Please join me today in welcoming Mr. Len Maxwell to Murderby4. Len has generously expended hours and hours to help his writing colleagues remember some of the more commonly "forgotten" rules. He has a wonderful collection of free articles, which I suggest you check out when you can. I've already bookmarked them all and will continue to use them.
Thank you, Len, for doing this and for your contribution to our collective works!
- Aaron Lazar
© Len Maxwell
2011, all rights reserved
From Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary:
the: 1 a — used as a function word to indicate
that a following noun or noun equivalent is definite or has been previously
specified by context or by circumstance
*put the cat out*
Why would anyone start an article with the definition of the word
I started this article with that definition because it defines a basic
word we use every day and many writers have forgotten it. As an editor, I read
works from several different authors every day and, over the years, I found
that many of them had forgotten some basics.
I joined Gather.com six years ago to give me a forum on which I could
post my latest work for my family and friends. After becoming more involved
with the Gather experience, I joined the Writing Essential Group and noticed
the same errors popping up frequently.
I finally realized that many of the writers had not started writing
until they were older and had merely forgotten the basic mechanics of writing
they had learned many years before.
One of the biggest problems was that writers had trouble with
punctuation in and around dialogue so I wrote a tutorial regarding that. Receiving
many positive comments, I wrote another dealing with numbers. The idea
ballooned after that and I wrote more on various topics.
For each topic, I researched major style guides and various Internet
sites. I then compiled the information I found and presented the results. I
tried to show those things about which all (or most) of the references agreed,
those things where there were some minor disagreements, and those things about
which there were considerable disagreements. I tried to maintain a neutral
position, but I occasionally indicated that something was my personal
My thought in writing these was that they were intended for the older
writers who might have forgotten some rules -- I wasn’t trying to teach an
English course. That’s reinforced by the fact that my writing style is
definitely not something you’d find in any classroom textbook because I take a
light-hearted approach to each subject.
In every article, I included samples of things that were accepted by
most guides. In The Dreaded Comma, I had this section about
which I found no arguments.
There are a number of usages that are accepted by nearly all
Use commas after the street address and city in an address.
address is 5468 15th Street, San Bernardino, CA 92410
(Note: there is no comma after the state and that is not my real
Use a comma after the greeting in personal letters.
Note that in business you would use a colon.
Use a comma after the complimentary close in any correspondence.
* * *
I frequently pointed out that there is a difference between what
writers learn in school and what happens in the real world. In Paragraphing I discussed the difference
between publishing on the Web and in the print media.
Online or Print Media?
The final discussion deals with something that is not covered in most
writing courses -- long paragraphs. If you’re publishing in the print media
you’re only limited in the length by your publisher. There are any number of
examples of writers filling one or two complete pages with a single paragraph.
On line, however, there is a difference. There are many people who have
rather klutzy browsers and have trouble reading large blocks of text online.
Although there’s no real standard for it, many of my peers feel that paragraphs
for online writing should be kept under 150 words.
* * *
I tried to
include information that was current even when it might be controversial. In Non-Sexist
I included a discussion dealing with gay and lesbian relationships.
I found a couple of sites that got somewhat carried away in my opinion.
One suggested you not use mother or father, but should write maternal or
paternal parent. Although that sounded silly and was in the minority, it did
make me think about a situation we have more frequently now than several years
ago. How do we talk about parents in a gay or lesbian relationship?
One site recommended not talking about either a mother or father, but
always use “parent.”
Another site agreed with that unless the involved couple considered
themselves to be “mom and dad.” In that case they said the actual usage would
depend on the feelings of the specific couple. You could either write about
“mom” and “dad” or use “father-figure” and “mother-figure.”
one relationship Sam was always the “mom” and George was always the “dad.”
another relationship Sue was the “father-figure” and Janet was the
* * *
If, in my research, I found something that was out of the ordinary, I’d
include it just to ensure balance. In Colons I had just such a thing.
the one to agree or disagree with this, but I’ll give you one discussion I
found regarding Internet usage. I found two sites that agreed on this and none
that disagreed. I’m not saying the following is right, but I can’t find anyone
who has disagreed with it.
common usage is a colon (:) denoting two vertically aligned eyes used in
colons (or asterisks) are used in some sites to separate sounds.
heard the ::snap:: of the bone in his arm.
heard the **snap** of the bone in his arm.
(and double colons) are sometimes used in place of quotation marks.
Why do I have to study grammar? It doesn’t do anything for my future.
Oh? How about the fact that learning ::grammar:: actually makes you sound
* * *
I tried to present a balanced look at how different style guides
approached the various points. In Acronyms I included this discussion.
How do you
use an acronym in text?
All guides agree on two things. First, if it’s something that is so
widespread that nobody can mistake it, just use it. NATO, scuba, radar, laser,
and sonar are examples. The only time you’d spell out the meaning is if that
entity is the subject of your discussion. For instance, if you were writing an
article on scuba equipment, you might start with something such as this: Today
I’m going to discuss the development of the self-contained underwater breathing
Second, you always spell out the phrase the first time you use it and can
then use the acronym in subsequent references. Here’s where different guides
disagree on how to do it.
The Chicago Manual of Style says to set off the acronym in parentheses.
programmer used Disk Operating System (DOS) to complete the task. He had some
problems because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.
Other style guides recommend commas.
programmer used Disk Operating System, DOS, to complete the task. He had some
problems because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.
The AP style guide eschews both of these and says to use the whole term
the first time and the acronym after that.
programmer used Disk Operating System to complete the task. He had some problems
because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.
(I don’t have a real problem with this last one unless the first and
second usages are several pages/paragraphs apart. It might cause the reader to
have to refer back to figure out what’s being said.)
* * *
I tried to include samples that were relevant as well as samples that
showed possible misunderstandings. In Punctuation and Dialogue I had the following
Every quotation must end with some punctuation mark: period, comma,
question mark, exclamation point, dash, or ellipsis.
Periods and commas ALWAYS
go inside the final quotation mark.
said, “Get out of here.”
out of here,” she said
was once known as “The Bum.”
At first glance you might think
I’m violating that rule with the two following examples. I’ve included an
explanation following each explaining why the period is outside what appears to
be a quotation mark.
proper length is 6’ 8”. [The ” is not a quotation mark, it is an indicator of
out for bumblin’ and stumblin’. [The ’ is not a quotation mark, it is an
* * *
I have, to date, posted fourteen tutorials as listed in this index and I’ve planned three more:
Poetic/Artistic License, Dialogue Tags, and Parallel Construction and Body
Language. Many writers have given me ideas for other things they’d like to see
discussed and I continue to plan future tutorials until, as I say frequently,
“someone tells me to shut up.”
I always welcome comments and disagreements on my work.
Len was forty before he figured out what he wanted to be
when he grew up -- a writer. For nearly twenty years, he has written for
national and regional magazines, journals, and newspapers. For the past several
years, he has been working as an editor for Internet sites, a literary agency,
and two publishing houses. He now writes for fun and spends as much time as
possible in the desert (preferably when it’s over 110 ºF).