The Merry Grammarian

The Merry Grammarian – Archive

grammarianThe Merry Grammarian Blog


RebeccaRebecca Mahoney is an award-winning writer, book editor and freelance journalist from New Hampshire. As an editor and writing coach, she has a passion for helping aspiring writers improve their writing and achieve their publishing dreams. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in numerous literary journals. She loves to travel and her fiction often explores the relationship between women and place. She holds an MFA in Fiction and a BA in English/Journalism. Find out more about her at


Sometimes, grammar is downright confounding. All those rules. All those exceptions. Most of us are fuzzy on at least some details. So where can you turn if you’re in need of a definitive grammar source?

The answer, my friend, is not Google. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Le Google as much as the next person. But too many times, I’ve seen people rely on Google for a grammar question, and the websites that pop up have supplied the wrong answers or have outdated information (remember, as the English language evolves, so does grammar).

Instead, turn to one of these three excellent, straightforward texts—essential reading for any writer seeking a definitive answer to their grammar query, or who simply wants to improve the mechanical side of their writing.

  1. The Elements of Style, by Shrunk & White. Don’t be fooled by the slenderness of this little book. What it lacks in weight, it makes up for in usefulness. Here, in succinct and simple prose, are the essential rules of writing clear, correct English. You’ll find grammar guidance as well as practical instruction on how to improve the clarity of your writing. There’s a reason this slim guide is on the list of required textbooks in English programs across the nation—it’s just that good.


  1. The Chicago Manual of Style. This one might be the opposite of The Elements of Style. It’s a hefty tome, even bigger than my trusty Webster’s dictionary. And where Shrunk and White are lean and clean, CMS goes into detail … deep, intense detail. But it’s got all the information you could ever possibly need, including a robust section on all the grammar particulars of the English language as well as the publishing industry’s preferred style for everything from time to titles. It’s amazing how often I turn to this book—not just when I’m proofreading, but also when I’m writing or editing other people’s work. Turning to CMS is like getting the “official” take—when other sources disagree, this is the text to which I turn.


  1. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I love this little book on punctuation so much – the title makes it case completely. Whether you’re looking for a refresher on comma usage or just want some clarity around that controversial semicolon, this book will set you straight. And it’s funny, too (always a bonus when you’re talking about grammar). It’s great not just as a reference book, but also as a way to painlessly brush up on your punctuation rules.


Here’s a short and sweet grammar lesson this week, tackling one of the more common errors I see in writing: the word alright.

Alright, also known as the one-word version of all right—is a word that is nearly guaranteed to make any grammarian cringe.

All right, as in, “Is everything all right?” is a two-word phrase. The word alrightis a word that some have adopted, likely taking their cues from altogether or already, but it’s grammatically incorrect.

You’ll see it used out there from time to time, like in Pete Townsend’s song “The Kids are Alright,” but it’s mostly used in informal writing (like blogs), or by writers who think alright is an acceptable form of all right (it’s not).

But if you want your work to look polished and professional, or if you’re writing a formal piece—like a manuscript, article, column, professional paper, etc—the correct usage is always all right.

Language from Across the Pond

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I’m editing: a little British spelling here and there. First came “amongst,” and then “towards,” and then three separate writers apparently preferred “grey” to “gray.”Maybe it’s an homage to Downtown Abbey? (I miss it, too!).

Whatever is fueling this trend, it’s time to set the record straight. I like my tea and scones as much as anyone else, but the grammar guru in me must clarify why we writers can’t simply slip into British English whenever we please.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Two countries, separated by a common language.” It’s a nod to the fact that though English is common to both the US and the UK, variations are everywhere – in spelling (grey versus gray), terminology (lift versus elevator), and even in punctuation (single quote marks in the UK versus double quote marks in the US).

Because there are so many variants, the grammar and style authorities have decreed that our style should be consistent. So we can write in American English or British English, but we must use that one format consistently throughout an entire piece. In other words, you can’t just use “grey” because it looks more interesting than “gray” if the rest of the piece is written in American English.

Here are a few other common British-isms that tend to slip into American-English manuscripts, per the Chicago Manual of Style:

  • Amidst and amongst: These are both the British spellings; the preferred American forms are amid and among.
  • Directional words such as backward, forward and toward do not take the terminal –s in American English. In other words, in the United States, we go toward something, not towards it.
  • Travel is the same in Britain or America, but variations on the word are different: Travelled versus traveled, travelling versus traveling, traveller versus traveler.
  • And of course, there are all those infamous –ou words: colour, flavor, humour, labour, etc. In American English, there’s no extra “u” – it’s just color, flavor, humor, and labor.

Bottom line? If your heart yearns for castles and moors, then go ahead and write in British English—just be consistent. Otherwise, resist the urge to add a splash of British sophistication, and embrace your American prose.


