About Mike Reeves-McMillan

Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.
Feb 08

The Five Most Common Errors

I review a lot of books--more than 80 last year, and some years over 100--and, as someone who’s worked as a copy editor for a major publishing house, I notice errors in them. 

I notice the same errors over and over, which is why I wrote The Well-Presented Manuscript. I'm not just talking about indie authors, either. I read a lot of trad-pub books as well, and I've seen all the same errors in books from major publishing houses as I see from indies. 

Some of the errors that I notice over and over are particularly common, so I thought I’d write a brief summary of them: what they are, and how to avoid making them. There are two tense errors, two comma errors, and an apostrophe error. I see them in books that are otherwise well edited and smoothly written, so it seems not nearly enough people are aware that they are errors. I’d like to change that.

In no particular order, because I see all of these about as often as each other:

Missing Past Perfect Tense

Most books--most books written for adults, at least--are written in the past tense. It’s not the tense we use most often in daily life, though. So there are a couple of pitfalls that I see a lot of authors dropping into in past tense narration.

The first relates to the “narrative moment”. If you’re narrating in the present tense, the narrative moment is the present--that’s when the story’s current action is occurring. But if you’re narrating in the past tense, the narrative moment is a specific time in the past. Whether it’s yesterday, last week, or a thousand years ago, there’s a particular time when the action you’re describing occurred.

The problem occurs when you refer to events that happened before the narrative moment, in what you might call “the past of the past”. For example, if I’m narrating action that happened yesterday, and I need to talk about something that happened the previous week, I need to signal my reader. The reader needs to know that the event happened at a different time, before the main action that I’m narrating, otherwise they’ll be confused.

There’s a tool for that, and it’s called the “past perfect”. It works like this:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors had taught it to him.

At the narrative moment, John knew a skill. Prior to the narrative moment, one of his professors had taught it to him; the professor was not teaching him at the narrative moment. By using “had”, I signal the reader that the teaching happened prior to the time that the main action took place. It’s confusing to say:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors taught it to him.

The teaching happened before the knowing.

Now, that example isn’t necessarily all that confusing. An alert reader will figure out that the teaching happened before the knowing without too much of a blip. But people who have a habit of leaving out the past perfect frequently do confuse their readers, when they switch, without signalling, from talking about the moment of the present action to talking about earlier events. Consider this sentence:

The implications of what she did struck him.

If “what she did” was a thing that happened at a previous time, say, the day before or the week before, this is disorienting to the reader, who is whiplashed from the previous week to the current narrative moment without notice. In the particular example I'm paraphrasing there, "she" wasn't even present in the scene, which made it still more disorienting. Much better and clearer to say:

The implications of what she had done struck him.

“May” versus “Might”

Another common error is also about past-tense narration, so I’ll talk about it next.

Consider these sentences:

I know that I can use tense correctly.

I knew that I could use tense correctly.

I say that I will use tense correctly.

I said that I would use tense correctly.

I hope that I may use tense correctly.

I hoped that I might use tense correctly.

Note that last one in particular. Surprisingly often, I see an author narrating in the past tense use “may” rather than “might”. I don’t know why people don’t get “can/could” and “will/would” wrong, but do get “may/might” wrong. (I have actually seen one author get “will/would” wrong, but only one).

It is wrong, though. There’s a narrative convention known as “free indirect speech,” which is a summary of what someone said or thought, rather than a quotation or transcription of their exact words or thoughts. All of the above examples are in free indirect speech, and when you’re using free indirect speech in a past-tense narrative, the speech gets converted into the past tense as well. All of the speech, including “may” being converted to “might”.

"May" and "might" do have some differences in usage, and they're used sometimes to mean subtly different things, but in the case of free indirect speech, convert "may" to "might". Otherwise, the effect is as if your past tense narration switched momentarily into the present. It draws attention to itself, and can cause readers to stumble.

The Coordinate Comma

The coordinate comma is the comma that goes between adjectives in a list:

Henrietta was a famous, wealthy aardvark.

You could replace the comma in that sentence with “and”:

Henrietta was a famous and wealthy aardvark.

Or you could mix them round:

Henrietta was a wealthy, famous aardvark.

Neither of those adjectives sticks more strongly to “aardvark” than the other. But consider this sentence:

Henrietta was a small grey aardvark.

You wouldn’t say:

Henrietta was a small and grey aardvark.

Nor would you say:

Henrietta was a grey small aardvark.

And because of those two tests, you also shouldn’t punctuate it like this:

Henrietta was a small, grey aardvark.

The comma doesn’t belong there. In part, this is because “grey aardvark” forms a unit that is more tightly bound than, say, “famous aardvark”; it seems to be a characteristic of colours and substances in English that they bind to their nouns, almost forming noun phrases. Hence, you’d say “a large stone castle” or “a thick red rug” or “long black hair” or “a thin cotton T-shirt,” all without the comma.

Now, in my book I say, “This is kind of an obscure rule, and if you don’t know it, or if you mess it up occasionally, most people won’t notice.” That’s true--unless you get it wrong constantly. As I write, I’m reading a book in which the author is extremely fond of the pattern “adjective adjective noun,” and almost always puts a comma in between the two adjectives, and is almost always wrong to do so. There are dozens and dozens of them, and any minor mistake repeated often enough becomes a major mistake. It’s driving me to distraction--distraction from the story, that is.

Not to mention that she does it in situations like:

one, sudden lunge

Yes, “one” is technically an adjective (like all numbers). No, you shouldn’t put a comma between it and another adjective, because you wouldn’t say:

sudden, one lunge

She also manages to write "regular, twenty-second intervals", "the prevalent, ammonia tang of fish", "his hated, human shape", and "black, drawstring trousers".

If you are going to use the “adjective adjective noun” pattern often, make sure you learn the coordinate comma rule--all of it, not just the “include a comma” part, but the “here’s when not to include a comma” part.

The Vocative Comma

“Vocative” just means that you’re addressing someone, so the “vocative comma” is the comma you use when you’re addressing someone--whether by their name, their title, or some other form of address.

Consider these sentences:

I don’t know, Jack.

I don’t know Jack.

Let’s eat, Grandma.

Let’s eat Grandma.

Shoot straight, boys.

Shoot straight boys.

The first in each pair uses the vocative comma, and addresses Jack, Grandma, and some otherwise unspecified “boys”. The second in each pair doesn’t, and it means something different. Instead of being addressed, Jack, Grandma, and the boys are the objects of those sentences, and are (as grammarians say) suffering the action of the verb. Grandma and the boys are suffering rather more literally than Jack is.

The vocative comma is always required, any time someone is being addressed. This is true whether the term of address is at the start of the sentence:

Mr. Watson, come here--I want to see you.

In the middle of the sentence:

I have to say, Colonel Baird, that’s remarkable.

Or at the end of the sentence:

What a day, bro.

The vocative comma comes after a term of address at the beginning; before and after a term of address in the middle; and before a term of address at the end.

If you leave the vocative comma out, not only do you risk suggesting to your family that you should cannibalize your grandmother, but your sentences will sound breathless and rushed. It’s one of the mistakes that, to me, most clearly distinguishes professional from unprofessional writing.

Plural Possessives

I’ve already explained these at length in the apostrophes post, so I’ll just point you there. I hope it’s clear and straightforward.

And if I had to pick a sixth most common error? Mispunctuated dialog, especially punctuating the "tag" ("she said" or equivalent) as if it was a separate sentence. It's less common than the other five, and tends to be an error of inexperienced writers (whereas I've seen the others committed by more experienced people as well), but it's not nearly as uncommon as it should be.

I’d say that, out of the authors whose books are appealing enough for me to actually pick up and try to read, about 70% make at least one of these errors. If you can eliminate them, that will make your manuscript cleaner than most. 

May 13

Names, Words and Research

I don't know about you, but I've more than once had the experience of reading a novel set in a particular time period and getting no authentic sense of that period from the text.

I'm not just talking about the Middle Ages here, either (though that too), but about the 1950s, or the 1930s, or the 1890s. And once I start to analyse the reasons for the lack of that sense of authenticity, it comes down to this: the text tells me a lot more about the time in which the author grew up, or currently lives, than it does about the time period it's supposedly set in.

What I mean is that the slang, the cultural references, the attitudes of the characters, and even the characters' names come from, say, the 1970s or 1980s rather than from the setting. To me, this is just as bad as making errors in conveying a sense of place. It reduces the richness of the reading experience.

