Friday, May 29, 2009

Discretionary Commas and other explosive topics

Well, well. I really had thought out what I was going to post here (and I haven't changed the meat of it, I promise) when I decided to do a quick google (used as a verb here, I'm very progressive) to see what folks might encounter if they just typed "discretionary comma" into a search engine, and . . . gee . . . is this ever a strange subject on the internet.

I was very surprised to see my own post from yesterday show up on the first page. There isn't a whole lot out there, but opinion reigns supreme.

So, before I get into what I think a discretionary comma is, I think I'll make a little opinion statement of my own on grammar and punctuation and the state of the information on it on the internet for writers of fiction.

Fasten your seatbelts.

I studied creative writing before I studied editing. One led to the other---long story, maybe I'll post it one day. I actively participate in writers' groups and online writers' groups as a writer. I also participate in editors' groups. The difference between the two is a chasm I'm struggling to see both sides of. (Non-rule, ending a sentence with a preposition.)

And I find writers don't fare so well in good will and accuracy when they advise other writers on questions of grammar and punctuation.

So, what has this got to do with the benign comma, the lowliest of punctuation marks (except the period which has no charisma at all)?

Sigh. Almost all of the advice you will find on grammar or punctuation on the Internet is geared to academic or non-fiction works. College and university sites, advice for essays, prescriptive dogma for journalists and students and the writers of how-to books and treatises on environmental issues or political strategies.

Fiction is different, folks. Different. And the writer can use discretion with punctuation. They can also use imagination. That doesn't mean that every whimsical comma placed or omitted by a writer will end up in print. But it does mean that acquisitions editors and quality copyeditors of fiction will respect a writer's unorthodox use of punctuation---if it works and the writing is stunning. And that's the key. It has to work. It can't just be a pretentious desire to be different. It has to work within and for the manuscript itself.

That said, here is my take on discretionary commas in fiction. I'll leave the fine points of non-fiction and academic writing up to those who know it best.

Commas are those small little curly things that group a sentence into related thoughts and whose job is to provide clarity. Without commas, some sentences don't make sense, or can mislead a reader into expecting a completion of a thought that veers into territory the writer didn't intend.

While we were eating my dog got out of the yard.

Eww...eating your dog?

The comma is definitely needed here.

While we were eating, my dog got out of the yard.

That's better.

A discretionary comma is one that is correct, but perhaps not necessary.

On the way to church, she stopped for a coffee.

Sure, this is absolutely correct. Punctuation police satisfied. But is it entirely necessary? Is the meaning of the sentence going to be nebulous if you leave it out? It is a continuous scenario. She stopped on the way to church. There aren't two different things happening in space or time or the ethers. One is the continuation of the other, or conversely, the culmination of the other.

On the way to church she stopped for a coffee.

I don't know about you, but to me, the first sentence and the second sentence mean exactly the same thing with or without the comma. Is there a slight pause if you were reading it out loud? Maybe, but that's not what commas are for. They are there to make a sentence logical and meaningful. I don't see the comma having any impact on this sentence. And neither will your reader.

So that's my take on discretionary commas on a sentence like this. Every comma can be examined, judged and found worthy or not. :-) Most are necessary, some aren't.

My advice to writers of fiction is to concentrate on the writing. Ask, if punctuation doesn't seem to fit a sentence, or appears to be working against it, or if you're just plain stymied on what goes where. But the writing, the characters, the fiction, are the key.

Editors will forgive you just about anything if they can't stop reading.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Some Links

I've listed a few links. They look all jumbled to me on the side of the page, but I haven't figured out how to space them more evenly...yet. Maybe I never will. [Note: They're still not spaced the way I'd like, but I moved them to the bottom of the page.]

Some of the links are a bit academic (like the Language Log) but if you cruise around that one, you're going to find some really sharp and witty dialogue on grammar, usage, and probably a few surprises. Professor Pullum's rant about his copyeditor is very entertaining. It made the rounds of my copyediting email list.

I have a few more links to track down in my notes that are helpful for punctuation and grammar, with little quizzes for all the browners out there.
I'll post something on commas later tonight or tomorrow. Discretionary commas, to be exact.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's been quiet

I know. But I've been busy searching out some cool links for you folks. I'm hoping to have some ready by later this week. Interesting reading, blogs that deal with the language and grammar and things from a viewpoint you may not often get to see.

So that's what I've been up to.

What have you folks been up to? Every sentence perfect in construction? Hah, likely not, mine never are. Nor do I care a whole lot when I'm writing. Get the good stuff on the page. Sweat the anal stuff later. That's my motto as a writer.

As an editor, gimme your good stuff. Let me make it shine. :-)


Friday, May 22, 2009

And heeeeeere's the answer

Meh. You guys are too smart for me. :-)

There a few ways to approach this one. I like two sentences myself, mostly because it is a wad of words to wade through as one sentence. (I also like alliteration, you might have noticed.)

Okay, North American style, two approaches...

