Category Archives: Writing

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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Creative Art

A quilter or seamstress invests in the machine best suited for her hobby. She has a sewing room stocked with shelves of materials, trims, and embellishments. A knitter has baskets of yarn, pattern books, needles, and accessories. Artists have easels, paints, and brushes. Most of these crafters have supplies they will never use.

A silhouette artist works with minimal materials. A person chances by. A smile or turn of the head alerts the artist. From a canvas of black paper, he captures the profile with clean, sharp blades. He creates curves and angles that detail the subject. The framed product becomes a visual treasure.

My sewing machine and serger sleep like Rip Van Winkle. My knitting baskets overflow with yarn, needles, and supplies. I’ve donated my colored pencils and construction paper to a charity.

I’m a writer. My hands are my tools. I mold the shape of a head, add a beard or mustache, and dress a dapper character. If the look isn’t pleasing, no need to rip out stitches, or change the canvas, or discard the paper. I can add a hat, shave the beard, and update the wardrobe—all with words that dance across my computer screen at the command of my fingertips.

Words

 

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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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Three First Century Wise Men and One Twenty-first Century Wise Woman

salvation-army-kettleFrom Thanksgiving to Christmas, ’tis the season of giving. The sight of familiar bell ringers drenched in rain, whipped by high winds, or chilled by freezing temperatures prompts us to drop a few coins in the red bucket. Letters from homeless shelters and orphanages may entice us to donate a few dollars. Then, there’s the holiday telephone call.

Deputy Sheriff BadgeThis evening while addressing Christmas cards—late I know, but with a fast truck and high winds, they might make it by Christmas Eve—I received a call from a person who identified himself as calling for Alameda County Peace Officers or something similar that evoked a mental image of a uniform and badge. Caught off guard—my mind still sealing envelopes and pressing stamps on those late greeting cards—I listened politely through the first part of the sad speech about collecting funds for a special event for children of officers killed in the line of duty. Then, like the mystery writer that I am, I asked one question.


“How many Alameda County Peace Officers have been killed in the line of duty?”


He didn’t know. Then I asked a second question (more like an accusation). He hung up. I replaced my phone and hurried past the greeting cards stacked on the table, prancing like one of Santa’s reindeer, to my laptop.

The stats: Out of eight Alameda County Sheriff’s officer deaths listed, the most recent was 1998.  A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) policeman was killed in 2014 from friendly fire by a fellow officer.

computer-books-pencilsthree-magi-pixabayThe biblical magi trusted astronomy and guarded their gold, frankincense, and myrrh until they found the right child. That event anchored the first century A.D. [C.E.] Christmas story. I trusted my instincts and confirmed online statistics with my laptop, my personal twenty-first century wise-woman tale that kept my coins in my pocket.

On second thought, I might drop them in the red bucket.

 

Merry Christmas-Snowman

 

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NaNoWriMo: Forget Write What You Know

Write what you know. You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. I followed that advice. I wrote what I knew and published a book of my paranormal experiences. The next year, I published a book of devotionals—another familiar theme. I sold books at local events and a couple of spiritual conferences. Then I stopped writing. Just like that.

PencilsWell, maybe not totally stopped. I dabbled in Haiku and a few made it to newspaper contest winners circle. My short stories appeared in local and mainstream New York anthologies. I continued to be a featured devotional contributor to a women’s ministry blog. Later, I co-authored a book of childhood memoirs with my twin. But something was missing. I no longer had a desire to write.

Yarn-Orange-Knitting-PixabayI didn’t go through a long period of mourning. I took writing classes. I filled my time with volunteer projects, from president of a writing group to teaching adult Bible classes. I knitted simple projects. I read. Then National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) popped up in my computer email inbox. Whammo! A challenge to individual writers to complete a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in thirty days.

Hour glass-animatedAt ten minutes before midnight on Halloween, I settled at my laptop computer armed with black coffee and chocolate candy and logged into the NaNoWriMo website. Fingers poised above my laptop keyboard seconds before countdown, I had no outline. No character descriptions. Nothing but a fictional setting in Arizona and an inner urge to create something different—something new—in November.

CrimeSceneTapeThat first NaNo channeled my inner creativity. I parachuted from the safety of nonfiction into an unknown world of crime fiction. Words flew from my fingertips to the screen and formed sentences when the clock on my computer showed midnight as though watching a detective stretch the yellow tape to mark a crime scene.

For me, NaNoWriMo opened a new world of creativity—forgetting what I knew and stepping into the unknown, darker than the Halloween night.

Door to the World

 

 

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