Arduinna's Chrestomathy


(A chrestomathy is a collection of extracts, especially one compiled for instruction in a language. Sounded good to me....)

This page last updated substantively on July 8, 2001
Last updated slightly on May 18, 2003
Links listing updated July 26, 2003



Writing. It's an interesting concept, eh? Taking spoken sounds and presenting them as visual symbols, and being understood. Very cool. But too many people don't know how to make those visual symbols understood, which I think is a damn shame. So... I'm going to talk about it a bit. <g> I am strongly in favor of people learning to write before they start posting stories in public (I'd be happy if they learned to write before posting, period, for that matter). Be warned.

This is not necessarily a popular view (slight understatement). Part of the problem, I think, is that most people can manage to speak the language, and get their point across, and thus assume that they can write the language as well. Au contraire -- spoken and written language are very different things, even though one is a symbolic representation of the other. Spoken language is absorbed in childhood, along with the rules and logic. Written English needs to be learned. As with everything, some people learn it more easily than others, some are more talented than others.

The logic and the rules of written English are more stringent because they have to be: you've got so much less to work with that you have to be more precise. When you speak to someone face-to-face, you augment your speech with your tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures, and body language. Even without the visual cues, the tone of voice alone can do a lot.

When you write, you don't have any of those extra cues to help you communicate with the reader. You've got to use the language carefully to get your point across, or you're going to lose your audience. And it isn't easy to do; try giving someone directions, or telling an anecdote, while sitting on your hands! You have to fill in all those missing cues somehow, using nothing but words that all look pretty much the same, when you get right down to it. It takes effort and practice and determination to be able to write. Blithely deciding to sit down at your keyboard and type, then post, doesn't make you a writer, any more than one day picking up a colored pencil and doodling makes you an artist.

This doesn't mean I think that every single person that writes has to go through the exact same number of drafts, has to use the same number and kind of beta readers, has to follow the same style guide. The simple truth is, there are some authors who can sit down, type, and post, and present us with a carefully crafted story. But most authors can't do this. People who can do that are crafting the story in their head, polishing as they think, whether they're aware of it or not. Most people write very rough drafts indeed when they first sit down to type -- drafts that need a lot of work to turn them into good stories.

The 1918 edition of Strunk's The Elements of Style is in the public domain, and it has been put up on the web here. This is A Good Thing. The newer editions are not in the public domain, and I suggest that anyone who has an interest in writing -- of any sort, be it posts, stories, memos, cover letters for resumes, letters to friends, essays, school papers, you name it -- go buy a copy (it's now called Strunk and White's The Elements of Style). It's a very short (85-page), inexpensive paperback, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Here's what Strunk has to say about writing and writers in his introduction:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

Three cheers for Strunk!


I get really tired of posting this sort of thing to discussion lists, since it generally turns into a (with luck, genteel) fight over the importance of grammar and spelling, not to mention punctuation. To me, the importance is obvious; to others, the lack of importance is obvious. So I figured I'd save myself some time and frustration, and just deal with it all here.

There are a few basic arguments that come up on lists when writing gets discussed.

The Arguments

- It's just for fun, so who cares?-
- It's the idea that counts; a good idea means a good story -
- Correct mechanics make it easier for the reader to understand the story -

"It's just for fun, so who cares?"

This has a certain merit -- we're all here for the fun of it. It's the 'who cares' part that's a bit dicey. IMO, if you're writing just for the fun of it, if you don't care at all about the quality of what you're doing, fine -- write it, print it, and stick it in your desk drawer. Before anyone gets up in arms, think about it for a minute. If you decide you want to play guitar for fun, do you just get yourself a second-hand guitar, go sit on a street corner, and strum away randomly, or do you start learning chords so you can make actual music before you let other people hear you? If you decided you liked playing basketball, and went out to the local playground to take part in a pick-up game, wouldn't you at least make sure you could sink the occasional basket -- or at least dribble the ball? Wouldn't you at least make sure you knew the rules? Don't go play with a crowd unless you know the game they're playing, or unless you're willing to learn the rules. Everyone else is there to have fun, too, and by being overly selfish about doing what you want, you detract from other people's enjoyment. (note -- I am not saying, if you don't write like a master, don't write at all; I'm saying, if you aren't willing to learn and follow some basic writing rules, keep what you write to yourself, or among a small circle of personal friends, rather than imposing it on a potentially huge group of strangers.)

I can hear the next argument -- that by imposing these "rules", which I personally prefer, I'm being selfish myself and cutting into other people's enjoyment. Maybe. But I've never yet heard anyone say that they were offended by the fact that a story was spelled correctly, or used the right grammar, or that good spelling and grammar made it impossible for them to read a story at all. I've heard lots of people say that poor spelling and grammar kept them from reading a story, on the other hand. (To get my feelings on "yes, but it only takes a minute of someone's time to hit delete, after all," see my rant on the idea of free fanfic.) And don't forget, a lot of the people reading speak English as a second or third or fourth language; trying to wade through poor grammar and spelling must be horribly difficult for them!

In an article on mailing list manners, Adam C. Engst wrote: Many people pay little attention to spelling, grammar, and the basic composition of their messages, [. . .]. How you write in email - especially in public places like mailing lists - affects how other people regard you, your opinions, and your knowledge. Think of it this way: if mailing list messages were a reflection of personal hygiene, you don't want to come across to others like you need a shower, clean clothes, and a haircut.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. Lounging around your own house in your pyjamas for the weekend without taking a shower is one thing -- wash and put some clothes on before going out in public. Everyone will like you better for it.

back to top
back to the arguments


"It's the idea that counts -- a good idea means a good story, regardless of the author's technical ability."

