Major book, film, TV, radio, music and arts prizes—2020 onwards

Introduction: This blog aims to describe the major arts prizes and provide the most recent winners. You’ll find almost all you need to know about the arts in 2020, 2021 and beyond—although I’ve had to omit some things in the interests of space. For instance, there’s no otter art.

Upcoming/Latest (10 Jul 2022): The impending and latest awards (with selected results) are below. May and June have been so busy with prizes, I’ve almost had to hire an assistant. Further details of all the awards can be found further down—there are links in the Contents section, just below. Although the New Zealand–filmed Western Power of the Dog won best film in the BAFTA Film awards and Golden Globes, it was beaten by CODA for the Oscars in March—I think that’s fair enough, a Western should always end in a gunfight.

  • Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards (29 Jun, Leonardo City Hotel, London)
    • Results: Sunset Swing by Ray Celestin won both the Gold Dagger award for best overall UK-published crime novel and the Historical Dagger for best historical crime novel (set more than fifty years ago). It’s set in 1960s Los Angeles and is the final of the City Blues series of four novels, set in four US cities from 1919 to the 1960s and with a strong jazz-based backdrop.
  • Summer Exhibition: this art exhibition runs from 21 Jun to 21 Aug at Burlington House in Piccadilly, London and has done every year since 1769; at some point the Charles Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work will be awarded.
  • Women’s Prize for Fiction (15 Jun, Bedford Square Gardens, London)—inspired by the all-male Booker shortlist of 1991, this is awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best English-language, UK-published novel of the preceding year.
    • Results: The winner is The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, a US-Canadian author who is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
  • Tony Awards (12 Jun, Radio City Music Hall, New York) for excellence in Broadway theatre. Admittedly, you have to go to New York to see these, or wait for them to tour elsewhere (such as Otterbourne Village Hall).
    • Results: The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini (relating to the 2008 financial crash) won Best Play and A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson (about a young artist at war with a host of demons writing a musical about someone like himself writing a musical about …) won both Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. The latter means the text used in a musical separate from the composed music (known as the libretto), and the words from A Strange Loop can be purchased here.
  • Hot off the press (reported 10 Jun): A surprise announcement from Costa Coffee said, “After 50 years of celebrating some of the most enjoyable books written by hugely talented authors from across the UK and Ireland, Costa Coffee has taken the difficult decision to end the Costa Book Awards.” You can see my write-up of the Costa awards below.
  • Cannes Film Festival (17-28 May, Cannes)—the main awards including the most prestigious, the Palme d’Or for best film, will be revealed on the final day and will be chosen from the Official Selection shortlist. Sunglasses are compulsory.
    • Results: Triangle of Sadness, directed by Ruben Östlund and starring Woody Harrelson won the Palme d’Or.
  • 2022 International Booker Prize (26 May)
    • Results: The winner was Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, a novelist and short-story writer based in New Delhi, India, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell. Paraphrased from Wikipedia, “the book traces the transformative journey of 80-year-old Ma, who becomes depressed after the death of her husband, and travels to Pakistan, confronting unresolved trauma from her teenage years at the time of the Partition riots.”
  • British Book Awards (23 May, Grosvenor House, London)
    • Results: You Are a Champion by Marcus Rashford, the Man United footballer, won overall Book of the Year as well as the Children’s Non-Fiction category. Subtitled How to Be the Best You Can Be and written with the journalist Carl Anka, it’s a kind of self-help guide for kids (and probably adults, too) on the themes of “building confidence, setting goals and finding your passion.” Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason won the Fiction prize and The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin won the Crime and Thriller prize.
  • Nebula Awards for science fiction published in the US (21 May, virtual ceremony)
  • Ivor Novello Awards (19 May, Grosvenor House, London) for UK and Irish songwriting and composing
    • Results: Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender (writer and performer) won Best Song Musically and Lyrically; Pink Noise by Dann Hume and Laura Mvula (performed by Laura Mvula) won Best Album; and Dave won Best Songwriter (the awards are for the songwriters not the performers, although they may coincide)
  • Bram Stoker Awards for horror writing (14 May, Curtis Hotel in Denver, Colorado)
    • Results: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones won the Superior Achievement in a Novel award, the author winning for the second year running.
  • Pulitzer Prizes (9 May, livestreamed on YouTube)
  • BAFTA TV (8 May, Royal Festival Hall, London; live on BBC One)
    • Results: Among the 27 category winners, In my Skin won Best Drama Series; Motherland won Best Scripted Comedy; Time won Best Mini-Series; and Sean Bean (for Time) and Jodie Comer (for Help) won Best Actor and Best Actress.


I’ve arranged the sections in chronological order of the normal award dates, except for a few occasions where I’ve lumped awards together by category (for romance, crime and science fiction books). A few of the dates temporarily changed for 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, which could continue into 2022. Some of the prizes are international or have international categories, but the post does have a US/UK-centric nature, due to the most well-known prizes coming from these countries. So my apologies for neglecting the Canadian Folk Music Awards—incidentally, won by The Slocan Ramblers in 2020—and the like.

Books:  Costa Book Awards (Jan/Feb); Spur Awards (Mar); Romance: Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards (Mar), Romance Writers of America Vivien Awards (Jul—but the 2022 awards are postponed to 2023); Science Fiction: BSFA (Apr), Nebula (Jun), Hugo (Aug), Arthur C. Clarke (Sept), World Fantasy (Nov); Crime: Edgar Awards (Apr), CWA Daggers (Jun/Jul); Bram Stoker Awards (Apr/May); Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (May); Women’s Prize for Fiction (Jun); Wodehouse Prize (May, but moved to Nov for 2022); Nobel Prize in Literature (Oct); Booker Prize (Oct/Nov: main prize; May/Jun: Intl prize); William Hill Sports Book of the Year (Dec); Extras: British Book Awards (May), Hawthornden Award (Jul), James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Aug), Oddest Title of the Year (Nov), Bad Sex in Fiction Award (Dec), Waverton Good Read Award (retired); Bestsellers.

Film: Golden Globes (Jan); BAFTA Film (Mar); Oscars (Mar); Cannes Film Festival (May); Box Office.

TV and Radio: Golden Globes (Jan); ARIAS (Mar/Apr); BAFTA TV (Apr/May); Hugo Awards for Dramatic Presentation (Aug); Emmy Awards (prime time awards in Sept); TV Ratings.

Music: Grammy Awards (Jan/Feb); Brit Awards (Feb); Ivor Novello Awards (May); MTV Video Music Awards (Aug); Bestsellers.

Theatre: Olivier Awards (Apr); Tony Awards (Jun).

ArtSummer Exhibition (Jun); Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize (Sept); BP Portrait Prize (Sept); Wildlife Photographer of the Year (Oct); Taylor-Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (Nov); Turner Prize (and Turnip Prize) (Dec); Extras: Hugo Boss Prize (Oct, every other year), Carnegie Prize (Oct, every three to five years—coinciding with the Carnegie International exhibition), Nomura Art Award (Oct, only awarded in 2019 so far).



Here are the most prominent literary award-winners and bestsellers from 2020 onwards. There are many literary awards, so apologies to those I’ve missed out—I’ve tried to cover the different genres and encompass the most prestigious. Three links are provided per winner, when available: to the prize website, the book details and the Amazon UK Look Inside feature (so you can start reading). Inexplicably, Culture Man hasn’t won any of them.

Costa Book Awards

Known as the Whitbread Book Awards until 2006, the Costa Book Awards were launched in 1971 and give prizes in five different categories—novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book—with one chosen as the overall book of the year. They reward “well-written, enjoyable books” by writers resident in the UK and Ireland, for books first published in the UK or Ireland, with a first published date between 1 Nov and 31 Oct of the previous year. The focus is a little more populist and a little less literary than the Booker Prize, although Hilary Mantel won both in 2012 with Bring up the Bodies. Books are entered by publishers, panels of three judges choose the category winners for each category, and a final nine-judge panel chooses the overall winner. Self-published work is not eligible.

The award is known by the year of eligibility and is given at the start of the next year, so the most recent 2021 award was announced at a ceremony at the Pan Pacific London hotel on 1 Feb 2022. The category winners are announced a few weeks before the ceremony (for the 2021 award this was 4 Jan). There’s generally a London ceremony for the unveiling of the overall winner, although this was virtual for the 2020 award. There’s also a short story award, voted for by the public. The best novel has most often won the book of the year (twelve times) and the children’s book the least often (twice). Three authors have won the overall prize twice: Sebastian Barry (novels), and Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (both poetry). Wikipedia Costa Book Awards provides a neat list of the overall book of the year and the winners in each category, as does the Costa archive.

And…they’ve finished. A surprise announcement from Costa Coffee, reported by the press on 10 Jun 2022, said, “After 50 years of celebrating some of the most enjoyable books written by hugely talented authors from across the UK and Ireland, Costa Coffee has taken the difficult decision to end the Costa Book Awards.”

  • 2019 Costa Book Awards (28 Jan 2020), Book of the Year (also winner of the biography award): The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather (inside)—the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish officer who volunteered to report on Nazi crimes in Auschwitz

Westerns: Spur Awards

Well, I couldn’t resist a section on westerns, which are novels about the American Wild West and typically set between about 1800-1900. According to Wikipedia, the genre peaked in the 1960s, in parallel with film and TV westerns, but now “most bookstores, outside a few west American states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books”. The Spur Awards have been awarded by the Western Writers of America (WWA) since 1953 and are for Western works published in the previous year. They don’t have a single award for best novel—not since 2013, anyway—but a list of category awards: western historical novel (set prior to 1940, focused on historical persons and events), western traditional novel (set prior to 1940, fictional), western contemporary novel (set post-1940), western romance, mass-market paperback, short story, plus first novel and non-fiction, young person, documentary, poem and script awards. Prior to 2014, there was a Best Western Long Novel, which has now been split into the best historical, traditional and contemporary novel awards. Mass-market books are smaller and cheaper than regular paperbacks, with lower quality paper and binding, and are intended to be piled up in non-traditional venues such as supermarkets and airports. Self-published work is allowed.

Three judges are assigned for each award, and publishers and authors are invited to send eligible works directly to the judges for the appropriate category. The winners are announced in March, with the awards presented at the WWA convention in June (for 2022, this will be in Great Falls, Montana from 22-25 Jun). Elmer Kelton has the most awards, at seven, between 1957 and 2002. The 1985 best western novel, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (who recently died—March 2021), also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. The Spurs Winners page on their website gives all the historic winners and also the finalists back to 2009 (there are usually three finalists in each category, with one of them the winner).

  • 2022 Spur Award (12 Mar), Best western traditional novel: The Loving Wrath of Eldon Quint by Chase Pletts
  • 2022 Best western historical novel: Ridgeline by Michael Punke (author of 2002’s The Revenant, made into an award-wining 2015 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio) (inside)
  • 2022 Best western contemporary novel: Dark Sky by  C.J. Box (21st in the Joe Pickett series, about a Wyoming game warden—the series has also been made into a US TV series) (inside)
  • 2022 Best mass-market paperback: This Side of Hell by Brett Cogburn (fourth book in the Widowmaker Jones western series) (inside)

Romance: Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards and Romance Writers of America Vivien Awards

This is a fascinating subject. Largely written by women for women, romantic fiction is the largest-selling fiction genre, covering 23%  of the fiction market in the USA according to a 2016 survey for Romance Writers of America. It’s driven by very loyal readers, with about 15% of romance readers buying romance novels every week. Controversy abounds, and for instance, according to an article in the New Yorker, “research suggests that romance novels are deeply dangerous … distractions that make it impossible for women to put down their books and start worshiping their real husbands”. That may have been tongue in cheek, but you do find criticism along these lines, plus a literary snobbery against the genre. And yet it sells massively. Today, there’s an overlap with chick-lit, which probably started in the 1990s, although as Wikipedia says, chick lit is not a subgenre of romance since although there may be romantic elements (there usually are), it provides a heroine-centred narrative with a focus on the trials and tribulations of the protagonist. To provide a flavour of the best-selling works, a 2020 reader survey of the Romantic Novelist’s Association provided six top-selling romance novels, one for each of the last six decades, and asked readers to vote on the best. Out of a selection also including Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, Colleen McCollough’s The Thorn Birds, Jilly Cooper’s Riders, Cecilia Ahern’s P.S. I Love You and Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding was the winner.

I’m going to wander around before we look at the two main prize-giving bodies. First, Dame Barbara Cartland: Astonishingly, she wrote 723 books between 1923 and 1999, 644 of which were romantic novels, including a world-record 23 in 1976. She sold over one billion copies, wrote plays, music and verse, and was a popular media personality. She wrote by dictating to assistants at about 7,000 words an afternoon and specialised in historical romance. She became more prolific from the early 1970s, when she was already 70, writing 10-20 books a year for the next 20 years. She left another 160 unpublished manuscripts when she died in 2000, since published by her son. Although written so quickly, her books were bestsellers in America, so must be (I assume) an extremely high standard, presumably achieved through decades of mastering her art. There’s a neat article by Liam Livings which quotes from her biography, saying her formula was “The Cinderella virgin meets and falls in love with her challenging dark hero on the first few pages. Events occur to mar or complicate the course of true love for the next six chapters. But in the seventh, love wins through, the pair are safely married, and we leave them as the joys of licit carnal bliss are about to start” and that her skill “consists in the endless ingenuity with which she adapts this constant theme to different historical backgrounds and events.” Next, Mills and Boon: to be brief here, Mills and Boon, synonymous with romance, was founded in 1908, taken over by Harlequin in 1971, publish over 100 romance novels each month in different imprints such as historical, heartwarming or desire, and are only available in print form for three months; e-books outsell their print books, partly (it is said) because in e-book form, people don’t know you’re reading a Mills and Boon romance. Third, male authors: It took fifty-seven years for a man to be named as a winner of one of the RNA’s romance awards, with two winners in 2018. However, for marketing reasons, male writers of romance have tended to publish under female pseudonyms, and in 2009 it was discovered that the winner of the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year in 1978, Merlin’s Keep by Madeleine Brent, picked up by “her” publisher at the time, was actually by Peter O’Donnell. Obviously, I’ve written a number of bestselling romance novels under a secret pseudonym.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) is a UK professional body for romantic fiction writers, with associate membership for related professions. It awarded the Romantic Novel of the Year (RoNa) from 1960 to 2018, plus the Rose prize for shorter works (from 2003). From 2012, it added category prizes for contemporary (post-1960), historical, epic, comedy and young adult romance, and, from 2017, for paranormal romance—with one of them chosen as the overall winner. Several authors have won the overall prize twice, most recently Jojo Moyes in 2004 and 2011, and Margaret Maddocks, who died in 1993 at the age of 87, won four between 1962 and 1976—her autobiography said her books “tend to cheer rather than depress”.

Since 2019, the overall winner has been scrapped and separate categories are awarded based on reader judgment, with volunteer judges assigned work by the RNA—except for the award for Popular Romantic Fiction, which is selected by booksellers, bloggers and librarians. There were seven awards in 2019, two more were added in 2020 (for Romantic Sagas and the Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller Award), and a tenth in 2022, for the best Christmas / Festive Holiday Romantic Novel. There’s also an Outstanding Achievement Award, won by Mike Gayle in 2021—which is excellent since I’ve read some of his stuff and it’s great. Eligible books had their first English-language publication in the previous year and were by authors living or working in the UK/Ireland at time of submission or by Commonwealth authors living outside the UK or if first publication was by a UK-based publisher in the UK. The award ceremonies typically take place in March, and the 2022 one was held at the Leonardo Royal Hotel in St Pauls, London.

RNA Awards 2022 (7 Mar)

RNA Awards 2021  (8 Mar)

See RNA Awards Wikipedia for a historic list of winners

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US equivalent of the RNA. It’s awarded prizes since 1982, initially called Golden Medallions and, from 1990, RITA awards, named after their first president Rita Clay Estrada. Starting with four categories, this had grown to thirteen by 2019, some of them for different lengths of the same genre, e.g., long, mid-length and short contemporary romance. Unlike the RNA (until 2018, anyway), there’s no overall winner. Scandal hit in 2019 and the 2020 awards were cancelled, to be replaced by the Vivian Awards from 2021. The 2021 entries had an English language publication date of 2019 or 2020—to make up for the non-contest in 2020—but normally it’s just the previous year. There were fourteen categories, trained volunteer judges were used, and there don’t seem to be any rules restricting nationality (non-American authors have won RITA prizes). Entries must have a central love story and an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”. Romeo and Juliet is out, then. The scandal relates to lack of diversity. In 2018, Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, about interracial romance during the American Civil War, wasn’t among the finalists despite winning many other awards. Amazingly, all finalists were about white women and all but one fell in love with British aristocrats. The 2019 finalists again underrepresented LGBTQ persons and people of colour—although Kennedy Ryan became the first Black woman to be awarded a RITA—and the RWA cancelled the awards and embarked on a restructuring exercise to improve diversity.

The replacement Vivian Awards are named after Vivian Stephens, the black founder of the RWA. The first Vivian Awards, for 2021, were awarded at a virtual ceremony in July. However, unable to keep controversy at bay, the Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements winner, At Love’s Command, by Karen Witemeyer had its award withdrawn after protests. The book featured redemption for a soldier involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, a massacre of nearly three hundred Lakota people (a Native American tribe) by soldiers of the United States Army. Whether this is a valid subject, sensitively handled, I don’t know—the book is on Amazon, here. In the aftermath of this, and rather farcically, the 2022 award has been postponed as the RWA analyses the 2021 contest and makes recommendations for the 2023 award—which will extend the eligibility period to include books meeting both 2022 and 2023 dates.

RWA Vivian Awards 2022: Postponed to 2023

RWA Vivian Awards 2021 (31 July) (replaced Rita Awards)

No awards held in 2020; RWA Rita Awards held 1982-2019 (see RWA Past Winners)

Science fiction: BSFA, Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke Awards

The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards have awarded a prize for best novel since 1970, although, like the Nebulas described below, they name it by year of eligibility (so the first one was the 1969 award). Other categories were added until it stabilised with best novel, short fiction, artwork and non-fiction from 2008, with a further award, best book for younger readers, introduced in 2021. Nominations and votes of BSFA members determine the winners plus, more recently, votes from members of the British Annual Science Fiction Convention (Eastercon—this convention has been running since 1948 and is held, surprisingly enough, over the Easter weekend). This is a fan award and works aren’t restricted to those published in the UK. Brian Aldiss and Ian McDonald have both won three times, while Adrian Tchaikovsky has won two of the last three years. Wikipedia BSFA Award gives the historic winners. The awards are usually announced at the annual Eastercon event, which was held at the Raddison Red Heathrow Hotel for the 2021 prizes.

The Nebula Awards, presented since 1966, are probably the second most prestigious sci-fi prize behind the Hugos. They’re for English-language sci-fi and fantasy works published in the US in the previous calendar year. The Nebulas are classified by the year published, so the 2021 awards are for books published in 2021 and were awarded in May 2022. They’re nominated and voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Non-US writers can be members of the SWFA and can have their works nominated. The awards are announced and presented at the SFWA Nebula Conference, held each spring in various US locations—although it’s been virtual for the last three years.

There are seven categories, for best novel, novella, novellette and short story, and for best game writing, young adult fiction and dramatic presentation. Ursula K. Le Guin has won the most Nebula best novel awards at four, while Joe Haldeman has three and nine authors have won twice. There’s overlap with the Hugos, and several novels have won both. Both are also open to self-published works, which is cool. Past winners and nominees for all awards are on the Nebula website and the best novel winners and nominees can be seen at Wikipedia Nebula Awards.

The Hugo Awards, first awarded in 1953, are probably the most prestigious sci-fi awards and are for science fiction and fantasy works published in the previous year. They’re nominated and voted for by members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), a convention held annually in different countries and locations. A Worldcon springs up each year with a different name and a company set up to host it, with the Hugos presented during the convention: the 2020 one, CoNZealand, was hosted virtually, due to COVID-19, by New Zealand, 29 Jul – 2 Aug; the 2021 Worldcon, DisCon III, was held in Washington DC, 15 – 19 Dec 2021 (postponed from Aug); and the 2022 Awards, Chicon 8, will be in Chicago, with the winners announced on 4 Sept.

Works can be published anywhere and in any language, although the winners are mostly English language. To counter the US-centric nature of the voters, non-English works are also eligible in their first year of translated English publication, and works first published outside the US are also eligible in their first year of US publication. There are currently 17 categories, including best novella, short story, fanzine and dramatic presentation (long and short forms). Retro-Hugos were introduced in 1996, allowing Hugos to be awarded from 1939 onward, prior to the start of the Hugos; eight have been awarded so far. I’ve listed details for the dramatic presentation in the TV section—see here.

Robert A. Heinlein has won four Hugos for best novel (and two retro-Hugos), Lois McMaster Bujold has won four, and four authors have won three, including N.K. Jemisin, who became the first author to win Hugos in three consecutive years, for each book of her Broken Earth series in 2016-18. All winners and nominees can be found on the Hugo website at Hugo Awards by Year and a handy list of the best novel winners is on Wikipedia Hugo Awards.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award, awarded since 1987, is given for the best science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year. Refreshingly, there’s just the one category. Books are nominated by UK publishers, the organising committee, and a panel of judges. The judges are chosen by the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the Sci-Fi-London film festival and they select the winner. China Miéville has the most wins at three. Winners and nominees can be seen on Wikipedia Arthur C. Clarke.

The World Fantasy Awards are given for the best fantasy fiction published in English in the previous year and have been around since 1975. They’re awarded at the annual World Fantasy Convention, which has taken place, so far, in various locations in the US, Canada and the UK. The 2020 convention was held virtually, 29 Oct – 1 Nov, and the 2021 convention took place in Montreal from 4-7 Nov. Nominations are by a combination of a ballot for attendees of recent conventions and selection by a panel of judges (generally fantasy authors and related professionals). The judges then vote on the winners. There are ten categories, including best novel, novella and short story, and an award for lifetime achievement. Stephen King has been nominated nine times for best novel without winning (although has won in other categories), and Gene Wolfe is the most nominated of five authors to have won twice, with eight nominations. Winners and nominees are on the website and the best novel awards can be seen at Wikipedia World Fantasy Award—Novel.

Crime: Edgar Awards and Crime Writers’ Association Daggers

The Edgar Allan Poe Awards, usually shortened to the Edgar Awards or the Edgars, are presented by The Mystery Writers of America and have been running since 1954. They’re for books, short stories and TV shows in the “mystery, crime, suspense, and intrigue” fields—this essentially means crime writing. The work must have been published in the US in the previous year. There are currently twelve categories, including best novel, best first novel (which must be by a US author), best short story and best TV episode. A further three special awards (Ellery Queen Award, Raven Award and Grand Master) are made to individuals such as authors, reviewers or editors for services to the genre. The first novel prize is for US authors and can’t be entered for the best novel; the other awards are open to all nationalities. Nominations are usually announced in mid-January and the winners at the annual Edgar Awards Banquet in New York in late April or early May, which was held at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel for 2022. You can see a list of all the best novel winners (and most of the category winners since 2010) on Wikipedia’s Edgar Award site. The Edgars website home page also links to a historic lists of nominees and winners for each category—for example, the best novel, best fact crime or best TV episode.