Eliminating Expletives
(the other kind)

By Rebecca Mahoney

Let’s talk about expletives, shall we? No, I’m not talking about those kinds of expletives—I’m talking about expletives in grammar—specifically, a type of sentence structure called expletive construction.
Expletive construction is when you start with a phrase that does not add any structural or grammatical meaning to the sentence, such as:

-There are
-There is
-There were
-It was
-It is

The word “expletive” comes from the Latin word explere, “to fill” — in other words, these phrases are just filling up space in the sentence, but offer no value or meaning.

For example: There were five people standing in line at the deli.

Using expletive phrases can make your writing clunky or vague. And the subject of the sentence often gets obscured, making it difficult for the reader to figure out who or what is doing the action.

Look how much clearer it is to say this: Five people stood in line at the deli.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

Expletive: It was beginning to snow.
Corrected: It began to snow.

Expletive: There are likely to be some people protesting the new speed limit.
Corrected: Some people will likely protest the new speed limit.

Expletive: It was then that I realized I had to quit my job.
Corrected: I realized I had to quit my job.

Whenever possible, aim to reduce or eliminate expletive construction from your writing. Your prose will be leaner and clearer—and your reader will be happier.


The Comma Splice: A Sneaky Grammar Gaffe

By Rebecca Mahoney

Every grammar goddess has her particular pet peeves, and today I’m going to share one of mine: the comma splice.

You might be more familiar with the comma splice’s cousin, the run-on sentence.

A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (yes, the phrase “independent clause” is one of those hideous English-class terms, like “thesis statement,” but all it really means is a clause that can stand alone as a sentence—i.e., it has a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought).

Like this: I love to read.

 A run-on is when two or more independent clauses are fused together. For example: I love to read novels I’d read all day long if I could.

 It’s pretty easy to recognize a run-on—just read that sentence out loud. With no discernable pauses here, you can almost hear yourself “running on.”

There’s also an easy fix: simply separate the clauses with a period or a semicolon to make them two independent sentences: I love to read novels. I’d read all day long if I could. Or: I love to read novels; I’d read all day long if I could.

The comma splice, meanwhile, is when two complete sentences are jammed together by nothing more than a comma. Like this: I love to read, I’d read all day if I could.

 There are two easy ways to fix a comma splice:

  1. As with a run-on, you can replace the comma with stronger punctuation, like a period or a semicolon, to create two independent sentences: I love to read novels. I’d read all day long if I could.
  2. You can use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor) to join those two sentences: I love to read, and I’d read all day if I could.

The real challenge, however, is not in fixing the comma splice, but in recognizing it in the first place. Most people, even those who are fuzzy on grammar, can spot a run-on sentence. But the presence of the comma makes a comma splice a little harder to catch, so they sneak into our writing.

Here’s my advice: 1) There’s nothing wrong with short, clear sentences. Run-ons and comma splices both happen in part because the author is trying to say too much in one sentence. We often think we sound smarter if we write longer sentences. But in truth, it’s a better strategy to write short, clear, error-free sentences. 2) Try reading your work out loud. It’s amazing how you can “hear” mistakes that you can’t spot on the page, and can help spot comma splices. 3) When you see a comma, double-check to make sure you aren’t accidentally joining two independent sentences.

So now you’re in the know. Comma splices, be warned: we’re onto you.


Staying Active … in Life and in Writing

By Rebecca Mahoney

It’s common wisdom that staying active is a good idea. It’s one of the easiest ways to stay energized, vibrant and healthy. But it’s not just good advice for life—it’s also a good rule for writing.

As writers, we want to aim for active voice, as opposed to passive voice.

Active voice is when it’s clear who or what in a sentence is doing the action. For example: The cat sat on the mat. Here, it’s clear to the reader that the cat is the one doing the action.

Passive voice, however, is the writers’ equivalent of becoming a couch potato—it’s weak and clunky.

For example: The mat was sat on by the cat. See how that’s just a little harder to follow? The subject of the sentence—the one doing the action—is hard to identify. The subject is acted upon, instead of doing the acting.

To make matters worse, in passive voice, the part about who or what is responsible for the action often gets left off completely. For example: The mat was sat on. We’re left to wonder who is doing the action here … was it a ghost? Who knows?

In real life, people sometimes use passive voice on purpose. We see this kind of phrasing from politicians and other officials all the time. For example: Mistakes were made. See how that part about who did the action is missing here? It’s a subtle way of deflecting responsibility.

If you’re writing dialogue, it’s okay to allow your characters to speak in passive voice sometimes. In prose, however, passive voice can be a problem because it’s weaker and muddier than active voice, and it often forces the reader to stop and re-read. And if your reader has to wade through your writing, chances are, she’s not going to be reading for long.

So how can you check to see if you’re writing in passive voice? Here’s an easy trick: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” at the end of the sentence, you might be writing in passive voice. For example:

  • The mat was sat on … by zombies.
  • Mistakes were made … by zombies.

