Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Left Brain or Right Brain? Take a Test

Are you a left brainer or right brainer? Go to the test for this at:

Note on your autobiography the results of your test.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lay vs. Lie

Lay flat or lie flat video

Lay vs. Lie



Participle (a form of have)

To recline

lie, lying



had lain

To put or place

lay, laying



had laid

To tell a falsehood

lie, lying



had lied

  • Lay is a transitive verb and requires a direct object
  • Lie is an intransitive verb and does not take a direct object
  • Before lying down (no direct object) she laid the book (direct object) on the table.

· Quiz – Is It Correct?

1. I am dizzy and need to ____ down.

2. When I got dizzy yesterday, I ____ down.

3. We need to ___ this baby down for a nap.

4. The lions are _____ in wait for their prey.

5. The lions have ____ in wait for their prey.

6. I ­­­____the blanket over her as she slept.

7. I will ___ my head on my pillow shortly.

8. The dog has been _____on the back porch all afternoon.

9. The tugboat has ____on its side since last winter's storm.

10. He yelled at his dog, "_______ down!"

11. My slacker brother _______ around in bed all day.

12. Professor Rodgers ________ his papers carefully on the podium before beginning his talk.

13. The team members were so exhausted after the game they just ______ on the benches.

14. The police ordered the thieves to _______ down in the street.

15. The thieves _________ down on the pavement.

16. The thieves have _______ there for several moments already.

Quiz – Is It Correct? Answers

1. I am dizzy and need to ____ down. (lie)

2. When I got dizzy yesterday, I ____ down. (lay)

3. We need to ___ this baby down for a nap. (lay)

4. The lions are _____ in wait for their prey. (lying)

5. The lions have ____ in wait for their prey. (lain)

6. I ____the blanket over her as she slept. (laid)

7. I will ___ my head on my pillow shortly. (lay)

8. The dog has been _____on the back porch all afternoon. (lying)

9. The tugboat has ____on its side since last winter's storm. (lain)

10. He yelled at his dog, "_______ down!" (Lie)

11. My slacker brother _______ around in bed all day. (lies)

12. Professor Rodgers ________ his papers carefully on the podium before beginning his talk. (laid)

13. The team members were so exhausted after the game they just ______ on the benches. (lay)

14. The police ordered the thieves to _______ down in the street. (lie)

15. The thieves _________ down on the pavement. (lay)

16. The thieves have _______ there for several moments already. (lain)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

So You Want to Be a Writer

Atlantic Unbound | August 14, 2006

Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.


Francine Prose, an acclaimed author and longtime creative writing teacher, opens her essay in the 2006 Fiction issue with a question: "Can writing be taught?" As she sees it, some aspects of writing, such as judicious editing of one’s own work, can be cultivated. But others, particularly the “gift for storytelling,” cannot be learned. She invites the reader to imagine Milton or Kafka enrolling in a graduate writing program, seeking faculty guidance for Paradise Lost or taking advice from classmates who nix the idea of a man turning into a giant bug.

Such scenarios are preposterous, Prose acknowledges, but their very absurdity invites a troubling question: “What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’ve spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction is a complete waste of time?”

Since the magazine's early years, other Atlantic authors have taken up the same challenge, advising young writers on developing what is essentially an inborn gift. Their collective wisdom covers virtually every step on the tortuous road to success, from the fundamentals of the craft, to dealing with editors, to avoiding alcohol dependence and making do on a writer’s salary.

In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent Boston literary figure, penned "Letter to a Young Contributor," a lengthy essay filled with tips for would-be writers. He argued most emphatically for the importance of writing slowly and carefully. "Disabuse yourself," he advised, "of the belief that any grace or flow of style can come from writing rapidly.”

