Tag Archives: grammar

This $15 million woman can teach you to punctuate English sentences correctly

Susan Feehan has written a book about punctuation.

Called Make Punctuation Your Bitch: Punctuation Wrangling Without The Fuss.

The paperback is already on Amazon and the e-book comes out on Friday.

I talked to her. This is what happened.

Any punctuation mistakes are mine, not her’s… erm… hers.


JOHN: So you won’t be a fan of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses… Does punctuation matter? I don’t think spelling was uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary, was it? Before that, all that mattered was that other people understood what you meant. Same with punctuation, isn’t it?

“Not a book for GrammerNazis. They would take offence”

SUSAN: It’s not a book for GrammarNazis. They would take offence at the levity. I’ve done a couple of opening sections about Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Tribe 1 are the GrammarNazis and Tribe 2 are the rest of us.

JOHN: So who is going to buy the book? The GrammarNazis are not going to buy it because they think they know everything and the illiterates won’t buy it because they can’t read.

SUSAN: It’s for people who just need a quick answer. I wrote it because, as a tutor, doing training courses, I have always wanted to look for examples.

JOHN: Examples of… ?

SUSAN: Say, for instance, brackets. You don’t want to wade through a whole load which has everything you DON’T want to know about brackets but one thing you do. So I have split everything into sections. It is quick and easy.

If it takes two minutes to look something up, you will do it.

If it takes ten minutes, you will blag your way through.

JOHN: You are a tutor. Whom do you tute?

SUSAN: I did have a stint at university mentoring students in newspaper production and, well, there’s publishers’ staff. People who just need a bit of a refresher. When they’re editing. Grammar, punctuation, whatever.

JOHN: Surely sub-editors should not need tutoring? If they don’t know it, they shouldn’t be employed.

SUSAN: Well, the thing is, sub-editing is now an entry job. When I was first training on newspapers, you started as an editorial assistant or a junior reporter – you started as a junior writer in any form, served your time – your apprenticeship, so to speak, of about three years – and then they considered you expert enough to be paid full wage. After that, you could segue into subbing.

But, once it all became digital, the software became the prerequisite – It became Must be Quark friendly or, now, it’s Must be InDesign friendly. The software became the reason you were getting employed and the language skills became secondary.

Often, now, people are taking or are given a job as a sub-editor so they can do a hop-over into the writing side. It doesn’t make any sense to me – or anyone else I know. You’ve got juniors put in the position of changing the work of writers who are presumably more experienced. And they now do need to know more than they once would have done. In the past, the sub-editors would have been much more experienced.

JOHN: So we have all these illiterate sub-editors?

SUSAN: I wouldn’t call them illiterate.

JOHN: Different publications have different house styles, so punctuation rules don’t really mean anything, do they? For example… Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?

SUSAN: Well, some of that is house style but often, in the UK, we would generally use single quotes first, then doubles within singles. The Americans would do singles within doubles.

JOHN: Oh… I always do the American way, alas.

SUSAN: And how do you introduce a quote? With a colon or a comma? A colon is very journalistic.

JOHN: I do whatever looks better in a particular sentence.

SUSAN: Ah…

JOHN: You started off as a…?

SUSAN: A lowly junior reporter on a magazine called Display International and another one called Do It Yourself Retailing.

JOHN: You did that because you wanted to be a great writer?

SUSAN: Well, I found out very quickly that I wanted to be a sub-editor. On a newspaper or magazine, if you find a subject you are prepared to write about for the next 30 years – medical, cinema, crime, whatever – then you are fixed. If you can’t find that subject, then you are better off being a sub-editor, because there your joy is in the process and the language not the subject. You can do your job on any subject and still love the process of writing.

JOHN: You wanted to be a sub for the rest of your life?

SUSAN: I certainly did for a hefty while. Then I thought: Aaah! Perhaps I should write something myself. And that’s when I started doing the screenplay thing. There was The Kiss, a romantic comedy.

JOHN: Was that filmed?

SUSAN: We raised the money for it about four years ago – all $15 million of it – but the trouble was it all came from one investor and the trouble comes when one investor thinks he’s been hanging around too long and he takes the money elsewhere.