The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) is a UK authors’ group that promotes crime fiction and awards a series of annual crime writing prizes called Daggers, the “UK’s top crime writing awards”. A total of ten Daggers are awarded, including the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger (best thriller, which Ian Fleming defined as making you turn the page), Historical Dagger (set more than 50 years ago), Dagger for Crime Fiction in Translation (formerly the International Dagger), Debut Dagger, ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction (sponsored by the ALCS), and Short Story Dagger, plus the Gold Dagger for the overall best crime novel. Publishers nominate their authors’ books, and titles are independently judged by panels separate to the CWA.  Eligible books are published in the UK in English by authors of any nationality during the eligibility period—the eligibility period is changing and from 2022 onward will be the previous calendar year. There’s also a Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement, won by Martina Cole in 2021 and by Martin Edwards in 2020, a Dagger in the Library, nominated and voted for by UK libraries, and a competition for the opening of a crime novel for anyone who hasn’t been traditionally published.

The Daggers were first awarded in 1955, although there are more categories now. They have usually been unveiled at an October ceremony in London, but due to COVID-19 were announced virtually in 2020 and 2021. The 2021 award was brought forward to 1 July and this earlier timeframe will stay in future, with the 2022 awards ceremony taking place on 29 Jun at the Leonardo City Hotel, London. Lionel Davidson has won the Gold Dagger three times and nine authors have won twice: Eric Ambler, John le Carré, Ruth Rendell, Joan Fleming, H. R. F. Keating, Peter Dickinson, Colin Dexter, Barbara Vine and Michael Robotham.

The CWA past winners page has a nifty search tool to find any previous winner or shortlisted work, and you can also check out Wikipedia Gold Dagger or Wikipedia Steel Dagger for a simple list of all the Gold or Steel Dagger winners.

Horror and Dark Fantasy: Bram Stoker Awards

The Bram Stoker Awards are presented by the Horror Writers Association (HWA) for dark fantasy, dark literature or horror. The HWA are a global organization of horror writing and publishing professionals, with categories for associated professionals and readers/fans; they have regional chapters in over twenty countries. The awards have been going since 1987 and currently have twelve categories—plus sometimes a Lifetime Achievement award—including for novels, first novels, graphic novels, poetry, non-fiction and lifetime achievement. The awards are formally titled “Superior Achievement in an X”, where X is a Novel, Screenplay, etc. HWA members and juries for each category recommend works to nominate, and Active members (professional-level writers) vote to determine the final nominated works and winners.

The awards are presented at the HWA’s annual conference, which is called StokerCon and is held in a different city each year, usually in the US, but it was meant to be Scarborough in the UK in 2019 before this was cancelled for COVID-19. The work must be first published in the previous year. The prizes are known by the year of publication, so, for example, the 2021 award was awarded in 2022 for works published in 2021. Slightly confusingly, the conventions are known by the year they take place, so StokerCon 2022 took place in 2022 and awarded the 2021 prize. Both the 2020 and 2021 conferences were virtual, but 2022 was back on track, the conference being held at the Curtis Hotel in Denver, Colorado. Stephen King has the most wins in the novel category, with six, while Peter Straub is next with five. The winners and nominees for best novel can be seen on Wikipedia Bram Stoker Award, and the science fiction awards database gives a neat summary of all prizes and nominees for all years.

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded since 1917, following instructions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a wealthy publisher. They’re for achievement in journalism, literature and musical composition in the US, and are administered by Columbia University in New York. There are currently twenty-two categories—fifteen in journalism and seven in books, drama and music. A 19-member Pulitzer Prize Board votes on each award after juries they’ve selected nominate three works in each category.

The fiction award is for “distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Previous winners include Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Old Man and the Sea. The winner in 2020, Colson Whitehead, joined Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike in having won the award twice, with his previous novel, The Underground Railway, winning in 2017. In the books, drama and music section categories, as well as fiction, there are also prizes for biography, history, drama, poetry, general non-fiction and music.

The winners are announced at three o’clock in a news conference from the University and have been livestreamed on the Pulitzer website since 2015 (and also on YouTube). Below are a selection of the literary-based prizes since 2020.

Women’s Prize for Fiction (originally the Orange Prize for Fiction)

The Women’s Prize for Fiction was inspired by the all-male Booker shortlist of 1991, although it didn’t kick-off until 1996. It’s awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year. Books are nominated by publishers and a panel of five women judges determine the winner. No author has won more than once. The winners and nominees can be seen on the Wikipedia Women’s Prize for Fiction page and detailed descriptions of the winning novels on the Women’s Prize Previous Winners page.

The 2020 prize was announced at a virtual event in September, later than the normal June date; the 2021 winner was announced at a ceremony in Bedford Square Gardens, London, still in September; and the 2022 awards were to their normal June date, also at Bedford Square Gardens.

Comic Fiction: Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize

The Wodehouse Prize is, according to Bollinger and Everyman, its sponsors, the UK’s only literary award for comic writing. It’s been awarded since 2000, is usually presented at the Hay festival in May with the winner announced shortly before the event, and the winner receives a jeroboam of Bollinger, a set of the Everyman Wodehouse collection, and a local pig is named after their winning novel. The Hay Festival was online in 2020 and 2021, so the pig wasn’t presented to the winning authors as it usually is. The prize is selected from a shortlist by a panel of judges for books published in the UK  from 1 Jun of the previous year until 31 May the current year (these dates applied for 2021 and 2022, but must have been earlier in previous years since the prize has normally been presented in May). Self-published or children’s books are not eligible.

Most winners but not all have been British, no author has won the prize more than once, and no prize was awarded in 2018 because none of the entries were funny enough. Wikipedia Wodehouse Prize gives the full list of past winners and nominations. Update: the date for the 2022 prize has shifted to November, with the shortlist to be announced in September.

Nobel Prize in Literature

The Nobel Prize has been awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace each year since 1901—actually, a few have been missed, e.g., for some of the war years, but they’ve been awarded every year since 1944, apart from the peace prize in a few years when there were no suitable candidates. Since 1968, a sixth prize has been established for Economic Sciences; it isn’t strictly a Nobel Prize, but is awarded by the same process, at the same ceremony and receives the same prize money. The prize originated from Alfred Nobel’s will, to be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist, best known for the invention of dynamite, who died in 1896 at sixty-three.

The prize ceremonies take place on 10 December, the date of Nobel’s death, in Oslo for the peace prize and in Stockholm for the rest. The winners are announced earlier, in October on successive days for each prize. Each recipient is known as a Nobel laureate and receives a gold medal, a diploma, and a monetary award, currently 10,000,000 krona (approx. $1.1m). A prize can be shared by up to three people, although the peace prize can also be awarded to organizations. The award was intended for achievements in the previous year, but this has gradually shifted towards discoveries that have stood the test of time—for literature, the prize is generally awarded for a body of work rather than a single accomplishment. The Swedish Academy, a group of eighteen members chosen for life, select the Nobel literature laureate, chosen from nominations that the Nobel Committee ask a selection of experts to provide. The processes for the other prizes are similar, except the awarding bodies are different: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for physics and chemistry, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute for medicine, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the peace prize.

Each winner is meant to hold a lecture in the days leading up to the award, the Swedish king presents the prizes at the Stockholm event, and there are luxurious banquets after the ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo. France has the most literature winners with seventeen, followed by the US with thirteen, the UK with eleven, Germany with ten and Sweden with eight. The last UK winners were Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017, Doris Lessing in 2007 and Harold Pinter in 2005. A list of the laureates for each year is on Wikipedia Nobel laureates or on the Nobel website.

  • 2021 Nobel laureate in literature (7 Oct): Abdulrazak Gurnah (born in Zanzibar, part of Tanzania; UK-based and British citizen; age 72; retired Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent). The author of many short stories, essays and ten novels, mostly set in East Africa with Zanzibar-born protagonists. The award was for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
  • 2020 Nobel laureate in literature (8 Oct): Louise Glück (born in New York, US; age 78). A poet and essayist and an adjunct professor (employed on a contractual basis rather than with indefinite tenure) and the Rosenkranz Writer in Residence at Yale University. The award was for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”poetry and essays.

Booker Prize

The Booker Prize, introduced in 1969, is awarded for the best long form fiction (basically a novel, but it could be poetry or experimental in form) originally written in English and published in the UK or Ireland in the year of the prize. The International prize is for the best translated book, published in the UK or Ireland, and has been running in this form since 2016—it was originally, from its foundation in 2005 to 2015, given every two years to an author for a body of work published in English or available in English translation. They’re each chosen by a panel of five appointed judges. Four authors have won the Booker prize twice, J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood (including a joint award in 2019). The Not the Booker prize is a spoof award that’s been run by the Guardian columnist Sam Jordison since 2009. Readers nominate books to form a longlist, then send reviews of over one hundred words to select the shortlist (the words aren’t counted, but reviewers are asked to make it look like they care). A panel of judges from his readers select the winner, who receives a Guardian mug. Although non-serious, the eligibility is the same as the Booker and it does look like it tries to find good literature, and indeed see if the winner is the same as the Booker itself (it never is). You can see a more detailed post I wrote on the Booker prize, here, which to be honest is far too long!

The Booker prize is unveiled at a ceremony at London’s Guildhall (except for 2020/21 for Covid reasons, when the BBC broadcast the ceremonies from London’s Roundhouse and BBC Radio Theatre, respectively). The International award is also normally presented at a London ceremony—One Marylebone for 2022. As far as I can see, tragically it seems as if there hasn’t been an award for the Not the Booker Prize in 2021, but I’ll investigate further. For the winners, check the Booker link at the start of this section, or go to Wikipedia Booker and Wikipedia International Booker.

William Hill Sports Book of the Year

First awarded in 1989, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year is for excellence in sports writing. William Hill states it’s the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. Duncan Hamilton has won three times, twice on cricket and once on football, and Donald McRae twice, on boxing and athletics. The winners and shortlisted books all appear to be non-fiction (although Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch won in 1992—it’s not exactly fiction but perhaps a bit on the line). The rules state that any full-length book is eligible, providing the subject is predominantly sporting, and the book was published for the first time in the UK between 2 Sept 2021 and 1 Sept 2022 (for the 2022 prize). A panel of judges, mainly sports professionals, writers or broadcasters, decide the winner.

Cricket, football and boxing are the most common subjects among the winners, but horse racing, aikido, golf, surfing, rowing, cycling, rugby, swimming and Australian-rules football all make appearances. The prize is typically awarded in early December, with the longlist announced in late September and the shortlist in late October. The 2021 prize was announced at a ceremony at BAFTA’s building in London, Piccadilly. Wikipedia William Hill Sports Book of the Year provides a handy table of winners, as does the William Hill website at the start of this section.


There are hundreds, no, thousands of literary awards, from the Icelandic Literary Prize to the Langhe Ceretto Prize for international food and drink writing to the Ned Kelly Award for Australian crime writing. Wikipedia’s List of literary awards lists stacks of them. Here’s a few extra ones that are either relatively high profile or caught my eye, but I lacked the commitment to give them the full treatment:

  • British Book Awards or Nibbies, named after the nib-shaped winners’ trophies: A set of awards organised by The Bookseller, a British magazine reporting on the publishing industry. The awards started in 1990 and were discontinued after 2014 until The Bookseller acquired them in 2017 (they were called the National Book Awards from 2010 to 2014). There are currently twelve category winners, one of which is chosen as overall Book of the Year by a public vote, plus Author and Illustrator of the Year awards. The category winners are determined by nominated judges. I’m not entirely sure of the criteria—Wikipedia says they’re for UK writers and their works (presumably for the previous year), but some of the recent winners are, for example, American. Wikipedia British Book Awards lists the historic Book of the Year winners plus many of the category winners. The Bookseller also simultaneously hosts the Book Trade Awards, which it has run since 2005 under various names, with currently eighteen awards such as Independent Bookshop of the Year and Marketing Strategy of the Year. Recent winners are as below, with the 2022 ceremony taking place at Grosvenor House, London.
    • 2022 Book of the Year (23 May): You Are a Champion by Marcus Rashford, the Man United footballer; subtitled How to Be the Best You Can Be and written with the journalist Carl Anka, it’s a kind of self-help guide for kids (and probably adults, too) on the themes of “building confidence, setting goals and finding your passion”
    • 2021 Book of the Year (13 May): Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, also the 2020 Booker winner
    • 2020 Book of the Year (29 Jun): Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

  • Hawthornden Award: The joint oldest UK prize, which started in 1919. This is for British (or Irish) authors of “imaginative fiction” published in the previous year, who are younger than forty-one. It was established by the philanthropist Alice Warrender and named after the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (Alice was born in Hawthornden). The prize is awarded by a Committee, doesn’t solicit submissions and is sometimes described as secretive—they don’t even seem to have a website. The 2020 winner was Reckless Paper Birds, a poetry collection by John McCullough, announced on 24 July. I haven’t seen any announcement about the 2021 prize, so who knows what has happened to this (though there have been a few gap years when no prize has been awarded). Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter won in 1927, and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in 1941.

  • James Tait Black Memorial Prize: The UK’s other joint oldest literary prize, also awarded since 1919, surprisingly enough, by Edinburgh University’s English Literature department. One prize is awarded for fiction, one for biography and (from 2013 to 2019) one for drama. The 2019 fiction winner, announced on 21 Aug 2020, was Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, a “1,000-page, mostly single-sentence novel set inside the consciousness of an Ohio mother living in Donald Trump’s America”. The 2020 fiction winner, announced on 25 Aug 2021 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, was Lote by Shola von Reinhold, which follows the narrator’s fixation with the forgotten Black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Druitt, a bohemian socialite of the 1920s. The 2020 biography prize was won by Doireann Ní Ghríofa for A Ghost in the Throat—this is a mix of biography, about Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonall, a 17th century Irish noblewoman and poet, and memoir.

  • Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year: A spoof award jointly organised by the Diagram Group, a London graphics company, and The Bookseller. The prize has been awarded since 1978 except for two years when there was no title odd enough. Since 2000, the public have voted on a shortlist to determine the winner. The 2020 winner, announced on 27 November, was  “A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path: Animal Metaphors in Eastern Indonesian Society” by Gregory Forth. Previous winners have included “Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice” and “Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers”. Is Superman Circumcised? by Roy Schwartz (Israeli-born and living in New York) won the 2021 prize, announced on 3 December—it’s an academic study on the Jewish origins of Superman. The winning author said, “The competition was stiff, but I’m glad I was able to rise to the challenge….”

  • Bad Sex in Fiction Award: An award from the Literary Review, a monthly British literary magazine founded in 1979, which has been presented since 1993 for the year’s “most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel” and “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” For the first time, the 2019 prize went to two novels, The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin and Pax by John Harvey, at a ceremony in London on 2 Dec 2019. The 2020 prize wasn’t awarded since the judges decided the public had been subjected to too many bad things in the year. So far (in Jan 2022), I can see no sign of an announcement about the 2021 award either. The award attracts a lot of media attention and is usually taken in good humour by the winning authors. You can see quotes and commentaries from the winning passages on the website, especially if you follow the links to the past winners. John Updike, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, received a lifetime achievement award in 2008, after being nominated four times—although I don’t think he turned up to collect it.

  • Waverton Good Read Award: The village of Waverton in Cheshire in the northwest of England decided to found a literary award for debut novels by British or Irish writers in the previous year. It started in 2003, with villagers recruited to read and score the books. Once a shortlist was established, the village was invited to read the books and the winner decided by a ballot of the readers and presented at a dinner, generally in October. The 2019/20 award (for books in 2019) was the last one, won by Madeleine Bunting’s Island Song. A goodbye message is on their website, appreciating 17 wonderful years, but saying that COVID-19 has made it impossible to operate as they had done and deciding to go out while their reputation is high. Along the way, they’ve gathered media attention and sponsorship, helped to foster British writers, and provided books for hundreds of readers, including children in local schools and a women’s prison. Fair play!


This is a tricky one. In theory, we want the bestselling books of 2020, covering both print and electronic forms, all countries, and all editions (e.g., classics that are out of copyright may be published in different editions by different publishers). In practise, publishers rarely reveal their own book sales, and there are an array of national and chain-store bestseller lists that rely on different methods and usually provide rankings but not the actual sales figures.

The gold standard is probably provided by Nielsen Bookscan, a data provider that tracks sales from point of sales outlets including physical bookstores, Amazon and mass market stores such as supermarkets. It’s owned by the Nielsen Company, and the service is called NPD BookScan in the US, after the US operations were sold to the NPD Group. The US operations cover approximately 85% of the physical book market, while the global operations cover 25,000 stores and eleven countries including the UK, India, Brazil and Spain. The data can be split in various ways such as different genres, fiction/nonfiction or hardback/paperback. The operation only covers print books, although there’s also a service called PubTrack Digital which tracks e-book sales. The service is via subscription or ad hoc sales, and you can see the top ten in the non-US countries at Nielsen Media and in the US at NPD Top Sellers. In the UK, the Nielsen Bestseller Awards, running since 2001, have an annual ceremony (17 Mar in 2021), where books that have sold more than one million copies in the UK are designated as platinum, more than 500,000 as gold, and more then 250,000 as silver. This is for sales in total and not just in one year; if they pass the total in 2020, they are announced at the 2021 awards. Eight books reached platinum status in 2020, making a total of over 140 in the 21st century.

Nielsen BookScan provides the underlying data for some of the major bestseller lists, such as The Sunday Times Bestseller List, probably the UK’s pre-eminent list. The US equivalent is the New York Times Bestseller List, which has been published since 1931—this is not based on NPD BookScan, but on their own surveys, data and proprietary methods. You can check all the NYT bestsellers from 1931 at Wikipedia’s Lists of The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers. These lists tend to keep a running total of bestsellers in a particular week or month, and don’t as a rule collate them into annual lists.

There are also all-time bestseller lists and compilations. Wikipedia has a List of best-selling books article that, excluding religious and political works, concludes that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the best-selling book of all time with 120 million sales across all translations and editions. The other six Harry Potter books are all in the top fifteen. The Guinness Book of Records lists the Bible as the all-time biggest seller at an estimated five billion copies; the Quran (or Qur’an or Koran) and Quotations from the Works of Mao Tse-tung (now translated as Mao Zedong; also known as the Little Red Book) are probably next on the list, the latter because it was more or less mandatory during China’s Cultural Revolution. A 2016 Guardian article on UK bestsellers concluded that The Da Vinci Code was the UK’s best-selling book, with all seven Harry Potter books in the top ten.

So, where does this leave us? To collate sales figures across national boundaries and over different editions and translations—not to mention physical and e-Books—can be a work of considerable research. A subscription to Nielsen and NPD BookScan would likely be helpful, and sometimes a media outlet or research organisation will have a go at something like this. Amazon provide bestseller lists of the year for various countries and bestselling Kindle books for the US. I’ve added these below, along with the NPD BookScan bestseller. Where the top seller is non-fiction, I’ve also listed the highest ranked fiction book. The conclusion from all this is that Barack Obama’s A Promised Land may well be the bestselling book of 2020, since it tops the US charts (and came in at fifth in the UK). However, it’s feasible that one of the Harry Potter novels, including all its translations, still sells well enough globally to top the list, or that another book overtakes it including international sales, or that a book from a huge market like China sits on top (OpenBook provides bestseller rankings in China, although it seems a bit out of date). I’m less sure for 2021, but you should be able to find some decent books in the lists below.


Golden Globes

The Golden Globe Awards Awards, or Golden Globes, have been running since 1943 and celebrate films (both US and international, but they must have aired in the Greater Los Angeles area—apart from the foreign language category) and US television (shows must be made in the US or jointly made by a US and foreign company). They’ve been running since 1943 for film and 1961 for TV, currently have 15 film categories and 12 TV ones, apply to films and TV that aired in the previous year.

The awards are conducted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a philanthropic organisation of journalists and photographers who report on the US entertainment industry for publications outside the US (formerly they had to live in Southern California, but now they can be anywhere in the US). The HFPA members nominate up to five  entrants per category, based on studio submissions, and also vote for the winners.

The Golden Globes, named since the award trophy is a golden globe statuette, are presented at an annual televised ceremony, usually at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles in January. However, the 2022 awards were held privately on 9 Jan with no nominees or guests present—the reason was due to boycotts by various media companies and actors against a lack of diversity in the HFPA members. Wikipedia’s List of Golden Globe winners provides all the historic winners in the major categories.


The British Academy Film Awards (or BAFTA Film Awards) are the British equivalent of the Oscars, hosted by the charitable British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), voted for by approximately 6,500 BAFTA members, and awarded since 1948. There are currently 25 categories. The award ceremony has been held at the Royal Albert Hall since 2017, though with a virtual audience in 2021 due to COVID-19, and is broadcast on TV. The awards are for films available in the UK for the first time the previous year (the dates may vary slightly). Most awards are open to all nationalities, although there is an Outstanding British Film (won by Belfast in 2022) plus best British Short Film, Best British Animation and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. The Oscars—held slightly later—often have the same winners for the major prizes. For a list of the winning films, see Wikipedia – BAFTA Best Film, or see BAFTA’s awards database for all winners and nominations.

  • 2020 BAFTA (2 Feb), Best Film: 1917
  • 2020 BAFTA, Best Actor: Joaquim Phoenix (The Joker)
  • 2020 BAFTA, Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (Judy)


The Academy Awards or Oscars have been awarded annually since 1928 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for excellence in cinematic achievement over the previous year. Qualifying films must have played for seven consecutive days in Los Angeles County in the previous year, except for the Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature and short film categories. The awards ceremony has been held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles since 2002, and is accompanied by prime time live TV screening (in 2021, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the venue was split between the Dolby Theatre and a specially constructed stage at Los Angeles’s Union Station). There are approximately 8,500 Academy members who decide the nominations and winners. The films nominated are selected by subsets or branches of the Academy members, so, for instance, actors nominate the candidates for acting-related prizes, directors for directing prizes, etc. They can all nominate candidates for best film. The winners are determined by vote of all the Academy members. There are currently 23 categories, with Best Picture the most prestigious, and Best Actor, Actress and Director not far behind. For a complete list of the Best Picture winners, see Wikipedia—Academy Award for Best Picture.


The Cannes Film Festival is held each May in Cannes, on the French Riviera, at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a convention centre overlooking Cannes Bay. The festival is highly cool, with film stars to trip over and sunglasses compulsory.

The event was first held in 1939, and the opening night gala took place on 31 August. However, Germany invaded Poland the next day and war was declared on 3 Sept, leading to the event being cancelled. It was next held in 1946 and has been held since, apart from gaps in 1948, 1950 and 1968 (out of solidarity with the French students’ protests for the latter). As well as film screenings, the festival hosts exhibitions, masterclasses and a lucrative film market.

Several prizes are given, the most prestigious being the Palme d’Or for best film. Other categories include Best Actor, Actress, Short Film and Screenplay, and the Grand Prix prize, the second prize behind the Palme d’Or, plus prizes for young and student filmmakers. The Festival’s Selection Committee chooses an Official Selection of approximately sixty films from the eligible submitted films. About twenty of these are “In competition”, which are eligible for the Palme d’Or and Grand Prix, while the rest fit into other categories, including “Out of competition” for films that will be screened but aren’t competing for prizes.  The award winners are selected by juries chosen by the Festival’s board of directors. The prizes are typically announced on the last day of the festival. The 2020 event wasn’t held due to COVID-19, but an official selection of films was chosen—one award was made, for Best Short Film, at a shortened special event.