It’s not a foolproof method, but it can help you start to spot passive voice. The more grammatically technical rule, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, is this: “The passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of be … with the verb’s past participle.” But trust me: the zombie test almost always catches passive voice, and it’s a lot more fun.

Bottom line? Active voice is generally clearer and crisper—and therefore, easier to read. And without the extra baggage, it’s also stronger and more energetic.

Just like us, when we get off the couch.


But my teacher said I couldn’t!

By Rebecca Mahoney

 Bigfoot is real.

No swimming for 30 minutes after eating.

You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

What do these three ideas have in common? They’re all myths—“rules” we’ve heard time and again, but which are actually misnomers.

By far, one of the most common questions I get from writers is about whether or not it’s legit to start a sentence with a conjunction – but, and, so, yet, etc.

The short answer? Yes, my writerly friends. You absolutely can begin with a conjunction, despite what your teacher may have told you. And sometimes, you should.

Some background: For some reason, there’s a widely held belief that it’s grammatically incorrect to start your sentences with a conjunction, and English teachers have been docking students for doing so for generations. However, this rule has “no historical or grammatical foundation,” says The Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, it’s actually quite acceptable. As CMS notes, even the most conservative grammarians do it, and as many as 10 percent of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with a conjunction.

If you’re not in the habit of starting with a conjunction, it might feel weird at first. Just think of it as one more tool in your toolbox—sometimes, the best and most effective way start a sentence is with a conjunction, especially in creative writing.

So go ahead. Start with a conjunction. Its really is okay.


Writing about the World Wide Web

By Rebecca Mahoney

Ah, the Internet. We love it, we hate it… and chances are, we’ll write about it. But how to write about it? Many writers aren’t quite sure on the correct style and usages of Web versus web, Internet versus internet, online or on-line.

Never fear, dear writer. The Internet may be vast, but the style rules are simple. Here they are, per the Chicago Manual of Style:

  1. Internet is always capitalized.

           Correct: I wanted to check my flight status, but the Internet was down.

Incorrect: I wanted to check my flight status, but the internet was down.

  1. Web vs web: When referring to the World Wide Web in full, capitalize Web. For all other uses (web page, website, web), keep it lowercased.

            Correct: I wasted an entire hour browsing the World Wide Web.

            Correct: I do all my shopping on the web.

Correct: I was impressed with his website.

  1. Online: Always one word, no hyphen.

            Correct: I’ll look online.

            Incorrect: I’ll look on-line.

Super bonus tip: Conduct a quick search-and-replace in your writing to easily fix these simple style errors.

RebeccaRebecca Mahoney is an award-winning writer, book editor and freelance journalist from New Hampshire. As an editor and writing coach, she has a passion for helping aspiring writers improve their writing and achieve their publishing dreams. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in numerous literary journals. She loves to travel and her fiction often explores the relationship between women and place. She holds an MFA in Fiction and a BA in English/Journalism. Find out more about her at




By Rebecca Mahoney

I once worked for a magazine editor who loathed exclamation points. One of the last things he’d do every month before sending the pages to the printer was to conduct a final check just to make sure none of those perky little points had slipped into the copy.

He’s hardly alone in this pet peeve: exclamation points are punctuation non grata in the publishing world. Many agents and editors point to overuse of the exclamation point as a surefire sign of an amateur writer.

Here’s the deal: Exclamation points are designed to create emphasis. But writers often overuse them. Too many, and they can make your prose look childish (picture books are often riddled with exclamation points). And they can look a little goofy—instead of conveying a sense of drama and excitement, it can look like you’re trying too hard. Look everyone! This is a Big Moment here!

Think of it this way: Punctuation is meant to make sentences clearer for the reader so they can read quickly and efficiently. An exclamation point is a stopping point; it draws attention to the punctuation itself and not to the story. Focus on creating a sense of suspense and drama through action and detail, and not by relying on punctuation.

Give me the bottom line: The Chicago Manual of Style says an exclamation point should be used sparingly to be effective. As with anything in writing, 1+1=1/2; the more you do something, the less power if has. If you’re going to use an exclamation point, do it consciously, sparingly, and only when you can truly justify it.


RebeccaRebecca Mahoney is an award-winning writer, book editor and freelance journalist from New Hampshire. As an editor and writing coach, she has a passion for helping aspiring writers improve their writing and achieve their publishing dreams. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in numerous literary journals. She loves to travel and her fiction often explores the relationship between women and place. She holds an MFA in Fiction and a BA in English/Journalism. Find out more about her at


A Brief Note on Time


Gail Larimer

More About Gail
More About Gail

What time is it? This is an important question for a writer. The time of day something happened (or is scheduled to happen) is an essential in most of what we write.Except for the twenty-four hour system used in the military and in Europe, the most precise way to express time of day is with the abbreviations for ante meridiem (before noon) and post meridiem (after noon).

