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On Writing – (Specifically, MY Writing)

 

The Naggon - One of the attack beings of evil Grammar species

 

Anyone who has tried to actually become a professional writer knows two things:

  • It is damned hard work. It’s right up there with working in salt mines. On an asteroid. With a leaky Vacc suit and only an old roll of duct tape to help you patch the holes. And the salt is radioactive. (Non-writers will think this hyperbole. Fools.)
  • It cannot actually be done. Logically it is impossible. Grammar is imperfect, and so, perfect works, must remain continually marred by imperfect, outdated, avant-guarde, passe, cliched, too flashy, too boring or too something or other grammar. This however, is something we can live with. But punctuation, oh, sweet mercy, punctuation…well, what do you think that Naggon up there is huh? That’s right, the Naggon is punctuation.

For the elucidation of the pedants and the grammar Nazis (Hi my sweet, sweet, editor), I have decided to collect a few of my writing idiosyncrasies here, though my editor would probably refer to them as idiot-syncrasies.

A small warning: This is pretty long and also, I try to offend everyone equally so as to be fair about it. If you are a writer or an editor or anyone interested in language, grammar or punctuation in general, or if you are American, English or French, or religious or sensitive, or some damn hippie thing or other, then some part of this post is almost guaranteed to get you to bite at your keyboard rabidly whilst foaming at the mouth.

If you only care about my own rules, feel free to skip the first two headings, which are my main guides through this dark and murky world of grammatical and punctuational affairs; but I warn you, if you want to improve your writing, you should probably get a professional editor and read everything Larry Trask ever wrote and ignore my own way of doing things. Studiously ignore it.

 

Larry Trask

Firstly let me introduce you to Larry Trask. Larry Trask is basically almost always right. If you want to learn to punctuate and write and understand language, read everything this man has written. Sadly Larry has passed on some years ago at a very young age, but his work remains and one of the best places to learn all the basics without resorting to heavy drinking and use of Russian Roulette to make the learning more “fun” is to begin here.

Larry also writes with a dry humour that is truly a joy and if you can’t see that a man that can make things like grammar and punctuation actually funny to read was clearly a being of superior evolution, sent here amongst us mere mortals to elevate us a little from the cursed Earth we inhabit, then, you my dear reader are a barbaric philistine and need shooting. If the Pope weren’t a Nazi, Larry would have already achieved sainthood I tell you. Don’t believe me? Larry thought there was no such thing as a split infinitive and only pedants of the worst kind would worry about nonsense of that kind. If you want to be really amazed, read his book on language. I bought it because I was so amazed by his online stuff and I was not disappointed. I digress a little, but trust me, it’s worth a read.

 

Language: The Basics

Larry’s time here was cut short though, so there are roughly 784,952 questions I’d like to ask him which, sadly, no one else seems to have the answer to.

 

My Editor

My editor is a para-dimensional being that masquerades as a frail and gentile damsel of refined and mild tastes. In reality of course, she is actually a grammar Nazi who will think nothing of smithing you with Mjorlin, right on your testicles, if you should EVER do anything like…place a comma where you think a breath pause would go. That sort of thing cannot be allowed. The dark gods of Chthulu would break into our omniverse and reality would be eaten by the dark denizens of R’lyeh. Or maybe she just wants to be first at the banquet, it’s unclear. There are things she will not tolerate, and despite my iron will and superhuman levels of sanity, she seems to have mostly got her way on some points:

  • Breath pause commas are EVIL. Reality and your mind will dissolve if you let any by you, (but see my update 2 at the end).
  • Larry’s advice on punctuation (see link above) is meh..ok..but there are a lot of exceptions. And you better know them, or Mjorlin will meet your face, you dirty, unwashed, ungrammatical cretin.
  • Mercy is for the weak. Your work will be CORRECTED. It will be EXCISED. It will be CLEANED. It will get a colonic and an exorcism too if it requires it, but by all the dark gods, it will be clear and make sense. Your blood is but food. Spill more until you get it right!

