Category Archives: Editing

The Oxford comma has its day in court

I’m an editor. I favor the Oxford comma, but I have to admit it doesn’t fit in mysteries or crime fiction novels. Why? Fast-paced thrillers set the tension with short sentences—definitely no place for extra pauses to slow the action.

In business writing, there’s long been a battle surrounding inserting or omitting the comma in a series of three or more. I edit by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 16th Edition, which suggests using the Oxford comma based on H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, 1965, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, revised (Bibliography 1.2). But that isn’t where I fell in love with the extra squiggle.

English was my niche in school. I relished phonics, spelling, vocabulary, and writing. I made life-long friends with the Oxford comma. Not because my father was English. Not because it was expected in business letters and reports. Because the extra pause clarifies the meaning and avoids ambiguity.

“She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.” (CMOS 6.18, page 312)

Those who argue that the Oxford comma isn’t necessary omit the comma after president. That changes the number of snapshots from three to two—one of her parents and one of the president and vice president.

So when is it better to omit the serial comma? When two words are understood as a pair.

“Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.”

Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued for overtime wages in 2014 based on the interpretation of a Maine state law that denied that pay. The trial was bread and butter—actually about wages earned from delivering products.  Title 26 Labor and Industry, Chapter 7 Employment Practices, Subchapter 3, §664 Minimum Wages exempts some employees from earning overtime wages if associated with agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable food.

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.”

The lawsuit was based on interpretation of “packing for shipment or distribution of…” as a pair. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the absence of a comma after shipment entitled the drivers to overtime. The finding are detailed in a twenty-nine page document.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Oxford comma finally has its day in court–and wins!

 

Still not convinced you should use the Oxford comma? Try this comma placement test.

I love eating my grandchildren and my dog.

Disclaimer: Cruelty free. This sentence was not tested on humans or animals.

 

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Some, someone, somewhere

caution-642510__180Writing classes often emphasize more about omissions than inclusions. To-be verbs like am, is, are, was, and were top the list followed by –ly adverbs. The same instructors tell wannna-be authors to eliminate indefinite words like some, someone/somebody, somewhere and skip the menu details.

But wait! What about New York Times best-selling author Stuart Woods? Here’s his narration from Collateral Damage after more than fifty books published.

vegetables-pixabayStone Barrington, the protagonist, is looking for dinner ingredients.

  • Stone found some Italian sausages, some mushrooms, some broccoli rabe, and some garlic.
  • He ran some water into a pot…
  • He found some ziti in a cupboard…
  • Then he chopped some onion…

From another paragraph on the same page:

  • Stone had bid on some books but didn’t get them.

pasta-shrimp-pixabayThese writing examples make me hungry. I’m going to search the fridge for some leftovers. After I eat, I’ll edit my crime fiction to mention some angel hair pasta with some sautéed shrimp my protagonist is eating at home after losing someone she was tailing somewhere on her night watch when somebody got in her way and she lost sight of her mark.

Sherlock Holmes Statue -Edinburgh

Some detective she is. I’ll give her another chance to redeem herself somewhere after my next edits.

 

 

 

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Grammar Cop

computer-books-pencilsThere much ado on Capitol Hill about the importance of spelling. It’s about time. Ask me. I’m a grammar cop with a badge to prove it.

I’m a writer—at least that’s how I use to identify myself before I realized that editing is my niche. I’m a member of California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch also known as Tri-Valley Writers. I’ve been part of a novel group, one of the individualized critique groups that meet monthly. There I’m known as the grammarian—often editing English more than critiquing the story.

Grammar Police Award

Grammar Police Award

Long before Trump was elected president, Lani Longshore, a multi-talented crafter, presented me with a Grammar Police shield embroidered on the right inside of a folding credential case. My editing card fits in a clear plastic slot on the left. I seldom have to flash it because most writers know I spout Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) rules as often as President Trump tweets.

If I had made this award public sooner, perhaps the U.S. Library of Congress would have consulted me (or at least the 16th Edition of CMOS) and been spared the embarrassment of a grammar error in President Trump’s inaugural poster.

Too late to correct the posters but production has been halted. If you bought a first run at $16.95, the odds are that someday it will be a collector’s item—not because of the grammar error but because of the wasted taxpayer dollars for a reprint that reads:

No dream 2 big, no challenge 2 great…

 

 

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Okay to ignore writing rules if you’re Lee Child

Start-screenI’m a freelance editor for individuals and independent publishers. My job is to pinpoint spelling, punctuation, grammar, incomplete sentences, and syntax errors, but the rules are always changing.

For example: Limit the use of anybody, just, like, only, some, and somebody. But or and, once forbidden as sentence starters, are now acceptable, but the author should avoid beginning with because, when, which or words ending in –ing. One more grammar rule: Don’t use incomplete sentence in narrative, only in dialogue. Don’t overuse commas.

