Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
Book recommendations: Words into Type, a splendid volume that long ago went out of print but copies of which are easily found online, and The Chicago Manual of Style, whose edicts I don’t always agree with but whose definitive bossiness is, in its way, comforting. I also commend to you Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and of course—I mean, of course—you need to own a dictionary: Get yourself a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—in its eleventh edition, as of this writing. Whenever in this book I refer to the big fat stylebooks, these are the books I’m talking about
HERE’S YOUR FIRST CHALLENGE: Go a week without writing very, rather, really, quite, in fact
And you can toss in—or, that is, toss out—“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too). Oh yes “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling. And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.” And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”
If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers—I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them; that would render most people, especially British people, mute—you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning
Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension
A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection
- Some non rules which can be broken if needed:
Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.” No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this book, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more. But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat: An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think. Let’s test an example or two. Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench. But she had become accustomed to being lonely. Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench, but she had become accustomed to being lonely. Which do you think Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, chose? The former, as it happens. Had I been Smith’s copy editor, I might well have suggested the second, to make one coherent, connected thought out of two unnecessarily separated ones. Perhaps she’d have agreed, or perhaps she’d have preferred the text as she’d written it, hearing it in her head as a solemn knell. Authors do often prefer their text the way they’ve written it
Never End a Sentence with a Preposition. This is the rule that invariably (and wearily) leads to a rehash of the celebrated remark by Winston Churchill that Winston Churchill, in reality, neither said nor wrote: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Let me say this about this: Ending a sentence with a preposition (as, at, by, for, from, of, etc) isn’t always such a hot idea, mostly because a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition. A sentence that meanders its way to a prepositional finish is often, I find, weaker than it ought to or could be. What did you do that for? is passable, but Why did you do that? has some snap to it. But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural, and it’s something no good writer should attempt and no eager reader should have to contend with
The Passive Voice Is to Be Avoided. A sentence written in the passive voice is one whose subject would, in a sentence constructed in the active voice, be its object. That is: Active Voice: The clown terrified the children. Passive Voice: The children were terrified by the clown. In a sentence written in the passive voice, the thing that is acted upon is frontloaded, and the thing doing the acting comes at the end. In either case, we can easily agree that clowns are terrifying. Often, in a sentence constructed in the passive voice, the actor is omitted entirely. Sometimes this is done in an attempt to call attention to a problem without laying blame (“The refrigerator door was left open”) and sometimes, in weasel-like fashion, to avoid taking responsibility: “Mistakes were made,” for instance, which, uttered on various occasions by various Bushes, may well be the motto of that political dynasty. Here’s a nifty trick that copy editors like to pass among themselves that comes in handy when you’re assessing your own writing: If you can append “by zombies” to the end of a sentence (or, yes, “by the clown”), you’ve indeed written a sentence in the passive voice. All this said, there’s nothing wrong with sentences constructed in the passive voice—you’re simply choosing where you want to put the sentence’s emphasis—and I see nothing objectionable in, say,The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out. Since the point of interest is the cleanness of the house and not the identity of the cleaner. But many a sentence can be improved by putting its true protagonist at the beginning, so that’s something to be considered
IF WORDS ARE THE FLESH, MUSCLE, AND BONE OF PROSE, punctuation is the breath. In support of the words you’ve carefully selected, punctuation is your best means of conveying to the reader how you mean your writing to be read, how you mean for it to sound. A comma sounds different than a semicolon; parentheses make a different noise than dashes
Typing or not typing even so much as a comma—in fact, especially a comma—can convey key information. The more regular and, you’ll pardon the word, conventional your writing, the more, I’d suggest, you use punctuation in a regular and conventional fashion
Feel free to end a sentence shaped like a question that isn’t really a question with a period rather than a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn’t it
The series comma is the comma that separates the last two bits in a list of words or phrases before the concluding conjunction “and” or “or” or sometimes even “but,” as in: apples, pears, oranges, tangerines, tangelos, bananas, and cherries. The “bananas, and” comma. That’s the series comma. Use it.
No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.