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose? As a specimen of the labor that sometimes goes to make an effective style, the process is worth recording. When Balzac had a new work in view, he first spent weeks in studying from real life for it, haunting the streets of Paris by day and night, note-book in hand. His materials gained, he shut himself up till the book was written, perhaps two months, absolutely excluding everybody but his publisher. He emerged pale and thin, with the complete manuscript in his hand, not only written, but almost rewritten, so thoroughly was the original copy altered, interlined, and rearranged.

In good writing, he observed, "every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables." To achieve this effect, one must employ certain "rules of style." He warned budding writers, for example, "not [to] habitually prop your sentences on crutches, such as Italics and exclamation points, but make them stand without aid; if they cannot emphasize themselves, these devices are commonly but a confession of helplessness."

He sought also to reassure fledging writers that editors are not necessarily biased against the work of unknowns. To the contrary, he argued,

...every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties. To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public. It is only stern necessity which compels the magazine to fall back so constantly on the regular old staff of contributors, whose average product has been gauged already.

So long as the work itself is worthy, he argued, it would stand an excellent chance of publication. After all, he pointed out, "no editor can ever afford rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one." (This article made such a strong impression upon one unpublished young writer that she took it upon herself to send Higginson a letter and some poems for his feedback. So began a famous epistolary friendship between Higginson and Emily Dickinson—a relationship which has been written about elsewhere in Atlantic Unbound.)

Nearly a century later, Wallace Stegner, an author who served as director of the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, approached the same point but arrived at a very different conclusion. His essay "To a Young Writer" (November 1959) took the form of a letter addressed to a former student—a twenty-something young woman with literary aspirations, a graduate degree, and an unpublished novel. Stegner sought at once encourage her and to give her an honest picture of how difficult her career path would be.

He began by expressing empathy for the uncertainty she must now be feeling:

To date, from all your writing, you have made perhaps five hundred dollars for two short stories and a travel article. To finance school and to write your novel you have lived meagerly with little encouragement and have risked the disapproval of your family, who have understandably said, "Here is this girl nearly thirty years old now, unmarried, without a job or a profession, still mooning away at her writing as if life were forever. Here goes her life through her fingers while she sits in cold rooms and grows stoop-shouldered over a typewriter." So now, with your book finally in hand, you want desperately to have some harvest: a few good reviews, some critical attention, encouragement, royalties enough to let you live and go on writing...

You would like to be told that you are good and that all this difficulty and struggle and frustration will give way gradually or suddenly, preferably suddenly, to security, fame, confidence, the conviction of having worked well and faithfully to a good end and become someone important to the world.

Stegner warned, however, that fame, fortune, and accolades would most likely not be forthcoming. Not because her work was not good: "You write better than hundreds of people with established literary reputations.” The problem, he explained, was that her writing was aimed over the heads of the mass of readers, and would therefore only ever be appreciated by a small audience of "thoughtful readers." She would thus always find herself struggling—"pinched for money, for time, for a place to work."

So was all this worth it? "I would not blame you,” he wrote, “if you ... asked, Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won't pay you a living wage for it?"

But in the end, he argued, living to practice an art that one does well is its own reward:

For you ... it will have to be art. You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories ... and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.

But isn't it enough? For lack of the full heart's desire, won't it serve?

Two decades later, in "Writing, Typing, and Economics" (March 1978) economist John Kenneth Galbraith weighed in with more pragmatic writing advice. Though a professor of economics, he was also recognized as a prolific and talented writer. He had been an editor of Fortune magazine and was the author of numerous essays, reviews, and books.

Galbraith's first suggestion was to resist the fantasy that good writing can only be accomplished during moments of inspiration:

All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand—are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same.

He also emphasized the importance of revision. "Anyone who is not certifiably a Milton," he wrote, "had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: writing is difficult work." This difficulty, he warned, is enough to drive many a writer to drink. He therefore advised against relying on alcohol as a crutch. "It is, quite literally, very sobering," he pointed out, "to reflect upon how many good American writers have been destroyed by this solace—by the sauce. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner—the list goes on and on." He offered a rule of thumb: "Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn't have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up."

