Showing posts with label punctuation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label punctuation. Show all posts

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 7: Apostrophes

Sometimes people underrate the importance of punctuation. If your work is full of errors, you risk not only confusing and/or annoying your readers, but you also risk losing credibility. Punctuation errors are bad enough in a novel or a short story, but if you're writing non-fiction, your readers may think, “Hmm...if this guy can't put apostrophes in the right place, can I really trust his expertise in the subject matter?” This is something you do not want your readers to think.

Recently I read an independently published non-fiction book plagued with so many apostrophe errors that the author unwittingly inspired today's post. Here are the main types of errors he made, over and over again:

1) Wrong: His mothers fears
Right: His mother's fears

If you're showing possession, you need that apostrophe. Otherwise is looks like a plural. This would be doubly confusing if it were “His mothers fear” because that reads like he has two mothers and they both fear something. It's not until the next word that the reader is jarred into the intended meaning: “His mothers fear was made reality.” Oh...his mother (or mothers, we're still not sure because it's not punctuated correctly) had a fear and it came true.

2) Wrong: Humanities primal urges. Also would be wrong: Humanitie's primal urges.
Right: Humanity's primal urges

When a word ends in y, and you want to make it PLURAL, you change the y to i and add es. But when you want to make it POSSESSIVE, you do not change the y. Just add apostrophe s. The city's streets are clean. Not many cities are so clean.

3) Wrong: A process which Heracles labours are forcing him to undergo.
Right: Heracles' labours... OR Heracles's labours

The correct way to punctuate names and singular nouns that end in s is debatable, and depends on which style guide you use, though nowadays most lean toward adding the apostrophe s instead of just the apostrophe. Charles's camera. The bus's back tires. But of course, if the noun is plural, you just add the apostrophe. The girls' playhouse (there are at least two girls).

4) Wrong: The sea's were troubled.
Right: The seas were troubled.

It's a plural noun. The apostrophe has no place here. Exceptions may be made (depending on which style guide you follow) for acronyms, years, and other strange cases. Some people write CD's, DVD's, etc. when they mean multiple CDs or DVDs. They write the 1980's when referring to the decade, instead of the 1980s. I personally think this is imprecise and potentially confusing, but it's common and often considered acceptable. You should use an apostrophe in plurals of some one-letter words that would be confused with other words if you didn't add the apostrophe. So, for example, you can write “I replaced all the a's with i's in my secret message.” These a's and i's are plural, not possessive, and would generally not use apostrophes, but if you don't add the apostrophe, you get this: “I replaced all the as with is in the secret message.”

5) Wrong: Helios see's all things.
Right: Helios sees all things.

Never put an apostrophe s in a verb UNLESS you're making a contraction with is or has (he's tired, she's singing, Mary's awake, the cat's never caught a bird before, the world's been going downhill..) Otherwise, just don't do it. Please. A regular s is sufficient. Helios sees. Helios hears. Helios knows.

6) Wrong: It's muscles flexed.
Right: Its muscles flexed.

This is a very, very, very common error. It's is a contraction of it and is (It's hot in here). Its is the possessive of it (This book is complicated. Its appendix of characters is twenty-seven pages long.). I think most of us know this, but it's easy to make the error in haste or with bad typing and then not catch it later because we know what it's supposed to say, so our brain skips over the error. If you're worried about it, there's a long, boring solution: use the find feature on your word processor to hunt down every example of both it's and its in your manuscript and make sure they're all right. While you're at it, check you're and your.

A few other things to remember:

“My parents' house is old” means that the house belongs to both your parents.
“My parent's house is old “ means that the house belongs to one of your parents (and for some reason you call this person your parent instead of your mom or dad.)

Let's is not the same as lets
Let's go swimming this afternoon. Mom never lets me go swimming.

Who's is not the same as whose
Who's going to cook tonight? Whose carrots are these?

They're is not the same as their
They're going to cook tonight? But their carrots are old.

You're is not the same as your
You're invited. Your invitation got lost in the mail.

We're is not the same as were and he's is not the same as his. Yes, these last ones should be obvious, but I've seen the mistakes in work people felt ready to publish.

The problem with these types of errors is that spell checker will never find them. Your grammar checker won't help a lot either. You have a sacred duty to your readers to find somebody (yes, an actual person, and preferably several of them) that will be able to hunt down and correct errors like this after you do your best to correct them yourself.

