Friday, March 30, 2012

Common Problems (Part 43 of 50)

Use the semicolon properly. This punctuation mark is all-but-gone from modern writing. I like it because the semicolon and I have written together since eighth grade. Today we tend to write shorter sentences and don't need the semicolon.

But if you insert the semicolon use it properly. Some call it the supercomma. It has two uses.

1. After a colon and a list. Example: He owns stock in several places: Paris, Texas; London, Ontario; and Berlin, Wisconsin. Without semicolons readers won't know if you mean three locations or six.

2. The semicolon functions like a soft period to join two closely connected sentences. Thus both parts must have a subject and a predicate. Example: I like your floppy, silly hat; I don't like your high-heeled shoes.

I often write pithy sayings (aphorisms) and use the semicolon because the two statements are closely bound to each other: I am passionately involved in the process; I am emotionally detached from the result. A period or a comma would work and most readers aren't aware of the difference. But I am aware; therefore, I use the semicolon. (Did you notice the punctuation in the previous sentence?)

* Many times he’d imagined this day; thought about how it would go. (There is no subject in the second clause. Use a conjunction and a comma.)

* Guiding at the helm as we crossed a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, watching flying fish buzz above the waves, snorkeling with giant sea turtles; and an endless variety of fish and coral. (Why a semicolon? The sentence contains 34 words; for modern readers, that's too many. I'd suggest making two sentences and no semicolon.)

* Give us the freedom to choose; life with God or life without God. (Again, it's incorrect. I'd use a colon after choose.) 

Unless you're positive you know how to use the semicolon, 
don't.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Common Problems (Part 42 of 50)

When you write numbers, and means a decimal point. I earned three hundred and seventy-five dollars. Properly that means $300.75. Or I could write, I earned three hundred seventy-five dollars. I'd leave out the decimal or make it a general number such as "I earned about 400 dollars."

Not quite the same, but when some people refer to time past, they'll say, "In the year 19 and 47" or "the year 18 and 65." That may be only a Southern expression, but I hear and read it occasionally.

When I use numbers, 
and means a decimal point.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Common Problems (Part 41 of 50)

Use more than when you cite actual numbers. This may be one principle we'll have to surrender. I choose to make my writing as clear and as grammatically accurate as possible, so I'll hold to the old rule. I frequently see such constructions in print:

* for over a year

* had been over six months of questions

* a colleague of mine for over thirteen years

* my friend of over 30 years.

I would write more than in each of the illustrations above. Use over when you don't write a specific number:

Over a century ago. . .

Over a period of years. . .

Use more than with an exact number; 
use over when the number is inexact.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Common Problems (Part 40 of 50)

Avoid starting sentences with it was or there was. Because they're weak words you can usually delete them for better flow and fewer words.

* It was Saturday at the animal shelter, and it was alive with the. . . (Saturday at the shelter. . . or People scurried/bustled/hurried Saturday morning at the. . .)

* It was a spring weekend and we drove to Maine. (On a spring weekend. . . or We drove to Maine on a spring weekend.)

* It was a time when I had no other place to turn. (Better: I had no place to turn.)

* There’s a van coming right at us. (A van is coming right at us.) 

When I teach about not starting with those words, a few students remind me that Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with that construction. He did it for effect—and it sounds lyrical. His novel starts with these words:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .
If I avoid starting sentences with constructions 
such as it was or there was
my writing is usually stronger.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Common Problems (Part 39 of 50)

When you use only, make sure it modifies the correct word/phrase.

* I only want to eat breakfast. (That person is easy to satisfy and has no other desires in life except breakfast.)

* He only wanted to see Mable. (The writer probably meant he wanted to see only Mable—and not all the others.)

* I only wanted to mail a letter. (I want to mail only a letter.)

Readers will understand what you mean, but why should they have to figure it out? If you want to write with excellence, you'll use only correctly.

Only is a restrictive word; 
Make sure you use it properly.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Common Problems (Part 38 of 50)

Avoid the disembodied eye. Use words such as gaze or stare.

* His clear amber eyes soberly sought out and met her blue ones. [Their eyes didn't move out of their bodies.]

* His eyes traveled down to his shoes.

* His eyes returned to the altar while his ears listened to the words.

Readers will understand your meaning, but if you take the words literally, the sentences are ludicrous. 

Rather than taking the eyes from the body, 
use words that describe the eyes' action 
such as stare, gaze, watch, look, or gawk.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Common Problems (Part 37 of 50)

In books, we put a comma before the final conjunction in a series such as Mary, Thomas, and Philip; in magazine articles, we usually don't.

Most magazines and newspapers use the Associated Press Style Guide (AP), which is usually updated annually.

Book publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMOS), which has been around since 1906 and is updated irregularly. The 15th edition came out in 2003 and the 16th in 2010. Notice the difference in the two styles:

* He bought spaghetti sauce, noodles and a package of brownie mix. (The CMOS would insert a comma after noodles.)

* He peeled back the lid, snared a wing and offered it to Cynthia.

* Both of them are angry, hurt and eager to fight.

Think clarity first. Sometimes even the AP inserts a comma before the final conjunction. The classic example goes like this: He willed his estate to Tom, Mary and Jim. Without the comma following the name Mary, it means Tom receives half and Mary and Jim share the other 50 percent. If the author intends it to be divided into thirds, it would read: . . . Tom, Mary, and Jim.

Two things determine whether to use the serial comma. 
First, write for clarity. 
Second, consistently follow the AP or CMOS style guides.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Common Problems (Part 36 of 50)

Stay in one POV for an entire scene. Although I discussed POV previously, I continue to see what we call head hopping within a scene.

* . . . There were times when Gregory doubted what the agency told him. [Gregory's POV]. Same scene, two paragraphs later: The ship bellowed out a demand to board. To Lana and Gregory, its urgent appeal went unheard. [The writer slipped into third person universal POV].

* This is in Stan's POV: Stan watched Nick approach, trying to whisper. (How does Stan know Nick tries?)

* Ellen watched Drew move aimlessly through the crowd, searching for a kind face. (How does she know Drew is aimless? How does she know what he searches for? Even if he had told her, that may not have been true.) 

Decide on one point of view 
and stay with it for the entire scene.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Common Problems (Part 35 of 50)

Don't insult readers. Don't state the obvious. I see this occur in two different ways. First, some writers are so eager to be understood, they'll give the same information in different words as in this example: I ran with haste; I ignored everyone on the street as I hurried. I refused to stop when anyone waved.

Stop! I understood the first time. This person is running fast. Do I need to read it three times to figure it out?

Second, they write a good, show-not-tell sentence and follow it up with the same information in a tell-but-not-show sentence.

* The urgency and agony in his voice was unmistakable; it was the saddest sound I'd heard from him. Something was terribly wrong. (The second sentence implies I'm too stupid to know the meaning of words like urgency, agony, and sad.)

* I couldn’t speak; I could not tell her what was happening. (If I couldn't speak, I assume that means I couldn't use words to explain.)

* This was a stunning, tremendous, blazing bright meteor! It dwarfed all other stars in the sky, making the pinpricks of their light barely visible. It immediately commanded our attention, holding Renee and me spellbound. (The author gave the meteor more attention than I would have in this badly written paragraph.)

* Shouldn’t we prepare ourselves in advance to face them? (Or do we prepare ourselves afterward?)

* The impact totaled the car and left Amy’s body broken, bruised, and with a collapsed lung. She was in grave physical danger. (The second sentence insults me by saying I don't understand the meaning of the injuries.) 

Readers are as smart as I am; 
therefore, I refuse to write insulting, redundant statements.