Only two films have won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture—Marty in 1955 and the 2019 winner, Parasite (winning the Oscar in 2020). There are also other prominent film festivals such as Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance (based in Utah, US, and founded by Robert Redford, more or less, in 1978) that time prevents us from diving into.

Box Office

There’s a great site called Box Office Mojo, established in 1998 and acquired by IMDb in 2008, that charts films in terms of box office takings. It lists charts showing films with the most box office takings worldwide and by country, and provides yearly summary figures, all-time lists and the leaders each weekend, going back to 1977; for the US market, daily, weekly and monthly data are also shown. You can also get a quick picture from Wikipedia’s List of highest grossing films, which provides a list of the top grossing films globally of all time and by year (from 1915). The yearly lists are different between the sites because Wikipedia provides the gross takings for films including takings in later years, while Box Office Mojo provides a chart based on takings in the year at hand. The main headline sales figures for films are based on box office takings, although films also earn revenue by DVD sales, TV releases and merchandising—those earnings come later and over a longer time, and hence box office figures are used as the initial indicator of a film’s success. Globally, the biggest seller of all time is Avatar, released in 2009 and grossing $2.8 billion. However, when inflation is factored in (not taking this into account would downplay older films), Gone with the Wind is at the top, with Avatar second and Titanic third. The biggest sellers of each year have always been Hollywood films until 2020, when the Chinese film The Eight Hundred topped the list, with figures considerably lower than normal due to COVID-19. The 2021 and 2020 top grossing films in the US and UK are shown at the end of the list below.

TV and Radio

Golden Globes

The Golden Globe Awards, usually awarded in January, provide awards for US TV, as well as films. The presentation coincides with that for the film awards, the details of which are described above. Wikipedia’s List of Golden Globe winners provides the historic winners in the major categories for both film and TV.

ARIAS (Audio and Radio Industry Awards)

The ARIAS are the UK’s premier radio awards. They’re a successor to the the Radio Academy Awards, which started in 1983 and were generally known as The Sony Awards until Sony ended their sponsorship in 2013. They were paused after the 2014 awards, before being relaunched as the ARIAS in 2016. All formats have been run by the Radio Academy, a charity for the celebration and promotion of excellence in radio and audio (including podcast and streaming services). The awards are usually announced at a London ceremony—the Adelphi Theatre for 2022, The May Fair Hotel, 2021, and the London Palladium, 2020. There are currently 25 categories, including Best Speech Breakfast Show, Best Music Breakfast Show, Best Sports Show, The Comedy Award, Best Local Radio Show, Best News Show, Best Fictional Storytelling and Best Independent Podcast. A panel of judges is appointed for each award, with Gold, Silver and Bronze being awarded for each. The nominations are split 50-50 between BBC radio and commercial radio. Although the Internet means you can listen to radio from all over the world, radio is generally local (regionally or nationally) and immediate and shows don’t really translate outside national borders (with exceptions such as the BBC World Service). As such, each country have their own awards and there aren’t any global awards that I can see. The US equivalent of the ARIAS are the Marconi Radio Awards.

  • 2022 ARIAS (3 May), Best Music Breakfast Show: The Dave Berry Breakfast Show on Absolute Radio
  • 2022 ARIAS, Best Speech Breakfast Show: The Wake Up Call on BBC Kent Radio
  • 2022 ARIAS, Best Speech Presenter: Emma Barnett for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4
  • 2022 ARIAS, The Comedy Award: The Skewer by Unusual Productions for BBC Radio 4 (for the second year running)
  • 2021 ARIAS (26 May), Best Music Breakfast Show: Radio 1 Breakfast with Greg James
  • 2021 ARIAS, Best Speech Breakfast Show: talkSPORT Breakfast
  • 2021 ARIAS, Best Speech Presenter: George the Poet – Have You Heard George’s Podcast? for BBC Sounds
  • 2021 ARIAS, The Comedy Award: The Skewer by Unusual Productions for BBC Radio 4
  • 2020 ARIAS (4 Mar), The 1Xtra Breakfast Show with Dotty, BBC Radio 1Xtra
  • 2020 ARIAS, Best Speech Breakfast Show: Toby Foster at Breakfast, BBC Radio Sheffield
  • 2020 ARIAS, Best Speech Presenter: Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 live
  • 2020 ARIAS, Funniest Show: Elis James and John Robins, Audio Always for BBC Radio 5 live


As well as the British Film Awards, BAFTA hosts the British Academy TV Awards, celebrating British TV programmes and performances from the previous year, the British Academy TV Craft Awards, celebrating the talent behind the programmes (visual effects, production, etc.), and the British Academy Children’s Awards for children’s programming. The first two are normally held in April or May, and the latter in November, although the children’s award was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. If I’ve counted accurately, there are 27, 21 and 15 categories for the three awards. And not to stop there, there are also the BAFTA Games Awards for the video game industry, first launched in 2004.

The TV Awards have been running since 1955 and originally included the other two awards. The TV Craft Awards were split into their own ceremony in 2000 and the Children’s Awards in 1996. Nominations are voted for by Academy members, creating a shortlist of four (or sometimes more) for each category, the winners of which are decided by juries of nine Academy members. The TV awards are generally held at a London venue—the Royal Festival Hall in 2022— and broadcast on BBC One. You can see links to historic winners in each of the TV categories at Wikipedia, BAFTA TV, including Best Drama Series, Best Mini-Series and Best Scripted Comedy, plus there’s a comprehensive Awards Database on the BAFTA site.

  • 2022 BAFTA TV Award (8 May), Best Drama Series: In my Skin (by Expectation Entertainment on BBC Three)
  • 2022 BAFTA TV Award, Best Scripted Comedy: Motherland (Merman Television/Twofour, BBC Two)
  • 2022 BAFTA TV Award, Best Mini-Series: Time (BBC Studios, BBC One)

Hugo Awards for Dramatic Presentation

The Hugo Awards (described in the Books section—see here), also include categories for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (usually a TV series or film) and Short Form (typically, a single episode).

  • 2022 Hugo Awards (due 4 Sept)
  • 2021 Hugo Awards (18 Dec), Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): The Old Guard, written by Greg Rucks, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Netflix / Skydance Media)
  • 2020 Hugo Awards (1 Aug), Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): Good Omens (a TV miniseries on Amazon Prime and BBC2, adapted by Neil Gaiman from the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

Emmy Awards

The US television equivalent of the Oscars are the Emmy Awards (or Emmys), first awarded in 1949, with organisation shared by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). There’s also an International Emmy Award, bestowed by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (IATAS). The Awards are split into a variety of different ceremonies at different times, with the most prestigious being the Primetime and the Daytime Emmy Awards, though there are also Sports, News and Documentary, Engineering, Creative Arts, International and a variety of regional awards. As ever, there are stacks of categories, and the eligibility periods and rules are different for the different prizes. The 2020 Primetime Emmys were held on 20 Sept and the Daytime Emmys on 26 Jun; for 2021, the Primetime awards were held on 19 Sept in Los Angeles and the Daytime ones on 25 Jun in a virtual ceremony.

  • 2021 Primetime Emmy Award (19 Sept, Los Angeles), Outstanding Drama Series: The Crown (Netflix) (four series so far, the fifth anticipated in 2022)
  • 2021 Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Comedy Series: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) (series 1 in 2020, series 2 in 2021, renewed for third season)
  • 2021 Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Limited Series: The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

TV Ratings

TV rating are especially important in terms of determining whether a show will continue and how much advertisers are willing to pay. Viewing figures are tracked by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board in the UK, Nielsen Media Research in the US, and various companies elsewhere—often Nielsen, who cover about 40% of the world. Rating have been calculated by various survey and digital techniques through the years. Currently, the UK’s figures are calculated by selecting a representative panel of about 5,000 homes with meters installed on their TV sets and getting participants to click a handset when they are in the room with the TV on. For terrestrial channels, the channel being watched is detected by sound (samples of the sound are taken by the meters and compared with a reference library). For satellite TV, the channel can be directly accessed through codes in the set-top boxes. The UK use another method to rate video on demand through online services. In this case, software tagging reports each viewing session; unlike the panel, this doesn’t say how many people are watching or who they are. Other countries, I’m sure, are similar.

There’s a couple of neat Wikipedia pages that give the most watched TV broadcasts for the UK and the US (and another for the global picture). In the US, the Super Bowl (the annual American Football championship finale) dominates the ratings, with 28 of the top 30 most viewed broadcasts of all time and attracting 100 million plus viewers over the last few years—the highest ranked was 2015 with 114.4 million viewers. Outside of this, the most watched broadcasts were the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983 (106 million), Dallas’s 1980 “Who Done It” episode (83.6 million) and the 1993 final episode of Cheers (80.5 million). The top ratings in the UK mostly go to shows in the 1970s and ’80s, when there were only three or four channels and no Internet! At the top is EastEnders from Christmas Day 1986 with 30 million viewers, and a number of famous shows from the UK are in the top twenty including other EastEnders episodes, Coronation Street, Only Fools and Horses, the Royal Variety Performance and, intriguingly, Miss World 1967 (held in London). The 1966 World Cup final actually had the most views at 32.3 million, but that was two programmes as it was simultaneously broadcast by both the BBC and ITV.

The most watched UK programme of 2020 was the Prime Ministerial Statement on COVID-19 on 10 May with 19 million viewers; and for 2021, the European Championship final, England v Italy on 11 July, with 30 million. Globally, the biggest ratings are attracted by syndicated shows (the most popular shows can be syndicated to 100+ countries), sporting events like the Olympic Games, the World Cup Final or big boxing matches, or one-off events like the funeral of the Princess Diana or royal weddings. These are not single broadcasts, since each country broadcasts individually, so the overall figures are harder to estimate. The 2012 London Olympic Games and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games are estimated to have attracted the most viewers overall at 3.6 billion, although those were over a two-week period.


Grammy Awards

The Grammy Awards (or Grammys) are run by the Recording Academy, an American organisation of music professionals, and have been awarded since 1959 for the best musical achievements of the previous year, usually in January or February. Eligibility is typically until Sept of the previous year, e.g., for 2022, it was for records released from 1 Sept 2020 to 30 Sept 2021. The ceremony tends to be in a large US city, often Los Angeles, although the 2022 awards took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

There are four “general” awards, for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. The song award is for a songwriter and not linked to a particular recording, and the record award is for the performer and production team; they are usually but not always won by the same song. In addition, there are a bunch of genre awards including Best Rock Song, Best Country Song, Best R&B song, etc. In fact, there are currently 86 Grammy categories. The members of the Recording Academy vote for the winners. The main award winners are usually American, but British and Irish acts have won a number of times. Paul Simon has the most wins for Record of the Year as an artist at three (others have won more as part of a production team), and Billy Eilish won in both 2020 and 2021.

  • 2021 Grammy (14 Mar), Record of the Year: Everything I Wanted performed by Billie Eilish, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (her brother)
  • 2021 Grammy, Song of the Year: I Can’t Breathe performed by H.E.R., written by D’Mile, H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
  • 2021 Grammy, Album of the Year: Folklore by Taylor Swift
  • 2021 Grammy, Best Country Song: Crowded Table performed by The Highwomen, written by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby & Lori McKenna
  • 2020 Grammy (26 Jan), Song and Record of the Year: Bad Guy performed by Billie Eilish, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (her brother)
  • 2020 Grammy, Album of the Year: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish (produced by Finneas O’Connell)
  • 2020 Grammy, Best Country Song: Bring My Flowers Now, performed by Tanya Tucker, written by Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth, & Tanya Tucker

Brit Awards

The Brit Awards (or Brits) are the UK equivalent, first awarded in 1977 and run by the British Phonographic Industry, the trade association of the British recording industry. The winners and nominees are determined by a voting academy of industry figures, including previous winners and nominees. The top awards are for British Album of the Year and Song of the Year (renamed British Single in 2022) and (up to and including 2021) Best Male Solo Artist, Best Female Solo Artist, Best Male and Female International Artists, and Best Group. From 2022, gendered awards were scrapped, so the Male/Female awards were replaced with single awards for British Artist of the Year and International Artist of the Year. The number of awards vary—in 2022, there were fifteen; in 2021 and 2020 there were ten standard awards, plus a special Global Icon Award in 2020 (won by Taylor Swift). The eligibility rules for the British Artist were loosened in 2021, with entrants needing to be born in the UK, hold a UK passport, or be a resident of the UK for more than 5 years; the last condition was not included in the past.

The Brits albums and songs of the year are almost always British, with only one foreign artist winning Song of the Year (and that was joint—Bruno Mars along with Mark Ronson for Uptown Funk in 2015), and two winning the Album of the Year (Barbara Streisand in 1983 and Michael Jackson in 1984). I’m not sure if there are any nationality requirements for these two awards now since all the recent nominees are at least partly British (although Jason Donovan was nominated in 1990)—they do have to have been in the UK charts the previous year. We’ll leave it as a mystery. Take That have the most awards for Song of the Year, with five, followed by Robbie Williams and Adele with three, and Queen with two. Coldplay, Adele and the Arctic Monkeys lead the album list with three wins, followed by the Manic Street Preachers with two.

Like the Grammy’s, the Brit Awards ceremony is a major occasion, with many of the UK’s best-known artists performing, and the event live on TV, sometimes complete with controversy and notable incidents (check the Wikipedia page for a list, including Chumbawamba throwing a bucket of water over the deputy Prime Minister, the Blur/Oasis feud, and Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress).

The awards have been held at the O2 Arena since 2010, although with a limited live audience in 2021 due to COVID-19.

  • 2020 Brits (18 Feb), Song of the Year: Someone You Loved performed by Lewis Capaldi
  • 2020 Brits, Album of the Year: Psychodrama by Dave

Ivor Novello Awards

The Ivor Novello Awards are for UK and Irish songwriting and composing. They’re judged by songwriters and composers who are members of the Ivors Academy, a professional association of music writers. The awards are split into two events. The Ivors take place in May (2020 and 2021 were in September for Covid reasons) and are for excellence in British and Irish songwriting and screen composition (e.g., film or TV scores). The thirteen current categories include Best Song Musically and Lyrically (recognising excellence in songwriting craft, with reference to melody, lyrics, harmony and structure), Best Album, Best Original Film Score, Best Contemporary Song (recognising outstanding originality in songwriting / songs which capture the moment) and Songwriter of the Year. Songs published and commercially released in the previous calendar year are eligible, with at least one third British or Irish contribution. The Ivor Composer Awards are in November or December and celebrate excellence in UK classical, jazz and sound arts, currently with ten categories such as Small Ensemble Jazz, Stage Works and Orchestral. Eligibility is as per the Ivors, except the date of composition and release is from 1 Apr of the previous year until 31 Mar.

The Ivors started in 1956 and the Ivor Composer Awards in 2002. The awards are for the writers not the performers, although these may coincide. Anyone can enter their own or others’ work via an online form, and juries select nominees and winners. Both are usually celebrated in London, with recent Ivors ceremonies at Grosvenor House and Ivor Composer Awards at the British Museum (apart from 2020 and 2021 for Covid reasons). The 2022 Ivors were at Grosvenor House again, and the 2022 Composer Awards are due on 15 Nov at the British Museum.

The Best Song Musically and Lyrically has been awarded since 1968. Examples of winners are Streets of London by Ralph McTell (1975), Common People by Pulp (1996), Suddenly I See by KT Tunstall (2006), Love Is a Losing Game by Amy Winehouse (2008) and Next to Me by Emeli Sandé (2013). Several writers have won twice and Elton John and Bernie Taupin have won three times (for Daniel, Nikita and Sacrifice). The Best Contemporary Song has been going since 1985. Examples of winners include We Don’t Need Another Hero performed by Tina Turner (1986), You Win Again performed by the Bee Gees (1988), Killer by Adamski (1991) and Why Does It Always Rain on Me performed by Travis (2000).  The difference between the two seems a fine line—the Best Song Musically and Lyrically is perhaps slightly the more prestigious, and I think the winners’ and nominees’ list is great, with memorable and unusual songs.

The awards section of the Ivors Academy website is excellent, with playlists, entry information and full Ivors archives and Ivor Composer Awards archives. The Wikipedia Ivors Best Song Musically and Lyrically site provides a list of nominations and winners for this award all on one page, and Wikipedia Ivor Novello Awards gives links to winners and nominees of the Ivors for all categories for separate decades (in the See Also section).

  • 2022 Ivors (19 May), Best Song Musically and Lyrically: Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender (writer and performer)
  • 2022 Ivors, Best Contemporary Song: I Love You, I Hate You by Dean “Inflo” Josiah Cover and Little Simz (performed by Little Simz)
  • 2022 Ivors, Best Album: Pink Noise by Dann Hume and Laura Mvula (performed by Laura Mvula)
  • 2021 Ivors (21 Sept), Best Song Musically and Lyrically: God’s Own Children by Barney Lister and Obongjayar (performed by Obongjayar)
  • 2021 Ivors, Best Contemporary Song: Children of the Internet by Dave and Fraser T. Smith (performed by Future Utopia feat. Dave & Es Devlin)
  • 2021 Ivors, Best Album: Lianne La Havas by Matthew Hales and Lianne La Havas (performed by Lianne La Havas)
  • 2020 Ivors (2 Sept), Best Song Musically and Lyrically: The Age of Anxiety by Jamie Cullum (writer and performer)
  • 2020 Ivors, Best Contemporary Song: Black by Dave and Fraser T. Smith (performed by Dave)
  • 2020 Ivors, Best Album: GREY Area by Inflo and Little Simz (performed by Little Simz)

MTV Video Music Awards

MTV is a US cable channel that launched in 1981, originally showing music videos—the first one aired was “Video Killed The Radio Star” by Buggles—but advancing through the years to more varied programming. The MTV Video Music Awards started in 1984 and have run ever since, with the award televised live on MTV in late Aug or early Sept, with the 2020 awards in Los Angeles and the 2021 ones in New York. A variety of awards are given related to videos in different categories or for technical work such as choreography, but the highest profile is the Video of the Year. Four artists have won twice—Eminem, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—and there have been two British winners, Dire Straits with “Money for Nothing” in 1986 and Peter Gabriel with “Sledgehammer” in 1987. Most awards, including Video of the Year, are determined by viewer voting from a list of nominees (presumably chosen by MTV), while some of the more technical awards are decided by a voting committee. Wikipedia MTV Video of the year gives a list of the historic winners.


In the UK, Radio 1 has had a chart show to unveil the Top 40 for what seems like forever. It used to be on a Sunday, but is now on Fridays at 4:00 pm, with the chart cutoff at midnight each Thursday. The Official Charts Company—owned by two industry associations, the British Phonographic Industry and the Entertainment Retailers Association—administers the UK charts for singles, albums and various genres such as Dance, Classical and Asian, and also covers film purchases and provides music chart services for other European countries. The top 100 singles and albums, and a number of other charts are provided on their site. Music sales are monitored by collecting sales data from retailers and cover physical sales, download sales and streaming of songs. Streaming is provided by subscription services and a formula of 150 streams equating to one sale is currently used for singles. Streaming of album tracks contributes towards the album chart using a different formula—in particular, the two most popular tracks are down-rated to prevent an album’s performance being dominated by one or two hit singles. Data going back to 1952 is provided on the Official Charts website, which also uses data from their chart-compiling predecessors such as the NME and Gallup. The website has an end of year chart, so you can see the bestselling records of each year. The bestselling UK single of all time is “Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About The Way You Look Tonight” by Elton John, released in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The bestselling UK album of all time is Greatest Hits by Queen. You can find Wikipedia lists of the bestselling UK singles and albums each year here and here. Note that the top selling albums usually sell over a long period, sometimes decades, whereas singles have a much more limited shelf life.

The equivalent in the US are the Billboard charts, including the Billboard Top 100 for songs, the Billboard Top 200 for albums and various genre-specific charts. Sales, streaming and radio airplay are all used to derive the charts, and there are also separate airplay and streaming charts. There are a lot of charts—approaching one hundred, based on a quick scan. The charts are compiled by MRC Data (called Nielsen SoundScan until they were acquired in 2019) and are published weekly in Billboard magazine. Chart data is provided on the Billboard Charts website and year-end charts are provided as in the UK. According to various Wikipedia sites, the bestselling US single of all time is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (released in 1941) and the bestselling album is Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by the Eagles. The global bestsellers are “White Christmas” again for the single and, for the album, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. If you want to know the top global selling song at any time, Billboard released their Global 200 chart in September 2020, which tracks digital and streaming sales in over 200 territories. Scanning the number ones, about half have been US acts, but there have also been Puerto Rican, South Korean and Canadian chart toppers.

The Billboard album charts highlight the effects of streaming. Taylor Swift had the most album sales in 2017, 2019 and 2020, but the best performing album—using album-equivalent units, including album sales, track sales (10 tracks = 1 album sale) and streams (1250 premium on demand streams = 1 album)—was different each year. For 2020, her Folklore album massively outsold Lil Baby’s My Turn by 1.2 million to 40 thousand, but audio and video streams propelled Lil Baby to the best-performing album of the year. Billboard publish both figures. Taylor Swift also had the bestselling album in 2009 and 2014 before streaming was included, so she must be pretty good! The US and UK bestsellers are listed below, after the award winners. “Blinding Lights” by the Weeknd (a Canadian singer) is clearly the best performing song of 2020, topping the UK and US bestseller lists and winning the MTV Video of the Year award. There is less obviously a single stand-out song for 2021, although Adele’s 30 seems to be the top album.


Olivier Awards

The Laurence Olivier Awards or Olivier Awards are presented annually by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) to recognise excellence in West End and other London theatres (those belonging to the SOLT) at a ceremony in London. The West End is the UK equivalent of Broadway, with approximately thirty-nine theatres located in central London, roughly around Covent Garden, Soho, Leicester Square, Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. They were first awarded in 1976 as the Society of West End Theatre Awards, then renamed to the Olivier Awards in 1984. They’re generally held in April and have been hosted at the Royal Albert Hall since 2017 apart from the postponed 2020 awards (held at the London Palladium) and 2021, when they were cancelled due to COVID-19. The eligibility period—for productions that opened in SOLT theatres—is typically from Feb the previous year until Feb of the current year; however, 2022 had a two-year eligibility (19 Feb 2020 – 22 Feb 2022) due to the cancelled 2021 awards.

Judging panels are set up for different types of award, such as theatre, dance and opera, and these nominate candidates and vote for the winners (for the theatre awards, the SOLT members vote as well). There are currently twenty-six categories, including Best New Play, Best New Musical, Best Revival, Best New Opera and Best New Dance (there is no Tony equivalent for these two), plus Best Actor and Actress Awards and some technical categories.

Dame Judi Dench has won the most individual performance awards with seven and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has won the most awards for a production with nine in 2017. Details of historic winners and nominees can be found on the Past Winners page of the Olivier Awards website, and Wikipedia provides details of the winners and nominees for Best New Musical and Best New Play (and other categories if you follow the links at the Wikipedia Olivier Awards page).