Happy hunting.

For more punctuation help, see my other posts:
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 5:  Adjectives with Commas
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 6:  Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 6: Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

Compound Adjectives before Nouns

If punctuation is a guide to help your reader understand more quickly and easily, then hyphens can be very useful signposts.  One of the most important and overlooked functions of the hyphen is to warn the reader, "Hey, I'm a compound adjective!"  Unfamiliar with the terminology?  It doesn't matter.  Your readers' brains are familiar with the reality.

Take this classic example: 

Hyphens, just like commas, can decide who lives and who dies.

Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

A compound adjective is two words that function as one word to modify a noun.  In "man-eating alligator," man and eating work together as one unit.  It's not a man alligator and an eating alligator.  It's a man-eating alligator.

Rule:  If a compound adjective comes before a noun, you can (and often should) hyphenate it. 

A thin-bladed knife
A 30-mile race
A nervous-looking boy
A leather-bound book
Bird-like legs
A well-known politician

Exception : If the compound adjective uses an adverb ending in –ly, don't hyphenate. This is because the –ly already alerts the reader that this will be a compound adjective.

A badly cooked steak
A wildly painted car
A quickly written memo

Note:  Some people prefer to leave out the hyphen if the meaning is clear without, but that can be dangerous.  The meaning is obvious to you, since you wrote it.  The reader doesn't have the same advantage.  So be careful if you decide to omit these hyphens.  And always be on the lookout for situations where the lack of hyphen can completely change the meaning, as in the examples below.

Hyphens Clear up Ambiguity

From Grammar Monkeys:

Small-state senator (a senator from a small state)
Small state senator (a state senator who is short and thin)

A violent weather conference (a weather conference where people punch each other a lot)
A violent-weather conference (where meteorologists professionally discuss violent weather)

A hot yoga teacher (an attractive yoga teacher)
A hot-yoga teacher (one who teaches yoga in a purposely hot environment, as in the style of Bikram yoga)

From (a great resource)

I have a few more important things to do. (A few more tasks remain on my list of important things to do)
I have a few more-important things to do. (I can't do what you suggest because I have tasks that are more important.)

He returned the stolen vehicle report. (At first, most of us will think he returned the vehicle he stole.  Then we come to "report" and we're confused.)
He returned the stolen-vehicle report. (Here it's clear that what he's returning is a report about a stolen vehicle.  The vehicle is probably still missing.)


Students who live in two parent homes (students who split their time between two homes where parents also live)
Students who live in two-parent homes (students who live in a home with both parents)

From Wikipedia:

Zero-liability protection (you are not responsible in any way if something bad happens)
Zero liability protection (you have no zero protection if something bad happens)

Examples I've come across lately in reading:

Hard sell tactics (selling tactics which are difficult to perform)
Hard-sell tactics (aggressive selling tactics which perhaps play on the fears of the potential buyer)

A long deserted chamber (a long—perhaps narrow—chamber that happens to be deserted at the moment)
A long-deserted chamber (a chamber that has been deserted for a long time)

Hyphens Make Reading Smoother

Here are some other examples that aren't so ambiguous but that will still often trip up the reader for a moment if you leave out the hyphen.  Making your reader stop to think and re-read is something you should reserve for clever plot twists, elegant and thought-provoking lines, or intriguing ideas.  Don't make them stop and re-read because of lacking punctuation. 

Steel-plated boots
Custom-made device
Death-dealing steel
Decent-sized vessel
Grey-haired man
Sword-shaped hole
North-facing terrace
Cream-colored stones
Dirt-eating scum
Fire-lit faces

Remember that if you want to wrap your reader in your characters' world, you need to provide as few pointless distractions as possible.  And unclear punctuation is one of the biggest culprits in the world of pointless distraction.

For more in this series:
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 5:  Adjectives with Commas

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 5: Adjectives and Commas

Image by Peter Arkle

I'm back with more punctuation tips!

Commas between two adjectives

When you have two adjectives in a row, sometimes you put a comma between and sometimes you don't. The fancy grammar explanation has to do with whether the adjectives are coordinate or non-coordinate, and their underlying semantic categories, but you don't really need to know all that. All you need is the rule of thumb.

Rule of Thumb:

If you can REVERSE the two words or put AND between them, and it still sounds okay, you need the comma (to show that the adjectives are equal).

