Grammar, Uncategorized

English is Weird! {Episode 1}

Pop quiz: Which of the following sentences is grammatically correct?

  • My sister Cherise lives in Texas.
  • My brother, Eric, lives in New York.

Commas or no commas? (Hint: This is totally a trick question if you don’t know my family. Or if you don’t know the weird rules about appositives.)

The answer: they are BOTH correct. Because I have one brother and five sisters.

And how about these—hyphen or no hyphen?

  • She had on a pair of ripped-up jeans.
  • Her jeans were all ripped up.

Also both correct. Because compound adjectives are usually hyphenated before nouns but not after.

Weird, right? English is so weird!


Why is it so weird, you ask? Well, I’m no linguist, but from what I remember of my college English classes (and the fascinating book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that way by Bill Bryson), it has something to do with the fact that English is a Germanic language that got “French Fried” as a result of some invasion in 1066. Possibly it had to do with William the Conqueror. Or Charles Martel. And the Franks/Gauls/Angles/Saxons/Celts history, before the big 1066 invasion by the Normans. But anyway, being a Germanic language with influences from like 60 different languages (I may be exaggerating), its spelling is ridiculous and it tries to follow both Germanic and Latin sets of rules, like a poor little confused poodle with at least two masters.

Don’t quote me on any of that. I’m useless with history.

Anyway, back to the number of siblings I have affecting my comma usage.


An appositive is a word or phrase that renames a noun. When it’s necessary, it doesn’t need commas around it. When it’s extra information, it does need them. So I can write that my brother lives in New York without adding his name to clarify, because he’s the only brother I could be talking about. But I can’t just say that my sister lives in Texas. Because my sister lives in Utah. My sister lives in Idaho. Those are also true. (Actually, three of them live in Utah. I just don’t want to be misleading here.) I need to add the name for clarity, so it’s not extra information. No extra information, no extra commas.

So if you’re not sure if you should say “My friend Becky” or “My friend, Becky,” think of the commas as parentheses. They’re kind of saying “In case you didn’t know the name of my friend,” and could be taken to mean she’s the only friend I have, unless we’ve already been talking about my friend and I’m just throwing in her name to clarify. So in general, you’d want to say “My friend Becky will be there,” since you have so many friends there’s no way the reader would know which one you’re talking about otherwise. It’s essential (also called restrictive) information. On the other hand, since I only have one set of parents, I could say “My parents are coming to visit” without saying their names, so if I add them, I need the commas for my nonrestrictive appositive. “My parents, Don and Karen, are coming to visit.” So now you can address them by name. Convenient!

I’m not planning on going into great grammatical detail on this blog, just to give you a general idea for some of the issues that mess up so many of us. So if you want to learn more about appositives—nonrestrictive, restrictive, starting with appositives, etc., go study up and report back to me what you learn.

Compound Adjectives

So how about those ripped-up jeans we were talking about earlier?

As you know, an adjective is a word that describes a noun. A compound adjective is made up of more than one word. Sometimes these compounds are words you can find in the dictionary, like mean-spirited or half-baked. Others are ones you throw together as you’re writing, like a less-than-desirable donut or your mostly-crazy aunt. To avoid possible misreading of these phrases, we add hyphens into compound adjectives when they’re placed before the noun. It could cause confusion to say I didn’t want to eat the less than desirable donut, though it might not for everybody. When we turn it around, though, it’s fine to say that “The donut was less than desirable for my aunt, who was mostly crazy anyway.”

This rule makes sense for me until we get into more complicated examples and exceptions. Telling you about my dirt and stain covered couch could easily be misread the first time, so I add the hyphens: my dirt-and-stain-covered couch. But when I turn it around and tell you my couch is dirt and stain covered, it doesn’t make sense without the hyphens, as it should according to the rule. It sounds like I’m saying my couch is dirt, instead of dirt-covered. In this case, honestly, the best thing to do is reword. I mean, that’s a pretty dorky-sounding sentence, my couch is dirt and stain covered. So if that’s all you’re wanting to say, change it to “My couch is covered in dirt and stains.” If there’s more you want to say about it, use the hyphenated compound adjective and say what you want to say: “I’m finally loading up my dirt-and-stain-covered couch to take it to the dump.”

So those are some of the ways you can deal with this weird English language. Stay tuned for episode 2 of English is Weird, which will deal with me, myself, and I, or possibly apostrophe usage. You just never know what crazy thing I’ll talk about next.


dialogue, Grammar, Self Edits, Uncategorized

You Can’t Shrug a Line

One of my favorite lines from Huckleberry Finn is “You can’t pray a lie.”

