Tweet chat 16th April 2021 Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation.

Participants: Elizabeth Holland, Gerald Hornsby, Beth Hudson, Anita Belli, Chris Towndrow, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Maria Johnson, Cheryl Whiting, Deborah Klée

When I received the copy edit of my first novel I discovered punctuation rules I was unaware of and realised I repeatedly made the same errors. What errors did/do you make? What have you learned?

Kathleen: Commas make me nuts! As a broadcaster, I “hear,” rather than “see” what I’m writing, so I often mess up where to put them. I will never challenge a copy editor on anything like that!

Elizabeth: It’s not an error as such but I’m confused by the whole speech mark debate! I’m also trying to fully understand the grammar surrounding speech.

Deborah: Dialogue punctuation and when to start a new line is confusing.

Beth: Even as an editor, I find fiddly capitalization rules to be frustrating. In my own work, I just pick one style and stick with it, but I find problems when there are multiple ways to do something, and style guides disagree.

Gerald: I’m pretty good on punctuation, although I do, tend, to use, too many, commas I regularly have a fight with @ProWritingAid over these! Hyphens, too, seem to be a bugbear. They tend to be frequently-used in my manuscripts.

Elizabeth: I love a good comma 

Gerald: Me too! You can’t have too many commas in a piece of work, that’s what I say!

Beth: You can pry the Oxford comma out of my cold, dead hands.

Deborah: I learnt about punctuation. What to include with a line of dialogue and when it needs a new para. The use on the em dash for when a person is interrupted and how to type this. I also discovered the Oxford comma that wasn’t taught when I was at school.

Maria: See, I’m not a big fan of the Oxford Comma. I get it, but seeing a comma before ‘and’ bugs me a bit, it just looks wrong. Maybe I was taught this in school or something!

Deborah: We were taught never to use a comma before and at school. I can see why you need to sometimes.

Maria: So was I! I can see why you need to sometimes, but I don’t like it. I think I’d prefer to word it a slightly chunkier way to avoid it.

Anita: there are quite a few new rules about grammar since we were at school, @DeborahKlee! Grammarly has brought me up to date with the most frequent errors, and I get a bit confused by the American English rules and trad English.

Beth: Some of it (the use of commas) really is personal taste. The general rule of commas I follow is to use them if they help disambiguate the writing. Otherwise, they’re not needed. But there’s a weird rule which puts a comma between adjectives when they’re “weighted” the same that I hate. Basically, there is a way that native speakers of a language know to order adjectives. You don’t say “an iron thin staircase,” you say “a thin iron staircase.” So, when adjectives have the same “weight,” or order – then if you use two of them you need to insert a comma.

Gerald: I’d rather over-use them than under-use them. I think my biggest ‘problem’ is in dialogue, as I use them for pauses and hesitations – which sound right in my head, but don’t look right on paper.

Elizabeth: Yes, grammar in speech is a whole new ball game! It needs to read well but also come across as a natural conversation.

Gerald: I think that’s my problem. It sounds right in my head (and, occasionally, when I speak it out loud), but then @ProWritingAid has a fit. I don’t think the app has an internal monologue module.

Elizabeth: I have this when I use ProWriting. I find it sometimes helpful to get my laptop to speak the dialogue to see how it flows.

Gerald: None of these things are perfect, of course. They can never be. I only use mine for proofreading. Occasionally I have it run a style check to make sure I’m “readable”.

Maria: I learned that you don’t always have a capital letter after a question/exclamation mark at the end of dialogue if the sentence continues. Previously I just always used capitals

Beth: I see that a whole lot. It’s a pretty common misconception.

Elizabeth: Recently, I’ve been watching television with subtitles on and it’s really interesting to see what grammar they use!

Anita: Just been told by a teacher, proofing my MSs for the children’s book, that I use capital letters a bit randomly! I have also discovered, from the same source, what a fronted adverbial is!

Deborah: Do tell? Frontal adverbial?

Anita: Fronted adverbials are words or phrases placed at the start of a sentence, before the verb. Once Upon a Time, is a fronted adverbial. (By the way, a fronted adverbial is always followed by a comma.)…

Maria: I had a bit of a debate with my editor about em dashes, they suggested replacing almost every elipsis use with an em dash. Sometimes I use em dashes when people are being interrupted, but often the elipses was used when their speech trailed away which is different.

