Thursday, October 9, 2014

I have my own website now!

Thanks for keeping an eye on this blog for me while I've been sorting my life out. Part of that sorting has included building myself a website. I have three blogs, and all three can be accessed on my website.

So, if you'd like to continue seeing what I post in Points on Style, or either of my other two blogs: Science for Information or The Word in Writing, please hop on over to:

Thanks again, and I hope you find all sorts of interesting things at the new website!

-- BJ

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Style in writing - National Grammar Day 2012

This is becoming an annual blog, I'm afraid, but I feel the need to post on National Grammar Day each year. Whether the post is directly related to grammar or not.

Style in writing, or the necessity of consistency

Chicago Manual of Style. American Press Style. Canadian Press Style Guide.

These are all guides to how we write. One is no better than the other, simply different. They don't all agree, and that's fine, too.

So what are style guides for?


Style is not about grammar. Style is about consistency of use. Style guides are simply guides to consistency.

If you’re going to follow Canadian Press spelling and use ‘honour’ instead of ‘honor’ on page 6, then you want to spell it ‘honour’ on page 10, 14, 92, and 376.

If you’re going to spell initialisms, such as that for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, without periods (RCMP) on page 76, then you don’t want to spell the initialism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation with periods (F.B.I.) on page 260. (Unless you have a specific reason for that, in which case you’ll want to be sure you use or don’t use the periods consistently.)

Style guides are guides to grammar, too. You want to use punctuation – like commas or dashes – consistently, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing style? Let’s talk about style for a minute.

If I were to say someone has a Gothic style, what does that mean? It means their clothing, makeup, and sometimes even mannerisms and word choice, follow the style trend of Gothic. Gothic style includes dark clothing.

A house that is bungalow-style is one floor high and generally square/rectangular.

These are styles. There are so many different things people can do within these styles, to show their own style. Maybe a person uses a certain makeup design or has a raven tattoo. Maybe a bungalow builder paints its bungalows in earth tones.

People create their own styles, too. If someone dresses Gothic but ties a bright yellow scarf around their neck, that’s their style. Not all Goths need the scarf, but the bright yellow scarf may mark a person’s personal style within the Gothic style. A deck attached to a bungalow doesn’t change the bungalow, but it does make it more personalized.

Have you noticed what all these style differences have in common? Consistency. The bright yellow scarf says nothing about personal style if it’s rarely worn. If the person consistently wears that or other bright-coloured scarfs, that person is setting their own style within the Gothic style.

A style guide merely helps to make a complicated style easier to follow. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are so diverse that it’s easy to forget how you used a comma on page 12 once you reach page 79. A style guide helps you to remember.

And there’s nothing to say you have to follow any style guide to the letter – as long as you are consistent in how you don’t follow it.

Many businesses and organizations have their own internal style. These company styles tend to be based on one of the major guidebooks, simply because it’s easier to piggyback a style on a style.

The differences lie in smaller things. The style may be based on Canadian Press Style, but the company prefers to use the Oxford or serial comma. Or it may be based on Chicago Manual of Style, but with Canadian spellings.

The best thing a writer can do is choose one style guide that they agree with, and then create their own styles based on that – and to stick with them. Spreadsheets are good for this, and many writers use spreadsheets to keep track of spellings, especially when words are different than normal English, as in the case of a lot of fantasy and science fiction.

My style? I follow the Canadian Press Style Guide for the most part, but I have my own idiosyncracies. For instance, when showing possession in names that end with ‘s’, I prefer using only an apostrophe, not an apostrophe with an ‘s’. So, the car that belongs to Philips is Philips’ car, not Philips’s car. Why do I choose to do that? Because when reading this character’s name, I prefer people to read or pronounce it as Philips’, not Philips’s. It affects reading, it affects rhythm, and it affects style.

(Rhythm is a whole other style issue, and just as important as any other issues. However, that’s for another blog post.)