JOHN: You have written five screenplays.

SUSAN: I have, but I am turning them into novels. One I am going to do as a play.

JOHN: Three are already award-winning and they have not even been made.

SUSAN: You can win lots of screenplay awards without them getting made.

JOHN: Make Punctuation Your Bitch is not your first book.

“Canadians in particular loved it…”

SUSAN: No. There was How To Write Well When You Don’t Know Where To Start. That was three years ago. For some reason the Canadians in particular loved it. It was in the Top Ten in the entire Kindle Store in Canada, not just in its niche.

JOHN: Is it on Amazon?

SUSAN: It was, but I’ve taken it down because I’m going to update it.

JOHN: Are there punctuation differences between the British and Americans?

SUSAN: Yes. And there are Canadian and Australian differences as well. Sometimes they side with the Americans and sometimes they follow us. I have some in the book. The Americans put time at 3:30 with a colon and we do 3.30 with a dot; but now we are starting to take on the colon.

JOHN: In lists, I was always taught that, if you have A, B, C and D, you should never have a comma between the last two – A, B, C, and D – because the commas are standing-in for the word ‘and’. So, by adding a comma, you are actually saying “A and B and C and and D”

SUSAN: That’s not quite true, because it’s ‘The Oxford Comma’… Called that because it was created by Oxford University Press.

The example given in my book is: “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela”. That actually means – without the second comma – that his parents are the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

But, if you put a comma after the Dalai Lama – “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela” – you have differentiated between them.

JOHN: But one comma isn’t worth losing sleep over, is it?

SUSAN: I have a story at the front of my book about the Five Million Dollar Oxford Comma.

There was a dairy in Maine where they had a contract that did not have an Oxford Comma in it. Their drivers sued them about what the contract actually meant and the drivers won $5 million in back-overtime.

There was another case between two telephone companies where there was a comma in dispute and, again it cost one company $2 million.

JOHN: So correct punctuation is here to stay.

SUSAN: I think, in 30 years time, apostrophes won’t exist.

JOHN: Oooh!

SUSAN: But I think the smart money is on semi-colons dying out first.

JOHN: You will have to constantly update your books. Your next one is…?

SUSAN: There might be a Make Structure Your Bitch book.

JOHN: What is structure?

SUSAN: Structure in writing. So the inverted pyramid thing will come in there. And structuring sentences and paragraphs and how to keep the reader hooked.

JOHN: What is the worst crime in punctuation?

SUSAN: Ultimately, it is inconsistency.

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Edinburgh Fringe magnifies comedian Malcolm Hardee’s testicles and objects to Charlie Chuck’s English grammar

Charlie Chuck- What the duck is the Edinburgh Fringe doing?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Now, make no mistake, I love the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I like about it is its freewheeling, hands-off nature. Anyone can perform at the Fringe; the Fringe Office itself merely acts as a central not-really-controlling-anything hub. They charge you to put your 40 word listing and perhaps an ad in the Fringe Programme. But it is very relaxed and freewheeling.

In theory.

Except for the fact that they appear to have thrown away the spirit of the Fringe and gone in for mindless bureaucratic stupidity this year. Two examples:

1. THE GREATEST SHOW ON LEGS

This admirably anarchic, occasionally naked-balloon-dancing troupe have already had problems, with the PBH Free Fringe refusing to allow one of their members appearing in a show on the PBH Free Fringe to appear as part of the Greatest Show on Legs in the Laughing Horse Free Festival. (It’s complicated – I blogged previously about it.)

But the Greatest Show on Legs ARE now performing (with special guests standing-in for the missing member – yes, I said the missing member) at Bob Slayer’s Alternative Fringe venue The Hive (administered as part of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe). When I left for China three weeks ago, they were going to be performing for three days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show). Now they will be performing for five days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show).

