Miss Kray’s Editing Tips #3 – Comma Chameleon

In my work as an editor, there is one punctuation mark that never fails to cause confusion and frustration: that tricksy little comma. It is the one punctuation mark most often associated with a literary style—the Loki of the grammatical world, if you would, for its tendency to appear in some works and disappear in others. The Brits and the Yanks differ on when and how often it should be used. A ‘slip of the comma’ could drastically (and unintentionally) alter the meaning of a sentence. In the age of blogging and texting, both your average Jane and the editors of the OED are asking themselves, “Do I really need to put a comma there?”

Alas, there is no easy answer. Other than “follow your style guide” of course. Among editors, debates over the placement of a comma have been known to ignite battles that rage on into the wee hours. (Yes, these are the things we fight about.) If you don’t believe me, just go to any editing forum and type the words “Oxford comma” into the search engine. The trend these days is to eliminate as many as possible, unless you’re one of those dig-your-heels-in, old-school types who poo-poo the notion that grammar, like people, evolves. (And if you’re a foreign language student who just wants to nail something, anything down as an official rule, I feel your pain.)

So where is the line between changing with the times and maintaining some kind of rules, some kind of order? Thankfully, that’s a bit beyond the purview of this post! But I can offer a few helpful hints that will make your life a whole lot easier. (Seriously, though, follow your style guide.)

1. All right, let’s jump in with both feet. I’m a believer in the Oxford comma. It’s true. Un-follow me if you must.

For those of you who have no idea what that is—and I imagine there are many, since, unlike me, you have a life—the Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the ‘and’ in a list of things. For example: “My car has red, white, and blue stripes.” The Oxford, or serial, comma is the one between ‘white’ and ‘and’, which some style guides instruct you to omit if it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

The most famous example that illustrates why the Oxford comma can’t always be omitted is a very bad joke (cribbed from Wikipedia):

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So unless you want a panda to shoot up your café and make a hasty exit, you need to add a comma between ‘shoots’ and ‘and’. But since there is no confusion if you omit the comma between ‘white’ and ‘blue’ in the earlier example, many fine editors believe that you should proceed with caution and only use the Oxford comma when there is a chance for misunderstanding, otherwise leave it out.

I am not one of those editors. My reasons are simple: if something could be considered wrong by omitting a punctuation mark, but will always be correct if it is included, then always include it and you will never run the risk of being wrong. Commas are complicated enough. Shouldn’t we all give ourselves a break?

2. One of the big new trends that I’m on board with is removing superfluous commas, i.e. ones that don’t add to the understanding or meaning of a sentence, but are more akin to taking a breath. For instance, the tradition of adding a comma after ‘so’, ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘now’, etc. You see this especially in dialogue: “Now, that’s not what I meant!” or “So, what do you think of that?”

Out, damned comma, out! They serve no purpose; they don’t affect meaning. The trend in Shakespeare’s time might have been to use punctuation for emphasis, but in our “no 1 curr”, text-and-blog society, those commas have gone the way of the dodo.

Speaking of dodos, a very old-fashioned style is to put the comma after the conjunction in a sentence, not before. Nowadays, this is not a matter of style—it’s just plain wrong. It’s not, “I went to the store but, forgot my wallet.” It’s, “I went to the store, but forgot my wallet.” If you need a refresher on conjunctions—or any excuse to break out some Schoolhouse Rock—here’s a cool video:

3. This last tip I think about every day of my life, I kid you not. My grammar guru Frances Peck turned me on to it, and I will be forever grateful to her.

Say you have some adjectives that you want to use to modify a noun. Adjectives that haven’t been created equal. Some are hyphenated. Some are colors. Some form a unit with the noun. Which should go first? Which should be separated by a comma? Say you have a phrase like, “That scrawny, crass, no-good, two-timing, lazy lummox of a man” or “The gray cashmere sweater” or “The robust antique desk”. Is there a rule of thumb that can help you figure out which of those adjectives should be separated by commas and which shouldn’t? (I bet you can see where this is going…)

There is! These two types of adjectives are called ‘coordinate’ and ‘cumulative’. The trick to telling them apart is absurdly simple. There are two steps:

A – Insert the word ‘and’ between each of the adjectives. This determines if they both modify the noun in the same way. For example, can you say, “That scrawny and crass and no-good and two-timing and lazy lummox of a man”? Yes. On to Step B…

B – Try reversing the order of the adjectives and see if the meaning is the same. For example: “That lazy, two-timing, crass, no-good, scrawny lummox of a man”. Is the meaning the same? Yes. So all of the adjectives in that sentence modify ‘lummox’ in the same way, and therefore each should be separated by a comma.

