for the subject of played Spike. We’d also write: Who do you think is the best Mountie? where who stands for the subject of is the best Mountie. But we would say, To whom did you give the Ferrari Testarossa? since whom is the object of the preposition to. Or we’d say: The Section One agent whom the bad guys identified was shot, since whom is the object of the verb identified.


Unfortunately, they have to make this more complicated, and this is why I think whom needs to take a hike. Paraphrasing the AH book again, a sentence such as “I met the drug dealer whom the Miami vice squad had tried to get Mexico to extradite” makes you actually have to sit and parse through the damn sentence before you do anything with it. You have to know from the start that “whom will be the object of the verb extradite, which is several clauses away” as they note. How would an average person do this? Well, they won’t. I wouldn’t even do it right, probably. The only people who are going to criticize you if you get it wrong are pedantic assholes with nothing better to do. Watch out for them, for they are legion in fandom.

AH points out: “In speech and informal writing, people tend to use who, even as the object of a verb or preposition. A sentence such as Who did John say he was going to support? is perfectly natural, despite violating the traditional rules. Using whom often sounds forced or pretentiously correct, as in Whom shall I say is calling? or Whom did you give it to? Nevertheless, many writers adhere to the rules, especially in formal style. These rules apply in the same manner to whoever and whomever.” Couldn’t say it better myself. It’s your choice to go the traditional route, but if you don’t, people beating up on you won’t make you any more inclined to get it right.

ETA: [ profile] sdwolfpup reminds me of a common trick a lot of folks are taught: "The way I've always done who and whom is to re-word the sentence with she/her or he/him and depending on which one of those is correct, depends on whether I use who or whom. So for instance, this sentence:

I met the drug dealer whom the Miami vice squad had tried to get Mexico to extradite

I'd change to: "The Miami Vice tried to get Mexico to extradite him" and so I'd use 'whom.' It's not necessarily 'easier,' but it's worked for me so far."

Which is a really good one for the basics. It doesn't work so well for the stuff below, but it should get you through the worst of it. And I also say again, if you make a mistake, the only people who will remind you about are usually snobs you don't need to pay attention to.

And lastly, this is the scariest one of all. It refers to the words when they’re used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. "The relative pronoun who may be used in restrictive clauses, in which case it is not preceded by a comma, or in nonrestrictive clauses, in which case a comma is required.” (You can find out a little about clauses in previous editions of these usage posts.) This means you can say The Watcher who discovers a cure for vampirism will be immortalized, where the clause “who discovers a cure for vampirism” indicates which Watcher will be immortalized, or you could also write The mathematician over there, who solved the bank robberies case, is widely known, where the clause “who solved the bank robberies case” provides information about a person already identified by the phrase “the mathematician over there.

And if you can remember how to do that, gosh darn it, you are a better person than me.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Occasionally I go on the warpath about certain stylistic things I find in my own, and others’, writing. These posts were intended to help people with misconceptions, blow up some cherished and misguided myths about grammar and usage, because there are enough people out there writing instructionals (even if a lot of them in the fan world are wrong) and I never felt another was needed. But once in a while, a girl’s gotta get on her soapbox, and my latest religious war, my most recent usage jihad, is against flabby-assed, weak prose that is most often highlighted by an over-reliance on –ing words.

I’m calling these cases –ing words because to get too grammatical about the different constructions where you’ll find this would, I think, really put people off (if you doubt me, I will say the words gerund phrase, and you will run screaming). I barely understand the topic myself. And I’m not even discussing *all* –ing words, anyway (gerund phrase! ha ha just kidding), because most of them are perfectly nice words. No, I’m discussing weak, flabby constructions that employ helper words or empty phrases or "to be" verbs, creating what Crash Davis in Bull Durham called “weak-ass shit.” (Yes, he was talking about a pitch, but that’s okay. Weak-ass shit is weak-ass shit.) These are sentences where instead of using a nice, robust verb like “fell” (the past tense of fall), the writer says “were falling” or instead of just saying “Dom turned to Brian,” the writer flabs it up by saying “Dom started turning to Brian.” The poor trusting souls who’ve let me beta for them have probably noticed by now that this is a religious crusade for me. At work my purge has gone unnoticed so far. Hell, just the word "starting" itself can make steam come out my ears.

I think that, with such easy communication as we have these days, and people writing so much online, this problem is far more prevalent today than it used to be. Everywhere I look, people are “starting to move” or “beginning to think” or they “were making calls” or some such. No one appears to just do anything anymore. And while in casual conversation that’s natural, in more formal writing and in fiction, it’s weaker than weak.

A lot of writing books advise you to use verbs in their active states, because when you use them with helper words (such as the “started” above), or along with forms of the verb to be (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been), you get unnecessarily wordy sentences. Which is all well and good, but that’s another nice way of saying weak-ass shit. The trouble is… most people don’t notice it. In fact, almost no one does. I don’t notice it much in my own writing until I go back and make edit pass after edit pass, and almost no one I know, even the best writers, ever catch it in their own stuff — let alone a beta noticing it, since few people who perform beta work are going to be that strong, either. I wrote about this a long time ago in a non-usage but writing-related post that I titled It seems to be a problem for a moment, I’m starting to think, because that’s what we get with these flabby-ass words — starting to, seems to be, blah blah. I loathe it when I do it, and hate it even more when others do it, especially because I think that if fan writers took a moment to actually read their own work before they posted it for instant fb gratification, some of these constructions might get wiped out.

Active verbs convey what Diana Hacker calls “vigor” in her Writer’s Handbook. Forms of the “to be” verbs convey almost no vigor at all. They’re weak, wimpy, wilting little flowers, and if you’ve ever had a beta or editor lose it over “to be” verbs, this is probably why. Consider these constructions:
Be verb: A bolt of lighting was responsible for the destruction of the Stargate.
Passive: The Stargate was destroyed by a lightning bolt.
Active: A lightning bolt destroyed the Stargate.

Some verbs, as Hacker notes, are just more colorful and vigorous than others, even when they’re active verbs, but you’ll rarely find a verb paired with a “to be” verb called active. Now, it may not seem earth shattering to you, but sentence after sentence of this construction will turn the reading experience into a slow slog, and the reader may not even be able to identify why it is so. The –ing is found in the tense form called the progressive — they describe actions in progress (walking, staking, shooting, drinking, etc.). The problem here is that many times people feel the need to assist the progress — while shooting is the progressive form of shoot, an uncareful writer will add a helper word, and then it’s less about progress than beginning the progress. (And I do it just as much as the next person.) Instead of dropping us right into the action (Sonny unholstered his Bren 10mm and shot the drug dealer before he could fire back), the writer will, often without thinking, flab it up with helper words that set up the start point, but don’t provide any action (Sonny began unholstering his Bren 10mm and shooting at the drug dealer before he could begin firing back). Bleh. Weak, and boring, and just blah.

If you look through your work (and really, shame on you if you don’t), and pay attention to how many –ing words you see (there, I could have written “are seeing” — and probably might have in a regular post), you can tighten your writing considerably, reduce stress on your well-informed editor, and make your work so much livelier. Helper words are sneaky little pests, probably because they are so weak we don’t see them coming. And fan writers have a terrible tendency to overdescribe, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, so every action must begin with a word like “started” or “seemed to” or some such — we are often afraid to just say “Mulder’s tears streamed down his face,” rather telling the reader where the moment begins, “Mulder’s tears started streaming down his face.” Or people don’t actually do anything, they just seem to, as in “Buffy seemed to raise the stake in anger before turning the vampire to dust.” Boy, could a sentence like that be just any livelier? Yawn. Even the tiniest “to be” verb here can weaken — your friend didn’t just laugh her ass off at your mistake; instead, she “was laughing her ass off.”

(Not all flabby constructions use –ing words, obviously, but they are often prevalent. Sometimes, though, you’ll get phrases like “In other words” or “In order to” or “Along the lines of” and so on, ad infinitum. These sorts of phrases crop up a lot in the work world, because people are often afraid of being rude, especially in America. But in fiction, they rarely belong outside of dialog, where you might use it to better represent someone’s speech.)

Of course, most readers don’t care as much about the writing as they do about just getting fanfic at all. The input I get from others is that editing for bloated, weak, overly wordy sentences is a worthless endeavor. Au contraire, I say, but I think I’m in a minority. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve stopped reading fanfic for the most part, even from people I like very much — the relentless assault of “Jim was opening the door for Blair”s and the “Bobby started running his hand down Darien’s back”s when they could just as easily, and more tightly, write “Jim opened the door for Blair” and “Bobby ran his hand down Darien’s back.” The problem has turned me away, where I sit in my cloistered space and mutter darkly about how much I hate weak-ass shit. I think I’m alone, but if this post gets even one or two writers and betas to catch more –ing words along with their weak, sneaky little helpers, I will be able to come back out into the light.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
What's this? A usage post?! OMG, you might say, that thing I friended this stupid cow for in the first place and that she's completely abandoned doing. But this one is something light and breezy because basically I haven't got the brain power to make something more complex. Spelling rules! The bane of everyone's existence.

I've already addressed the issue of homophones/homonyms/whatever the hell you want to call those words that mix everyone up (your/you're, their/they're/there) and so on, except I can't link to that frackin' post because the memories function isn't working in LJ today, apparently. But most people are also confused by the basic rules of spelling -- making plurals, the whole i before e thing, when to keep an e with a suffix, when not to, that sorta thing.

When we were kids, we got the "I before E, except after C" rule drummed into our heads, but the problem with that is that most of the time they left off the most important part of the equation -- "or when sounded like ay, as in neighbor and weigh." Gosh, that one would have been helpful to know! The other big issue with this little mnemonic, of course, is that it's not bulletproof -- there are a bunch of exceptions, which only serves to confuse people more.
I before E: relieve, believe, sieve (I always spell this wrong, because I have a brain like one, really), niece, fierce and so on
E before I receive, deceive, sleigh, freight, eight, etc.
the annoying exceptions: seize (another one I cannot spell right, because I confuse it with sieve above), either, weird, height, foreign, leisure

This is one place where spellcheckers are definitely recommended -- you won't run into homophone problems with these words for the most part, so if you have trouble, and can't even remember them well enough to look them up, definitely run your spellcheck program to find these. I think, also, that they would be the least likely words (in some cases) to get people on your ass about your bad spelling, simply because most people won't even catch them while reading, nor will most betas. I can't count how much stuff I've read where the author glowingly thanked her fantastic betas, who pretty much missed all the ie combo words, not to mention a lot of other obvious stuff.

