T Is for Theater

From the mid-1980s to the end of the ’90s I was variously involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, and lead theater reviewer for one of the two local weeklies. (No, I never reviewed a show I was involved in.) What I learned during those years continues to affect my writing to this day. Here are some of the ways.

Of all the things I’ve ever written, one of my most favorites is a monologue: “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” Guess where that came from? It’s all in iambic pentameter, which isn’t all that hard to write when you’re living with Shakespeare day in, day out. I loved performing it and did so “off book,” meaning from memory, without a script. (See “R Is for Readings” for more about giving readings.)

During that period I also wrote three one-act plays, all of which were produced at least once. Spend enough time around theater and it may become one of the languages you speak. I haven’t attempted any plays since, in part because the once-vital local theater scene dwindled and in part because I went on to other things. But my theater experience continues to affect how I write.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse

When writing fiction, I often feel as though I’m watching the scene play out onstage. Early in a play’s rehearsal period, one of the stage manager’s most important jobs is to record the director’s instructions to the actors in what becomes the prompt script. This includes not only the entire text of dialogue and stage directions but how the actors move on the stage and all the light, sound, and music cues. For the rest of the rehearsal period it’s the ultimate arbiter of what cast and crew are supposed to be doing — until the director makes changes, of course.

How the actors move onstage is called blocking — and that’s exactly what I often do when writing a scene. I’m both the director giving directions and the stage manager writing it all down. My characters are my actors. I watch them, prompt them, and sometimes even become them. I also listen to them, because often they tell me what I need to know.

One benefit of this is that it keeps my attention on what my characters are doing, and how they look doing it, as well as what they are saying. In my writers’ group, a common comment when dialogue goes on too long uninterrupted is “More body language!” Characters reveal themselves in what they do and how they move as well as what they say.

What they say (or don’t say) is crucial too, of course, and theater is an ongoing master class in dialogue. Sometimes a reader will complain that a stretch of dialogue goes on too long. To this I respond that full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking. As I wrote some years ago in a blog post “Monologue About Dialogue,” the challenge is to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting — “dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another.” You can learn plenty about this from both reading plays and watching them performed.

Sometimes dialogue does go on too long. Theater experience comes in handy here too. Imagine the dialogue being played out onstage. Would you be riveted, or would you start fidgeting, flip through your program, or even think of walking out? Novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane called the lengthy, un-riveting sort of writing “dead air,” and he drew on theater and his screenwriting experience to get the point across: “After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.”

A poet I once workshopped with called this dead time “soft ice”: it doesn’t bear weight. You’ll probably have plenty of dead air and soft ice in your early drafts. In revising, you recognize it and either punch it up or throw it out.

Finally, one more lesson from my involvement in community theater: Less is (often) more. Local actors in the late 20th century were lucky to have as a dialect and accents coach the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. When we actors were cast as a character who was southern or English or Russian or Australian, we went to her to learn how to sound the part. Her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way. Conveying a character’s accent, dialect, or use of slang can become parody if overdone, and parody can come across as insulting. So try taking Dr. Gurren’s advice: write as authentically as possible the first time around, then back off enough that the accent, dialect, or slang doesn’t call attention to itself.

Q Is for Quotes

“Quotes” is short for either “quotations” or “quotation marks.” They are related, so we’ll deal with both of them here. While we’re at it, we might say a few things about dialogue, even though it begins with d, not q.

So: quotations. A quotation consists of words — one word, a few words, or many words — from a source other than you. For writers of academic nonfiction, these sources are often published or unpublished written works. The source for each quote has to be noted, in fairly excruciating detail, in a footnote or endnote. Then the works and manuscript collections (etc.) consulted must be listed in a bibliography or reference list. (Aside: These are not the same thing, but we’re not going into the differences here. If you’re interested, leave a comment or consult the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Working journalists — reporters on the ground — also rely on quotations from other sources, but their sources are often living breathing real people. These days they may be able to record what their sources say, but this is not always possible. In the not-too-distant past it was almost never possible. Reporters scribbled notes in their notebooks and then, often under deadline pressure, reconstructed their notes into a quote that was then attributed to a source. (You begin to understand one reason why sources often choose to be quoted “off the record”?)

Plenty of essential nonfiction these days is written by journalists who’ve done their initial research on the ground and then been able to step back from day-to-day deadline pressure, explore the connections among the stories they’ve reported, and provide context for them. I recently read an excellent example of this: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.

Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant Warmth of Other Suns began as on-the-ground reporting and grew into an indispensable, Pulitzer Prize–winning work of U.S. history, and one that has had and continues to have profound effects on how we USians understand our past.

Whether written by academics or by journalists like Darby and Wilkerson, these books depend for their credibility on their sources, whether manuscripts or published works or interviews or works in other media. Hence the importance of citations: it should be possible for readers to verify both the accuracy of those sources and the author’s care in quoting them. The overwhelming majority of readers won’t do this, of course, but the knowledge that there’s a paper trail that could be followed tends to inspire confidence.

Writers of what’s often called “creative nonfiction” (note the use of quotation marks there, eh?) use quotations too, but they generally aren’t held to the same standard as academics and journalists. The author of a memoir may use quotation marks in recounting dialogue recollected from childhood, but the savvy reader will probably assume that the conversation has been reconstructed from memory and is therefore, at best, inexact.

I worry, though, about less savvy readers, and about those to whom the quotes are attributed (if they’re still alive, which they often aren’t), and about everyone close enough to the situation to have their own memories of the people involved. I’m old school enough to expect that in nonfiction quotation marks indicate at least an attempt to replicate a conversation or speech as it happened — unless, of course, the author has noted that memory is notoriously tricky and s/he has taken liberties in reconstructing remembered dialogue. Some authors do indeed note this. On the other hand, a few years ago I copyedited a memoir in which the (experienced, much-published) author noted in an afterword that two of the relatives in his story had been invented out of whole cloth. One of them had been my favorite character, and she didn’t even exist? I was shocked. I felt betrayed.

In my opinion, recreating imperfectly recalled dialogue, even inventing it to show how a particular situation developed, is OK if and only if you level with readers about what you’re up to. Once you start inventing characters, however, you’re writing fiction. Call it a fictionalized memoir if you wish, but please don’t pass it off as a memoir.

Fiction writers use dialogue to reveal character and the relationships among characters, and to move the plot along. Fictional dialogue isn’t sourced with footnotes or endnotes, but good writers are often listening for what their characters say, trying to get it right.

So it’s not surprising that, in English at least, quotations and dialogue are punctuated in pretty much the same way. In American English (AmE), double quote marks are used for both, and quotes within quotes are set off with single quotation marks. British English (BrE) does the reverse — single, then double — although British newspapers often follow the U.S. style. Other languages may treat quotations and dialogue differently. French, for instance, uses guillemets (« and ») for the former and em dashes (—) to introduce the latter.

In AmE, commas and periods go inside the close quote: So do question marks and exclamation points if they’re part of the quote. If they’re not, as sometimes happens if you’ve got a quote within a quote, they may go outside the single close quote and inside the double close quote. Like this: “Do you believe,” said Georgia, “that she really said ‘I’ll be here by six’?”

BrE puts commas and periods (known in BrE as full stops) outside the quote marks unless they’re part of the quotation. As an AmE editor who occasionally edits in BrE, I can manage this pretty well, but I look stuff up a lot more in BrE than I do in AmE (and in AmE I look up stuff a lot) and no way am I going to try to explain it here.

Quotation marks are like HTML: An open quote has to be paired with a close quote. This goes for both double and single quotes. The big exception is that when you have a quote, such as a speech, that goes on continuously for more than one paragraph, each paragraph has to begin with an open quote but the only close quote you need is at the very end. I emphasize that continuously because these lengthy quotations can’t be interrupted by “he said” or “she wrote” or anything else. Once they’re interrupted, they’re no longer continuous.

Got that?

Just do me a favor, please, and don’t be inventing characters from your past and calling what you’re writing a memoir. Thank you.

O Is for Order

One of the marvels of English is its flexibility about word order. Subject-verb-object is standard, but multiple variations are possible. However, the further you stray from the standard, the more important it is to pay attention to what the words may be doing behind your back. When I copyedit the work of competent writers, many of my edits are due to the ambiguity, confusion, or even outright hilarity created by a misplaced modifier.

Here’s a simple example of how the placement of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. In this case it’s “only,” a handy four-letter word whose very versatility can cause trouble. Note that when it comes to placing adjectives and adverbs, proximity matters. We generally associate adjectives with the nearest noun or pronoun, adverbs with the nearest verb or adjective.

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.
No one else would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.
Cereal and scrambled eggs wouldn’t do. It had to be coffee ice cream.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.
She wouldn’t eat coffee ice cream for lunch or supper or any other meal.

