Category Archives: Punctuation

Three grammar lessons I wish I paid more attention to in school.

(c) XKCD

For some inexplicable reason, I have always struggled with grammar and spelling. In elementary school, my mother and my teachers could not comprehend how I could read and understand thick novels grades above my reading level but couldn’t pass more than half of my spelling tests.

Over the years the severity of these deficienceies has decreased significantly, but there are still little things I have major trouble with. So for both my edification and yours, here are three of my grammar enemies in no particular order:

My LEAST favorite punctuation mark, bar none. To this day I still don’t actually know most of the rules, I just put a comma wherever I naturally pause in a sentence. That, however, is not always the right place to put a comma.

Because the rules regarding commas are numerous (seriously. THERE ARE SO MANY!), I’m just going to provide some good, detailed references for future… um… reference.

Fanfare for the Comma Man
The Most Comma Mistakes
Rules for Comma Usage
Why Commas Matter

Does it matter? Really?

Don’t say anything. I already know it does. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to remember which is which. But that’s when I pull in outside sources! According to Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips:

It’s actually pretty straightforward. The majority of the time you use affect with an a as a verb and effect with an e as a noun.

When Should You Use Affect?
Affect with an a means “to influence,” as in, “The arrows affected Ardvark,” or “The rain affected Amy’s hairdo.” Affect can also mean, roughly, “to act in a way that you don’t feel,” as in, “She affected an air of superiority.”

When Should You Use Effect?
Effect with an e has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but to me the meaning “a result” seems to be at the core of all the definitions. For example, you can say, “The effect was eye-popping,” or “The sound effects were amazing,” or “The rain had no effect on Amy’s hairdo.”

Okay, so that last one isn’t part of the sequence. These words still confuse the hell out of me. I usually just pick one at random and hope the little squiggly line of Word’s grammar check doesn’t show up. That isn’t exactly the most efficient way to go about this.

According to this site, these are the simplified rules of usage:

Lie is an intransitive verb (one that does not take an object), meaning “to recline.” Its principal parts are lie (base form), lay (past tense), lain (past participal), and lying (present participle).

[Lie meaning “to tell an untruth” uses lied for both the past tense and past participle, with lying as the present participle.]

Lay is a transitive verb (one that takes an object), meaning “to put” or “to place.” Its principal parts are lay (base form), laid (past tense), laid (past participle), and laying (present participle).

The two words have different meanings and are not interchangeable. Although lay also serves as the past tense of lie (to recline) – as in, “He lay down for a nap an hour ago” – lay (or laying) may not otherwise be used to denote reclining. It is not correct to say or write, “I will lay down for nap” or “He is laying down for a nap.” The misuse of lay or laying in the sense of “to recline” (which requires lie or lying) is the most common error involving the confusion of these two words.

> Once you lay (put or place) a book on the desk, it is lying (reclining, resting) there, not laying there.

> When you go to Bermuda for your vacation, you spend your time lying (not laying) on the beach (unless, of course, you are engaged in sexual activity and are, in the vernacular, laying someone on the beach).

> You lie down on the sofa to watch TV and spend the entire evening lying there; you do not lay down on the sofa to watch TV and spend the entire evening laying there.

> If you see something lying on the ground, it is just resting there; if you see something laying on the ground, it must be doing something else, such as laying eggs.

Hopefully this collection helps someone. I pulled the post together and I’m pretty sure I still won’t remember any of this.

Writing: Grammar Laws Or Grammar Opinions?

As a writer, you must have a relationship with grammar, even if it’s a dysfunctional one. For example, my childhood.

Placed in the “gifted” program in second grade, I was always expected to do well in school. For the most part, I conformed to these expectations, but not always. Multiplication escaped me entirely for three years. Geography I found insanely boring and thus failed miserably in my ability to remember the locations and capitals of all fifty states. The most inexplicable failure on the part of my brain, however, was my horrendous spelling and poor grasp of grammar laws.

