Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

Punctuation: It’s More Than Emoticons

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

In Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she has a particular problem with emoticons – you know, the colons and parentheses that make sideways smileys, as she calls them. I admit that I use them, but only for fun. I certainly don’t include them in cover letters or resumes. But there is a whole generation of kids right now who, without proper education, might never know that the colon has an actual use within a sentence.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, [Truss writes,] because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re onto something.

: – (

Now it’s sad!

; –)

It looks like it’s winking! (193)

Why should we care, though? Why bother continuing to fight what seems a losing battle? Truss puts it pretty well early in her book.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (20)

As a musician, I get it. Anyone who’s ever read lines from a script gets it, too. But what about everyone else, those who consider punctuation so much debris on the page? Think about ancient Hebrew, in which there was no punctuation, nor were there spaces between words – not even vowels! There have been nasty fights over translations of the Bible because of this. But by the time we began printing, we’d devised ways to help readers decipher the meaning of what they were reading. All these little marks, the periods and colons and dashes and hyphens, are aids; they’re here to help us.

When did things begin to fall apart? Truss gives her opinion on the matter, one well worth noting:

But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer!

[. . .] People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! (16-7)

That’s right; there are a lot of people claiming to be writers – educated people! – who make absolute fools of themselves online. Since anyone with access to a computer could be a virtual writer now, it is more important than ever to know the rules. How many times have you misread an e-mail because it’s just so hard to decipher tone and meaning via electronic communication? At least if the punctuation is right, that will go a long way toward making the meaning clearer.

After we learn the rules, we can flex our artistic muscles and enhance our writing with the stylistic uses of punctuation, as Noah Lukeman points out in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. As I mentioned two posts ago, the only form of punctuation that he doesn’t cover is the apostrophe. He even considers paragraph breaks as a form of punctuation. And the way you apply (or don’t) all the different forms of punctuation tells something about you, the writer.

The semicolon, for instance. Aside from the winky face, what good is it? A semicolon separates two independent clauses when a comma and conjunction just don’t do the trick, and when two sentences separate those thoughts a little too much. But writers could choose one of the alternatives I’ve just listed and still be technically correct. Truss says that newspapers don’t use it,

[T]he official reason being that readers of newsprint prefer their sentences short, their paragraphs bite-sized and their columns of type uncluttered by wormy squiggles. It’s more likely that the real reasons are a pathetic editorial confusion about usage and a policy of distrusting contributors even when they demonstrably know their onions. (110)

Ouch. And Lukeman’s take is that

Artistically, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities, and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it is the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers[. . .]

We use the semicolon for the same reason we trade cement floors for marble: cement floors are equally functional but not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian (from punctuation that works) to the luxurious (to punctuation that transcends). Business memos do not need semicolons; creative writers do. (70)

It follows that creative writers are artists and might decide to get flowery with their punctuation, but I can easily imagine academic writers turning up their noses at such a notion. There are, however, necessary punctuation marks that everyone has to use, so it’s important to learn about them – and how to keep from overusing them. Lukeman subtitles a portion of his last chapter “Use Sparingly,” and included in this section are the question mark, exclamation point, italics, ellipses (you know: . . .), and the hyphen. Most of these make sense, but the question mark? It’s supposed to come at the end of a question, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be right to end a question with a period (although that doesn’t stop people from trying). In the publishing world, Lukeman says,

[A] publishing professional is looking to reject a manuscript as quickly as he can. [. . .] And an abundance of question marks in the first pages  [. . .] nearly always indicates amateur or melodramatic writing. For some reason, the poor question mark gets seized upon by the writer who is desperate to immediately hook the reader in a cheap way. (184)

Likewise, the exclamation point

[C]an be painfully misused. Like the question mark, it can be used as a crutch to create a heightened sense of drama, can be transformed into a screaming car salesman. As a rule, if you need an exclamation point to make a scene come alive, then you better reexamine that scene. (187)

I do like an example that Truss cites, however, that wouldn’t be possible without these two marks. She mentions “the French 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry ‘?’ and received in the expressive reply ‘!'” (136).