In "A Writing Woman" (October 1979), novelist Gail Godwin took a personal approach to the question of the writing life, structuring her essay as a memoir. She began by discussing her writer mother's lifetime struggle to balance her home and romantic life with her quest for literary success. She then went on to consider how her own life had ended up mirroring those same struggles and considered the questions raised in translating such experiences into fiction.

Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. Which stops where, and how much to put in of each? At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it as it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be—or what would make a better story?

She appreciatively recalled a writing instructor she once had at the City Literary Institute of London, who had forthrightly clarified for her why her fiction wasn't working, and assigned her a series of assignments to help. "That she was able to tell me, moreover to prescribe exercises to correct my faults," Godwin wrote, "was my good fortune."

But in her view, it was her brief marriage to a psychotherapist that finally put her on a path to success. Her husband, trained to analyze the motivations and emotions of others, was able to help her identify what he determined was the real obstacle hindering her career: a fear of failure. Though her marriage to him didn't last, his insight was able to release her from her self-imposed restraints, allowing her at last to write compellingly and with freedom.

As for Francine Prose, she goes on to answer her own daunting question about whether great writing can be learned. It is close and thoughtful reading, she asserts, that is in fact most important to the apprentice writer. Prose herself uncovered this secret as a high school junior when an English teacher assigned her to write an essay on symbolism in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. The exercise seemed tedious at first. But to her surprise, Prose learned that poring over these works was like deciphering an ancient code. “I felt,” she recalls, “as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.”

In fact, she points out, she was merely rediscovering the oldest known method for developing a writer’s own innate abilities. In days gone by, writers-in-training honed their craft not by soliciting advice from successful writers but by simply absorbing the greatness of those who came before them.

They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

The URL for this page is

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Tribune Design Overhaul

Tribune Starts Its Overhaul in Orlando

Wall Street Journal
June 23, 2008; Page B1

The Orlando Sentinel landed on newsstands Sunday with a new layout featuring more graphics, quick-read digests of top news, blog summaries and other changes aimed at making the newspaper more appealing to harried readers.

[Samuel Zell]

Orlando is a proving ground for Sam Zell's effort to reinvent floundering Tribune Co., owner of a string of television stations and newspapers, including the Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Between now and the end of September, Tribune plans to roll out redesigns at its papers. Accompanying the makeovers will be scaled-back page counts and further paring of employees.

Mr. Zell took control of the company in December after leading an $8.2 billion deal to take Tribune private. The buyout left Tribune saddled with debt amid an industrywide meltdown in newspaper advertising, but Mr. Zell and his new management team of radio and TV executives have promised a revival built on fresh ideas.

Newspaper promotions declared "New look, new stories, new attitude," in the run-up to Sunday's launch. Like other newspaper makeovers, the redesigned Sentinel reflects a new industry reality: to avoid looking dowdy to readers used to the pizzazz and immediacy of the Web, newspapers must be eye-catching and full of alluring and indispensable stories.

"Our community is fast moving, very modern. It's changing and growing," says Sentinel Editor Charlotte Hall. "We need to have a paper that feels like that, too." The Sentinel, Florida's third-largest newspaper by weekday circulation, has seen circulation hold essentially flat in the last year to 227,593. Times Publishing Co.'s St. Petersburg Times leads in Florida with a weekday circulation of more than 300,000 and McClatchy Co.'s Miami Herald is at No. 2 with circulation of about 240,000.

[Tribune's Orlando Sentinel]
Orlando Sentinel
The Orlando Sentinel's front page before its redesign, left, and after.

Newspapers and magazines looking for new life frequently turn to makeovers. Since the introduction of USA Today in 1982, newspaper redesigns have followed a similar pattern: splashier color, simpler layouts and more digestible stories for busy readers.