Using the same two steps can also identify cumulative adjectives, which must retain a certain order to make sense. Usually, the adjective closest to the noun becomes a sort of group with the noun, and the other adjective is modifying that group, not just the noun itself.

For example: “The robust antique desk”. It passes the first test, “The robust and antique desk”, but fails the second, “The antique, robust desk”. Therefore, no comma.

Bonus tip: Never use a comma when a color is one of the adjectives that precedes your noun. “The gray cashmere sweater”. “The frail white tulip”. “The vast blue sky”. Colors are always cumulative. For even more detailed info on the order of adjectives before the noun and the Royal Order of Adjectives, check out this fantastic blog: http://zencomma.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/commas-between-adjectives/

Commas, like a pesky weed, may live to menace us, but common sense and careful pruning can keep them from growing wild.


Miss Kray’s Editing Tips #2 – Trimming the Fat

Last fall, I took a course on literary stylistics, and it was a real eye-opener in terms of grammar, syntax, and style. It was headed by Jeffrey Moore, author of The Memory Artists (I have a policy never to read an author’s books before I take a seminar with them, but he won the Commonwealth Prize and I have it on good authority that he’s a fantastic author). I have been trying to segue from being a copy editor into more substantive editing, and this course definitely delivered on both the writing and editing fronts. I won’t give away all the secrets I learned there, but here are a few I’m applying to my first book, which I’m giving another polish before submitting it to the next publisher on my list.

1. Read your work aloud. Punctuation equals breath sounds: a comma, a dash, or a colon is a half-stop; a semi-colon or a period is a full stop. Listen to where you stop, pause, inhale – it shouldn’t be in the middle of a sentence clause. If something sounds awkward or is hard to say, revise. If a sentence runs on too long and there’s no place to take a breath, revise. If you end up twisting your tongue around some witty bit of alliteration, revise. If you can’t read it smoothly… you know the drill.

2. Let the noun or the verb shine. Let them have the impact they deserve. With adjectives and adverbs, less is more. Cut out as many of the ‘-ly’s’ and long strings of descriptors as you can. Those that remain should contribute to the meaning of the sentence, not act as a literary form of whip cream. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Four Weddings and a Funeral might say: “Nobody wants to look like a meringue.” That includes your sentences.

3. When writing/editing dialogue, put as few ‘Soandso said’s’ as possible. If there are only two people having the conversation, you don’t need any. If there are multiple characters, try to minimize them by beginning or ending your paragraph with a descriptive sentence. Here’s an example from my own novel, Like Stars. Beatrice is trying to console Wesley by feeding him pie.

It was some time before Beatrice felt him squeeze in return.
“Has the tea gone cold?”
“I imagine so.”
“Mmm.” Wesley pursed his lips. “Raspberry?”
“With custard.”
“No custard.” He opened his far hand to receive his plate, perched it on his lap, then accepted a fork. At no time did he move to break her hold on him. He dug into the pie with more vigor than she had expected, which led her to wonder when he had last eaten. She suspected it was breakfast. After scarfing down three forkfuls in quick succession, he broke for air. “Tart. Lovely.”
“It’s all Mrs. Rutland’s doing.” She could not help but smile.
“Nonsense.” He scraped up the last streaks of jelly and crumb. When he finally looked at her, it was with the feigned innocence of a child begging another biscuit from its mother. “Are you not…?”
“I’ve had my fill for today.” They traded plates.

Would the above dialogue be improved by putting ‘Wesley asked’ after the first comment? Or ‘Beatrice replied’ after the second? By joining the fragments ‘No custard.’ and ‘Tart. Lovely.’ to a descriptive paragraph about Wesley, it is obvious that he’s the one speaking. Ditto the dialogue that goes with ‘She could not help but smile.’ Throughout this entire, three-page exchange, there is not one ‘said’ or ‘asked’, and yet it’s clear to the reader who is speaking at all times.

If two characters are arguing, you could dispense with the descriptive sentences altogether. It depends on what kind of mood you want to create. Using short, to-the-point lines is called stichomythia, a term from Greek drama meaning: “a technique in verse drama in which single alternating lines, or half-lines, or occasionally pairs of alternating lines, are given to alternating characters” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stichomythia). It works just as well in a novel or a short story.

The point of all this is, of course, to get rid of what Mr. Thomas Kane, author of The Oxford Guide to Writing (1983) calls ‘deadwood’, or “words that don’t contribute in any way to a writer’s purpose” (OGTW, p.272). The above are three examples of deadwood; there are many others! All help you to follow Somerset Maugham’s dictum, and my writing mantra: “Lucidity. Simplicity. Euphony.”

Or to put it another way: chop, chop, chop!