Those of us who care enough to properly and painstakingly choose between semicolons and colons must first learn the rules (and when to break them) and unite with fellow sticklers. I’m waving my electronic hand here, trying to catch the attention of anyone else who cares. As Truss says,

[M]y personal hunches about the state of the language were horribly correct: standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture; and a lot of well-educated sensitive people really have been weeping friendlessly in caves for the past few years, praying for someone – anyone – to write a book about punctuation with a panda on the cover. (xix-xx)

Truss’s book has a lot of answers, as well as Lukeman’s (and he covers much more than I’ve been able to do here). Three other books that I highly recommend because they have greatly helped me with the craft are the old standby, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.

And I’ll let Noah Lukeman have the final word on making the case for proper punctuation:

[L]et your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save – it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will coexist seamlessly, and you will never  have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having a struggle, reexamine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. [. . . I]n the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don’t even know it’s there. (200)

Where the Heck Do I Put This Comma?

The punctuation mark comma

Comma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’ve been harping on about grammar and punctuation a lot lately, but I am of the school of thought that if you are from an English-speaking country, you should have a firm grasp of the English language and usage. It is a sad commentary on society that many foreigners go to great pains to learn English, and accents or no, they grasp the ins and outs of our language better than a great number of us. Granted, English (being the mess that it is) is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but that’s no excuse.

I concentrated on the apostrophe last week, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but this week I’m also going to let Noah Lukeman, author of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, chime in as well.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is for those of us who are sticklers, the die-hard punctuation freaks who are ready to defend the likes of commas and semicolons to the death. Truss also addresses style with a bit of history and humor thrown in. She has the unique perspective of a British editor, and she points out the differences and similarities between British and American punctuation. Lukeman, an American writer and literary agent, sticks to style; he assumes that we come to the page with the knowledge, and now we need to apply it. As such, I’ll let Truss go first, then allow Lukeman to round out the conversation. And since I gave the apostrophe so much time last time, I thought I’d give the same amount of space to the comma here.

Following is an example from Truss’s book about how punctuation can change the meaning of a string of words:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing. (9)

Rearrange the commas and add a colon, and you have two completely different ideas.

Unlike the apostrophe, however, there is no neat little list of all the rules of comma usage. Although there are some hard and fast rules (as in always placing a comma between city and state: Jacksonville, Florida), many “rules” can be ignored and are merely there to satisfy the desires of some writers and editors. I’m kind of a “the more the merrier” kind of gal, whereas Lynne Truss uses commas less frequently. There is a purpose for commas, though, no matter how tricky that purpose is to define and apply.

More than any other mark, [Truss writes] the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:

1 To illuminate the grammar of a sentence

2 To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow

[. . .] On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune. (70-1)

I identify with Truss’s musical notation explanation because I am a musician as well as a writer. When you consider it that way, it seems so sensible. Why not allow it to do its job and aid the written word? After all, when we talk, we speak with inflection, and most of us don’t run all of our words together. But if you were to read a long sentence (such as this one), full of twists and turns and various types of clauses, without the aid of inner-sentence punctuation, you would find quite a mess. You might have to puzzle over a jumble of words several times before getting the emphasis just right. Commas can help.

Truss gives another analogy for the job of the little hooky-looking thingy that we know and love (but often misuse):

[B]etween the 16th century and the present day, [the comma] became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a “separator” (punctuation marks are traditionally either “separators” or “terminators”) that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory “woof” to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don’t whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic about this job. (79)

Yeah, I am a wee bit guilty of letting my commas become unstoppably enthusiastic. You know that pesky Oxford comma? It’s the one in series that goes just before the “and”; it’s the last comma in: “I had an omlet, hashbrowns, and mixed fruit for breakfast.” My parents and I have many unresolved fights about this one. I’m right and they’re wrong. Except that they’re right and I’m wrong because I’m younger, and nothing I read (including Strunk & White) can refute their education. Doesn’t matter that I’m the editor. Well, as it turns out, we’re all right because the Oxford comma is optional. There are cases when it assists the clarity of a sentence. You could have lemonade, chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese (without the Oxford comma), or you could have lemonade, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese (with). Since “macaroni and cheese” is considered one item in that series, the comma helps tell the reader where the series will end. Okay, enough about that. You’re either going to be with me or against me (or likely not care at all).

There is one rule that Truss spells out quite clearly, and with which I hope we can all agree. And if you don’t get it. . . well, then you’re on your own, I’m afraid. “The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it” (96). Yes, ma’am. She gives several examples, and my favorite is, “Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.” If you ever see me write something like that, know that I’ve been abducted, and some doppelganger imposter has taken over.