I may have just doubled my editor’s rates with this mild description of her, however, let me explain that although I had a couple of hour-long discussions with Redhead Girl about how this vile para-dimensional being is “…crippling, crippling, my work I tell you, which is worse than just killing it!” and marathon e-mails with no punches pulled from either side, I actually LOVE this woman. Love, I tell you. There is no doubt in my mind that she makes me a better writer. She is worth her weight in gold and I am ashamed of the pittance I can barely afford to give her for her amazing services. She is also a genius. Seriously, she is. She is a lot younger than I am, and she knows more about grammar and punctuation than I ever will if I live to be a hundred and focus on this subject alone for the rest of my days.

The blinding cuts to my ego, my sense of art and beauty, my soul dammit, were, I grudgingly admit, worth it. It helps that like me, she gives no quarter, yet is smart enough to understand my point of view. She is a guardian at the gates of chaos, holding law and order and all that is good from being corrupted by ignoramus-philistine-ungrammarions, and I, well, I fight for the other side clearly, but as true polar opposites, we cannot help but admire each other. Well. I admire her anyway, she probably just thinks the blood splatter on her Mjorlin is damn persistent in my case.

An aside, yes. Yes, she CAN lift Thor’s hammer. Trust me. Thor don’t know shit about grammar and his hammer will do what she tells it to, because she will FORGE your cretinous babble into WORDS THAT MAKE SENSE!

 

My Own Take on Things From the Dark Realm

This can basically be summed up without too many words in graphic form thus:

There are a number of problems with how everyone else uses the English written word, the main one being that they don’t all immediately recognise that my way is best, closely followed by the disturbing trend of books such as The Queen’s English – And How to Use It, in ignoring my thoughts on the matter. In order to help such misguided souls as those who may choose to read my works, I have compiled a list here below (which may be updated when time permits i.e. probably never [update: The updates are after the end of the post]), and separated it into two sections, one on general style, and finally the section on the detailed dirty work that goes on in the trenches at the level of single sentences and words.

 

On my Inimitable Style

My style is affected by many things, chief among them is the fact that I read a LOT. I mean really a lot. I read tomes like Tarzan, Shogun and Lord of the Rings all before I was 12. By the age of 7 I was reading full sized novels that ranged from pirate stories to thrillers, these were in Italian, at first, but later in English too. Many of these things have influenced me in certain ways undoubtedly, but most of that influence is probably reflected in the details (see next section lower down) of how I write rather than the more general style I write in. That said, there are some general trends I can probably list here:

  • I have a strong preference for using British English over the more corrupt, vulgar and facile American English. Partly this is due to my having learnt the language mainly under the British system. Partly it is due to the fact that some Imperialist part of me feels one should respect more the language of the country in which it truly originated, rather than some off-shoot colony where it became bastardised. It’s spelt colour, not color, koloh, kulah, or whatever other form of primitive English you have been trained to believe (like a circus monkey) is “correct”. Yes I know that the American spelling is often more phonetically simple. That’s sort of the point. It’s simple, don’t you know.
  • Despite the above, some words are very tempting to spell in the Americanised form. But not for the reasons you think, of simplicity, common sense or ease of use. No. Indeed this actually stems from an ever deeper and even more Imperialist part of me rooted into still deeper loyalty and due respect for the originating language, which is Latin. So for example, while I generally spell kilometre in the British way, it is very tempting to spell it kilometer, because it’s also closer to my native Italian spelling which is itself a bastardisation of the original Latin it etymologically stems from. So I may, on occasion, decide to write a particular topic or book in the Americanised form for such words. But let’s be clear, it’s because I am even more elitist than you thought I was.
  • A case in point is the word skeptic. In British English it is spelt sceptic. I refuse to write it this way though. Can you guess why yet dear reader? That’s right; Honour (yes, with a capital H) must be preserved, and Loyalty (yes with a capital L) to the mother tongue must be observed, and in this case, the word skeptic originates from the Greek. And they spelt it with a K. As it should be. Also, sceptic reminds me of a septic tank, which gives me a very different sense of the word. One I tend to excrete. Yes, that was a pun. And now, I bet, those of you with OCD will all have to spell it with a K too. BWAHAHAHAH! Yes! I win!
  • All of the above points hopefully explain away quite a lot of what my editor (bless her dark soul) refers to infuriatingly as my “inconsistencies”. Little does she know, I am an even older and darker soul than hers, while she serves her dark gods of grammar, vainly trying to protect the world from chaos, I serve the even darker and older gods of etymology, linguistics and the dark, dark, unconscious root of speech itself.
  • Absurdities like “split infinitives”, ending or starting a phrase with a “preposition” (I don’t even know if that’s right because I don’t even know what a preposition is. I think of it as a small word like but or and), or any other number of weirdly meaningless grammar-o-babble referring to separation of clauses, temporal lobes of trilobites and general Orc faeces will be utterly ignored. And they will be ignored for two reasons:
    • I don’t understand them. I never will. I will sooner learn about the temporal lobes of trilobites and the exact composition of Orc faeces (it contains undigested Hobbit genital hair? What do you mean why genital? Have you seen their feet? Can you imagine what the crack of their ass or ball-sack looks like?) before I will ever learn these absurd rules of grammar, that to my mind, body and soul, have nothing, nothing at all, I say, to do with language, or at least, the real use of language. With emphasis on the word use, which brings me to the second point.