Deborah: What are eclipses? I use … when speech trails off unspoken.

Maria: Elipses is the formal term for … I think? Unless I have that wrong.

Chris: I don’t think I consistently make the same errors (through lack of understanding), although I know I still have a way to go. It’s usually oversights, but my last copy edit showed up that I need more commas in places I didn’t think I needed!

Maria: Also semi-colons can be tricky!

Are there words you always find challenging to spell? What are they? (we won’t judge if you spell them wrong!)

Deborah: Where do I start? My spelling is atrocious. I might well be dyslexic but never tested. I confuse and misuse words Bear and bare. He couldn’t bear the feel of… Live and Life. Advice and Advise. I cannot spell yacht I always try and add a G.

Elizabeth: If I’m unsure on words then I just google them. I feel for writers pre-internet having to carry around dictionaries and thesauruses!

Maria: I always struggle with the word jeapordaise. I know there’s an a in there somewhere but just never sure where.

Beth: You can think of it like “geo pard” – a stone panther! 

Anita: Through, though, thorough …. for starters

Beth: Hygiene. Separate. Existence. Various words where there are either two potential ways of ordering letters, or two potential spellings for similar words.

Rainy Dec 6: Occasion and commitment.

Gerald: Actually, I’m pretty good with my spelling. Being beaten around the head with a ruler when I was at school helped with that, I think. A lot of my problems occur during typos which are end up as proper words and don’t get highlighted. And I can never try to type “birthday” without it coming out as “borthday” for some reason.

Maria: I so relate Gerald! A lot of my typos are words in themselves. Some favourites include ‘he dismounted from his house’ ‘she stepped away from the crows’ and ‘he resigned himself to his face’! Thank goodness for editors!

Chris: Not really, but there’s a couple I just dash off, and then have to go back over, thinking “That doesn’t look right” – because it isn’t! “its” vs “it’s” I sometimes have to spell check – which is deeply embarrassing.

Which words do you over use in your writing? Do you collect new words and find ways to use them? Please share your favourites.

Maria: Just, very, really, sighed, frowned. One thing I’ve enjoyed about historical fiction is having slightly different descriptions of things, e.g. oak or honey coloured hair. I try to make it sound accessible, but not quite contemporary.

Kathleen: That’s so true — finding comparisons that fit for the way people thought at the time. It is sometimes a challenge…you don’t realize how many of our expressions come from modern technology until you start looking for it.

Elizabeth: That! I’m a terror for adding it in sentences that really don’t need it. I try to vary my words but I won’t use anything too unknown. As a reader, it annoys me if I have to leave the story to look-up a definition.

Cheryl: Welcome to the world of academia! You’ve not written a top-class paper unless a thesaurus is required for each and every line.

Beth: I find I’m most likely to overuse words/phrases that have cool imagery, and that work really well – once in a book. So, I’ve had my friends clean things like two extra copies of “held hostage by fear,” etc. because they will reoccur to me in the process of writing.

Cheryl: professional and Professionalism, there aren’t many alternative words for this, when the subject of the book is professionalism and the title is #professionalismmatters.

Anita: I don’t think I find a way to use new words, unless they come to mind and are appropriate. I overuse ‘really,’ especially in dialogue as well as ‘actually.’ And phrases like ‘s/he sighed deeply.

Deborah: I love the words discombobulate, parsimonious – I have used the first but not the 2nd yet, I don’t try and use words I discover because I like to keep my books readable. I learnt as a journalist to write for 12-year-old reading.

Cheryl: Discombobulate -describes this last year and effects of pandemic on my soul! I am struggling for switch from an academic writing style, to writing in a more narrative way. The ‘rules’ are different and I have to change my thought patterns and way I process ideas before I write.

Gerald: I tend to overuse stage direction. I feel the need to tell the reader how the character got from A to B, and whether they sat, stood, leaned, hunched, or crouched when they got there. Oops. This was supposed to be about overused words. ‘That’ gets overused. And lots of smiling and sighing and frowning.

Roman Grac Pixabay

Where do you find inspiration for your prose? Do you write down inspired thoughts to use in your writing – descriptions, smells etc?