If you can't reverse or put AND, you shouldn't put a comma.

Example 1:
The slippery, slimy frog (good)
The slimy, slippery frog (good)
The slippery and slimy frog (good)
You need a comma between

Example 2;
The big foreign car (good)
The foreign big car (sounds weird and unnatural)
The big and foreign car (sounds a little weird)
Don't put a comma

NOTE: If you've done the tests and it's still not clear (maybe one test sounds a little awkward, but not totally wrong), it can probably go either way, depending on what you want to emphasize. Just make the call and then don't worry too much about it.


For each sentence, insert or delete commas between adjectives as necessary.

1) I hated the stupid iron bars on the windows.
2) She worked twelve hours a day in a cold wet cave.
3) He sang to his laughing, gurgling baby.
4) They ate delicious, ham sandwiches in a bright airy diner.
5) The sleek, silk dress must have cost a fortune.
6) The fluffy purring kitten softened his hard unyielding heart.
7) We suffered through the long boring meeting.
8) They all understood the complicated, geometry problem.
9) No one wanted the old, beat-up, lawn chair.
10) Samantha's wide, happy smile shone like the warm summer sun.

Practice ANSWERS (Highlight everything from here to "End Practice Answers" to reveal them.)
1) I hated the stupid iron bars on the windows. (Correct as is)
2) She worked twelve hours a day in a cold, wet cave.
3) He sang to his laughing, gurgling baby. (Correct as is)
4) They ate delicious ham sandwiches in a bright, airy diner.
5) The sleek silk dress must have cost a fortune. (This one's a little iffy, but probably you don't want a comma because "silk dress" is one unit.  If you think "dress" is independent, and "sleek" and "silk" modify it equally, you can put the comma.  If it were "silky," you'd surely put a comma)
6) The fluffy, purring kitten softened his hard, unyielding heart.
7) We suffered through the long, boring meeting.
8) They all understood the complicated geometry problem.
9) No one wanted the old, beat-up lawn chair. (the comma between "old" and "beat-up" is correct, but you can't reverse "beat-up" and "lawn" (The lawn, beat-up chair), so you don't need a comma there.
10) Samantha's wide, happy smile shone like the warm summer sun. (Correct as is)
End Practice Answers
Any you disagree with?  Let me know below.  Because we all know punctuation can be slippery.

For more:  
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 4: Question Marks

The Mysterious Case of the Missing (or Gratuitous) Question Mark

Missing Question Marks
Everyone knows that you should put a question mark after a question.  Sometimes, however, it simply gets forgotten.  This happens more frequently in the following situations, so keep an eye out for them, and be sure to end them with a question mark, as shown below.
-Long and convoluted questions
     What is the best time of year—and I’m talking about a normal year, not like that crazy one we had in 2012, with hurricanes in winter and snow in July—for mushroom hunting in France?
-Questions with downward intonation, making them feel more like statements.
     Do you prefer red or blue?
     We aren’t in Kansas anymore, are we?
-Questions that were statements in your first draft, and which you since reworded.  It’s easy to forget to switch the corresponding punctuation.

One way to help catch these missing marks is to read aloud.  This is especially useful in discovering overly long or complicated questions (and sentences).  Train yourself so that when you see the beginning of a question, you automatically look ahead to see if you have the required punctuation.

Gratuitous Question Marks
Perhaps even more disturbing than missing question marks are question marks where they don't belong.  Just as you've trained yourself to look for questions and make sure you have the accompanying punctuation, train yourself to stop when you see a question mark, go back, and decide whether or not you need it.  As you revise, look for the following common places to find gratuitous question marks, and make sure that you cut them out, as shown below. 
-“Wonder” statements
     I wonder if bears get hot in summer. 
     I often ask myself where my life is going. 
     I was wondering what time I could come by for a consultation.
-Statements of uncertainty.
     I don’t know where the president is. 
     I’m not sure if you’re supposed to add butter or flour first.
-Commands that feel like questions
     Tell me where you stashed the money. 
     Guess who I saw today in the supermarket.*
     Let me know if you need anything. 
-Reported and indirect questions. 
     The cop asked us what we were doing out so late at night. 
     The question is whether or not we should open a new branch office in Detroit. 
     I need to know who that man is. 