A lot of people don't care, of course, because they don't know, any more than the author does. But I care, and so do enough other people that I think it's worth getting right - and getting it right is easier now than at any previous time in history.

Unless you confine your stories to the present day and your own familiar locations and culture (which is a perfectly feasible thing to do), you'll need to do some research if you want your story to feel credible. Technology is an obvious area where stories often trip up--I read a book recently set in World War II which mentioned duct tape, an invention of the 1970s. Fashions and cultural references are another. A book set in the 1930s that mentions a "cheerleader skirt," meaning the kind of short skirt that cheerleaders started wearing in the 1970s, fails to convey a sense of its time. You can check these things on Google and Wikipedia very quickly, if you take a moment to think about them.

I'd like to talk specifically about researching names and words, both because they're something that authors often get wrong when setting their stories in an earlier or other time and place, and because they're easy to get right with a couple of simple tools.


Names are powerful, not in the fantasy sense of "if the fairy knows your true name they can control you," but in the sense that they convey a place and time. It's worth putting in some effort with your choice of names, because it's a shorthand way to communicate a sense of authenticity--or, if you get it wrong, inauthenticity.

For example, I read a book set in the 1930s in which two of the characters were named Jason and Samantha. Now, it's possible that there were people with those names in the 1930s, but they would have been very unusual, since both names were rare until they became popular in the 1960s. The author, who is about my age, probably grew up knowing several people with each name, and stuck them into his 1930s story without thinking--and his lack of thought shows.

Likewise, I read a book set in Boston around the time of the American revolution which featured a young woman named Jennifer. Again, this name did exist at the time, but it was almost completely confined to the British county of Cornwall.

Jennifer was the most popular woman's name in the US for nearly a decade and a half, starting in 1970. No doubt when the author was looking for a name for his young woman character, "Jennifer" sprang to mind almost immediately. To his children, though, it won't be a young woman's name, but a name their mother's friends have. And to their children, it'll be an old lady's name. What's more, to someone in 18th-century Boston, it would be rare and exotic.

How do you get this kind of thing right? It's very simple. The website behindthename.com is only one (but, I think, the most useful one) of a number of websites which trace the rising and falling popularity of first names. The best information is for the US, but other countries are also represented.

This brings me to a pet peeve of mine: fantasy novels in which Christianity and Judaism explicitly don't exist, and yet people are called things like Isaac and Maria. It annoys me not for religious reasons, but because it tells me that the author lacks an awareness of culture and history and hasn't thought things through, which instantly lowers my expectations for the book.

Did you know that biblical names weren't even used in England until after the Norman Conquest (1066)? The Saxons who lived there were Christianised, but they still named their children things like Battle, Elf-Counsel, Noble Bright and Wealth-Guard (that's Hilda, Alfred, Albert and Edward to you). The conquerors brought the practice of using biblical names like John and Peter, but also plenty of non-biblical names like William, Henry, Geoffrey and Alice. And then there were the names adopted from Latin and Greek, often saints' names, though not originally Christian: Phoebe, Claire, Nicholas, George, Julia.

It's quite possible to use names that your readers find familiar and can remember without drawing on a cultural heritage that doesn't exist in your setting. And that's a good way to avoid made-up names that are hard to remember (and sometimes unpronouncable without gargling).

Check the spelling of your character names. I once read a book in which the title character's name was spelled wrong four times, despite the fact that it had allegedly been past an editor. Spellcheck won't always catch instances when you've spelled a character's name wrong, especially if your intended spelling is unusual and your typo is the more common spelling, so keep an eye out.

Use of Words

It's easy to spot an author who hasn't thought about or researched their vocabulary. The same book set in the 1930s that I've already referenced twice (for the cheerleader skirt and the characters named Jason and Samantha) also used the phrase "warm fuzzies," which I thought everyone knew arose in the 1970s (clearly, I was wrong). There's an excellent tool to avoid this kind of slip-up. It's called Google Ngram Viewer, and it's at: https://books.google.com/ngrams.

Google has digitised millions of books and other documents, going back as far as 1500, and put them into a searchable database which you can use to find when a word or phrase came into use and the trends in its usage. Using more advanced queries, you can see usage of different parts of speech, like "truck" as a noun versus "truck" as a verb (take a look at "About Ngram Viewer" linked at the bottom of the page for full instructions).

In just a couple of seconds, you can check whether your 1880s steampunk heroine should say "I felt a surge of adrenaline" (she shouldn't; adrenaline wasn't discovered yet).

So if the phrase you want to use wasn't in use yet, what do you substitute? If you want to say "freaked out" (1960s) but your story takes place in 1939, you might find this resource useful:

There's also the Historical Dictionary of American Slang at: http://www.alphadictionary.com/slang/.

Of course, you won't do this kind of research if you don't think about the question in the first place, and this is where the problems start. The past is different. People spoke differently, used different technology, named their children differently, and thought differently about the world. To convey any kind of authentic sense of a past time, you need to be aware that those differences existed, and do the research about what they were.

Reading books and other documents from the time is an excellent way to start to sensitise yourself to possible differences. There are huge digital archives of newspapers and other texts available for free online (maps, too; places change a lot even in a short timespan). And doing this kind of exercise will develop a critical distance between yourself and your own culture, like an observational comedian who asks, "What's that about?" That can only benefit your writing.

May 13

Typo Taming

The difference between a typo and the kind of errors I’ve been talking about up to this point is that the person creating the typo probably knows the rule, knows the correct word to use, but hasn’t managed to get their fingers to put down exactly what was in their brain. We all do that from time to time. Some people do it frequently.

Back in the Jurassic Era when I was a copy editor, we still had people called “typesetters” who would take a non-electronic manuscript and key it into a computer. They made mistakes, but they made fewer mistakes than some authors do when they type their manuscripts directly into a computer. For better or worse (and probably, on average, for better), those days are gone, and we’re all responsible for typing our own manuscripts.

If you’re not a very accurate typist, you need to work with that reality and check your work more carefully, though I also suggest that you type more slowly and strive to be accurate in the first place. Once a mistake is in the manuscript, the chances of even a good editor missing it are about 10%, and if you make hundreds of them that means you’ll have tens of errors. I’ve seen manuscripts that have been through three editors and multiple beta readers and still have a dozen errors in them, because they started out with so many.

Speech-to-text software has come a long way, but I assume it’s still subject to choosing the wrong word and has to be checked over very carefully--even more carefully than if you type directly.

Some of the most common typos to check for are:

  • an/and
  • if/of/on/it/is
  • in/on
  • of/off
  • the/then/them/they
  • then/than
  • to/too
  • we'll/well
  • where/were
  • you/your
  • missing closing quotation mark
  • missing period
  • missing words, including: to, is/was/be, not, and, the/a/an, had, with, it, of (you can see the pattern, I think: small words that have a mainly grammatical role in the sentence)

The Perils of Revision

If you revise a sentence (and you should be revising your sentences), take a few extra moments to check that you’ve changed everything you need to change and left it in a consistent state, in which it makes sense grammatically and means what you intended.

Check that it still makes sense in its context (the sentences to either side). For example, if you move a sentence that starts with “It”, and the object referred to by “It” now occurs in the middle of the previous paragraph, you’ll need to change “It” to a clearer indication of which object you mean. (The same with “He” and “She”, of course.)

Check that you haven’t cut out information that you were going to use later on, or, if you have, that you’ve put it in somewhere else.

If you’ve switched a name for a pronoun or vice versa, check that you haven’t also left the original word in place. I’ve seen a few sentences like “I turned the it on” or “I saw him John” in published books.

Check that your verbs and nouns agree in number--that you don’t have a singular noun with a plural verb, or vice versa. If you list several things, the verb needs to be plural:

The aardvark and the alligator were walking down Main Street when it happened.

Spotting the Typos

Some editors can train themselves to see the words that are actually on the page, rather than the ones that they expect to see. This overcomes the natural human tendency to see what we expect and fill in the gaps (like missing words) without even noticing. Fortunately for my own work, but unfortunately for my uninterrupted enjoyment of other people’s, I’m one of the people who see what’s there, even though I haven’t worked as an editor in 20 years.

You, however, probably don’t have that skill (going by statistical likelihood). So what are some tricks to ensure that you haven't missed words from your sentences, or messed them up in some other way?