In a tote-up of grocery items, as above, the series comma ensures that the final two items in a list aren’t seen as having a special relationship, aren’t seen after a number of singletons as somehow constituting a couple. In a more complicated sentence, the use of the series comma simply makes it clear that once I’ve made some particularly deft point, deftly said everything I have to say on the subject, and moved on to a final deft point, the reader doesn’t trip from the penultimate deft point to the ultimate deft point thinking that it’s all one big deft point
One thing, though: Commas can’t do everything, not even series commas. There’s a sentence, reputed to have shown up in The Times, often schlepped out in defense of the series comma, and though I’m weary of seeing it, I schlep it out myself to point out its weakness as a series-comma defense. So here it is, hopefully for the last time in all our lives, though I doubt it:
Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
Oh la la, one is intended to merrily note, is Nelson Mandela really an eight-hundred-year-old demigod and a dildo collector? Oh la la, I note, even if one sets a series comma, as in: Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.
Mandela can still be an eight-hundred-year-old demigod. Some sentences don’t need to be repunctuated; they need to be rewritten.
- Exception to the rule: An ampersand in a series rather than an “and”—this sort of thing tends to turn up in book or film titles, the names of law firms (and other companies that want to invest themselves with the cachet of law firms), and nowhere else, but it’s a thing to know—negates the necessity of a series comma, mostly because the result would be unsightly. Thus, oh, say:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
and certainly not
Eats, Shoots, & Leaves
- Do avoid crashing proper nouns, as in
In June Truman’s secretary of state flew to Moscow.
Lest you want your reader wondering who June Truman is and what precisely got into her secretary of state. Or take note of the sentence above I initially composed as beginning, “On arrival at Random House I was informed,” which might set you, if only for a millisecond, to speculating about Random House II and Random House III
- Sometimes a comma makes no sense at all.
Suddenly, he ran from the room.
Makes it all rather less sudden, doesn’t it.
- A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two sentences when each can stand on its own—as in, just picking an example out of more or less thin air:
She did look helpless, I almost didn’t blame him for smiling at her that special way.
As a rule you should avoid comma splicing, though exceptions can be and frequently are made when the individual sentences are reasonably short and intimately connected: “He came, he saw, he conquered” or “Your strengths are your weaknesses, your weaknesses are your strengths.” Another exception arises in fiction or fictionlike writing in which such a splice may be effective in linking closely related thoughts or expressing hurried action and even a semicolon—more on the glorious semicolon below—is more pause than is desired. Another thin-air example, from Walter Baxter’s undeservedly obscure 1951 novel Look Down in Mercy:
He had never noticed [the sunset] before, it seemed fantastically beautiful.
- The vocative comma—or the comma of direct address—is the comma separating a bit of speech from the name (or title or other identifier) of the person (or sometimes the thing) being addressed. As commas go, it’s not particularly controversial. No one—at least no one I’d care to associate with—would favor
I’ll meet you in the bar Charlie.
I’ll meet you in the bar, Charlie.
Right? And so it goes with “Good afternoon, Mabel,” “I live to obey, Your Majesty,” “Please don’t toss me into the hoosegow, Your Honor,” and “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”
- We were all thoroughly indoctrinated in grade school to precede or follow dialogue with a comma in constructions like
Atticus said dryly, “Do not let this inspire you to further glory, Jeremy.”
“Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar.
It should be noted, though, that this rule does not apply in constructions in which dialogue is preceded or followed by some version of the verb “to be” (“is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” that lot), as in:
Lloyd’s last words were “That tiger looks highly pettable.”
“Happy New Year” is a thing one ought to stop saying after January 8.
In each of these cases, the phrase in question is less dialogue than a noun-in-quote-marks, and thus no comma is called for
- If a writer writes a sentence like
He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara.
a copy editor will, if the fact is not already known to the copy editor, query in the margin:
AU: Only daughter? If so, comma.
Thus the comma I choose to refer to—since I am perpetually confused by the grammar terms “restrictive” and “nonrestrictive” and can never remember which is meant to be which—as the “only” comma. “Only” commas (except at the very ends of sentences, they travel in pairs) are used to set off nouns that are, indeed, the only one of their kind in the vicinity, as in, say,
Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born on August 1, 1843.