But what to do about that stupid E hanging off of certain words, when you change the word in a sentence by adding a suffix? For instance, you've got desire, but then someone desir(e)ing, or gentle and gentl(e)ness -- what do you do with it? the rule for this one (and of course there are exceptions) is that you drop a silent e when you add a suffix that begins with a vowel; keep the final e if the suffix starts with a consonant.
Bodie never thought Doyle was a prude, but he was acting rather prudish with that pole dancer.
The care at that hospital was usually top-notch, but Dr. Carter wasn't very careful with his patients.

Some exceptions to try to remember: changeable, judgment (I have no idea why we spell it without the e in this country, but we do, and it's stupid, but there it is), argument, and truly.

How do you add an -s or -ed to words that end in y? The rule here is that most often, you'll change that -y to an i if it's preceded by a consonant, but not when it's proceeded by a vowel.
For a situation comedy, Friends is pretty good, but I don't usually like comedies.
Crockett knew how to play the drug dealers' games, but this time, they played him.

Proper names are an exception here: if the name ends in y, you wouldn't change it to an -i if you were making a plural: I had a crush on David Cassidy, but that didn't mean I thought all the Cassidys were hot.

Here's one rule that trips me up all the time, and one I'm reluctant to include just because it's ridiculously convoluted: if a final consonant is preceded by a single vowel, and the consonant ends a one-syllable word or a stressed syllable, then you double the consonant when adding a suffix that begins with a vowel. I cannot ever remember how to do occurrence, for instance, because I always have to spell it out in my head -- occur has one r, but occurrence has two. Other examples: Jack would have bet (single-syllable word) that Daniel wasn't a betting man. Wes wasn't afraid to commit (that second syllable is normally stressed) to someone, but right then, he wasn't in a committed relationship. This is a tough one to remember, but you can usually find the answer in a good dictionary. Few people are ever likely to have to take spelling tests, as I do, but if you can get this one right, you're way ahead of me!

So, how do you know when to add just -s to a plural of a regular old noun, or -es? For most things, you'll only need to add an -s: table-tables, computer-computers, TV-TVs, etc. (notice no apostrophe on TVs). But if your noun ends in -s, -sh, -ch, or -x, then you use the -es form: church-churches, ax-axes, wish-wishes, and so on. Words ending in -o tend to trip people up, too, when it comes to making them plural. The rule here is usually to add an just a lil' -s if the o is preceded by a vowel, and -es when it's preceded by a consonant.
I'm making a vid to Holding Out for a Hero with Bodie and Doyle as my heroes.
Video may have killed the radio star, but I'll take videos over radios any day.

The last one that trips people up because they aren't familiar with the rules is how to pluralize hyphenated compound words. Here, you add that plural -s onto the chief word in your compound: One mother-in-law is enough, I don't need two mothers-in-law. This also applies to words like attorneys general, and courts martial -- you're pluralizing the noun (the particular thing or person you're talking about), not the descriptor.

None of these are, as you can tell, simple rules. And rules have a habit of disappearing from our memory when we most need them. But if you're stuck, go for a dictionary or run a spellchecker, and you'll be way ahead of most of the people around you. Foreign spellings of plurals or words like judgement might not show up in a US checker, but most of the rules still apply.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
I thought I'd dip my toe into the usage swimming pool again since I'm just sitting around agonizing about my sister's doctor appointment today. Things are not going well at all, and so I'm trying to distract myself because I live in terror of the phone ringing right now.

But I'm picking something easy and short: that versus which, the great elemental smackdown of proper usage. Few people, even seasoned pros, know this one, and often the people who know it, still don't do it right -- although what's right, in this case, depends on how much you buy into the whole concept.

To know how to use that or which after a comma (as opposed to using which is phrases like "which do I use?" or something like that), you need to know what they function as first. Word groups that describe pronouns or nouns are either restrictive or non-restrictive. A restrictive element defines or limits (you know, restricts!) the maning of the word it modifies, so it's essential to the meaning of the sentence. Since it contains vital info, you don't set a restrictive element off with commas:
For Race Wars, Brian needed a car that was NOS-equipped.

When you take away the restrictive element from the sentence, the meaning will change and you lose your specificity. Brian doesn't just need a car, he needs one that's equipped with NOS. But a non-restrictive element describes a noun or pronoun whose meaning is already clearly defined or limited. Since the info isn't as vital or is kind of parenthetical, non-restrictive elements are set off with commas:
To take on his enemy, Duncan needed his sword, which was hidden inside his long coat.

Once you take away that non-restrictive element, you still haven't changed the meaning much, because Duncan still needs his sword, but we don't necessarily have to know that it's hidden in his coat. You do lose some of the nuance and extra info, but you've got the most important parts. There are other things you can do or worry about with restrictive and non-restrictive elements, such as appositives, or setting phrases off with commas, but I will get into that another time.

The most common problem with that and which occurs in something called an adjective clause. These are pretty much like any sentence, but they function within a larger sentence as modifiers of those nouns and pronouns that you've used in the sentence (who, whom, whose, which, that blah blah) or relative adverbs like when and where. Again, it's the non-restrictive ones that use a comma, and the restrictive ones do not:

(non) Wesley's books, which were located in the main library, were an endless source of fascination for him. (The phrase "which were located in the main library" really doesn't restrict the meaning of anything about Wes's books, so the info isn't essential.)
(restrictive) The organization that kept tabs on vampires and slayers had secret headquarters in a bookstore near Picadilly Circus. (Since "that kept tabs on vampires and slayers" identifies clearly who that organization is, the info here is considered essential.)

In general, you'll be considered more correct if you throw that comma in before which. It's almost always the which words that are the non-restrictive elements, and that tends toward the restrictive. So anytime you find yourself writing something like "Harry looked around the room for his wand, which was on a table by the door" or "Ezra strolled into the saloon, searching for his cards, which were on the table," you'll need that comma. If you're casting it along the lines of "Ezra wanted the deck of cards that was on the table" or "Harry needed to find the wand that would allow him to cast an important spell," then you won't need that comma. Most people won't know the diff -- certainly most fanfic readers are no more skilled at this sort of thing and have no better eye than many of the writers -- but if you're looking to do it better, that's what you'll want to do.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
By request, this one is about the subjunctive, which I know sounds like a medical condition. In some ways, maybe it ought to be, just because its use is lessening all the time, and even people who use it often can use it incorrectly, because we’re not taught this much these days (I do all the time). Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the constructions, and whenever I’ve seen people make really good cases for ignoring the formal constructions that use it, I nod my head silently in agreement.

There are three moods in English (and too bad there are no mood icons for them!). The first is the indicative, which is the one we use most commonly. The second is the imperative, which is used for orders or advice. And the third is the subjunctive, which is used in certain contexts to express wishes, requests, or conditions that are contrary to the facts. Subjunctive is the only one that really seems to trip people up.

In the subjunctive mood, present-tense verbs don’t change their form to indicate the number and person of the subject (see the old post about this here). What you would do instead is to use the main base form of that verb (be, eat, drive…) with all the subjects. Tricky and let’s face it, WTF-inspiring.

It’s important that you be [not are] prepared for snow when you work in the Yukon.
We asked that Hagrid eat [not eats, no matter how weird and stilted that may sound] more quietly.
If I were you [not was], I’d be double-clutching, not granny-shifting

That last one is important because in subjunctive mood, there’s really only one past-tense form of be, and that’s were (never was). However, many people would not get that right in dialogue, nor would they, if you were writing a first-person narrative in fiction, think that way. So, like correct grammar at any time, you may not actually want to get that right if your character would be the type to say “If I was you…” (not that this means I’m giving you a license to use would of).

How do you know when to use it? It’s really only a few contexts.

1) In contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with If: When a subordinate clause beginning with the word “if” expresses a condition contrary to the facts, use subjunctive mood:

If I was were a vampire, I would lay waste to this whole stupid high school.
We would get in a lot less trouble on these planets if Daniel was were less curious.

The verbs here express conditions that don’t exist – the speaker isn’t a vampire, and Daniel isn’t going to stop being curious about every planet he visits. The tricky part here, however, is that you wouldn’t use the subjunctive in “if clauses” that express conditions that exist, or might exist. This is what I think frustrates the living shit out of people, especially when they’re writing fiction, because so many things in fiction are more elastic and could fall into either camp (and technically, that first speaker could become a vampire if they stay in Sunnydale long enough, so…). All I can offer is that you have to feel your way around this. An example of something that might happen: “If Buffy wins the throwdown with the First, the show will be over.”

2) In contrary-to-fact clauses expressing a wish. (Look, it’s the wishverse!) In formal English, the subjunctive is used for clauses expressing a wish or desire, but in informal speech, the indicative is more common. This is that fictional thing I mentioned above; if your character is more of an informal type, or you’re doing this in dialog, chances are you’ll use the informal speech. But if you were writing all proper-like, obviously you’d go for the formal.

Formal: I wish that Rupert Giles were my high-school librarian.
Informal: I wish that Rupert Giles was my high-school librarian.

3) In “that” clauses following verbs like ask, insist, recommend, request, and suggest.. Since requests aren’t considered a reality yet, you should use the subjunctive mood for these.

Dr. House insists that his interns always are be on time.
We suggest that Bodie checks check his weapon at the door.

4) Certain set expressions that you hear all the time. Because the subjunctive was more commonly used in English in ye olden tymes, there are a lot of set expressions it remains in, even though we might not say things quite that way anymore: Be that as it may, as it were, come rain or shine, far be it from me, blah blah. If you hear things that sound stilted but almost everyone seems to say or know, that’s why.

It really is something that have to feel your way around, get used to. Getting it wrong isn't likely to result in serious problems, either, unless you're doing your doctoral dissertation or something, or you're facing a firing squad of grammarians. More than anything, it's one of the subtleties of our peculiar language that gives people headaches, but is still a small cornerstone in the foundation of good writing.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
What’s this? A usage post? You mean she’s finally gone back to doing something useful instead of talking about her stupid life or her stupid fic or that homo car movie? Oui, oui, I have. But it’s a small one this time.

No doubt, if you’ve written an essay for an English class or written fic that a marginally competent beta has edited, you’ve probably come across the term parallelism — as in someone complaining that your sentence isn’t parallel enough. And if you’re like most people, you’re thinking, WTF? Because of course our mind immediately goes off to geometry and we think of two lines running parallel to one another, and what does that have to do with writing?