So they paid for their entry in the Fringe Programme, which includes a tiny photo. The words were:

Famed naked balloon dancers, The Legs return to Edinburgh with extraordinarily eccentric comedy sketches and surprise guests. “Surreal and anarchic comedy” (Huffington Post), “Anarchic high point” (Guardian), “Manic and riotous” (Chortle)

The photo (which I have reproduced here at the size it would have appeared in the Fringe Programme) is on the left. I say “would have appeared” because the Fringe refused to run the photo, saying:

The man on the left of image, is not fully covered by his balloon. As this is a universal publication – one that is read by adults and children – we need to be sure that every image included is suitable. We therefore require you to either use a different image, or photo shop the existing one to ensure that the balloon is covering the entire area.

This was news to me as the photo has been run elsewhere, at a more visible size, before.

But, indeed, when I viewed the original image at full-size, I could vaguely see something and, indeed, if I looked at it at 300% original size, I could see what I think is the shape of the bottom of the late Malcolm Hardee’s testicles. I suppose I should be more certain as, with most comedy-goers of a certain age, I saw them often enough.

Bob Slayer tells me: “I said to them (the Fringe) if they really had to Photoshop, then to do a very subtle blurring but don’t add anything to the image.”

He also asked to see the Photoshopped result, but never did until a couple of days ago, after the Fringe Office was chased-up. They had changed the photo to what you see on the left… with an entirely new third balloon plonked over the offending vague shape. A ridiculous piece of over-kill, not part of the Greatest Show on Legs’ act and, as far as I can figure, it would be completely impossible to actually perform the act with this third balloon. Ironically, the Photoshopped picture is a load of bollocks.

So, a couple of days ago, the new picture you see on the left was submitted, although it is quite difficult to find colour photos of the Greatest Show on Legs with the late Malcolm Hardee (who is obviously a marketing point). Watch this space in case this one is rejected too. The Fringe appears to have gone control-freak mad. Which brings us to:

2. CHARLIE CHUCK

Cirque du Charlie Chuck is the new Edinburgh Fringe show from a man whose act goes far beyond utter nonsense. The words submitted for the Fringe Programme were:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

The response from the Fringe was:

Thank you for your recent registration for the Fringe Programme. I have taken a look at your form, and the copy for the Programme is over the word limit, as some words were missing, as per below:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.

Warm regards,

Katie McKenna
Programme Production Assistant

Note the phrase “These words are required to be added”. Not “suggested”… “required”.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Charlie Chuck was paying almost £400 (OK, it was £393.60p) to have these words put in the Fringe Programme to advertise and promote his show. I can’t imagine The Times or the Daily Telegraph or the equally respectable Guardian objecting to the grammar in a paid-for ad in their hallowed pages.

The Fringe also mounts ‘roadshows’ advising performers how to publicise their shows. One of their annual gems of wisdom is that the Fringe Programme entry is the most important and effective piece of publicity for your show and every word used should count in marketing your show. “Cut out every unnecessary word” is the Fringe’s advice. No mention of adding in an unnecessary “is” or “and” or “a” or of having to use fully-grammatical sentences.

It is also worth mentioning that Charlie Chuck is secondarily listed under “Absurdist” by the Fringe Programme and his shows often start with the words:

“Ay and beway, flippin de bow-wow. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Woof-bark.”

And that is one of the more coherent parts of his act.

I think he could justifiably argue that being forced to write a fully-grammatically-correct Fringe Programme listing would be professionally damaging to his career.

When the Fringe was pushed on this mindless idiocy, the reply came:

It seems your show copy was over the 40 word limit when you resubmitted.

(It actually was not over the limit at all and it was resubmitted via the Fringe computer which does not allow over-length entries to be submitted.)

We do attempt to make the copy grammatically correct. Looking at your show copy, I woud (sic) suggest that the first sentence needs a verb, which on (sic) of our team has put in. I don’t see the ‘and’ you refer to in the proof sent. I think ‘and a lady assistant’ reads fine. However, it largely up to you, (sic) as long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.

Martin Chester
Publications Manager

At the time I write this, the Fringe appears to have accepted an entry from Charlie Chuck which reads:

CIRQUE DU CHARLIE CHUCK
Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck’s back with mixed magic, cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing, burlesque bits, French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’
(Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus unexpected latex suit.

Let us hope they do not refuse to run the almost £400 paid-for ad on the basis that the last two sentences are not, in fact sentences. But, it seems, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe mindless bureaucratic stupidity rules.

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Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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