Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.


Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

Orthographic Musing

In the novel-in-progress excerpt I took to my writers’ group last night, one character (Glory’s mother, Felicia, for anyone who’s keeping track) spoke of a onetime band member who had ODed.

That’s the way I spelled it: ODed.

Several of my fellow writers thought it should be OD’d. That made sense too.

At my writers’ group meetings, we bring enough copies for everybody — at the moment we’re seven, with the eighth on sick leave — then the writer reads aloud while everyone else marks up the hardcopy. My Monday morning tasks include opening the active file (draft2.doc), going through the marked-up copies, and making revisions, corrections, or notes as needed or desired.

So I came to “ODed”, remembered what the others had said, and changed it to “OD’d”.

Being terminally curious, I then had to look it up. Being an editor, I had to look it up in three dictionaries, not one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online) gave both “OD’d” and “ODed”.

American Heritage said “OD’ed” — with both the -ed and the apostrophe.

Oxford, both the UK/World and the US editions, had “OD’d”.

This drives some writers and editors crazy. Not me. I love it. The variation reminds me that when it comes to orthography, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to spell a word, but other times it depends. It’s “sceptic” in British English (BrE), “skeptic” in American English (AmE), but neither one is wrong. Newspapers and magazines usually have a house style that, in the interest of consistency, specifies a preference in cases where several choices exist.

Publishers do too, but the better ones generally allow more variation than magazines and newspapers. Books don’t have to be consistent with each other. They should, however, be internally consistent. If “OD’d” comes up more than once, spell it the same way each time. Make your choice, enter it on your style sheet, then stick to it. (Style sheets are a copyeditor’s best friend and secret weapon. Wise writers use them too. For more about style sheets, check out my blog post “What’s a Style Sheet?”)

While writing the above, I took a break to look up “orthography”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition: “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. I see two loopholes I could drive my car through: “proper” and “standard usage”. And that’s OK (okay?). MW calls it an “art”, after all, and in art the right answer is often “it depends”.

So what am I going to do about ODed / OD’ed / OD’d? For now I’m going with “OD’d”, but that may change.

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.


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.


If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians, you soon learn that the serial comma is a contested issue.

You will hear some defend to the death their right not to use it, while others insist that every time it’s omitted the English language teeters closer to the brink of collapse.

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians or count them among your Facebook friends, it’s best to keep Sturgis’s Law #16 in mind. In the annotation of Sturgis’s Laws I haven’t got there yet , but here’s a sneak preview:

The amount of discussion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to the issue’s importance and to the preparation required to say anything meaningful about it.

So what exactly is this little mite that inspires such passion?


Commas in isolation are hard to distinguish from apostrophes.

The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma, but I prefer “serial,” and not just because I live on the left side of the Atlantic. The serial comma, after all, is about how one punctuates series of three or more items, specifically about whether one should use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last element.

This sentence is widely circulated by serial-comma fans to prove their point: “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” You’ve probably seen it, or one very like it.

Without the serial comma, “Ayn Rand and God” could be an appositive phrase. Is the writer really saying that Ayn Rand and God are his/her parents? Ha ha ha.

As an argument for the serial comma, however, this example is less than persuasive. Take any sentence out of context and myriad misreadings become possible. The Associated Press style guide, widely used by newspapers and businesses across the U.S., generally doesn’t recommend the serial comma unless confusion might result from its absence. The sky hasn’t fallen in yet, and besides, if one fears confusion might result from “my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” one is free to insert a comma after “Rand.”

That said, I’m a serial-comma fan. This has as much to do with habit as anything else. I don’t recall anyone making a big deal about serial commas when I was in school, but when I was an apprentice editor in the very late 1970s, “Chicago style” — currently codified in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition — was drummed into my head. Chicago recommends the serial comma, as do most U.S. publishers.

As a result, I’m used to it. I notice when it’s not there. Here’s a sentence chosen at random from my novel in progress. The speaker is referring to Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend.

“He caught whales one-handed, cooked them up here, and shared the meat with the resident Wampanoags.”

To my eye and ear, the comma after “here” makes clear that there are three elements here, not two. If that comma isn’t there, my eye slides to the end of the sentence without registering the slight break that separates the third element from the second. A reader who doesn’t expect a comma there probably isn’t going to miss it.

Sometimes, however, I want my eye to slide to the end of a phrase. The U.S. flag is often called “the Red, White and Blue.” We say it almost as if it’s one word: “the RedWhiteandBlue.” With a comma after “White” I visualize three distinct colors, not a single flag. If I wrote “The flag is red, white, and blue,” would I use the serial comma? Yes, I would. (I just did.)

The serial comma is rarely used, by the way, when the conjunction “and” is represented by an ampersand: “The flag is red, white & blue.” Ampersands are rarely used in formal or even informal writing, so this comes up more often in display type, like advertisements, posters, and headlines. Why is this? Damned if I know, but the big ampersand dwarfs the tiny comma so I don’t blame the comma for wanting outta there.

But it’s more than habit and long experience that makes me a serial-comma fan. Because I generally use it, I can use its omission to shape the meaning of a phrase. Here’s a simple example:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers, and editors she’d known for years.

“Colleagues, writers, and editors” are three distinct groups, right? Now remove the commas after “writers”:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers and editors she’d known for years.

“Writers and editors” is now in apposition to “colleagues.” In other words, the writers and editors are her colleagues.