Actually, a surprising amount. If you have two or more ideas that are similar — or parallel — to each other, they should be written in a parallel grammatical form if you want to craft your most effective sentence. Single words should be balanced with single words, phrases with phrases, clauses with clauses... you get the idea. Diana Hacker in A Writer’s Reference uses these excellent examples:

A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. — Mistinguett
This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force. — Dorothy Parker
In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current. — Thomas Jefferson

What you can see in these is that the writers chose a way of expressing their thoughts where each element is like the other. Sometimes when you’re trying to express a thought, just getting it down on paper is hard enough, let alone having it sound elegant and parallel. But if you go back and look at your work later, you can often see where these balances can be struck. Parallelism doesn’t always show its face right away (which unfortunately with fanfic means it doesn’t often get used because of that bizarre rush to postthisstoryrightnowOMGbabieswilldieifitdoesn’tgouprightthissecond!!!), so stepping back and then looking at a sentence later can help you see how to make it parallel.

When you have a series of parallel ideas, you want to balance them out to help your reader along. Text is more awkward to read when the items in a sentence violate the the reader’s expectation that they’ll be phrased similarly.

Vampires commonly exhibit the following characteristics: amorality, deadliness, speed, strength, and they are sensitive to light photosensitivity.
Here you want to keep all of these similar one-word descriptions the same, as much as possible. (When you need to break parallelism because you can’t find a suitable way of expressing something so it stays the same, it’s considered best to use your odd element at the end of the list.)

At the Magic Box, Anya is responsible for stocking items, ringing up sales, and signatures signing for deliveries.
This keeps everything with the –ing form for the verbs.

After taking the keys from Brian, Dom drove down the wrong side of the road, ran a red light, and went through two stop signs.
You want to add that verb in there at the end to make the three things parallel: drove, ran, went through.

When you’re pairing ideas, you can make their connection clearer by expressing them in similar grammatical form. This is often what people are criticizing when they tell you that your sentences aren’t parallel. Paired ideas are usually connected thusly: 1) with a coordinating conjunction like and, but, or or; 2) with a pair of correlative conjunctions like either...or or not only... but also; or 3) with a word introducing the comparison, such as than or as.

Coordinating conjunctions link ideas of equal importance, so you’ll see things like and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet here. If the ideas are parallel in content, people expect you to put them that way grammatically, too:

At Sunnydale High, magic can result in suspension or being expelled expulsion from school.
The government is reducing the budget for interplanetary travel and cut cutting the Stargate exploration program.

The correlative constructions can be a bit trickier, and these often trip up even experienced writers. What you want to check here is that the second half of the sentence matches the first:

The flying broom was not only too long but also was too wide, Ron thought.
Here, repeating the “was” creates an unbalanced sentence, since “too long” comes right after “not only” — so you want “too wide” to come directly after “but also.”

Fraser was instructed either to get a cab or to walk into town.
Here you’re using the word “to” in front of “get a cab,” so you want to make sure that the second idea, walking to town, has that “to” in front of it as well.

The hardest one may be comparisons, where you’ll see “than” or “as” used to compare elements. More people seem to experience trouble with this one than with any other parallelism concept:

Illyria finds it easier to deal with Wesley than talking to talk to anyone else at Wolfram and Hart.
No one could convince Ezra that giving is as much a joy as to receive receiving.

For a lot of you, this stuff just won’t come naturally. The act of writing at all can be hard enough, and throwing something refined like parallelism in can make it even tougher (ack! the burden!). But the extra step of crafting parallel sentences can be worth it in terms of making things easier and just plain nicer for your readers — and then, too, you might not have to listen to smug betas telling you that you lack parallelism.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Ob. disclaimer: I'm sorry I haven't done a usage post in a really long time. I got grumpy about being picked on for the sample sentences I was writing, as if I was advocating bad writing skills like strings of adjectives or using adverbs instead of better description, yadda yadda. I'm not advocating using the samples as anything but mechanical devices: if you're going to use long strings of modifying words, for instance, this is how you do it right, or how you punctuate, etc. The samples are hard to write. They have to be totally correct, which is a challenge for me because I do not understand grammar very well (no, seriously, I don't -- I've just learned a lot in 22 years of editing); they have to embody the lesson well; they have to be easy to grasp for beginners; and they have to be fannishly correct, which can be a challenge as well because I'm trying to use as many fandoms as I can, and most of them aren't things I'm into. So, that's why I have been quiet. Just grumpy.


So, I was having a conversation with one of my fellow copyeditors here at the online magazine about how no one seems to know how to use comparatives anymore. I've noticed this a lot lately in the copy I get even from pro writers, and I sure see it a lot in online fandomland. I find it very strange that use of this part of speech seems to have disappeared almost completely. Even I find myself abusing it regularly.

What the hell am I talking about? Comparatives and superlatives are forms of those two types of modifying words, adjectives and adverbs, that I talked about in the last two posts. Basically, modifiers like adjectives and adverbs have three forms: the positive (which is really just the word in its natural state, such as good, bad, hard, careful, and so on); the comparative (which is where you're comparing it to something else -- so you'd have, of those words: better, worse, harder, more careful, etc.); and the superlative (which is the ultimate comparative form of that modifier: best, worst, hardest, most careful, and so on). You use the comparative form to compare a couple things (yeah, duh), and the superlative to compare three or more.
Which brand of stake is best better for killing vampires?

Though Hermione and Ron are good, Harry is the more most skilled of the young wizards.

They thought Spike was definitely the strangest stranger of the two vampires.

Dom was the faster fastest of the racers that night.

To form comparatives and superlatives of most one- and two-syllable adjectives, you'll use the endings -er and -est: strange, stranger, strangest; easy, easier, easiest; weird, weirder, weirdest. With longer adjectives or unusual words, though, you often use more and most: exiciting, more exciting, most exciting; bizarre, more bizarre, most bizarre. Some one-syllable adverbs will take the -er and -est ending (fast, faster, fastest), but longer adverbs and those that end in -ly will require more and most.

This was what actually started me noticing that people seemed to have completely lost the ability to remember the simple comparatives. Everyone I read seemed to be using more and most, even when there was a perfectly fine comparative right there. The guy I was copyediting the other day, an otherwise fine writer, said something like "what's more strange?" and I asked the editor, "Um, shouldn't that be stranger?" And I see this everywhere: in the past couple days I've come across "more calm" (calmer), "most weird" (weirdest), and so on. And this doesn't even count the times I've done it when I've been writing casually here in my own LJ. Yeesh capeesh. The thing is, the correct form to use is easily available to us, if we are confused or it fails the "it looks funny" test: the comparative form will be listed in the dictionary under the positive form of the word. So if you're wondering if freaky should be most freaky or freakiest (it should be freakiest), just look up freaky in the dictionary and voila, you have your answer. (As always, class, remember that the American Heritage 4 is online at

There are a couple of irregular ones to throw in the mix, just to confuse everyone, but I've noticed these rarely seem to be used incorrectly (which is also why I am stumped at how the rest of the population seems to have lost the ability to do comparatives): Good, better, and best; bad, worse, worst; and badly, worse, worst are the odd men out in this game.

When you're using compartives and superlatives, you don't want to double the fun. If you're got an -er or -est on an adjective or adverb, don't also use more or most.
Ezra wore the most prettiest waistcoat they'd ever seen.

Doyle was one of the most deadliest marksmen on the CI-5 force.

That was definitely one of the more scarier planets Jack had ever visited.

There's a step beyond comparatives and superlatives called absolute concepts. Words like unique or perfect are good examples. Generally folks will tell you that something is unique or it isn't, something is perfect or it's not, and so on, so you can't qualify these words. You would say, "That's a unique car" but not "That's the most unique car I've ever seen"; or "The urn was the only priceless one Willow had ever handled" rather than "It was the most priceless urn Willow had handled." Every year, my friend [ profile] black_bird_777 and I lose our rag when the airline inevitably announces our LA flight to Escapade with "We have a really full flight" or "Our flight is very, very full" because... dude, it's either full or it's not. But I also think people get a little carried away with this rule, because you can compare a little with absolutes, and sometimes people scare others away from using comparative language with words like unique when that's not totally appropriate. You might not say "most unique" but there's nothing inherently wrong with "I've never seen such a unique wand. Where did you get it?" It's a matter of degree and where you're qualifying the absolute concept word; don't get too scared off by the grammar Nazis about this one. Use absolutes with caution, but don't get paralyzed, either.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Last time I did one of these, I talked about adverbs and why I think advice such as Stephen King’s “don’t use adverbs” crap is so specious. I mentioned that when used judiciously and not as a weak excuse to get out of doing the work of showing, not telling, adverbs and adjectives add color and texture to writing. So now let’s talk about the other half of the equation, adjectives. Few people really have trouble with adjectives, and fortunately I haven’t seen anyone advocating a wholesale ban on their use — yet.

Most of us get the basics: Adjectives are words that modify nouns or pronouns (whereas adverbs modify verbs, adjective, or other adverbs). Adjectives include classes of words such as color (red, purple), evaluative (beautiful, repulsive), varying types of sizes and measures (enormous, long, round — is it hot in here? Sorry), and esoteric things like religion and nationality (British, Jewish, Catholic, Inuit). There’s even a type of adjective that’s a noun/adjective, where a noun modifies another noun, like tree modifies house in tree house or kitchen does table in kitchen table. But let’s not worry about that last one because that’s not where confusion reigns.

So, since we mostly get the concept of adjectives — we use them every time we describe our pretty BSOs in fanfic, for instance — where is the confusion? Mostly in how to punctuate them if they’re used in a string, and what order to place them in. That sounds weird, I know. But it’s something I see a lot of in fanfic when we want to talk about, for instance, the dark dank scary hall that Harry Potter is walking down, or something like that. How do you know which order the adjectives should go in? Believe it or not, English has a kind of pecking order for adjectives, and those of us who grow up speaking English learn this sort of by accident (although judging from much fanfic, many people never do really learn it). It’s one of the harder things to teach in English as a Second Language. But if adjectives are piling up in front of your noun, how do you know what arrangement they should have? This is the most common manner they will appear in, stolen from Diana Hacker’s most excellent Writer’s Reference. It’s by no means a hard and fast rule, but it’s a pretty good place to start.

The article or other noun marker:
a, an, the, her, Fraser’s, three, many, some, etc.

Evaluative word:
Pretty, tasty, ugly, disgusting, attractive, etc.