Errr... no. See my rant on this. In short, though -- How is one supposed to find the 'idea' of a story, if the story is full of grammatical and spelling errors, or the plot doesn't make any sense? If the reader is spending all of her time trying to figure out what an author is saying, rather than absorbing the story the author is trying to tell, she's wasting her time.

back to top
back to the arguments


"Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation, along with a consistent POV and an internally consistent plot, make it easier for the reader to understand what's being said, and thus the writer ought to make her best effort to be correct."

This is the argument I favor. I think it's pretty self-explanatory and sensible, but given how many howls of outrage it raises I guess it isn't (I've had people tell me I'm a minion of Big Brother for daring to suggest that proper punctuation is a good thing, for heaven's sake). Often, those who aren't howling in outrage but who still oppose this argument say that, in some bizarre Faustian deal, those who write with technical merit lose their creativity. Errr... no. It's just that if you're not wading through bad grammar and spelling, you can actually see the story the author is trying to tell, and you don't happen to like it. 90% of everything is crap, remember? But how lovely if the 10% of fiction that's actually interesting was also all readable...

To me, writing is about telling a story for a reader (myself, my friends, total strangers) to enjoy. That means all the reader should have to do is sit back and enjoy it -- she shouldn't have to figure out if I meant this or that (unless I'm being deliberately ambiguous in the plot, that is). The reader should not be the one doing the work.

back to top
back to the arguments

The Explanations

Spelling | Grammar | Punctuation | POV | Show-don't-tell

Since this is my page and I can say whatever I want here, I figured this was as good a place as any to explain my position, and to link to some helpful sites.

There are two main components to a good story, IMO: an interesting idea, and solid technical support.

The idea is the easy part; anyone can come up with a story idea. Anyone who has ever thought about a character and said, "I wonder..." or "What if...?" has had a story idea.

The technical support is where it gets sticky. There are two main components to this, too: talent and skill.

Talent is inborn; either you've got it or you don't. If you do, you can probably skate by without putting too much effort into developing the skill -- but you'll never be as good as you could have been if you do that. If you don't, don't give up hope; you can develop the skills, and they can make you a decent writer.


Spelling counts, kids.

Right, I can hear the next argument: But Arduinna, simple misspellings are easy to overlook.

Well, sure they are. Sometimes. I can tell you one "simple" misspelling that drives an awful lot of people completely bonkers: using "breath" instead of "breathe" (and vice versa!) "Breath" is a noun. It's what you can see on a cold day, it's what smells bad after you've had a garlic and onion and pepper pizza. "Breathe" is a verb, and it's what you have to keep on doing to stay alive. There's an easy way to remember which is which. They're pronounced very differently, yes? (I've never heard anyone say, aloud, "Hey, look, I can see my breathe!" or "Oh, god, I'm laughing so hard I can't breath.") So, say the verb aloud. "Breathe." Stretch it out into a bit more than one syllable. Hear the "the" at the end? (It's faint, but it's there.) Well, there's a "the" at the end of the written word, too. "Breath" doesn't have a "the" in either the spoken or the written word.

Another one that gets me, at least, is "should of" (also could of, would of, must of), as in "He should of gone to the store." I have no idea what that means. I know what "should've" means; that's a contraction for "should have". But "should of"? Does that make sense to anyone? You wouldn't write, "Of he gone to the store?" -- so don't answer it as "He should of gone!" The question should be, "Has he gone to the store?" and the answer is, "He should have (should've) gone!"

But let's say the readers of a story are all forgiving of simple misspellings. It only works up to a point. Too many misspellings, and the reader is spending all her time glossing the writer's errors, instead of revelling in that wonderful plot. And many misspellings can be handled by a simple spellcheck; if the author doesn't have access to one, she certainly has access to other people who have one. I've never yet been in, or heard of, a fandom that forbids beta readers. Most fandoms are full of people eager to help (of course, an author has to be careful to choose beta readers that can actually spell -- don't simply rely on friends who think "beta read" means "give blind praise to because it's rude to say critical things -- like '"Napoleon" only has one "a" in it' -- to a friend"). If the author doesn't have a program that spellchecks, and can't find any beta readers, there's another option: if she has web access, she can get a free email account with a service that offers spell-check (Yahoo, for instance). There's absolutely no excuse not to run a spellcheck over a story before posting it. Reading it, or having someone else read it, to catch homophones/homonyms -- such as too, to, two; pore, pour; discrete, discreet; there, their, they're; etc. -- is also a good idea, since a spellcheck won't catch those.

Catching homophones is important, since they can really ruin a mood. For instance, I've lost count of the number of stories that I've read that have had someone pouring over a book -- and all I can think is, "pouring what? Syrup? Milk? Himself? Perhaps he's liquefied... cool, but icky." The word the author wanted was "pore" -- which means to study closely (like looking at something closely enough to see the pores -- easy to remember, eh? But so many people don't...). If you don't want to buy a book, try a bookmark. I'm in the process of putting together a short page of homophone errors that I (and others) see in fanfic. For a more complete list, try Alan Cooper's All About Homonyms site, which lists a lot of homophones and their meanings. Makes it easy to figure out which one you should be using.

There are other really common spelling/vocabulary mistakes, too, that don't (quite) count as homonym errors. Here are a few I've noticed (I'm happy to take suggestions to add to this):

"consentual" instead of "consensual":
The mistake is thinking that the root word is "consent"; it's not, it's "consensus". Two consenting adults reach a consensus on what's going to happen ("Wanna fuck?" "Sure!"), and thus the activity is "consensual".