To a non-serial-comma user the second sentence could go either way: two groups or three? The astute non-serial-comma user might insert a serial comma here if three groups were meant, realizing that this is an instance where the serial comma serves a purpose. With any luck the non-serial-comma-using copyeditor would realize as much and not delete it.

So I use the serial comma regularly because if I do, its omission becomes a tool in my toolkit. Even if I only use it a few times a month, I like knowing it’s there.

A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry


I did make a New Year’s resolution once. When I was working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and desperately afraid that I’d never finish it, I resolved that I would work on it every day until it was done.

Note that I did not vow to write a thousand words or two thousand words or any number of words. Nor did I vow to write for an hour or two hours or for any set time.

Just every day.

mud cover2This turned out to be a brilliant move. There were days when I was so panicky, so sure that everything I’d done so far was crap, that I didn’t work up the nerve to open my Word file till ten minutes before midnight. And this was enough. Just opening the file and reading what I’d already written was enough to reassure me that this thing was good, this thing was worthwhile, I really needed to keep going till I finished this thing.

And that was enough to encourage me to add a few words, and sometimes to keep going till two in the morning.

Had I vowed to write so many words or for so many hours, there would have been no point to opening the file at ten minutes to midnight.

I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution since.

How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “We’ll say things like ‘I stumbled over this bit’ or ‘Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.


“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.


The Writing Life: Advice from a Counterculture Icon

I haven’t read Vonnegut since college, and his “rule” about semicolons is crap, but his comments about writing and art making in this blog post are just wonderful.

The Daily Post

Everyone should read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book — Welcome to the Monkey House and Mother Night are my favorites. They’re blunt. Dark. Demanding. And they make you think, and laugh, and want to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature, and what better person to turn to for tough love on writing?

It’s not surprising that his thoughts on art, writing, and the writing life are just as thought-provoking, funny, and inspiring…

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the…

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In a Facebook discussion about my recent blog post “Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls,” my friend Greg Feeley, writer, critic, and adjunct professor of writing, posed a question: “What about ‘like’ / ‘as if’ (or ‘as though’)? I still teach my students the distinction, because they should know formal English — the kind the people who read their interview cover letters will judge them by — as well as the English they already speak perfectly well.”

He’s right, both about “like” the conjunction and about the general principle. I grew up with the ad campaign for Winston cigarettes whose key sentence was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” I remember English teachers and other adults going up in the air about “like a cigarette should.”

“As!” they’d yell. “It should be ‘as’!”

They probably said stuff like “the youth of America is going to hell in a handbasket,” or maybe western civilization was going to hell in a handbasket, and all because of this damned cigarette ad.

I probably went around saying stuff like “Say it like you mean it” just to piss them off.

“Like” the conjunction may have been around since Chaucer’s time, as the American Heritage Dictionary notes, but plenty of well-educated English-speakers don’t like it at all. They may dislike split infinitives, place great value on the which/that distinction, or subscribe to other shibboleths and zombie rules whose justification is shaky . . .

But, as Greg points out, they may be the ones reading your interview cover letters, or your agent queries, or your grant proposals.

They’re the gatekeepers, in other words. Gatekeepers are the ones you have to get past in order to get what you want: an agent, a publishing contract, a job, a grant, whatever it is.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

I was a gatekeeper once. Between 1989 and 1991 I edited three original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction: Memories and Visions, The Women Who Walk Through Fire, and Tales of Magic Realism by Women (Dreams in a Minor Key). Over three years I read nearly a thousand stories — and accepted a grand total of 46.

Think about it. For every story I accepted, I rejected about 21. At first, I considered every good story — and there were a lot of them — a possible YES. Before long, the numbers got to me. My attitude changed. When I started reading each story, I was looking for reasons to say NO.

Before that, I’d heard editors and agents say that within a very few paragraphs of a story, a very few pages of a novel, they knew whether the work was publishable. How unfair! I thought. How could they possibly tell?

I read most of those thousand f/sf stories through to the end. I learned to trust my snap judgments. A story had to be more than “good” to make it into the YES or even the MAYBE pile. I learned to look for intangibles: energy, originality, clues that I’d never read anything like this before.

After that I had much more sympathy for the gatekeepers.

Even the ones who are using shibboleths and zombie rules to stick your query or cover letter or proposal in the NO pile. They’re probably swamped with good letters and applications. Their “sort” parameters may be flawed, but they’ve got to keep the MAYBE pile down to manageable size.

The moral of the story is that when you’re dealing with gatekeepers, give the gatekeepers as few reasons as possible to say NO. Follow the appropriate guidelines. Use standard formatting, or whatever format the organization or publication prescribes. And avoid the shibboleths and other pitfalls that may set the gatekeepers off. Pay attention to your teacher, your editor, and all those handy “10 things to never do in your writing” lists that are all over the Web. (Yes, I just split an infinitive. This is why I like being my own gatekeeper.)

If you’re an editor, teacher, reader of grant proposals, or other gatekeeper, you can do your bit too. Placate the shibboleths but don’t use them to sort people into SMART and STUPID, YES and NO.

Think of the language as your wardrobe. When you dress for a cocktail party, you don’t put on the same clothes you wear to do barn chores. Clothes don’t make the person, and neither does word choice, but there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. Be prepared.

turn back

At least they’re polite about it.