There are a few. They’re tedious, but if you know you often make the mistakes, you need to practice them.

  1. Read backwards. This makes you see the words one at a time.
  2. Read upside-down. I used to do this when I was an editor. I don’t see it offered as a tip very often, but it worked for me. I’m a fast reader, and reading upside down slowed me down enough that I could notice the errors instead of gliding past them.
    If you read on paper or on an e-reader like a Kindle, reading upside down is straightforward, but on a computer screen you may need to output the text to a PDF file and then rotate it in your PDF reading software. Tablets, which usually detect their orientation and show you the text the right way up regardless of how you turn them, can be set not to do that. Google will tell you how to do it for your particular device.
  3. Read aloud. Again, this slows you down, and also highlights issues with your sentence structure, unintended verbal patterns which will distract your readers, sentences that are too long, and the need for more or different punctuation. Also, if you ever intend to have an audio version of your book, it needs to work in that medium. Reading it aloud is a good way to check whether it does.
    This won’t help you with homonym errors (words that sound the same), but it will help with missing words.
  4. Have someone else read it aloud, if you have someone who will do so.
  5. Have a device read it to you using text-to-speech. Windows 7+, Mac OS X, iOS 8, and Android since early versions have built-in text-to-speech (Google “text to speech” and the name of your operating system to find out how to enable this on each platform). There are also free applications for all the platforms which will do text-to-speech with varying degrees of usability and pleasantness. Paid apps exist too, of course, which may or may not be superior. Read some reviews and make your choice. I can’t provide a lot of guidance, since I haven’t used this approach myself, but if you often miss words out of sentences or make simple typos that can be detected by listening, it’s likely to help you.

Whatever tool you use for writing (Word, Google Docs, Scrivener) should have a built-in spellcheck. Pay attention to it. I’ve seen several published books, including at least one from a major publisher (coughHarperCollinscough), which included errors that a simple spellcheck should have caught.

Google Docs is also surprisingly good at spotting typos, probably using some of the knowledge built up by its search tool (“Did you mean to search for…?”). Still, only trust Google Docs’ advice if you’re sure it’s correct--it’s a reminder, not a tutor. (It also suggests “alright” for “all right,” which I, and the major style guides, still consider incorrect, though that fight will probably be lost in the long term.)

MS Word’s grammar checker is wrong far more often than it’s right. For example, shown the previous sentence, it incorrectly suggests “its” for “it’s”. Even when it’s right, it’s oriented to business writing, not fiction. It should be ignored with extreme prejudice.

May 10

Comma Calmer 2: Commas to Put In

I mentioned in the introduction to the last chapter that some people use too many commas, while others use too few. A piece of writing that's short on commas reads breathlessly, sounds amateurish, and risks confusing the reader by creating ambiguity.

You can get away with few commas if you write mostly short, simple sentences. This puts you in the "spare" or "minimalist" style, though, and the risk is that your writing will sound dull, choppy, oversimplistic and unsophisticated. If you're aiming for an invisible style (and, again, I urge you to master invisible style before trying anything that draws attention to itself), your average sentence will be medium length--varied with shorter or longer sentences for pacing and impact--and it will require some commas.

So where do we put them? I've already mentioned several of the commonest missing commas, so let's review those before we move on.

  1. Use a comma before a term of address, without exception (unless for a deliberately breathless effect):
    That's remarkable, Holmes!
  2. Use a comma after a term of address:
    Watson, my bag!
  3. Use commas for a parenthetical statement, a self-interruption, where you could also use dashes or parentheses. (That sentence is self-illustrating.)

Appositive Identification

Actually, what I just did there is a specific kind of parenthesis called an appositive (thanks to Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty for teaching me this). The phrase "a self-interruption" in the sentence I used in my third point is a redefinition of "a parenthetical statement," the phrase that occurs immediately before it.

If you read the Grammar Girl article, you'll learn that there are restrictive and non-restrictive forms of this, and commas are only required for the nonrestrictive one (where you're directly renaming or redescribing something that you've already named or described). This leads to one of those obscure comma rules that you don't need to worry about too much. It works this way:

My brother, Roger, lives in Australia.

My sister Jan lives in Tauranga.

Both of those sentences are correctly punctuated. The reason is that I only have one brother, so "my brother" and "Roger" are the same person (it's a nonrestrictive appositive, a direct renaming). However, I have two sisters, so "Jan" is a restrictive appositive--it clarifies which sister I'm talking about.

Very few people know this rule, so if you mess it up hardly anyone will care. The important point is this: if you use a name or description for someone or something, and then immediately afterwards use another name or description, separate them with a comma. More examples:

You're going to Hogwarts, a famous school of witchcraft and wizardry.

I spoke today to Henrietta Wibsley, the world's most prominent aardvark.


Commas are used to separate lists:

I bought celery, capers, and aardvark treats.

What I've just demonstrated is called the "Oxford comma," and it's controversial among people who care about commas (who need to get a life, yes, I know). Some say that, since it makes lists less ambiguous sometimes, it should be used all the time. Others disagree.

The Oxford comma is specifically the last comma in the list. Here's a famous example (from an actual newspaper account of a documentary on Merle Haggard):

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

The problem comes because that's a list, but it reads like an appositive (as if "Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall" acts as a redescription of "his two ex-wives"). With the Oxford comma, it's clear that it's a list:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

In the list "celery, capers and aardvark treats," all three are clearly grocery items, equal members of a list, and so it's just as clear with or without the final comma.

Whether or not to use the Oxford comma is a style choice, unless the sentence is ambiguous without it. Personally, I tend to use it all the time in case I don't notice an ambiguity, and because consistency is good.

It's still possible to be ambiguous even with the Oxford comma, of course, if something in your list sounds like it could be an appositive for something else. Mignon Fogarty cites "I went to see Zach, an officer, and a gentleman," which could be three people or two (if Zach is an officer). Stay alert to this, and rewrite if necessary.

Mo' Info, Mo' Commas

Appositives are only one example of parenthetical commas that change the meaning of a sentence. There's a broader category of phrases that add information to the sentence, even if they don't rename or redescribe the phrase they follow. For example:

The aardvarks who were present cheered.

The aardvarks, who were present, cheered.

Those two sentences mean two different things. In the first, "the aardvarks who were present" are being, by implication, contrasted with "the aardvarks who were absent". In the second, "who were present" gives us more information about the aardvarks, and why we're mentioning that they cheered. If you're giving the reader more information, show this by giving them more commas.


Nor is this the only kind of phrase that's set off by commas. Transitional adverbs like however or therefore or in addition, especially when they come at the start or end of a sentence, get commas:

Therefore, I propose that we kill the Batman.

The aardvark didn't notice, however.

Modifiers, and How Not to Dangle Them

I've left this one until last, because there's a pitfall I want to explore.

Modifiers are phrases like "making me wonder what had happened," which give more context to the rest of the sentence. They can come at the start or the end of the sentence. They need to be set off with commas:

Henrietta burst through the aardvark door, making me wonder what had happened.

Seizing my opportunity, I pocketed the jade bracelet.


Modifiers carry a risk. The author Jim Butcher's Wikipedia entry used to have a sentence that started out this way:

While sick with strep throat as a child, Butcher's sisters introduced him to The Lord of the Rings.

Taking advantage of Wikipedia's policy of allowing anyone to edit, I corrected this. (That last sentence also has a modifier. Did you notice?)

Can you see what's wrong with the original version of the sentence? Think through its literal meaning.

The person who originally typed that sentence presumably had a thought process that, if it had been more explicit, would have run something like this: Jim Butcher is the subject of this article, so any sentence in it is implicitly about him. However, what the sentence literally said was that his sisters were ill with strep throat when they introduced him to The Lord of the Rings. Here's my correction:

While he was sick with strep throat as a child, Butcher's sisters...

You'll sometimes see this kind of structure discussed under the heading of "dangling participles" or "misrelated participles". Strictly speaking, since there is no "-ing" or "-ed" form in the phrase "while he was sick with strep throat as a child," it isn't a participle, so I'm using the term "modifier" as a more general description.

I recently read a book that had multiple dangling modifiers, including these (slightly altered to disguise their origin--though I read a pre-publication version, so hopefully someone found and fixed them):

Pressed against the wall, a sick dread filled him.