"diety" instead of "deity":
I have no idea how this one started up, because the words are pronounced really differently. A deity (day-ih-tee or dee-ih-tee) is a god or a goddess. Something diety (die-ih-tee) is low-calorie, like rice cakes or carrot sticks.

"drug" instead of "dragged":
This one isn't a pronunciation/writing error, per se -- it's a dialect problem. "Drug" as the past tense of "to drag" is common in parts of the US South, where people don't even notice it; everyone uses it. Unfortunately, it sounds really awful to just about every other speaker of English. To everyone else, "drug" is either a noun, or is the verb "to drug", as in "to administer drugs to". Be careful of using it if your narrator or speaker isn't from a place where it's common usage.

everyday/every day:
"everyday" means common, ordinary; "every day" means each day. Every day, she did her everyday chores.

"lie" means to recline to a horizontal position; lay means to place or put. You lie down in bed; you lay a rose on your lover's pillow; you lay the book on the table; the cat lies in wait to attack your ankles as you pass by. "Lie" does not take an object; "lay" requires an object (you have to lay *something* [get your minds out of the gutter!], just as you have to put *something*).

"prostrate" means lying stretched out face down, and usually involves some sort of supplication (prayer to one's god, etc.), submission, reverence, or helplessness. It also means overcome (with grief or exhaustion). (IOW, you don't lie prostrate to take a nap, okay?) "Prostate" is this little gland that guys have, and if you touch it and he's the sort that reacts to it, boy will he react to it.

see "prostrate" above (and note deeper meanings --don't cheapen a powerful word.). "Prone" also means to lie face down, in a much more general sense. "Supine" is a lovely, useful word that gets ignored, and means to lie on one's back.

"viola" instead of "voila":
a "viola" is a tenor fiddle, a bit bigger than a violin. "Voila" means "there!" or "behold!" (every time I see "viola!" I envision the character brandishing a musical instrument in triumph...)

"wrought" instead of "fraught":
"wrought" means "made" (crafted) or "worked with tools" ("wrought iron"); "fraught" means "full of" (I want to nip this mistake in the bud before it spreads; people are starting to say something is "wrought with tension" when they mean "fraught").

back to top
back to the explanations


Grammar -- Not As Scary As You Think

Okay, most people are willing to accept that proper spelling makes things easier on everyone. But what about grammar? People think of grammar as this dreadful bugbear, a difficult and labyrinthine affair that only English majors can ever really understand, and that therefore should be discounted for everyone else. Bushwah.

A grammatical story makes it a lot easier to follow the plot. That's why grammar exists -- to make speech comprehensible. We all follow the same rules so we all know what's being said. (e.g., w/o grammar rules I could have written that as "follow the same we all so rules said all we know being is what."-- and even that is grammatical in that I kept the two clauses separate, and maintained the tense. Imagine if I hadn't even bothered to do that!)

Grammar counts.

And it's not as difficult as people think.

For instance, one basic tenet of grammar is: "a sentence is a word or combination of words that expresses a complete thought, and in writing is marked at the close by a period." Not particularly frightening, or difficult to understand, is it! But lots of people seem to shy away from even this most basic thing, in all sorts of ways. This causes them to write in "sentence fragments", which are just what they sound like: pieces of sentences, left to flounder on their own.

Written dialogue seems to cause some major problems with this rule, for some reason. This, I think, is a clear example of how spoken and written English are two different things. People think that because a spoken sentence is complete unto itself, that same sentence is complete as spoken when written down. So they think they have to put a period after it -- but then they come to the bit where they have to say who's speaking, or how, and since they've already ended the dialogue sentence, they decide to start a new sentence. This is wrong, except in one instance (which I'll explain below). In written English, the bit that says who said something is part of the overall sentence; think about reading it aloud, and you'll see what I mean. You want to indicate who's saying something along with what they're saying, right? They need to be connected. If you don't connect them, the "who said it" bit is left alone and lonely as a sentence fragment.

Dialogue written with sentence fragments:

"Give me the paper." Jim said.

Startled, Blair said. "I'm not done reading it yet."

"I said, give me the paper." Jim repeated, no trace of amusement in his tone.

"Jeez, man." Blair complained. "Give me a break here, wouldja?"

Dialogue written correctly:

"Give me the paper," Jim said.

Startled, Blair said, "I'm not done reading it yet."

"I said, give me the paper," Jim repeated, no trace of amusement in his tone.

"Jeez, man," Blair complained, "give me a break here, wouldja?"

- or -

"Jeez, man," Blair complained. "Give me a break here, wouldja?"

The only time it's correct (and absolutely necessary!) to use a period instead of a comma at the end of a piece of dialogue is when the following text is an action separate from speaking. So:

"Give me the paper." Jim smiled as he held out his hand.

"Where did you get that sword?" Mac walked toward Richie with a glint in his eye that boded ill for that young man.

"C'mon, mate, hand over the knife -- you know there's no way out of this." Doyle's eyes narrowed, gauging the distance he'd have to move to snatch the weapon.

"This was a wonderful idea." Glancing around the cabin, Illya felt the last of the day's tension drain from his shoulders.

But it's not only in dialogue that these sentence fragments show up; they're all over the place. I've made up all the following (and preceding, for that matter) examples, but trust me, there are plenty of actual examples out there.


Doyle burst into Bodie's flat and glanced wildly around. His heart pounding.

Jim turned off the shower and stepped out of the tub. Dripping on the floor.

Vinnie fucked Sonny through the mattress. Then fell asleep.