So once you’ve figured out where to place that little bugger, Lukeman is the guy sitting in the plush chair with the notepad, watching you with one eyebrow raised, ready to help you discover what your comma placement means.

While Truss likens punctuation to musical notations and commas to sheep dogs, Lukeman borrows a quote from journalist Russell Baker that I like just as much. “In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard,” Baker says (28). A proliferation of commas or a complete lack of them not only guides the reader in hearing pauses (or not) in a phrase, but it shows something about the author, as well.

Knowing that I have a little problem with overindulging in commas, I was a bit anxious when I got to the part about what that means. I suppose it’s a bit like a literary horoscope.

The writer who overuses commas [Lukeman writes] tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs. He tends to be repetitive, won’t be subtle, and often gives too much information. He grasps for multiple word choices instead of one strong choice, and thus the choices he makes won’t be strong. His language won’t be unique[. . .] This writer will need to simplify, to take a stronger stance, and to understand that less is more. (65-6)

Gulp. Okay, I suppose I am guilty yet again, although ever since taking multiple fiction workshops with my good friend Mark Ari many years ago, I’ve gotten much better about tightening my prose and losing adjectives and especially adverbs. I guess the commas are leftover scars, and I’m doing my best to remedy their use, while maintaining my own style.

But never fear, Lukeman also addresses those who don’t like commas.

There are two types of writers who underuse commas: the first is the unsophisticated writer who has not developed an ear for sentence rhythm. He is unable to hear fine distinctions, and thinks writing is solely about conveying information. (66)

Phew! Thank goodness that’s not me. Actually, I know I am also guilty of info dumping, especially in my early writing days. It’s something that I think many beginning writers fight – or don’t fight, if they lack proper instruction and criticism – and I see it all the time.

The second [type of writer, Lukeman continues,] is the sophisticated writer who (like Gertrude Stein) has an aversion to commas and underuses them on purpose [. . .] The danger for these writers is the rare problem of overestimating the reader [. . .] There is a need for marks – especially commas – to indicate ebbs and flows, pauses and pitch, division of clauses and meaning. The writer who ignores this is the writer who writes for himself, not with the reader in mind. He will not be a commercial writer, or plot oriented, but prose oriented, interested in nuances of style – but to a fault. (66)

This, I think, is where it’s handy to remember the image of the comma as the helpful sheep dog.

So if you scrutinize your comma usage, where do you fall? Are you scared that you don’t get your point across, using too many descriptions? Or do you just let it all flow and let the reader fend for himself? As with everything, I think a little moderation is in order here. Let the reader use his imagination a little, but don’t forget to leave a few cues along the way.

My Poor Little Misunderstood Friend, the Apostrophe

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love it when I find a writer who cares just as much about English usage and craft as I do. I found my self-proclaimed stickler sister in Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She had me from page one:


 A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.”

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.

My original idea was to write one blog about both Truss’s book and Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, but there’s too much to say about both of these amazing punctuation books to cram in here. And while you might be thanking me for not subjecting you to such a long post, please don’t hate me for what I’m about to do.


Lukeman never addresses apostrophes in his book, and I can only assume it’s because A Dash of Style is about, well, style, and apostrophes aren’t things that should be thrown around like optional commas – although that doesn’t stop people from trying. (I actually do know of one stylistic apostrophe choice, but I’ll get to that later.) Lynne Truss, on the other hand, has such a wonderful chapter devoted to the oft misused and abused apostrophe that I decided it could use a post all to itself. What did I do to deserve this? you might be thinking, but I promise that what Truss has to say on the subject is both humorous and informative, thus worth the read.


The apostrophe (like the hyphen) is one of those few punctuation marks that is necessary when we learn how to spell; we simply couldn’t (or shouldn’t) write many of our words without it. Some people, when confused, might throw a comma in “men,s restroom,” for example, which is utter nonsense. Commas don’t go in words. Ever. But the person writing “men,s” knows that something needs to happen. “Mens restroom” just looks empty.


Following are the rules of apostrophe usage, along with examples, as Lynne Truss spells them out on pages 40-45 (American edition):


1 It indicates a possessive in a singular noun

For instance, “The girl’s doll.” What if, however, there are more than one girl? Then the apostrophe follows the “s”: “The girls’ dolls.” And finally, for those tricky words that are plural but don’t end in an “s” (children, women, men), the apostrophe precedes the “s”: “The children’s dolls.”


