Might as well face it, I’m addicted to …

Commas! There. I said it. I’m a comma addict. I love them. They’re beautiful little things that add pause and sense and order to sentences—if you know how to use them correctly. Apparently, my lack of education is appalling.

commaYou’re probably aware of this quote:

“I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” — Oscar Wilde

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but after a few hours of inserting, deleting, and sometimes re-inserting commas on one recent editing day, I decided to get smart and refresh my knowledge of comma usage rules. I say refresh because I thought I’d learned all the rules at one point. Not so.

What I discovered is that I use commas where they seem appropriate to me, but sometimes often I do so in ignorance. It’s not entirely my fault. I was taught the bogus rules of always using a comma before but and never using one before because. But other rules I’ve been breaking, I imagine some teacher tried to pound into my thick skull at one time.

I’m in luck. Recently, one of my sons bought me a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I am currently experimenting to see if an old dog can learn new comma tricks. I started with nearly 5,100 commas in my 91,000+ word manuscript. I’m re-evaluating each one. That’s not quite as tedious as it sounds. So far, this exercise has resulted in many improved sentences in ways other than comma use. Even my readers who don’t care a whit about commas will appreciate that.

Here’s a link to the excellent punctuation section of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL).

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How do you punctuate after a terminal ellipsis?

We tackled this question with the em dash in the last post, so this time let’s turn our attention to the terminal ellipsis. Like many writers, I use an ellipsis at the end of a line of dialogue to indicate the character’s voice trails off. Since this leaves the sentence unfinished, it seemed logical to me not to use any end punctuation. Like this: “I love you, but …”

As I read, I noted the terminal ellipsis used with and without punctuation. I’ve only recently begun to use punctuation with such an ellipsis, but I’m waffling. It just seems odd to punctuate an unfinished sentence.

The book that sparked my previous post also sparked this one. I thought I’d finally learned the rules about using punctuation after an ellipsis, but I saw something in that book, I’d never run across in reading. The author used a dialogue tag after the ellipsis, so she used a comma. Like this example:  “I love you, but …,” she said.

That looked odd to me, so I immediately started searching some of my work to see if I had omitted the comma in such instances. I discovered that apparently, I’ve never used a dialogue tag after a terminal ellipsis. Of course, I pulled books off my shelves and continued my search.

One of the writers I checked used a dialogue tag without a comma. Another didn’t use dialogue tags but did sometimes continue the sentence with an action after the trailing off speech, and in those instances, she did use a comma after the ellipsis.

What about the use of other punctuation with a terminal ellipsis? Some writers use the ellipsis to indicate trailing off speech with no punctuation. Some do use punctuation. One of the writers I checked, Anne Tyler, uses punctuation only sometimes—and I’m annoyed that I can’t figure out her rule for that!

To muddy the waters more, even writers who do use punctuation after the ellipsis don’t all agree on its placement—before or after the ellipsis. When I researched this in the past, I read a rule that said if the completed sentence would have been a statement, place a period before the ellipsis. If it would have been a question or an exclamation, place the appropriate punctuation mark after the ellipsis. (I don’t remember that they explained this difference.)

In my recent search, I found two authors who used punctuation with a terminal ellipsis when they used no dialogue tag. Anne Tyler, who used it only sometimes, placed the period before, but the question mark or exclamation point after the ellipsis. Joyce Carol Oates, who punctuated always, placed all marks before the ellipsis.

I know we should all be conservative in our use of the ellipsis, but when we do use it at the end of a line of dialogue, it seems the rule is up for grabs. We have:

“I love you, but …”

“I love you, but. …”

“I love you, but …,” she said.

“I love you, but …” she said.

“You love me, but …?”

“You love me, but … ?”

“You love me, but? …”

Okay, folks, surely you have an opinion on this one, so please share. Do you use an ellipsis to indicate trailing off in dialogue? Do you use punctuation with that? If so, where do you place that punctuation?

UPDATEIn the comment to this post, someone posted a link to Grammar Girl’s advice on punctuation with an ellipsis. She quoted The Chicago Manual of Style, but the ellipsis use she cited was mostly to indicate words left out of quoted material. When I googled for the CMOS take on the trailing off ellipsis in dialogue, I found this in their online Q&A: If you use the ellipsis merely to indicate a voice or thought trailing off, you would not use the period with it: “I’m not sure . . .” [http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Punctuation/faq0066.html]

How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

A particular use of punctuation jumped out at me as I read a recently published book.