 

    • All grammar falls to the wayside, cut down and discarded like chaff without a second’s thought if it ever, ever goes up against what I call my style. That is, my use of language in such a way or for such purposes to try and transmit to the reader a sensation, a feeling, or (in my opinion) a better understanding of the internal motivation/s of one of the characters, or the setting, or anything else. As a corollary, it needs to be said that as far as I can see, most grammar tends to always try to do this, that is, reduce the texture, the depth, the enjoyment of the use of language. I see it a bit like Haiku. Haiku are technically and theoretically bound by some very strict rules, however, these are there precisely because the “fun” is in seeing how evocative and meaningful one can make three lines of words become even when such strictures are imposed on it. The very purpose of language could be said to be to transcend grammar.
  • This brings me to a third point, very much related to the one above, and that is the actual USE of language. Why do we use language? Think about it, seriously. The obvious answer is, to communicate. Yes, but to communicate what? That’s right, it depends on context, if you are trying to defuse an atom bomb about to go off, you really don’t give a shit about your interlocutor’s deeper meanings and sensations, you just want precise and clear information. This is the language of text books, of instruction manuals, and mostly, of the basics of science. On the other hand, certain more subtle concepts, let’s say like understanding WHY the guy who placed the atom bomb there in the first place did it, require a little more finesse. A little more depth, and a lot more of what I can only refer to as empathy. You need to be able to feel, actually feel, as much as you can, the other person’s situation, feelings and thoughts, so as to get a better understanding of them and their motives, their actions or even just their mood. Use of language in this fashion is intimately related to both hypnosis and story-telling in general. And there is a lot more to story-telling than merely the telling of stories. Telling stories is the first, oldest, and still most useful teaching tool. Most people do not realise this at all. This is a boon for politicians and news agencies, but not so good for you dear reader. For eons, telling stories around the fire was how people learnt to survive events that the older tribe members had encountered first. Listening well to a good story well-told actually increased your chances of survival. Those with poor listening skills did not survive as well. At least not until the era of the supermarket, where the sound-byte has replaced the story and ADHD has replaced listening skill. The zombie apocalypse is not going to come. It’s here already. And yeah, you may be a one of them…you walker, you! Still, if you have actually read this far, you might actually still be human. If you go on to comment you are very likely one of the few uninfected left! Well done, I salute your skill at preserving some semblance of a brain in this ever expanding universe of skulls filled with warm tapioca populated by grubs.
  • Finally, as refers to style, I tend to write closer to how I speak, and how others speak, than in so-called formal writing. The reasons for this should be obvious if you read the two points immediately above, but the problem with this is that spoken language is almost always grammatically incorrect, abysmal, and, according to my editor, probably to be put down like a sick dog. My view is that I want my dialogue to resemble real speech, because I want my characters to resemble real characters. I may place them in fantastic enough settings, but their humanity should remain. And their speech should reflect that they are indeed humans, not robot-like replacements. In fact, the more grammatically correct a character of mine speaks, the more likely that he is a vile being trying to brainwash the heroic main protagonists. Probably. He could also just be a very detached scientist. Of course…detached scientists might not be able to recognise when they are being evil. What with being detached from their humanity and all.

