MM: Funky Plurals

English is a compulsive eater. It grabs words from other languages and … sluuuuuurp! … swallows them right down. That means we have a number of terms that don’t operate according to the usual English pattern of marking the plural with a terminal “s.” Most such words are from Greek and Latin. Once you get a feel for how they work, they fall into place. So, okay, say it with me:

One index, two indices.

One phenomenon, two phenomena.

One datum, two data.

One medium, two media.

One criterion, two criteria.

One antenna, two antennae.

One cherub, two cherubim.

One thesis, two theses.

One colloquium, two colloquia.

And so forth. There are dozens. On the other hand, some of these words have been Anglicized to the degree that an English-style plural is at least an option. Yes, you can have “two octopi,” but you don’t have to: “two octopuses” is fine. And as I recall, a few years ago The New York Times dumped “millennia” in favor of “milleniums.” That one still jars, for me, but oh well.

MM: Semicolons, Part 2

In my last MM, I talked about using semicolons as “softer periods” to join two sentences into one. That’s the main use of this mark of punctuation, but there’s another instance in which you’ll see it: the complex list. This use of the semicolon is unrelated to its main function.

Here’s a simple list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk, eggs, and cat food.

It’s pretty easy to figure out the items in this list, as they’re separated from one another with commas:

A = “milk”
B = “eggs”
C = “cat food”

But what if A, B, and C are longer and more complex? What if you get lists within your lists?

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith, his sister Samantha, his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James, his daughter, Jane, six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank, and one great-grandchild.

A complex list is a list in which at least one individual item contains a comma. For instance, in the above sentence, C = “his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James.” The commas that separate C from B and D blend together with the commas inside C. That makes the above sentence pretty hard on a reader: she can’t tell immediately where C begins and ends. Instead, she has to read slowly, grouping the names into categories as she goes. The point of punctuation is to make things easier for your reader. In the above sentence, punctuation is not going its job.

Semicolons clarify complex lists by replacing the commas between items. Here’s what the above sentence looks like when punctuated correctly:

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith; his sister Samantha; his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James; this daughter, Jane; six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank; and one great-grandchild.

Having even one item with one internal comma is enough to trigger complex-list punctuation, but if you don’t have at least three items, you don’t have a list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk and a bunch of pet supplies, including cat food and bird seed.

“Milk” and “pet supplies” aren’t a list, and “cat food” and “bird seed” aren’t a list, either. Only when you get three or more items to you have to start thinking about list-punctuation issues.

MM: Semicolons, Part 1

My last MM (mechanics moment) focused on colons. Now we’re moving on to semicolons, perhaps the most often misused mark of punctuation in English.

Colons and semicolons look similar, so people tend to get them confused. That’s unfortunate, as they work in very different ways: whereas colons separate general and more specific segments of a sentence, semicolons separate two independent clauses within a single sentence.

An “independent clause” is a statement that could stand alone as a complete a sentence. How can you tell you have one? Easy: you have a subject and a verb. “I walked” is an independent clause, even though it’s short.

So, why would you want to put two independent clauses in one sentence? In general, you’d do it to show that the two clauses are closely related in terms of logic. Maybe they’re cause and effect. Maybe they’re fact and reinforcement. Maybe they’re point and counterpoint. Here are some examples:

  1. Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be. It was Monday, so all the new reports would be landing on his desk; moreover, the boss had scheduled a staff meeting.
  2. Joe’s boss was prone to logorrhea; however, that day he was strangely silent.
  3. Maybe he had laryngitis; maybe someone’d finally cut out his tongue.

Notice that none of the above situations have that general-to-specific structure we saw with colons.

Often a semicolon is followed by what my ninth-grade teacher called a “flow word” — “however,” “for instance,” “moreover,” “for example,” etc. Flow words help your reader immediately understand how the two halves of the sentence relate to one another. That’s a kindness, but it’s not required, and in some kinds of writing it would probably sound stilted.

What is required is that you have an independent clause on both sides of the semicolon. This rule is non-negotiable. Semicolons allow you to combine two complete sentences into one. They replace a period, not a comma. This mistake is the one I see over and over again: a semicolon with a fragment on one side or the other. I think some people think of the semicolon as a “stronger comma.” It’s not. It’s a “softer period.”

You wouldn’t use a semicolon to introduce a quote or a list (you’d use a colon):

Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be: a dozen new reports, an interminable staff meeting, sixty-three paper jams, and Sally’s overpowering perfume.