So you can see that a style guide doesn’t have to restrict your personal style. It’s just a guide, a memory jogger. You can create your own style on top of that one – but remember to keep it consistent. If it’s not consistent, it’s not style.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pausing for National Grammar Day 2011 (US)

It's National Grammar Day (in the US - but it gives me an opening, so I'm going to take it!) Now is a great time to address that punctuation of pause - the comma.

I was going to do a great, long thing on commas, but I decided it was too long, no matter how great. So, I'll just explain a bit about commas and independent clauses.

An independent clause is basically a sentence or part of a sentence that could be a sentence on its own. That is, it has a subject (noun) and predicate (verb). Here are some examples of independent clauses:

Duke leaped the fence. (subject: Duke; predicate: leaped the fence)
Despite his sore leg, Duke leaped the fence.
James found the gate, but Duke leaped the fence.
Duke leaped the fence, and Jeremy ran after him.
Yes, 'Duke leaped the fence' is the independent clause in all four examples. It's the last two examples I want to talk about.

You see, 'James found the gate' is also an independent clause, as is 'Jeremy ran after him.' You see how these are all separate sentences on their own, with subjects and predicates of their own.

Look how I separated the independent clauses in those sentences: I used a comma and a conjunction (and, but).

When putting two independent clauses together in one sentence, you need both a comma and a conjunction.

If you only use the comma, it's called a comma splice, because you're splicing together two sentences with a comma:

Duke leaped the fence, Jeremy ran after him.
This is not a good thing. Grammatically, it can get you whipped with a wet noodle (many grammarians can't hold anything heavier than a wet noodle.)

So, you don't want to leave the conjunction out of the picture.

You don't want to leave the comma out, either.

"Duke leaped the fence and Jeremy ran after him" is also incorrect. This form, though, would only get you criticized, as opposed to noodled.

There are two other forms of punctuation you can use to put these sentences together: the period and the semi-colon. I'll just show you examples here:

Duke leaped the fence. Jeremy ran after him.
See? Using a period is easy - it makes two separate, simple sentences. However, sometimes the second sentence follows the first in meaning, as well as position, and you may want to contain both in one sentence. That's when you would use a semi-colon (or the conjunction/comma combination above):

Duke leaped the fence; Jeremy ran after him.
Speaking of colons, did you know that March is also Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? So get your butt checked, so your colon doesn't become a semi-colon! (Yes, I stole that joke from the National Library of Medicine. No, I will not apologize.)

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!

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Indirect vs. Direct Speech and Thoughts

    Recently, I found comments from folks regarding the use of italics when writing thoughts. I was surprised to find that some people don’t think these are necessary. Well, I suppose they’re not, really… but then, neither are quotation marks. However, both are used for similar purposes.

    Similar purposes? you ask. Why, yes. Because italics are the quotation marks of thoughts.

    Most people understand direct and indirect speech. Did you know that there are direct and indirect character thoughts? Understanding the similarities will help you understand when to use italics and when not to.


    Indirect speech: He said he didn’t know. (in first person: I said I didn’t know.)
    Direct speech: He said, “I don’t know.” (1st person: I said, “I don’t know.”)

    The difference is that indirect speech isn’t the speech itself. It is the narrator narrating or reporting the speech. It doesn’t need to be the exact thing the character would say:

    Indirect: He said, in his own way, that Charlie had stolen the horse and escaped.
    Direct: “Charlie, that boy,” he said. “He jump the fence. Pony just standin’ there, eatin’ dinner. Along come Charlie – jump on his back! Then jump that fence! Just like that! And whoosh – he gone!”

    Indirect: He said he was going to the store to buy breakfast.
    Direct: He said, “I’m going down to Loblaws to get some Poptarts.”

    Notice the biggest differences between the two – easier seen in the second example:

    Verb tense

    Because indirect speech is part of the narrative, it’s in the same tense as the narrative. Since most narrative writing is in past tense, most indirect speech wil be past tense. [note: do not attempt to write any narrative in present or future tense unless you understand verb tenses really well. And even then your readers may revolt.]

