Tag Archives: Tips for writers

Quick tutorial: it’s worth its weight in gold

iStock_000018482964XSmallFirst of all, apologies for the title of this post: I’m not trying to make extravagant claims for a very modest quick tutorial. But it does illustrate the point.

A friend who is a retired university professor tells the story that he used to begin each unit with a short lesson on the difference between its and it’s. He’d warn his students to listen carefully because every time they made an its/it’s error in their assignments, he would be deducting a 1% penalty mark. He swears it made a difference—but also said there were always students who had to pay his rather high price.

If you have difficulty with this one, here’s a recap, with a couple of easy guidelines:

its is a possessive, the neutral equivalent of his or her.

If you can’t replace its with his or her (leaving the gender issue aside!), you probably mean it’s.

Mary is publishing her novel. Wally is publishing his memoir. The company is publishing its annual report.

 

it’s is a contraction meaning it is or it has.

If you can’t replace it’s with it is or it has, you probably mean its.

It’s not unusual. [It is not unusual.]

It’s always been this way. [It has always been this way.]

So, to return to that clichéd title with the grandiose claim:

It’s worth its weight in gold means It is worth the weight of it in gold—but you knew that, didn’t you?

Give it a try next time you’re proofreading. And let’s all be thankful that editors don’t apply penalties.

 

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Another quick tutorial on apostrophes…

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis especially quick tutorial is to clarify a single apostrophe usage that often confuses writers.

In manuscripts—and even in print—I frequently see the following:

Let’s go to the Molloy’s house.

Grammatically, this means:

Let’s go to the house of the Molloy.

Now, perhaps there is a big burly guy out there who is referred to as ‘the Molloy’, as in ‘Give that burrito to the Molloy before he chews someone’s arm.’ In that case, the above would be correct. But what the writer usually means is:

Let’s go to the Molloys’ house.

meaning:

Let’s go to the house of the Molloys. [a couple, or a family, or the three banjo-playing Molloy sisters]

If, on the other hand, the writer is referring to a particular Molloy:

Let’s go to the house of Molloy. [e.g. Joe Molloy]

then it would be:

Let’s go to Molloy’s house. [singular Molloy; no definite article]

Again, it comes down to singular versus plural: one Molloy or a bunch of them!

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Quick tutorial: where does that damned apostrophe go?

iStock_000018482964XSmallA friend asked me recently to explain where the apostrophe should go in the phrase my parents house. I realised that this is something I’ve corrected many times when editing manuscripts, so it seemed a good subject for a quick tutorial. Here’s an easy way to work it out.

Ask yourself: How many parents are we talking about? If only one (singular), then the apostrophe goes after the word parent:

my parent’s house
meaning: the house of my parent

But if we’re talking about plural parents—mother and father, two mothers, two fathers, any combination of people playing parental roles!—then the apostrophe goes after the plural s:

my parents’ house
meaning: the house of my parents

In summary, to indicate possession:

add apostrophe + s to a singular term

add apostrophe only to a plural term

Where it gets complicated is when the singular term ends in s. There are acceptable variations here, and it becomes a matter of style rather than a rule. I prefer the recommendation of the Style guide for authors, editors and printers (6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, 2002), which is:

apostrophe + s (i.e. no change to the rule above for a singular term)
Dickens’s novels
meaning: the novels of Dickens
Burns’s poems
meaning: the poems of Burns
For: It’s easy to remember because it’s the same style!
Against: Some people think it looks clumsy.

Feel free to disagree! Here are a couple of alternatives.

Some guides recommend:

apostrophe only
Dickens’ novels
Burns’ poems
For: Some people think it looks neater.
Against: Why complicate things?

Others recommend different styles depending on the number of syllables in the singular term:

more than one syllable: apostrophe only
Dickens’ novels
but
one syllable: apostrophe + s
Burns’s poems
For: I can’t think of one!
Against: It looks inconsistent, and why complicate things even further?

There’s yet another variation involving pronunciation (i.e. whether you sound the s or not), but that, in my opinion, is a highly dubious way of deciding which style to use: not everyone pronounces words the same way. So let’s not even go there.

As with any point of style for which there are variations, what’s important is that you choose one (or follow the style set for you) and use it consistently.

Happy apostrophising!

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Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis quick tutorial is on a point of grammar that often trips people up. But before I begin, I want to offer an observation and a disclaimer.

Over the years, some of the writers whose work I’ve edited have expressed embarrassment over their lack of grammar knowledge. But, as I always tell them, it’s probably more to do with failures of the education system than with any lack of aptitude on their part. From about the 1960s, education theorists decided that grammar—the structural basis of language—inhibited children’s creativity. It imposed on them too many rules. It was boring. It was hard. And so it was pretty much wiped from the curriculum. (You can read more here and here.)