In oral communication, a speaker’s intonation — emphasizing she or coffee, for example — will often make the meaning clear, no matter where the “only” goes — “She would only eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” or “Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” — but readers of a printed text can’t hear what the writer intended. It’s tempting to rely on italics or boldface or ALL CAPS to signal emphasis, but such devices lose their impact with overuse. With experience we learn to let the placement of the words and phrases do most of the work.

This includes, I should add, paying attention not only the proximity of modifiers to the words they modify but also to the rhythm of the language, including where the stresses fall in multisyllabic words. Poets do this. Prose writers should too, and good ones do, consciously or by “feel.” I’ll sometimes choose one synonym over another because it sounds better. I urge writers to read sentences aloud while they’re working, even at the first-draft stage. This is too big a subject to be covered here, but here’s a crash course if you’re interested.

Google “misplaced modifier” and you’ll find plenty of examples, along the lines of “He served cake to the children on paper plates.” Were the children really on paper plates? No: it was the cake. Make it “He served the children cake on paper plates.” Misplaced modifiers are easier to catch in other people’s writing. Knowing what you meant to say makes it harder to see that this isn’t what the words say, or that the words could be taken in more than one way. This happens even to those of us who are editors as well as writers. I’m best at catching my own goofs if I let a day, or at least a few hours, go by before I revisit something I’ve just finished.

Where you place a dialogue tag — said or asked or one of their many alternatives — can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think. Like punctuation marks, dialogue tags shape the way your sentences are read. I went into this in some detail a few years back. If you want to read more, check out “‘Tag!’ She Scowled.”

And while we’re at it, I blogged about word order even longer ago, in “Location!” Check that out too if you like.

The more attention you pay to the order and placement of words and phrases, the more possibilities you’ll discover in the language you use. And, as I never get tired of saying, do read your writing out loud when you’re working on it. Some things are easier to hear than to see. In my writers’ group, some members occasionally ask other members to read their work aloud. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it!

But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

Direct and Indirect Speech

Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!

Notes Owen:

Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.

How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.

Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue

This literary agent considers dialogue “a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse.” When reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts) she considers unrealistic dialogue a deal-breaker. Fortunately she also offers some tips for writing better gialogue. Pay attention, too, to the comments: several (including mine) strongly recommend reading dialogue aloud or having someone read it to you. Imagine your dialogue being acted on stage or film: would you keep watching, or would you doze off?

Carly Watters, Literary Agent

One of my biggest pet peeves as an agent reading slush is unrealistic dialogue. This is a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse. For me this is a bigger red flag than any grammatical error and I cringe when dialogue isn’t edited as carefully as the rest of the manuscript (in terms of pace, being concise etc). I will VERY quickly pass on a manuscript if everything else is going well–except dialogue. It’s a more important piece of the puzzle than most writers realize. It’s our link to your characters’ tone, emotion, voice and so many other things. If you want a reader to connect with your characters (which you all do!) dialogue is a huge part of that equation.

So, how can you write better dialogue?

Write the character’s voice, not yours — Debut writers have a tendency to write themselves into their book when it’s not necessary…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Proofreading English English

British flagGeorge Bernard Shaw oh-so-famously said that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Ha ha ha. Clever, but a bit overstated, don’t you think? True, this native speaker of American English (AmE) usually turns the captions on when watching British TV shows like Sally Wainwright’s (awesome) Happy Valley because, between the Yorkshire accent, the colloquialisms, and the speed of conversation, my unaccustomed American ear can miss as much as half of what the characters are saying.

Also true: Accents and colloquialisms can trip me up in AmE as well.

Written English seems to cross the ocean more easily. Accents don’t interfere with the printed page, and print stands still so I can pore and puzzle over anything I don’t get the first time. If I don’t understand a word, I can look it up.

The biography I’m proofreading at the moment is being published simultaneously in the US and the UK. It was written and edited in British English (BrE), so that’s what I’m reading. I have no trouble understanding the text. The big challenge is that I’m so fascinated by the differences between AmE and BrE style, spelling, usage, and punctuation that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m proofreading. “They went to the the museum” is a goof on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s my job to catch it.

I’ve long been familiar with the general differences between BrE and AmE spelling. AmE generally drops the “u” from words like “favour” (but retains it in “glamour,” damned if I know why), spells “civilise” with a “z,” and doesn’t double the consonant in verbs like “travelled” unless the stress falls on the second syllable, as in “admitted.” In BrE it’s “tyre,” not “tire”; “kerb,” not “curb”; “sceptical,” not “skeptical”; and “manoeuvre,” not “maneuver.” (The “oe” in “amoeba” doesn’t bother me at all, but “manoeuvre” looks very, very strange.)