All of the above reasons are enough to create a true Ocean (yes, capital O) of ungrammatical murkiness that no editor in their right mind would ever want to even begin to venture into. It is for this reason that I salute and respect, and yeah, verily, that I LOVE my editor. She does this. On purpose. And unflinchingly. Alone, in her canoe on my Ocean of Ungrammar, she not just believes, she KNOWS, she will hammer the waters into a pristine, flat shape of reason and sanity and purity. And she WILL do it. It really matters not that on some existential level deeply embedded in the fibres of creation, her and I are obviously fighting for opposite sides, it is impossible to not respect such courage, such dedication, such…some would even say fanaticism, but then…if she does not hold back the tide from beings such as I, who would? Who I ask you, puny humans. Be thankful to the unknown female god of grammar that guards your fragile minds from the tsunamis of raw lust for emotion those such as I would inflict upon you.

 

A quick side note to illustrate the point

In one of the paragraphs above I wrote:

In fact, the more grammatically correct a character of mine speaks, the more likely that he is a vile being trying to brainwash the heroic main protagonists.

This is grammatically incorrect, and my editor, no-doubt, would be wielding that Mjorlin about my face in reading it, however, take note of the correct way below:

In fact, the more grammatically correct a character of mine speaks the more likely that he is a vile being trying to brainwash the heroic main protagonists.

What you see in the used and first version is (horror!) a breath pause comma! It is (and I quote) “The Devil”. (So is that last full stop, but we’ll get to that below).

But I ask you reader (if you even exist at this point, because this must be going for a few thousand words now), which sentence do you naturally feel most comfortable with? Which gives your brain pause for digestion as it flows over the words?

Go on, don’t worry, say it out loud in a comment below. I will shield you from the blows of Mjorlin with my own body, do not be afraid, tell the truth!

 

The Dirty Details

As

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you will no doubt have seen from the blood spatter above, I have a tendency for using breath pause commas. But there is a reason for this (besides my obviously being in league with the devil, according to my editor). At a young age, that is, when I first entered formal schooling, which was only age 7, as before that we lived in rural Nigeria and it was my dear mother that taught me how to read and write,* my then primary school teacher gave us a generic rule for knowing when to place commas, because punctuation for me was a problem right from the get go. And she told us to place a comma, “basically wherever you would pause in speech”. Which made sense to me. And in many ways, it still really does. So you see, I was corrupted early on. And besides, you should really read your bible. Seriously, Lucifer might not have been all that evil you know, he just had a bit of a problem with authority, and he told the truth about the tree of life in the garden, it was god, (well, EL anyway, the main god guy) who lied about it. And if Lucifer is also the Prometheus of the Greeks, then really, he was a cool guy. Just saying.

Some of my other sins are:

  • I prefer the logical way of punctuating speech. No, seriously, it’s called the logical way. This is where the punctuation marks appear OUTSIDE the quotation marks of speech for those elements of punctuation that are not referring strictly to the words inside the speech marks. This makes sense. This is the British way, and hence, why it is called the logical way to punctuate speech. Sadly, most editors are trained in the AmeriKKKan way to punctuate speech. Mostly because America is the largest buyer of books in the English speaking world (thank you America. Thank you my semi-literate, illogical, bastardised-English speaking American friends. I love you. No really, I do. I am an Elitist Chauvinist Pig, but I still love you, please continue buying my books in large quantities). The American way to punctuate speech is an unholy mess with no rules to speak of, and only makes sense to rabid trained circus monkeys. I therefore, like Jesus, bearing the cross to Calvary, submit to it because I cannot fight every editor (and by now, most readers too due to the numbers game), in explaining to them why they are wrong, wrong, wrong, dammit! I therefore “punctuate” in the American way mostly. Mostly I said, not always. In general I will fight hard (she has won most times so far though) even my editor on a few points:
    • When using inverted commas to highlight a single word, say in the phrase: American punctuation IS logical says an irate “editor”. I have a tendency (which I have done throughout this post) of leaving the final full stop outside of the inverted commas. It just looks nasty and untidy and unwashed and all invasive inside them. It feels wrong. It’s just hard for me to do it any other way. It’s not even conscious 95% of the time. I will correct it if she points it out, but don’t expect me to really do it the right way. I may also miss some of her pointing it out.
  • When asking a question in speech, I will ALWAYS put a damn question mark on the end of it. This to my mind, highlights exactly why the American way of punctuating speech was designed by rutting chimps on cocaine. As an example, I present to you the phrase:

“Did you really drink all of it,” she asked breathlessly.