None of these are questions, grammatically, even if they have a sort of question feel.  They should thus not take question marks. 

If you really want a question mark, sometimes you can rephrase. 
I wonder:  do bears get hot in summer?
I’m not sure:  are you supposed to add butter or flour first? 
The question is:  should we open a new branch office in Detroit?

*Gray Areas: 

1)  “Guess what?”  This is debatable.  Some experts say that it’s a command, and should always be punctuated as such.  Others say that it depends on the intention.  If your character is just excited, and doesn’t really expect someone to guess, stick with the more correct period (or judiciously placed exclamation point).  If your character pauses for someone to actually guess, demanding a response like a regular question, consider breaking the rule and using a question mark.

2)  Polite requests.  “Would you shut the door?” vs “Would you shut the door.”  Again, many experts claim that this is actually a command, not a question, and thus should be punctuated with a period.  Others say that, grammatically, it’s a question, and should thus take a question mark.  Very long, complicated requests like this do well with periods.  With shorter requests, however, you’re less likely to jar your reader if you simply use a question mark.  Now if you want to jar your reader, that’s a whole other story, and a great use of a period.  See below.

Punctuation can help your subtlety

Example 1:
You have a scene where one character says, “Would you come in and shut the door.”
Now look at the same scene punctuated differently:  “Would you come in and shut the door?”

See the difference?  Without actually saying so, you’ve indicated in the first scene that your character is serious, or the situation’s serious, or he’s the type of person who never actually asks, but only demands. 

Example 2:
“John isn’t leaving, is he?”
“John isn’t leaving, is he.”

In the first scene, your character is worried because she hasn’t had the chance to say goodbye yet.  In the second, the shady punctuation hints that your character has just discovered that John isn’t leaving after all, and he’s disappointed.  You could also write this:  
“John isn’t leaving, is he?” Lionel asked dejectedly.
But which one is more subtle?

Other Question Marks
Of course, don’t forget that you can make statements into questions just by adding a question mark, and it’s completely legal.
We’re eating deer?
You stood in the rain all night?

Just don’t do it when you don’t mean to:  You deserve to have beautiful glowing skin?  Try our new product line.

You know the rules.  Now train your editing eyes to see the errors.  

For more:
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases

Melinda Brasher spends her time writing, traveling, and teaching English abroad. She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books. Her short fiction appears in Ellipsis Literature and Art, Enchanted Conversation, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and others. Visit her online at

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 3: Commas in Participial Phrases

Commas with Participial Phrases

Good writing is about more than grammar and punctuation.  It's about great characters, difficult decisions, high stakes, and insight into the human condition.'s also about good grammar and punctuation.  Sometimes, important marks gets omitted, like the poor little comma in the illustration here.  Perhaps the omission is in the effort to make writing smoother.  Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effect.  Here's one type of common omission..   

When you have an independent clause (“Nathan stumbled along in front of the guard”), followed by a dependent clause starting with an "–ing" verb (“looking for ways to escape”), ask yourself whether you can stick who was/that was in the middle.  Does it still make sense? 

Example 1:
Test:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard WHO WAS looking for ways to escape.  Um…the guard was looking for ways to escape?  No, Nathan was looking for ways to escape.  You therefore need a comma in the middle to indicate that the subject of the first clause is also the one doing the second clause. 

Correct:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard, looking for ways to escape.
Incorrect:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard looking for ways to escape.

Example 2:  I sat on the sofa sagging in the corner.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS sagging in the corner.  Makes sense.  No comma.

Example 3:  I sat on the sofa massaging my ankle.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS massaging my ankle.  Cool sofa!  I want one.  But really, that’s not what you meant at all. The sofa wasn't massaging your ankle.  You were.  So you need the commas before the –ing.

Correct:  I sat on the sofa, massaging my ankle.

Example 4: “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone looking in horror at the fire.
Test:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone THAT WAS looking in horror at the fire.  Hmm…that's a really smart phone.

Correct:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone, looking in horror at the fire.

Use the "THAT WAS" test: 
If you can stick that was in the middle and it still makes sense, no comma.
If you stick in that was and it changes the meaning, put a comma between the clauses.

Note:  It works in other situations too.  Other adjective or participial phrases modifying a subject earlier in the sentence have this same comma pattern.