The new Sentinel has drawn on many of these same design elements, and even Ms. Hall concedes the redesign isn't as radical as it could be. But some of the new touches are less common: Lee Abrams, Tribune's new chief innovation officer, encouraged the paper to do more to emphasize its "stars," and that idea made it into the new look, in the form of front-page pictures of columnists accompanied by blurbs from their columns.

The paper has also bolstered its coverage of local news, consumer information and government-watchdog stories, and has coached reporters on different ways to tell stories. A feature about a troubled school turned into an emotional first-person account of the reporter's year spent in the classrooms and hallways.

[Lee Abrams]

New Tribune management has been encouraging fresh thinking from company properties. Tribune's newspaper division in particular has been slammed by Mr. Zell and his team as being stuck in the past. Mr. Abrams, a radio-industry veteran, has raised eyebrows with stream-of-consciousness memos tossing out ideas from front pages consisting entirely of maps to more flexible sizes for wedding announcements so wealthy people can drop big money to trumpet their big day. A frequent target of Mr. Abrams's ire is newspapers' staid look. Talk of revolution, however, has translated into few specific prescriptions from the Zell camp to cure Tribune's ills.

It remains unclear whether thinner, jazzier newspapers can bolster Tribune's precarious financial health. Ad sales are in free-fall across the industry, and Tribune is faring even worse. Newspaper advertising dropped 13% in the first quarter, according to the Newspaper Association of America, while Tribune's ad revenue fell 15%. By virtue of its $13 billion debt load, largely stemming from Mr. Zell's buyout, Tribune has little room to maneuver. Already the company's $1 billion in annual cash flow has the company close to the edge of its lending commitments.

Past experience shows newspaper makeovers don't necessarily translate into financial success. After the Bakersfield Californian underwent a drastic redesign two years ago, the 60,000-circulation paper in California's Central Valley saw a small initial jolt to circulation and revenue, sparked by the brighter look and expanded coverage of hot topics like immigration. But the gains have been erased as the area economy struggles. Bakersfield Californian Chief Executive Richard Beene says the steps were necessary to keep the paper relevant, but he has advice for others considering a similar redesign: "Don't expect it to turn around circulation or revenue overnight. It's not a magic bullet."

Orlando will be a petri dish as eight of Tribune's major dailies plan their redesigns. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Baltimore Sun are teed up next. The Chicago Tribune has named leadership teams to oversee its revamp planned for September, according to an internal memo in recent days, and will use its Saturday editions to test new ideas. Mr. Abrams says Orlando's prototypes are being shared as he and other Tribune officials jet across the country visiting the newspapers. He says, however, that every paper will be left to chart its own course. "I think there will be similarities, but it won't look like a national template by any means," Mr. Abrams says.

Newspaper design experts who saw prototypes of the new-look Sentinel generally gave it high marks. Howard Greenberg, publisher of the Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, says Orlando advertisers are excited about the redesign, and he is hopeful the makeover can help reverse sliding ad revenue dented by the souring Florida housing market. "If we could get everyone reading the paper one more day a week, this will be a financial home run for us," he says.

The Sentinel, whose Sunday circulation is 332,000, set up a phone line and email address to handle feedback on the redesign. Early reader response appeared to be light, but Ms. Hall said the impact of a redesign would take months to pin down. "We will be listening to our readers carefully," she said.

Write to Shira Ovide at

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Headline Writing Assignment

  • Subject: A story about high school boys caught looking through a hole in a shower wall at girls in the locker room next door.
  • Boys get in trouble.
  • Story reports that the girls were very angry with their fellow students.
  • Load your headline as comment.

Headline Lecture 1

Saturday, February 18, 2006

None of Your Business

Here is some more discussion about NONE.

Dr. Lewis checked out one of his favorite books on grammar -- “Woe is I” -- on “none.”
The author, Patricia O’Conner suggests that “none” is usually plural. She offers this guidance, which is verbatim from page 28:
  • If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.
  • If it means “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.
That seems to be the rule (or guide) I have usually worked from and that you should follow.