That doesn’t have much to do with my topic, though I’m sure I could make a good connection if I wanted to. I just like how it goes along with my title, “You can’t shrug a line.”

So. Dialogue tags. In my editing, I see a lot of this:

  • “I don’t know,” I shrugged.
  • “You bet,” he smiled.
  • “Well,” she leaned closer, “we can try.”
  • She giggled, “I’d love to!”

And I’m sorry to say, they’re all wrong. Yes, they seem to make sense when you read them, but none of the verbs used here—shrugged, smiled, or leaned—are ways you can deliver a line. You can’t shrug “I don’t know.” You can shrug before, after, or while you say it, but it’s not how you’re saying the line. Even laughing: though we sometimes laugh while we say something, we don’t actually laugh the words.

So here’s a little grammar tidbit and a trick. Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. That means they either have an object or they don’t. You hit a ball: hit is transitive, and the ball is the object. You scowl: scowl is intransitive, because you don’t scowl something. In dialogue, the spoken lines—the words in quotations—are the object of a transitive verb, such as say, reply, answer, ask, yell, scream, blurt, retort, bellow, whisper, sing, etc.

You can test whether your dialogue tag verb is transitive by asking “What  did they ___?” For example, if you want to use “scream,” What did he scream?  He screamed, “Get out of here!” That definitely works. On the other hand, What did she lean? Uh…no. What did she smile? Well, she probably smiled with her mouth, but she didn’t really smile anything. What did she laugh? I know this one is tempting, because laughing is a vocal thing. But it’s not actually how you say words. It doesn’t make sense to say “This is what she laughed.” Laughing can happen during speaking, but technically you don’t laugh words. (Though you may disagree and choose to use this one anyway.) How about What did he shrug? Well, he probably shrugged his shoulders. So while it is a transitive verb, the object isn’t the dialogue; it’s his shoulders, though that doesn’t have to be stated.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this problem. Several possible fixes, in fact.

  1. You can simply split the sentence, adding the action before or after the dialogue with a period instead of a comma: “I don’t know.” I shrugged. Sometimes it works better to put the action first: I shrugged. “I don’t know.” In this example, you could also add a descriptive tag: I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I admitted. (What did I admit? “I don’t know.”)
  2. You can insert “said” with a comma and change the verb to the “-ing” form: “I don’t know,” I said, shrugging.
  3. You can add “with” and change the verb to a noun: “I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.
  4. For interrupted dialogue with action inserted in the middle of a sentence (such as the leaning example above), em dashes are often the best way to go: “Well—” she leaned closer “—we can try.” In this example, it shows that she pauses for a moment to lean forward. You could also use ellipses in place of the em dashes for a more trailing-off effect. If you don’t want the character to actually pause, but want to insert action, the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks: “I know that you’ve”—she blushed—“said things about me.”

While there are plenty of verbs that can be transitive or intransitive that might give you pause and might not have a hard and fast rule (huff, gasp, snarl, growl), hopefully just being able to stop and do this little test on them will help you decide whether or not it’s the way someone can deliver a line.  And luckily, if you’re intent on using them as dialogue tags anyway and call it a style choice, that’s up to you! (she said with a shrug).


Grammar, Uncategorized

Leaving the Past in the Past Perfect

Most novels are written in simple past tense. This may seem obvious and straightforward enough, but it can really confuse writers when they start referring to events that happened before the current action of the story. Most flashbacks and quick references to an earlier time–whether it’s ten years ago or earlier that same morning–need to be written in past perfect tense. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do that.

Simple past tense is “did.” It’s essentially used for the present tense of your story.

  • We did some jumping jacks.
  • I went to the store.
  • “Let’s go,” she said.
  • He woke up.
  • We tasted the ice cream.
  • They climbed into the truck.

Simple past tense is used for most of the story, but since it’s really the present tense for your current action—what’s happening in the “now” of your story, if it happened before the “now,” it needs to be in past perfect.

Past perfect is “had done.” You can think of it as past past tense.

  • She had already made her bed.
  • We’d gone on a trip the week before.
  • I hadn’t fixed the car yet.
  • He’d told me his cat was sick.
  • They’d had a huge party.

As you can see, this tense gives you the feeling of “before then.” When you read “He’d told me his cat was sick,” you know it means he’d already told me, or he’d told me before.

So for example, if it’s the morning after an earthquake, things that are currently happening are past simple, while any references to the earthquake the night before will be in past perfect.