Full sentences:

Doyle burst into Bodie's flat and glanced wildly around, his heart pounding.

Heart pounding, Doyle burst into Bodie's flat and glanced wildly around.

Doyle, his heart pounding, burst into Bodie's flat and glanced wildly around.

Jim turned off the shower and stepped out of the tub, dripping on the floor.

Jim turned off the shower and stepped out of the tub. He stood still for a moment, dripping on the floor, before reaching for a towel.

Vinnie fucked Sonny through the mattress, then fell asleep.

The latter examples make sense, they flow, they won't toss a reader out of the story. And it's really not any more difficult to type a comma than a period, honest. (Okay, yes, that was snarky -- but so many people use sentence fragments instead of sentences, and it drives me crazy!) There are times when a sentence fragment is what's called for -- when it adds punch and verve and exactly the right emphasis to a story. But think of such fragments as extremely hot chili pepper; you shouldn't use it unless you know what you're doing, and you should use it sparingly so as not to overwhelm the other flavors. Don't use sentence fragments unless you know what you're doing, and why you're doing it. (See Strunk's admonition to writers at the top of this page.)

The flip side to this problem is run-on sentences -- two or more sentences jammed together into one sentence. They're usually separated with a comma, when they ought to be separated by either a semicolon or a period. (This is one of the main uses for a semicolon, in fact; to join two distinct, yet related, thoughts into one sentence.) If neither of those options looks right to you, try using a conjunction of some sort between the two thoughts.

Run-on sentence examples:

Jim zipped up his jacket with a shiver, damn but it was cold out, he hoped Blair was warm enough.

Blair knew he was late for giving his lecture, he raced across campus to try to make up the time.

Duncan could feel the difference between this katana and his own, this one was much lighter.

Correct versions:

Jim zipped up his jacket with a shiver; damn, but it was cold out. He hoped Blair was warm enough.
- or -
Jim zipped up his jacket with a shiver. Damn, but it was cold out; he hoped Blair was warm enough.

Blair knew he was late for giving his lecture. He raced across campus to try to make up the time.
- or -
Blair knew he was late for giving his lecture, and raced across campus to try to make up the time.
- or -
Knowing he was late for giving his lecture, Blair raced across campus to try to make up the time.

Duncan could feel the difference between this katana and his own; this one was much lighter.
- or -
Duncan could feel the difference between this katana and his own. This one was much lighter.

A corollary of sorts to run-on sentences are long sentences (okay, this is more style than grammar -- but it's what people tend to think of when they hear "run-on sentence" so I figured I'd put it in here.). They can be perfectly grammatical, but it's still often a good idea to shorten them. Granted, some sentences are meant to be long. But most aren't. I'm going to quote what Patricia A. O'Conner has to say about this in her book Woe Is I (nice, friendly, easy-to-understand grammar book, for anyone who's interested):

Sometimes, especially when you're on a roll and you're coming up with some of your best stuff, it's hard to let go of a sentence (this one, for example), so when you get to the logical end you just keep going, and even though you know the reader's eyes are glazing over, you stretch one sentence thinner and thinner -- with a semicolon here, a however or nevertheless there -- and you end up stringing together a whole paragraph's worth of ideas before you finally realize it's all over and you're getting writer's cramp and you have to break down and use a period.

When it's time to start another sentence, start another sentence.

How do you know when it's time? Well, try breathing along with your sentence. Allow yourself one nice inhalation and exhalation per sentence as you silently read along. If you start to turn blue before you reach the end, either you're reading too slowly (don't move your lips) or your sentence is too long.

Another way to tell if your sentence is too long is to look at how many conjunctions (and or but, in particular) are in it, and how many commas (or dashes) you've used; more than five of any of them, and you should probably see if there's a place to put a period. (Five is on the high side, btw.) I'm going to get howls of outrage about this one, too. <wry grin> There's a trend in fanfic, especially in Senfic, to use these loooooooong sentences; a lot of people like them. I think the occasional long sentence has a lot going for it; it's a wonderful literary device to draw attention. But if you've got ten 100+-word sentences in a row (I've seen sentences in fanfic that have run up into the several-hundred-word range!), you're running the risk of exhausting, and thus losing, your reader. People can only maintain a sense of urgency, of absolute immediacy, for so long; the human animal is not built to maintain extremes for long, and our nature is to eventually back off. If that weren't enough, our minds aren't wired for the sort of memory necessary for such big chunks of information; it's easier for someone to remember what happened in five 40-word sentences than what happened in one 200-word sentence, and the more words, the harder it is to remember what's going on.

And personally, while I enjoy some long sentences (assuming the writer knows what she's doing), I find myself no longer reading, but instead hunting for the period, when a sentence gets up over a certain length. Say, about 100-150 -- no, maybe even 200 -- words. By that point, I'm mentally gasping for breath, and I'm wondering why on earth the characters haven't collapsed. All I want is for the sentence to end so I can take another breath. If you don't know how to structure a long sentence, stick to short-ish sentences altogether. Trust me.

There's obviously a lot more to grammar than just these few things, but I'll spare you the major lesson. Unless, of course, I finally get too frustrated, and decide to add a bit on dangling participles, another grammatical problem that fanfic is rife with. There are lots of sites on the web that can help you (see my helpful links section below to get you started), and lots of books if you're really interested in learning. The books aren't particularly threatening, either; there's Woe Is I, which I mentioned above, and Karen Elizabeth Gordon's books (The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, The New Well-Tempered Sentence, etc.), to start with.