In addition, The American Heritage® Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English, supports this guidance.
By the way, this is another free grammar book online available at:


“… and then there were none.” The closing words of this well-known nursery rhyme should dispel the notion that none can only take a singular verb. People opposing the plural use base their argument on the fact that none comes from the Old English word an, meaning “one.”

But the citational evidence against restricting none is overwhelming. None has been used as both a singular and plural pronoun since the ninth century. The plural usage appears in the King James Bible as well as the works of John Dryden and Edmund Burke and is widespread in the works of respected writers today.

Of course, the singular usage is perfectly acceptable. Whether you should choose a singular or plural verb depends on the effect you want. You can use either a singular or a plural verb in a sentence such as None of the conspirators has (or have) been brought to trial.

However, none can only be plural when used in sentences such as None but his most loyal supporters believe (not believes) his story.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Hedline Checklist from API

Hedline Checklist from API

After you have written a headline, stop and ask yourself:

1. Does it tell the news clearly? If it's a news story, does the headline contain the latest developments? If it's a feature story, does it convey the basic sense of the story?

2. Is it compelling in approach, news angle and impact? Is it accurate and informative?

3. Does it contain concrete nouns and active-voice, present-tense verbs?

4. Does the tone fit the story, so that when there is emotion or a human element, irony or humor it is reflected in the head?

5. Does it avoid the obstacles to clarity: jargon, cliches, slang, headlinese, forced phrases, abbreviations, acronyms, obscure names and puns? Serious news stories should not contain any puns.

6. Does it have words or meanings that are as precise as possible?

7. Does it make each word count by being direct and dense with information?

8. Does it play fair by trying to reflect both sides of a story if an opposing view exists, or at least avoid overemphasizing one point of view?

9. Does it avoid danger of libel, take caution with sensitive material and include attribution when necessary?

10. Does it include the "where" when important? Does it signal any local involvement in the news when it may not be clear otherwise?

11. Does it avoid names that may not be well known?

12. Does it avoid elements of bad taste, double meanings, exaggeration and sensationalism?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Compound Modifiers

Compound Modifiers

A compound modifier requires a hyphen between two or more words modifying a noun.

small-business man

What are the following constructions called?

He suffered first- and second-degree burns.

5- and 6-year-old students showed up today for class.

suspensive hyphenation

In other words, this sentence suspends the use of degree.

He suffered first-degree and second-degree burns.

And this sentence suspends the use of year and old.

5- and 6-year-old students . . .

Notice with suspensive hyphenation:

There are only two hyphens

There is a space between the first hyphen and the “and”

There is only a space after the and

There are no spaces on either side of the second hyphen

He suffered first- and second-degree burns.


Possession Exorcises

the alumni + contributions

alumni’s contributions

women + rights.

women’s rights.

So, what’s the rule?

Add ’s to plural nouns not ending in S

the churches + needs

churches’ needs

the girls + toys

girls’ toys

So, what’s the rule?

Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in S

the church + needs

church’s needs

the girl + toys

girl’s toys

the VIP + seat

VIP’s seat

Butz + policies

Butz’s policies

Marx + theories

Marx’s theories

So, what’s the rule?

Add ’s to singular nouns not ending in S

mathematics + rules

mathematics’ rules

measles + effects

measles’ effects

So, what’s the rule?

Add only an apostrophe to nouns plural in form but singular in meaning.

one corps + location

corps’ location

the two deer + tracks

deer’s tracks

the lone moose + antlers

moose’s antlers

So, what’s the rule?

With nouns the same in singular and plural, treat them the same as plurals, even if the meaning is singular.

the hostess + invitation

hostess’s invitation

the hostess + seat

hostess’ seat

the witness + answer

witness’s answer

the witness + story

witness’ story

So, what’s the rule?

With singular common nouns ending in S, add ’s unless the next word begins with S

Achilles + heel

Achilles’ heel

Agnes + book

Agnes’ book

Jesus + life

Jesus’ life

Kansas + schools

Kansas’ schools

So, what’s the rule?