After cycling open, the air smelled old.

Plunging through an arch, the curvature of the planet was revealed.

Pushing a hand into the interface, the grid welcomed her.

In all these cases, there's an implied subject that's different from the grammatical subject of the sentence. In the first case, "he" is the implied subject, and is doing the action described by the modifier ("pressing against the wall"), but the grammatical subject of the sentence is "a sick dread". In the second, the implied subject comes from a previous sentence which mentioned an airlock, which is what is cycling open, but the grammatical subject is "the air".

There's an easy fix for these, and it's to mention the intended subject explicitly. Like this:

As he pressed against the wall, a sick dread filled him.

After the airlock cycled open, the air smelled old.

As the ship plunged through an arch, the curvature of the planet was revealed.

She pushed a hand into the interface, and the grid welcomed her.


Dangling modifiers show fuzzy thinking and, besides leading to unintentionally ridiculous scenarios, reduce the reader's confidence in you as a writer. If you let your modifiers dangle, you'll trip over them and fall on your face.


May 07

Comma Calmer 1: Commas to Leave Out

When it comes to commas, there are four kinds of author: those who use them correctly, those who use too few, those who use too many, and those who have about the right number but in the wrong places. I refer to this last kind of author as the “Jackson Pollock,” because they litter their manuscripts with commas at random, like paint splashed on a canvas.

Back when I worked as a copy editor for Hodders, there was one author we worked with who had no idea about where to put her commas. We had her under contract for a series, unfortunately, and after the first couple of books I started using find-and-replace to strip out all the commas before I even looked at the book, because I knew the vast majority would be in places they didn’t belong.

Foolishly, I mentioned to my boss that I was doing this, and--even more foolishly, in my opinion--my boss mentioned it to the author, who threw a fit. I was firmly forbidden from using the nuclear option, and had to go back to removing them one at a time.

There are four kinds of authors, and there are also four kinds of commas. There are commas you must use, commas you must not use, commas you can use if you want, and commas that there’s a rule about, but hardly anyone knows the rule, so you’ll get away with not following it most of the time.

I won’t be talking much about the commas you can use if you want, the ones that you can put in or leave out and still be correct. Whether you use them or not is a matter of style and personal taste, and a way of varying and controlling the pace of your sentences. It’ll give your editor something to change if you get everything else right, so he or she feels useful. Nor will I be talking at length about the arcane comma rules that only advanced editors and grammarians know or care about.

Much more important are the commas without which your sentences don’t flow properly, and the commas which ought not to be inserted.

Do Not Do: Comma Before Main Verb

When I go through a book and mark errors, the most common comment I make is usually “omit comma”. Therefore, the kind of comma I want to talk about first is the one which ought not to be inserted.

Notice what I didn’t do in that last sentence. I didn’t say:

The kind of comma I want to talk about first, is the one which ought not to be inserted.

This is probably the most common comma error I see: the excess comma before the main verb. Not only is it not needed, it’s incorrect.

From a high-level view, that last example sentence is grammatically the same as this one:

Henrietta is an aardvark.

“The kind of comma I want to talk about first” is a noun phrase, grammatically equivalent (at a high level) to “Henrietta”. There is no justification for separating it from its main verb with a comma. None.

I suspect that the cause of people’s confusion on this point is this kind of sentence:

Henrietta, the person you spoke to yesterday, is an aardvark.

That example does have a comma before the main verb. However, it’s the second comma in a pair. They’re parenthetical commas, and (as “Henrietta is an aardvark” demonstrates), you could lift out everything inside them and the sentence would make sense and be grammatically correct.

You could use dashes instead:

Henrietta--the person you spoke to yesterday--is an aardvark.

Or parentheses:

Henrietta (the person you spoke to yesterday) is an aardvark.

For stylistic reasons, to maintain the flow, you’d probably use commas, though.

Do Not Do: Comma After Last Adjective

Less common, but still something I’ve seen several authors do, is this:

Henrietta was a small, grey, aardvark.

In some cases this is because you originally had three adjectives and have taken out the third one, but left the comma after the second. But I know at least one author who has this bad habit of consistently placing an unnecessary and incorrect comma between the last adjective in a list and its noun.

This is probably the place to mention one of those more obscure comma rules. Don’t worry too much about it if you struggle with the basics, but if you usually get commas right, here’s something you can do to improve even further:

If you’re using several adjectives (like “small” and “grey”) and the order that you have them in is the only one that makes sense, you don’t need the comma between them. Likewise if you can’t join them with “and”. You wouldn’t say “Henrietta was a grey, small aardvark”, or “Henrietta was a small and grey aardvark”. In effect, what is happening here is that “grey aardvark” is acting as a loosely joined unit, so the comma can be dispensed with entirely, leaving you with:

Henrietta was a small grey aardvark.

Colours and substances often trigger this rule (an old wool sweater, a wide blue ocean). But if you have a couple of colours (a green-eyed, red-haired woman) the comma belongs in between, since you could swap the order or replace the comma with “and”.

This is known as the “coordinate commas” rule. The adjectives which are of equal rank and importance, and can be swapped round or joined with “and” instead of commas, are coordinate adjectives.

Don’t worry too much if you can’t quite grasp this rule or if you forget it occasionally. It’s one of the more obscure comma rules, and most people won’t notice if you break it.

Do Not Do: Commas Around the Name

Here's another common comma error that I see, especially from journalists and in the blurbs of indie books:

Prominent aardvark, Henrietta Wibsley, announced today that she would be travelling into space.

These commas are unnecessary and incorrect, at least in a sentence phrased this way. I suspect that they've been incorrectly imported from this kind of phrasing:

The world's most prominent aardvark, Henrietta Wibsley, announced today that she would be travelling into space.

Here, "Henrietta Wibsley" explains who "the world's most prominent aardvark" is. It's another parenthetical comma. You could also say:

The world's most prominent aardvark (Henrietta Wibsley) announced today that she would be travelling into space.

In the incorrect example given above, "Prominent aardvark Henrietta Wibsley" is a noun phrase, and shouldn't be broken up by the comma.

The worst example of this error I ever saw was in a blurb for an indie book, which went like this (identifying details altered to protect the guilty):

"Meanwhile Pinkerton operatives, Detective, Thomas Wright and, Assistant, Colin..."

Sadly, the rest of the book was just as bad, if not worse.

Do Not Do: Comma Splice

A “comma splice” is when you join what should be two separate sentences with a comma, like this:

Joseph stood, he was not going to put up with that from an aardvark.

“Joseph stood” is a complete sentence, and should be written as such. Just because the thought continues into the next sentence is no reason to join them with a comma.

Comma splices betray that you don’t really know what you’re doing when it comes to grammar. They will count heavily against you. Check your work carefully, and ask yourself if you’re joining complete sentences with commas where you should be separating them.

Joining Without Splicing


The problem with comma splices is not that the sentences are joined, but that they're not joined enough. There's no transitional word to indicate what their relationship is. For example:

The alligator shifted his feet, he was uncomfortable with the topic of aardvarks.

Try this instead:

The alligator shifted his feet, because he was uncomfortable with the topic of aardvarks.

Candidates for joining sentences include because and its near-synonyms as, since, considering, therefore, thus; but and its near-synonym however; and and.

You can also break the two sentences with a period, join them with a semicolon, or rephrase the first so that it's not a full sentence:

Henrietta is prominent, she is often thought to speak for all aardvarks. 

Because Henrietta is prominent, she is often thought to speak for all aardvarks.

Henrietta is so prominent, she is often thought to speak for all aardvarks.

Those sentences have commas doing what they ought to, separating grammatical units. More on that in the next chapter.

May 05


Dialog*--characters talking--is one of the key parts of almost any story you will write. There are specific conventions around writing dialog, and if you demonstrate that you don't know them, it will be difficult for readers who do know them to take you seriously (or concentrate on the story).

*I'll use the American spelling for "dialog," because it's shorter.

Dialog Tags

Let's start out by defining a term. I'll be talking a lot about "dialog tags" or "tagging" dialog. You can think of this as like a luggage tag: it tells you who the dialog belongs to. The basic dialog tag is "he said" or "she said" or "said Ashley" (if your character is called Ashley).

If you don't put in enough dialog tags, your readers will lose their way (especially if your characters sound similar to one another and there's nothing in what they say that indicates who is speaking). If your reader has to go back and count on their fingers from the last dialog tag to work out who said what, you've lost their immersion in the story.