Elizabeth: Anything in life and creates an emotional response from me is inspiration! (Even down to good food) If an experience, etc… can make you feel something then it’s worth writing about. When I studied literature, I really enjoyed picking apart all the symbolism, etc… so I like to play around with it in my own writing.

Deborah: I try to read poetry to absorb the rhythm and flow. I don’t know whether any of it influences my writing.

Elizabeth: I love reading other people’s poetry but for the life of me I cannot write my own! I could as a child but that creativity seems to have abandoned me. I’m hoping that it’ll one day return!

Deborah: It was meeting poets on Twitter than reintroduced me to poetry. I loved it when I was younger and like you @EHollandAuthor wrote poetry. I don’t write it anymore just in my prose.

Beth: Children haven’t internalized that there are “rules” to writing, so they just write. The end result is usually creative. My uncle used to say that children are natural poets.

Deborah: When I am on holiday, I write down impressions; smells, sights, etc. Finding these gems when I come to write is the problem! Sometimes they are imprinted in my mind.

Maria: Your descriptions for The Borrowed Boy were stunning. I really felt I was on that beach, almost smelling the sea air (If there are #FriSalon people who haven’t checked it out yet, it’s amazing! Can’t recommend it highly enough!)

Anita: Yes, I do that too, Deborah. Capturing the feeling of a new place. And yes. I lose them too!

Kathleen: I’m an “expression collector.” Anytime I hear an interesting one, I remember it — and sometimes write it down. I have a bunch of news writer friends who do the same, and we often share good (or bad!) headlines, etc.

Beth: I find inspiration everywhere. I love to really experience things, rather than shorthand them. When I have an experience that moves me, sight, sound, scent, etc., I put it in my mental file folder for “I should use this.” It also enriches my actual experiences.

Deborah: That is so true about enriching the experience. I think filing a thought or feeling makes it easier to retrieve than writing it down. When we write it our brain sometimes thinks it doesn’t need to mentally file and it becomes lost.

Beth: It also cross-pollinates with other things I’ve filed, so that I end up with things that are deeper than just something I happened to see or feel.

Maria: For my historical fiction, I tend to think about how my characters would describe the world. E.g. using the word honey to describe something sweet, or the smell of earth, or remembering they are using tunics etc.

Beth: And it’s so exciting to think of different ways of experiencing something!

Chris: No idea! Deep within the well of stored images – many from movies – probably. I visualise as I write, so just put down what I can sense – although I don’t cover all senses enough, and this is one of my edit tasks next week. Important for #histfic I think.

Gerald: I’m the same. Life experiences are stored away somewhere, and they come out when I need ’em. I put myself back at that place, and remember what it felt like.

Beth: It’s so easy to focus on the cinematic and ignore the other senses, because sight is the main way society tends to present things.

Is there an author or poet that you admire for the way that they use words? What have you learnt from them that you might apply to your writing?

Elizabeth: I know this sounds cheesy but I admire almost every book/poem I read. Lately, I’ve been examining everyone’s writing style and I’m yet to have come across two that are the same. It’s amazing

Gerald: For me, it’s all about the storytelling. I love sparse writing. So, Hemingway for short fiction, Stephen King for novels. I also love @LesleyKara‘s writing, for the same reason. Everything she writes has a purpose to it.

Kathleen: A colleague of mine (now retired) is the “King of the Line.” When I need to come up with a good, memorable way to describe something, I try to think like him…and it works!

Maria: Charlotte Bronte! (That may not surprise you, Deborah!) it was Jane Eyre that really made me fall in love with language and the beauty that words can create in telling a story.

Anita: I LOVE Joanne Harris. And the simplicity of the language in Matt Haig’s Midnight Library which helps the story to flow so beautifully.

Beth: Two authors: Patricia McKillip, from whom I learned that words can soar, and Charles de Lint, from whom I learned that ordinary words can be immensely evocative. I’m somewhere in the middle — if I ever get as good as either I’ll die happy.

Deborah: I love reading Amor Towles as his prose is beautiful. Simple language but the rhythm, rhyme and alliteration are brilliant.

Bradley: I say this everytime I’m asked. @jonathankoven for his work in his collection Palm Lines I learned the emotional power of the comma-less story. 

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