Huge, gigantic, tiny, little

Length or shape:
Long, square, short

New, old, young, antique

Silver, gold, carmine, purple

Venezuelan, Swedish, Transylvanian, Chinese

Muslim, Catholic, Protestant

Wood, silver, polyester, iron

And then the noun modified

It’s best not to throw more than two or three adjectives at a noun. You don’t want a big five-car adjective pile-up for the reader, because it tends to not only weaken your description but it can get kind of comical. And as with adverbs, overuse tends to make people laugh at fanfic and other amateur writing. So keep it simple:

Spike and Dru enjoyed making a meal of the plump young Hungarian soccer team they met on the train.
Buffy wore a beautiful antique silver cross around her neck.
Irons had a fascinating old Renaissance painting of a woman wielding the witchblade.
Blair had a collection of moldy ancient Peruvian manuscripts.

So once you figure out what string of words you want to use, how do you punctuate them? I have seen some really nasty arguments about this, so sadly, there’s no hard and fast rule here, either. It’s made worse by the fact that Brits don’t always commafy everything the way Yanks do. But generally, if the adjectives you’re using are what’s called coordinate (they modify your noun separately), then you want commas: Dawn has become a strong, confident, intelligent young woman. You can tell they’re coordinate if they can be joined using and (strong and confident and intelligent), or if they can be scrambled without affecting your sentence (intelligent, confident, strong).

If two or more adjectives don’t modify the noun separately, then they’re cumulative: Four big ugly vampires came toward Xander. The adjectives here sort of piggyback on each other, with each word modifying a larger word group (this is where your list comes in). Ugly modifies vampires, big modifies ugly vampires, and four modifies big ugly vampires. Since you can’t throw an and in there (four and big and ugly vampires), and we can’t scramble them (big four ugly), we’ve got ourselves cumulative adjectives, by gum, so no commas. And also, go here to one of my comma posts or here , and there’s more info about how to use the commas when you have long strings of modifying words.

In truth, if you don’t do this right, it’s not the end of the world. There are folks who will beat you up about the punctuation or the placement, but I think just the fact that you don’t overdo the use of adjectives or adverbs is the crucial thing. Pick judiciously, order them in a way that makes sense, and you’ve got most of the hard work down.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
(Ob. mood warning: Sorry in advance if this is lackluster; I'm in peculiarly depressed and gloomy mood today and my brain keeps wandering into dark corners.)

Much has been written and discussed about passive voice, and often, that writing is pretty aggressive and angry. There's a general sense that passive voice is always bad and must be avoided at all costs, and that people who use it are either a) academics, who just usually write badly, period, and so are open for mockery; or b) bad amateur writers who wouldn't know grammar if it came up and bit them in the ass. Either or both of these might be true, but the passive voice issue isn't even really one of grammar, but of style; this is why it's always employed in academic writing -- the style was set somewhere along the line (by pompous idiots, if you ask me), and now the style is required if you're creating something in that arena.

Fanfic and amateur writing, however, don't have to follow those restrictions, but most people use passive voice without even understanding they're doing it (because most of us never paid attention in English class, since most of that stuff is so heinously boring and confusing anyway). But it's important to understand, when someone criticizes you for using it, or you decide to open up a can of whup-ass on a writer for her use of passive voice, that there's no correct or incorrect law about this. Passive voice makes for often redundant, overly wordy, tangled and confusing prose that doesn't have to be so, but it is by no means "wrong." It's a peeve, a very good peeve based on a solid understanding of what makes writing successful, but it's still a peeve.

So what is passive voice? This is what it says in the American Heritage usage book: the passive voice refers to verb forms that allow the subject to be the receiver (rather than the performer) of the verb’s action. Passive verbs consist of a form of the verb be and a past participle: is needed, was bought, has been delivered. You can recognize passive constructions by looking for sentences like this:
The Viper is driven by Angel. (Active voice: Angel drives the Viper)

That new broom model we all wanted was flown by Hermione. (Active: Hermione flew on that new broom model we all wanted)

A tell-all book is being written by Blair about Jim and his senses. (Active: Blair is writing a tell-all book about Jim and his senses)

That stake might have been last used by Buffy. (Active: Buffy might have used that stake last)

The outpost has been defended by Lancelot and Arthur for many years. (Lancelot and Arthur have defended the outpost for many years)

His father's Dodge Charger was being rebuilt by Dominic. (Dominic was rebuilding his father's Dodge Charger)

A report on the consortium had been being written by Mulder. (Mulder had been writing a report on the consortium) Ack! Ick! Ptui! Never use this first construction. Just don't.

There's nothing inherently wrong with those passive sentences (except the last one!) other than that they are wordier than they need to be, and less engaging than they should be.

In fact, passive voice can actually be useful, especially if you're trying to either conceal something particular, or tone down something that could be accusatory: Consider the difference between "Someone gave Serenity's location up to the Alliance" and "Serenity's location was given to the Alliance." That's the reason police reports and office memos and such often use passive construction -- if you don't know the identity of the person doing the act, you can still talk about the action. "The sick bay was broken into last night," when you don't know who did it; "A package will be delivered at the docking station tomorrow" when you don't have specific info about who and how it will be delivered. It's also useful when you want the emphasis to be on the performer of the action, rather than the action itself: "The case was solved by Vecchio and Fraser, two law enforcement officers from different countries." The reason scientists use passive voice is that it serves a purpose in describing processes rather than the people involved in working the processes. Instead of Dr. McCoy writing, "I put the alien cultures under the microscope to study their activity," he might write "The alien cultures were put under the microscope for study."

The problem with passive voice is that it's abused, unfortunately. In academic writing, it's often used for everything, rather than as above, and for amateur or newbie writers, it's often the signature style that identifies someone who doesn't know how to write. I remember having a conversation once with someone who said that you can always tell you'll get a passive-voice-laden fanfic when you see a warning saying, "This is my first fic! Be nice to me!" or some such. And sadly, I think that person was right -- it's almost as if passive voice is a graduation ritual where you have to write a bunch of stories bogged down in passivity and redundancy before you can move on to better things.

What happens is that using passive voice requires extra words, so sentences become longer, sleepier, more complex than necessary. In dialog, it can turn natural speaking into a weird, phony intoning quality, and rarely ever sounds like anyone except maybe your oceanography professor from that class you hated. And after a while, sometimes people can't even follow your train of thought, because they don't know who's doing what. Think of all the times you've read godawful memos that you could barely understand because they were so convoluted -- I guarantee they will be in passive voice. "Performance reviews of the employees of Wolfram & Hart will be initiated next week so that new training programs for Satanic contracts, ritual sacrifice, and underworld employment law can be developed, and raises and/or executions can be given." I often make cracks, when people give me stuff to edit, that I can cut their 100-word paragraph down to 15.

If you want to avoid passive voice when it's not necessary and make your writing come alive, keep your eyes peeled for to be words (is, was, are, were, etc.) and other weak, qualifying verbs like seem, appear, can, and so on. Myself, I keep a sharp lookout for woulds and coulds as they often signal to me that I'm weakening the action, and words like going, doing, etc. I have a tendency to overwrite, and often say things like "I'm going to go to the bar," rather than a simple "I'm going to the bar." And head on over to the American Heritage usage guide at if you want to know more detail. There are quite a few samples of passive and active voice there.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
I saw this today in IMDB's news section, and it made me laugh:
Reports the punk legend Johnny Ramone is dying of prostrate cancer have been wildly exaggerated - according to his wife Lydia.

So apparently there are rumors that Johnny has cancer from lying down, or something. The word they wanted, of course, was prostate. Which led me to think about what to post usage-wise, and then I remembered that I've been hanging on to my own personal peeve for a really long time, and haven't addressed it in favor of other more confusing issues. There's really not a good way to overcome homophone/homonym abuse, to be honest, other than developing a good eye and spelling/word skills. It's an especially thorny issue to address, because there are so many words and problems with words that fall under this rubric that I almost don't know where to start -- and assume I might end up doing this in multiple posts.

Today, I wanted to at least start with identifying the concept. A homonym is most often a word that has the same pronunciation (often spelling, too) as another, but that has a different meaning. A homophone is similar, where the words are spelled differently, but pronounced similarly -- but they mean different things. (Think medal/meddle; taught/taut; pore/pour; compliment/complement, the classic there/their/they're, your/you're; and so on ad infinitum.) There's another term often used by grammarians but that I rarely see used in casual discussion, homograph, which is not really much different from the more general term homonym, and are words spelled alike but with different meanings and usually with different pronunciations (lead, [pr. leed], meaning “to conduct,” and lead, [pr. led], the name of the metal). (And just because it's the one thing that can send me into fits of apoplexy, the past tense of the verb to lead? Is led, not lead. So there.) Most folks stick to homophone and homonym when they're talking about these words, so I will too, just for simplicity's sake. Most of you who know this stuff know it, and those of you who don't and asked me to do this would probably prefer to keep it simple, non?

So technically, my example above isn't really in this category at all -- prostrate and prostate are spelled differently, pronounced differently, and one important letter makes them entirely different words. But it still serves as a good example, just because how we hear things, and how we say things, often influences our writing far more than we may realize, and if we're not cautious, we can make some serious blunders because we may not know the difference between certain words we pick. A lot of people hear the r in prostate -- they actually don't really realize there's no r there, because the more common word they probably heard growing up (before we all started learning about men's prostate glands, ah those were the days, weren't they?) was prostrate -- "Spike has heat prostration" or "Starsky is lying prostrate on the floor because he's seriously drunk."

The problem is compounded, too, by people who either don't read much, or who read but never really notice the words they're seeing on the page. They make no connection to the word they've heard and the word as it's spelled in print, so if they don't hear the d in iced tea, they believe it's ice tea all their life. The way speech lets us ellide letter sounds into each other, or skip them altogether, means that if someone has no ability or inclination to remember how that word looks in print, they'll perpetuate some truly irritating or hilarious mistakes. Or we hear phrases or words all our lives, but we never see them in print, so we don't know what they look like (one of my favorite examples was someone who wrote "loaded for bare" which I liked thinking about for its abstract possibilities. The person had heard, but never seen written down, the expression, and didn't understand that it meant a gun with a load [bullet heavy enough] that can take out a bear). There are tons of reasons for this, but what's frustrating for readers who know their stuff is that so many people who write amateur fiction never bother to check their work, or try to learn where they're abusing H/H (because I am lazy and can't type, I'm calling homonyms and homophones H/H).