We will meet for breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Or would you prefer half-past eight?

Notice that on the even hour, two zeros are used after the numeral 8. Also, the a.m. (or the p.m.) is lowercase and the letters are separated by periods. This is the preferred format in The Chicago Manual of Style.Note also that, if you use this format, you would not use any further designation such as morning, evening, or o’clock. The two-letter abbreviation says it all; further explanation would be redundant. If the designation of a time zone is needed, it should be placed in parentheses following the time.

Central Standard Time—6:45 p.m. (CST); Mountain Daylight Time—6:45 p.m. (MDT) or Greenwich Mean Time—6:45 p.m. (GMT).
Whenever the time of day being referred to is even on the hour, half past the hour or a quarter to the hour, it is most usual to write out the time, rather than using numerals.
I will see you at nine thirty. Wow! It’s three o’clock in the morning! He entered the room at half-past eight. The contestants lined up at precisely a quarter to ten.

Note that whenever the word o’clock is used, the time is always spelled out, never expressed as a numeral.Finally, remember the Cinderella rule. Never refer to the time as 12:00. Always specify noon or midnight.This avoids any confusion. And a confused reader is the writer’s bane.

See CMS: Designations of Time, Paragraph 10.42, Time of Day; also Paragraphs 9:38, 9.39, 9.40 and 10.4.

By Gail Pierce Larimer



A Clean Mouth

My grandmother. I can still hear her voice today. “If you say that word one more time, young lady, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!”

The offending word, which I had picked up from my schoolyard friends, was an expletive, what today we would call a “four-letter” word. Back in Grandma’s day, such words had a definite shock appeal and were sure to get attention—even the dangerous kind such as an old lady with her bar of soap.

Today a good number of people seem to punctuate every other sentence with expletives. Just spend 15 minutes on Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. The use of four-letter words has become so commonplace, the expressions have lost completely any shock value they ever had. The only thing this over-frequent use tells me is that the writer uses the expletive because he or she doesn’t possess the vocabulary skills to be more specific.

Most four-letter word usage is as a substitute for the standard interjection. The interjection is the part of speech that is inserted into a sentence to indicate surprise or strong emotion.

– Wow! She looks great in that red dress.
– Oh, I forgot to pack the golf clubs.
– I bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?
– Whoa! Let’s not go there.
– Ouch! I cut my finger instead of the celery.
– Oops! Better hold on tight; the pathway is steep here.
– Good grief, Charlie Brown!

Notice how the use of these standard interjections lends color and specificity to the thoughts being expressed? Replacing them with the worn-out F-word or S-word adds little to the idea behind the statement.

So, what’s a writer to do?

First, don’t depend entirely on four-letter words. Vary up your language; it will assist in keeping your reader’s attention.

Second, know where to use four-letter words and, most important, where not to. Is your novel, Fifty Shades of Purple, targeted to the adult trade? Well, then, anything goes. But if you’re writing inspirational, children’s, young adult, historical romance or anything my grandma might read, stay on the safe side and restrict yourself to more descriptive words that evoke specific reader response.

It’s your decision to make, of course. Just watch out for little old ladies or you could wind up with a mouthful of bubbly—and I don’t mean champagne.

See CMS: Interjections, Paragraphs 5.208-213.




Man of the Century  Debunks Grammar Icon

If there is one individual who stands out as the Man of the 20th Century, that man is Winston Churchill. Soldier, statesman, author, politician, historian, prime minister, world leader, knight of the realm—and grammarian.

Grammarian? Yes, of course. The practical, plain spoken, yet eloquent, Winnie offered English speakers respite from the awkward rule that sentences should never end with a proposition. “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put,” he intoned (possibly with a wink to Lady Churchill).

And guess what? The Chicago Manual of Style heartily agrees. The Windy City editors call the rule “an ill-founded superstition” and point out that a sentence terminating with a preposition is sometimes “more natural” than a sentence constructed to avoid ending in a preposition.

There are, however, two areas relating to the placement of prepositional phrases that writers should take to heart.

ONE, be sure to place the prepositional phrase as close as possible to the word it modifies.

   Thus: The pretty girl with red hair driving the go-cart is my sister.

   And not: The pretty girl driving the go-cart with red hair is my sister.

SECOND, whenever a prepositional phrase equally modifies all the elements in a compound construction, place the phrase following the last element.
Example: Her saucy ponytail, poodle-decorated skirt and saddle oxfords in the photo
revealed the fact that her teenage years were many decades behind her.

See CMS: Prepositional Phrases, Paragraphs 5.175, Placement of prepositional phrases, and 5.176, Ending a sentence with a preposition.


Merry Grammarian Blog


Insiders and Outsiders or Where to Stick It?

One of the most common dilemmas is where to put the ending punctuation of a quotation: inside or outside the quotation marks?Periods and commas are insiders. They should be placed inside quotes:

  • “This picnic is turning into a mini-disaster,” Margaret said.
  • Helen nodded her head. “If you say so, Margaret.”