With singular proper names ending in S, use only an apostrophe.

for appearance + sake

for appearance’ sake

for conscience + sake

for conscience’ sake

for goodness + sake

for goodness’ sake

So, what’s the rule?

With special expressions, the rule for words not ending in S apply to words that end in an S sound and are followed by a word that begins with S

the major general + decision

the major general’s decision

the major generals + decisions

the major generals’ decisions

the attorney general + request

the attorney general’s request

the attorneys general + request

the attorneys general’s request

So, what’s the rule?

With compound words, add an apostrophe or ’S to the word closest to the object possessed.


Fred and Sylvia + apartment

Fred and Sylvia’s apartment

Fred and Sylvia + stocks

Fred and Sylvia’s stocks

So, what’s the rule?

Use a possessive form after only the last word if ownership is joint.


Fred and Sylvia + books

Fred’s and Sylvia’s books

So, what’s the rule?

Use a possessive form after both words if the objects are individually owned.

Descriptive vs. Possessive

citizens + band radio

citizens band radio (a radio band for citizens)

a Cincinnati Reds + infielder

a Cincinnati Reds infielder (an infielder for …)

a teachers + college

a teachers college (a college for teachers)

a writers + guide

a writers guide (a guide for writers)

So, what’s the rule?

Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in S when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense.

Other Examples:

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant likes to shoot. (Lakers ends in S)

Orland Magic's guard J.J. Redick likes to shoot. (Magic does not end in S)

The Beatles' drummer, Ringo Starr, hosted a childrens television show. (The "the" makes this possessive.)

The company name is Wendy's. And "Wendy's new menu features salads" is correct because you use only one apostrophe because the noun is actually expressing the possession of the noun that follows it. For a discussion on this see this link.


Actors + Equity

Actors’ Equity

Diners + Club

Diners Club

the Ladies + Home Journal

the Ladies’ Home Journal

the National Governors + Association

the National Governors Association

So, what’s the rule?

With descriptive names, follow the style of name.


a day + pay

a day’s pay

two weeks + vacation

two weeks’ vacation

three days + work

three days’ work

your money + worth

your money’s worth

So, what’s the rule?

Follow the rules above.

a friend of John (1 of many)

He is a friend of John’s

He is a friend of the college (1 of many)

He is a friend of the college.

The friends of John Adams mourned his death. (All friends)

The friends of John Adams mourned his death.

So, what’s the rule for double possessives in which you would use an apostrophe?

1. The word after of must refer to an animate object

2. The word before of must involve only a portion of the animate object’s possessions.

Russell Baker's How to Punctuate

How to punctuate

By Russell Baker

The New York Times

When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble — that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy — or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.

Listen to a voice trembling in a haunted room:

"And the sulken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…"

That’s Edgar Allan Poe, a master. Few of us can make paper

speak as vividly as Poe could, but even beginners will write better once they start listening to the sound their writing makes.

One of the most important tools for making paper speak in your own voice is punctuation.

When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly — with body language. Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.

In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear the way you want to be heard.

Gee, Dad, have I got to learn all them rules?’

Don’t let rules scare you. For they aren’t hard and fast. Think of them as guidelines.

Am I saying, "Go ahead and punctuate as you please"?

Absolutely not. Use your own common sense, remembering that you can’t expect readers to work to decipher what you’re trying to say.

There are two basic systems of punctuation:

1. The loose or open system, which tries to capture the way

body language punctuates talk.

2. The tight, closed structural system, which hews closely to the sentence’s grammatical structure.

Most writers use a little of both. In any case, we use much less punctuation than they used 200 or even 50 years ago. (Glance into Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776, for an example of the tight structure system at its most elegant.)