Instead, I thought I 'd just move onward.

back to top
back to the explanations


Punctuation: Rhythm Section

Lots of things contribute to a story's rhythm, of course, but punctuation is a big part of it. And punctuation helps define your grammar, too; it shows what's connected to what, and how, and to what degree.

Punctuation counts. If saying that makes me a minion of Big Brother (I am still trying to figure that one out!), so be it. Punctuation matters. It doesn't exist as part of some vast conspiracy to annoy you or make your life difficult. It exists because it makes things easier on the reader. And that's what writing's about, isn't it? Making it as easy as possible for the reader to understand what the writer is saying?

There are a few pieces of punctuation that seem to confuse a good half of the people who write in English (usually native speakers; non-native speakers learn the rules, and don't have anywhere near the same problems): apostrophes, commas, ellipses, and semicolons.



These get used to form contractions, where they take the place of a missing letter or letters (e.g., "should've", where the apostrophe is standing in for the missing "ha" in "have"), or to form possessives (e.g., "Jim's truck", where the apostrophe and 's' are showing that the truck belongs to Jim). Apostrophes don't get used to form plurals except in extremely rare cases -- you are reasonably safe in going with the attitude that they never get used to form plurals.

This rule includes the plural of names, too: Simon Banks's family, collectively, is knows as the Bankses, not the Banks'. Your neighbors who have a plaque up reading The Jones' are wrong, unless the person who owns the house is named "The Jones" and he or she ran out of room to finish the full statement: The Jones' House (and even then, it should really be The Jones's House, like it would be Peter's House instead of Peter' House).



These are used to separate clauses (click the link if you want a definition of a clause), to separate items in a list, to set off a form of direct address (such as a name), and to indicate a clear pause if the sentence were spoken aloud. Those are the basics. Check out Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The New Well-Tempered Sentence for more detailed information.

If you use a comma to set off a clause -- say something that's an add-on to the sentence, bringing extra detail, rather than absolutely necessary -- make sure you put a comma at the end of the clause, too. In this case, the commas are functioning almost as parentheses -- and you wouldn't use just one parenthesis, would you?

Here's an example of a sentence that needs another comma to completely set off the clause:

Napoleon lifted his hand, which had just landed on the syrup bottle and touched Illya's cheek.

The corrected version:

Napoleon lifted his hand, which had just landed on the syrup bottle, and touched Illya's cheek.

Without the second comma, the main clause of this sentence seems to be "which had just landed on the syrup bottle and touched Illya's cheek" -- implying that it landed on the bottle and touched Illya's cheek at the same time.

Using commas to set off items in a list is pretty self-explanatory, with one exception. There's a recent widespread convention to not use a comma before the last item in a list. This is a journalistic convention; newspapers and magazines are restricted to a very limited amount of space, so they cut out as much stuff as possible to squeeze more in. I'm on a quest to bring people back to the True Way of putting commas between all the items on a list. It's much easier to understand what's going on when you do that, and really, commas don't take up that much room, and if you're not writing for a newspaper you can afford that little bit of space.

Commas are also required -- required -- to set off direct forms of address. Direct forms of address (called the "vocative", if you want to be technical) include names, nicknames, endearments, insulting names, whatever -- if you use a word to mean a person (or thing, in some cases -- if your character is drunk and walks into a tree and tells it to move out of his way, he'd say, "Who put this tree here? Get out of my way, tree!"), you have to set that word off when it's being used to directly address someone.

"You're right on time, Al."
"No problem, Simon."
"Starsk, did you see that?"
"Hutch, you are out of your cotton-pickin' mind."
"Thanks, sweetheart, it's perfect."
"C'mon, Angelfish, time to move."
"Get out of there, you!"
"Get out of there, dog!"
"Same to you, bastard."

This doesn't mean you need to set off every instance of a name in commas. If the name isn't being used as a form of address, it doesn't need a comma. For instance, no comma is needed here:

"Duncan will be right back -- he just went out for beer."

But, if this is Joe talking to Methos, and he uses Methos's name as a direct form of address, you'd need a comma:

"Duncan will be right back, Methos -- he just went out for beer."

You always, always, always need to set off the direct address. If the direct address is in the middle of a sentence, it needs commas before and after:

"Good job, Napoleon, I couldn't have done it better myself."

"Yes, Mr. Cowley, we understand."

As always, 'stronger' punctuation can take the place of a comma, as long as the name is still set off:

"Good job, Napoleon -- I couldn't have done it better myself."

"Oh, good, Mac, you're back -- Methos, Mac's back!" (notice how I cleverly worked two direct forms of address into one sentence, each properly set off.)

Using a comma to indicate that there would be a natural pause if this were being read aloud can be tricky; you have to have a very good ear to pull it off. If you want to do this, read the text aloud exactly as you've written it, to see if the pause you inserted really makes sense.



The ellipsis (aka "dot dot dot") has three dots (as the alternative name suggests). It doesn't have two dots -- that looks like a period with the hiccups. It doesn't have five (or more!) dots -- that one looks like your cat walked onto your keyboard for a minute there and you didn't notice.

There are times when it looks like it has four dots -- but it's really three dots and a period.

And remember, most people don't really speak, or think, in ellipses. Most people use full sentences. If they get interrupted mid-speech, you can indicate that with a double dash (--); the ellipsis is reserved for speech that is trailing off (usually in surprise or uncertainty, or because the character has just had a sort of epiphany, or a combination thereof).

To borrow a bit from some clever Brits* :

"And the Lord spake, saying, 'First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thou foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.'"

Except for the grenade-blowing-up bits, that's about it. Count to three, add a period if your sentence ends after the ellipsis, and move on.