Colons and semicolons are outsiders:

  • From Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: if yonder window is the east, who, then, is the Sun?
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; what book opens with these lines?

Question marks and exclamation marks can be either insiders or outsiders. If the closing punctuation is part of the quoted material, it is placed inside the quotation marks. Otherwise, it goes outside:

  • Margaret frowned at Helen. “Did you forget the mayonnaise?”
  • “No, I didn’t forget. I much prefer mustard.”
  • Margaret rolled her eyes toward Heaven. Did the girl really believe that everyone would want to forego mayonnaise because she “much preferred mustard”?
  • “Fire!” he shouted as he ran from the building.
  • The flames were shooting up to the sky. No one needed his warning shout of “Fire”!

Note: the observations in this article refer to both single and double quotation marks. Also, be aware that these remarks apply to American works; the British have somewhat different rules regarding quotation marks.

See CMS: Punctuation in Relation to Closing Quotation Marks, Paragraphs 6.9-11. See also Table 6.1 and exception note in Paragraph 7.75.


Too Much of a Good Thing

Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

But the cautious writer replies: “Well, maybe … ”

Punctuation marks are good things. Without them, many written sentences would be difficult to understand. For example, the simple placement of a comma results in a major change in the meaning of the following sentence:

When did you leave George?


When did you leave, George?

There are instances, however, when a writer can use too much of a good thing. The semicolon comes to mind.

Semicolons are necessary in certain grammatical constructions, but those situations are relatively rare (as compared with the more frequent use of other punctuation marks).

The primary use of the semicolon is to separate independent clauses. Every independent clause could stand alone as a complete sentence. Choosing to separate a pair of them by a semicolon, rather than a period, indicates there is a close relationship between the clauses:

He was a dedicated marathon runner; his athletic shoes were the best that money could buy.

When a writer is using certain adverbs to join independent clauses, a semicolon is needed. These adverbs include however, besides, accordingly and therefore, plus a few others. Usually, but not always, a comma is needed after the adverb. The comma may be omitted if the sentence works just as well without it:

She was crazy to be near him; therefore she enrolled in his swimming class.

Semicolons (instead of commas) occasionally are used to separate items in a complex series:

Helen’s honeymoon trousseau included a rubberized canvas poncho that would come in handy during the torrential rains the couple expected on the hiking trip; a pair of rugged lace-up boots—these would help her deal with the rocks and streams that interrupted the primitive trail; and, last but by no means least, a sexy black silk negligee.

Given the limited uses for the semicolon, what is the danger in using too much of a good thing? Simple! A writer who frequently uses the semicolon—even though his usage is correct—is saturating his copy with overlong, complex sentences. This tends to wear the reader out. Keep semicolons to a minimum. Better yet, avoid them altogether and break up your thoughts into shorter sentences and concise, punchy statements—especially if you want to get published!

Be warned. Semicolons definitely are out of favor with literary agents and publishers, and their presence in your manuscript can lead directly to its rejection!

See CMS: Semicolons, Paragraphs 6.54-58.


Three Words to Keep in Your Sights

Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings and often are not spelled the same. When we think of homonyms, we tend to think of pairs of words such as bear/bare, prints/prince or hall/haul. On occasion, there are three homonyms in a set: to/too/two or pear/pare/pair.

Some homonyms can prove troublesome for the writer. A good example of this is the threesome:

The word sight can be used in a variety of ways. Generally, sight refers to the process or function by which we see the world around us (light being interpreted by the eye). Example: He had sight in only one eye.

Sight also can refer to something that is seen, perhaps a spectacle: You are a sight for sore eyes! She looked a sight in her bikini that was two sizes too small. In its plural form, the word can refer to aspiration: The young girl had her sights set on becoming the prima ballerina of a major dance company. A sight also can be a device to aid in vision, such as the sight on a camera or on a rifle.

Site refers to a particular place or physical location: He chose the mountaintop as the site for his new home. Site also can designate an electronic location: For more information, please visit our website. In the latter case, the words web and site have been merged into a compound word.

The word cite is a verb and is derived from the noun citation (although sometimes cite can be used as a noun, a short form for citation). As a verb, cite means to praise or to mention in a citation. It may also mean to quote words or a passage from a book or an author, usually in support of some specific argument or position. In the legal sense, cite relates to an order to appear (as in a court of law).

Sight, site and cite—three very different words that sound the same. (And you can cite me on that!)

See CMS: Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases, Paragraph 5.220: sight, site, and cite.

Before and After

We’ve all seen them: “Before and After” advertisements. Side-by-side are photographs of a 350–pound woman magically transformed after only six weeks of drinking Slim-O into a 120-pound beauty queen.Sorry, I can’t advise you on weight loss, but I can discuss guidelines for what comes before and what goes after your manuscript.