In general, I observe punctuation rules, so I’d like to know if the one used in this book follows an old rule, a new rule, or a house style. I question whether it’s a house style though–unless those change depending on the author—because I have books published by the same house in which this particular style is not used.

EM DASH — This author, as many of us do, used an em dash to indicate interrupted speech. But what struck me was a difference in the punctuation used after that dash. For instance, I would write such a sentence this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

But if those lines appeared in this book, the first would have been punctuated this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—.”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

You’ll notice the period after the em dash. I’ve since pulled novels off my shelves searching for sentences with interrupted speech. I haven’t found one yet that duplicates this author/editor’s construction.

Am I behind the times or have I, and countless other authors, been doing it wrong all along?

Your turn: Please tell me, how do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

(See my next post on using punctuation with the terminal ellipsis.)

 

Word usage. Is it a regional thing?

In case you’re new here, I’ll explain that I’m doing a final polish of a novel. I’m down to rewording a sentence or two and some other nitpicky stuff.  One thing my editor marked in several places was an omission of a word. The pure typos I corrected immediately, but a few other sentences she flagged looked fine to me.

These debated instances are in narrative, but they reflect how I would speak those sentences. I’ve concluded that either my speech is eccentric, or the way I speak is a regional thing. And if it’s regional—how big a region does it encompass? As much as possible, I want to avoid causing a reader to stop, reread, and mentally rewrite. Obviously, the “missing” word stopped her. If it would stop the majority of you, dear readers, I want to change it.

Once again, I need your help.

In each sentence below, a word may be missing. I could make it easier by telling you the word she felt I omitted in these sentences, but what fun would that be? So, tell me, do these sentences read correctly to you, or did you feel the need to supply a missing word?

  1. She looked down at the album as if she needed a visual reminder who Stephen was.
  2. At the least, she owed her an explanation why she’d had to drive all the way over here.
  3. Though she knew it was irrational, she couldn’t still the fear that just outside those beams something huge and solid—a stalled semi, a mountain—waited for them to slam into at full force.

If you comment, please let me know where you grew up. That way maybe I can determine whether I’m just odd or a creature of culture. Well, I guess we already know I’m odd, but you know …


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Sin and Syntax

In my last post, I mentioned that after a few months working on my first novel, I decided I needed to educate myself on writing. I started wondering which books I bought first and now I think it was Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale. You can see from all the post-it tabs that I found a lot to love in this book.

Although I have no memory of how I found this particular book, I am a confessed grammar geek, so it’s likely the title led me to buy this one. Here’s an excerpt from a jacket blurb:

Sin and Syntax is one of the rare books that recognizes—and even celebrates—the fact that good writing has little to do with ‘rules’ and much to do with a true understanding of effective prose.” —Jesse Sheidlower

That’s my kind of book! It’s just my nature to question why, which I’ve done with every writing rule I’ve come across. It’s funny, but until I pulled this book from my shelves and started reading some of the parts I’d marked, I had no idea where I’d learned certain things that are now second nature in my writing. Sometimes, I’d question my own reasoning, wondering if I’d just “made that up.” I’m relieved now to know I didn’t.

Sin and Syntax offers these new principles of prose:

RELISH EVERY WORD.

BE SIMPLE, BUT GO DEEP.

TAKE RISKS.

SEEK BEAUTY.

FIND THE RIGHT PITCH.

Moving from the most basic to the most sophisticated, Sin and Syntax covers the parts of speech and how to exploit them (in “Words”), shows the parts of a sentence and how to arrange them (in “Sentences”), and reveals how voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm give prose its mystery and poetry (in “Music”). —from the Introduction to Sin and Syntax.”

Why do I rarely use passive voice in my writing? Because I learned how not to from this book. Why do I sometimes use passive voice on purpose? Because I learned when and why to from this book. Why do I take care to place the adverb “only” in the proper spot in a sentence? Because this book taught me how the wrong placement changes the meaning of the sentence. I learned lots of goodies like that … but that’s not the best of it.

My favorite section of this book is the last, titled Music. Do you remember my post Your Sentence Deserves a Good Beating? At the time I wrote that, I had forgotten where I learned about sentence beats, but now I know … Sin and Syntax.

So, today I feel like I’ve reunited with a long lost friend. Excuse me while I go add this book to my For Writers page and then spend some time catching up with this friend. I recommend you get to know her too.

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