The written form of English is . . . weird

I spent the bulk of the past weekend proofreading, a task that made me not only question every grammar rule I’ve ever learned, but my own sanity. Maybe the cause was my backwards reading, from back to front, so I could pick up errors (and not get caught up in the story). In my fervor to find every tiny character that could possibly make a reader question the sentence, I analyzed to the point where I completely confused myself. (You know how sometimes if you stare at a word long enough, it eventually looks like a foreign language? Or it’s devoid of meaning, like you’ve NEVER EVEN SEEN THOSE CHARACTERS IN THAT FORMATION BEFORE? That’s how it was.)

How is it that a person who routinely aced grammar tests in school and who loved diagramming sentences (let’s not talk about math, please), is suddenly paralyzed with indecision over the selection of awhile vs. a while? Not to mention lieing/lying, and how to spell out times. And the worst of all…the cursed ellipses.

For those first three, I consulted my trusty sources, including:

  • Grammar Girl, whose tips are not only easy to comprehend, but often funny!
  • The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin (I have the 7th Edition, published by Glencoe.) Admittedly this manual is more for straight business writing than style for fiction, but for questions of strict grammar, it never lets me down.

After conducting my research, I was comforted to know that my instincts were correct. The rules are clear, and I noted them below for those of you who are interested.

What really killed me, however, were the ellipses — you know, the three dots in a row that indicate an omission of text, or a pause in speech?  Oh how I longed for the days of the simple typewriter where you had no control over spacing between letters and characters. In those days, you could just type period, period, period (and period, if needed), and that was that. But today, with the glut of customizable fonts and maddening auto-correct features, my research became an exercise in torture!

Do I add a space before the ellipsis? How about after? What happens with the spacing? Will it look weird? Will it look weird enough to throw the reader out of the story? What about when it’s the end of the sentence, or not? And what about when it’s inside a quote?

My head spun with confusion. I searched online and looked at so many sources, after a while I was seeing dots with my eyes closed.

Eventually I decided to just pick a style and stick with it. My theory is that most people who read a story aren’t actively analyzing the style of punctuation. Hopefully the story will be strong enough that they don’t even notice punctuation styles. Plus I figure readers will pick up on inconsistencies more than anything else. (Although those British novels with their different styles usually throw me for a loop, at least in the beginning. I keep wanting to argue with whoever edited. But that’s another story.)

So that’s my advice:

Be consistent in your usage of punctuation and capitalization.

That way, if your editor decides on a different style, it will at least be easy for him/her to make a change.

If you’re interested, here are those rules I talked about that caused me so much agita:

Awhile/A while

Awhile (one word) applies when used as an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs (action). It’s the adverbial form of “for a while.”
A while (two words) is the noun while with its article a. Think of it as a substitute for a unit of time.

We watched TV awhile until the pizza came.
In this example, “awhile” is describing the length of time we “watched,” a verb. (It’s not the object of watched. You can’t “watch” something called an “awhile,” right?)

But: We watched TV for a while until the pizza came.
And: It has been a while since we’d ordered from that restaurant.

Picky? Yes. Confusing? YES! But so is grammar, on both counts. If you’re completely lost, you can probably get away with using the two-word form and people won’t freak out at you, too much.
.

Lie/Lay (and lying/laying)
If this is one of your weaknesses, don’t despair. It’s one of mine too. I have to look it up almost every time I use one or the other.

Lie (lie, lay, lain, lying)
From dictionary.com (2nd definition): to be in a horizontal, recumbent or prostate position, as on a bed or on the ground; recline.

  • Please, let me lie down for a while.
    (Did you see how I snuck “a while” in there?! Clever, huh?) 🙂
  • Yesterday, after an exhausting 12-hour day, I lay down for a nap.
  • I had just lain down when the alarm buzzed its wake-up call!
  • I was lying down, snuggled beneath three layers of blankets, when he called, jolting me from those few moments of peace.

Lay (lay, laid, laid, laying)
From dictionary.com (1st definition): to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down: to lay a book on a desk.

  • I usually lay my coat over the back of the chair when I come home in the evening.
  • The other day, I laid my coat over the back of the chair, and the weight in the pockets tipped the chair over!
  • I had laid the note next to the phone, but he never saw it.
  • While laying out the table settings, I heard the doorbell ring. My guests had arrived!

Admittedly not the most original examples, but hopefully they illustrate the differences.

Still not sure? Do what I do: Hang a sticky note in your work area. Or reword the sentence with another choice of words.

Spelling out times in fiction

How would you read this: 9:15?

In my head, I read “nine-fifteen.” I think that’s pretty normal. That’s what I prefer when writing it out in a book (fiction) also.  I like what’s on the paper to be the same as what’s in my head. So I’ll write out “nine-fifteen.” The hyphen goes between the hours and minutes.

But how do you write out a compound number, like 10:45? Would that be ten-forty-five? That just looks weird! I found my answer in the Gregg manual. It would be “ten forty-five,” with the hyphen only in the compound word. I know, another grammar rule that doesn’t seem to make sense. But there you have it.

Again, whatever your choice, be consistent!

Happy reading, and writing!

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.