Thursday, March 4, 2010

National Grammar Day (US)

It's National Grammar Day in the United States, though nowhere else I know of. Being Canadian, I thought I'd point out one difference in style between Canada and the US.

Canada's style and spelling reflect our common history with both the United States and the United Kingdom Commonwealth. In some cases, we follow British English, and in others, American English. In this post, I'll discuss one way we follow British rules instead of American rules.

Punctuation sometimes goes outside the closing quotation marks.

I've heard one reason the US does otherwise, and it may be an urban myth. *
Periods and commas always go within the closing quotation marks because, in typesetting in the 1800s, the pieces of type for the comma and period were the most fragile and could easily break. Putting them within quotation marks -- even when it isn't logical -- protected them. This is why this is often called typesetters' rules.

In Canada and Britain, some periods and commas go within quotation marks when they belong to the speech within the marks. They go outside the quotation marks when the speech they belong to encompasses the quotation. This is called British style or logical punctuation.

For an example, let's use Harold's greedy cookie habit:

  1. 1. Harold said to stop eating the cookies.

    (indirect speech, so no quotation marks)

  2. 2. Harold said, "Stop eating the cookies."

    (direct speech, where the period is part of the quotation, so is within the quotation marks.)

  3. 3. Harold told us not to "eat the cookies", then ate them all himself.

    (note the comma outside the quotation marks)

  4. 4. I wish Harold would stop saying "eating the cookies". It makes me hungry.

    (note the period outside the quotation marks)

Using typesetters' rules, these last two would be:

  1. 5. Harold told us not to "eat the cookies," then ate them all himself.

  2. 6. I wish Harold would stop saying "eating the cookies." It makes me hungry.

Note the comma and the period are within the quotation marks in these examples.

What's so logical about examples 3 and 4, compared to 5 and 6? They depend on which part of the sentence the punctuation belongs to. The comma in example 3 and the period in example 4 are not part of the speech within the quotation marks, but a part of the sentence which contains the quotation. Typesetters' rules arbitrarily place the comma and period within the quotation marks.

Now, all this aside, many Canadians -- and many Canadian resources -- do follow the typesetters' rules, such as The Canadian Press Stylebook. But the Guide to Canadian English Usage prefers the logical punctuation. Editing Canadian English lists both, but does not give a preference either way.

This leads to one of my recurring messages about style: very little is actually set in stone. There are ambiguities between regions and even within regions. These ambiguities are where the writer can pick and choose their personal style.

The important thing to remember is: Be consistent. Don't use typesetters' rules one time, then logical punctuation the next.

I hope I haven't confused anyone.

*Wikipedia's sole resource on this topic is a newsgroup article. I'd be happy to prove this using a better respected source. If you can provide one, please leave it in the comments.

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Writer's block

    There are great disagreements over whether writer's block exists or not. Before discussing whether there is or there is not such a thing as writer's block, a standard definition has to be given. The fact is, writer's block means different things to different people.

    Is writer's block simply an inability to write?

    Then it is important to figure out the reason behind that inability to write.

    • Fear?
    • Exhaustion?
    • Inability to concentrate?
    • Lack of self-confidence?
    • Stress?

    These all require their own solutions. Some may be psychological, some may be medical, some may be situational. Many of these will also be affecting other areas of the writer's life.

    Does writer's block mean the words won't come for a particular work?

    If it is piece-related -- that is, the writer can work on one piece but not another -- then it is important to analyze the piece.

    Many writers will tell you that if you absolutely cannot continue a certain work, it may be that you've gone the wrong way on it. Maybe you've taken a turn that just doesn't work, and your subconscious is telling you this. Maybe the piece is just wrong for you. Maybe it's simply an absence of passion for that particular work.

    In any of these cases, the writer must decide if the piece must be completed (is it under deadline? is it something the writer really wants to write?).

    If so, the writer can then go back in the piece, figure out what is wrong with it, and bring passion back to the writing.

    If not, the writer may prefer to file this piece under 'maybe later' and work on something else.

    Does writer's block mean the writer just can't bring themselves to sit down to work?

    This may have nothing to do with the writing itself, but the writer's situation.

    • Perhaps a change in scenery is required - writing in a park, with a pen and paper, for instance.
    • Perhaps the writer has too much nervous energy, in which case a walk or a run before writing may be of use, and may help clear the mind as well.
    • Perhaps the writer's method of writing causes pain -- carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, back problems; all these can make the physical act of writing impossible. There are ways around these, though, such as better ergonomic work areas, vocal recording or software, or a different means of writing.

    Does writer's block exist?

    Of course it does. Is it all in the mind? For the most part, probably. Just because something is 'all in the mind', though, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But it also doesn't mean there is no cure.

    The important thing to do is to figure out what is causing the block. Then the writer can decide how best to overcome it. Unfortunately, this requires either the ability to self-analyze or analytical help from an outside source.

    My methods

    The best way I've come up with to fight a non-medical writer's block is to write.

    If I absolutely cannot put one word after the other for any reason, I write around it. Maybe I'll outline, maybe I'll write character sketches, maybe I'll write a story around the problem.

    I've written stories to fill out characters and learn more about them. I've written plot summaries and synopses to figure out a plot point. I've written stories from the past to see how the past will affect the story's present. I've written stories from the future, to see the long-term effects this story will have on the characters.

    In non-fiction writing, I will outline, sometimes to the nth degree, until I have a theme or a flow developing and I know where I'm going.

    For medical writer's blocks?

    See your doctor. These can include physical problems, such as pain when typing/writing/sitting at a desk; or mental problems, such as depression. These things must all be addressed, and you'll feel better for it.

    Happy writing, everyone!