Tag s | Grammar

To Comma or Not to Comma?

I came across this entry in Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation. (Although based on British English usage, it is still a great book.)

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically added a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant to write? Comment below.

Expensive Fruit

There is a true story from the late 1800s where the U.S. tariff law included a comma that did not belong. It ended up costing the government nearly $40 million of lost revenue in today’s money (about $2 million back then). The original law created in 1870 said that “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” could be exempt from tariffs on imports.

In 1872 the law was revised and a comma added between fruit and plants created a series comma (“fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical”). It changed the meaning to make fruit of either kind to be tariff free. Took two years for the error to be corrected.

Oops.

Expensive Cable Costs

In 2006 there was a problem on page 7 of a 14-page agreement between two Canadian companies, Rogers Communications and Aliant Communications. The contract for five years allowed Rogers to string their cables across Aliant’s 91,000 utility poles at a set licensing price per utility pole. One year after the agreement was signed, Aliant canceled the deal and said the price was going up. Why? Because the contract allowed them to cancel before the end of the five-year term. That contract sentence in question reads:

[The agreement] “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

One way to read it: The contract is good for five years from the signing date. And auto-renews for five more years unless terminated with a year’s notice. But cannot be canceled during the first five years.

Another way to read it: The contract can be terminated at any time as long as a one-year notice is provided.

What the ruling by the communications regulator stated: “Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice,”

The tripling of the license fee cost Rogers an estimated $2 million extra.

Funny Examples

Let’s eat, Grandma.
or
Let’s eat Grandma.

Commas are important people!
or
Commas are important, people!

A woman without her man is nothing.
or
A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Man bacon makes anything good.
or
Man, bacon makes anything good.

How to cook crack and clean a crab.
Step one: use commas.

I like cooking dogs and kids.
or
I like cooking, dogs, and kids.

We may laugh at things like this, but commas matter.

[A much shorter version of this post ran in July 2012.]

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Nagging Grammar Questions

Some time ago I asked my clients what publishing terms or concepts they wished someone would define or explain for them. I covered some of those in my September 16 post on this site. Some, however, asked for help with some nagging grammar questions. (We all—even the most accomplished—have such …

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476 Ways to Avoid Writing “Said”

The folks over at ProofreadingServices.com created the incredible infographic below. Four hundred and seventy-six alternatives to the word “said.” Take care not to use all 476 in your manuscript! Very often “said” is all that is needed. In fact, overusing alternatives can weigh your manuscript down unnecessarily. However, I do …

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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The Editorial Process

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggest that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

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Oxymorons

Oxymorons can be fun. Two words that can have contradictory meaning are put together to create a new phrase. Or it can be expanded to mean two separate thoughts or ideas that are in direct conflict with each other but when combined create something new.

For example, if you’ve ever worked in a cubicle you can see the humor in the description “office space.”

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A Writer’s Best Friend

If I asked you what you considered to be a writer’s best friend, what would you say? Please don’t say “Wikipedia.” My clients would probably reply, “Bob Hostetler.” But that can’t be everyone’s answer. You might consider “a fine fountain pen” or “a blank page in a brand new journal” …

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