Bookpages animatedWait a minute! I just read Night School, a Jack Reacher 2016 novel by #1 New York Times Bestselling author Lee Child. Here are random sentences from that prequel.

  • Reacher thought back, to the conversation in Garber’s office.
  • She drove, back to the place she had only just left.
  • Surprised, and a little quizzical.

Are those commas necessary in these three short sentences? What about the double-up of only and just? I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop on that last sentence.

How about these incomplete, single sentence paragraphs?

  • Twitching and writhing and wringing his hands. [Note: At least this is appropriate syntax]
  • Thinking.
  • Local gentleman, like himself.
  • Like an old black-and-white movie.
  • An inconvenient ratio.

Start-Finish-RoadWhy does Lee Child’s editor let him get away with these writing blunders? Not because he was born Jim Grant in England. Not because he hires a freelancer like me (Delacorte Press can afford top-quality editors). Not because the third-person narrator mimics Jack Reacher who doesn’t waste words. Because one thing an editor doesn’t change is the writer’s style.

P.S. Bestselling is now one word. Lee Child and his editors got that right. It’s possible that the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author blurb is the #1 reason basic editing rules don’t apply to Jack Reacher.

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Writer’s Advice – Third Quote Challenge

Well-known philosophers—mostly dead—push to the front, vying for mention in this last quote challenge.

“Either write things worthy reading, or do things worth the writing.”

―Benjamin Franklin

Pencils

I’m trying, Ben, but you forgot to publish the DIY how-to section.

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

―Agatha Christie

Book stack climber

Sorry, Ms. Christie, but California is in its fourth year of drought. Until El Niño arrives, I’m using paper plates. The trip out to the green waste receptacle is too short to do anything more than wonder if I’ve scheduled my next blog post.

“Don’t get it right – get it WRITTEN!”

―Lee Child

Start-Finish-Road

Thanks, Lee. I probably know more about Jack Reacher than real-life people because you took your own advice and published twenty novels with him as the protagonist.  Reacher even has short stories to keep me posted on his activities between hardcover books.

CrimeSceneTape

I’ve published a couple of nonfiction books and dozens of short stories, but my first mystery manuscript is old enough to go to kindergarten. Why haven’t I followed Lee Child’s advice and published it?

“I’d rather edit manuscripts written by others.”

―Violet Carr Moore

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Say that again

Pill BottleHeart

In a search for heart medication information, I read this this important warning.

Do not take this medication if you have ever had a heart attack without first consulting your physician.

What if I don’t have time to get my physician’s permission before I call nine one one?

But, of course, the message was a warning that anyone with a history of heart attacks should avoid this medication. It’s a simple case of a misplaced modifier.

How about this twisted sentence?

Shoes

 

 

The new student sat in the corner seat wearing blue running shoes.

Wish I could have seen that chair tying its shoes.

Special thanks to Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, Carson-Newman College, Jefferson, Tennessee for these two hilarious examples of misplaced modifiers.

Thief

 

The robber was described as a six foot-tall man with brown hair and blue eyes and a mustache weighing 150 pounds.

That thief must have had a difficult time carrying the mustache and the loot.

 

Dog pulling luggage

 

The time had come to leave at last. Deciding to pack up for college, my dog stared sadly at me as I bustled about the room.

His dog packed up for college? I couldn’t get my dog to put her toys in the box.

My twin and I have spent a few hectic weeks editing short stories for Double Take, our shared memoir about growing up in the California San Joaquin Valley. I know some readers will stumble over that Spanish name, so I decided to insert a simplified hint in the press release.

Vi Parsons and Violet Moore, the Carr Twins, reminisce about their childhood, recounting similar memories of growing up in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley (pronounced san‑ wä‑ˈkēn).

The hint looks out of place following Valley. Where should I add the pronunciation key? I’ll check Wikipedia.

 San Joaquin Valley /ˌsæn hwɑːˈkiːn/

Hmmm. The Wikipedia authors don’t know how to pronounce San Joaquin either.

 

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Memoirs–Facts or Fables?

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” ~ Mark Twain

foot-banana peel

 

Memoirists and family storytellers understand Twain’s sentiments. Memories fade. Documents are lost. Minor achievements are lauded as heroic events. Shady characters are cloaked with secrecy. Brave events elevate common folk to sainthood. Details of past events blur the essentials―who, when, where, what, and why.

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please” ~ Mark Twain

Paint cans

Facts blend with fiction as bits and pieces from the past are aggrandized into stories passed from one generation to the next. Time, circumstances, religious parameters, social status, or timidity may embellish or cloud actual events. The more clouds that gather, the more Mark Twain’s humor intensifies.

Sun-Cloud

Prepare before you publish your memoirs. Organize documents and photos, research online, and compare facts with stories. Preface your manuscript or vignette collection with a proviso of your research. Should your extended family insist their versions are correct, remind them that Mark Twain supports your right to tell it your way.

Clock

“Time cools, time clarifies”
~Mark Twain

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