Peter, while Paul had had "had had," had had "had." "Had had" had had a better response from the instructor.

Peter, while Paul had had "had had," had had "had;" "had had" had had a better response from the instructor.

UK style...

Peter, while Paul had had "had had", had had "had". "Had had" had had a better response from the instructor.

Peter, while Paul had had "had had", had had "had"; "had had" had had a better response from the instructor.

Notice the punctuation inside the quotations for North America, outside for the UK.

Also note that double quotations are now used for words as words, not single quotes, which used to be the most common style. You still see single quotes from time to time, but when The Chicago Manual of Style switched to double quotes, the use of single quotes gradually diminished.

Nuff lecturing.

Anybody got a comma they'd like to boot? A semicolon looking for a home? Random, threatening ellipses?


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Punctuate This!

Just for fun. :-)

This is a fairly well-known exercise, but if you haven't seen it, it can be mind boggling. :-)

Punctuate the following to make it grammatically correct.

Peter while Paul had had had had had had had had had had had a better response from the instructor.

Answer in a couple of days unless one of you gets it first. :-)


Saturday, May 16, 2009

SITW (Seen in the Wild) or why companies need an editor

I thought this might be a fun thing to put on the blog from time to time. Public bloopers that change the entire meaning of a sign or commercial advertisement. They make a minor point on how important punctuation can be. :-)

Take the following examples of signs I've seen over the last couple of days and ponder if a company's image might be better served with the services of a copyeditor:

  • Posted on the exit door of a store "Good Buy. Thanks for visiting. Come again." A pun? It was hand-lettered and sure didn't have the "feel" of a pun.

  • Sign advertising legal services for traffic violations "Drunk driving, over 80?" They only defend drunk drivers older than 80? (I think it refers to blowing over 80 on a Breathalyzer...I think...or is it over 80 kilometers per hour? This is Canada, eh?)

  • At the local plant nursery "Flower's and Veggie's"...bah...flower's and veggie's what? And yes, this one is so common it almost feels right when you read it. The bane of Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. (Sentence fragment, I know.)

What's this got to do with fiction? I bet you're thinking I'm going to draw a parallel between the integrity of a commercial sign or advertisement and your manuscript. I bet you're thinking that using "its" when it should "it's" is a mortal sin and your credibility as a writer will be shot just like the guy who only represents octogenarian drinkers. Wanna bet you're wrong?

This has nothing to do with punctuating fiction or memoir. But it's fun. For me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Welcome to Punctuate It!

My first post. Whoot! If you read the info on the left hand panel, you'll see what this blog is about. I'm a writer and an editor. I write literary fiction (published smally---yes, I know that isn't a word and I'm going to use it anyway, sue me---and inobtrusively) but I'm also an editor of fiction, memoir and trade non-fiction (that means non-academic stuff).

I've been writing for a long time, I rarely submit (too picky, I think, with my own stuff) but I've been editing part-time for about six years. I find myself spending more and more time on editing and less and less time on writing. I have post-grad credentials in both fields and I specialized in fiction editing in my editorial studies.

I interact with an international pool of writers and one of the most common themes (note the literary reference) I find in the vast pool of self-flagellating paranoia where writers swim is the fear of making a grammatical or punctuation error. That is only topped by the whipping winds of "not knowing when they've made a grammatical or punctation error" which will, of course, negate any possibility of getting a publishing contract. Not.

The only true grammarians I know (note the qualifier, I don't know everybody in the world, thank God) are copyeditors. And copyeditors wouldn't have jobs if writers knew where every comma should be placed, how to make a sentence parallel or if the subjunctive is the correct case in a particular sentence or not. In other words, relax. The last thing thing an acquisitions editor is worried about is your punctuation skills. Incorrect spelling might be an issue. It means you're lazy. Punctuation is a fluid thing and subject to style guides and sun spots, as well as trends and nationalities.

I'm conversant in Canadian, American and UK styles for grammar and punctuation. I'm Canadian, I had to learn all three since we mix them up liberally and label them all "Canadian" when it's convenient or just feels good.

Ask away. Gimme your tough sentences, bristling semicolons, stuttering commas, looping ellipsis, dangling participles, your fragments, splices and run-ons. I love them all. :-)

Fair warning though, you might be surprised how out of touch your English prof was and is. :-)

The advice I give here will be current and to the very best of my knowledge (or the knowledge of my colleagues) correct, as of the day it is written. Tomorrow, who knows. If you think you catch me in mistake, by all means, let me know. I'm not infallible, nor perfect (well, let me think about that...okay...not perfect). I don't edit my own posts much or well. Make it a game to find my mistakes on my blog posts. It'll keep me on my toes and help me to edit my own fiction. Thanks in advance. :-)

Hit me with your best shot.


PS. You might find the occasional rant here on the subject of writers beating up other writers over nothing, passive voice and what it really is and who cares about it, plot versus story, dialogue tags and beats and how to get over yourself on them...stuff...might happen.