Somehow, I had an innate understanding of proper grammar and normally used words and phrases correctly, yet despite a reading level years above my actual age, I sucked at picking out the parts of a sentence and–as my mother used to say–“couldn’t spell my way out of a paper bag”. That usage has always confused me as I can’t understand how spelling something correctly would help me escape a paper bag, but I digress… The actual point is grammar and structure and spelling were never interests of mine, but stories have always been my first love. So here I am years later attempting to make a career out of storytelling and using the very rules and guidelines I never bothered trying to understand in school. At least I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Grammar is fluid, its rules and structure changing with a language that evolves every day. New words and newly acceptable usages are appearing every day. Although some seem to point to the future decline of our ability to communicate clearly (idk jk ltftw!) others are simply loosening of archaic structures that now mimic more clearly the way we use language in everyday conversation. Some of these more mutable topic are taught as rules when they’re actually guidelines–or just plain wrong. Online College has a post covering the 20 Most Controversial Rules in the Grammar World and Lists o’ Plenty has a List o’ Top Ten Commonly Believed English Grammar Myths. Some of the “rules” are repeated on both pages, but it’s an interesting read nonetheless for writers or grammarians.

In essence, grammar rules, like Legos, are building blocks. Read the instructions, know how the pieces fit together, and then use them to suit you. Not everyone will follow every rule and not everyone needs to. Sometimes the most interesting, innovative stories come from breaking the “laws” of grammar. And who knows, the “rule” you follow by rote today may just be a suggestion tomorrow.

Punctuation: The Exclamation Point!

It’s one of those rules I feel like I’ve always known: Don’t use exclamation points in writing. I’ve always heard this… and I’ve pretty much always ignored it. With the obvious exception of technical, non-fiction, and research writing, I have not ever heard a valid argument for completely disregarding this useful punctuation mark. There is, of course, a line between useful and overused, but I am a definite fan of the exclamation point in fiction writing, emails, and of course, blogs.

Not too long ago, I discovered an article by Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian on this neglected (and sometimes maligned) punctuation mark. Jeffries looks at the perception and use of the exclamation point both in writing and the real world (did you know there’s a town in Quebec called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!? I didn’t before I read his article) and how this has changed, especially over the last century. For example, he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of books like The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise) who said, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” True? Jeffries and I vote no. This would only be true if you use the exclamation point after a joke. Half of the times I use an exclamation point, what I’m saying isn’t intended to be funny at all. Does this punctuation mark automatically convey humor? Apparently Mr. Fitzgerald thought so. But he wasn’t the only one with a dim view of the subject.

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose,” declared Elmore Leonard (author of 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre). Really? Since many books never reach the 100,000 word mark, that means you should find maybe 1 exclamation point in most books. Seems a little stingy to me. And a little silly. I agree that overuse can dull the effect of the punctuation, but by using this logic, characters in danger would only exclaim once. Someone shocked by the appearance of a bear may not be able to scream because those characters in danger earlier already used up the exclamation point quota. How much sense does that make?

Jeffries uses these and other opinions to help round out his article which is an amazingly thorough look at the subject, especially concerning the advent of the digital world and how exclamation points help convey emotions that just don’t come through in emails. He quotes David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home. In the article, Jeffries says:

They write, for instance, “‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event … ‘Thanks!!!!'”, they contend, “is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’.”

 And he has a point. I know there have been times where I’ve misconstrued the tone of an email because of punctuation (or lack thereof). The same can be said of books. Tone is something the reader supplies in their heads and if you don’t provide the right clues, your characters may not be interpreted the way you intended and a character who was supposed to be cheeky and amusing could become snarky and aggressive. Jeffries also points out that technology has always played a part in the structure, style, and usage of punctuation. He says,

It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that’s what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at – ooh, I don’t know – the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe. Which is enough to take the joie de vivre out of anyone’s literary style. In the springs following the advent of the manual typewriter’s exclamation marks, typed paeans to seasonal budding loveliness teemed with exclamation marks. Or at least I hypothesise that they did. I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

 The ultimate verdict? Don’t throw it around, but don’t ignore it, either. The exclamation point can be useful! I swear!