There was a story that had achieved a kind of legendary status in X-Files fandom that I never understood (the status, not the story). Not only was it, to my eyes, an incredible case of character rape for both Mulder and Scully, but the writers thought they were just the shit, and had no interest in a beta reader. So the novel was peppered with enough H/H abuse to choke a cow, and at one point I counted 12 examples on my computer screen of seriously egregious mistakes -- and that wasn't including all the their/there/they're mistakes, nor the your/you're. If they weren't outright H/H errors, they were just the writers' ideas, apparently, of phonetic spellings of words they had no idea how to spell and couldn't be bothered to spell check. My personal favorite, that I trot out at parties all the time, was "architextural drawing." Because, you know, there's a word texture, and there's a word architecture, so presumably they must be spelled the same, right? I despised this piece so much, but what really made my head go boom was that not one person I knew -- not one grammar bitch or spelling dominatrix -- was annoyed by it. They were all, oh, the story's so great, I didn't notice. And I was just boggled by this. To me, that's one of many things that makes a story bad.

Phonetic spelling like that is always dangerous, but most often, spell checkers will catch the error words that have no corresponding real word, so if we use them we can be alerted to some of the more obvious troubles. Spell checkers, however, will not catch true H/H problems. It won't know that you want the word grate in there, not great, or which of the there/their/they'res you need. I love the little Webster's Pocket Dictionary for this reason -- it's tiny so takes up little space, and it lists how to spell words, but best of all, it gives you the other problem words if there is confusion. So the listing for compliment gives you the spelling, and then notes that this word means a comment of praise, but complement means something that enhances something else. A lot of these problems can easily be fixed with a quick consult of a reference; the problem is that many people may not know they need a reference.

And that's the tricky part, because fan writing is a culture nowadays of not saying anything critical to anyone because so few people can take constructive crit. So folks just plow on writing sentences like "The grate thing about life at Hogwarts was that Harry new he was'nt a lone and their were other wizards near-bye." And sadly, most people will continue to read them and not understand that this is wrong; the people who know this will be off beta-reading for the really standout authors.

So now that I've defined the concept, next time I'll try to get into some of the most common mistakes and trickiest distinctions. I think that will be a long post. In the meantime, just remember that led is the past tense of to lead (as in "Wes didn't know how to lead Faith on the path to righteousness" but "Buffy led Spike down the garden path"), and it sounds just like lead, the metal. It may not get you very far, but I will love you.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
A while ago (yes, I know, I’m too sporadic about these these days), I wrote about what a dangling modifier was and why they are bad. This is somewhat related, but today I’m talking about just misplaced modifiers. There’s a really easy rule of thumb for modifiers: Modifiers should always point clearly to the words they modify. Keep related words together.

Now, you’d think that would be simple, right? Hah. [ profile] movies_michelle told me recently about an annoying woman who, though English is her first language, posts incomprehensible things that no one understands the meaning of — because she puts modifying words in the wrong places. Not only can you confuse and annoy readers by misusing modifiers, but you can entirely change the meaning of your statement if you use them incorrectly. Most of the time, you don’t want to do this. Because then it becomes a bit like Alice in Wonderland, with that conversation between the Mad Hatter and Alice. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

First of all, the simplest part is to remember that limiting modifiers should go in front of the words they modify. These are words such as only, even, almost, all, nearly, not, and just. They should come in front of your verb only if they modify the verb (Harmony couldn’t even walk and chew gum). If they limit the meaning of a different word in the sentence, then put the darn modifier in front of that word. It sounds fussy, especially when you talk about the words only or even, which can get copyeditors into a lather at times. Sure, people can usually understand your meaning if only is placed farther away from the word it modifies, but sometimes, they may not, or they may come away with the wrong idea. Some examples:
Jack only shot only the aliens, leaving the villagers alive.
Sonny fired off two clips, but didn’t even hit even one bad guy.
If I could just get Angel to just stop brooding for one moment…

You can see here that these are not going to kill a sentence if the modifiers come at those places in the sentences. But the meaning becomes a little clearer, the writing becomes a tad more precise, when you put the modifiers closer to the words they modify. Jack really isn’t only shooting, he’s trying to shoot only aliens. This becomes a big problem with words like not, which is often misplaced, and can seriously cause confusion when you’re using it with words like all or any. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but Michelle’s example was a message from this woman saying something like “all the rooms are not available to students.” This can be frustratingly incomprehensible because it’s saying that no rooms, absolutely none, are available to students. Is that what she meant, or did she mean that the rooms are not available to all students (meaning, just some of them who fit a certain criteria), or not all of the rooms, but some of them, are available to students? So the difference can look like this:
All vampires are not hypnotic and sexy.
Not all vampires are hypnotic and sexy.

The original means that no vampires are hypnotic and sexy (as if!), but what the writer probably means is that not all of them are hypnotic and sexy, but some of them certainly are. In the first set of misplaced modifiers a couple paragraphs above, most people would be able to figure out what you meant. But once you throw not into the mix, or words like that, you can drastically alter how readers perceive things. I had a friend once who told me about his friend, who was a teenage mother. And I said, she's our age?! Because we were like 13 or something. And he said, yeah, and so her mom is really young. And I asked, do you mean she's the mother of a teenager, then? Your friend's mother is the mother of a teenager, not that your friend is a teenage mother. He just looked at me and said, well, yeah -- why is that hard to get? Conversations with him were always like this. So watch out for those modifiers!

The dangling modifiers I talked about a few months ago always involve phrases. You can still misplace modifying phrases without having them necessarily meet the qualifications of a dangler, but I think that column gives you a good overview. The main thing with phrases and clauses is that you want to make it obvious for your reader what you’re trying to modify — don’t separate them out over long distances, unless you’re a really gifted writer and you know how to do this (leave it to the professionals!), and don’t shove them in awkward spots without thinking carefully how it might read.

Doyle and Bodie drove to the building where Bodie had been shot by an IRA gunman in a silver Ford Capri.

Here, you can leave people scratching their heads about why they need to know the gunman was in a silver Ford Capri, when in fact you meant that this was the car Bodie and Doyle were driving. Rather than tear asunder your modifying phrase and the words you want to modify, keep them in wedded bliss, close together, and recast: Doyle and Bodie drove their silver Ford Capri to the building where Bodie had once been shot by an IRA gunman. Plus, you get rid of unintentionally funny sentences like I mentioned in that dangler post; not being mocked is always a good thing, if you ask me. Sometimes sentences turn out just plain ambiguous, and while that’s not necessarily mockage material, if you do it enough, you can turn readers away from your story, because they’re having to work too hard:

The townspeople Jeremiah and Kurdy stayed with often asked them about their sex lives.

Does this mean that the townspeople regularly asked them about their sex lives, or that they frequently stayed with the same people, who asked them rude questions? If the former, you’d want that “often” up in front of stayed, or if the latter, then you’d want to slap that “often” in another place, possibly even at the end of the sentence (or recast, to say something like “asked them frequently about…”

And here we get into one of those myths I promised, way back when, to smash into pulp: Don’t split infinitives. What this means is that we grew up with a stupid instruction that we’re not supposed to put a modifier between an infinitive verb’s two parts; an infinitive is one of those verbs with to in front of it. To boldly go is perhaps the best-known split infinitive in the world. Now, if it’s really truly awkward to split the infinitive, then don’t, but there is no logical, defining reason not to do it — it’s a myth, a silly one at that, and not based on any logical reasoning about the way English works. As always, let clarity be your guide: if it sounds clearer to you not to split the infinitive, then don’t, but if it comes out sounding weird or awkward or not how people talk, then forget it. To go boldly where no man has gone before sounds just as fine as To boldly go where no man has gone before, so I say, split, baby, split. If you are going for very formal writing such as academic prose (which, to me, is almost an oxymoron — I think academic writing is just gobbledegook), then you probably want to hew to the not splitting rule, but otherwise, this how folks talk, you know?

Awkward would be this:
Technicians should try to if possible avoid hitting the stargate portal activation switch when the janitorial service is cleaning it.
Less awkward and non-splitting would be:
If possible, technicians should try to avoid hitting the stargate portal activation switch when the janitorial service is cleaning it.

To boldly split infinitives where none have been split before — fine by me.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Sorry -- day got a way from me yesterday -- sunshine in Seattle! the garden beckoned.

Back when I first started this, I talked about apostrophes, particularly the apostrophe s possessive misunderstanding. But there are other uses for the apostrophe, especially in contractions.

Most of us actually know how to use contractions (I say most, because of course, probably all of us have come across the fan typists who either have never heard of a contraction, or where to put the apostrophe), so there’s (there is) probably no misunderstanding about them, right? Well, moooostly. But not totally. With contractions, it usually isn’t (is not) the actual placement of the apostrophe that’s the problem, it’s the words themselves, and how sometimes amateur writers avoid using them altogether.

The single greatest sign to me that the writer whose work I’m (I am) looking at is not an experienced or knowledgeable writer is lack of contractions. Most of the documentation I’d (I would) get from my client at work would never show contractions where they should be, and much of the fan writing I see from newbies uses an oddly formal and inappropriate style, especially in dialog -- because people talk in contractions.

As an example, when I was working on the employee newsletter for a company years ago, our president decided he wanted to start having a President’s Message each month. He wanted to write it and just have me edit it, rather than ghostwrite, as those usually are. When I touched up the copy, the communications staff had a meeting where we tried to figure out what was wrong with the piece -- it sounded stiff, unfriendly, odd. Finally we figured out that there were no contractions. It came across as distant and so formal it wouldn’t (would not) connect with employees.

And this sort of thing happens a lot in fanfic. I can’t count how many times I see characters speaking in these weird, formal styles they never would use, because the writer doesn’t (does not) really understand how to use contractions, and when. See how different these pairs of sentences feel if you read them out loud:

“It is times like these, mate, when I do not know why I should not just kill you,” Spike said to Xander.
“It’s times like these, mate, when I don’t know why I shouldn't just kill you,” Spike said to Xander.

“We cannot find the murder weapon. I am mystified,” Jim said.
“We can’t find the murder weapon. I’m mystified,” Jim said.

You can see how strangely stiff those first sentences are, yet it’s something I see all the time. I’m honestly not sure if people just don’t hear the words as they appear, or if they truly believe that writing should use formal, stiff constructions to be appropriate. I do know that some people think contractions are too informal, especially in technical documentation, but I disagree -- people are so used to hearing them that they’re (they are) a part of the aural landscape, as well as our visual landscape when we read. By all means, keep contractions out for times when you need the character to be speaking more formally (Giles is an excellent example, in that he often spoke more formally than others around him, especially when making points), but consider using them the rest of the time. Your prose will come across more naturally, and your dialog will definitely sound more like a real person talking.