  • As I cleaned up the debris, I couldn’t help but remember how loud everything had been and how panicked I’d felt. I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear had been so intense that I’d just frozen, taking in everything around me and etching it indelibly in my memory.

If you left out the past perfect, it would be confusing: “I wanted to wipe it from my memory, but the fear was so intense that I just froze” would mean that the fear and the freezing were happening at the current moment, during the cleaning up of the debris.

This is not to say that anything happening that day will be in past simple, because if it starts talking about something that happened before the cleaning up moment, that will also be in past perfect.

  • Earlier that morning, my mom had told me that there probably wouldn’t be any more aftershocks, but I still startled and braced myself against any sudden noise or movement. I didn’t even care that Trent had called me a baby. It was a perfectly logical reaction.

Short flashbacks should be put in past perfect as well. If it’s a longer flashback, you can sometimes transition into simple past as long as you make it clear when you’re coming back out of the flashback.

  • Stacy hadn’t always been this way. She remembered that in elementary school she had been quick to make friends. One day in fourth grade, she’d seen the smallest kid in class being picked on and hadn’t even thought twice about it: she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys. Then she’d introduced herself to Timmy, and from then on they’d been inseparable.

Note that in “she’d marched right up and told off the bigger boys,” the “had” can refer to “marched up” and “told,” so it doesn’t need to be repeated to make it the correct tense.

If this flashback had gone on any longer, I probably would have switched to simple past to make it easier to read (past perfect can feel cumbersome if it continues more than a couple paragraphs) and to free up the past perfect for going even farther into the past if necessary.

One trick to remember is that if the character would say it in past tense, the narration should say it in past perfect. In the example above, Stacy might say, “I wasn’t always this way, you know.” But because it’s in her past and the book is already written in past tense, it translates in the narration to “Stacy hadn’t always been this way.” (Of course, it’s a whole different situation if you’re writing in present tense, but I’m not going into that now.)

Hopefully this is helpful, because this tends to be one of the biggest problems I see with new writers. Sometimes it’s not a big deal, but forgetting to use past perfect tense for previous action has the potential to really confuse readers.

So leave the past in the past perfect, and the present in the past.

Because THAT’S not confusing at all.

Grammar, Self Edits, Uncategorized

For the Love of Commas

Comma_FinalYes, commas. Let’s talk about them a little bit. Most writers don’t use them enough. There are those few comma-happy writers, of course, but I’ve noticed a few places where lots of people neglect these handy little guys. And yes, it is important, because if a comma is missing, it can cause a reader to read the sentence wrong, then have to go back and re-read it when they realize that wasn’t quite right. You don’t want to do that to people too much; it gets distracting. There are three main offenders I see a lot with comma underuse.

1.Hooking up two sentences. If you have two or more parts of a sentence that could be sentences on their own, you can join them either with a semicolon (;) or with a comma and a conjunction (and, if, but, etc.). The main exception is when both parts are really short. One test I like to use: did the subject change? If my sentence is “I ran around the park and decided to hop on the swing,” I didn’t change subjects—I did both actions. But if you switch subjects: “I ran around the park, and my dog decided to hop on the swing,” you need a comma. Otherwise a reader might see “I ran around the park and my dog…” and first think that I ran around the park and around my dog. They’d figure it out pretty quickly, but it’s jarring. (I guess a dog hopping on a swing is jarring, too, but that’s what popped into my head.)

2. Before and after direct address. There’s a difference between “I don’t know about that cowboy” and “I don’t know about that, cowboy.” The first is talking about the cowboy; the second is talking to the cowboy. If you have a character addressing another one, commas always set off the person’s name (or whatever they’re being called, like “cowboy” or “kid” or “you big jerk”).

  • At the beginning of a sentence: “Janie, would you come here please?”
  • In the middle of a sentence: “I was on my way home, Mom, but the guys wanted to have a snowball fight.”
  • At the end of the sentence: “Don’t forget your keys, honey.”

3.Added info. When you add something into the middle of a sentence, like this clause right here between the commas, you need to set it off with commas. Before and after. A lot of people add the comma before but forget the one after. Some examples:

  • “I like chocolate, seeing as how it’s like eating a piece of heaven, but I’m trying to stop.”
  • “She came out of her room, her hair looking like a rat’s nest, and plopped down on the couch.” (My six-year-old inspired me with that one this morning.)
  • “I called Bartholomew, hoping to reassure him, but he didn’t answer.”

These are definitely not the only times you need commas (they also belong in lists, after an introductory word or phrase, and so on), just the ones I find missing most often. Remember: commas are your friend. Let them help you!