Monday, November 21, 2011

Lest We Forget

 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 “the”?

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 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 preference.

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 references.


Use commas after the street address and city in an address.

            My address is 5468 15th Street, San Bernardino, CA  92410

(Note: there is no comma after the state and that is not my real address.)


Use a comma after the greeting in personal letters.

            Dear Aunt Sue,

Note that in business you would use a colon.

            Dear Mrs. Maxwell:

Use a comma after the complimentary close in any correspondence.

            Very Truly Yours,

* * *

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 Writing 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.”

            In one relationship Sam was always the “mom” and George was always the “dad.”
            In another relationship Sue was the “father-figure” and Janet was the “mother-figure.”

* * *

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.

Internet Usage

I’m not 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.

The most common usage is a colon (:) denoting two vertically aligned eyes used in emoticons.

Double colons (or asterisks) are used in some sites to separate sounds.

            John heard the ::snap:: of the bone in his arm.
            John heard the **snap** of the bone in his arm.

Colons (and double colons) are sometimes used in place of quotation marks.

            George: Why do I have to study grammar? It doesn’t do anything for my future.
            Frank: Oh? How about the fact that learning ::grammar:: actually makes you sound smart.

* * *

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 apparatus (SCUBA).

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. (My preference.)

            The 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.

            The 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.

            The 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 samples.

Ending Dialogue

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.

            She said, “Get out of here.”
            “Get out of here,” she said
            He 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.

            The proper length is 6’ 8”. [The ” is not a quotation mark, it is an indicator of inches.]
            Watch out for bumblin’ and stumblin’. [The ’ is not a quotation mark, it is an apostrophe.]

* * *

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 ┬║F).


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Len!

We can all use help with things like this - sometimes it's all too much to remember, especially if it's been many decades since the original learning took place! Thank you very much for agreeing to share your articles and links with us today on MB4!


Len Maxwell said...

Thank you, Aaron. I know grammar and punctuation are never fun, but I've tried to make them at least interesting for the readers. If just a few people get anything out of them, I'll be satisfied.