(Purists are going to write to me wondering why I didn't mention spacing the dots -- it's because unless something's been properly typeset, I think it looks silly, so I never bother spacing mine. You also, especially in email/web, run into the problem of spaced ellipses breaking at the end of a line, which is horribly ugly. An ellipsis is three dots working together as one unit, so I say leave 'em as one unit by not spacing them for anything that's going to be done in text format.)



The most misunderstood punctuation mark -- poor thing. It's a useful little bugger, too, once you learn where it goes. It does two basic things. It connects two closely related independent clauses that are not connected by conjunctions, and it replaces commas when the items in a list have internal commas.

That's less complicated than it sounds. <g> An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence, although often it's part of a larger sentence. In the run-on sentences examples I dealt with some of this. I also hit on it in the spelling section, with this sentence:

I want to nip this mistake in the bud before it spreads; people are starting to say something is "wrought with tension" when they mean "fraught".

That sentence consists of two independent clauses, which could each stand alone as a separate sentence:

I want to nip this mistake in the bud before it spreads. People are starting to say something is "wrought with tension" when they mean "fraught".

Because I wanted to join them more closely than that, I used a connector rather than a separator (like the period). A comma by itself isn't strong enough to join two complex independent clauses, so I had two choices: use a comma and add a conjunction (like "since"), or use a semicolon. I like the rhythm of semicolons, so that's what I went with.

Using a semicolon to replace commas in a list of things that have internal commas is even easier:

Jim, Blair, and Simon, Duncan, Methos, and Joe, Nick and Lacroix, Napoleon and Illya, and Doyle, Bodie, and Murphy all ran into each other in Rio one year.


Jim, Blair, and Simon; Duncan, Methos, and Joe; Nick and Lacroix; Napoleon and Illya; and Doyle, Bodie, and Murphy all ran into each other in Rio one year.

It makes it clear that instead of this random collection, you've got several discrete units, each consisting of several people or things. The reader doesn't have to stop to figure out what goes with what.

back to top
back to the explanations



POV is one of the toughest things to pin down -- and one of the most crucial. The more consistent your POV, the more involved your reader is going to be. The tightest, most involving stories tend to have one POV throughout, without ever wandering into anything that the POV character couldn't know -- no omniscient asides, no "little did he know that there was a big dog about to bite him" comments, no descriptions of scenes taking place miles away. It's really hard to stick to one POV like that, but it's worth it if you can pull it off.

An acceptable alternative is to alternate POVs when necessary. There are several ways of doing this, ranging from highly acceptable to don't-ever-do-this (in order: between chapters; between scenes; between paragraphs; within paragraphs; within sentences).

The best way is to alternate chapters. Next best is to save your POV changes for scene changes. Don't switch POV within a scene (aka between paragraphs) if you can possibly help it -- and there's always a way around it; it's very distracting (and is likely to throw your reader out of the story as she tries to figure out what the hell just happened). I don't mean that you need to do an actual, change-of-scenery type thing (e.g., from office to home); I just mean you have to do something to indicate that something is different. The usual way is to add an extra space between paragraphs (if it's a major change -- say, a lot of time has passed, or you're switching to a character who wasn't in the last scene -- add space and a visible divider of some sort, like asterisks or lines).

Version 1:

Napoleon rested his hands on his knees briefly, then straightened to look at the path in front of him. His lips tightened as he raised his eyes higher, and higher, and higher, until finally their goal entered his sight. His leg throbbed harder at the very thought of climbing that monstrosity.

"Napoleon? Are you sure you're up to this?"

Napoleon glanced to his left to find Illya frowning at him, and managed a reassuring smile. "I'm fine. C'mon, we're wasting daylight." Waiting around wasn't going to make the climb any easier, after all. And at least there was a path, of sorts.

Three hours later his world had been reduced to finding some way to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The pain in his leg had gone from throbbing to stabbing to a screaming agony that had melted into what was either a terrifying numbness or simply a totality of pain. He was afraid to focus on it long enough to find out which. It didn't matter, anyway; he'd felt like this since time began, and would feel like this forever.


All he had to do was keep moving. The world was motion and pain, and as long as he kept them balanced he'd be fine.

"Napoleon, we are at the top, you can stop now. Napoleon!"

Urgent hands grabbed at him, halting his progress. As soon as he stopped, he figured it out. Totality of pain, not numbness. And then blessed darkness.

Version 2:

Napoleon rested his hands on his knees briefly, then straightened to look at the path in front of him. His lips tightened as he raised his eyes higher, and higher, and higher, until finally their goal entered his sight. His leg throbbed harder at the very thought of climbing that monstrosity.

"Napoleon? Are you sure you're up to this?"

Napoleon glanced to his left to find Illya frowning at him, and managed a reassuring smile. "I'm fine. C'mon, we're wasting daylight." Waiting around wasn't going to make the climb any easier, after all. And at least there was a path, of sorts.

Three hours later his world had been reduced to finding some way to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The pain in his leg had gone from throbbing to stabbing to a screaming agony that had melted into what was either a terrifying numbness or simply a totality of pain. He was afraid to focus on it long enough to find out which. It didn't matter, anyway; he'd felt like this since time began, and would feel like this forever.

"Napoleon?" Illya was worried; Napoleon was moving like a zombie, and didn't seem to realize that they'd made it. "Napoleon, we are at the top, you can stop now. Napoleon!"

The other man kept staggering forward, in danger now of falling down a cutaway in the rock. Frantic, Illya lunged forward and grabbed him by the arms, pulling him to a halt.

