Friday, February 5, 2016

About Writing

For years, mistakenly, I've fancied myself a writer. I'm fascinated by the ability to string words together into sentences, frequently too long, while enjoying the thrill of creation. I get carried away.

I should read 'Words Fail Me' more often. It is a wonderful book for anyone who writes or aspires to, and I'd like to reprint a couple of parts of it here to show how it goes. Chapter 12, 'Too Marvelous for Words', begins: Like a superhighway, the sentence is a triumph of engineering: the stately capital letter, the procession of words in their proper order, every arch and tunnel, bridge and buttress perfectly fitted to its job.

It continues: If many writers believe bigger is better, who can blame them? Building a sentence can give you a thrill. It's easy to become infatuated with your own words, and once you get started you hate to stop. The noble pageant goes on and on, especially if you've discovered dashes and semicolons, and gluey words like however and nevertheless. Your mighty sentence swells, as does your head.

And that, Dear Reader, is a too-accurate description of my writing style. The rest of that chapter suggests what to do about it. Yesterday on Facebook, the subject of punctuation came up. So let's move along to Chapter 18, 'Grammar Moses', Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Thyself. Patricia says, "I certainly can't tell you in a few paragraphs everything you need to know about punctuation. But I can hit the high spots, the problems that show up most often."

Then she continues: 
* A comma by itself usually isn't enough to hold together two expressions that could be separate sentences: Jack broke his crown, Jill wasn't seriously injured. (This is sometimes called a run-on sentence.) If you want to join those expressions with a comma, add a linking word, like and or but: Jack broke his crown, but Jill wasn't seriously injured. There's more on joining parts of a sentence in chapter 12.
* The semicolon may be the most unappreciated and underused punctuation mark. If you find semicolons intimidating, relax. They're handy for joining expressions that could stand alone, like the ones above: Jack broke his crown; Jill wasn't seriously injured. Semicolons can also be used to tidy up a series of items with commas inside them. Imagine how hard it would be to read this sentence if only commas were used: Jack broke his crown, which was fractured in two places; scraped his knee, nearly to the bone; and ruined his lederhosen. Lincoln found the semicolon a "useful little chap"; you will, too.
* Dashes and parentheses shouldn't be abused. They do roughly the same thing - they let the writer say something (like this) in an aside - though dashes  are somewhat more in-your-face. If your writing breaks out in dashes, try using parentheses for variety (and vice versa). But if commas would work as well, as they often do, use them instead.

I don't want to copy too much of Pat's wonderfully helpful book, but I suggest you try to find your own at a bookstore near you. It's from Harcourt Brace & Company, and the ISBN is 0-15-100371-8.


  1. Thanks Ray. For some dumb reason, I like you, feel that I can write. But, alas then I start to make a sentence or a paragraph and even a story and all goes to hell (in a hand basket as they say).

    I found the book on Amazon and have it one order, with free shipping. :-)

  2. That last sentence should read "have it on order, with free shipping."
    Will the book do spell checking as well?


  3. "Will the book do spell checking as well?"

    Unfortunately, no. But if you go onto Google and type in "Spell: -------"
    it will do it for you, even if your way was wrong.

    But Google Translate doesn't always work as well.
    I've discovered that to be on the safe side, if you translate something with it,
    you should then put that back into it and translate that back to English,
    so you will be sure what it actually says in that other language. It is better
    with some languages than others, and its grammar isn't the best in there.

    And I think you'll enjoy "Words Fail Me". It's full of helpful hints, and
    written in a way that makes it easy to take.

    Enjoy your day!

  4. "Will the book do spell checking as well?" I guess that is actually an incorrect question to ask, because nothing was spelled incorrectly.

    The real culprit, as I'm sure you understand, is: "have it one order, with free shipping". I'm not sure if anything will pick this mistake up, especially a book..