Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grammar-licious: Making Grammar Fun - May

As an editor, I see a lot of issues with ellipsis and em-dash usage, so I thought it would be a good topic to touch upon. The ellipsis is used to indicate a pause in speech or missing text. The em-dash is used to indicate an interruption in speech or to emphasize a phrase.

An ellipsis is used to show missing text within quoted material, or a pause within a character’s dialogue. The ellipsis is always three dots: “…”. Always three, not two, four, five; three. Style guidelines vary. Some people prefer an ending period if the ellipsis is at the end of a sentence, other guidelines are satisfied with no final period.

A little history of the em-dash: in the day of the typewriter, an em-dash was represented by double hyphens amounting to the width of a capital “M” from the keyboard. With computers, you can format or insert an em-dash easily and it’s used to indicate an interruption within dialogue, or to emphasize a certain phrase. There is never a space before or after an em-dash.

Examples are always helpful, so here there come.

(1) Ellipsis and em-dash in dialogue:
“Peter, please, what I meant was…”
“What? What did you mean?”

Compare the above to this:
“Peter, please, what I meant was—”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. It’s too late.”

Can you see how the first example is the first speaker trailing off and the second example has the first speaker being cut off?

(2) Ellipsis and em-dash as pauses/breaks:
There it was again…that subtle, but creepy scratching.
There it was again—that loud, terrifying scratching.

(3) Ellipses are great for slowing the reader down within narrative: “They gazed innocently into each other’s eyes until hesitantly…gently…they shared their first kiss.”

Within documentation, ellipses are handy for shortening long text. Use the ellipsis to show missing words, whether only a few, or several, even a few sentences. For instance, you find parts of the Gettysburg Address handy for making a point. Use an ellipsis to remove words or phrases you don’t want the reader to focus on.

Special Note #1: A colon can sometimes be used instead of an em-dash. A colon announces to the reader that something special is coming along. The em-dash does the same, but is more dramatic.

Special Note #2: A hyphen can not be used in place of an em-dash. A hyphen has its own special use to be talked about in a later column.

This month’s recommended grammar book is: The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need by Susan Thurman and Larry Shea.

I like finding ways to remember the ‘rules’ and hope you can find something helpful. It’s my hope the monthly grammar techniques and usage examples will make grammar a lot less frightening and potentially enjoyable (can you imagine?) for you.

If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment or email me!

(originally published in The TWC Spotlight for May, 2009)

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

That Dog Do Bark: A Canine Aroo of Apologia in D Major

dog • house (dôg hous): a small shelter for a dog; the modest backyard abode in which an author resides if said author fails to show up for an online chat.

That Dog Do Bark: A Canine Aroo of Apologia in D Major
by Martha Engber

All right, let’s be candid. I’m in the doghouse for not showing up on Sun., May 9, to chat with all you good writing souls here at I could tell you that, had I read the lovely email reminder from Audrey, I would have arrived, online and on time.

But alas, due to Mother’s Day, that holiday in which mothers are given the most treacherous advice to do as they please, I thought I’d treat myself to that most cherished of modern luxuries, a No Email Day. And look what happened. When I finally opened my email at 7 p.m. — PST rather than EST — I almost had a heart attack.

But I’m a silver lining kind of gal, and the redeeming outcome in this instance is that I’m highly motivated to make amends for wasting your time, for which I really am truly sorry.

The first order of business is to let you know that yes, I will — absolutely — show up at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. PST) on Sun., May 23, to chat with you.

The second is to provide you with what I, as a writer (The Wind Thief), character development guru and writing coach, see in my own writing and that of others as the main errors writers make when developing characters.

While I know we couldn’t possibly make these mistakes, feel free to pass the list to those poor fellow writers you suspect have fallen into the muck. The points are also made — more elegantly — in my book, Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up.

The 10 Most Common Mistakes Writers Make When Creating Characters

1. Only developing some characters instead of all

2. Not understanding what role a character plays

3. Relying on cliché, the fast, cheap way to pop a character into place

4. Telling, rather than showing readers what’s most important to your character and why he/she is so interesting

5. Not doing enough research about what your character must know to be credible

6. Not allowing your character to act according to his/her nature

7. Not including your personal experience to aid your character on his/her journey

8. Defending your character during the critique process, rather than realizing there’s a problem

9. Not allowing the character to get into trouble

10. Not bothering to clean up your spelling, grammar, punctuation or format issues, problems that hinder readers’ attempts to get to know your character

The list includes a lot of not, an attitude we’ll flip around on May 23 when we talk about what you can do to make your characters the best they can be.

Until then, happy writing!

(Martha Engber will be our chat guest on May 23, 2010, at 7 pm EST. This post is a chance for you to get to know her before the chat.)