Napoleon swayed in his arms, made a soft sound of pain, and passed out.

Version 3:

Napoleon rested his hands on his knees briefly, then straightened to look at the path in front of him. His lips tightened as he raised his eyes higher, and higher, and higher, until finally their goal entered his sight. His leg throbbed harder at the very thought of climbing that monstrosity.

"Napoleon? Are you sure you're up to this?"

Napoleon glanced to his left to find Illya frowning at him, and managed a reassuring smile. "I'm fine. C'mon, we're wasting daylight." Waiting around wasn't going to make the climb any easier, after all. And at least there was a path, of sorts.

Illya bit his lip again as he watched his partner's halting progress. Three hours of climbing had nearly finished Napoleon; he was sure the other man was barely even conscious. The knife he'd taken to his leg had clearly done more damage than Napoleon had thought, or had wanted to admit to. There was no room on the narrow path for Illya to do anything more than watch from behind, and be ready to catch Napoleon should he fall.

Finally they reached the top, but Napoleon showed no signs that he'd realized it. "Napoleon? Napoleon, we are at the top, you can stop now. Napoleon!"

The other man kept staggering forward, in danger now of falling down a cutaway in the rock. Frantic, Illya lunged forward and grabbed him by the arms, pulling him to a halt.

Napoleon swayed in his arms, made a soft sound of pain, and passed out.

Version 1 sticks to one POV throughout, and is easy to follow. Version 3 does a scene change to switch to Illya's POV, and is easy to follow. Version 2 just switches all of a sudden in mid-scene, and is confusing.

Pick a point of view that works, and stick to it. If you have to switch, switch in a way that contributes to the story tension and doesn't throw the reader for a loop.

back to top
back to the explanations




Nick's gums began to ache as he approached the crime scene. Every heartbeat for 500 yards around grew louder, tempting him with their promise of warmth and life and satiety. A gold film sharpened his vision; heat traces appeared at every thumping heart's body, and he marked his prey unthinkingly, gauging who would fight the hardest, who would fear the most, who would succumb most sweetly. His gaze fell on Natalie just as she rose from her inspection of the body and turned toward him, stripping off her bloody gloves. The freshening wind carried the scent to him, and he shuddered as he breathed deeply of it. Nick snarled as his fangs dropped, spinning aside and dropping to a crouch to fiddle with his shoe as he fought the reaction.


Bloodlust rose in Nick as he approached the crime scene, and he had to turn away for a moment to control the reaction.

Show, don't tell.

For the most part, showing the reader what's going on is better than telling her -- just like seeing an episode is better than being told about it the next day. You don't need to show everything, of course. I don't need the details on people's trips to the bathroom; a simple "He detoured briefly to answer the call of nature" is quite sufficient, and I'd much rather read that than join him in there and feel everything he's feeling. But when it comes to emotions, show us what they're feeling, rather than telling us. When it comes to plot progression, show us, rather than telling us. (For an example of what a difference that makes, check out my three versions of my story "White Ceiling": the first version is complete, it shows what happened; the second version tells most of the story; the third version is almost complete telling instead of showing. I put these versions up as part of a rant to show the difference that grammar, spelling, and punctuation make, too, so just ignore the errors in versions two and three.)

The Helpful Links: Tools of the Craft

Dictionaries | Homonyms | Grammar/Usage Guides | Encyclopedias | Time | Other

Writing is a craft. It has tools, just like other crafts do. These tools are easier to find out about, and learn to use, than you might think. There are a good many online references, for instance, that a writer can use to help her practice her craft.



American English | Other English | Multiple | Other language | Thesauri | Translators | Specialty


American English

Voycabulary -- Provides links to definitions to all the words on a page. You type in a URL, or a sentence, and it brings up a page with every word linked to a definition in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Merriam Webster online (dictionary or thesaurus) The "real" Webster's dictionary and thesaurus, 10th edition (published in 1998).

American Heritage Dictionary -- The other standard US dictionary (along with M-W). This is the current fourth edition (published in 2000). Housed at, a fantastic site.

Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1913 edition) (trust me, it's not as old as you think, and -- it's unabridged!)

Cambridge Dictionaries -- Several searchable dictionaries, including American English, Learner's, Advanced Learner's, Idioms, and Phrasal Verbs.

Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesuarus -- The basic dictionary is still available to anyone, but for more complete service, it requires registration. Registration is free, though. -- Searchable dictionary, with a connected thesaurus lookup (


Other English dictionaries

Chambers online reference -- The standard British dictionary, with links to some other Chambers references.

Macquarie online -- Australian encyclopedia and dictionary; part of this site is a paid deal, but there's a free dictionary search.


Multiple dictionaries (on one site)

Onelook Dictionaries (5,900,060 words in 941 dictionaries indexed)

Langenberg -- Dictionary, Rhyming, Crossword Puzzle, Scrabble, Quotations, Thesaurus, Anagrams & Pig Latin.

Online Dictionary Net -- Links to hundreds of dictionaries in various languages and subjects. -- Linked to more than 1800 dictionaries in 230 languages.


Other languages: -- Linked to more than 1800 dictionaries in 230 languages.

Online Dictionary Net -- Links to hundreds of dictionaries in various languages and subjects.



Roget's Thesaurus -- searchable 1911 edition.

Roget's II -- third edition, published 1995.

Roget's International Thesaurus -- published 1922. -- Searchable thesaurus, with a connected dictionary lookup (



American-British -- British-American Dictionary Just what it says; a translator to and from American and British English.