Most of us know the common contractions -- don’t (do not), can’t (cannot), won’t (will not). But here’s (here is) a list of some that cause a few problems for folks:
let’s (for let us; using lets without an apostrophe means allows)
it’s (means it is; if you’re talking about something possessing something else, then you want its. This one will get you into lots of trouble with nitpickers, so it’s a helpful one to memorize -- if you get confused, just ask yourself if the word you want means it is when spelled out.)
you’re (means you are; the other version, your, is what you use when describing something owned by another person. “You’re too stupid to know your own name.”)
they’re (stands for they are. Do not confuse this with their, the possessive form of they, or there, meaning that place yonder. This is *the* most hated error made by people who don’t know the mechanics of writing, so spend a little time learning this contraction, and you’ll be loved and adored by millions.)
I’d (this is a toughie because it can mean either I had or I would, so it’s often a good idea to just spell it out all the way, if you need to be clear. Really avoid using I’d’ve for I would have.)

You get the idea -- take a look at some formally published work, and you’ll (you will) see how these things look on the page. I keep trying to recommend reading good literature to see how good writing is handled on a page; with contractions, I think that’s (that is) one of the best exercises you can do.

And a word about strange, longer contractions such as where’ve and would’ve (where have and would have) and so on: unless you’re really sure you know what you’re doing, avoid these if you can. Even though in speech we say would’ve, there seems to be a popular and irritating conviction that it’s written out as would of (or where’ve). Now, think about it: what the hell would would of mean? These two words in conjunction with each other are nonsense, yet so many people think it’s would of because would’ve kind of vaguely sounds like that, that it could drive an editor to drink. It has, in fact, driven me to drink. Even if the character you’re writing would probably think it’s would of, just avoid it. You’ll only perpetuate a pretty annoying problem, and it doesn’t really add anything to the dialog as written, because we tend to fill in speech patterns anyway, so if we know a character has an unsophisticated style, we kind of place that on the dialog as we read.

This construction drove me batshit throughout Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and I’ve seen a few really good fan writers use would of and where of as a dialog device to assist characterization, but I would really discourage people from using it. Just because that’s what folks think it is, doesn’t mean we have to play into that. I always preach tolerance because language is changing all the time, but this is one place I’m not tolerant. Stick with where have and would have, and you’ll always be good -- no one can really come back at you and accuse you of not knowing how to write, even if the reason you used the contractions (or god forbid, would of) was for characterization. (I have a very long piece about writing in dialect that will come up later once I revise it for this audience, but that’s my anti-dialect statement for now.)
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
When it comes to explaining usage misunderstandings, I find that punctuation is actually pretty easy. There are basic rules to follow, and once you get the hang of the rules, you know where you’re going. More complex ideas of usage, though, can trip up even the professionals. One of those things that gets missed even by fairly good people is the dangling modifier, often just called a dangler in the jargon. My boss once brought me a copy of Editorial Eye’s “Black Eye” column, where they collect egregious boo-boos, and asked me to tell her what was wrong with a sentence they’d included. I couldn’t figure it out for about a minute, until I realized it was a dangler.

A dangling modifier is a word, or a group of words, that don’t refer logically back to any other word in the sentence. You’ll see a group of words that suggest, but don’t actually name, an actor (no, not the folks who play the characters you like, but the subject in the sentence who is taking the action those words are suggesting), and so the reader mentally fills in the blanks, or tries to place order in the sentence by mentally rearranging the words -- and if they fail, they struggle with trying to identify just who or what is doing that thing in the first place. And these errors are surprisingly common even from the best writers. If they’re so common and easy to do (and hard to spot), then why are they a problem?

In English, when we read, we expect the subject of a clause to tell us who that actor is. When it doesn’t, we can get confused and frustrated; it’s especially dangerous in any kind of technical writing where instructions may provide information without really giving the reader an idea of who should be doing what. In fiction, obviously, it’s not going to result in someone blowing up their DVD recorder, but it does sometimes mean you’ll be a target for those folks who like to MST3K your unintentionally funny fic. Because often danglers have that effect: of making something funny even though it’s not meant to be, just because the modifying phrase is dangling out there without a referent.

Some examples:
Walking into the Oval Office, the staff greeted Jed and Leo.
(Why this is troublesome: it’s unclear who is walking into the office -- the staff, or Jed and Leo. Not earth-shattering, but for a careful reader, mildly annoying. In sex scenes, though, danglers like that can be rather high-larious.)

Upon seeing the exit sign, our Testarossa swerved violently to make the turn.
(There’s no clear idea who saw the sign -- the only info we have here is that the car saw the sign and swerved, which, you know, if you’re talking Knight Rider, maybe, but most likely? Silly.)

To celebrate Bilbo’s birthday, some fireworks were set off before his speech.
(This gives the illusion that the fireworks set themselves off to celebrate Bilbo’s big day. Not that, in Middle Earth, they couldn’t, but still.)

Though only a teenager, the Council expected Buffy to save the world 24x7.
(This implies that the Council is only a teenager; which, in light of Band Candy, could be kind of funny, but it’s still pretty hugely wrong, technically.)

I would say that about 90% of the danglers I fix are of the variety in the first sentence -- they start with what’s called a gerund or gerund phrase, which refers to words ending in -ing that can act as nouns. Anytime you see a sentence starting with an -ing word, or you write one, keep an eye out for dangling modifiers, because they’re so damn easy to miss. The other most common one is where you’re starting with something like “as” or a being word -- I can’t count how many times I’ve had to fix a sentence like “As a writer, the First Amendment is very important to me” or “Being late again, the play was well into the first act when I took my seat.” You want to get the subject as close up together with that modifying phrase as possible, and make sure you actually identify who’s who -- even for super simple, easy to parse sentences like those two. That way you’re more prepared for very complex sentences, and you won’t end up with comic effects you didn’t want.

We may be able to fill in the blanks (our minds are wonderful things, truly), or do a quick little double-step as we read and figure out who’s doing the talking or acting in those types of sentences, but why make your reader do the work? As a writer (or beta), you should be the one helping your reader along -- especially if you want to write some really complex or unusual things, and hope the reader puts all their effort into adoring your intricate and beautiful prose.

So how do you fix them, once you’ve spotted them? The most important thing is to rewrite your sentence -- bring that actor immediately up behind the introductory modifier, or turn the modifier into a group of words that will include the actor.

Upon entering the Hyperion hotel, I noticed a huge pentagram on the floor caught my eye.
As I entered the Hyperion hotel, a huge pentagram on the floor caught my eye.

But don’t just try to rearrange your words, because you’ll most likely still end up with the same problem:

A huge pentagram on the floor caught my eye upon entering the hotel.
(This implies the pentagram walked into the hotel and caught the narrator’s eye. I know -- it could happen. But.)

So make sure you’re not afraid of the I in situations like this; you’ll save your audience the headache and ensure you won’t get laughed at as much. Always double check the sentence to be certain the actor is easily identifiable:

When Hutch opened Opening the window to lean out and fire the gun, the car nearly hit the retaining wall. (This way the car isn’t opening that window!)

After finishing Hogwarts, wizards find that their wizards’ economic and social status often improves. (The wizards’ economic and social status doesn’t finish Hogwarts, the wizards do.)

Breaking up sentence structure is a good thing, and I definitely don’t want to discourage people from doing that by scaring them that danglers are a terrible thing -- they’re not a severe problem, but they’re a problem. Just be cautious, when you’re working with different sentence styles, not to separate what you’re describing from the actor.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
While I realize that no one is exactly waiting for these things, I apologize for taking so long between usage posts. It’s hard for me to concentrate on anything lately, it seems, and then I’ve been in these outplacement and job hunting things, so my mind has been on that for a long time.

I thought I’d do something relatively easy to get back in the swing of things, and concentrate on the dash. While many other punctuation marks are misused, overused, or not used enough, the poor dash is downright abused. It’s made to stand in for far too many other punctuation marks, and people don’t even know what it really is, so it hangs around, feeling worthless. (In celebration of the Firefly movie gong forward, this is the all Firefly edition.)

The most important thing to know about the dash and how to use it is: a dash is not a hyphen. When you’re talking about little lines that separate words or letters, you’re really talking about three things. 1) is the hyphen, which is a short little line most often used to separate letters, or prefixes from the main part of a compound word (anti-Alliance), and so on. 2) is the proper dash, which is used in a variety of ways, and is physically made up of two hyphens (--) or a special character in word processors and typography programs called an em dash (—). That means that this dash takes up the width of an m in whatever typeface you’re using. 3) is a highly specialized dash that’s used only in publishing, and even then mostly only in North American publishing. It’s called an en dash (the width of an n), and you’ll see it in books and magazines to represent a range in numbers (the war with the Alliance went from 2502-2504). You can't even make this one in HTML, so we won’t be worrying about silly en dashes.

Instead we’ll worry about em dashes and hyphens. I’ll save how to properly use hyphens and create compound words and such for a later date, but right now I want to emphasize that you don’t normally use a hyphen to set off whole parts of a sentence, to add emphasis, or start a list — that’s the function of the dash. (And a side note about HTML: there are many bad things about relying on Word, for example, to create a Web version of your document, most notably that it creates huge, bloated, bad files that can be difficult to read on different browsers. But another drawback is that special characters such as the formal em dash disappear and become hyphens, making your perfected creation look a lot less than perfect. Sometimes, people won’t even be able to see where your “dash” was originally, giving it the appearance of a run-on sentence. You can turn off the autotype special character function in Word, and just use the -- to reduce this problem. There’s a special command in HTML that can give you a real em dash online, but for most of us, just using it correctly in writing is a more formidable task than using HTML characters.) I'm mixing up two hyphens/special characters in this post.

So if you didn’t use the simple hyphen (-) in your formal writing, and you know you’re using either the double hyphen to indicate a dash, or a special character that’s auto formatted for you (—), and you’re all set as to how the physical manifestation of the dash looks onscreen, then how do you use in writing? Well, the first rule I’d give is: don’t overuse it. I see a lot of amateur writers who throw colons and dashes around like salt. A lot of dashes in text will end up creating a choppy effect for your reader, turning them away from your story just because they’re having a tough time following it.