The difference between a foreword and a preface is that a foreword (never forward!) is a commentary written by someone other than the author.

A preface is an introductory piece written by the author. The preface may include the reasons that inspired the author to write the book, information on how the author did his or her research, and acknowledgments. If the acknowledgments are extensive, they should be included in a separate acknowledgements section, following the preface.

According to CMS, a prologue or introduction that is integral to the manuscript is not a “before” element. Rather, it is considered a part of the main text and, as such, should carry arabic page numbers and directly precede the manuscript’s chapters. It should be much shorter in length than a regular chapter.

Concluding elements are written by the author and include epilogues, afterwords and conclusions. The epilogue and the afterword are brief remarks that sometimes are included at the end of a book. These are not designated by chapter numbers.

Of course, there’s a lot more to what comes before and what goes after your published manuscript. The dedication, epigraph, table of contents, glossary, index and appendix are just a few of the possibilities. For a fuller discussion of the preparation and placement of these elements, be sure to consult The Chicago Manual of Style.

CMS Front Matter, Paragraphs 1.16-1.56, Back Matter, Paragraphs 1.57-1.65 and Text Divisions, Paragraph 1.46.


Words Beyond Comparison

Have you written a very unique novel
and do you hope that your manuscript will become the most perfect ever published?


Say what?There are words in the English language that are absolute. These words cannot be intensified or minimized by modifying words. They are uncomparable.

Here are some uncomparable adjectives: entire, equal, final, impossible, perfect, pregnant (you can’t be just a little pregnant!), supreme, total, unanimous and unique.

Such words should never be used with modifiers such as less, least, largely, more, most, quite or very.

Please don’t give me any arguments about this. Yes, yes, I know the U.S. Constitution anticipates “a more perfect union” and George Orwell’s Animal Farm reveals that “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” However, unless the quality of your writing rivals these examples, your best bet is to keep to the rules!

See CMS: Paragraph 5.88, Uncomparable adjectives.


When You Come to the End of the Line, Don’t Do This!

All done! You’ve just finished up the next Great American Novel, Short Story, Poem, Memoir (you fill in the blank). Your manuscript is proofed, copyedited and ready to go. Just one more once-over and you’ll be submitting online.But wait a minute! What’s that thing at the end of the line on page 2? Is that a hyphen you’ve used to divide a word that was too long to fit on the line? Well, if it is, it’s a definite no-no!

When you are preparing a manuscript for submission, never divide a word by hyphenation simply because it doesn’t fit well at the end of your line. In fact, it’s best to disable the automatic hyphenation function in your word processing software. Also, you must not manually insert a hyphen to break up a long word, even if that word is a lengthy website or email address!

Avoiding word division by hyphenation can result in an awkwardly long line of type and sometimes this will yield an extreme ragged right margin. Doesn’t matter. Do not hyphenate the word that causes the problem.

In your manuscript, the only hyphens that should appear are those contained in certain compound words such as writer-editor, mass-produced, moth-eaten and so on.  In such cases it is permissible to end a line with the hyphen.

See CMS: Formatting, Paragraph 2.12. For more general rules relating to word division and hyphenation (excluding preparation of a manuscript for submission), see Word Division, Paragraphs 7.31-43.


Like It or Not?

The dictionary tells us that the word like is a verb that means to enjoy something, to approve of something or to feel affection for someone.

  • I really like the color of that sofa.
  • Considering all the boys in my class, I like Bill the best.

Also, it is proper to use like as a preposition. In this case like is followed by a noun or a pronoun in the objective case that is not followed by a verb.

  • Betty looks like her mother. (In this example, like means similar to.)

So far, so good!

But in today’s American vernacular the word like has taken on a whole new meaning. In casual speech how often do you hear something like this?

  • Do you run ten miles a day like I do?
  • The car won’t start like the battery is dead.

In these two cases like is used as a conjunction, replacing the word as in the first example and the words as if in the second. These uses of like are now commonplace in the spoken word, yet they are not quite acceptable as Standard English in the written word.

Like it or not? As a writer, it’s your call. In casual writing or when placing a sentence in quotes and attributing it to one of your characters, like as a conjunction may be your choice. But be aware of the overall tone of your writing. Is this a somewhat formal manuscript? If so, it’s best to stick to the old rules of grammar—at least for the present!

See CMS: Paragraphs 5.181 and 5.220, Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases, like, as.


Making Sure It’s a Sure Thing…

Can you be sure about the trio, assureensure and insure?Let me assure you that I will do everything
in my power to ensure that I am using the correct word. 

  • Here the word assure is used to instill confidence that something will (or will not) happen.
  • The word ensure guarantees or promises that a certain result will (or will not) occur.
  • The third word in this cluster, insure, is considered by some to be interchangeable with the word ensure. The exception is when the word insure refers specifically to a contractual arrangement (insurance policy) that provides one party (the insurer) will pay the other party (the insured) if an event occurs that results in a financial loss.