Now…that’s a question dammit! A Question! And it REQUIRES a question mark. I don’t care (as I learnt only yesterday) that it is “implied” because almost every single sentence in the English language that begins with the word did will be a question, or by the fact it clearly says she asked in the phrase itself. The damn sentence of speech inside the speech marks REQUIRES a question mark. And I will ALWAYS put it in there. Thus:

“Did you really drink all of it?” she asked breathlessly.

or possibly

“Did you really drink all of it?” She asked breathlessly.

But guess what? Either of the last two sentences might be correct. You are supposed to infer whether there is a capital S or not by the “flow” of the conversation. What? I mean isn’t punctuation supposed to be used exactly to TELL you about that supposed “flow” and how it’s going? Chimps I tell you. Rutting chimps. On cocaine.

 

  • Ellipses. I use these a lot and in varied ways. Now, between the ellipses, the content of the speech and the context of where and how it’s happening in the story, I believe these little dots can transmit to the reader a lot of information regarding the mood of the scene, of the character speaking, and even of the character being spoken to, than almost any other kind of punctuation marks. My editor disagrees vehemently mostly, but she has conceded ground here. She did though beat me in the face with that damn hammer until I made sure to use ONLY the three regulation dots. Not one accursed dot more, or else.
  • Dashes (and parentheses), and parenthetical commas. I, again, use all of these probably more than is healthy for linear minds. It is however unavoidable for intelligent people who can follow a conversation beyond a CNN sound byte. In fact, if you should decide to use Google a bit, you will discover that longer sentences, and what is sometimes referred to as “more challenging text” (reading books to you and me, reader) is essential in order to increase reading comprehension. The current trend toward ever shorter sentences using only full-stops (that’s what they are called! Periods is what a lady has every month!), the excision of the very useful semi-colon and the practical disappearance of the colon altogether (it was required in order to introduce speech before all quotation marks in Italy in the 70s, when I went to school there), exists merely to try and get the knuckle-dragging, Ritalin-popping, trousers-round-the-ankles wearing Homo Oxygen-ladrus (that’s Homo Oxygen-thief to you, you non-Latin speaker), to feel he is “included”. The sad truth is those kind of “people” (yes I said it in inverted commas, because people as opposed to “people” should be those who are able to use their minds for good and proper use of language and other things) will never be “included”. They will work behind a McDonald’s counter for the majority of their lives, or, if they do achieve any success it might be by playing sports or possibly being a rap-star –though I doubt the latter since rap used to have an actual linguistic origin of rather complex, if unorthodox, pedigree. Then again, modern rap follows the sound-byte trend too so it’s possible– which would be fine, except that their lack of elocution, reading comprehension and therefore general etiquette will still render them about as useful or interesting as a chimp with a LOT of bananas. It might be entertaining to watch, but it’s not exactly rocket science. You may have noticed a couple of long sentences in this point itself. If you had to strain your finger in following the discourse here, I suggest you need to read a lot more of my work. It’s going to increase your IQ. Seriously. If instead it all flowed well for you, congratulations reader! You are one of my kind of people. Go on, buy my books, you’ll enjoy them, they are smart, just like you!