Travlang's Translating Dictionaries -- Translations for multiple languages, both to and from English and to and from other languages. As always, take translations like this with a grain of salt; literal translations are never perfect. -- Linked to more than 1800 dictionaries in 230 languages, including a translator service.


Specialty dictionaries:

Online rhyming dictionary (well, you never know when you're going to need one of these...)

Semantic rhyming dictionary -- allows you to search for rhymes, synonyms, antonyms, definitions, related words, similiar-sounding words, homophones, similar spellings, and pictures, and to search inside Shakespeare's works and quotations.

WriteExpress Online Rhyming Dictionary -- a limited version of the company's for-sale product, but you can get one- and two-syllable rhymes.

Slanguages -- A guide to talking like the locals, all over the English-speaking world. Obviously, this isn't going to be perfect, and it's as much a pronunciation guide as anything, but it's fun.

Dictionary of English slang and colloquialisms of the United Kingdom -- Just what it says. It gets updated regularly.



Alan Cooper's Homonym List Nice big list of homonyms; if you've ever had the slightest problem with homonyms, bookmark this site. Or print out the list and leave it next to your computer.

Arduinna's Homonyms page Much smaller than Alan Cooper's page! Just a collection of homonym/homophone problems I (and others) have noticed in fanfic.


Grammar and Usage Guides

Holy Mother Grammatica Read this. Learn it, love it, live it. She does a wonderful job of explaining some important stuff. Do I agree with every last thing she says? No. But I agree with a lot of it, and it won't hurt you to read it. Go, shoo, read!

Modern English Grammar (English 126 -- a course, lots of links to specific topics)

Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style

The Grammar Lady Online

Handbook of Punctuation -- Info on correct use of the apostrophe, comma, ellipsis, italics, periods, quotation marks, colon, parentheses, question marks, and semicolons.

American Heritage Book of English Usage -- published 1996. "With a detailed look at grammar, style, diction, word formation, gender, social groups and scientific forms, this valuable reference work is ideal for students, writers, academicians and anybody concerned about proper writing style."

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English -- published 1993. "A vigorous assessment of how our language is best written and spoken and how we can use it most effectively, this guide is the ideal handbook of language etiquette: friendly, sensible, reliable, and fun to read. Its 6,500 entries contain thousands of examples, both descriptive and prescriptive, and feature 4,300 hyperlinked cross-references."



Columbia Encyclopedia -- Sixth edition, published 2002. "Containing nearly 51,000 entries (marshalling six and one-half million words on a vast range of topics), and with more than 80,000 hypertext cross-references, the current Sixth Edition is among the most complete and up-to-date encyclopedić ever produced."

Encylopedia of World History -- Sixth edition, published 2001. "Renowned historian Peter N. Stearns and thirty prominent historians have combined their expertise over the past ten years to perfect this comprehensive chronology of more than 20,000 entries that span the millennia from prehistoric times to the year 2000."

The Columbia Gazeteer of North America -- Geographical reference for North American places. Published 2000. "With 50,000 entries, this most comprehensive encyclopedia of geographical places and features will prove invaluable to anyone for whom places hold fascination and who require accurate data about them. It covers every incorporated place and county in the United States, along with several thousand unincorporated places, special-purpose sites, and physical features, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean."

The Canadian Encyclopedia -- Just what it says. An encyclopedia about Canada.

Encyclopedia Mythica -- Just what it sounds like, an encyclopedia of mythology, folklore, and legend. Covers all sorts of things, from all sorts of cultures.



Perpetual Calendar -- Just pick the date you want, and it'll give you the correct calendar.

Date and Time Gateway Time Zones around the world (click on a city and find out what time it is there right now)

Sunrise/Sunset and Moon Phases -- From the U.S. Naval Observatory, the keeper of US standard time (and check out their master clock page, too, while you're there). From here you can find out the phase of the moon, for any day you want from 1800 to 2199 AD. You can also check the the sunrise/sunset moonrise/moonset time, from 1700 to 2099.


Other references:

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations -- Published 1919. "This tenth edition of 1919 contains over 11,000 searchable quotations and was the first new edition of John Bartlett’s corpus to be published after his death in 1905—the new editor, however, choosing more to supplement than revise the work of the first name in quotations."

Columbia World of Quotations -- Published 1996. "The 65,000 essential quotations that constitute this authoritative collection represent the research of 154 experts. Entries from more than 5,000 authors and speakers are multiply classified into 6,500 subjects."

Simpson's Contemporary Quotations: The most notable quotations, 1950-1988 -- Published 1988. "With over 10,000 quotations from 4,000 sources organized into 25 categories and 60 sections, this comprehensive reference work contains words of wit and wisdom from such modern notables as Ezra Pound, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, and Desmond Tutu."

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable -- Published 1898 (not a typo; it's more than a hundred years old, but still very useful). "Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable comprises over 18,000 entries that reveal the etymologies, trace the origins and otherwise catalog “words with a tale to tell.”"

Reference Desk -- This has practically everything, linked in one place.

Merriam-Webster's Atlas -- Country and state maps (but no world map). This page isn't linked to on M-W's front page, so it may vanish at some point. -- Just what it says. Lots of online maps, including a world atlas, aerial images, topographical maps, aeronautical charts, marine charts, and a world time zone map.


No title


Reference pages home

Writing | Stargate Handbook

Site home



Sign | View

*In an effort to keep my site from showing up in inappropriate web searches (like, by 12-year-old boys who've discovered a 'new' comedy team), I'm not citing where this quote comes from in any more detail. If by some miracle someone doesn't already know, or you want the URL where I got this from, feel free to write to me and ask, and I'll be happy to fill you in. (back to quote)

this page has been visited