You want to focus on a couple areas. First is setting off parenthetical material that really deserves an extra punch. “All the disasters that occurred when the crew was on the planet — from the five dead Alliance cops to the hole blown in Serenity’s port side to Zoe’s gunshot wound — were blamed on Jayne.” “Simon believed that River had been tortured — more importantly, he now had the information to prove it.” In both those cases, the parts of the sentence after the dash could be contained either in parentheses or on their own as sentences, but by using a dash, you can bring them into the sentence and give it an extra oomph it wouldn’t otherwise have had.

You also use a dash for setting off what are called appositives, when they contain commas. Yeah, I know, I promised no technical grammar, but that’s what they’re called; appositives are nouns that rename a nearby noun. So you’d have something like “Serenity — a Firefly class ship weighing five thousand metric tons, carrying nine crew members, and additional cargo — flies outside the boundaries of the Alliance.” In this case, Serenity is your noun, and the info after the dash (Firefly class ship) is the appositive that renames it. Now, technically, you could just use commas there, or parentheses -- most of the time, that’s pretty much what you do with appositives. But a dash does this nifty thing where it gives the reader a chance to see the importance of all those pauses created by the commas, and of course adds extra emphasis. When you use dashes in a construction like this, use them sparingly if you’re not comfy yet with the concept. It’s really easy to use them badly or incorrectly in this way if you don’t quite know what you’re looking at. (And I have no idea what Serenity weighs; please don’t write to me and lecture me about how it really weighs X, because I just made it up for a point, and I haven’t got a freaking clue about the real weight and size.)

The last thing you’ll want to use a dash for is when you’re throwing in a list, a restatement, amplifying a point, or making a dramatic shift in thought or tone. Here are some examples of all of these:

In the cabinet were all the things Simon would need for basic doctoring -- bandages, drugs, implements, and even a sterilizer.
When you think about it, it’s hard to believe Jayne has managed to live this long -- his IQ can’t possibly be larger than his shoe size, and his violent temper always gets the best of him.
There were Alliance cops everywhere Mal looked — armed to the teeth and fully licensed to kill anyone they wished to.
Kaylee dribbled the basketball around Book, dodged Mal’s outstretched hand, and made her shot -- a perfect ball right through the hoop.

So you can get a sense here that the dash isn’t so much a necessity for a sentence, but adds flavor when used judiciously. Colons could also be used in many cases, if you wanted to, but dashes have drama. You wouldn’t want to use them where it won’t add punch to the sentence: “Having Simon on board -- for his medical background -- made a lot of sense, despite his insane sister’s potential for damage.” Sound it out, using the dashes as an extra long pause, and you’ll have a good idea if the dash is right for your prose. I know I keep harping on reading things aloud, but I truly believe that for newbie writers or folks who have trouble areas in prose, sounding out your writing can solve a lot of problems if you listen to how it reads.

The last note about dashes: everyone wonders if it should be closed or open on the sides. Well, a lot of that depends on what style guide you're using, if you're using one, and what your personal preference is. Some style guides call for space on either side of the dash, as I've done throughout this post. Others want you to close it up (everywhere Mal looked--armed to the teeth). I've found that for fanfic, in HTML, the open method works better for lines breaking at a dash, so I use this most often online. In my formal writing that's not online, I close it up, unless I'm working for a client whose guidelines state otherwise. For once, it's something that's entirely your choice!
gwyn: (Default)
When I began these posts, the most-asked question I received was on the lay/lie issue. Frankly, I’ve always been a bit baffled by the level of outrage generated by misuse of these verbs and tenses (I mean, I have trouble with them myself!), but it seems to be one of those benchmarks of what people consider acceptable language skills. I thought I’d add another one that seems to cause extreme confusion in the lay/lie manner, and one where I often find myself far more frustrated by misuse or misunderstanding -- wake/awake as a verb. I’ve seen some truly convoluted approaches (awokened is my favorite) to getting this one down, and the two problems seem fairly similar to my eye.

Lay and lie are easy to confuse because they sound similar, perform a similar function in a sentence, and also are usually misheard and misused in their various tenses -- so it becomes hard for most people to really understand the difference when the past tense of lie is lay, but you use lay as the present tense verb for putting or placing something. For most of us who don’t pick up all this grammar crap in school very easily, the distinctions will be lost, and then it’s reinforced as we get older because almost nowhere is it used correctly in general colloquial English. We have no real confirmation of how it should be used; in fact, we only get confirmation of its inappropriate use. So it’s no wonder that everyone’s messed up about it.

Lie means this: to recline or rest on a surface. Lay means: to put or place something. The delightful Heather Gladney sent me a wonderful answer written by Barbara back in the heyday of Professionals fandom, and I hope she won’t mind if I quote a bit from it, because it’s pretty useful:

“This is a problem in all the genres of fanfic I've ever read, some of it otherwise impeccably edited, proofread, and composed; it's just more noticeable in slash fiction, perhaps, because the action so often centers on someone lying on a bed (floor, hearth rug, kitchen table, meadow), or alternatively, laying his clothes (car keys, beer glass, partner) on a bed (chair, desk, airing cupboard).

Rule of thumb on lie/lay is: that one lies down (lay down yesterday, has lain down in the past) of one's own accord; and one lays something else down, or yesterday laid it down, or in the past has laid it down.”

This is basically all there is to it. Seriously. What turns it into a problem is that issue I mentioned before -- when you want to write the past tense of the verb to lie (meaning, I’m going to go lie down because I have the vapors after seeing those latest pictures of Sean Bean in Troy), you end up with the present tense of the other word (I’m going to lay these pictures down on the table before my drool ruins them). And then there’s all those tense versions -- lain, lying, and laid, laying. Arg! But if you think about phrases like “get laid” it makes some sense.

Here’s something Barbara also said:
“Less formally, Doyle lays (laid yesterday, often has laid) Bodie on whatever surface is handy. One or both of them probably lie (yesterday lay, have lain in the past) horizontally during the laying. I'm getting dizzy.”

What I want to recommend to people, if they’re having trouble with these forms and the concepts, is to write around a difficult situation (or if you’re betaing, to suggest this to your author). This is the editor’s biggest trick in a big bag of tricks -- recasting a sentence if at all possible. If you just can’t tell whether you want to write “Mulder lay the gun on the table” or “Mulder laid the gun on the table” (this is actually the correct one), then use a different verb -- “Mulder [put] [set] [slammed] [slid] [or whatever] the gun on the table.” Recasting is your friend when you have trouble. Otherwise, for most stuff, just remember these basics:
“Daniel was so exhausted that he lay down for a nap right there on the stargate.” (past-tense form of lie [to recline])
“Hermione laid the wand in my open hand.” (past-tense form of lay [to place])
“Buffy found Mr. Gordo lying in the corner of the closet.” (present participle form of lie [to rest on a surface])
There are more complex forms (had lain together through the night), but these should be your building blocks, and don't get too fancy if you're not comfy.

The variations on wake and awake seem to cause almost as much confusion, but result in less teeth-gnashing. Maybe it’s just that almost no one knows what to do with the damn things. Fowler even says in his Modern English Usage that “From earliest times, they have been unstable and unpredictable” and also calls the words’ history a philological nightmare. No kidding. I think one of the biggest problems for amateur writers about these verb forms is that we want to get poetical, so we start using them in tortuous (and torturous) sentences to make something sound more elegant than it may need to.

Awake, awaken, and waken all have what Fowler termed a tinge of formality that the simple, basic wake doesn’t have. So you can see the allure of using them in fanfic, because we want to sound all writerly and stuff. The most common forms are awake, awoke, awoken; awaken, awakened; wake, waken, wakened; and woken. Notice there is no awokened in there. ;-) The trick about knowing which one out of all these to use in your sentence means you have to know your tenses, and you have to know some basic grammar. So if you’re not good with either of those things, be extra special careful (or just e-mail me and ask!), or again, recast your sentence.

Here’s how you most commonly use these four verbs (wake, awake, awaken, and waken; I’ve thrown in up because sometimes people use it with wake and other times they don’t). I’m basing these sentences off those in Fowler, and the second set (awoken) can be stiltedly formal):
What time does Spike normally wake (up) at night?; Xander shouted, “Wake up!”; Buffy woke (up) to Angel knocking at her window; Giles woke with the dawn; Cordelia was woken (up) by the sound of hammering; The party woke Joyce (up) from a sound sleep.
Doyle awoke from a blackout; Angel awoke to the sound of rats scurrying past him; Buffy awoke her sleeping sister; The vampire bite awoke old fears in Anya.
Smallville must be awakened to the fact that there are aliens in town!; Seeing Clark without his shirt awakened Lex’s prurient interest; Lana’s shriek is enough to awaken the dead.
The Kents were wakened by fire in the barn; When Clark slept, nothing would waken him.

If you’re writing or betaing something, and what you see doesn’t fall into those structure categories, you probably have something on your hands that’s unusually formal, a little stilted, and possibly incorrect. So try to stick with what you know, or what sounds right -- most of us have a hell of a time trying to sound this out, and if it all sounds wrong to you no matter which form you choose, then write around it. Instead of struggling with “When he was alive, Stone had [awakened? awoken? waked?] to birdsong; now, in hell, he [awoke? waked? wakened?] to screams and the sound of Satan’s laughter” it might be a good idea to rewrite enough so that you’re comfortable with it (When he was alive, Stone would wake to the songs of birds outside his window; now, in hell, it was to screams and...”). Or something like that. Now I have to go lie down and watch soaps; you can wake me up later for chat.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Okay, today I’m monumentally swamped so I don’t have time to do the lengthy discourse on dangling modifiers I was going to, and I’m not sure these haven’t just grown tedious anyways, so I’m going with something mondo simple today!

That little exclamation point is your clue — today’s mythunderstandings is about exclamation and question marks. Which, on the surface, seem kind a simple, no? The problem comes when people try to extrapolate from casual communication, where exclamation points (also called bangs in the biz, and frankly, that’s way easier to write, so I might just do that) are used with abandon, into formal writing; question marks seem to cause problems particularly when they’re used in dialog or with other punctuation. (If you want to know about using these inside quotation marks, go here for my piece about those. But you would never want to use a comma or period with either of these marks, even in dialog.)

Exclamation points are used after any emphatic interjection, or similar type of expression, to indicate strong emotions, a style of speaking, or surprise, disbelief, etc. It’s really pretty simple, but the problem for a lot of writers who aren’t really skilled at conveying these things is that they want to go overboard. It could be that writers who misuse or overuse them aren’t sure they can convey the dialog they hear in their head, but bangs are kinda like chocolate, sex, good Scotch, or pretty much anything else — too much of a good thing can end up making you lose appreciation for it. If you’re using a bang at the end of almost every line of dialog because, for instance, you know Willow speaks very excitedly and brightly, then you’re going to lose the emphasis a well-placed bang will give to her dialog (plus, it just gets sort of tough to read). If you think a piece of dialog like this is good, then, well, we should chat:
“I know! I thought that spell was pretty cool, too! And watching her head explode was really kind of an unexpected bonus!”