 

  • Superbia. This is an Italian word that gets loosely translated as “arrogance”. You may, I say, may, have noticed a distinct lack of any issues of self-esteem concerning my chosen way of going about my writing (or mutilation of the English language, as possibly my editor would put it). Ultimately, I will do as I damn well please, and those who love me will follow me and continue to read what I write, and those who do not love me, or my writing, can carry on salivating over things like 50 Shades of Grey, and the “works” of James Patterson. I will not miss you if you are one of the latter. I need to point out however, that mine is not arrogance. Not strictly speaking. It is in fact Superbia (yes, capital S). The difference is that an arrogant person is essentially an ignorant person. That is, they think they are better than… or can do such and such, when in fact, they are not better than… at all, and will often fail badly when trying to do such and such, or even just such. A Superbo on the other hand is not ignorant. He knows he is better than… or can do X. And he most often IS better than, and will not often fail at doing X. The problem is he really isn’t humble about it. Now… I do not mean to “put off” my readers by a display of arrogance, even if just arrogance limited to my lack of humility on the subject, but I do need to explain that no writer has ever pleased all his readers. Nor will ANY writer ever exist that CAN, please all his readers. Some readers will find my writing is not to their tastes, and this is fine and well. I am not writing for them. Since I cannot know a priori whom of my readers will enjoy my writing, there is no point in me trying to please these unknown persons. I therefore, will write in the way that pleases ME the most first. Writing is a lonesome, heavy work, and every writer to some degree or other struggles with it in his own way. For me, over a period of 15 years or so I have gone from having an attitude that can best be described as, “I hate it, but I MUST do it. I am compelled by a dark, sadistic force!” to “I love doing this, I wish I could do it as my sole means of income all the time!” and that, dear reader, did not happen by chance. Or without a lot of metaphorical (but still pretty real) pain. And effort. And a LOT of cursing. So; I will write to please myself first. And if some of my ways rub you the wrong way grammatically, or punctuationally, or some other way, at least now you have a pretty comprehensive list of reasons as to why I do what I do the way I do it.

Oh –by the way– that last one on the list there, the Superbia? According to classical Catholicism, it was Superbia that got Lucifer cast down to Earth. So… I have warned you my good reader, my editor may be right, I may indeed be a dark, dark soul, working in league with the devil, and only her Angelic rigour and the hammer of Thor, may keep me from running roughshod over all your petty rules of grammar!

 

* Thank you mom! Seriously, whatever my editor says to the contrary regarding my “ability” to write, I owe it to you that I could both read as well as do things like long-division long before getting to school and being taught to “read” whole words at a time (which is, I am 100% sure, the main cause of the so-called rampant “dyslexia”) and do maths in weird ways that only work to a limited point, designed to keep you working behind a teller instead of being able to do a few more things besides use numbers that don’t go higher than a thousand or so.

 

PS: I think, seriously, first person to make an intelligent comment on this unrealistically long-ass post that gives me an indication they actually read the whole thing gets a free book posted to them. My editor and mother are excluded cause they get one of those anyway.

UPDATES:

6 Feb 2013 – There is at least ONE word I choose to spell in the American way instead of the British way though. This is the word practiced (or practicing). In British English the noun is spelt practice (e.g. It was time for piano practice) but the verb is spelt with an s (e.g. She was practising her piano playing). In American English the word is used in both instances with the c and no s. Why then, given my Imperialist leanings, would I ever spell the word in the American way? Well, it is a multi-part answer. Firstly, one can really only be truly elitist if one arbitrarily ignores one of one’s own originally arbitrary rules to begin with (much as English spelling and pronunciation do really, so I am on good ground on this basis alone), however, it needs to be explained that the origin of the bastard s in the verb form of British English seems to have found its way into the language, like the illegitimate son of a chambermaid, via the back door as it were, through French. So, whilst using the language of the semi-literate colonists may be distasteful, I am sure that you will agree, it is a far superior solution than allowing the French to add their national lisp to the Queen’s dictum. And on that note, I’m sure my OBE for services to the English language is going to come along any day now. I just hope Kate’s sister will be at the ceremony; and wearing something tight!

10 Feb 2013 - For a truly fascinating reason as to why breath pause commas are not just NOT evil, but in fact good and right and really the very origin of grammar, see this amazing article about a lot more than just commas HERE. Warning: unless you are a punctuation geek you need to read a few pages of text, the short version is that breath pauses, indicated as commas, were used as one of the very earliest ways to interpret texts. No manuscript with commas that predated the dark ages exists apparently. But the article really is good, even if you are not a geek. It’s bound to make you look real smart at your next dinner party anyway; though, if you have read this far, I do have news for you: you ARE a geek. A big one.

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