The notion being that as one can have only one eldest son, his name in this sentence is an interesting, noteworthy, yet inessential piece of information
- At the other end of the spectrum, then, be careful not to set an “only” comma where there is no only-ness, as in, say:
The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, Edith Wharton, was born in New York City.
Because Mrs. Wharton is merely one of many winners of the Pulitzer, there should be no “only” comma.
Best Illustration of the Necessity of the “Only” Comma I’ve Ever Managed to Rustle Up: Elizabeth Taylor’s second marriage, to Michael Wilding
Elizabeth Taylor’s second marriage to Richard Burton
- The “only” comma rule is also helpful in differentiating between “that” and “which,” if differentiating between “that” and “which” is your bag. If you’re about to offer a piece of information that’s crucial to your sentence, offer it up without a comma and with a “that”:
Please fetch me the Bible that’s on the table.
Which is to say: Fetch me the Bible that is on the table rather than the Bible that’s under the couch or the Bible that’s poised picturesquely on the window seat. If you’re offering a piece of information that’s perhaps interesting amplification but might well be deleted without harm, offer it up with a comma and a “which”:
Please fetch me the Bible, which is on the table.
One Bible and one Bible only
- What goes up must come down, and that which commences with a comma, if it is an interruption, must also end with one, as in:
Queen Victoria, who by the end of her reign ruled over a good fifth of the world’s population, was the longest-reigning monarch in British history till Elizabeth II surpassed her record in 2015.
It’s that comma after “population” I’m wanting you to keep a good eye on, because it has a tendency to go missing
Colons are not merely introductory but presentational. They say: Here comes something! Think of colons as little trumpet blasts, attention-getting and ear-catching. Also loud. So don’t use so many of them that you give your reader a headache
If what follows a colon is a full sentence, begin that full sentence with a capital letter, which signals to your reader: What’s about to commence includes a subject, a verb, the works, and should be read as such. Post-colon lists of things or fragmentary phrases should begin with a lowercase letter: items on a grocery list, the novels of a particular author, etc.
Q. Is it “farmer’s market” or “farmers’ market” or “farmers market”? A. I’m presuming there’s more than one farmer, so out goes “farmer’s market.” As to the other two, is it a market belonging to farmers or a market made up of farmers? I say the latter, so:
- I love semicolons like I love pizza; fried pork dumplings; Venice, Italy; and the operas of Puccini.
Why does the sentence above include semicolons? Because the most basic use of semicolons is to divide the items in a list any of whose individual elements mandate a comma—in this case, Venice, Italy. Now, I might certainly have avoided semicolons by reordering the elements in the list, thus:
I love semicolons like I love pizza, fried pork dumplings, the operas of Puccini, and Venice, Italy.
But semicolons are unavoidable when you must write the likes of:
Lucy’s favorite novels are Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Farewell, My Lovely; and One Time, One Place.
Lucy’s favorite novels are Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Farewell, My Lovely, and One Time, One Place.
Well, how many novels is that, anyway? Three? Five?
- A midsentence parenthetical aside (like this one) begins with a lowercase letter and concludes (unless it’s a question or even an exclamation!) without terminal punctuation. When a fragmentary parenthetical aside comes at the very end of a sentence, make sure that the period stays outside the aside (as here).
(Only a freestanding parenthetical aside, like this one, begins with a capital letter and concludes with an appropriate bit of terminal punctuation inside the final parenthesis.)
- Once upon a time, what I’d call articulated rumination was often found encased in quotation marks:
“What is to become of me?” Estelle thought.
Though that, over time, gave way to this:
What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
And now, more often than not, you’ll simply see:
What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
- Consider the difference between, say, “a man eating shark” and “a man-eating shark,” where the hyphen is crucial in clarifying who is eating whom, and “a cat related drama,” which presupposes an articulate cat with a penchant for talking about the theater, and “a cat-related drama,” which is what you meant in the first place. I recall, for instance, my puzzlement upon encountering this sentence:
Touch averse people who don’t want to be hugged are not rude.