To my eye the most obvious difference between AmE and BrE is the quotation marks. A quick glance at a book or manuscript can usually tell me whether it was written and edited in AmE or BrE. In AmE, quoted material and dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks; quotes within the quote are enclosed in single. Like this: “Before long we came to a sign that said ‘Go no further,’ so we turned back.” BrE does the opposite: single quotes on the outside, double on the inside.

That part’s easy. What’s tricky is that in AmE, commas and periods invariably go inside the quote marks, but in BrE it depends on whether the quoted bit is a complete sentence or not. If it is, the comma or full stop goes inside the quotes; if it isn’t, the comma or full stop goes outside. What makes it even trickier is that British newspapers and fiction publishers often follow AmE style on this. My current proofread follows the traditional BrE style, and does so very consistently. Thank heavens.

BrE is more tolerant of hyphens than AmE, or at least AmE as codified by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style and enforced by the copyeditors who treat them as rulebooks. I like this tolerance. (For more about my take on hyphens, see  Sturgis’s Law #5.)

BrE also commonly uses “which” for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This also is fine with me, although as a novice editor I was so vigorously inculcated with the which/that distinction that it’s now second nature. Some AmE copyeditors insist that without the which/that distinction one can’t tell whether a clause is restrictive or not. This is a crock. Almost anything can be misunderstood if one tries hard enough to misunderstand it. Besides, non-restrictive clauses are generally preceded by a comma.

In my current proofread, however, I encountered a sentence like this: “She watched the arrival of the bulldozers, that were to transform the neighborhood.” “That” is seldom used for non-restrictive clauses, and a clause like this could go either way, restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on the author’s intent. Context gave me no clues about this, so I queried.

comma

A comma (willing to moonlight as an apostrophe)

Speaking of misunderstanding, remember “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”? Some copyeditors and armchair grammarians consider this proof that the serial or Oxford comma — the one that precedes the conjunction in a series of three or more — is necessary to avoid misunderstanding. As I blogged in “Serialissima,” I’m a fan of the serial comma, most of what I edit uses the serial comma, but the book I’m proofreading doesn’t use the serial comma and it didn’t me long to get used to its absence.

BrE uses capital letters more liberally than AmE, or at least AmE as represented by Chicago, which recommends a “down style” — that is, it uses caps sparingly. In my current proofread, it’s the King, the Queen, the young Princesses, the Prime Minister, and, often, the Gallery, even when gallery’s full name is not used. Chicago would lowercase the lot of them.

I knew that BrE punctuates certain abbreviations differently than AmE, but I was a little fuzzy on how it worked, so I consulted New Hart’s Rules, online access to which comes with my subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries. If Chicago has a BrE equivalent, New Hart’s Rules is it. In BrE, I learned, no full point (that’s BrE for “period”) is used for contractions, i.e., abbreviations that include the first and last letter of the complete word. Hence: Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited, St for Street, and so on. When the abbreviation consists of the first part of a word, the full point is used, hence Sun, for Sunday and Sept. for September.

Thus enlightened, I nevertheless skidded to a full stop at the sight of “B.Litt,” short for the old academic degree Bachelor of Letters. Surely it should have either two points or none, either BLitt or B.Litt.? I queried that too.

AmE is my home turf. I know Chicago cold and can recognize other styles when they’re in play. I know the rules and conventions of AmE spelling, usage, and style, and (probably more important) I know the difference between rules and conventions. In BrE I’m in territory familiar in some ways, unfamiliar in others. I pay closer attention. I look more things up. I’m reminded that, among other things, neither the serial comma nor the which/that distinction is essential for clarity. Proofreading in BrE throws me off-balance. This is a good thing. The editor who feels too sure of herself is an editor who’s losing her edge.

Dot Comma

This is part 2 of “Sturgis’s Law #5.” I got carried away with hyphens and didn’t get around to commas till the word count was edging toward the stratosphere. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #5 redux.

Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.

Commas drive people crazy. They’re small but they’re powerful. They can be used for so many things. Teachers, editors, and the authors of style guides often try to wrangle them into some sort of order, which is fine, but when the guidelines harden into rules, writers and other editors may get feisty.