To avoid confusion between the uses for ensure and insure, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends restricting the use of the word insure to mean the underwriting of financial risk (as in an insurance policy).

You have assurance that the CMS is the insurance that ensures your correct choice.

See CMS: Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases, Paragraph 5.220, ensure.


Knowing the Rules of the Road

When driving your car, you depend upon signage and signal lights to tell you when to stop and when to slow down. Literary traffic is no different, except that the signage is replaced by symbols. We call these symbols punctuation marks.Commas are the workhorses of literary traffic. Commas perform so many tasks that The Chicago Manual of Style devotes 37 separate entries to this one subject.

Keep in mind that the comma creates an interruption in the reader’s train of thought. Thus, there are several places where you would not use a comma.

For example, you would almost never create a pause that interrupts the word flow between a subject and its predicate—even a compound predicate.

Examples:  Sally drove the toy car down the driveway.
Sally drove the toy car down the driveway and stopped at the street.

Note: No comma needed before the word “and”. The two verbs (drove and stopped) have the same subject (Sally).

On the other hand, in a compound sentence you may need the comma. A compound sentence is two or more subjects, each followed by its own predicate, so that each side (independent clause) could stand alone. The two parts can be separated by a comma, always followed by a conjunction such as and, or, but or so.

Example: Sally drove the toy car, and Billy rode the toy motorcycle.

The longer and more involved the compound sentence, the more necessary the comma is for clarity.
See CMS: Commas, Paragraphs 6.16-53, especially 6.28 and 6.29.


—Use a Dash!

In last week’s column, we explored how to use suspension points ( … ) to indicate omitted words in a person’s speech. The three-dot symbol is appropriate when a person’s speech is faltering or when his voice simply trails off, leaving an incomplete sentence.

But what happens when the speaker stops mid-sentence because of a sudden change of thought or because there is a sudden interruption that affects what he was about to say?

In such cases the em dash (—) is preferred over suspension points. The dash signals to your reader that the speaker is responding to some sort of surprise or to an abrupt change of mind.

Example: “Stop right here and I’ll— ” A black and white police car came barreling down the street. “Hell! It’s a trap, let’s get out of here!” (No period is needed after the dash in the speaker’s first sentence because it’s an incomplete sentence.)

The em dash can be created in several ways in Word. One way is to type two hyphens, hit the return key and then the delete key. The two hyphens should change to an em dash.

See CMS: Em Dashes, Paragraph 6.84.




Tracking this Fast Change Artist is Enough to Drive You Dotty!


At the end of last week’s column (In the Dark About Ellipsis?), we noted that the ellipsis isn’t the only use of the three-dot symbol. In a flash, this symbol can turn itself into suspension points.

Although ellipsis points and suspension points are typographical lookalikes, each has a different grammatical function.

  • Ellipsis points stand in place of words that are omitted from a quote.
  • Suspension points stand in place of words that never existed in the first place.

For example, suspension points are used to indicate halting or fragmented speech and unfinished sentences: “I just can’t see … no, wait, it’s getting clearer . . . . By God, I can see it now!” or “Wait, Anne … please wait … I’ll try to get it, but …” Bill’s voice trailed off as she ran away.

In the third line of the paragraph above, Bill’s incomplete sentence does not require ending punctuation other than the suspension points and quotation marks.    
In preparing his manuscript with either an ellipsis or suspension points, the writer may use the three-dot symbol found on his computer keyboard. But Chicago-style editors will replace this triple dot character with three periods, evenly spaced.

Notice carefully the spacing in the examples above. And never separate the three points when they occur at the end of the line. The dots must always appear together on one line
See CMS: Speech, Dialogue and Conversation, Faltering or Interrupted Speech, Paragraph 13.39. Em Dashes, Paragraph 6.84.

In the Dark about the Ellipsis?

No, we’re not talking about an
eclipse of the sun.



We’re discussing the ellipsisthe use of three evenly spaced dots (ellipsis points) to indicate that words have been omitted from a quote.Here’s how it works: “No man is an island … therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”John Dunne said a lot more in that poem, but this gets us right to the point. Always insert a space between letters and the dots in a mid-quote ellipsis—at both ends.



A Word About Punctuation

A period appears at the end of a complete sentence. If an omission of words follows this complete sentence, three ellipsis points are added right after the punctuation, making (in the case of the period) four evenly space dots in a row ( . . . . ). Any other type of punctuation (commas, semi-colons, question marks or exclamation points) may precede or follow the three, but not the four, dots.



See CMS: Ellipses, Paragraphs 13.48 and 13.51.



About Next Week’s Column

The three-dot symbol known as “ellipsis points” is really a fast change artist. In the blink of an eye, the three dots can transform themselves into “suspension points.” Suspension points are identical twins to ellipsis points, but they serve a very different purpose. This is an important distinction for any writer who inserts dialogue into his work. Visit us next week for the rest of the story!