  • 2021 Olivier: Not awarded
  • 2020 Olivier (25 Oct), Best New Play: Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard
  • 2020 Olivier, Best Entertainment or Comedy Play: Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
  • 2020 Olivier, Best New Musical: Dear Evan Hansen, music and lyrics by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
  • 2020 Olivier, Best New Opera: Billy Budd by The Royal Opera
  • 2020 Olivier, Best New Dance: Ingoma by Mthuthuzeli November, performed by Ballet Black

Tony Awards

The Tony Awards (or Tonys) have been going since 1947 and are for excellence in live Broadway Theatre—which refers to the forty-one professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats, in the Theater District on the Broadway road in Midtown Manhattan, New York. They’re presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in Midtown Manhattan. The ceremony usually takes place in June in New York, with 2022’s ceremony held at the Radio City Music Hall, where many of the ceremonies have been held. The award is for productions in the previous season, so for example, the 2022 event celebrated the 2021/22 season for plays that opened on Broadway before the cutoff date of 4 May 2022. The 2020 awards were delayed for over a year due to COVID-19 and eventually held in Sept, 2021. Broadway was shutdown from Mar 2020 until Sept 2021 and the 2021 awards were cancelled.

The award is named after Antoinette Perry, an American actress, director and co-founder of the American Theatre Wing, who died in 1946 at the age of fifty-eight. A nominating committee of about fifty professionals nominates candidates, and the Tony Award voters (numbering about 850) vote for the winners. There are currently twenty-six categories, including  Best Play, Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Play/Musical, and Best Original Score, Choreography and Costume Design. The Best Book of a Musical—a category which the Olivier Awards don’t have— refers to the text in a musical separate from the composed music and is known as the libretto. The best musical and best book of a musical prizes are usually but not always won by the same production.

Audra McDonald has won the most individual performance awards with six and The Producers has won the most awards for a production with twelve in 2001. Wikipedia provides details of the winners and nominees for Best Musical and Best Play (and other categories if you follow the links at the Wikipedia Tony Awards page), and the Winners page on the Tonys site provides a search facility and a wealth of information about the plays.

  • 2022 Tony (12 Jun), Best Play: The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini (relating to the 2008 financial crash)
  • 2022 Tony, Best Musical: A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson (about a young artist at war with a host of demons writing a musical about someone like himself writing a musical about …)
  • 2021 Tonys: Not awarded
  • 2020 Tony (26 Sept 2021), Best Play: The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
  • 2020 Tony, Best Musical: Moulin Rouge! The Musical (based on the 2001 film, Moulin Rouge!)

Art (drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, etc.)

Summer Exhibition (and Charles Wollaston Award)

The Summer Exhibition is an annual art exhibition held by the Royal Academy of Arts—usually abbreviated to the Royal Academy—during the summer (surprisingly enough). Amazingly, it’s been held every single year since the first exhibition in 1769. The Royal Academy, founded in 1768, aims to promote the appreciation, understanding and practice of art. It’s run by Royal Academicians (RAs), who are practising artists in one of four categories—painter, sculptor, architect or printmaker—and are nominated and elected by fellow RAs. They serve on various committees concerned with the running and strategy of the Royal Academy. There can only be a maximum of 80 RAs, although the website says there are currently 127 Academicians; the discrepancy is explained by the fact that RAs become Senior Academicians once they reach 75. You also get Honorary RAs (artists from outside the UK) and Honorary Fellows and Members, “eminent individuals from beyond the art world”, also elected by existing RAs.

The Royal Academy is based in Burlington House in Piccadilly, London, which is where the Summer Exhibition is held, as well as other events and exhibitions. From the RA website, the exhibition includes “art in all mediums, from prints, paintings, film and photography to sculpture, architectural works and more by leading artists, Royal Academicians and household names as well as new and emerging talent”. Anyone can submit up to two entries to the exhibition and around 1,000 works are selected by the judging panel from about 10,000 entries. In addition, each Academician can place six of their own works in the exhibition, and some established artists are invited to participate. Usually held from June to August, the 2020 exhibition opened on 6 Oct, although was shut for COVID-19 on 4 Nov; the 2021 one was held from 22 Sept to 2 Jan, with the theme of “Reclaiming Magic”. The 2020 exhibition can be seen online via a 55-minute Virtual Tour, and works from the 2021 exhibition can be seen at the online exhibition.

Each exhibition is coordinated by one of the RAs, and Yinka Shonabare took the duty for 2021. Most works exhibited are for sale, with the Academy receiving 30%. Several prizes are presented, with the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for the “most distinguished work” being the most prestigious. This was first awarded in 1978. There’s no announcement that I can see for the 2020 prize, so my assumption is it wasn’t awarded due to COVID-19 and the truncated 2020 exhibition. The 2021 winner was announced on 27 Oct.

  • 2021 Charles Wollaston AwardWetereire – Waiting (a sculpture made from galvanised, metallic sheets) by the Texas-based Kenyan sculptor and visual artist Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga
  • 2020: Not awarded (I think)
  • 2019 Charles Wollaston Award: Finestra Venezia (Venice Window—a stained glass work designed for a Venice hotel) by Joe Tilson

Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize (previously the Jerwood Drawing Prize)

The Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize has been running since 1994 and aims to promote and reward excellence and talent in current drawing practice. It’s the UK’s leading award in contemporary drawing, according to its Wikipedia page, which also lists the past winners. Anyone can enter by filling in an application form and submitting up to three drawings, and it’s open to both UK and international practitioners (it had been restricted to UK residents in the past). Since 2017, the prize has been sponsored by the Trinity Buoy Wharf Trust, which has a mandate from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to promote arts activity in Trinity Buoy Wharf, a centre for arts and cultural activities in London’s Docklands. They state the media that drawings are made in or what constitutes a drawing is not specified, as the exhibition is open as to the nature of contemporary drawing practice. As well as first and second prizes for the main drawing prize, there is also a working drawing prize—for drawing from which something can be made, e.g., architectural or engineering drawings—and a student prize. A panel select the exhibition and winning drawings using blind judging (they don’t know the name or details of the artists).

The 2020 drawing prize winner, from 4,274 entries, was M.Lohrum’s You are It, which was, for the first time in the prize’s history, a performative drawing (the artist provides instructions or a process, and then the artist or other people follow these to create the drawing). You can see the 2020 virtual exhibition here, although it took me a minute or so to work out the navigation. One artist, Gary Lawrence, has won the first prize three times, in 2011, 2017 and the most recent award in 2021. No one else has won twice (and he finished second in 2018!). The 2021 prize was announced on 29 Sept, there were 3,300 entries with 114 shortlisted, and the exhibition ran from 18 Nov to 5 Dec at Trinity Buoy Wharf, before touring to other venues across the UK.

  • 2021 Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize: Ye Olde Keyhole Surgery by Gary Lawrence—I can’t find a website for him, but there’s a good interview with him here
  • 2020 Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize: You are It by M.Lohrum

BP Portrait Award

Awarded since 1980, initially as the John Player Portrait Award and, since 1990, as the BP Portrait Award, it’s Wikipedia page says this is the world’s most important portrait prize. Anyone can enter (previously it had been restricted to UK residents and those under forty), the prize is selected by a panel using blind judging, and an exhibition of the best entries is held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, followed by a UK tour . The 2020 prize winners were announced on 5 May 2020, with 1,981 entries, a first prize of £35,000, and the exhibition held virtually due to COVID-19. The previous winning entries can be seen at BP Portrait Award Past winners.

First, second and third prizes are awarded, as well as the Young Artist Award for those between eighteen and thirty. Visitors to the exhibition can vote on their favourite to award the BP Visitor Choice Award. Interestingly, only once has the visitor choice award matched the winner, in 2018 for Miriam Escofet’s An Angel at My Table. The Portrait Prize will not be held in 2021 or 2022. An article on the prize website says “The National Portrait Gallery will not be staging the BP Portrait Award in 2021 and 2022 while the building in St Martin’s Place is closed for our Inspiring People redevelopment. We realise this will be disappointing to many….” Which seems a bit poor, really, for the “world’s most important portrait prize”!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is an annual international wildlife photography competition staged by the Natural History Museum in London and it’s great. There’s a terrific exhibition of the commended and winning photos at the museum each year, running roughly from October—when the winners are announced in a ceremony at the museum—to the end of May, and it tours the UK and internationally for the rest of the year. The competition started in 1965 in Animals magazine, with the museum becoming involved in 1984. You can see the exhibition photos from the last ten years on the gallery page of the website and can buy prints of many of the most popular photos from the online shop or at the museum. The exhibition for the 2020 competition took place from 17 May to 1 Aug 2021 (delayed because of COVID-19), and the 2021 winners were announced on 12 Oct 2021 with the exhibition running from 15 Oct to 5 Jun 2022.

There are currently sixteen categories, such as Animals in their Environment, Animal Portraits, Behaviour: Mammals, Behaviour: Birds, Underwater, and Photojournalist Story Award, with one of the category winners chosen as the Grand Title Winner. There’s also a Young Wildlife Photographer of the year for those under eighteen and a people’s choice award selected by public vote from a set of twenty-five additional photos, outside the one hundred finalists. The People’s Choice Awards are good and can be seen in the Online Gallery, filtered for People’s Choice—they go back to 2014. There are approximately 50,000 entries per year, the winners and finalists are selected by an international jury of experts, and the first prize is £10,000. You can check the online gallery for the best photos, but much better to visit!

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award is also run by the National Portrait Gallery, started in 2003, and has been sponsored by Taylor Wessing, an international law firm,  since 2008. The format is similar: it’s an open competition that anyone can enter, there’s an exhibition of the best entries at the National Portrait Gallery, there’s a first, second and third prize and a people’s pick, and a judging panel selects the exhibition and winning portraits. The 2020 winner of £15,000, out of 5,531 entries, was announced on 24 Nov 2020; and the 2021 winner on 8 Nov, with the accompanying exhibition taking place at the Cromwell Place arts hub in London from 10 Nov ’21 to 2 Jan ’22. Past winners can be seen at Photographic Portrait Prize Past winners.

Turner Prize

The Turner Prize is named after the English painter J. M. W. Turner and is an annual prize that has been presented to a British visual artist since 1984. The definition of British extends to non-British nationals working primarily in Britain—Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer, was the first such artist to be awarded the prize, in 2000. Between 1991 and 2016, only artists under the age of 50 were eligible, but the age restriction has now been removed. The prize is organised by Tate, who run four art galleries: Tate Britain (previously The Tate Gallery), in Millbank, London, which displays British art from 1500 to the present day; Tate Modern, in Bankside, London, which houses modern and contemporary art from 1900 to the present day; Tate Liverpool; and Tate St Ives.

The prize is not for a single work but is awarded based on an exhibition of work in the previous year. Four judges are selected each year, chaired by the director of Tate Britain. The judges nominate candidates—the public can also do so—and select a shortlist of four. Exhibitions of the shortlisted artists are shown in the build-up to the announcement of the winner; these are held at Tate Britain every other year and at selected galleries otherwise. An oddity is that the prize is awarded for the previous year’s exhibition, which may be different from that showcased as part of the shortlist exhibition. The current prize money is £25,000 to the winner and £5,000 to each of the three runners-up. In 2019, the shortlist was announced on 1 May, and the winners on 3 Dec (more on this later). The prize wasn’t held in 2020 due to COVID-19, with bursaries instead awarded to ten artists. The 2021 exhibition and awards ceremony is being held at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry—from 29 Sept 2021 to 12 Jan 2022with the shortlist (of five, unusually) described on the Turner Prize 2021 site. The winners were Array Collective, a group of Belfast-based artists who “create collaborative actions in response to issues affecting Northern Ireland”, announced on 1 Dec.

Any type of visual art is eligible, although, as Wikipedia’s Turner Prize page says, it is deeply associated with conceptual art. There are several definitions for this, but the key is that the idea or concept presented by the artist is more important than its appearance or execution, and that any type of media can be used to present the concept, be it a performance, sound recording, written description, something more traditional or a combination. The type of art that wins seems to go in phases: the first two prizes were won by painters, then a photomontage, then seven successive sculptors. Since 1994, no more sculptors have won unless you count 2008, where Mark Leckey’s winning entry is quoted as “sculpture, film, sound, performance”. Recent winners have been more likely to be videos or installations. Installation art is a construction potentially consisting of several media types, such as sculpture, sound and video, and is often designed for a particular space, for example, a gallery exhibition room. The art consists of the whole space rather than any single element of it, and higher tech forms can include the ability to interact with the audience and virtual reality. Bucking the trend, Grayson Perry won with a ceramics exhibition in 2003 (and accepted the prize dressed as Claire, his alter ego); and Assemble, an architecture and design team, won in 2015. The 2019 shortlisted artists wrote a letter to the judges asking them not to choose a winner in the cause of “commonality, multiplicity and solidarity”. The judges complied and the prize was awarded jointly to all four artists. That makes a story, so fair enough, but I suspect they can’t do that every year!

The Turner Prize attracts a lot of attention and also controversy, with parts of the media questioning whether this is really art. Notable—or notorious—entries include Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde in 1992 (it didn’t win, but he won in 1995 with an exhibition including a bisected cow and calf in formaldehyde); Tracey Emin’s dishevelled bed in 1999 (which also didn’t win); and Simon Starling’s winning entry of 2005, which included a shed that he turned into a boat, floated down the Rhine and turned back into a shed (apparently, two newspapers bought sheds and floated them to parody the work, but I can’t find the articles).

Since 2000, the Stuckism art movement, which promotes figurative painting and opposes conceptual art, has frequently staged demonstrations to protest about the award—often dressed as clowns—and particularly the lack of figurative paintings recognised. Figurative art is clearly derived from real objects (and especially refers to paintings and sculptures)—essentially they look like a real scene, object or person and require artistic skills such as line, shape, colour and perspective.

The spoof Turnip Prize has been running as a parody since 2000. Entrants aspire to the concept “We know it’s rubbish, but is it art?”, with marks awarded for bad puns as titles and lack of effort, with some entries disqualified for too much effort. The prize is a turnip nailed to a block of wood, it’s organised by The New Inn in Wedmore, Somerset, winners are announced in December, and it’s inspired similar awards around the world. The first winner was called Alfred The Grate and consisted of two burned rolls on a fire grate, while the 2018 winner was Collywobbles (a plastic collie dog on a jelly). The last two winners have both been COVID-related: Lockdown by Herewe Goagain won in 2020 (a padlock on top of a pile of duck down feathers), and the 2021 winner, announced on 1 Dec, was Panda Mick (a panda with a name tag saying “Mick”) by Ching Ching Pi Pi Ee. The artists’ names are fictional, I believe.

The Tate simply says that the prize provokes debate about art and invites the public to turn up and see.

  • 2021 Turner Prize: Array Collective (11 Belfast-based artists and activists), awarded for installation and theatre. Their entry was called The Druithaib’s Ball, both at the original exhibition in Belfast that they were nominated for and the shortlist exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. Confusingly, they were different: the original was a performance (“a wake for the centenary of Ireland’s partition, attended by semi-mythological druids along with a community of artists and activists”); the Herbert exhibition was an immersive installation of an imagined sibin (an illicit bar) filled with banners, photographs, ashtrays, and snacks and hosting a film of the Belfast event. Basically (and brilliantly) it’s  a mock-up of an Irish pub, with extra meaning (they imagined it as a place to gather “a place to gather outside the sectarian divides”. The BBC’s take on it is here.
  • 2020 Turner Prize: Not awarded, due to COVID-19, with bursaries instead awarded to ten artists.
  • 2019 Turner Prize: Jointly awarded to  Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani (film, spoken word performance and painting)


The arts prizes listed above are UK-based, but they’re all prestigious and, apart from the Turner Prize, are open to all nationalities. Still, I feel I should try and redress this by mentioning a few high-profile non-UK awards. I’ll make it quick because I’m on the brink of finishing the blog and need to celebrate with a quick pint and whipping up an entry for the Turnip Prize.

  • Hugo Boss Prize: Awarded every other year since 1996, this is for an artist (or group of artists) of any age or nationality and working in any medium. It’s administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, sponsored by the Hugo Boss clothing company, and attracts a prize of $100,000. A jury nominates a shortlist and selects the winner, whose work is exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The 2020 prize was won by  Deana Lawson, an American photographer, as announced on 22 Oct 2020.

  • Carnegie Prize: Running since 1896, this is an international prize awarded by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A $10,000 cash prize and a gold medal are awarded, selected by a jury panel. Initially awarded every year, they’ve got a bit lazy now and it’s only awarded every three to five years (the prizes coincide with the holding of the Carnegie International exhibition). The prize was originally for paintings, but sculptures were included from 1958 and the 2000 and 2005 winners were for films. The most recent winner is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, an English painter, who was awarded the 2018 Carnegie Prize (the 57th) on 22 Oct 2018 at a gala dinner at the  Carnegie Museum. She won for a series of painting, though more often the prize seems to be awarded for a single work. The winners are included in the Carnegie International exhibition of contemporary art, which takes place in the museum. The museum was founded by Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), who was born in Scotland, emigrated to the US with his family at the age of twelve, became an industrialist and the richest man in America for a while, and spent his later years as a philanthropist, giving away almost 90% of his fortune to charities, foundations, universities and the like. Note that several other prizes bear his name, including the Carnegie Medal for acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada. The 58th Carnegie International will be held from 24 Sept 2022 to 2 Apr 2023, and based on past history the Carnegie Prize will be awarded near the start of the exhibition.

  • Nomura Art Award: Only awarded once so far, this is noteworthy because of its $1 million prize, the world’s largest. Created by the Japanese financial services group Nomura Holdings, it’s for an artist who’s created a body of work of major cultural significance and is selected by an international jury. The first one was won by the Colombian visual artist and sculptor Doris Salcedo, announced on 31 Oct 2019 at a gala in Shanghai. Despite the website saying it will be awarded each year, I can’t see any evidence of a 2020 or 2021 prize, but it did make headlines at the time.

Finale: There you go—I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and hope you find it of interest. I’ve undoubtedly missed some prestigious awards as well as myriad smaller-scale or local ones; so let me know if there’s anything else that really should be here and I’ll check with the committee (me and the mouse in the corner). If you don’t fancy winning one of the prizes, then checking out some of the winners, shortlists or exhibitions might be fun and diverting. Culture Man would be proud.

Posted in General, Literature | Leave a comment

Sports Digest: Snooker 2019/20 season and 2020/21 so far

The 2019/20 snooker season was extended due to coronavirus, running from May 2019 to August 2020. The women’s season didn’t host any events from February 2020, with the women’s world championship cancelled. Here are the final stats from the season, some of which have already been discussed in my previous snooker post.

2019/20 season (9 May 2019 – 16 Aug 2020)

Triple Crown events
2019 UK Championship (Dec 2019): Ding Junhui beat Stephen Maguire 10-6
2020 Masters (Jan 2020): Stuart Bingham beat Ali Carter 10-8
2020 World Championship (31 Jul – 16 Aug 2020): Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Kyren Wilson 18-8

End of season rankings: 1 – Judd Trump (England); 2 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (England); 3 – Neil Robertson (Australia); 4 – Mark Selby (England).

Most ranking tournaments won (out of 17 in total): Judd Trump (6).

2020 World Women’s Championship: Not held, current holder is Reanne Evans.
Women’s rankings: 1 – Reanne Evans (England); 2 – On Yee Ng (Hong Kong).


Since I’m mostly up to date from my previous post, this just leaves me to summarise the World Championship, won by Ronnie O’Sullivan (England, age 44) for a sixth time, matching Steve Davis’ haul and one behind Stephen Hendry. He had a fairly straightforward win in the final, against the first-time finalist Kyren Wilson, age 28, from Northern Ireland. O’Sullivan led early on, was pulled back to be only 10-8 ahead, before winning the final eight frames for an 18-8 win. The semi-finals provided the most dramatic stories of the tournament, along with Judd Trump, the holder and world number one, losing 13-9 to Kyren Wilson in the quarter-finals.

Both semi-finals went to a long and tight final frame, Ronnie beating Mark Selby and Kyren beating Anthony McGill, both by 17-16. McGill (Scotland, 28) was a qualifier who was ranked 39th before the World Championships and had won very close games to reach the semi-final: 10-9 in the first round, 13-12 in the second (with his opponent missing a pink when very close to a 13-11 victory in a match that also included some heated exchanges) and 13-10 in the quarters. His luck ran out in the semi-final, when Kyren fluked a green in a 62-minute final frame that ended up 103-83, a record for the most combined points scored in a single frame at the Crucible. Kyren apologised after the game, saying he didn’t want to win the match on a fluke.

O’Sullivan went 5-1 up in his semi-final, Selby came back to lead 13-9, O’Sullivan leveled at 13-13, but then fell 16-14 behind, meaning he had to win the last three frames to reach the final. He made rapid breaks of 138 and 71 to win the next two frames and 64 in the final frame, but missed the last red he needed to clinch the match, which then descended into a safety battle—which O’Sullivan won. Selby accused him of being a bit disrespectful afterwards, based on some shots where O’Sullivan seemed to go gung-ho, potentially throwing away or giving up on frames, saying “every time I got him in a snooker he just went down and hit the ball at 100 mph and it could have gone anywhere”. O’Sullivan responded that he wasn’t as good at snookers as Selby and had to play the shots differently.

Finally, I always track the ladies to see if we can have a first woman in the 32-strong main draw. Only Reanne Evans was involved in the qualifying rounds, losing in the first of three rounds, 6-3 to Andy Hicks, so we’ll have to wait another year. Two other women (Ng On-yee and Nutcharut Wongharuthai, ranked two and three in the world) declined to participate due to coronavirus safety concerns.

The 2020/21 season so far

The season started in September with the European Masters, considerably later than normal due to the delays to the 2019/20 season. A truncated timetable is planned, with the end of season planned for the normal time of early May, at the culmination of the next World Championship. As a result, the number of ranking tournaments has been reduced to a probable fifteen. Seven of those have already been held, with Judd Trump winning three and Mark Selby two. However, Neil Robertson has won the first triple crown event, the UK Championship, beating Judd Trump 10-9 in a final where there was never more than one frame between them. At time of release, Judd Trump is well clear at number one in the rankings, with Neil Robertson second, Ronnie O’Sullivan third and Mark Selby fourth. All tournaments so far have been played in Milton Keynes due to coronavirus restrictions, and it has been decided that all events this season will take place in Europe. The next triple crown event is the invitation Masters, due 10-17 January at its normal home of Alexandra Palace. Women’s snooker has not yet resumed since the Belgian Open in February in 2020, for safety reasons and particularly the cost of complying with COVID-19 testing. Details and updates are on the World Women’s Snooker website.