If you put in too many dialog tags, on the other hand, it slows down the exchange, and your readers may feel that you're treating them like idiots. If there are only two people in the scene, you don't need to tag very often to keep it clear who said what. We know they're alternating.

Your beta readers should tell you if you're tagging too often or too seldom.


"Beats" are an alternative to dialog tags. A beat is an action that the character takes during dialog:

"So tell me about your date." John took a long slurp on his milkshake.
"I turned up late, and that was the best thing about the evening."

The convention is that if the beat occurs in the same paragraph as the line of dialog, then both the dialog and the action belong to the same character. As the example above stands, we assume that John is speaking the first line and someone else is speaking the second line. If we moved the beat from after the first line of dialog to before the second, we would assume that John was the second speaker.

Beats have a few functions. They prevent the scene from feeling like disembodied heads talking in a white room; they can provide characterisation and setting detail; they can convey emotion; and they provide a touch of variety, a relief from "he said," "she said".

Varying Tags

While I'm talking about varying tags, there are different schools of thought on how much to vary them. Many writing teachers are firm that you should only ever use "said," because this enables the dialog tags to disappear from the reader's awareness. They become almost subliminal cues that don't draw attention to themselves. Even "asked" and "replied" are a step too far for some experts. The reader can tell from the punctuation that a question was asked and replied to, they say. You don't need to make it explicit.

A much smaller group of teachers recommend what are sometimes called "said bookisms," fancier synonyms for "said" like "ranted," "uttered," "declared," or "asseverated". These create a specific style, old-fashioned, formal, and ornate. If that's the style you're going for, and you have the writing chops to pull it off (few people do), then by all means use them. If you're attempting "invisible" style, though--and my advice is that you learn to write invisibly first--don't go near them.

I hold a middle view. I think it's fine to use words like "whispered" or "muttered" in place of "said" from time to time. I'll occasionally throw in an "asked" or "replied". But none of my characters "elucidate" unless I'm imitating a particular style.

Tag Order

There are two parts to a tag: the "said" (or, possibly, equivalent), and the identifier, the name or pronoun or other reference to who is speaking. Within limits, you can vary which comes first.

"Why did it have to be snakes?" he said.

"Why did it have to be snakes?" said Indiana Jones.

"Why did it have to be snakes?" Indiana Jones said.

"Why did it have to be snakes?" said the archaeologist.

"Why did it have to be snakes?" the archaeologist said.

You'll notice one construction missing from that list:

"Why did it have to be snakes?" said he.

"Said he" is old-fashioned and draws attention to itself, placing the emphasis on the "he". Use it sparingly, and only for deliberate effect, if you use it at all. Oddly enough, in the other examples, placing the identifier first puts a subtle emphasis on the identifier (in my opinion; you may have a different reaction). Of all of these examples, the first two are the most neutral and invisible, which is usually what you want.

If you're using a pronoun, make sure it's clear what the reference is. This is a general rule, not just for dialog. "He" refers to the last male character specified, "she" to the last female character specified, and especially if you've changed your sentence round during editing, the reference can become ambiguous. (Watch out for "it" and "this" as well. They are even more likely to become ambiguous.)

I read one book where the author had several times used "he," in a scene with two male characters, to refer to the character who was not the most recent person named. It was disorienting; each time, I thought that it was the other character at first (the most recently named character, as would be usual), then figured out that it wasn't, glanced back to see if I'd missed something, and finally concluded that it was a mistake. By this time, any immersion in the story was well and truly shattered.

Tagging Before, During and After

You can tag in three different places: before the dialog, during the dialog, or after the dialog.

Tagging before lets the reader know who's about to speak, which can be important to how they read it, but it also draws extra attention to the identity of the speaker, and that may or may not be where you want to put the emphasis.

The colonel said, "Load of nonsense. No such thing."

Tagging during the dialog allows you to break at a significant moment in order to emphasise something or make it more dramatic.

"Snakes," said Indiana Jones. "Why did it have to be snakes?"

Make sure your break comes at a natural place, between sentences or at some other grammatical boundary, or it will sound awkward and risk confusing the reader. Bad example:

"You crack me so consistently," said Fat Tony, "up".

There, you'd be better served by using an ellipsis to indicate the pause, especially as the grammar is odd to begin with.

Tagging after the dialog is most neutral and invisible:

"Get that aardvark out of here!" said Aunt Nora.

Punctuating Dialog

I've been showing you examples of punctuating dialog without drawing attention to it. Now it's time to think about the conventions. I've seen authors get every one of these wrong at one time or another.

A line of dialog and its tag form a single sentence. This sentence follows all the rules of normal sentences--begins with a capital letter, ends with either a question mark, exclamation mark, or period--but with a few twists.

Most obviously, there are quotation marks around the part that the character said. Be careful with these. Not closing them is a very common error, not opening them a less common one (but I have seen it). That usually happens because you're typing too fast.

The American convention is to use double quotation marks, with any quote-within-a-quote getting single quotation marks, while the British convention is the other way around. Even though I live in New Zealand, which is a British Commonwealth country, I use the American convention. (I blame excessive exposure to American books at a formative age.)

The points of transition, when you come in and out of the quotation, are important, and marked by particular punctuation. Let's look at that.

Doug said, "Ease it gently into the cradle. Gently!"

A tag before the dialog typically ends with a comma. You can get away with leaving the comma out, but the effect is to increase the pace of the sentence. I usually put the comma in, so that I can leave it out if I want the pace to seem brisker.

The dialog then starts with a quotation mark and a capital letter (to mark the start of a sentence). At the end of the dialog, after the sentence-closing punctuation, we get a closing quotation mark. If there are sentence boundaries inside the dialog, they are marked as usual.

"Gently," said Doug, "we don't want to crack it."

A tag in the middle of the dialog is part of a whole sentence. You need a comma before the first closing quotation mark, and another after the tag. Those aren't optional. Because the start of the second part here (the word "we") comes in the middle of a sentence--it's not starting either the whole sentence or a sentence in the dialog--it doesn't get capitalised. The closing punctuation (here, a period) goes inside the quotation marks.

"We don't want to crack it," he said.

A tag at the end of the dialog needs a comma before the closing quotation mark, in place of the period that would usually finish this sentence (but see below if it's a question or exclamation).

The sentence isn't over until the tag is finished. Do not capitalise "he" in a sentence like this, as if the tag was its own sentence. It isn't, even though the dialog is a complete sentence grammatically. The dialog and the tag are one sentence for purposes of punctuation. I sometimes see this error from inexperienced writers:

"We don't want to crack it." He said.

However, if you use a beat, it's a complete sentence by itself:

"We don't want to crack it." He frowned at me.

You can also put a tag and a beat together, in which case the tag rules apply:

"We don't want to crack it," he said, frowning at me.

What if the end of the dialog has a question mark or exclamation mark, though? In the examples above where a tag follows the sentence, we've turned the period that would usually be there into a comma. We don't do that with a question mark or exclamation mark--they remain themselves. There's no comma, but otherwise the punctuation of the sentence is the same:

"Do you want to crack it?" he said.

"Don't crack it!" he said.

Note, in particular, that "he" is not capitalised. Again, the tag is not a sentence by itself.

Speech Continuing Across Paragraphs

There's another dialog punctuation convention that is very well known, but I've seen at least two authors get it wrong in different ways, so I'll mention it. If the same speaker continues in the next paragraph (without any tag or beat between), you leave off the closing quotation mark in the previous paragraph, like this:

"I never knew for sure how it happened, but I have a few guesses.

"Firstly, the chameleon was somewhere in that room."

The first way I've seen this done wrong is putting in the closing quotation mark after the first paragraph, which, by convention, indicates a change of speaker. In the story I was reading, the speaker hadn't changed. It was especially confusing because that author didn't make much use of tags or beats, so it was hard to tell when the speaker did switch.

The second way I've seen it done wrong is not closing the quotation if you insert a beat or tag between the paragraphs. You need the closing quotation mark to separate the dialog from the beat or tag in this case.

Let's Eat Grandma

One more thing about dialog before we get into commas. It's a comma convention, so it could go in either chapter, but there are plenty of other comma rules, and I want to discuss this one here.

I call this the "Let's eat Grandma" rule, because of the most famous example. These two sentences are different:

"Let's eat Grandma."
"Let's eat, Grandma."