Example 6:  She continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings oblivious to the threat at her front gate. 
Test:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings WHO WERE oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  Technically, the plants were oblivious, but you probably mean that Liz was oblivious.

Correct:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings, oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  

Often this mistake just requires that your reader pause a moment and re-evaluate, but sometimes it leads to mass confusion.  "John walked up to the man kissing the belly dancer."  Obviously the man was kissing the belly dancer.  If you meant that John was kissing the belly dancer, your readers aren't going to understand, so put in the comma.

NOTE:  If you're a person who doesn't use any commas unless absolutely necessary, you can sometimes omit this comma.  However, if there's any possibility that your reader will misunderstand, it's best to follow the rule and include it.   

Want more punctuation tips?  
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher writes mainstream short stories, science fiction, fantasy, and travel articles.  To find her work online, in print, or as e-books, explore her website:

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 2: Dialogue

Commas and Periods in Dialogue

We all love dialogue in books, but your readers will love it less if it’s punctuated awkwardly. Here is the solution to a common error in dialogue punctuation.

First, make the distinction between what I call “dialogue tags” and “action tags.”

A dialogue tag uses said or another similar speaking word.  For example, “he said,” “I asked,” or “she whispered.”  As long as you don’t get carried away with attention-grabbing synonyms like ordered, commiserated, murmured, contradicted, these dialogue tags are good because they’re short and almost invisible.  They let the reader focus on the dialogue itself.  However, you don’t want to use them with every line of dialogue, or you’ll sound repetitive and choppy.

An action tag does not contain a synonym for said.  Instead, it’s simply an action the character performs before, during, or while speaking.  Example: “Magda slammed her fist on the table,” or “Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.”  These are great because they break up the dialogue while giving either a better insight into the character or a better image of the scene as a whole.  When using an action tag, you don’t have to put in the dialogue tag—and usually should’t—because the reader understands that the person doing the action is the same person speaking.

Magda slammed her fist on the table.  “I’m not going to ignore this any longer.”
“So, you think I’m manipulating you.”  Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.

In good writing, you use both dialogue and action tags.  But in good writing, you also remember to punctuate them correctly.     

Rule #1:  Use a comma with dialogue tags.

“I love you,” she whispered.
He said, “That’s unfortunate.”

Rule #2:  Use a period with action tags.

“I love you.”  She twined her fingers through his.
He coughed.  “That’s unfortunate.”

Miscellaneous Rules: 

When combining the two types of tags, you’ll usually need the comma.

He rose to his feet and shouted, “Not guilty!”
“Order in the court,” the judge demanded, slamming down his gavel.

If your dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, capitalize as if it were a comma.

“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Absolutely not!” he yelled.

Don’t be fooled by words like smile.

Incorrect:  He smiled, “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” 
Correct:  He smiled.  “Welcome to your worst nightmare.”

Be careful with "said" when it has its own direct object.  That makes it its own sentence, and should be punctuated like an action tag.  
Incorrect:  "I'm tired," she said it with an apologetic smile.
Correct:  "I'm tired."  She said it with an apologetic smile.
OR:  "I'm tired," she said with an apologetic smile.

The Gray Area

There is room for debate here, on some verbs like laugh, sob, spit, etc., which involve the mouth or throat, but aren’t really speaking words.  For example, I think that you can sob out words, so I can use “sob” as a dialogue tag or an action tag.  I also think you can laugh and talk (rather unintelligibly) at the same time, so I sometimes use laugh as a dialogue tag.  When you’re really angry, I think you can spit words.  Others disagree.  I believe, however, that if you make the conscious decision on a gray-area verb, it’s a matter of style, not a mistake.


“I killed him,” she sobbed. (Sounds good to me, as if she’s crying and talking at the same time.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed.  (Sounds awkward to me, like she said it and only then started crying.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed into her bloody hands. (Sounds good.  If I want to use these gray verbs as action tags, adding a little extra detail usually gets rid of the choppiness.)

Punctuation is a guide for your readers.  Make it work for you and for them.

Join me next month for more about the exciting world of punctuation.

Note that these examples and rules are for Standard American English (SAE).  Punctuation in other regions may differ.  If you have any examples of difference, we'd love to see them in the comments below.  Thanks!