I suspect that it’s not the poor commas that drive people crazy; it’s the notion that there are a gazillion iron-clad rules about the right and wrong way to use them and if you get any of them wrong someone will think you’re stupid.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it's the bottom half of a semicolon, but it's impersonating a comma.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it’s the bottom half of a semicolon, but it’s impersonating a comma.

Take my sentence above: “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To comma or not to comma? It’s actually OK either way: convention sensibly advises a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses, but an equally sensible corollary notes that the comma may be dropped when the clauses are short.

So I went back and forth a half-dozen times between “They’re small, but they’re powerful” and “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To avoid settling on one or the other, I actually contemplated “They’re small but powerful” and “They’re small — but they’re powerful.” All four options are well within the pale of acceptable usage, but each reads a little differently.

Sentences like this can send us running to the style guide, and when the oracle responds with “It depends,” that’s when we start to lose it.

This, however, is no reason to throw the comma conventions out. Writing that consists of long comma-less sentences is devilish hard to read, and besides, we usually talk in phrases, emphasizing some words and not others. Commas, and punctuation generally, help shape your sentences so they’ll be read, understood, and heard the way you want them to be. Learn the basics so well that they become your default settings. At that point you’re ready to change the defaults when it best serves your writing.

Here’s a short paragraph plucked at random from my novel in progress. Shannon is explaining to the selectmen in her town* why Wolfie, a dog who’s been running amok and maybe killing livestock, should be allowed to remain in her house. No surprise, the paragraph has a lot of commas in it, doing common comma duties.

Shannon smiled. “You might say so,” she said. “When Wolfie’s confined to a crate, he tries to get out, and when he can’t get out, he howls. We’re making progress on that, but, well, I don’t think he would do well at the kennel.”

The first comma is standard in punctuating dialogue in American English (AmE). Use a comma before or after a dialogue tag, depending on its placement in the sentence. If you want, you can turn that sentence around:

She said, “You might say so.”

The second comma follows a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence. Commas are also used to set off introductory phrases, especially when they’re fairly long. How long? I remember learning that any introductory phrase or clause of at least seven words should be followed by a comma, but please, don’t be making your decisions on word count alone. The main purpose of that comma is to keep the introductory phrase or clause from bleeding into the main sentence.

The third comma, the one before and, separates two independent clauses. The fourth, like the second, sets off an introductory clause. This sentence is both compound (it comprises two independent clauses) and complex (it includes dependent clauses). In such sentences, commas help the reader figure out what goes with what.

Next comes another before-the-conjunction comma, and then we’ve got an interjection: well. When interjections — well, oh, good heavens, and the like — come at the beginning of a sentence they are almost always followed by a comma. When they come in the middle, you usually want commas fore and aft. Say the sentence out loud. You pause before and/or after the interjection, right?

Good writers often use commas to help pace our sentences, perhaps to signal a slight pause. I hear a subtle difference between She shut the door then opened it again and She shut the door, then opened it again. In the former, the opening follows hard on the shutting. In the latter she hesitates; maybe she’s had second thoughts. Some people don’t hear any difference at all between the two. When an editor who doesn’t hear the difference meets up with a writer who does, things can get ugly.

When they approach commas that can’t be neatly explained by one of “the rules,” some editors ask “Is it necessary?” When I’m editing, my own work or someone else’s, I ask instead “Is it useful?” and “What purpose is it serving?” If it’s serving a purpose, I generally leave it alone.

This is not to say that I pause to ponder every comma I come to. In most book-length copyediting jobs I put a bunch in and take a bunch out on the fly. If asked, though, I can nearly always explain what I did and why: this is a knack that comes with experience, lots of experience.

Commas ready for recycling

Commas ready for recycling

Some writing, even good writing, is peppered with commas. I remove the excess and save them in a pepper shaker, so I’ll have them on hand when I come to a work with too many long, breathless sentences.

When a sentence or whole passage is overpunctuated — it contains so many commas and other punctuation marks that you barely notice the words — this is often a sign that the sentence itself needs work. The writer is trying to tame the sentence with commas when the real problem lies with the words, phrases, and/or clauses and the arrangement thereof.

OK? Commas may be small and powerful, but they don’t have to be scary. Play around with them. See what works and what doesn’t. And if you’ve got a comma question or observation, post it in the comments or use the “Got a Question?” form at the top of this page.


* This town, like most small to middling towns in New England, runs by the town meeting system. Town meeting, in which all the town’s registered voters can participate, functions like a legislature. In addition to the big annual town meeting, usually in the spring, there are usually two or three special town meetings during the year. The board of selectmen takes care of business in between.