What on earth, I wondered, are “averse people,” and why on earth are you telling me to touch them if they don’t want to be hugged, but wait, what—? Then the light dawned: People who don’t like to be touched and who resist your attempts to hug them are not rude. Got it
- Dashes come in two flavors: em and en. Em dashes (which most people simply refer to as dashes) are so called because they were traditionally the width of a capital M in any particular typeface (nowadays they tend to be a touch wider); en dashes are the width of a lowercase n. This is an em dash: — This, just a touch shorter yet still longer than a hyphen, is an en dash: – Likely you don’t need much advice from me on how to use em dashes, because you all seem to use an awful lot of them. They’re useful for interruption of dialogue, either midsentence from within:
“Once upon a time—yes, I know you’ve heard this story before—there lived a princess named Snow White.”
or to convey interruption from without:
“The murderer,” she intoned, “is someone in this—” A shot rang out.
And they nicely set off a bit of text in standard narration when commas—because that bit of text is rather on the parenthetical side, like this one, but one doesn’t want to use parentheses—won’t do the trick:
He packed his bag with all the things he thought he’d need for the weekend—an array of T-shirts, two pairs of socks per day, all the clean underwear he could locate—and made his way to the airport.
- An en dash is used to hold words together instead of your standard hyphen, which usually does the trick just fine, when one is connecting a multiword proper noun to another multiword proper noun or to pretty much anything else. What the heck does that mean? It means this:
a Meryl Streep–Robert De Niro comedy a New York–to–Chicago flight a World War II–era plane a Pulitzer Prize–winning play
Basically, that which you’re connecting needs a smidgen more connecting than can be accomplished with a hyphen
If a sentence is constructed like a question but isn’t intended to be one, you might consider concluding it with a period rather than a question mark. “That’s a good idea, don’t you think?” means something quite different from “That’s a horrible idea, isn’t it.”
Go light on the exclamation points. When overused, they’re bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearying. Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime.
Sentences beginning with “I wonder” are not questions—they’re simply pondering declarations—and do not conclude with question marks.
I wonder who’s kissing her now. I wonder what the king is doing tonight. I wonder, wonder who—who-oo-oo-oo—who wrote the book of love.
- Neither are sentences beginning with “Guess who” or “Guess what” questions. If anything, they’re imperatives.
Guess who’s coming to dinner.
- Numerals are generally avoided in dialogue. That is:
“I bought sixteen apples, eight bottles of sparkling water, and thirty-two cans of soup,” said James, improbably.
“I bought 16 apples, 8 bottles of sparkling water, and 32 cans of soup,” said James, improbably.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel in which the characters shimmy easily between English and, say, Spanish. Consider not setting the Spanish (or what-have-you) in italics. Use of italics emphasizes foreignness. If you mean to suggest easy fluency, use of roman normalizes your text
On the other hand, if you’re writing a novel about, say, an isolated young Englishwoman living in Paris who is confounded by the customs, the people, and the language, it would certainly make good sense to set all the bits of French she encounters, in narration or dialogue, in the requisite italics. You want that French to feel, every time, strange
For fiction written in the past tense, here’s a technique for tackling flashbacks that I stumbled upon years ago, and writers I’ve shared it with have tended to get highly excited: Start off your flashback with, let’s say, two or three standard-issue “had”s (“Earlier that year, Jerome had visited his brother in Boston”), then clip one or two more “had”s to a discreet “ ’d” (“After an especially unpleasant dinner, he’d decided to return home right away”), then drop the past-perfecting altogether when no one’s apt to be paying attention and slip into the simple past (“He unlocked his front door, as he later recalled it, shortly after midnight”). Works like a charm.
You writers are all far too keen on “And then,” which can usually be trimmed to “Then” or done away with entirely.
You’re also overfond of “suddenly.”
“He began to cry” = “He cried.” Dispose of all “began to”s.
My nightmare sentence is “And then suddenly he began to cry