In something like that, I’d probably save that exclamation point in the middle sentence, to convey the feeling of Willow being excited, in that sentence most of all. A good writer will describe the character well enough so that you know their speech patterns, and you can kind of infer the sense of excitement from that, or through adjectives and adverbs: “I know — I thought that spell was pretty cool, too! And watching her head explode was really kind of an unexpected bonus,” Willow said brightly.

You do want to use bangs to emphasize words spoken with real power — Spike would shout, “Bugger!” or Jayne would bellow “Gorramit, Mal!” and so on (notice the bang on that second one comes after Mal, not after gorramit). And they’re a convenient shorthand for communicating the intensity that dialog often has in real life. In informal conversation, such as e-mail or LJ or something, we often use a number of exclamation points to really get across a sense of excitement and fun — but that’s something we don’t really want to do in formal writing. So while I’ll throw in multiple bangs when I’m saying to a friend, “Oh my God!!! I can’t believe I ran into James Marsters on Rodeo Drive!!!!” I don’t necessarily want to do that in formal writing, especially because I should be writing more carefully to convey my enthusiasm — so that one would be enough on either of those exclamations I made. Overuse of bangs is the hallmark of the teenage girl writer, and even if you are a teenage girl? Don’t write like one, especially not if you’re writing male slash, because guys just aren’t gonna be talking that way. I guarantee it.

Question marks seem to cause similar goofiness in people. Like, my god, if I’m really confused, I must need about four question marks to convey that! Which, again, fine in informal communication (“I can’t believe what Xander did to Anya last night — WTF???”), not so fine in a piece of fanfic. If you’re tempted, resist; trust me, your readers will thank you for it, besides assuming that you’re an adult and not a 13-year-old.

Question marks are actually pretty simple — use them after a direct question, but not an indirect one. Don’t freak, that’s not as grammary as it sounds. A direct question is, well, direct:
Did anyone else notice that Aeryn was just sucked into a wormhole?
Who in this room heard Giles ask, “Where did Willow teleport to?” (Really tricky! A direct question within another direct question means you put the mark inside the closing quotation mark. Now we’re into the hard core stuff!)
What is that spazz thing Fraser’s doing? dancing? epileptic seizures? (that’s a series of questions where you’re using the same subject with the same verb, so it’s kind of assumed you’re still talking about the same thing)

An indirect question is, well, indirect — you’re not asking anyone point blank, rather, you’re repeating or paraphrasing another question:
Lex wanted to know what Clark was doing in his bed.
Dawn asked Spike if he would be willing to die for her.

Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where your sentence seems like neither of the above, and it’s really easy, if you haven’t got the detail skills down yet, to get twisted around on those. But if your regular, non-questiony sentence contains a direct question inside it, you’ll probably want to put your question mark as close as possible to your questiony sentence. For instance, even though this first one is relating a question by someone else, since it’s in quotes, you’ll want to stick that mark in there, because it’s ending an actual direct question. And the second one has a kind of interpolated question in between the other sentences, so it would help your reader if you used the mark.
Nikita asked, “Did you bring me into Section One on purpose, or was it only circumstances that brought me here?”
When the two vampires ask themselves, What does hell really mean? we see their fears of the impossibility of absolution and redemption that consume their psyches.

The most important thing I can say about both of these, and the thing I run up against nearly every day in my job, is that there’s a real difference between casual use of both these marks and formal use such as fanfic or technical documentation, or anything written for more than just simple conversation. Make it easy on your reader, and don’t try to overuse or overemphasize these marks — when we read, we use punctuation mentally to tell us how things are being said, so if you go overboard on them or use them constantly when a simple period will do, you’re making your reader pause, think for a sec, and then move on. Their mind is having to work harder than they may want, and they could just hit delete and move on. The work should all be on your end — if you spend enough time crafting how something is said, and communicating it through sound characterization and description, then you won’t have to sprinkle bangs and question marks in as if they were chocolate chips.
gwyn: (willow pronoun)
Since it’s a fairly big Yankee holiday here in the states, I figured I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on a usage thing this week. It’s usually pretty quiet round these here parts. Instead, I thought I’d focus on something that tends to add to the overall confusion about usage and writing/betaing, but that’s more thematic than grammatical — the difference between pet peeves (or hot button issues, or misunderstandings and misinformation, however you want to view it) and real correct or incorrect usage.

A long time ago on one of my lists, [ profile] sherrold compiled the biggest fanfic pet peeves of listmembers, most of whom are really into language and usage and grammar. And they’re great peeves, wonderful peeves (although clearly written before Spike became a huge BSO in the market, because of course he’s the exception to the “no media fans” rule), but they are, for the most part, not about right or wrong grammar beyond the most basic things like the punctuation peeves. We all have peeves. I myself have lots of them, peeves I nurture and treasure and won’t let go of, and most of my peeves aren’t even pets, but fairly large barnyard animals. But I also recognize that many of them are writing or word use peeves and not necessarily based in a correct grammar for English, or about syntax, or structure, or anything else. Some of them are — such as the possessive apostrophe I mentioned a couple weeks ago — but for the most part, my peeves were developed at an early age and nurtured over the years.

Most of us actually develop language and usage peeves from someone else. The vast majority of what drives us nuts is stuff we were taught was “right” or “wrong” in school, and if the information that was given us isn’t actually correct itself, then we’re hanging on to, essentially, someone else’s personal dislikes and being driven crazy by them over time. The biggest lesson I learned as I became a more experienced copy editor was finding out just how damn much I didn’t know. I had all these notions — about apostrophes, about words like impact as a verb and hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped” and stuff — and over and over, I kept finding out I was wrong. Wronger than wrong. But these things had been taught to me in school -- never end a sentence with a preposition (utter bullshit, since that rule is based on Latin grammar and has nothing to do with how English is structured); never begin a sentence with and or but (again, there’s just no real reason); don’t split infinitives (truly one of the more bogus rules of all time — if it aids clarity, don’t split the infinitive, if it doesn’t matter, boldly go where no man has gone before and feel good about it!), and so on and so on. All stuff I had to abandon by the wayside and now my peeves sit there like war orphans, all wrapped up in their shabby clothing, sitting by the side of the road.

I cherished my notions of ‘til being correct because, by gum, that’s what my teachers told me. Only, come to find out just recently, till has a much longer history, and until came long after till. I look back on my fanfic and go “arg!” because of course I have all those ‘tils in there. The history of my belief in peeves is all, sadly, in print. Like me, most of you are probably carrying around years of peeve indoctrination by teachers and other adults in our lives, from writing books we read, from other fans who told us how to do it, etc. Some of them are probably based on basic rules of real English grammar, but a shocking number are not. It’s one reason I’m reluctant to write anything that tells people what to do, because every time I’m certain that someone can’t do that, I check out the OED (I hate them! They always have some citation of just what I said couldn’t be done) and sure enough, it’s been done that way for hundreds of years. Remember how you were told over and over that ain’t ain’t in the dictionary? Well, not only is it in every dictionary, but for years, relatively educated people said it all the time. They also, especially in British English, used subjects and verbs that didn’t quite agree in the modern sense we expect them to. There’s this whole big history for English usage, but much of it isn’t accurately reported to us in school, so we’re carrying around the misonceptions as we were taught them, petting and stroking them, and passing them on to others.

Which isn’t to say that what our guts tell us, or what we do know for certain, can’t be applied, and that we should throw out peeves altogether, especially in the fanfic world, because so much of what fans “write” is sheer crap. Most people need help, and there’s no harm in telling them that it’s okay or right to say Wes’, if it means we can concentrate on getting them to write better sentences all the way around, or not write idiotic stories. You pick your battles, you know? But it’s important, I think, to recognize that not all of what we’re really adamant or Cranky McCrankpants about is really right or wrong. There are all kinds of possibilities (not least of which is how language is taught regionally), which makes it a) hard to learn what’s really right or wrong, and b) kind of fun, because the language is changing.

We’re not speaking Latin or ancient Greek or whatever — we’re speaking and writing an evolving language where things are constantly in flux. It’s harder to learn what’s right or wrong, but it also means the language keeps up with us. I have peers in editing who despise neologisms and slang phrases and speech patterns that reflect current usage. In the past two days on my copyediting list, I’ve watched what seems to be a relatively intelligent bunch despair over how most people say “and he’s like, all pissed off, and then I’m going, ‘hey, asshat,’ and then he goes, ‘whoa.’” They kept talking about today’s stupid kids replacing said/says with like and going, and I wanted to say, “Um... I’m like, whoa, dudes, because I’m in my forties and I talk that way when I’m with friends.” And I often just love new words and phrases — where would Buffy have been without that wonderful wordplay, for instance, like “could you vague that up for me?” and “I can’t believe you of all people are trying to Scully me.” Not being able to coin words like asshat or fuckwit would impoverish our language. Stuff like that is just fun. It’s what makes English exciting, that we can come up with phrases like “friend me” to describe the process of adding to your LJ friends list, rather than say “add me to your friends list.” So I don’t think I can ever join the fusty brigade and sit there with a pointy hat and decry the misuse of English or the horror of verbing nouns (or nominalizing verbs—hee!), because frankly, it often serves me well. A lot of times I despair over misuse and stupidity and especially wretched jargony bizness talk, but I’m kind of shocked at how quick to judge most people are when they’re not even going on real information.

Yeah, when I read fanfic my peeve buttons get tripped up the wazoo. I think at times if I see one more Buffy story with the word crepuscular every other page, or another Mag 7 story written in craptastic dialect with yer for your and everyone's readin' and ponderin', or see entire stories where there are simply no commas, I might actually explode. Overall I preach tolerance. But mostly I preach it so that we can first figure out whether it’s really right or wrong, and then once we know that, go after the person committing errors with a big sharp pointy stick and hurt them. I think it’s important to know the diff between what are peeves — for me, there is no worse sin than homonym and homophone abuse, and at times I fantasize about actually killing people who refuse to remember that led is the past tense of to lead — and what is really correct or incorrect grammar/usage. The more we know, the wider our understanding, the easier the distinction is made. And then, once we know, we can kill the people who don’t do it right.

June 2017

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