Thankfully, grammar is making a comeback in today’s schools (more about that here)—too late, of course, for those generations who missed out.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who was ‘good at English’, and I’m so glad she instilled in me a few boring rules when I was in primary school. I want to emphasise that: I was lucky. And then, in high school, I learned more about English grammar by learning French and German than I had ever learned in an English class. Since then, my work as an editor has required the study of grammar, and frequent revision, although I don’t consider myself to be an expert—a term I reserve for the few editors I know who studied Latin and for whom the parsing of a sentence was a primary school exercise as familiar as reciting the times table.

So that’s the context for my posts on grammar. For greater authority than mine, there are any number of tomes available, though I confess to a fondness for one that is delightfully quirky and satisfyingly gothic: Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: the ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.

And so on to today’s quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise.

 ~~~

Being able to identify the subject of a sentence is important, because the verb needs to agree in number with the subject—that is, a singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb.

The girl is eating ice-cream. (singular subject = The girl; singular verb = is eating; object = ice-cream)

The girls are eating ice-cream. (plural subject = The girls; plural verb = are eating; object = ice-cream)

But the subjects above are simple subjects, and subjects are not always simple. They can come carrying baggage in the form of modifiers. Take a look at the following sentences. In each of these, the subject (including all of its modifying baggage) is highlighted in blue:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.

As you can see, these are complex subjects with many modifiers (words that tell us something about the subject), but the base element of the subject is The girl. She’s the one eating the ice-cream. She’s the singular subject taking the singular verb. In terms of the sentence, all these other words, all these other people, are subordinate to her, performing the following modifying roles:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one who told us about the snakes

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.
gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar, is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas; and gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, and her friends are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl is the subject of the action. Power to the girl!

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Quick tutorials: what is an en-rule?

iStock_000018482964XSmallIn this new occasional feature, Tips for writers, I’m going to be covering a range of topics drawn from my experience as a book editor and teacher.

First up is a quick tutorial on the use of a punctuation mark, the en-rule—rather a dry subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s one of those things writers often ask me to explain. So here we go…

~~~

There are four types of dash available to writers: hyphens, en-rules, em-rules and 2-em rules. Most people are familiar with hyphens; fewer with the others. Here I’m focusing on the en-rule, but first let’s see what the four look like:

–  hyphen (as in light-hearted, co-worker, south-west)

–  en-rule (as in June–July, pages 6–10, mother–child relationship, Perth–Sydney flight)

—  em-rule (as in There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.)

——  2-em rule (as in He started to shout, ‘You’re a crazy——,’ but the gunshot felled him.)

Conventional uses of the en-rule

The en-rule dash often expresses a from/to or between/and relationship, joining:

  • spans of time, distance, figures (i.e. June–July indicates from June to July; pages 6–10 indicates from page 6 to page 10)
  • two entities that retain their separateness (i.e. mother–child relationship indicates a relationship between mother and child; Perth–Sydney flight indicates a flight between Perth and Sydney)

Don’t make the common error of mixing an en-rule with one part of a from/to or between/and pair:

  • not  from June–July (should be from June to July or just July–July)
  • not between Perth–Sydney (should be between Perth and Sydney or just Perth–Sydney)

Other uses of the en-rule

The en-rule is used instead of a hyphen with prefixes when the prefix is attached to more than one word. Compare non-speaking part and non–English speaking part:

  • the hyphen is correct in non-speaking part (the prefix non is attached to one word, speaking)
  • the en-rule is correct in non–English speaking part (the prefix non is attached to two words, English and speaking)

The same reasoning applies to compound adjectives preceding a noun. Compare war-related wound and World War II–related wound:

  • the hyphen is correct in war-related wound (it’s joining war and related)
  • the en-rule is correct in World War II–related wound (it’s joining World War II and related)

New use of the en-rule

In recent years, some publishers have adopted as their house style (particularly for fiction) the used of unspaced en-rules where em-rules have traditionally been used. To use the example given earlier, instead of the conventional use of em-rules in:

  • There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.

we have:

  • There are two main ingredients – lemon and garlic – in that sauce.

This is a matter of style rather than correctness, provided it’s used consistently, athough I confess to disliking the flimsy little en-rule being roped in to do this kind of double duty. Give me a typographically muscular unspaced em-rule any day! (Honestly, it takes a nerdish soul to write that sentence.)

0701636475There are other issues involved in the use of en-rules, but this quick tutorial covers the most common and I hope some of you find it helpful. If you need more information, I always recommend the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition, John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2002), to which this quick tutorial, as well as my knowledge generally on the nuts and bolts of writing, is indebted. This edition of the Style manual might be an old source now but it’s still considered to be a standard text in the Australian publishing context, as were all the editions that came before it.

Happy writing!

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