Useful Links for the season
WPBSA: Website for snooker’s professional body
World Snooker Tour: Contains details of all the ranking events including live scores and a link to Matchroom Live, which provides a streaming subscription service and free access to archived video
2020/21 snooker season Wikipedia: provides details and results of the season’s events, along with links to details of each tournament
2020/21 world rankings Wikipedia: a simple view of the current rankings for the season (view the rightmost column)


Posted in Sport | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sports Digest: Snooker update (Jun 2020)

This is my third post on snooker, after a summary article in Aug 2017 and an update in August 2018. This is 18 months later, but I do bring you up to date eventually! If this is your only source of information on snooker, here’s the info you desperately want to know, starting with the results from the Triple Crown events and the World Women’s Championship:

2018/19 season (10 May 2018 – 6 May 2019)
2018 UK Championship (December 2018): Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Mark Allen 10-6
2019 Masters (January 2019): Judd Trump beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-4
2019 World Championship (20 Apr – 6 May 2019): Judd Trump beat John Higgins 18-9

2019 World Women’s Championship (Jun 2019): Reanne Evans beat Nutcharut Wongharuthai 6-3

2019/20 season (9 May 2019 – 16 Aug 2020)
2019 UK Championship (December 2019): Ding Junhui beat Stephen Maguire 10-6
2020 Masters (January 2020): Stuart Bingham beat Ali Carter 10-8
2020 World Championship: To be held Fri 31 Jul – Sun 16 Aug

2020 World Women’s Championship: Postponed from June until later in the year

World rankings: After just over four years at world number one, Mark Selby was deposed by Ronnie O’Sullivan in March 2019, who became number one for the fourth time in his career and the first since 2010. Ronnie was number one at the end of the 2018/19 season, but his reign was ended in Aug 2019 by Judd Trump, who has remained there since. The current rankings order is: 1 – Judd Trump (England); 2 – Neil Robertson (Australia); 3 – Mark Williams (Wales); 4 – John Higgins (Scotland); 5 – Mark Allen (N Ireland); 6 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (England); 7 – Mark Selby (England). Reanne Evans from England is the women’s number one, taking over from Ng On Yee in April 2019.

Summary of Events

The 2018/19 season culminated with Judd Trump’s maiden victory in the World Championship, at the age of 29. John Higgins lost his third consecutive World Championship final, in what was quoted as one of the highest quality finals played, with 11 century breaks between them, a record for a snooker match; Judd Trump scored 7 of these, which is a joint record for an individual in a match. Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Ronnie O’Sullivan each won three ranking tournaments in the season, and Judd also beat Ronnie in the non-ranking Masters, one of the three Triple Crown events alongside the UK and World Championships. Given Ronnie O’Sullivan’s performance in the 2017/18 season (winning five ranking tournaments), this was enough to make him number one at the end of the 2018/19 season, with Judd Trump as number two.

Judd moved into overdrive in 2019/20, and had won 6 of the 15 ranking tournaments that had been played when the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. He is currently well clear at number one in the rankings. The extended season resumed on 1 June with the non-ranking Championship League in Milton Keynes currently underway, and it will finish with the World Championship taking place in the first half of August.

In the 2019 World Women’s Championship, held in Bangkok, Nutcharut Wongharuthai, a 20-year-old player from Thailand, beat the reigning champion and number one, Ng On Yee, in the quarter finals. She made the final, where she lost to Reanne Evans, who claimed her 12th world championship. Reanne leapfrogged Ng at the top of the world rankings during the 2018/19 season and is still there today, with Ng at number two and Nutcharut at number three. Ng and Reanne both played in the first qualifying round of the 2019 World Championship, Reanne losing 10-2 to Zhang Yong and Ng 10-6 to Alan McManus. This means we’re still waiting for a woman to reach the televised stages of the World Championship, but it’ll happen one day (Fallon Sherrock showed the way earlier this year, by reaching the third round of the 2020 PDC World Darts Championship).

Note: intriguingly, the women’s championship was renamed from the World Ladies Championship to the World Women’s Championship in 2019, after the governing body,  World Ladies Billiards and Snooker Association, was rebranded as World Women’s Snooker.

Next stop is the World Championship in August, and of course I’ll have pen quivering and be ready to report on this (within six months of the result).

Posted in General, Sport | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Writing Skills from Culture Man

Update (Jun 2020): This blog post has been published as a free book for readers who’d like to download a copy. See for details.

Summary: While writing Culture Man, I found many points of grammar and style I repeatedly had to check. For example, should book or song titles be italicised, is there a comma before which, what are the rules around hyphens, what tense should be used for flashbacks or thought, and—just for kicks—what on earth is the subjunctive? This blog gives a guide to the issues I most frequently found myself looking up, plus some diversions along the way. To be honest, I found this fascinating and took far more time and strayed into far more areas than I intended. The article has ended up long enough that you probably won’t want to read it all in one sitting—or even ten! Although my rationale is to talk about fiction, the content largely applies to all types of writing, and I try to indicate where other types of writing follow different guidelines or nuances. This is not intended as a prescriptive “do it like this” manual but as a survey of sometimes conflicting guidelines, mixed with my own thoughts and conclusions. Many of the examples relate to dogs and squirrels, for no overriding reason. Here we go:

Contents: Style and Consistency; British and American English; Dictionaries; Parts of Speech; Hyphens; Commas; Numbers, Dates and Times; Tenses; Colons, Semi-colons and Dashes; Quotations and Direct SpeechEllipses for pausing and trailing off; Ellipses for omitted text and (briefly) citations; Interior Monologue (thoughts) and Points of ViewQuotes and Italics; Miscellaneous; Literary Devices and Plot Types; Good Writing.

Style and Consistency

Often the correct expression is not a matter of grammar but of style or established guidelines. A newspaper or publishing house is likely to define a house style, either by using a well-known publication or by writing their own guide. These include grammar rules, especially the more subtle ones, but also a host of guidance such as when to spell out numbers and whether it should be Nato or NATO. Examples of traditional style guides are the US publications The Chicago Manual of Style (which I’ll refer to as Chicago hereafter) and the AP Stylebook (AP), and the UK’s New Oxford Style Manual. Chicago and AP are both available as online subscriptions and in book form, while the Oxford manual can be purchased as a hardback. Chicago offers a free one-month trial and an annual subscription of $39 at the time of writing; AP also offers a free trial and is a bit cheaper. Chicago was first published in 1906, AP in 1953, and the Oxford version has been going in one form or another since 1893. They all have nigh on 1,000 pages. Chicago is “the indispensable reference for writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers”. The Oxford guide’s topics include “how to punctuate and hyphenate accurately, how to use quotations and citations clearly, UK and US usage, and much more”.  The AP‘s full name is The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefings on Media Law; it was created for the Associated Press news agency and sold as a guide for reporters. These are serious tomes and you could answer most of your questions from any one of these (except you’d need to read it). I find Chicago is very well written and covers almost anything you can think of. Occasionally I disagree with it, but a more fundamental reason for suggesting you don’t adopt it wholesale—which many publishers do—is that it can lead to a “What does Chicago say?” attitude, as opposed to thinking about what works best or how language is used or is changing. However, if you have a publisher or employer who mandates a particular style guide, you’ll have to go with it. Examples of organisation-written guides are the University of Oxford Style Guide, the Telegraph Style Book and the Guardian and Observer style guide.

The most important thing is often to be consistent. If sometimes it’s 8:00 p.m. and others 9 am, one page says “the professor” and another “the Professor”, and dog-house gets mingled with doghouse, then it can be jarring. Within limits, being consistently wrong is better than to be inconsistent. At times, the rules or guidelines are contradictory, ambiguous or allow two different options. In this case, the strategy is to pick one and stick with it—this could be from a standard style guide that you adopt as your house guide or from notes that you diligently write up. This blog acts as my style guide—although it doesn’t cover everything, and I still use Google.

British and American English (and Australian & others)

English spread from Britain through colonisation and trading and has subsequently diverged in minor ways. Hence we have British English and American English, which vary in areas such as spelling, pronunciation, idioms, grammar (to a small degree) and formatting of dates and numbers. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences, but enough differences exist such that separate dictionaries exist for each. The ubiquity of American and (to an extent) British films and TV means that most people are familiar with the common spoken differences. Australian, New Zealand, Irish and Canadian English all contain their own unique aspects and their own dictionaries, but generally Australian, New Zealand and Irish English are close to the British version and Canadian is probably somewhere in between. There are many countries with English as either their first language or their official language, such as Barbados or Guyana; and a further set of countries with English as an official language (e.g., used in courts and higher education instruction), such as India or Singapore. Many or most are Commonwealth countries, which are likely close to British English but with all kinds of their own variations. See Wikipedia: English-speaking territories for details. Finally, lots of countries use English as a second language, and it’s the international language of business. English-speaking authors are lucky to have such a global market!

As a writer you’ll normally use the English of your nationality unless there’s a market-based reason not to. The main differences are in spelling and some words and idioms that are used, so there shouldn’t be many problems that a dictionary won’t solve. If you introduce a character of a different English-speaking nationality, then having them speak the local flavour gives authenticity. However, it’s advisable not to sink into caricature and introduce an Australian with first words of “G’day mate. Pass the tinnie. Ripper.” We haven’t even mentioned the multiple internal dialects within countries, such as Yorkshire or Southern American; or in countries within states, such as Welsh or Scottish. The guidance for an author is not to overdo strong dialect or it can become impenetrable. Typically, you might start with a character speaking in dialect, but revert to standard speech, perhaps with occasional lapses at times of stress or emotion. You could experiment with a character referring to a strong accent, which might add humour if you haven’t been writing a strong accent: “What time is it?”; “I can’t understand a word of your Hampshire accent”. I’ve never tried this. Having said that, some famous and acclaimed books have used dialect extensively, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments or the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in the latter case, the character slips in and out of dialect to make a point). Let’s finish with a quick sample of some of the British-American differences:

Spelling: For a comprehensive list see Wikipedia: American and British English spelling differences, but here’s a smattering of the more common ones:

  • Many British words ending in our are spelt or in American English, for example, humour, colour and labour become humor, color and labor.
  • British words ending in re often change to end er in the American variant, for example, centre, fibre and litre become center, fiber and liter.
  • British words ending in ise or derivations of them, such as organise, organisation or realise are usually spelt with ize in American English. However, the ize spelling is often an acceptable (although less used) British alternative.
  • A final l is more likely to be doubled in British English when a suffix starting with a vowel is added, for example, travelling (British) or traveling (American).
  • There are differences in hyphenation, with American English less likely to hyphenate with prefixes (e.g., preempt as opposed to pre-empt).

Different words for the same thing and different meanings of the same word: Common examples of separate names are the US words sidewalk, gas, drugstore or zip code in place of the British pavement, petrol, chemist or postcode. Another example is that the US doesn’t tend to have a ground floor—the street-level floor of a building is the “first floor”, whereas it’s the “ground floor” in the UK. Words can also mean different things, for example, jock is slang for a Scotsman in the UK, but slang for a college athlete in the US. See Wikipedia : List of words having different meanings in US and UK English for more examples.

Different grammar: There are some grammatical differences, but most are subtle and a matter of degree, with one construction being more common in the American than British English. A concrete example is collective nouns: in British English, these can take singular or plural verbs depending on whether “the emphasis is on the body as a whole or on the individual members”, so you say “the team was outplayed”, but “the herd were scattered across the field”. In American English, a singular verb is used (“the herd was scattered”). We discuss collective nouns further in the “Miscellaneous” section. For more grammatical examples, check Wikipedia: American and British English grammatical differences.

Idioms: Some idioms are common in both versions (“bite the bullet”); some are subtly different in each language (“a pinch of salt” in the UK or “a grain of salt” in the US); and some are likely to meet incomprehension the other side of the pond, for example ,”Bob’s your uncle” in the UK or “shoot the breeze” or “bought the farm” in the US. Bought the farm means someone has died, but what if they really had bought a farm? Anyway….

Date formats: The US is unusual in writing numeric dates as mm/dd/yyyy. For example, the US Declaration of Independence was pronounced in Philadelphia on 07/04/1776; most countries, including the UK, would write 04/07/1776. When written in expanded form this becomes “July 4, 1776” (US) or “4 July 1776” (UK). In dialogue, the British tend to say, for example, “the sixth of June” (although “June the sixth” is used). Americans usually say “June the sixth” or just “June sixth”, although they make an exception for the Fourth of July holiday, which is a proper noun. This explains why we had the 1989 US film Born on the Fourth of July (and not Born on July Fourth).


Popular free online dictionaries include the Oxford Living Dictionaries, Collins Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. Oxford Living Dictionaries is the brand name of, previously called Oxford Dictionaries Online, and includes British and American dictionaries, a thesaurus and a grammar guide. It’s not the same as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is a huge work containing the meaning, history and pronunciation of 600,000 words from a thousand years of history of the English-speaking world. The print version is 20 volumes and the online version—which is here—requires a subscription. They’re both published by Oxford University Press, which is the largest university press in the world, was founded around the 1580s (amazingly) and started work on the OED in 1854. As well as these online versions, Oxford University Press also publish a range of print dictionaries, including The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (twelfth edition), which is used by the United Nations as its authority for English-language spelling. Collins dictionary is in its thirteenth edition and published by HarperCollins, who’ve been publishing dictionaries since 1819 (when they were called Collins). Merriam-Webster is the best-selling American English dictionary, first published in 1828. If you regularly use an online dictionary, it makes sense to stay with one, for consistency. I prefer Collins since it has a good level of detail, tells you the American and British spellings (you need to click on the Translate button), and automatically provides the plurals. There are many other traditional dictionaries and also fascinating dictionaries of things like phrases, quotations, idioms, literary characters, etc. The world’s your oyster!

Parts of Speech

I wanted to avoid this, but it turns out to be useful and even interesting (honest). When you look up a word in a dictionary it tells you whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, etc. Bear in mind that some words can fit more than one category, depending on context. The dictionary will give all the permutations. As well as considering types of words, I also dive into phrases and clauses, which are especially useful for the section on “Commas” later. I haven’t gone too deep into the grammar, but there’s still quite a lot and verbs delay us longer than I intended. To be honest, I ended up fascinated to learn about past participles, subjunctive moods, relative pronouns and the like. As such, feel free to either skip much of this section—or to become as captivated as I did.

Preamble—phrases, clauses and sentences: It makes sense to define these before we start. A phrase is a logical group of words that doesn’t have a subject-verb pair and therefore can’t form a sentence on its own—it’s part of a clause or sentence—for example, “the noisy dog”, “waiting for his bone”, or “in the shadow of the night”. There are different types of phrases—eight according to Your Dictionary: Phrase Examples including noun phrases, verb phrases, participial phrases and prepositional phrases. These are defined according to the words that make up the phrase (e.g., a prepositional phrase starts with a preposition). You’ll also see adjectival and adverbial phrases defined—which aren’t in Your Dictionary’s list. These are defined according to their effect; that is, they act as adjectives or adverbs. Because of this, there’s some overlap, so, for example, a prepositional phrase may also be an adverbial phrase. A clause has a subject and verb: an independent clause can form a sentence on its own, while a dependent clause can’t since it doesn’t form a complete thought. An example of an independent clause is “Rover hared after the stick”. A dependent clause such as “because he needed the exercise” needs an independent clause to create a clear meaning and sentence, such as “Rover hared after the stick because he needed the exercise.” There are three types of dependent clauses, which we’ll meet in due time—adverbial clauses, relative (or adjective or adjectival) clauses and noun clauses. A sentence can be a single independent clause or an independent clause plus a combination of other clauses (independent and dependent) and phrases. A sentence always has a subject and a verb, and many sentences also have objects. A subject is the person or thing which a sentence is about, and they often perform the action of the verb. An object is the person or thing that is acted upon by the subject, and they often receive the action of the verb. For example, in “Rover ate his dinner”, Rover is the subject, ate is the verb and his dinner is the object. Subjects and objects are either nouns, pronouns, noun phrases or noun clauses. In more complex sentences, it can be less obvious exactly what the subject and object are, but let’s not worry too much.

Sentence fragments: Ok, I just said sentences need a subject and a verb. Not necessarily. Fiction, journalism and blogging sometimes use sentence fragments for effect. This might be to set a mood, for humour or to match the fast pace of an action scene. Here are some examples: 1) “He surveyed the landscape. Mountains. Dusty trails. A ramshackle homestead with tired-looking horses.” 2) The pub was middling full. A team of domino players. Some couples, not talking much. A squirrel.” 3) “He thought he saw something. A movement in the shadows. Could this be the start? Now, of all times.” Another type of example is a dependent clause being used as a separate sentence to give the impression of an afterthought, for example, “He ordered a kebab and chips. Which felt great.” A summary of the guidance I’ve seen is that sentence fragments should follow logically from the previous sentence, should provide a clear meaning, and should be used sparingly. Sentence fragments are also used in dialogue, as people often don’t talk in complete sentences. They could easily say, for example, “No way”, “And another thing”, “Except for cats”, or a whole host of incomplete sentences. Asking or answering questions can often provide fragments, as something like “Why’s that?” or “Yes” is complete in itself. This also applies to implied questions within narrative, for example, “He wondered what to do next. Order another pint?”  Interjections such as “Drat”, “Son of a gun” or “Woof” and commands like “Down boy” are also fine. More formal writing avoids the use of sentence fragments, although I wouldn’t completely rule it out if it’s effective. Advertising copy often uses fragments, for example, “Visit Squirrels R Us. Free nuts.”

1. Nouns

A noun refers to a person, place, thing or idea—for example, car, forest, thought, London Bridge, happiness or Lassie. They’re either proper nouns, which refer to specific names of items and are capitalised (e.g., Albert Einstein or the Declaration of Independence), or common nouns, which are generic. Sometimes a word can be both a common or proper noun, depending on context: “my mum” refers to a general name, but “Hello Mum” refers to a specific name and requires a capital letter. If you can replace the word by a name, then it’s a proper noun. Nouns can be classified as countable or uncountable—countable nouns have a plural form (usually formed by adding s or es), but uncountable ones, like air, don’t. They can also be classified as concrete (things that can be observed) or abstract (ideas or concepts). Finally, some nouns are collective or group nouns, like herd or committee, which means they’re made up of a number of individuals or elements. The bullets below discuss noun phrases and noun clauses.

  • Noun phrases are phrases that act as a noun in a sentence. They consist of a noun (or pronoun) and modifiers, which change or add to the meaning of the noun. The modifiers can be as simple as the word the, a straightforward adjective, or more complex—for example, other types of phrases such as prepositional phrases. The noun phrase sits in the sentence as if it’s a single-word noun and can be substituted with a pronoun. Examples are “the dog”, “the super-energetic golden retriever”, “almost every dog in the world”, “the Jack Russell in the kennel”, “the angry dog who is charging towards me”, “an unfailing belief that she will be fed when her master gets home” and “the dog owner hurrying home”. The example “the angry dog who is charging towards me”, although a noun phrase—since it consists of a noun and modifiers and stands in for a noun—is also a dependent clause because it has a subject and a verb. However, it’s always referred to as a noun phrase and not a noun clause, so it’s best just to accept this! The expression “who is charging towards me” is an example of a relative or adjective clause and we discuss it more when we talk about adjectives. A noun phrase can be replaced with a pronoun (sometimes this might lack information but will make sense structurally). An example of a noun phrase in a sentence is “The dog owner hurrying home was late”. Replacing the noun phrase with a pronoun gives “She was late” or “He was late.” Noun phrases can be embedded in other noun phrases; for example, “the nervous squirrel” is a noun phrase within the larger noun phrase “the nervous squirrel who was collecting nuts”. They can also be discontinuous, as in “The belief is widespread that squirrels can easily escape from dogs” (“is widespread” breaks up the phrase). There are a couple of less obvious scenarios. First, apposite phrases rename or add detail to a noun they are next to—for example, the italicised text in “Rover, a conscientious dog, kept his basket neat”. These are considered noun phrases; you can’t replace them with a pronoun, but instead you can remove them entirely—they’re acting like a duplicate noun. Gerund phrases are also noun phrases. They start with a gerund, which is a verb ending in ing and acting as a noun; an example is the italicised phrase in “Swimming in the paddling pool is great”.
  • Noun clauses: these are one of the three types of dependent clause. They’re clauses that act as a noun in a sentence. Noun clauses typically start with that or how or wh words such as where, whoever, whatever and whether. Examples are as follows, with the noun clause in italics: “Whoever wins the race will make the final”; “She wondered how long they should wait“; “I’m fine with whatever we watch“; “Tigger was surprised that she was given a bone, especially since she was a cat”; and “That Rover could enter Crufts hadn’t occurred to Geoff”. As with noun phrases, a noun clause can be replaced by a pronoun: for example, “I’m fine with whatever we watch” can be replaced with “I’m fine with that“; or “She wondered how long they should wait” can be “She wondered this” (just about). I sometimes find it easier to visualise replacing the noun clause with X, for example, “I’m fine with X.” An exception to being able to replace the clause with a pronoun is when a noun clause is an adjective complement (sorry about this!). This modifies, or complements, an adjective, such as the bone example above (“that she was given a bone” complements the adjective surprised). Grammar articles will tell you a noun clause can act as a subject, object, object of a preposition, adjective complement and probably one or two other things, but the key point is that they act like a single-unit noun. See K12Reader: Noun Clause for more examples and explanations, and also Wikipedia: Content clause.

2. Pronouns

A pronoun replaces a noun, so you don’t have to keep repeating it; examples are she, he, it, him, her, them, us, himself, themselves, mine and everyone. The noun that is replaced is called the antecedent and will normally have been mentioned earlier. For example, in “Geoff wondered when he would win the lottery”, Geoff is the antecedent and he is the pronoun. Pronouns fit into different categories as described below:

  • Personal pronouns refer to a person (or possibly an animal or thing). They vary depending on whether the person is the subject or object of the sentence. When they act as the subject, the list comprises I, you, he, she, it, we and they; as the object, the list is me, you, her, him, it, us and them.
  • Possessive pronouns indicate possession and are either used before a noun as in “that’s my book”, or they reference a previously mentioned noun, such as “that’s mine”. The other ones are your, yours, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs, our and ours.
  • Demonstrative pronouns take the place of a noun already mentioned and are these, those, this and that (and possibly such and the archaic yon, depending on which source you read).
  • Indefinite pronouns refer to non-specific beings, objects or places (to quote Wikipedia). Examples are somebody, everyone, anything and several.
  • Interrogative pronouns are who, whom, whose, what and which (and their -ever forms such as whoever), when they’re used in question form, such as “Who took this?” or “Whoever are you?”
  • Relative pronouns are the words who, whom, whose, which, that and, less commonly, whoever, whomever, what, whatever and whichever. They connect a clause or phrase to a previously mentioned noun, for example, “Rover, who was barely restraining himself, was within yards of the buffet.”
  • Reflexive or intensive pronouns end in self, and consist of myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. There’s a subtle difference between these being used reflexively and intensively, which the link I’m about to give you at Your Dictionary explains.
  • There are also archaic pronouns such as thou, thee and thine. Similarly, whosoever, whatsoever and the like are archaic versions of whoever, whatever, etc. They’re pretty much exact synonyms except more formal and archaic. I think they’re cool and I’m sure whosoever may be reading this agrees.

A good summary of pronouns and their use is at Your Dictionary: Types of Pronouns, and a decent list is provided at Grammar Revolution: List of Pronouns. We discuss relative pronouns a bit more below, and indefinite pronouns find a slot in the “Miscellaneous” section towards the end of the blog (relating to how to tell if they’re singular or plural).