No matter which system you prefer, be warned: Punctuation marks cannot save a sentence that is badly put together. If you have to struggle over commas, semicolons, dashes, you’ve probably built a sentence that’s never going to fly, no matter how you tinker with it. Throw it away and build a new one to a simpler design. The better your sentence, the easier it is to punctuate.

Choosing the right tool

There are 30 main punctuation marks, but you’ll need fewer than a dozen for most writing.

I can’t show you in this small space how they all work, so I’ll stick to the most important — and even then can only hit the highlights. For more details, check your dictionary or a good grammar book.


This is the most widely used mark of all. It’s also the toughest and most controversial. I’ve seen aging editors almost come to blows over the comma. If you can do it without sweating, the others will be easy. Here’s my policy:

1. Use a comma after a long introductory phrase or clause: After stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London, I went home for tea.

2. If the introductory material is short, forget the comma: After the theft I went home for tea.

3. But use it if the sentence would be confusing without it, like this: The day before I’d robbed the Bank of England.

4. Use a comma to separate elements in a series. I robbed the Denver Mint, the Bank of England, the Tower of London and my piggy bank. Notice there is not comma before and in the series. This is common style nowadays, but some publishers use a comma there, too.

5. Use a comma to separate independent clauses that are joined by a conjunction like and, but, for, or, nor, because or so: I shall return the crown jewels, for they are too heavy to wear.

6. Use a comma to set off a mildly parenthetical word or grouping that isn’t essential to the sentence: Girls, who have always interested me, usually differ from boys.

7. Do not use commas if the word grouping is essential to the sentence’s meaning: Girls who interested me know how to tango.

8. Use a comma in direct address: Your majesty, please hand over the crown.

9. And between proper names and titles: Montague Sneed, director of Scotland Yar, was assigned the case.

10. And to separate elements of geographical address: Director Sneed comes from Skokie, Ill., and now lives in London, England.

11. Generally speaking, use a comma where you’d pause briefly in speech. For a long pause or completion of thought, use a period. If you confuse the comma with the period, you’ll get a run-on sentence: The Bank of England is in London, I rushed right over to rob it.


A more sophisticated mark than the comma, the semicolon

separates two main clauses, but it keeps those two thoughts more

tightly linked than a period can: I steal crown jewels; she steals


Dash and parentheses

Warning! Use sparingly. The dash SHOUTS. Parenthesis whisper. Shout too often, people stop listening; whisper too much, people become suspicious of you.

The dash creates a dramatic pause to prepare for an expression needing strong emphasis: I’ll marry you — if you’ll rob Topkapi with me.

Parentheses help you pause quietly to drop in some chatty information not vital to your story: Despite Betty’s daring spirit ("I love robbing your piggy bank, " she often said) , she was a terrible dancer.

Quotation marks

These tell the reader you are reciting the exact words someone said or wrote: Betty said, “I can’t tango." Or: "I can’t tango," Bettysaid.

Notice the comma comes before the quote marks in the first example, but comes inside them in the second.

Not logical?

Never mind. Do it that way anyhow.


A colon is a tip-off to get ready for what’s next: a list, a long quotation or an explanation. This article is riddled with colons. Too many, maybe, but the message is: "Stay on your toes; it’s coming at you."


The big headache is with possessive nouns. If the noun is singular, add s: I hated Betty’s tango.

If the noun is plural, simply add an apostrophe after the s: Those are the girls’ coats.

The same applies for singular nouns ending in s, like boss: My boss’s favorite author is Dickens.

And in the plural: This is the Dickenses’ cottage


Keep Cool

You know about ending a sentence with a period or question mark. Do it. Sure, you can also end with an exclamation point, but must you? Usually it just makes you sound breathless and silly. Make your writing generate its own excitement.

Filling the newspaper with !!!! won’t make up for what your writing has failed to do.

Too many exclamation points make me think the writer is talking about the panic in his own head.

Don’t sound panicky. End with a period. I am serious. A period. Understand?

Well…sometimes a question mark is OK.