With Apologies to Mother Goose

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and everything nice compose little girls.
What are little boys made of?
Little boys comprise frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.

This version of the bedtime nursery rhyme demonstrates proper usage of compose and comprise, two words that—far too often—are confused by writers.Compose means make up or come together to createCompose is used toward the end of a sentence; the parts (sugar and spice and everything nice) come before the whole (little girls).Comprise means containinclude or consist of. Comprise is used near the beginning of a sentence; the whole (little boys) comes before the parts (frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails).Never use the preposition of with the past tense of comprise (as in comprised of).Reminder Note: Comprise and its definitions—contain, include and consist of—all are spelled with the letter i.

Nighty-night, now!


See CMS: Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases, Paragraph 5.220, alphabetical listing.


“Aren’t I?” or “Am I Not?” and Truth

 A reader asks:
     I have a question for the Merry Grammarian. People often say things like, “I’m special, aren’t I?”
But that would be to say, “I’m special, are not I?” When really it should be, “Am I not?”
Since we don’t have the option of using “am’t I,” what should we use instead? I would usually say, “I’m special, am I not?” Is there another way to say it?

The short answer is: No.
Since English does not have a contraction for am not (such as am’t), we are stuck with a choice between am I not and aren’t I.
     Am I notthe more formal—and more awkward—choice, is grammatical and is appropriate when you are writing in a formal tone (an academic paper, for example).
  However, language and usage never stand still. That’s why Modern English is so different from the language of the Elizabethans.
In 21st Century American English, aren’t I has become the standard in everyday speech and in most written language. Feel free to use it.* The Chicago Manual of Style gives its blessing to aren’t I. **

* Even the New York theatre agrees. In the 2013 American opera Truth (based on the life of Sojourner Truth), the keynote song is “Aren’t I a Woman?” Published versions of the abolitionist’s famous speech that inspired the song report her original words as “Ain’t I a woman?”

** Quote from the CMS: Most negative forms can be contracted . . . but I am not is contracted to I’m not. The corresponding interrogative form is Aren’t I?
See CMS: Verbs (Definitions), Paragraph 5.102.

“It’s a puzzlement.”

So spake the Broadway version of the King of Siam. And he was right! A common puzzlement for writers is when to use it’s and when to use its.

Nouns and proper nouns (names of people, places and things) require an apostrophe in the possessive form. For example: “Let me tell you about my boyfriend’s biggest mistake.” Or: “Abe Lincoln’s honesty was accepted by all—all except one, that is.”

Same thing goes for plural nouns—including those not ending in an s. Example: “My brothers’ secret hobbies were at the root of all their problems.” Or: “Lady, what the hell are you doing in the men’s room?”

Pronouns (little words that stand in for nouns) have their own rules. You, he, she, it and they become possessive by morphing into your, his, hers, its and their. Notice! Not one apostrophe in the whole batch.

To add to the confusion the English language also has a little quirk called the contraction. Contractions are the very popular shortcut expressions where the apostrophe stands in for missing letters. Examples: can’t for can not/cannot, wouldn’t for would not, they’re for they are, that’s for that is, I’m for I am and—strangely—won’t for will not. The word it’s is in this category, subbing for it is. *

So keep in mind: unlike possessive nouns, possessive pronouns (such as its) never require apostrophes. Contractions, those widely-used shortcut words that typically suggest inaction or a state of being, always require an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters.

* Ain’t is also a contraction, standing in for am not and, sometimes, are not. But this one is unacceptable in very upper class circles. So, when you’re writing a really snooty literary piece, it’s usually best to ignore ain’t, that is, if you ain’t putting it in quotes. (Note the use of the contraction for it is in this sentence.)

Parenthood or Grammar: Some Restrictions Apply

“But, Mom! Everybody else is going, why can’t I go?”

Child-rearing is hard—especially with teenagers. It’s difficult to know just when to be restrictive (and when to be nonrestrictive).

Grammar imposes a similar dilemma when you are dealing with appositives. An appositive is a single word or a combination of words placed next to a noun. This word, phase or clause adds information to or further defines (or limits) the noun. The word apposition implies closeness; a noun and its appositive are closely related.

There are two degrees of closeness in appositives: restrictive and nonrestrictive.

  • Restrictive: “My teacher Mrs. McCullough was an inspiration to me.” You have had many teachers. In this sentence the appositive phrase further defines the noun; the noun and the phrase are very closely related. Do not use commas.
  • Nonrestrictive: “Mrs. McCullough, my teacher, was an inspiration to me.” With the focus on Mrs. McCullough, the appositive “my teacher” adds information, but it is not absolutely necessary. Use commas at both ends to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

See CMS: Commas with Appositives, Paragraph 6.23

Merry Grammarian Blog