  • Relative pronouns deserve a quick diversion. First, let’s check the meaning of whom. Who refers to the subject of a clause or sentence; for example, in “the man who was nervous of dogs”, the man is the subject and so we use who. Whom refers to the object; for example, in “the man whom I saw running from the dog”, I am the subject and the man is the object, so we use whom. Whom is a little archaic and people often use who instead, although whom is always used in phrases such as “to whom it may concern” or “many of whom”. Outside of formal writing and if it sounds natural, who is acceptable (e.g., “the man who I saw running”). I’d probably stick with the more grammatically correct whom, except for dialogue where the speaker is unlikely to say whom. Second, who and whom are used for people and that and which for things, but what about animals? Most style guides say who or whom can be used with animals that are named or personal (“Rover, who was sleeping” or “my horse, whom I can never catch”) but that or which are used otherwise (“the cat that was stalking a butterfly”). The possessive pronoun whose can be used for animals and people, and, funnily enough, also for inanimate objects—the reason is that there is no possessive pronoun for objects, so expressions like “the car whose engine had conked out” is fine. Third, unlike who and whom for people (and sometimes animals), that and which don’t distinguish between subject and object: so you’d say both “the cat that was playing chess” and “the table that Geoff lugged up the hill”. The difference between that and which is to do with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, which we discuss in the “Commas” section.
    • That can sometimes be used in place of who and whom. For example, we could say, “the man that was nervous of dogs” or “the man that I saw running from the dog”. This is only ok for what are called restrictive or essential elements. If the clause is written as an aside (separated with commas), then that can’t be used; for example, “Geoff, who was nervous of dogs, backed away” needs to use who.
  • A quick note on “he and I”: It should be “He and I escaped” or “Geoff and I escaped”, because he and I are subject pronouns (are used as the subject of a sentence), as we explained in the first bullet of this pronoun section. However, it is “The President met me and him” or “The President met me and Geoff”, since me and him are object pronouns (are used as the object of a sentence). A simple way to check this is to just use one of them and see if it sounds right—for example, “me escaped” is clearly wrong, so you wouldn’t say, “Geoff and me escaped”).

3. Verbs

Quoting from Wikipedia, a verb conveys “an action (bring, read, walk, run), an occurrence (happen, become), or a state of being (be, exist, stand)”. Verbs have different forms according to grammatical person and tense; in some non-English languages, they can vary with other things such as gender. Person specifies who a verb refers to, and there are three types and a singular and plural of each: The first person is I (singular) or we (plural) and refers to the speaker or writer; the second person is you (the same for singular and plural) and refers to the person or people addressed; and the third person is he, she or it in the singular and they in the plural, which relate to a third party different from the speaker or writer and listener or reader. English verbs only change with person for the third person singular (and then only in the present tense). For example, the verb play can be written as “I play”, “you play”, “we play” or “they play”, but the third person is “he plays” (or “she plays”, “it plays”, “Rover plays” or similar). The third person usually adds s or es to the verb although other forms exist, such as a y being replaced by ies (as in tries) or have becoming has. In addition, the verb “to be” is highly irregular, which we speak about soon. Novels are almost always in first or third person (“I saw the dog and started running” or “She saw the dog and started running”). The second person structure of “You see the dog and start running” is very rare although has been done—for example in Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Dialogue in novels is sometimes in the second person, since characters often address each other—for example, “You can’t shoot me, I’ve got eight kids and a cat.” Second person is used to address the audience in instruction manuals, advertising, songs, speeches, etc.—you’ll notice I do it in this blog!

There are twelve verb tenses, although other constructions are sometimes thought of as tenses, such as future-in-the-past. We’ll consider the twelve standard ones here and leave the others for the “Tenses” section later. They’re made up of four versions of present, past and future. The first version is called simple; using sing (in the third person) as an example, the simple present is “she sings”; the simple past, “she sang”; and the simple future, “she will sing”. Sometime the word simple is omitted and these are just called the present, past and future. The other versions are continuous, perfect and perfect continuous. This gives us our twelve tenses: the present, past and future; the continuous present, continuous past and continuous future; the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect; and the continuous present perfect, continuous past perfect and continuous future perfect. For example, the continuous present is “she is singing”; the past perfect, “she had sung”; the future continuous, “she will be singing”; and the continuous past perfect, “she had been singing”. Continuous tenses describe an ongoing action at some point in time (whether that time is the present, past or future); the perfect describes an action that has completed (relative to a time or event in the present, future or past); and the perfect continuous, an action that was ongoing but has completed. The present perfect is slightly more complicated—see the “Tenses” section for a more detailed explanation. The list of the different forms of a verb is called its conjugation and to create this list is called conjugating the verb. is a neat site which gives the conjugations of thousands of verbs—put the one you want in the search box. The form of a verb listed in the dictionary is called the root or base form and is the same as the present form (except for third person singular, where an s or es is usually added). The name of a verb is often expressed as the word to followed by the root form, for example “to sing” or “to be”—this is the same as the infinitive, which is discussed below. Note the verb “to be” is unlike any other verb with forms such as “I am”, “you are”, “he is”, “I was”, “they were” and more. You’ll know all the forms, but you can check to be for the full list.

This is going to be a long section, and the bullets below dig into the details more. My apologies for bringing up participles, gerunds, the subjunctive and the like.

  • Phrasal verbs: Verbs can be made up of more than one word, for example, “take off”, “look forward to” or “tear up”. These are called phrasal verbs or multi-part verbs and group together to form a meaning that can’t be deduced from the meanings of the individual words. They consist of a main verb and a smaller word such as a preposition. Only the main verb conjugates. For example, “stand by” is the verb stand and the preposition by; only stand changes as it conjugates (e.g., “I stand by”, “she stands by”, “I stood by”). Some phrasal verbs are separable—for example, the verb “put off” is separated in the expression “let’s put it off”—and some aren’t. You’ll find the common phrasal verbs in the dictionary.
  • Auxiliary or helping verbs: These don’t function as the main verb in a sentence but are used with a main verb to provide the verb’s tense or voice, to form a negative or a question, and probably one or two other things that take us too far into grammar. Be, have and do are the standard auxiliary verbs. Be is used to form the continuous tense and the passive voice and have is used for the perfect tense—we discuss how those work shortly. Do can be used with the word not to form a negative clause, such as “Ostriches don’t fly” or “he didn’t laugh”; for emphasis, as in “he did like strawberry cheesecake”; and to form questions by inverting the subject and verb, for example, “Does he like dog biscuits?” Note the following: these auxiliary constructions with do only apply to the simple present or past; do is conjugated (e.g., “I do”, “she does” or “he did”); and the main verb stays in its root form (e.g., fly, laugh, like or eat) for both present and past. Be, have and do can also act as verbs in their own right as in “My name is Clark Kent”, “I have an intrepid dog” or “She finally did her homework”. Be and have can also be inverted or used for negation, either on their own (“Is he rich?”, “He is not rich”, or even “Is he not rich?”), or as auxiliaries (“He is not running”).
    • Modal verbs are a separate class of auxiliary verbs, which include can, could, may, might, must, will, would, should and shall. In addition, ought to, need not, dare and had better act as modal verbs, and, as ever, sources vary, so this list isn’t perfect. They provide meanings such as expressing probability, permission, ability, advice and obligation and can display varying degrees of possibility or obligation (e.g., must is stronger than should which is stronger than might). Examples are “Geoff could see Rover in the distance” and “You must keep your dog on a lead.” As with the other auxiliaries, they can be inverted to form questions (“Could Geoff see Rover?”) and can use not to form a negative (“Geoff couldn’t see Rover”). A key point about modal verbs is that they don’t change form—could will always be could, no matter who it refers to or what tense is used. The main verb they partner takes one of four different forms, illustrated as follows: “She must run”, “She must be running”, “She must have run” and “She must have been running.” If will is used, this gives us the four versions of the future tense (“she will run” for simple future, “she will be running” for future continuous, “she will have run” for future perfect, and “she will have been running” for future perfect continuous). The modal is always followed by a root verb (run or be or have in the above examples). One way of looking at this structure is to say that the twelve tenses have been cut down to four—simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous—which can apply to present, past or future depending on the modal used and context. For example, consider the simple form: if you use the modal will, then this gives the future tense (“she will run”, “she will be running”, etc.); could implies the past (“she could run brilliantly in her day”) or possibly the present (“it could rain now”).
  • Present and past participles: Verbs have a present participle and a past participle. The present participle is the form used in the continuous tense and is always formed by adding “ing”. For jump this is jumping and hence the continuous tense takes the form we saw earlier: “I am jumping”, “She was jumping”, and so on. There are a few anomalies to note: a silent e is dropped (e.g., make becomes making); sometimes the final consonant is doubled (e.g., swim to swimming or travel to travelling); and words ending in ie change to y (e.g., lie to lying). The past participle is the form used in the perfect tense—normally the same as the past form of the verb and formed by adding “ed”, but not always. For jump, the past participle is the same as the simple past, jumped, and so the perfect tense takes the form “I had jumped”, etc. However, consider the verb break. The past form is broke (“I broke the mirror”), but the past participle is broken, so the perfect tense uses this, for example, “I had broken the mirror.” Other examples where past and past participle differ are ate and eaten, flew and flown, and wrote and written. Good dictionaries list the present and past participles of a verb, but English speakers will naturally be aware of many of the irregular ones. For reference, the present participle of “to be” is being and the past participle been; and for “to have”, they are having and had.
  • Participles as adjectives and nouns: the great thing about participles is they can be used other than as verbs. Both present and past participles can be adjectives, for example, “breaking waves” or “broken window”. They can also form participial phrases, in which the phrase contains a participle—and usually starts with the participle—and acts as an adjective. Examples (with the participial phrase in italics) are “Racing across the field, Rover lost sight of the stick”, “The mouse concerned about the cat stayed in his hole”, “Having seen the monster, Geoff slowed down” and “The long-anticipated toast was burnt beyond crumbs“. The phrases act as adjectives to describe the nouns (or noun phrases) Rover, the mouse, Geoff and the long-anticipated toast. The construction of having plus the past participle (as in the “having seen the monster” example) is sometimes called a perfect participial phrase and means the action completed before the activity of the main clause (Geoff slowing down). Present participles can also act as nouns and are called gerunds when they do this; examples are (with the gerund in italics) “Swimming is great” and “Sue likes to relax by dancing.” Gerund phrases include a gerund and function as nouns. Examples are “You can’t beat swimming on a hot day“, “Chasing sticks was her number one activity” and “Racing across the field is exhilarating”.
  • Infinitives are “to” plus the base form of the verb, such as “to run” or “to confuse”. They’re not used as verbs, but can be nouns, adjectives or adverbs—either on their own, or as part of infinitive phrases. Examples of infinitive phrases are (with the phrase in italics) “I want to win the lottery“, “I’m looking for a stick to throw for the dog“, and “To confuse my boss, I handed my work in early.” Sometimes infinitives are used without the “to” and are then called bare infinitives—these are the same as the root or base form. Bare infinitives are often used after verbs of perception like see, watch, feel and hear, or verbs of permission like make and let. Examples are (with the infinitive in italics) “Geoff heard the dog bark” and “I let him jump on the sofa.” We’ve also seen them used after the modal verbs and do, as in “She must run” or “He did not steal the biscuit”. Grammar textbooks, I’m led to believe, used to be full of exhortations to avoid split infinitives. A split infinitive is where extra words go between the to and the root form, for example, “to boldly go” or “to more than double”. Style guides are more relaxed about this now, as long as the expression reads well—for example, “I didn’t expect him to in this way win” is not good.
  • Active and passive voice: Consider “Sue read a book.” This uses the verb read in the active voice. Sue is the subject and performs the action of the verb. A book is the object and receives the action of the verb. The passive voice turns this around, so the subject receives the action. “A book is read by Sue” switches the sentence into passive voice, with the book now the subject. Sue, as the “doer” of the action, is the agent in either case. The passive voice is useful is some circumstances, but as a rule the active voice is shorter, sharper and more direct, and is recommended for most writing. Certainly, you’d be unlikely to use the example just given. To form the passive voice, you use the appropriate tense of “to be” (acting as an auxiliary verb), the past participle of the verb in question, and optionally include the agent using by. For example, consider the active sentence “The thieves stole the sofa.” This is in the past, so we need “the sofa was”, and we need stolen because this is the past participle of steal. So the passive form is “The sofa was stolen by the thieves.” Or you could omit the agent and say “The sofa was stolen.” Examples of this in other tenses are “the sofa had been stolen”, “the sofa is being stolen” or even “the sofa had been being stolen”. The last example isn’t recommended (and some sources say the perfect continuous tenses don’t have a passive form, so it would be invalid anyway).
    • Uses of the passive voice: Despite being discouraged, there are occasions when the passive is a good idea: 1) The recipient of an action is more important than the agent, e.g., “Sue was captured by the dragon”; 2) The person performing the action is unknown or unimportant, e.g., “Gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896”; 3. The identity of the actor is deliberately concealed, e.g., “Mistakes were made” (a favourite of politicians); 4. To place emphasis on the agent or doer of the action by placing them at the end of the sentence, e.g., “The soldiers were let down by the government”; 5. If the passive voice flows or sounds better, e.g., “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” The active version of this would be “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” By the way, would it be heretical if I said the second version was as good as the first—please keep this to yourself.
    • Transitive and intransitive verbs: Against my instincts, I’ve spent ten minutes reading about these. Not all verbs can receive direct objects: those that can are called transitive verbs and those that can’t are intransitive verbs. For example, laugh or cough or sit are intransitive—you can’t laugh or cough or sit an object. A direct object must answer the question what or who has been laughed or coughed or sat; to say “sit on the chair” doesn’t provide an object but describes the sitting (via a prepositional phrase). By contrast, throw is transitive—you can throw a ball or stick or whatever. The key point is that only transitive verbs can use the passive because with no object, there’s no way to turn the sentence round and make the object the subject. In fact, many intransitive verbs are transitive in some meanings: for example, “I sat Rover down” provides a transitive meaning of sit, with a direct object of Rover. Some dictionaries will tell you if a verb is transitive or intransitive for each of its meanings.
  • Moods: Along with everything else, verbs also have mood. This is a bit tricky to define, but most sources describe it as the attitude or manner a verb is used in. There are three types in English: indicative, imperative and subjunctive.
    • The indicative describes facts and opinions, and is used to ask questions. It’s by far the most common mood and is how we’ve been using verbs so far, whatever the tense or voice. Probably the easiest way to recognise the indicative mood, is to say it covers everything unless the mood is imperative or subjunctive.
    • The imperative expresses direct commands and requests, for example “Go away”, “Be here by six”, “Keep off the grass”, “Sit“, or “Rover, find the stick.” These are structurally different from the indicative in that there is no subject pronoun or name and the verb is used in the root form (the italicised words in the examples). In the final example, Rover is not the subject but the person (or dog) addressed. The implied subject to the imperative is the second person you—that is, the person being spoken to or reading the passage. As Wikipedia: Imperative mood states, you can be included in imperative sentences for emphasis, for example, “You come here.” The tone of this is clearly different from indicative sentences in the second person such as “You chase sticks well.”
    • The subjunctive expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, requested, conditional or similar, with a classic example being “if I were a rich man”. The basic point is that the situation is hypothetical—either completely imagined or a possibility or something requested but not yet granted or acted upon. Often the subjunctive is written the same as the indicative is, so it doesn’t matter if you’re using indicative or subjunctive (or if you don’t care). An excellent table at Wikipedia: Subjunctive mood describes the subjunctive forms and the five circumstances in which this is different from the indicative. There are two forms of the subjunctive, called the present and past; confusingly, these don’t relate to whether they reference the present or past, but to their similarity with indicative forms of the past and present. I shall now try and succinctly summarise:
      • The present subjunctive uses the root form of the verb. This is most often used in that clauses after words expressing demand, recommendation, desire or similar. Because the root form is the same as the present—except in the third person singular (or with the verb “to be”)—then the difference is only apparent in the third person singular (or when using “to be”). Examples are “I recommend that he go to dog training classes”, “She insisted that he check the map” and “They’ll prefer that I be quiet”. The word that can often be omitted, for example, “She insisted he check the map.” If you do use the indicative, the verbs in each case are “he goes”, “he checks” (or “he checked”) and “I am” (or “I will be”)—see the sub-bullet below for a discussion on the bracketed options (it’s about backshifting of tense). As we said above, the present subjunctive doesn’t mean the expression refers to the present; this depends on the main verb and can refer to present, past or future. The first example is present tense, the second is past and the third is future. These could also be written in a non-subjunctive way, for example by using should (“She insisted that he should check the map”). Could you use the indicative versions here (“he goes”, etc.)? Most advice I’ve seen suggests the subjunctive should be used, although the indicative sometimes is used. (American English style guides are stricter on using the subjunctive than British English). I ‘d use it as long as the phrase doesn’t sound stilted, since it gives a richer vocabulary and makes clear the request-like tone of the phrasing. In addition, different meanings in the indicative and the subjunctive can occur, so using the indicative instead of the subjunctive could sometimes cause confusion—see Wikipedia: English subjunctive for examples (under “Use of the present subjunctive”). By the way, that link is the best I’ve found for describing use of the subjunctive and examples. More archaic examples of the present subjunctive exist, where it’s used with statements using possibilities as well as requests, such as “If he be lost” or “Whoever he be”, but these are becoming lost in time and aren’t recommended without a good reason. The present subjunctive is also used in a few other situations, such as after lest or for fear (“lest he be stricken with a plague of hamsters”), after in order that, and in some well-known expressions such as “long live rock’n’roll”, “far be it from me” or “suffice it to say”. The normal word order is changed in these expressions—in the “correct” order they wouldn’t be used in the subjunctive (e.g., “it is far from me” or “it suffices to say”). Finally, negatives in the present subjunctive use a not before the subjunctive. Examples are “She insisted that he not chase the cat” or “They asked that I not be noisy.”
        • We said above that the indicative alternative to “She insisted he check the map” was “She insisted he checks the map” or “She insisted he checked the map”. The second option is about “backshifting” of tense. Insisted is in the past which means the whole sentence is in the past; but at that point in the past, she would have insisted in the present tense (that he checks the map), so we put checks in the present. However, in cases of reported speech or thoughts, the tense is often backshifted to match the tense of the whole sentence—to checked in this case. I’m going to hastily escape from this diversion now, but I discuss backshifting more in the “Interior Monologue” section.
      • The past subjunctive is only used (or is only different from the indicative) in the verb “to be”, where were is used instead of was. The verb “to be”, in the indicative past, reads “I was”, “you were”, “he/she/it was” (or e.g., “Sue was”), “we were” and “they were”. In the subjunctive, they all use were, so the difference is in the first and third person singular, where it becomes “I were” and “he/she/it were”. This is used in counterfactual statements (ones which are definitely not true or haven’t happened yet), involving if or something similar like suppose, wish, as though or imagine. Examples are “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that”, “Imagine she were to walk in here”, or “If Rover were quicker, he’d have caught that squirrel.” It uses the past tense to refer to unreal events in the present or future. An example like “If he was the masked avenger, he saved us all”, doesn’t refer to an unreal situation but one in which the facts are genuinely unknown—as such, this shouldn’t use the subjunctive. Use of the past subjunctive is less than it was and—apart from formal writing—whether to use it or not is a matter of style and preference; many guides say was can be used in the above examples. Note: It can also be called the subjunctive if you use the past of an ordinary verb to refer to the hypothetical present or future, for example, “If I lost my way, I’d call home” (instead of “If I lose my way, I’ll call home”). This also applies to the past perfect form, which refers to an unreal past, is the same as the past perfect and can be called the past perfect subjunctive: “If I had lost my way, I could have called home.”
      • I have to mention this. In the course of my research, I found a 290-page PhD thesis from 2017 on the use of the subjunctive, including differences between American and British English, changes in its use, and much more. For the bits I read, it’s excellently written. This is a clue, though, that I’m going to be endlessly diverted and will never finish this blog. See Tim Waller: The subjunctive in Present-Day English.
    • Summary of how to form the tenses: I knew you were waiting for this.
      • Simple tenses use the root form of the verb for the present, the past form for the past and will plus the root form for the future. The past is usually formed by adding ed to the root, but some past forms are irregular. The verb “to be” is anomalous in the present (I am, you are, he/she/it is, etc.) and partly so in the past (I was, you were, etc.). For the present, the third person singular changes all verbs, usually by adding an s or es. See examples below:
        • Present: I walk, you learn, she swims
        • Past: I walked, you learnt, she swam
        • Future: I will walk, she will swim
      • Continuous tenses use the present, past or future form of “to be” and the present participle.
        • Present continuous: I am walking, you are walking, she is swimming
        • Past continuous: I was walking, you were walking, she was swimming
        • Future continuous: I will be walking, they will be walking
      • Perfect tenses are formed by using the present, past or future form of “to have” and the past participle.
        • Present perfect: I have walked, you have learnt, she has swum
        • Past perfect: I had walked, you had walked, she had swum
        • Future perfect: I will have played, she will have swum
      • Perfect continuous tenses use either the present, past or future perfect form of “to be” and the present participle.
        • Present perfect continuous: I have been walking, she has been swimming
        • Past perfect continuous: I had been walking, she had been swimming
        • Future perfect continuous: I will have been walking, she will have been swimming

4. Adjectives

These modify a noun or pronoun, for example (with the adjective in italics), “tall tree” or “she was bright”. There are also adjective (or adjectival) phrases and clauses which play the role of an adjective—we discuss these below (and get a little bogged down, to be honest!).