Read Melinda Brasher's free short story, "A Learned Man," on Electric Spec's current issue.   It's a bit of a ghost story based on a two-page folk tale she read in a library in small-town El Salvador.  Inspiration will sneak up and whack you on the head if you're not careful.  You can also find more of her work on 

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 1: The Vocative Comma

Commas Save Lives

Your story is written.  You have compelling characters, a rich setting, deep symbolism, and a perfectly twisty plot.  You're ready to share your creation with the world.  But take a moment to consider the underrated art of punctuation.

Punctuation isn't a ridiculous torture device invented by English teachers.  It's a guide for your reader.  Used properly, those little commas, periods, and quotation marks help your reader interpret your words correctly the first time.  After all, you masterpiece isn't a masterpiece if people keep getting tripped up by punctuation (or lack thereof). 

Today we'll consider just one little rule, simple but often ignored.

The Vocative Comma:
When you address someone or something directly, use commas to set off the name or title. 
    Your car is ready, Mr. President.
    Alex, turn off that horrid music.
    At the end of the day, folks, the only thing that matters is how many people we help.
    Stupid computer, can't you just work right this once?

When authors forget this rule, at best the result is clunky or awkward.  At worst, it creates an entirely different meaning.  Here's the most classic example: 
           Let's eat Grandpa.
           Let's eat, Grandpa.
If your character is a heartless cannibal, the first version is fine.  Otherwise, you need the comma.

More Examples:

I don’t know Mom (character denying any familiarity with his mother)
I don't know, Mom (character telling his mother that he doesn't know something)

You are Sigmund.  (Revealing to an amnesiac that his name is Sigmund)
You are, Sigmund.  (Answering Sigmund's question, "Who's the crazy one here?")

Children put your toys away.  (You have very young servants who clean up your toys for you)
Children, put your toys away.  (You're telling your kids to put their toys away). 

I killed, John (character admitting to John that he killed someone)
I killed John (character admitting to the police that he murdered John)

You called me father (I'm not really your father, but it touches me that you consider me like a father.)
You called me, father.  (You're my dad, and I'm returning your phone call.)

I'll see you in February June. (You're a little confused about dates)
I'll see you in February, June (You have an appointment in February with your friend June)

And that man is the truth. (You're apparently looking at the god of truth or something)
And that, man, is the truth. (Man, I'm telling the truth)

Don't marry, Alice (Alice, stay single!  Marriage is for the birds.)
Don't marry Alice (Alice is bad news.  Don't marry her.  Marry me instead.)

Conversely, if you use the comma to set off a name or title when you're not addressing someone directly, you get results like this:

Those irresponsible cows!  Why won't they keep their dogs under control?

If you want your masterpiece to shine, pay attention to punctuation, and join me next month for more common punctuation errors.

Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher wrote the cover story in this month's edition of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.  Check out the artwork here.  She loves writing, but can't read anymore without unintentionally editing, and loves a good punctuation or grammar joke.  Nerd power!  Check out her author page at Amazon.

How to be an instant grammar maven: a review of Grammarly

Let’s face it, none of us are perfect when it comes to spelling and grammar.  Although many word processing programs such as MS Word come with built in grammar and spell-checkers, they tend to be pretty simple and often hilariously wrong.  In an ideal world, you’d always write with a partner, checking each other’s spelling and grammar errors. Many people do just that, but it’s not a practical option for frequent postings like blogs, proposals, or even short stories if you’re writing these regularly.  Grammarly isn’t meant to substitute for a full-on edit, and certainly won’t suffice for a big piece of writing like a novel, which requires a professional proofreader, line and copy editor, but it’s perfect for blog posts, book reviews, emails and other quick pieces of writing, and is also a good first pass for anything longer and more complex.

Using it couldn’t be simpler.  You just go to the Grammarly website, drop your text into the box and click on “check your text”.  Within a few minutes (really!), the system goes through your text for a whole range of common grammatical errors including such things as sentence fragments, double negatives, mis-use of subordinate clauses, mis-matched tenses, run-on sentences (my personal issue), and lots more that you’ve probably forgotten since you studied grammar at school.  Of course, it also picks up spelling errors and does other clever things like checking your work for originality. It will even show you where the original is from if you’ve inadvertently lifted someone else’s work. I can think of a few infamous authors who should have used that feature. 

