Here we go with your ‘Letter from the Editor’ for this week. I know I promised to cover the softer side of writing a few weeks back, but I lied. Okay, maybe I didn’t lie, I just got really, really, distracted by reading the many stories and poems many authors have submitted to The Quill.

This brings me to a complete segue. (Feel free to use the phrase ‘SQUIRREL!” at any point in this article.) I want to make sure each and every one of our submitters know that it is a pleasure to read their work, regardless of whether they are accepted for publication or not.

Our mandate, when we began this e-zine, was to publish as many works from new, unpublished authors as we could. However, Josh and I had a hidden agenda. It was, and is, critically important that we provide feedback to everyone who submits. We believe that taking the time to tell you why you were rejected or accepted is only to your benefit. It’s what keeps us remembering why we both write (and get rejected), and these little bits of information are our way of helping you, and ourselves, become better writers.

This week, Josh had suggested we do a review on several of the ‘Elementary Rules of Usage’ in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Let me be honest. I write genre fiction. Romance, erotica, romantic suspense. I almost always go for what I will call ‘readability’ as opposed to being technically perfect. So, when Josh suggested doing this piece, I put up my hand (stupid, stupid girl!) and said “This is good practice for me.”

Ugh. I’m an idiot.

Be gentle with me…

(Also note, Josh is going to edit my work, LOL. Therefore, anything I royally bugger up, he’s got my back.)

Elementary Rules of Usage

Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.

This means that you have a singular noun – so…book, bell, candle, Charles, Elvis.

If you need to form a possessive with a noun (in other words if you need show that the noun in question possesses something) you add ‘s to the noun, regardless of the last letter of the noun.

Examples:

The book’s cover. The book’s pages. The book’s meaning.

The bell’s toll. (This is a brain burner. In this sense, the bell’s toll means the bell’s sound. If you write ‘The bells toll’, well, that means the bells (plural) ring. See how it gets messy? Pay attention to what you are trying to say when you write something.)

The candle’s flame.

Charles’s son, William. Charles’s wife, Mary. Charles’s car.

Elvis’s jumpsuit. Elvis’s concert tour. Yes, Elvis toured. No, I did not see him perform live. I did, however, see Van Halen with David Lee Roth, and with Sammy Hagar.

Make sense? It does if you’re a fan of Eddie Van Halen. Wait. Squirrel.

I mean do the examples make sense? Of course they do.

Sadly, like everything else, there are exceptions:

Ancient proper names, ending in –es or –is (Moses, Isis, Hermes) do not have ‘s added. The same with the possessive ‘Jesus’, and the forms ‘for conscience’ sake and for righteousness’ sake.

For pronominal possessives; hers, its, theirs, yours, oneself, there is no apostrophe.

By the way, ‘pronominal’ means anything functioning as a pronoun. (Wonderful peeps, please make sure you have, and USE a dictionary, so you understand these terms. If you don’t know the word ‘pronominal’ you will have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.)

This brings me to one of the most common errors we see.

It’s versus its:

It’s means ‘It is’. It is hot. It is cold. It is a pain in my arse when I see this misused. It is regularly misused.

Its means ‘belonging to it’. Its book. Its arse. Its bridle.

If you struggle with this, try to read your sentence out loud, and when you see the word ‘it’s’, remove the contraction. If it doesn’t make sense, or sounds like you’re speaking in some random Eastern European accent, then you’ve used the wrong form. Change it.

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Let me break this down. ‘Terms’ means pretty much anything. Nouns, verbs, words, phrases, or clauses. A conjunction is a connecting word such as and, or, but, yet, if. There are others. Learn them.

(By the way, if you look at the third sentence in the above paragraph, you will see that I used the proper format in joining my terms. Just gonna point that out. 🙂 )

Examples:

bell, book, and candle

cheap, easy, and up for anything

She dropped off the parcel, bought a package of stamps, and debated buying the commemorative coin set.

In the names of business firms, the last name before the conjunction does NOT have a comma.

Examples:

Dewey, Cheatem and Howe. – correct.

Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe. – NOT correct.

Finally, the abbreviation etc. (This is short for ‘etcetera’, which means ‘and other similar things’.)

If you are going to use this, even if you only have a single term before it, it is always preceded by a comma.

Example:

Books, etc.

Bells, books, and candles, etc.

Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

Get your dictionary, turn to P, and read the definition. This is a nasty little rule, not gonna lie.

A parenthetical expression is a phrase or clause inserted within another phrase or clause. Ugh. Yup. Before we break this rule down, take some time to review what this really means. Google, dictionary, whatever you have. Let me know when you’re done.

Good? Okay, let’s continue.

First off, we see parenthetical expressions used well, and we see them used very badly. If you are writing, keep in mind this element is like expensive whiskey – best in small doses.

But hey, I’ve never followed that rule, either.

This is a very difficult rule to apply, because it’s very difficult to determine if a word or phrase is indeed parenthetical. On top of that, depending on whether the inserted phrase or word delivers just a slight interruption of the sentence, or a considerable interruption, determines whether you need to use commas or not.

Ugh.

What that means is you must read the sentence with the inserted clause, phrase, or word, and decide if it flows better with or without the commas. You also must decide if it makes sense when read with or without the commas.