  • Adjective phrase examples are (with the phrase in italics) “The tree was very tall“, “Mice are no good at chess“, “Feeling pleased with himself, Rover retrieved the stick”, and “The mouse concerned about the cat stayed in his hole.” Although the individual words are of all kinds, they join together to work as an adjective describing, in these examples, the tree, mice, Rover and the mouse.
  • Adjective clauses are more commonly known as relative clauses because they refer back to (are relative to) a noun or noun phrase in the main clause. They always start with either 1) a relative pronoun—who, whom, whose, that or which (or less common ones such as whoever, although check the next bullet for a discussion on this); or 2) a relative adverb—when, where or why. A relative adverb is an adverb that connects a relative clause back to a noun (or noun phrase). For example, in “That’s the house where the mayor lives”, where the mayor lives is a relative clause, where is an adverb (modifying the verb lives), and the whole relative clause acts as an adjective to the noun in the main clause—”where the mayor lives” describes the house. A clue for recognising relative adverbs is that, for when, the preceding noun relates to time (e.g., “the day when” or “the time when”), for where, it relates to a place (e.g., “the town where”), and why usually follows reason (e.g., “the reason why”). Another point about relative adverbs is that where and when can be replaced by a “which expression” such as “on which”, “in which”, at which” or “to which”, and why can be replaced with “for which”. Our earlier example could be written “That’s the house in which the mayor lives.” An example of a relative clause using a relative pronoun is “That was the mayor, who lives in the big red house”, where who is the relative pronoun and who lives in the big red house is the relative clause. Further examples of relative clauses are (with the clause in italics) “The dog that had been chasing the seagull took a rest”,  “Sue, who thought no one was watching, did a double back somersault”,  “Sheer joy was the reason why Sue sprinted along the beach“, and “Rover dreamed of a land where cats never stood up to him“. The relative clause can’t move around the sentence and comes straight after the noun (or noun phrase). There’s one exception to the rule that the relative clause starts with a relative pronoun or adverb: when a “fronted” preposition such as “the man to whom I spoke” is used (instead of the more normal “the man whom I spoke to”), then the relative clause starts with the preposition (to). Wikipedia: English relative clauses gives an excellent description of relative clauses and many examples. Here’s a few more points:
    • That (and who, whom and which) can sometimes be omitted in a relative clause, for example “The squirrel that the dog chased was knackered” can be written as “The squirrel the dog chased was knackered.” This works when the noun that the clause refers back to—”the squirrel” here—is the object of the clause (something is being done to it). If it had been the subject, as “the dog” is in “The dog that chased the squirrel was also knackered”, then that is required. The same holds for who, whom and which: for example, “the man whom I saw” can be written as “the man I saw”. These can’t be omitted if the clause is an aside, separated by commas: “The squirrel, which had boundless energy, leapt from tree to tree.” (This is a non-restrictive or non-essential clause, which we discuss in the “Commas” section.)
    • Similarly—or fairly similarly—a relative clause can be reduced to an adjective phrase by omitting words such as “who is”, “who was” or “which were”. There are several ways to do this, but they’re all quite natural. For example, “the man who was playing chess” can be reduced to “the man playing chess”; or “the squirrels that worked on the nut farm”, to “the squirrels working on the nut farm”; or “Sue, who was pleased with her bionics revision, relaxed”, to “Sue, pleased with her bionics revision, relaxed.”
  • Let’s have a quick look at the less common relative pronouns whoever, whomever, whichever, whatever and (in some circumstances) what. The italicised expression in, for example, “The prize will go to whoever gets to the moon first” mostly looks like a relative clause and actually is. However, whoever doesn’t come after a noun which it acts as an adjective to. Clauses like this, with no noun to refer back to are called free relative clauses. The noun is implicit in the word whoever—this means “the person who” (or something similar like “any person who”, depending on context). You can think of the clause as referring back—and acting as an adjective to—to the missing noun “the person”. Expressions like “whoever gets to the moon first” are also noun clauses since they can be replaced by a pronoun. A different construction is given by an expression like “One of the guards, whoever proves strongest, will be appointed captain.” Here, the clause is still a free relative clause and a noun clause (whoever means “the one who” in this sentence, and the clause is an apposite for “one of the guards”), but this is an aside and not crucial to the sentence—it’s non-essential, which is why there’s a comma.  To make it more complicated, whoever has another meaning, “regardless of who”. An example is “The world will stay spinning whoever wins the election”. In this case the phrase “whoever wins the election” is an adverbial clause not a relative clause or a noun clause. It acts as an adverb to the verb “will stay” (or you can think of it as modifying the whole clause “the world will stay spinning”). This means it can move around the sentence, as in “Whoever wins the election, the world will stay spinning”. The same applies to whomever, whichever and whatever. Whomever means something like “the person whom”; whichever means, roughly, “any one from a set of choices” (e.g., “I’m going to watch whichever film has the best ratings”); and whatever is similar to whichever, except the choice is unlimited rather than from a limited set (e.g., “I’m ready for whatever happens”). They also have second meanings of “regardless of whom/which/what” that create adverbial clauses. Finally, note that what can also be a relative pronoun, meaning “the thing (or things) that”, for example, “You can take what you want.”
  • Where and when don’t always act as relative adverbs. For example, in “Geoff decided to go to the pub, when it was 2:00 p.m.” or “Rover buried the bone where the row of trees ended”, when and where are not referring back to a noun (they refer back to the verbs decided and buried) and you can’t substitute them with something like “in which” or “at which”. They’re acting as subordinating conjunctions and create an adverbial clause, which can move about the sentence, for example, “When it was 2:00 p.m., Geoff decided to go to the pub”. The same applies to why, for example, “I don’t know why he escaped.”
  • Whenever and wherever: This may be my most geekish (and possibly wrong) paragraph, but I let myself get dragged in and couldn’t leave the subject alone. Please feel free to ignore. Most references state when, where and why as the only relative adverbs, but some mention whenever and wherever (and logically, whyever, although I’ve never seen it used). The same discussion as with whoever, whichever and the like applies here. However, I found wherever and whenever a bit more complex and ran into contradictory descriptions in dictionaries and articles. Consider “Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home.” Wherever means “the place where” or “any place where”, and the clause “wherever I lay my hat” is a noun clause and a relative clause which acts as an adjective to home. The same would apply to whenever in, for example, “Whenever aliens invade is when I prove my superpowers”, with whenever meaning “the times when”. You can’t move the clause around the sentence (not without sentence restructuring). So far this is no different to the examples with whoever and the rest. Similarly, wherever and whenever also have meanings of “regardless of where” or “regardless of when”, where they form adverbial phrases and the clauses can be moved around the sentence. Examples are “I want to run wherever I find myself” and “Whenever the donut van comes, I’ll be first in the queue.” This “regardless of” use seems to provide the most common examples. There is a slightly different meaning though, which you can see if we rejig an earlier example. “Wherever I lay my hat, I’ll stay” has less resonance, but in this case, you can move the clause (“I’ll stay wherever I lay my hat”). Here wherever means “at the place(s) where” or “in the place(s) where”, and this turns the expression “wherever I lay my hat” into an adverbial clause”, acting as an adverb to stay. This implied adding of a small word (a preposition) like in, to or at to the meaning confused me for a bit as there isn’t an equivalence in whoever, whichever, etc. I feel much better for this. Similar examples are “They can go wherever it suits them” and “Her eyes glaze over whenever he starts talking about football.”

5. Adverbs

Adverbs modify a verb or an adjective or another adverb, for example, she walked clumsily (modifying the verb walked), she walked very clumsily (modifying the adverb clumsily), the incredibly lazy cat (modifying the adjective lazy). They can also modify other things like a phrase or sentence, e.g., “the dog guided us almost all the way” (almost modifies “all the way”)—in fact, anything but a noun. They can be classified in terms of how they modify: there are adverbs of time (e.g., recently), place (there), manner (quickly), degree (almost) or frequency (again). They answer questions such as when, where, how, to what extent, and how often. Adverbs often end in ly, particularly adverbs of manner, which describe how a verb is done. Overuse of adverbs can be frowned on because a verb and adverb can often be replaced by a more vivid verb; for example, “she clattered” gives a better picture than “she walked noisily”.

Adverbial phrases and clauses are groups of words which play the role of an adverb. For example, consider “We’ll stop playing shortly”, “We’ll stop playing in a minute”, and “We’ll stop playing when the boss gets here.” Shortly is an adverb, “in a minute” is an adverbial phrase and “when the boss gets here” is an adverbial clause (one of the three types of dependent clause). They each modify the verb stop. To me, it often makes sense to think of these as modifying the whole independent clause—in this case “we’ll stop playing”. Adverbial clauses or phrases can move around the sentence: they can be at the end (as above), the beginning (“When the boss gets here, we’ll stop playing”), and even the middle (“We will, when the boss gets here, stop playing”)—although sometimes that looks awkward. Adverbial clauses usually start with a subordinating conjunction such as because, when or since (we’ll get to these shortly). When phrases and clauses are considered, more adverb categories reveal themselves (in addition to those of time, place, manner, degree and frequency). For example, adverb phrases or clauses of reason answer the question why, as in “We stopped playing because the boss arrived” (as far as I can tell, there’s no single word adverb that can signify why). Further categories include adverbs of concession (to introduce a contrasting idea such as “although she was tired”) or adverbs of condition (using if or unless, for example, “if she won the lottery”). Finally, adverbial clauses can often be reduced to adverbial phrases if the subject of the clause is the same as the subject of the independent clause it’s related to. An example is reducing “Because he was tired, Rover took a nap” to “Being tired, Rover took a nap.” Here we’ve swapped the adverbial clause for an adverbial phrase (in this case, a participial phrase). Similarly, we could reduce “Although he’d stalked squirrels all morning, he was no nearer to catching one” to “Having stalked squirrels all morning, he was no nearer to catching one.”

Conjunctive adverbs are adverbs such as however, meanwhile or rather. They modify or provide extra meaning to an independent clause they’re part of, in relation to a preceding independent clause. An example is “Rover raced after the stick; meanwhile, Spot took a rest.” I discuss them in more detail in the “Commas” and (to an extent) the “Semi-colons” section.

6. Prepositions

Prepositions are words that relates words to each other, usually describing a position (under the bed), a time (after the main event) or the way something is done (travelled by train). Other examples are among, at, behind, near, over, past, to or without. They can be more than one word, such as on top or because of. They’re normally—as with the examples above—before a noun or pronoun and show the relationship of that noun or pronoun with other words in the sentence. There’s an old rule that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, and a rebuttal of this is attributed to Winston Churchill, who supposedly said, “That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put”. This is not a guideline to strictly follow as it can result in unnatural sentences (e.g., the example given as opposed to the more natural ending of “which I will not put up with”). However, rearranging the sentence can sometimes be more active and direct: “The bone hadn’t been paid for” is fine, but you might want to say, “We hadn’t paid for the bone.” Finally, a prepositional phrase is a phrase which contains the preposition and the object of the preposition, for example, Fifi skidded on the slippery ice.

7. Conjunctions

These connect words, phrases, clauses or sentences.  There are three types:

  • Coordinating conjunctions connect words, phrases, clauses or sentences of equal weight, for example, “He liked chasing cats, but not squirrels”. The seven standard coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so (remembered by the mnemonic FANBOYS). There is a myth that you shouldn’t start sentences with and, but and the like, but all style guides agree this is fine—although it shouldn’t be overdone. So the following is fine: “He liked chasing cats. But not squirrels.”
  • Correlative conjunctions work in pairs to join phrases of equal weight, e.g., the either/or pair or the no sooner/than pair in the following examples: “I want to watch either a comedy or a dog-training film”;  “No sooner had the cat left than a squirrel appeared”. Other examples are both/and, not only/but also, neither/nor, scarcely/when and as many/as. For phrases like these to read well, care should be taken to create a parallel structure for each side of the pair. A sentence like “Geoff would either take Rover to the park or Sue would put him through his obedience training” unbalances the pair and would be better as “Either Geoff would take Rover to the park or Sue would run him through his obedience training.” Similarly, “It was both an intelligent squirrel and ready for action” is slicker and punchier when rewritten as “The squirrel was both intelligent and ready for action.” You don’t need the structure to be identical in each part, but the reader is cued to expect a similar pattern once they’ve heard the first half of the pair, and a big change from this can jar. This is called parallelism and also applies in other situations—for example, when writing lists, it reads better if the structure of each item is similar.
  • Subordinating conjunctions connect independent clauses to dependent clauses (independent clauses can stand alone as a sentence, dependent ones can’t). An example is because, e.g., “Fifi didn’t enjoy chasing squirrels because they always ran up the nearest tree.” You can rearrange this as “Because they always ran up the nearest tree, Fifi didn’t enjoy chasing squirrels.” The second version takes a comma and the first doesn’t, which we’ll discuss in the “Commas” section. Other examples of subordinating conjunctions are although, as a result of, before, even though, once, since, when and whenever. You can see a longer list at Grammar Bytes: The Subordinate Conjunction. They tend to show relationships of cause and effect (the squirrel example with “because”) or of time and place (e.g., “Fifi gave up when the squirrel ran up the tree”). Finally—and I know you’re still interested—some subordinating conjunctions like before or until can also be prepositions. If it connects clauses, it’s a conjunction and otherwise, a preposition. In “we need to get home before sunset”, before is a preposition, but in “we need to get home before Fifi gets bored”, it’s a conjunction—because “Fifi gets bored” is a clause, while “sunset” is a noun.

8 & 9. Interjections and Articles

Interjections are exclamations—words or expressions—that express a feeling, such as “Hurray!”, “Hey”, “Uh-oh”, “Good grief” or “Wow!” They can stand as a sentence on their own or be followed by other words (usually after a comma or em dash), but they’re not grammatically linked to the rest of the sentence.

Articles are either the definite article “the” or the indefinite articles “a” or “an”. “A” goes before words (or letters, abbreviations, etc.) that start with a consonant sound and “an” before those that start with a vowel sound.

There we go, done!


My focus group—of imaginary squirrels—thought this my most boring section. However, we do get to hanging hyphens and the subtle use of the en dash for prefixes and suffixes with open compounds. Hyphens show that two or more words of a sentence are connected, and one of their main roles is to avoid confusion or ambiguity. Examples of confusing phrases without correct hyphen placement are “twenty odd people”, “slow moving men”, “the sofa is recovered” or “extra marital sex”. Here’s some guidance:

1. Compound adjectives: Compound adjectives are hyphenated before a noun and not afterwards. So you have an open-minded politician, a six-foot-tall man, a nine-o’clock dinner or a world-famous dog. However, the hyphen disappears when the phrase follows the noun: the politician is open minded, the man is six foot tall, the dinner’s at nine o’clock or the dog’s world famous.

A compound adjective is a group of words that come together to modify a noun. The words combine to create a single idea. For example, a “tall red house” doesn’t contain a compound adjective: the house is tall and red, not a combination of tall and red—the clue is that the expression is ok with an “and” between the words, whereas a “world and famous dog” doesn’t make sense. The words in a compound adjective can be of any type. One example is an adverb modifying an adjective, for example, the “incredibly lazy cat” contains the compound adjective “incredibly lazy” (which doesn’t need a hyphen, as we’ll see). Another example is a long string of words, often used for comic effect, e.g., “Sue gave Geoff an I-told-you-so-and-next-time-I’m-choosing-the-restaurant look.” It’s possible to overdo this.

Note: If adjectives before a noun aren’t hyphenated (aside from the exceptions below), this implies they aren’t intended to be a compound adjective. So “twenty odd people” means twenty people who are odd: its meaning is read backwards—people is modified to odd people which is modified to twenty odd people. Rewriting to make this clearer may be a better idea, e.g., “twenty really odd people”.

Exceptions (before a noun): A compound adjective beginning with an adverb ending in ly or with very isn’t hyphenated. Examples are the “incredibly lazy cat”, a “rarely used skill”, a “smartly dressed woman” or a “very clever dog”. If the compound has more than two words, you can hyphenate the rest, e.g., “a very high-definition picture”. The reason is that there is no ambiguity here—the adverb clearly modifies the next word, and both together modify the noun. Adverbs not ending in ly are still hyphenated, for example “a well-known footballer” or “an almost-quiet dog”, because there is ambiguity there.

Note that “friendly-looking dog” is hyphenated. The reason is that friendly is not an adverb, but an adjective—you can tell because friendly can be used directly with the noun (a “friendly dog”) but the others can’t (they would give an “incredibly cat” or a “rarely skill”). The possibility of confusion exists without the hyphen: it could be a friendly “looking dog”, assuming such a thing exists. A “family-owned business” is similar.

Exceptions (after a noun): Some compound adjectives are always hyphenated, whether they come before or after a noun. If you suspect this, check a dictionary to confirm. Examples are in-depth, non-existent and state-of-the-art. Often you can make a fair guess because they don’t look right as separate words. Compound adjectives formed from prefixes or suffixes can also fit into this category, which we’re just about to get to.

Closed compounds: Some compound adjectives form a single word, such as extraordinary or northwest. Sometimes these started as two words or a hyphenated phrase but came into such common use that they graduated to a single word. Check a dictionary as needed.

2. Prefixes and suffixes: Prefixes such as dis, re, un and anti placed before a word change its meaning (there’s a list of seventy-three prefixes on Wikipedia: prefix). Suffixes added after a word do the same thing, for example, like, wide, less or able. The general rule is that hyphens are not needed, unless the meaning is clearer with them. Many words with prefixes or suffixes are standard words that can be checked in the dictionary (e.g., miscalculate), while others are “manufactured” by adding the prefix or suffix (e.g., misfire, or ex-parrot, borrowing from Monty Python). Guidelines around this are as below:

  • A prefix before a proper noun or an acronym should have a hyphen, e.g., un-American, mid-June, pro-NHS
  • A prefix before a number is hyphenated, e.g., mid-1950s or pre-2010.
  • A hyphen is needed if the word matches an existing word. For example, to re-form a sports team is different than to reform one. Other examples are re-cover or re-sign (most examples begin with re).
  • Use a hyphen to avoid doubling up the same vowel, e.g., anti-inflammatory or re-enter. However, sometimes doing this is ok, especially with an “o”, e.g., coordinate (but not co-owner). Sometimes the word can be spelt with or without a hyphen, and sometimes a difference exists between US and UK spelling—e.g., pre-empt (UK) or preempt (US). The US version is more likely to omit the hyphen. Check a dictionary to make sure.
  • Use a hyphen to avoid awkward spellings, for example, anti-aircraft, shell-like or de-ice. This is often a matter of judgement, but a dictionary can be used for standard words.
  • A hyphen is used before an already-hyphenated compound term, for example, pre-nineteenth-century style. Now we’re going to get subtle: if the compound term is open and not hyphenated, we use an en dash instead of a hyphen, for example, the style was prenineteenth century. I guess the reason is to indicate it applies to the whole compound and not just the single word. The same happens with suffixes after compound terms, for instance a United Kingdombased author. An en-dash is between the normal (em) dash and a hyphen. Here they are, all in a row: —, –, -. Typing an en dash varies depending on your keyboard and the program you’re using. In Word, you can use Insert, Symbols, More Symbols, Special Characters and choose the En Dash.
  • The following prefixes are usually hyphenated: all, cross, ex and self. However, self isn’t hyphenated if preceded by un, so self-conscious and unselfconscious are both correct. Self also isn’t hyphenated if it’s followed by a suffix as in selfless. Examples of the all prefix are all-powerful or all-encompassing. If all is used as a word rather than a prefix, then the rules for compound adjectives apply; you have an all-out effort, but the effort was all out. In addition, non usually take a hyphen in the UK (non-event), but not in the US (nonevent).
  • The following suffixes are usually hyphenated: elect, type and designate. The suffix like isn’t hyphenated unless the word has three or more syllables or ends in “l” or isn’t a dictionary word or is a proper noun—that was a long list of exceptions. Examples are childlike, cathedral-like, village-like or London-like. Wide is similar, for example, countrywide or London-wide. Hyphenating non-dictionary words created with a suffix is a good strategy since they tend to look alien otherwise.
  • While we’re here, let’s consider fold (and score) when preceded by numbers. Numbers up to ten are not hyphenated, so it should be twofold, eightfold or tenfold. Sources vary, but my best reading for higher numbers is to hyphenate if the number is hyphenated, as in the twenty-five-fold, but not if it isn’t, as in twelvefold, fiftyfold, or a thousandfold. In addition, the expression is hyphenated if numerals are used (10-fold or 2.5-fold). You also have the delightful word manyfold, as used in the lyrics to Benny Hill’s Ernie (“But a woman’s needs are manyfold, and Sue, she married Ted”). Score works the same, so it should be threescore, etc.
  • Apart from that (which is a longer list than I intended), you generally don’t have a hyphen, e.g., overexposed or cyberspace or midyear.

3. Compound nouns: We’ll make this one quick. Compound nouns are a group of words which join to form a noun—which can be a single word (closed), separate words (open), or hyphenated. They can be comprised of any types of word, although one is normally a noun. Examples are swimming pool, table lamp, snowman, firefly, sunrise, runner-up and merry-go-round. The dictionary should confirm which is correct, and sometimes more than one will be acceptable. See a few comments below:

  • For an established compound noun, as we’ve just said, the best way to decide its hyphen status is to check a dictionary. There are some guidelines, but they’re not entirely reliable. Example guidelines are that a verb plus adverb (e.g., sign-off or make-up) is hyphenated, but an adverb plus verb (e.g., downpour or output) isn’t.
  • If a compound noun is created from two nouns which are of equal status, then it should be hyphenated, as in singer-songwriter or city-state.
  • Compound nouns should be hyphenated when the presence of a modifier can cause confusion. This can arise in an expression like “small bat detector”. Strictly speaking, this means a bat detector that’s small, but the reader may think this is a detector of small bats. Writing “small bat-detector” would make this clear. If you really did mean a detector of small bats, it should be a “small-bat detector”. Whether you feel the need to hyphenate depends on how large the scope for confusion is. For example, a “short story writer” is a well-understood expression, but technically this means a short writer of stories, and you probably mean a “short-story writer”. In this case, writing “short story writer” is fine and common practice; if you really did mean the former, “short story-writer” would fix it, though it might be better to rephrase.
  • If “year old” is used in a compound noun expression, as in “she’s a two-year-old”, then it’s hyphenated. When used as an adjective, it’s hyphenated before a noun (a two-year-old child) but not after (she’s two years old), as normal.

4. Other Uses of Hyphens: Let’s finish this off with a few more uses of the hyphen:

  • Numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated, for example, twenty-three or one hundred and twenty-six. When the number’s in front of a noun, you don’t hyphenate any more than it already is; for example, it should be “one hundred and twenty-six men” not “one-hundred-and-twenty-six men. However, when combined with an adjective, the normal rules for compound adjectives apply, so it’s “a one-hundred-and-twenty-six-strong contingent” or a “six-inch ruler”. Numerals and an abbreviated unit of measure are not hyphenated, so it should be “a 150-centimetre tape measure”, but “a 150 cm tape measure”. Ordinals are hyphenated in similar manner, for example, twenty-third or one hundred and twenty-third. For time, no hyphen goes between hours and minutes, and it should be, for example, eleven forty-five. The suffix odd after a number is hyphenated (e.g., twenty-odd men or 150-odd books). Fractions are hyphenated, as in two-thirds; this isn’t the case if you use “a” as in “two and a half” or “a third”, although it is one-half or one-third. As with numbers, the rule for compound adjectives applies to fractions, so it would be “the answer is one and three-quarters”, but “a one-and-three-quarter-inch nail”. Note the different spelling: three-quarters as a noun, but three-quarter as an adjective. This unusual singular spelling (when used as an adjective) doesn’t seem to apply to any other fraction—for example, it’s a “two-thirds share” and not “two-third share”.
  • Ranges, scores and votes: We’re in the realm of the en dash here, which we met when hyphenating open compounds. This section describes the other uses for the en dash, which relate to connecting items. First is a range of values, for example, 2005–2015, chapters 1–3, March–June 2016, or 1:15–2:00 p.m. The use of the en dash is an alternative to “from” and “to” (from 2005 to 2015) or “between” and “and” (between 1:15 and 2:00 p.m.). They shouldn’t be mixed together, so “from 2005–2015” is wrong. The en dash shouldn’t be used where it could be confusing, for example, where there are minus numbers close by (e.g., write “-5 to -10” instead of using an en dash). Second is a score or vote, for example, “Arsenal won 2–0” or “the motion was passed 10–5”. A third is subtle and relates to when the word “to” is implied, for example, “London–Brighton railway” or “north–south street”. In addition, some style guides suggest an en dash to illustrate a relationship between two things of equal weight (like mother–daughter relationship), although this isn’t the majority view. A stronger case can be made if the dictionary defines it with an en dash, which may happen, for example, with scientific terms such as Bose–Einstein statistics. Even here, though, dictionaries vary, and fair play to you if your novel concerns Bose–Einstein statistics.
  • Hyphens can spell out words, such as H-E-L-P; or show syllabification, as in hy-phen-ate (dictionaries use an “interpunct” for this—feel free to look it up.).
  • Hyphens can show stuttering (or stammering) within words. I think you’d only want to do this occasionally, perhaps when a character is stressed; for a character who genuinely stuttered, then some research is a good idea to make sure this is handled sensitively. The stutter normally comes at the beginning of a word, for example, “I’m n-not scared.” The ellipsis is used for stuttering (repetition) of complete words.
  • Hanging or suspended hyphens are used when a single base word is used to create two or more hyphenated words which are separated with “and”, “or” or “to”. Examples are “nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels”, “one- to two-week holiday”, “a two- or three-year-old” and “250-, 500- or 750-piece jigsaws”. If the compound word is closed and not hyphenated, you can still have a hanging hyphen in front of the first instance, for example, “low- and highbrow” or “two- and fourfold”. The hanging hyphen can also be used when the base word comes first, for example, “squirrel-owned and -operated”.