Happy editing!
-S. ;D

Miss Kray’s Editing Tips (for the Grammar Geek in all of us) #1

Editors. We love ’em, right? They chide us, they prod us, they nitpick us to death, but in the end we’re grateful because the text not only looks better, it reads better. A far greater writer than me, Somerset Maugham, had one motto when it came to writing: “Lucidity, simplicity, euphony.” Words to live by, IMHO, and the mantra that I keep in mind both as a writer and an editor.

(Yes, I’m trumpeting my own profession here. What can I say? We’re a dying breed. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?)  

Given the warp-speed at which language is changing in this cyber age, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what’s correct and what’s misused so often it becomes accepted. Just the sheer amount of acronyms coined every day is enough to make a thirty-year-old feel like a cave dweller. Not to mention job/social group/fandom-related slang and abbreviations, a by-product of the corporate and advertizing double-speak meant to build up those worthy and shun those hopelessly out of the loop. Any editor worth their salt can’t just be satisfied with keeping up with the Joneses, they also have to keep up with the Apples, the Googles, the hipsters, the glamazons, the Destiel obsessives, and the #Ichabbie shippers (depending on their area of expertise). Every winter, the OED comes out with its quaint little list of Words of the Year, and the media does a pity story about the addition of ‘selfie’ to the dictionary, but the truth is, by the time a word gets the OED stamp of approval, it’s already collecting a pension in cultural relevancy terms. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try subtitling a Tyler Perry film, and let me know how that goes.

Also, let’s face it, a style guide is little more than a dress code. It’s primary purpose isn’t accuracy, but efficacy. Style, by definition, is “a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/style). In theory, there’s no right or wrong; it’s just the way it’s being done by the stylish person or thing.

Before you start thinking that this is some “Down with the Oxford comma!”, anti-grammar screed, I would argue that literary style, like fashion, is important, but it should never keep you from having fun. Not everybody needs to be bedecked in haute couture, but there are a few basic essentials that cannot be done without. The rules of grammar and syntax, for instance, aren’t arbitrary. Believe me, feuds have been fought over less. The Hatfields and the McCoys have nothing on the members of the Editing Canadian English editorial board, I’m sure. We word geeks love our turf wars, and we all have our favorite battles, siege tactics, and secret weapons. So while a comma splice or misused hyphen on a blog post might make us cringe, it’s hardly a case for the literary equivalent of the Hague. (And how I wish there was a place you could be prosecuted for crimes against syntax. Just because it would be awesome!)

Anything released by a publishing house, however, should be beyond reproach. The text should be Alexander McQueen-level flawless, and so often that just isn’t the case. Romance novels, like Karl Lagerfeld, whose publishers often don’t employ professional editors and who pay a pittance for what is extremely challenging work, are some of the worst offenders. Though I am still learning the tricks of my trade and am by no means an authority on all things grammar (that’s Frances Peck, http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/pep/index-eng.html?lang=eng&page=../toc), I’ll periodically point out a few common mistakes that really itch my snout.

I call these Miss Kray’s Editing Tips (for the Grammar Geek in all of us). Here are two that caught my eagle eye today:

1. Hastily-avoided mishap. Barely-legal jailbait. Overly-coiffed meringue. Wrong! No hyphen when the adverb ends in ‘-ly’, peeps. Why? Because adverbs are movable or switchable. For example: a mishap avoided hastily. A blue-green wheelbarrow can’t become a wheelbarrow blued greenly.

2. Hang onto, tune into, hold onto. Nyet, comrades. Think about these logically. ‘Onto’ means ‘on top of’. Can’t hang on top of something. Well, you can, but then you wouldn’t be hanging on to it, you’d be hanging over it. Same with tune in to. You’re not inside the TV show – no matter how much you might want to be. These, friends, are some fine grammatical terms called collocations, i.e. two or more words that often go together. They even have their own dictionary! (https://elt.oup.com/catalogue/items/global/dictionaries/9780194325387?cc=global&selLanguage=en) Yes, it’s often just a question of usage, which two words go together. Brits will say, “Knock at the door,” while Americans are more likely to say, “Knock on.” But that doesn’t mean you can defy logic.

Collocations come in all shapes and sizes. Some you might recognize are ‘come with’, ‘stand at’, ‘drive by’, etc. The problem here is that the second word in these fine collocations has been combined with the ‘to’ that naturally comes after it in the sentence. Of course, you will find ‘into’ and ‘onto’ in the dictionary of collocations, but usually after verbs like ‘climb’.

If you’re an editor, collocations need to become your BFFs. I know I sleep with the dictionary under my pillow. 😉


Until the next time some syntactical faux pas gets my blood boiling, TTFN, fellow grammar geeks!


***TTFN = Ta-ta for now