Ick.

One final note on this before the examples. Regardless of whether the interruption is slight or considerable, you may not omit one of the commas and leave the other.

Examples:

She grabbed the cattle prod, which doubled as a paint stirring stick, and ran to help Nora.

(I know. Expensive paint stirrer.)

As she watched his face, which was scarred by the cruel twist of his lips, she was mesmerized by the desire in his eyes.

Margarine may be used, however, butter provides a more flavorful finished product.

Next, we talk non-restrictive relative clauses.

I’m going to the Oxford Dictionary online for this definition. It has the best, and easiest, definition.

First need-to-know? Relative Clause. Oxford says ‘A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which, that, or whose.’

That’s easy enough. Now let’s look up what a non-restrictive relative clause is.

Oxford says ‘A non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence.’

What that means is the clause you’ve used in the parenthetical expression could be left out and the sentence would still make sense.

Therefore, how this rule of usage affects non-restrictive relative clauses is that they must always be set off by commas.

Examples:

The fences, which were made of wood, stood tall enough so the deer couldn’t jump over them.

The cyborg, whose name was Spam, moved towards them.

Seems straightforward.

Next.

Similar clauses introduced by where or when are similarly punctuated. In other words, if you introduce a non-restrictive relative clause in a parenthetical expression using where or when, you also use commas.

In 1987, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed the Meech Lake Accord, Bill Vander Zalm was Premier of British Columbia.

Kingston, Ontario, where The Tragically Hip are from, has several federal corrections facilities.

Yes. I am Canadian. I’m sure it wasn’t readily apparent until I mentioned the Tragically Hip.

Note that in these sentences, the clauses introduced by when and where add statements supplementing the statement made in the principal clause. What that means is there are two statements in each of the above sentences which could have been made independently. See below:

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed the Meech Lake Accord in 1987. At that time, Bill Vander Zalm was the Premier of British Columbia.

The Tragically Hip are from Kingston, Ontario. There are several federal corrections facilities in Kingston.

If you have never heard of The Tragically Hip, check them out. They are an amazing, amazing, band.

Okay, that was a SQUIRREL! Moment. Whoops.

Next, this rule talks about restrictive relative clauses. Let’s go back to Oxford. ‘A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning.’ Okay, so in this case, a sentence with a restrictive relative clause cannot be split into two sentences.

Note that restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas:

The band who made the best album will win the award.

The entrepreneur who started this company has an engineering degree.

Abbreviations.

On to the next part. Here, we talk about abbreviations, specifically etc. and jr. The abbreviations etc. and jr. are always preceded by a comma, and except at the end of a sentence, followed by one.

Examples:

She grabbed them all, the shoes, the jeans, the shirts, etc., and threw them out the window.

(Don’t ask why. It probably had to do with her lying, cheating, pig of an ex-boyfriend, Jonathan Smith, Jr., who at that very moment was at the club dancing with Tiffany, that conniving bitch!)

If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after it.

This is another one that is heavily misused. It means that if you are using a conjunction (Remember these? and, but, for, if, yet, along with several others) in your parenthetic expression, you place the comma before the conjunction.

Examples:

She was screaming epithets at him, and unaware that Tiffany was listening, began to tell Mr. Jonathan Smith, Jr., EXACTLY what she thought of his mistress.

Jonathan Smith, Jr., was grinding Tiffany on the dance floor, but when his amazing and beautiful girlfriend ran in, he realized that he was busted.

Okay. Enough about that slime ball, Jonathan Smith, Jr., and his slutty mistress Tiffany.

We’re done with them.

Actually, we’re done for this instalment.  Thank goodness!

That gives you an overview of the first three rules from The Elements of Style. We are stopping here for now, but in coming weeks, I will be covering other Elemental Rules of Usage. I was going to do six of them, but two thousand words of rules on writing is pretty intense. Besides, I must go cook dinner. Alas, the menial and the mundane summon me and I am unable to refuse their siren’s call, a slave to my laundry.

One last note. For those of you who aren’t aware, The Elements of Style is a little book with enormous power. The book was written and self-published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., a professor at Cornell University. In 1957, E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), was asked to revise it by Macmillan Publishers. In reviewing the work of his former professor, White was struck anew by the level of brilliance it contained, calling it a ‘forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English’. I won’t go into any additional detail. I will say that if you do not have a copy, go buy one. Today. If you have a copy and it’s not on your desk, for crying out loud, go get it and put it on your desk. Now. And if it is on your desk, dog eared and worn, spine cracked from propping it open with a coffee cup, stains of said coffee (and a thousand coffees before it) blurring the words, page folded and held down by your elbow as you try and make that last sentence of your nine hundred-thousand-word magnum opus as brilliant as possible, well done. Thank you, for wanting to be the best writer you can be.

 

Colleen Cornez

Colleen is a writer of romantic fiction, but a fan of everything written. She is preparing to go back to University to complete her Bachelor of Arts in Canadian Studies. She currently edits for The Quill, and with three (unpublished) novels currently in various modes of professional editing or submission, she hopes to have a cooler bio soon. Until then, you can read excerpts of her work at www.colleencornez.ca.

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