The first is talking about Grandma and proposing cannibalism. The second is talking to Grandma and proposing dinner.

To me, there are few more glaring marks of an amateur writer than ignorance of this rule (which is called the vocative comma rule). Always, without exception, use a comma before a term of address in dialog:

"Fascinating, Captain."
"What up, homie?"
"Make sure you take your aardvark with you, my friend."
"I want to get to know you better, John."

This rule only applies to terms of address, though:

"I'm fascinated by the captain."
"I want to get to know John better."

In those examples, you're talking about the person, not to them, so there's no comma.

The rule has a second half: always use a comma after a term of address, as well:

"John, come and look at this aardvark."
"Captain, I canna give ye any more power!"

And if the term of address comes in the middle of a sentence, it gets commas both before and after:

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a grammarian!"

Leaving out these commas around terms of address makes your dialog seem breathless and rushed. You can use it deliberately to create that effect, of course (I've done so), but in general, show your readers that you know the rule by putting in the commas.

May 03

Style and Voice

In order to explain the main purpose of this book, I need to talk about style and voice.

Style is about the choices you make between valid alternatives. For example, do you use parentheses, dashes, or commas to set off a clause that "interrupts" the main sentence, or do you not put such clauses in at all? All of these are valid choices, and if you make one particular choice consistently, it becomes part of your style.

Voice is largely, but not completely, made up of the sum of all your style choices. It also takes in point of view and a few less definable qualities. This is what tells us that we are reading Ursula K. Le Guin rather than Neil Gaiman, however similar their writing might be in some ways.

Voice is also something that belongs to characters, as well as authors, and one of the skills that raises authors above mediocrity is the ability to give their characters distinctive voices. Again, point of view, the things they notice and talk about, has a lot to do with it, but so do stylistic choices. I often make my characters sound less like me by having them choose a word which wasn't the one I first thought of.

George Orwell, in a famous essay, spoke about language which, like clear glass, was there for people to look through, and other kinds of language which were like stained glass: designed to be looked at. In fact, there's a spectrum of style, which Jeff Vandermeer sums up well in Wonderbook. (I recommend that book, by the way, which is about everything about writing that I don't cover here: how to find ideas and develop them into stories.)

Vandermeer mentions four levels of style, which, as I'm sure he'd be the first to acknowledge, are points on a spectrum rather than distinct steps.

Minimal or stark style has hardly any detail or description, leaving a lot to the reader's imagination. Done badly, it's dull and unengaging, emotionally distant and ploddingly literal.

Invisible or "normal" style aims to disappear, like Orwell's clear glass window. It's the most common style of writing, particularly for commercial fiction. Although it doesn't sound the way people actually talk, because we're used to fictional conventions we think of it as sounding like the voices of real, ordinary people. Done badly, it's mediocre, bland and lacklustre.

Muscular or conspicuous style uses more sensory detail, more metaphors, and more complex sentences than ordinary people tend to in real life. It draws a little attention to itself. Done badly, it seems too clever and gets in the way of the story.

Lush or ornate style draws a lot of attention to itself, like a beautiful woman dancing in a sequinned dress. Extended metaphors, long sentences, passages of pure description, language tricks borrowed from poetry, unusual word choices and a layering of detail give an overall richness to the prose. Done badly, it's like wading through treacle, and produces impatience in the reader who just wants to know what happened next.

The commonest style, and the one that's easiest to read and easiest to write, is "invisible" style. My advice in this book is aimed at helping you to write invisibly, because if you use the basic tools of language correctly, nobody will notice that you're using them. Using them badly draws attention to your writing, for all the wrong reasons. It's like you're a cabinetmaker, and you've left tool marks on all your surfaces and your joints don't fit well. People will notice that you're incompetent with your tools, rather than noticing the piece of furniture and forgetting that it was made with tools at all.

Myself, I wouldn't advise attempting anything other than invisible style until you can write invisible style competently and smoothly. I see far too many people trying to write like authors they admire without the basic grasp of language and style that those authors possess. In particular, if your vocabulary isn't as large as you think it is (and most people's isn't), you'll embarrass yourself by using fancy words that you don't really know the meaning of. I see this all the time in books I review. If you're going to use a fancy word, look it up and make sure it means what you think it means.

The more you depart from normal or invisible style, the more obvious any mistakes will be, because the other styles deliberately call attention to your use of language. If you attempt a lush style, in particular, without understanding exactly what you're doing, it will fail, and fail horribly. A lot of readers don't like lush style much even when it's done well (I'm one of them), and seeing it done badly is agonising.

The time to let your prose draw attention to itself by dancing is after you're confident that it won't draw attention to itself by falling flat on its face.

By the way, if you want to read a wonderful (though tragic and heartwrenching) example of the use of changes in style and voice to convey a character's experience of the world, find a copy of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon (either the original short story or the novel that he later expanded it into). It's the journal of an intellectually disabled man who gets an experimental treatment that increases his intelligence to well above average, and what the author does with language is brilliant. The impact of the story would be much less without it.

It's also a great example of knowing when to break the rules. All rules--even the ones for correct punctuation--can be broken to create a deliberate effect (such as conveying the writing of a semi-literate, intellectually disabled man). Some people will tell you not to worry about the rules, that telling a good story is the important thing. Telling a good story is extremely important, but another important thing is to know the rules, and know the effect that you'll get from following them, and the effect that you'll get from not following them, and choose which effect you want--rather than accidentally create the effect of looking unprofessional.

May 02

Punctuated Equilibrium

Not long ago, I read a book on an aspect of writing craft (not writing mechanics, which is what I'm covering here, but a particular storytelling skill). It had some good content, but it was poorly organised, and the punctuation was practically random. It read as if the author didn't know when to use specific punctuation marks, so she just shoved one in every so often and hoped for the best.

This isn't a good strategy.

In this chapter, I'll cover all of the common punctuation marks except for the apostrophe and capital letter (which I've covered already) and the comma (which I'll cover later). I'm going to do a separate chapter on punctuating dialog, so this chapter won't go into detail about how to do that.

What I will cover is: the colon; the semicolon; the hyphen; the dash; the parenthesis; the ellipsis; the question mark; the exclamation mark; and the period or full stop.

Colons and Semicolons

I've just demonstrated one way to use the colon and semicolon in that previous sentence.

A colon introduces a list. A semicolon can be used (instead of a comma) to separate items in a list. It's especially useful if some of the items in the list have commas in them, because then it's clear when you've started a new item:

I saw three groups: my sisters; my brother, his wife, and their children; and my parents.

Just then, I used a colon to introduce an example. That's more something you'd do in nonfiction than in fiction.

The other way to use a colon is like this: after a grammatically complete phrase (one that could stand on its own as a sentence), which introduces another phrase and completes the thought. Make sure that the introductory phrase could stand on its own as a sentence, though. This is a fancy technique. Use it carefully, and only if you fully understand it.

Style guides differ on whether you should use a capital letter (that you wouldn't otherwise use) after a colon. Generally, you're safe not using the capital. Just be consistent.

As well as separating objects in lists, semicolons can be used as balance points; they can join together two complete sentences that contrast or, together, form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Again, that last sentence was an example of what it described.) I used to do this all the time, but my friends kindly pointed out that it sounds pretentious, and I eventually got over it. My advice is to do it only for deliberate effect.


Hyphens do two main jobs. They join together compound nouns and compound adjectives.

Compound nouns are made up of two or more words that are thought of as a single unit, but haven't quite fused into a single word (the formal term for fusing into a single word is being "styled closed"). It's always a good idea to check in whatever dictionary or style guide you use as your reference what the styling is for a particular compound noun. This is because there aren't any specific rules. You just have to make a call and then be consistent (and always looking it up in the same dictionary or style guide will ensure you're consistent). For example, "ink well," "inkwell" and "ink-well" are all valid.

By the way, for some compound words, styling them open (with a space) is incorrect or misleading. For example, "everyday" means something different from "every day". ("Everyday" is an adjective, meaning boring and routine, while "every day" means "on a daily basis". People often confuse the two.) If in any doubt at all, look it up.

Compound adjectives occur when you string together a number of words (not all of which are necessarily adjectives themselves) to describe a noun:

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The British rule is that you should always use the hyphens. The American rule is that you only need to use them when not using them would be ambiguous. My view is that if you use them all the time, then you don't have to think about whether not using them would make your words ambiguous.