    Direct speech, however, takes place in the character’s tense. Even though we write the past tense, the characters live in their own present, and so they speak from the present tense.


    If the narrator is speaking in third person, the indirect speech will also be in third person:

    He refused to go.

    In direct speech, the speech is coming from the character, not the narrator, so the character uses first person:

    “I’m not going!”

    If the novel is written from the first person throughout, only the verb tense shows indirect vs direct speech:

    Indirect: I explained I wasn’t going because the band wasn’t very good.
    Direct: “The band sucks, so I’m not going.”


    Now, how does all this translate to thoughts?

    Thoughts are a character’s speech to themselves. The only difference is, you use italics instead of quotation marks.

    Indirect: He thought he wasn’t going to make it.
    Direct: He thought, I’m not going to make it

    Of course, as with dialogue tags in speech, if you use ‘he thought’ too many times, it drags. You don’t need the tags:

    Indirect: He couldn’t believe she said that.
    Direct: I can’t believe she said that.

    So how do you tell direct from indirect thoughts? Verb tense and person. If the thoughts are third person past tense, it’s narrative. If they’re first person present tense, they’re direct thoughts and, therefore, need to be italicized.

    The best thing about this is you can usually write the indirect thoughts, then use the direct, italicized thoughts only for emphasis:

    The building was dark, but he found the safe in the basement. He carefully keyed in the code he’d memorized. Or thought he’d memorized. He tried again. Come on, baby! The door opened smoothly.

    Sometimes, yes, deciding if thoughts are direct or indirect can be picky, especially in sentence fragments without verbs. In cases like this, it’s often up to the author’s preference.


    He turned at a sound. Dang. Where had that come from?
    Dang! He had to get out of there -- fast.

    Two questions you can ask when trying to make this decision:

    Does it feel like the character is saying this?
    Does it feel like it’s in third or first person?

    So, a quick overview:

    Direct speech: “I have to get out of here.” (present tense, first person)

    Indirect speech: He said he had to go. (past tense, third person)

    Direct thought: This place sucks. (present tense, first person)

    Indirect thought: He needed to go somewhere else – fast. (past tense, third person)

    Hope people find this useful!

    Example using question marks:

    Well, I don't think that question marks would be any different than periods, really. When the question mark is part of the thought, it will be italicized like the rest of the thoughts.

    Indirect: She wondered who he was.
    Direct speech: "Who is he?" she asked.
    Direct thought: Who is he?

    Is this what you were looking for?

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    The Abbeville Manual of Style

    Style guides have their good points and not so good points. On the good side, they help a writer or group of writers maintain consistency in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. On the other side, not everyone agrees with everything every style guide says - and many guides contradict each other.

    Abbeville Press, an independent art book publisher, has created their own style guide in response to inconsistencies found in "that big orange style Goliath", The Chicago Manual of Style. Their blog, The Abbeville Manual of Style, often matches wits with this, their "formidably orange opponent". I think anyone who has an interest in style in the English language will find these jousts informative and even entertaining.

    Janet Reid
    , who also follows Abbeville's ongoing war, once suggested a T-shirt be made to memorialize this most historic battle. I think that is a great idea, and I would definitely buy such a shirt. I've suggested it a few times to @Abbeville on Twitter, and recently received a message from Abbeville Press:

    "@BJMuntain To produce T-shirts we'd need some kind of assurance of a larger market for them...can you round up an online movement? :)"

    Well, folks, that's what I'm trying to do here. I recommend everyone check out this informative and art-filled blog, especially the Duel of Style. Then, if you feel that a T-shirt commemorating their stylish disputes with Chicago is of interest to you, let them know. You can comment here, or reply to @Abbeville on Twitter, or e-mail them at the e-mail address given on their contact page.

    Together, we can help this independent press bring their battle to the public eye and spread style throughout the world!