You also can’t use multiple semicolons in one sentence, except in the case of complex lists. See Semicolons, Part 2, for a discussion of that very different use of the semicolon.

MM: Colons

Colons and semicolons are tricky marks of punctuation. I see them misused all the time. I also see quite a few books (and student papers) that don’t contain a single colon or semicolon, which suggests the writer isn’t sure how to use them correctly and is just avoiding the whole issue.

Colons

Colons are used within sentences. Typically, they mark the transition between a general statement and a specific elaboration. That elaboration might be a definition, an example, a more detailed clarification, a list, or a quotation. Here are some examples:

  1. Sally’s purse contained some weird items: a dried up bottle of White-Out, a can of baked beans, an Elmo doll, and nine old toenail clippings. (assertion: list)
  2. Many people misuse the word “nauseous”: rather than being synonymous with “nauseated,” “nauseous” means “nausea inducing.” (assertion: definition)
  3. “Nauseous” means “nausea inducing”: “I saw a nauseous car accident on the way home from work.” (assertion: example)
  4. Trapped by his own lies, Bill Clinton began to sound rather silly: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (assertion: supporting quotation)

A semicolon wouldn’t be appropriate in situations like these. Rather than separating the general from the specific within a sentence, a semicolon joins what could be two complete and separate sentences into one. But more on that in my next MM, which will focus on semicolons.

Now There’s No Going Back

One more point about colons before I leave them behind: when you include one in a sentence, it forms a sort of syntactical wall. You can’t go back to the line of syntax you had before the colon and pick it back up again. Here’s an example of this kind of error, which I see quite a bit:

Sally’s purse contained some weird items: a dried up bottle of White-Out, a can of baked beans, an Elmo doll, and nine old toenail clippings, all of which suggested she was a bit of a pack rat.

The main thrust of the above sentence goes like this:

Sally’s purse contained some weird items, all of which suggested she was a bit of a pack rat.

The list “a dried up bottle of White-Out, a can of baked beans, an Elmo doll, and nine old toenail clippings” is an aside. What the writer wants to do is take a break in the main thrust of the sentence, offer the supporting evidence, and then go back to the main point, which is Sally’s pack-rattiness. But there’s no “going back” after a colon. When you put a colon in, whatever came before it is finished, and later parts of the sentence can’t pick it back up.

Instead, the author needs to use dashes or parentheses:

Sally’s purse contained some weird items — a dried up bottle of White-Out, a can of baked beans, an Elmo doll, and nine old toenail clippings — all of which suggested she was a bit of a pack rat.

Sally’s purse contained some weird items (a dried up bottle of White-Out, a can of baked beans, an Elmo doll, and nine old toenail clippings), all of which suggested she was a bit of a pack rat.

Colons and Caps

You will see some people capitalizing the first letter after a colon. Personally, I think that’s weird, even if what comes after the colon could stand alone as a complete sentence. Could, schmould, you know? You chose not to make it stand alone, so it’s not a sentence, even if it could’ve been.

MM: “Blond” vs. “Blonde”

There’s an error I see all the time — in traditionally published books as well as indies. The mix-up? “Blonde” vs. “blond.” “Blond” can be a noun or an adjective. When it’s an adjective, you always spell it without the “e,” whether you’re talking about a man or a woman:

I saw a little blond boy going down the slide.

Look at that leggy blond chick over there!

But when “blond” is a noun, its spelling changes depending on the person’s gender. If you’re referring to a woman, you’d say,

Look at that gorgeous blonde in the red bikini!

If you’re referring to a man, there’s no “e”:

Dan Quayle was the original dumb blond.

MM: Mechanics Moment

I definitely have a leg-down on some indie authors, but perhaps a leg-up on others: while I’m pretty new to storytelling (plot gives me fits), I have a lot of experience with writing mechanics. I went to school for-e v v v v v-er (Ph.D. in English literature) and have been teaching college-level literature and writing classes for fifteen years. That means there aren’t a whole lot of grammar and punctuation issues I haven’t had to suss out. A lot of writers don’t have the benefit of that much experience with “mechanics” — the nuts-and-bolts stuff of writing.

It occurs to me that I can help indie authors on this blog by addressing some of the most common errors I see in the ebooks I read. So I’ll just start knocking them off, one by one, making the explanations as quick and easy as possible. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section of each post, if I don’t explain successfully.

Hold on … my first “Mechanics Moment” is coming up now!