For example, there's a difference between a heavy-metal detector (which detects heavy metals) and a heavy metal detector (which detects metals, and is heavy). There's a difference between a stolen property report (a report about a property, and the report has been stolen) and a stolen-property report (a report about some stolen property).

A common example of the compound-adjective pattern (see what I just did?) is this:

A two-year-old child.

Make sure you use both hyphens, as a two-year old child is, technically, a child that is both old and "two-year," whatever that means.

English being English, you can drop out the well-understood noun and talk about a two-year-old. But if you're saying "the child is two years old," don't use the hyphens, because then it isn't a compound adjective--it's not modifying a noun.

Also, don't hyphenate compounds including "very" or adverbs:

A very important meeting

A richly endowed foundation

(Good style advice is to avoid very in any case, and think of a stronger adjective in the first place: a vital meeting, for example. But sometimes very has its place.)

There's one other place that I often see authors leaving hyphens out: the numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine inclusive. If you spell these numbers out, make sure to include the hyphens.

Dashes and Parentheses

In a manuscript, a dash is indicated by two hyphens following one another, with no space between and no space before or after:

Word processing programs will often change this into an em dash, which looks like this:

For purposes of submitting your manuscript, either turn them all into dashes (or let your word processing program do it), or else leave them all as double hyphens. Don't mix the two up.

If you're self-publishing, convert them all to proper dashes. Make sure they're the wider em dashes, not the shorter en dashes which are used, in typography, between two numbers to indicate a range.

Parentheses are sometimes called round brackets, and look like this:

Dashes and parentheses do the same job. They separate off a part of the sentence where you are (in effect) interrupting yourself to add some more detail--necessary or not--before getting back to your main point. And I've just demonstrated them both in one clumsy sentence.

If you're using dashes and parentheses in this way, make sure that you could remove the whole section that they surround and the remaining sentence would still make complete grammatical sense.

The choice between dashes and parentheses is a matter of style and emphasis. You can also use parenthetical commas in the same way, but I'll talk about that in a later chapter.

You can use a single dash to indicate that someone has interrupted themselves:

Have you seen--oh, hello, Colin.

Do not use a single parenthesis under any circumstances. If you open them, make sure you close them. Don't leave your readers hanging.


An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) consists of three dots:

It is not two dots. It is not six dots. It is not however many dots you feel like typing at the time. It is three dots.

If it's at the end of the sentence, it should be followed by a period or full stop, making four dots in all.

An ellipsis, like a single dash, indicates that someone has interrupted themselves, or trailed off, leaving the thought incomplete....

Ending a Sentence

There are three punctuation marks which you can use to end a sentence in English. Use one, and only one, of them for any given sentence.

The question mark is used to mark the end of a sentence which is a question:

But how did the bear get into the Jeffries tube?

Always use it if your sentence is a question. It takes precedence over the exclamation mark. If your sentence is both a question and an exclamation, use the question mark (not the exclamation mark, and certainly not both).

Do not use it if your sentence is not a question:

He asked how the bear got in the Jeffries tube.

Here, someone is asking a question, but you are not phrasing the sentence as a question, so it does not get a question mark.

Use one question mark, not two, not three, not however many you feel like typing at the time.

The exclamation mark indicates that a sentence (which is not a question) is an exclamation. As a general rule, only use it in dialog. You should not be exclaiming your narrative. It makes you sound overexcited.

Use only one exclamation mark, not two, not three, not however many you feel like typing at the time.

The period or full stop ends a sentence which is not a question or an exclamation.

Use only one full stop. Three full stops make an ellipsis (see above). If you put an ellipsis at the end of the sentence, add a full stop for a total of four dots.

A poorly punctuated manuscript or book feels choppy and awkward, and the reader will be distracted from the story by trying to figure out what the author means. In a well-punctuated text, the punctuation disappears into the background, as it should. Most readers won't know why it feels smooth and professionally written, but it will.

Apr 25

Capital Errors

At first I thought that I would be able to deal with capital letters in a couple of paragraphs, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that they need their own chapter. I will throw in a few extra comments about terms of address, though.

Capitals are used for several different reasons. These include:

  • Beginning a sentence
  • The pronoun "I"
  • Names and titles of people
  • Place names
  • Names of brands or trademarked objects
  • Objects of special importance
  • Abbreviations

They are not used for generic names.

Let's go through these. If you don't use capitals to begin your sentences, or for people's names, or for "I", in the manuscripts you're submitting or the books you're self-publishing, then you have more issues than I can probably help you with. I can understand why, if you're in a casual environment like social media and typing fast or on a mobile device, you might skip these capitals, though ideally it's best to appear professional at all times (people do judge your writing by your social media communication, if you're an author). Let's move on from those straightforward cases, though, to something with more complex rules: people's titles.

Titles, Terms of Address, and Capitals

If you're talking about "the king," "your mom," or "the colonel," you don't need capitals. However, if you're talking about "the King of England," "King Henry" or "Colonel Baird," you do - both for the name and also for the title. Basically, if there's an element (whether it's a placename, like "England," or a person's name) that has a capital, and a title's associated with it, the title gets a capital as well. (In American usage especially, you can get away with dropping the capital if the title occurs after the name: Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City.)

The title also gets a capital if you're using it as a term of address, since it's standing in for a name. "Hi, Mom!" requires the capital. So does "Good morning, Colonel." They get capitals when you're talking to them, but not when you're talking about them (using their generic title and not their name): "Let's ask my dad. Hey, Dad!"

I'll digress briefly here to talk about how you address someone with a title. I read a lot of fantasy fiction, which tends to have medieval people in it, and they often have titles. I frequently see the titles handled incorrectly.

A king is "Your Majesty". A prince is "Your Highness". (Not the other way around, and I've seen both of them swapped over.) A duke is "Your Grace". They don't get addressed by the name of their title. Prince Charles has been known to joke that when he's in America and people address him as "Prince" he feels like one of the Air Force mascot dogs.

A knight or baronet is addressed, and referred to, as "Sir Firstname," or referred to as "Sir Firstname Surname". He is never, ever correctly referred to or addressed as "Sir Surname," a mistake I've seen in more than one published story.

If you're going to include title-holders in your fiction, take the time to check into how they should be referred to and addressed. The Wikipedia article on Royal and Noble Styles is a good starting point, but consider people like bishops, ambassadors and so forth as well. Part of giving a sense of time and place in your story is getting things like this right.

The usage differed from country to country and changed at different periods, of course, but unless you're writing fiction set in a real place and time in our world that isn't post-18th-century Britain, if you stick with current British usage you'll probably be all right.

Regardless of your feelings about religion, if you're using God to refer to a specific deity (even one you don't believe in), it's a name or title, and should be capitalised. If you're talking about a god, using the term generically, it isn't. The use of a capital when referring to God or Christ by the pronoun He is falling out of use, even among Christians, but I would use it if I was portraying the speech of a devout believer or someone from earlier times.

The Bible, the Quran, the Torah and the Diamond Sutra all get capitals, but if you're using "bible" generically (the show's story bible) it doesn't.


Places also get capitals, and the rule is similar to the rule with people's names. Refer to the river but the Mississippi River, the ocean but the Pacific Ocean, the lake but Lake Placid, the desert but the Sahara Desert. I often see writers miss out the capital on the ocean/river/lake/desert/plain/mountain/street part, and that's not correct if you're referring to a specific place by name. Likewise Lincoln's Inn, St Margaret's Church, Cambridge University, but the inn, the church (if you mean a building; the Church is the organisation as an abstract whole), the university.

The North is a place, but north is a direction, and doesn't get a capital. The West Bank is a specific place, and gets the capital, but the west bank of the river doesn't, because it's a generic place--many different rivers have west banks.

Now, you can make a case for capitalising, for example, "the River" if this particular river is extremely important and everyone knows which one you mean when you say "the River". That's fine. But don't deny it its capital when it's part of the name of a specific river.

Names of Things

A similar rule applies with very important items, like the Ring in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (Watch out for Fantasy Noun Disease, in which you capitalise every second thing and fill your sentences with strange names and titles. You'll lose most readers very quickly). Official names of things, like the White House, the Department of the Interior or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, get capitals (though not for minor words, like "of" and "the"), but generic nouns like department and police don't.