Some of the corrections are quite subtle and instead of just finding errors, Grammarly provides suggested solutions.  For example, in the first draft of this blog post, Grammarly found an instance where I’d used ‘and’ twice, and there were a number of suggestions for enhancing the work with better words and synonym suggestions, one of which was to change “it’s excellent and quite perfect” to just “quite perfect”. Some of my sentences were tagged as ‘wordy’ and suggestions were made for removing extraneous words like “really”. 

You can choose from a range of checking options including general, business, academic, Technical Creative, and Casual, each of which changes the overall heuristics, the synonyms suggested and the amount of rigour applied.   You can paste in your text online, or download a version for MS Office, which  allows you to check through a document with a single click on the “Check” box.  As someone who tends to write quickly and rather sloppily, and then mentally fix my own errors when I proofread, Grammarly is a reputation saver.  I use it now for almost everything I write, and the result is a lot less embarrassing errors, and better copy.  Best of all, Grammarly keeps track of your errors and creates a personal writing handbook that you can use to become a better writer.  Just review your handbook to see the errors you tend to keep repeating and you can make a conscious effort to eliminate them, learn about the parts of grammar usage that keep tripping you up, and improve your overall skills.  

As the premium version of Grammarly is a subscription based product, it’s not particularly cheap.  Annual subscriptions run around $140, or $30 a month, but if you use it to check everything you write, the per unit price is pretty reasonable.  Saving your reputation from embarrassing grammar mistakes (I’ve certainly made a few doozies) especially in such things as query letters, and ultimately improving your English is priceless.  You can take a free trial of the premium version at the Grammarlysite and can also get hold of Grammarly Lite, which will check anything you write on the internet (including your social media posts) for free.  

My PhotoMagdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at


Self-editing is something every writer should do, but it means knowing how to do it. Every writer should have a good book in their library, but it shouldn't just sit on the shelf. Get it out often and use it. I like to get my book down and go through it every so often whether or not I'm doing any self-editing just for reinforcement.

A good book on self-editing will tell you not to do any editing until you have your first draft completed. Because writing and editing are two different mind sets, it's hard to concentrate on both at the same time, hence causing you not to do a complete or proper job of either process. So the right order is to write the first draft of your book first and then do your self-editing.

A thorough self-editing includes it all: grammar, punctuation, structure, dialog, point of view, interior monologue, beats, tributes, rhythm voice, and characterization. Are there any conflicting areas in your manuscripts? Do your characters sound and feel real? Do you have areas where you tell when you should be showing? Does your plot flow and have the ability to hold the readers' attention? And do you have a balance between your narrative and dialogue? I could probably think of some more points/questions you should ask yourself, but these are enough to give you an idea of the point to self-editing.

Now I know what you are thinking. But I have an editor to do my editing for me! That's true in most cases, but your book will be more polished if you edit your manuscript yourself first and then let an editor go over it again. A first-time author will sound less amateurish , and an experienced author will sound like the experienced writer he/she is..

Sound like a lot of work? You bet it is! But it could pay off in the long run.

Faye M. Tollison
Author of To Tell the Truth
Upcomng books: The Bible Murders
                           Sarah's Secret

To Splice or Not to Splice

I recently edited a manuscript that was rife with sentences combined with the word “then.” Like this one: She pulled the lever, allowing the big steel blades to catch the wind. At first nothing came then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough.

My red pencil itches to add a comma. It’s two separate actions. The “and” seems to be understood and to me is redundant. At first nothing came, and then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough. If you use “and,” do you even need “then?” But in this case, “and” just doesn’t say the same thing.

According to grammar gurus, this is called a “comma splice” and is supposedly a no-no. As one grammarian put it, “It feels so right. It flows so well. It looks so pretty. But technically, it’s as wrong as wearing wooly socks with strappy summer sandals.”

This same source reminds us of an acronym to remember what a coordinating conjunction is: FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. But, she says, be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction.

And regarding the use of a comma with "then," the Gregg Reference Manual states:
"When hence, then, thus, so, or yet appears at the beginning of an independent clause, the comma following is omitted unless the connective requires special emphasis or a nonessential element occurs at that point."

Melt the butter over high heat; then add the egg.
Melt the butter over high heat; then, when the foam begins to subside, add the egg.

But, to me, it’s not so cut and dried. “The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail.” The phrase just seems all run together. I know the sentence can be reworded to solve the problem. But, since it’s fiction, can we take a little liberty now and again, then add a comma?

What say you, fellow authors?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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