2 It indicates time or quantity

Truss’s favorite example, which she uses throughout the book as an indication of how far our society has slipped in proper punctuation usage, is the movie Two Weeks Notice. This is incorrect. It should be Two Weeks’ Notice.

Film poster for Two Weeks Notice - Copyright 2...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

3 It indicates the omission of figures in dates

I was born in the spring of ’83. Not too difficult to grasp.


4 It indicates the omission of letters

Ah, the contraction. This can be anything from the combination of “it” and “is” to abbreviations, such as “int’l” instead of “international.” And here’s a little extra that Truss has to say on the matter:


To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked             grave. (43-44)

Bless her.


Spelling at its worst 047224

Spelling at its worst (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5 It indicates strange, non-standard English

Remember how I said there’s a stylistic use for apostrophes? That’s where this one comes in, and I’ll elaborate later.


6 It features in Irish names such as O’Neill and O’Casey

Okay, that one is just obvious.


7 It indicates the plurals of letters

You don’t get straight As, you get straight A’s. This rule, in my opinion, is there to indicate how to pronounce what you’re reading. While I don’t think you would confuse Bs and B’s, my example above shows that with vowels, the pronunciation could vary and change the meaning (or obscure the meaning, anyway), so it’s best to stay consistent.


And finally, going along with #7,


8 It also indicates the plural of words

As an editor, this one comes in quite handy. I might write in a critique, “There were too many and’s in that paragraph.”


So where did this troublesome little mark come from, to begin with? On page 37, Truss writes:


The English language first picked up the apostrophe in the 16th century. The word in Greek means “turning away”, and hence “omission” or “elision”. In classical texts, it was used to mark dropped letters, as in t’cius for “tertius”; and when English printers adopted it, this was still its only function.

It picked up more tasks over the centuries, as the above rules show. Perhaps it is because the little mark is expected to do so much that it is so often confused with other marks or omitted altogether.


As for the stylistic use of the apostrophe that I’ve mentioned, I’ve read books by well-established authors in which apostrophes are omitted in dialogue when the people speaking drop letters at the end of words (such as “g”). Say Joe Character has a strong Southern drawl and not the best grammar. For instance, “I was going to the park the other day, walking the dog, minding my own business, when this kid on a skateboard came out of nowhere and almost ran me over.” Written like this, it’s difficult hear the accent. So let’s try: “I was goin’ to the park th’other day, walkin’ the dog, mindin’ m’own business, when this kid on a skateboard come out of nowhere and almost run me over.” The authors who choose to stylistically drop apostrophes would not place them in the words with the missing g’s. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe the apostrophe’s presence looks a little too formal for someone who’s speaking improperly. Either way, as long as we can all still tell what the words are supposed to be without the apostrophes, it’s an okay choice to make (although I’m too much of a stickler to do it myself). The other time authors might do this is if a first person narrator has an accent and narrates as such throughout a story. Here, though, I must warn against giving characters too much of an accent. They often require words that are misspelled to match their mis-pronunciations, and that can end up sounding affected and fake. J.K. Rowling did a great job with Hagrid in her Harry Potter books, but if you’ve ever tried to decipher George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion without help, you might never be able to get past the first few pages.


Did I make myself pretty clear, or are you more confused than when you started? I hope that I’ve encouraged rather than discouraged you. Be vigilant about your punctuation because it matters! And, of course, Lynne Truss has much more to say about the matter in Eat, Shoots, & Leaves, which I hope you will pick up. And since she inspired this post, I will let her have the last word.


We lovers of the apostrophe will not stand by and let it be abolished — not because we are dinosaurs who drink tea out of saucers (interesting image) but because we appreciate the way the apostrophe has for centuries graced our words and illuminated our meaning. It is no fault of the apostrophe that some of our words need so much help identifying themselves. Indeed, it is to the credit of the apostrophe that it can manage the task. Those spineless types who talk  about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the pun is very much intended. The next day after the abolition of the apostrophe, imagine the scene. Triumphant abolitionist sits down to write, “Good-bye to the Apostrophe; we’re not missing you a bit!” and finds that he can’t. Abolish the apostrophe and it will be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it. (66-67)