Generic nouns in general don't get capitals: a glass of vodka, a brougham, an oak tree. (Don't laugh, I've seen all of those capitalised.) If you go around capitalising nouns all the time, you sound either German or 18th-century, which is fine if that's your intention, not fine if it isn't.

Generic nouns don't get capitals, but trademarks do, so a glass of Smirnoff, a Xerox copy, an iPhone. Use the spelling and capitalisation that's official for the brand, which means if you're not sure, look it up. (If you are sure, it's still a good idea to look it up, in case you're wrong. When I worked as an editor, my mantra was, "Always check everything, even the things you think are right." It saved me from several embarrassing errors.)

Languages and nationalities get capitals, even when they're not acting as nouns: Asian cuisine, my French teacher (but my geography teacher), the Greek alphabet. Religions, also: a Jewish skullcap, Buddhism, he's Presbyterian.
Specific days get capitals: Easter, Christmas, Remembrance Day. Seasons don't: summer, winter.


Some common abbreviations, like i.e. and e.g., are conventionally written in lower case (without capitals). Others, like OK, are conventionally written in capitals. (You can spell it okay, without a capital, but don't write it as ok. That looks particularly odd when you start a sentence with it and the O is capitalised.)

You'll notice that sometimes abbreviations have periods in and sometimes not. The trend is away from using periods in acronyms (IBM, not I.B.M.--especially since it's no longer an acronym for International Business Machines, just a three-letter name). If you use abbreviations, check on the usual styling in a style guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), or in a dictionary. Follow the most common practice, which will be the first one listed, and be consistent, and you'll be fine. This is general advice for everything that isn't covered here specifically, by the way.

In general, the rule for capitals is:

If it's a generic term, and not a name of something specific or standing in for a name, it doesn't get a capital. If it's part of a specific name, it does.

Apr 24

Apostrophe Wrangling

Now that we've dealt with why you'd want to get your manuscript right, and how to lay it out for submission, let's get into the details: the basics of punctuation and word usage that make you look like a professional writer instead of an amateur. First of all, apostrophes.

Apostrophes actually follow a couple of simple rules, even if one of them is slightly confusing (as we'll discuss below). Here are the rules:

  1. An apostrophe is used after a noun to indicate that the person or thing referred to by the noun owns something. If an "s" is pronounced, and isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe.
  2. An apostrophe is used to indicate that one or more letters have been left out of a word in the speaker's pronunciation.

Some people who are under the vague impression that apostrophes occur before the letter "s" at the end of words will add apostrophes where they don't belong. This is called the "greengrocer's apostrophe," because you often see it outside the business premises of people who think they are selling "potatoe's". They aren't. They are selling potatoes.

Let's look at both of the apostrophe rules, break them down and explain some of the ways in which people (even good writers) get confused about them.

1. Possessive Apostrophes

Here's our first rule again:

An apostrophe is used after a noun to indicate that the person or thing referred to by the noun owns something. If an "s" is pronounced, and isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe.

The straightforward case first: singular noun (only one person or thing).

The alligator belongs to John. It is John's alligator.

Please forgive me for beginning with the very basics. People do still get this one wrong, leaving the apostrophe out or putting it in the wrong place. Most of them aren't writers, but a few are.

That was simple. How about a plural noun? The rule again: The apostrophe goes after the noun. If an "s" is pronounced, and it isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe. So the order is: noun, apostrophe, extra "s" if needed.

The entrance is used by the servants. It is the servants' entrance.

That's one that a surprisingly large number of writers get wrong, even writers who otherwise make few errors. All the servants, not just one servant, own (or use) the entrance, so "servants" is the noun. After that comes the apostrophe. There's already an "s," so we don't need another one.

I read a book once that referred to "the peasant's revolt". Poor fellow, he can't have got very far by himself.

Now, there are a few nouns in English (men, women, children, brethren and oxen are the only ones I can think of) that preserve an old-fashioned plural form from before everything else standardised on the "s" plural. I've seen people get possessive apostrophes wrong with these because they don't know the rule properly, or don't think it through.

The aardvark belongs to the children. It is the children's aardvark.

Resist the temptation to put the apostrophe after the "s", and think through the rule. Noun, apostrophe, then "s" if it's needed. "Children" is the noun, so the apostrophe goes straight after it, and then the "s" at the end.

What about if you're talking about a family, using their surname to refer to them collectively? Same rule: noun (which is the family's name, but in the plural form because you're talking about more than one of them), apostrophe, extra "s" if you pronounce one (but you don't, because it's already part of the noun).

This archaeological dig belongs to the Joneses. It is the Joneses' archaeological dig.

This spaceship belongs to the Robinsons. It is the Robinsons' spaceship.

But if you're using an individual's surname, you do put an extra "s" after the apostrophe, if you pronounce it:

This is Indiana Jones's dig.

This is Tom Robinson's spaceship.

Some people don't pronounce the extra "s" if there's already one in the name:

This is Ezekiel Jones' desk.

Either way, the rule works.

That one rule is all you need to know to get possessive plurals right 100% of the time. Noun (singular or plural), then the apostrophe, and finally another "s" if you pronounce it and it isn't already part of the noun.

Pronouns don't count as nouns for purposes of this rule, by the way. I'll talk about them more below.

Special Phrases

There are a couple of phrases that require possessive apostrophes but don't always get them. Again, if you think them through you'll understand why the apostrophe should be there.

One is arm's length, as in "she kept him at arm's length". It means that she kept him at the length of her arm--or, if you like, at the length belonging to her arm. You could make a case for phrasing it as at arms' length, though that isn't how it's most commonly punctuated. In either case, the apostrophe still needs to be in there.

The other is three weeks' notice. I often see variations of this (with various lengths of time) missing their apostrophe. It's not instantly obvious that the apostrophe is needed, but think for a moment: you'd say a week's notice, not a week notice. If it's a week's notice then it needs to be three weeks' notice to be consistent and follow our first rule.

2. Abbreviating Apostrophes

Apostrophes also have another purpose, as in our second rule:

An apostrophe is used to indicate that one or more letters have been left out of a word in the speaker's pronunciation.

For example: isn't, ain't, don't, let's, we'll, you'd, hangin', 'Arry.

In the case of isn't, ain't and don't, the missing letter is the "o" of "not".

In the case of let's, the missing letter is the "u" of "us".

It isn't always just one letter. In the case of we'll, there are two missing letters, the "w" and "i" of "will". The word you'd drops almost the whole of the word "would," four out of the five letters.

Notice that all of these are examples where two words have been compressed into one. The missing space just goes missing, with no apostrophe to mark its disappearance. It gets no respect.

The missing letter or letters can be at the beginning or end of the word, as well as in the middle, as in hangin' or 'Arry (Harry pronounced with a Cockney accent - notice that the A takes over the capital, because it's someone's name). As a side note, use this kind of dialect indicator sparingly. It quickly becomes annoying to the reader.

So What About Pronouns?

The most common apostrophe mistakes by far are the ones with pronouns, like it's/its, they're/their and so forth. This is for a couple of reasons.

The first is that our minds don't always clearly distinguish between two words that sound alike but are spelled differently. It's a glitch in our mental software. Even if you know which word is the right one, you may sometimes type the wrong one, especially if you're in a hurry or distracted. If you know you're prone to doing that, you need to become more vigilant in checking your work. (I'll have some tips for catching more typos in a later chapter.)

The second reason people confuse these words is that they are confusing. It seems like the first rule should apply, and it's should mean "belonging to it". But actually the second rule applies, and it's means it is.

If it helps, you can think of it this way: pronouns (it, they and so forth) don't count as full nouns and so don't share in their privileges or responsibilities when it comes to apostrophe rule number one.

What may help more is my simple trick for keeping these pairs of words straight. Just compare them to she's and her, which sound completely different from each other, but follow the same pattern as the rest of the pronouns. Like this:

Pronoun [Pronoun] is Belonging to Pronoun
she she's her
he he's his
it it's its
they they're their
we we're our
who who's whose

If you're genuinely stuck and can't remember which way round the rule goes, ask yourself "would I say she's or her if I was talking about a woman here?" Then use the form with the same number of apostrophes.

We'll talk more about typos like we're/were and we'll/well in a later chapter. Those are usually problems of the typing hands more than problems of understanding. For now, I hope that's made the rules of apostrophes clearer for you.