    Sunday, March 8, 2009

    A Simple Will for Writers

    I was on Neil Gaiman's blog today, reading about the death of his father, when a link caught my eye. It said:

    My current crusade is to make sure creative people have wills. Read the blog post about it, and see a sample will.

    Well, since my parents have been bugging me about making out a will (since they'd have to deal with all the crap anyway), I checked it out.

    There's some very good advice there, and a lawyer-drawn sample will. Very useful. I thought I should share.

    Thanks, Neil, for this great resource. I'm sorry about your father. He must have been a wise man to have raised such a wise son.

    Wednesday, March 4, 2009

    It's National Grammar Day!

    The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has had today - March 4th (march forth!) - declared National Grammar Day in the United States. SPOGG, as they are affectionately and more briefly called, looks at promoting good grammar and preventing bad grammar in a cheerful and humorous way. I encourage everyone to visit their site. You can buy cool T-shirts and mugs there. Oh, and membership in SPOGG is free.

    In honour of National Grammar Day, I want to mention a few grammar peeves of mine. I won't make it a 'Top Anything' list or even a list of 'my worst nightmares', because I know that, as soon as I do, I'll think of something worse.

    So, here goes:

    1. Then/than

    Then is related to time:
    • Then he went to the store.
    • That was then, this is now.

    Than is comparative:

    • This house is better than that one.
    • I'd rather go home than sit in a meeting.

    2. Inappropriate apostrophes

    Apostrophes denote ownership. If the word doesn't own something, then don't use an apostrophe:

    • McNally's Bar
    • Kristen's house
    • Houses for sale

    Apostrophes are also used to replace letters in contractions:

    • That's hot. (means That is hot.)
    • Let's go. (means Let us go.)
    • Don't use bad grammar. (means Do not use bad grammar.)

    Just as bad as putting apostrophes where they don't belong is NOT using them where they do belong. Birmingham, England, has generated great scorn with their view that 'apostrophes are too difficult to understand, so we'll just do away with them'.

    3. Bad grammar from people who should know better or who should employ proofreaders who know better (public relations folks, communications professionals, newspaper writers - heck, writers of any sort.) But that's a rant for another day.

    4. People who use words they don't understand in ways they are not meant to be used. If you look up a synonym in a thesaurus, use a dictionary to make sure your usage is correct.

    5. The flashlight SHONE, not SHINED!

    These are past tense forms of two different words that are homonyms:

    To shine: to bring light

    • The sun shines.
    • She shines a flashlight on something.
    • Past tense: The sun shone. She shone a flashlight on something.

    To shine: to brighten, to clean something

    • He shines his shoes.
    • Past tense: He shined his shoes.

    I may even add to this list or add links to examples or explanations.

    And, here are a couple links to some great grammar-related sites:

    I'm open to other sites to include today, but I probably won't be updating this page after the close of National Grammar Day.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008

    Fast Writing, or Silencing the Inner Editor

    The Internet Review of Science Fiction has published this wonderful article by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. It says everything I've ever tried to convince writers about writing without stopping to edit, all nicely wrapped up in an article -- with a list of ways to silence that nasty internal editor.

    Here's another exercise to unlock your unconscious and stifle that editor, taught to me by a very good friend:

    Sit down at your computer or blank sheet of paper and write anything and everything that comes to mind. It's called 'free writing', similar to free association. Just let your mind wander and let your fingers follow it. The result will be nonsense, garbage -- but that's okay. That's what you're going for. I think part of mine went something like 'fall down no wold too far' or some such garbage. Do that until you are firmly inside your mind -- fifteen minutes is probably a good target, if you need one.

    Once that is out of your system, get another blank page and start to write. Just write. It can be your current work in progress or something completely different.

    Many people who tried this exercise were completely amazed -- all that style they were trying so hard to consciously develop just flowed onto the page.

    That's the power of your subconscious. Gag that infernal editor and throw him in the basement, only letting him out for revisions and edits. After all, who's in charge here -- you or him? Don't let him stifle your creativity. Make him work for *you*.