5. Plurals and capitalisation rules plus some alternatives to hyphens: Still with me? This is definitely the last bit on hyphens.

    • Plurals in compound and hyphenated nouns: Usually this is clear and the final word is pluralised, but there are points to note. The key rule is to pluralise the significant or principal word in an open or hyphenated compound. For example, it should be daughters-in-law, trade unions, holes in one, courts martial (or court martials), brigadier-generals and assistant chiefs of staff. If two words are equally significant, I’ve seen guidance to pluralise both words. The only examples I’ve seen, use the word “women”, for example, “women drivers”, but there are probably others. If in doubt, pluralise the last word. For a noun hyphenated with a preposition, the plural is formed using the noun, for example, passers-by or hangers-on. Closed compounds almost always pluralise the final word; however, if the word is composed of a noun and preposition, then the guidance just given applies—for example, American English spells passerby without the hyphen, so the plural is passersby. A dictionary will confirm the correct plural unless you’ve created a new word—in which case these rules may help.
    • Capitalisation of hyphenated words: If you start a sentence with two-thirds, do you capitalise as “Two-thirds” or “Two-Thirds”? From a scan of the Internet, the guidance is just the first word (unless the second is a proper noun), so “Two-thirds” in this case. The advice is a little difference for titles or headings—best guidance seems to be that major words or words of equal status are capitalised, for example, “Bringing Sheepdogs Up-to-Date”.
    • Alternatives to hyphens in compound adjectives: The point of a hyphenated compound adjective is to link a series of words to describe something. Other options do exist, as a matter of stylistic choice. I’d only use these rarely, if at all—perhaps to make up a phrase that you want to stick.
      • Using quotes: Instead of she gave me a devil-may-care look, you could use “devil may care” look.
      • Using title case: If the adjective already uses capital case, hyphens aren’t needed, as in “a United Nations treaty” or a “Bruce Springsteen impression”. If you’ve made up an adjective, capitals could be used in a similar way—for example, “He gave his Angry Wolf growl.”
      • You could also use italics, as in “He gave his angry wolf growl.”
      • A final point: If you’re using one of these alternatives and add another word to the compound adjective, that is hyphenated. Examples could be “Bruce Springsteen-esque” or “devil may care”-like.


Although this section is in the middle of the article, I left it until almost last. I was dreading it! There are forty subsections on use of the comma in Chicago and fourteen in the Wikipedia: Comma article. However, despite some convoluted rules, it’s not that bad—honest. Wikipedia gives a reasonable definition, saying that “the words immediately before the comma are less closely or exclusively linked grammatically to those immediately after the comma than they might be otherwise.” A comma creates a logical structure for a sentence and helps avoid confusion and ambiguity. A wrongly placed or omitted comma can completely change a sentence’s meaning or create ambiguity, as in “She introduced me to her husband and dog, Spot”, “His greatest influences were his parents, Winston Churchill and Lassie”,  or “Most of the time travellers are tired”. A comma indicates a slight pause and creates a rhythm to the sentence. Flexibility and judgment are sometimes required, with the aim being clarity, lack of ambiguity and ease of reading. If you look carefully, I think you’ll find most the guidance makes sense in terms of these aims. For instance, we’re about to see that two independent clauses have a comma between them, as in “A flying saucer landed in Romsey, and our counter-alien expert mixed her banana smoothie.” Without a comma, the sentence is initially confusing because you’ll read “A flying saucer landed in Romsey and…” and think and applies to the flying saucer (until you read further and have to rethink). You’ll see further that we can sometimes break this rule if the clauses are short, for example, “A flying saucer landed in Romsey and Sue slept.” This is less likely to cause confusion and the missing comma perhaps gives a better flow. Overall, language and style evolution are towards less commas, and you’ll find older books typically have more commas. A decent rule of thumb is that clauses, phrases and disconnected words in a sentence are separated by commas (or something else like dashes, semi-colons or parentheses) unless no confusion, ambiguity or poor sentence flow is created by not having a comma. You can now skip the whole section! In case you don’t, some (hopefully) brief guidance is below. (Update: it isn’t that brief.)

  • Commas in lists: Items in a list are separated with commas. Examples are “Geoff packed a bone, two dog biscuits and a frisbee for the trip” or “To pass her bionics exam, Sue needed to complete the coursework, find some peace and quiet, and score at least 50 percent.” An and or an or will be before the last item, and high controversy surrounds the question of whether a comma should precede it. In the first example, there’s no comma before “and a frisbee”; in the second, a comma is before “and score”. This final comma is called an Oxford or serial comma. Some style guides say you should always include it—most US style guides say this, such as Chicago or AP—and some say you should include it when necessary, for example, to avoid confusion or to fit the flow of the words. I’d take it case by case: the first example is simple and clear without the comma, while the second example needs the comma because of the second and in the vicinity, so the final comma makes it clear that finding peace and quiet has been combined into a single list item. If the sentence continues beyond the list (as in the first example, with “for the trip”), a comma isn’t needed unless the sentence syntax requires it. A list separated by a series of and’s or or’s, such as “I’ve had it with Rover and Spot and you” has no commas, unless the items are long and commas would be helpful (as Chicago says). If the list items contain commas themselves or are unduly complicated, they can be separated with semi-colons (see the later section on semi-colons).
  • Joining independent clauses: Independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (these are defined by the mnemonic FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) should have a comma before the conjunction. Examples are “Sue’s exam was next week, yet she hadn’t started revising”, “Geoff took Rover to the park, and Sue panicked over her exam” and “You can’t do that, and where did you put the biscuits?” For three or more clauses, commas are needed between each one, for example, “Rover searched for the stick, but it wasn’t there, so he pretended to be distracted by a rabbit trail.” If three clauses are separated by “and” or “or”, then the sentence makes up a list and the “and” or “or” is only necessary for the final clause: “Geoff took Rover to the park, Sue panicked over her exam, and a mysterious presence stirred in Wimbledon.” For lists of independent clauses like this, you would have an Oxford comma before the final list item. The comma between two clauses can be omitted if the clauses are short and no confusion results, for example, “Rover chased the stick and Spot watched.” Something like “Geoff threw the stick for Rover and Spot watched” is confusing without a comma after Rover, at least on first reading—so one should be used.
    • Compound predicates (two clauses sharing the same subject), don’t need a comma, unless confusion is caused without one. To explain this better, here’s an example. “Sue was panicking over her exam, so she stocked up on chocolate” is an example of two independent clauses, as we’ve been discussing. If the she is omitted, no comma is needed, and we have “Sue was panicking over her exam so stocked up on chocolate.” The structure “was panicking over her exams so stocked up on chocolate” is called a compound predicate—two verb phrases sharing the same subject and joined by a conjunction—but please forget this instantly! Another example is “Geoff pondered Arsenal’s recent form and pretended to listen to the conversation.”
  • Restrictive (essential) and non-restrictive clauses, phrases and words: Restrictive (or essential) clauses (or phrases or words) provide essential information, without which the sentence would be incomplete or misleading. They restrict the sentence to a particular meaning. Although they’re more often called restrictive and non-restrictive, I’ll call them essential and non-essential to better highlight the meaning. Commas are not used with essential clauses, phrases or words. A classic example concerns names: “My friend Sue is worried about her bionics exam” doesn’t have commas around Sue because (hopefully) I have more than one friend, and the name Sue is essential to identify which one I’m talking about. Similarly, we say, “Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down is a terrific story” (Richard Adams wrote several novels, so the title is essential). Non-essential clauses (or phrases or words) provide supplemental or parenthetical information which isn’t essential to understanding the main clause and can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. Commas are needed for non-essential groupings—two commas if the wording is in the middle of a sentence or one at the beginning or end. The words can be removed without changing the meaning; a good test for non-essential wording is that it can be placed in parentheses (like this) or—like this—within dashes. An example is “My best friend, Sue, is worried about her bionics exam.” I only have one best friend, so Sue isn’t necessary to identify the friend and is extra information that could be omitted or put in parentheses. Sometimes different information is implied depending on whether commas are used; “My dog Rover is crazy” implies I have more than one dog and Rover is the one I’m referring to, whereas “My dog, Rover, is crazy” says I have one and the name is extra information. The distinction between essential and non-essential can be subtle and the decision can depend on the emphasis the author is trying to provide.
  • Independent and dependent clauses: Dependent clauses have a subject and a verb, but don’t provide a complete thought. They come in three types: adverbial clauses, which act as adverbs and usually start with a subordinating conjunction such as because, although or before; relative clauses, which act as adjectives and start with a relative pronoun or adverb such as who, whom, which, that or where; and noun clauses, which take the place of a noun, for example, “whichever squirrel is best at drawing”. Adverbial clauses can move around the sentence and the others can’t (not without restructuring, anyway). The guidance for comma use looks as follows:
    • Adverbial clauses: If the dependent clause comes before the main clause, there’s a comma, for example, “Because her bionics revision was going well, Sue relaxed.” If the dependent clause is midsentence, it should be surrounded by commas, for example, “Sue, because her revision was going well, relaxed.” If the dependent clause follows the independent clause (and is essential), no comma is needed: “Sue relaxed because her bionics revision was going well.” Usually the dependent phrase is essential, but let’s dig into that a bit more. For the example given, you could say the key point is that Sue relaxed, and her reason is not so important and therefore non-essential, so there should be a comma. There’s a balance though, and this isn’t really what non-essential means. I interpret it like this: a linking word like because, before or although wouldn’t be used if it wasn’t an important (and essential) part of what you’re trying to say unless there’s a reason why it should be downgraded. This might be that something else takes primary importance and relegates the because clause to more of an aside. An example is “Sue finally stopped revising, when it was 2:00 a.m.” The emphasis is on Sue finally stopping revising, and the time information becomes less important and probably non-essential—so it takes a comma. Rewording it as “Sue stopped revising when it was 2:00 a.m.” makes the time information more essential and a comma isn’t needed. Judgement is needed and the parenthesis rule can help determine if the wording is essential or more of an aside (if the phrase naturally fits in parentheses, it can be considered non-essential and commas are recommended). The following shows more examples where an adverbial clause after the main clause needs a comma:
      • Clauses of (extreme) contrast, for example, “Sue settled down to work, although she was a superhero.” These are introduced by adverbs of concession such as although, whereas, though, even though or while, and they create a contrast with the main clause. The consensus seems to be that a clause introduced by these adverbs is normally essential and a comma isn’t needed. However, several sources say a comma should be used when the clause is of “extreme contrast”—like the superhero example, which is an unexpected comparison. I think that’s about right and something like “Rover raced for the stick whereas Spot didn’t” is correct. I often find it tempting to put a comma before although, but—outside these examples of extreme contrast—it’s not usually needed.
      • Because with a negative verb: Statements such as “Spot didn’t chase the stick because he was confused” are…confusing. Did Spot ignore the stick because he was confused, or did he chase the stick but for a different reason than confusion? If a comma separates the phrases, this makes it clear Spot didn’t chase the stick and for reasons of confusion: “Spot didn’t chase the stick, because he was confused.” This fits our non-essential rule—the dependent clause can be put in parentheses here. Without the comma, didn’t applies to the rest of the sentence, and the dependent clause (“because he was confused”) is essential. To make the meaning clear, extra information should be added: “Spot didn’t chase the stick because he was confused; he chased it because that’s what dogs do.”
    • Relative clauses: If the clause is essential, there are no commas; if not, commas are used. Examples of each are “Rover was fascinated by the dog that had moved in next door” and “Fifi, who had just moved in, wondered why next door’s dog kept trying to impress her.” We delve a bit deeper below:
      • That and which are used to introduce relative clauses, alongside other relative pronouns and relative adverbs such as who, whom, where, etc. Consider the sentence “Geoff walked past the house that was said to be haunted”. This includes an essential clause (“that was said to be haunted”)—the details about the house are necessary to identify it. For an essential phrase about things, that is always used in American English as opposed to which. You can use which in British English, so “Geoff walked past the house which was said to be haunted” is ok for the UK, but for simplicity and to avoid an international incident, I’d stick with that. Now consider “Geoff walked towards Sue’s house, which needed a lick of paint.” This is a non-essential clause—that the house needs paint is incidental to the action. Which (and never that) is always used for non-essential clauses like this. Imagine rephrasing the first example as “Geoff walked past the house, which was said to be haunted.” The relative clause is now non-essential. For this to work, the house he’s walking past must have been identified earlier, and now the haunting stuff is incidental. Re-writing the second example as “Geoff walked towards Sue’s house that needed a lick of paint” doesn’t really work because the information about paint isn’t essential (unless Sue owns lots of houses and just this one needs a lick of paint) and due to this it sounds wrong (I think so, anyway). However, we might do something like “Geoff hesitated as he approached Sue’s house that held so many memories.” The writer is trying to tell you that the reason Geoff hesitated is “Sue’s house that held so many memories”, and the whole phrase comes as one and is all essential (with no comma). To be honest, I still don’t think this sounds right, and I’d rephrase, but this shows the subtlety that commas or lack of them can portray. Who or whom or whose are used in the same way as that or which except they provide information about a person (or possibly a named animal). Here, the distinction between essential and non-essential is purely based on whether there’s a comma or not. Examples are as follows, with the middle one essential and the other two non-essential: “Geoff, who was nervous of large dogs, backed away”, “The man who owned the dog had disappeared” and “The dog, whose hackles were raised, moved forward”. I hope it worked out ok.
        • Omission of that: As we mentioned a long time earlier (in the “Adjectives” subsection in “Parts of Speech”), that can be omitted in an essential phrase if the element it refers to is the object of the sentence. An example is “The biscuit [that] Rover ate was delicious.” The same applies to who, whom or which, for example, “The superyacht [which] I owned has sunk.” We can sometimes change these clauses to phrases by changing the expression or omitting words like “who was”—to give, for example, “Geoff, nervous of large dogs, backed away.” We spoke about this in the same place.
    • Noun clauses such as “whoever is last out” or “that Geoff was now lost” take the place of a noun so don’t normally need a comma before or after them. However, a few exceptions are shown below:
      • If the clause is being used as an apposite (a group of words next to a noun to explain it) and is non-essential, commas should surround it. An example is “His prize-winning theory, that squirrels don’t appreciate art, has been challenged by Professor Nutkin.” If an apposite clause is essential, as in “The theory that squirrels don’t appreciate art has been challenged by Professor Nutkin”, then there’s no comma. This also applies for noun phrases and nouns acting as apposites and is the same as our earlier examples about friends (“my friend Sue is” as opposed to “my best friend, Sue, is”).
      • If the noun clause is out of place by being used as an object at the start of a sentence, a comma should follow. This refers to sentences like “Why Sue was studying bionics, he had no idea”. The reason to structure sentences like this—as opposed to the normal subject-first order of “He had no idea why Sue was studying bionics”—relates to stress and emphasis.
      • A comma should be added to prevent confusion if repeated words occur—for example, “Who Culture Man is, is a mystery.”
  • Joining multiple dependent clauses: I had to think about this section—I hope it makes sense and is useful. The essential principle is simple: once two dependent clauses are joined, this makes a new dependent clause and the normal rules then apply. However, it’s a little more complex because sometimes you do it in a different order: the independent clause and one of the dependent clauses combine, and then the other dependent clause is added. We’ll look at three different cases. The same principles will apply to combining phrases or combining phrases and clauses.
    • Separate but equal clauses: By equal, I mean clauses of equal “rank” and roughly the same structure. Some examples are as follows: “Sue stopped revising when she’d memorised the history of robotics but before she’d mastered bionics”;  “Because Geoff was bored and even though it was raining, he went for a run”; “Rover was intrigued by next door’s dog, who had just moved in, who was ignoring him and who lived with a cat.” If there are two dependent clauses—as with the first two examples—they’re joined with one of the coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, yet, etc.). This is because the job of a coordinating conjunction is to join words, phrases or clauses of equal rank. Once you’ve joined them, they can be treated as one dependent clause and a comma is needed as appropriate. In the first example, the independent phrase (“Sue stopped revising”) comes first and the rest is essential, so a comma isn’t needed; in the second, the independent clause (“he went for a run”) is second, so a comma comes before it. Three or more dependent clauses, as with the “next door’s dog” example, form a list and the last one is preceded by and or or. This example also includes who as common to each clause; it can be rewritten as “Rover was intrigued by next door’s dog, who had just moved in, was ignoring him and lived with a cat.” This omission of a previously mentioned word is elision, which we discuss in the “Semi-colons” section. Sometimes, multiply joined clauses like this are candidates for asyndeton (omitting the and for style reasons—see later in this section). An example is “Because Geoff was bored, because everything had gone wrong, he found himself at Matt’s Bar again.”
    • A dependent clause follows by another dependent clause that modifies it: In this case, there’s no conjunction such as and. Examples are “Because Geoff became bored while he was stargazing, he went to the pub”; “Rover was intrigued by next door’s dog, who had moved in after her owner had found her at a shelter”; and “People who wear gloves which have holes for fingers are wasting their money.” The last one is an example of a double relative clause, which I hoped would impress you. Once the clauses are combined into one, then the whole clause is either essential or non-essential and the usual guidance applies (there’s a comma if it’s before the independent clause or is non-essential). Usually no comma goes between the two dependent clauses since if one modifies the other it will likely be essential. Indeed, a comma might create confusion, because a reader won’t know if it just applies to the first clause or the whole sentence. Consider “Geoff walked past the house which was said to be haunted, which no one believed.” Here, “which no one believed” strictly applies to Geoff walking past the supposedly haunted house, not the reality of the house being haunted. Ok, readers will work out what is meant, but the sentence doesn’t scan well. The same applies if the clause is non-essential: “Geoff walked past the spooky house, which was said to be haunted, which no one believed”, with the final clause again seeming to apply to Geoff walking past the spooky house. In either case, skip the comma after haunted (or rephrase so the meaning is clearer). However, if the dependent clauses are at the beginning of the sentence, then this confusion doesn’t arise, and if the second clause really is an aside (non-essential), then a comma can be used. An example is “Because Geoff became bored, which he often did, he went to the pub”—although em dashes might be better in this sentence.
    • Separate but unequal clauses: This applies (mostly, I think) to relative clauses followed by adverbial clauses which don’t modify it. An example is “Sue walked through the park which doubled as a squirrel sanctuary while she hummed a tune”. The sentence is built up by combining the main sentence (walking through the park) with the first dependent clause (the park being a squirrel sanctuary); this creates a single independent clause and we now add the second clause about humming a tune—since this is essential, there’s no comma. If the second part is more of an aside, there should be a comma, for example, “Many years ago, Sue’s mum had also walked through the park which was famous for squirrels, when she was a young girl.” If the first dependent clause is non-essential, then it’s surrounded by commas anyway, so the status of the second clause doesn’t matter: “Geoff walked through Squirrel Park, which was famous for its rabbits, while thinking about Arsenal.”
  • Commas with Phrases: A phrase is a logical group of words without a subject-verb pair. Some phrases are a natural part of the sentence and you correctly wouldn’t think to use a comma. This often applies to noun phrases such as “the intelligent squirrel” or verb phrases like “threw the dog a bone”, However, as we saw above, noun phrases acting as non-essential apposites do take commas—for example, “Rusty, the intelligent squirrel, slept.” The type of phrases we’re looking at here are participial phrases like “lounging at the bar”, “having lounged at the bar” or “struck by a drunken thought”; prepositional phrases like “after lunch”, “in the 1980s” or ” from a faraway galaxy”; infinitive phrases like “to win the day”; and simple phrases like “smartly dressed” or “slightly perturbed” (these are also participial phrases, but who’s checking). These either act as adjectives or adverbs and are therefore also adjective or adverbial phrases. (They could act as a noun as in “To win the day was her plan”—in this case they should be treated as such with no comma. We’re more interested in something like “To win the day, Rover went next door.”) The basic rule is that a phrase at the beginning of a sentence is followed by a comma; and one in the middle or at the end of a sentence has commas if the phrase is non-essential but not if essential. However, a short phrase—I’ve seen guidance of “less than five words”—at the beginning can omit the comma if this doesn’t cause confusion, for example, “After lunch Rusty went back to sleep”. As far as I can see, this only applies to prepositional phrases—those starting with prepositions such as in, before, until, under, etc.—and single adverbs (see a bit further below in “Commas with words—adverbs”). Below are a few phrase examples:
    • Phrases at the start of a sentence: Examples are “Sipping his afternoon beer, Geoff wondered if he should help Sue with her revision”, “Slightly puzzled, the squirrel disappeared up the tree”, “To save the universe, Sue needed to pass her bionics course” and “Before sunset Rover had to speak to the dog next door.”
      • Inverted sentences: There’s no comma if the phrase is before an inverted sentence (the verb comes before the noun), such as, “Through the fields ran the dog” or “In the tree was the squirrel.”
    • Phrases in mid-sentence: Examples are “Real Madrid, with wins from 2016 to 2018, are the only team to retain the Champion League since it started in 1993” and “Sue, to save the universe, also needed Geoff to pull his weight.” An essential (no comma) example is “Squirrels puzzled by events don’t usually have the benefit of a helpline.”
      • Not phrases: The use of a not phrase to create a contrast or an emphasis, such as “Sue, not Geoff, took Rover to the obedience class”, is a non-essential phrase so should have commas.
    • Phrases at the end of a sentence: Examples are “Rover approached next door’s gate, strangely nervous”, “Geoff looked for Rover, wondering where he’d got to” and “Culture Man was published two years ago, in 2017.” Essential examples are “The spy always returned from headquarters utterly confused by his briefings” and “Culture Man was published in 2017.”
    • Joining multiple phrases: The principles here are the same as described in the earlier section on “joining multiple clauses”, and indeed would also apply when joining clauses and phrases. As such, and to save your sanity, I’ll keep it short. If the phrases are separate but equal (meaning they’re similar in structure and don’t modify each other), they’re joined with a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, or, but or yet) or—with more than two phrases—a comma-separated list. (Sometimes the and between phrases can be omitted for style reasons—which is called asyndeton.) An example is “Sipping his afternoon beer and reading the paper, Geoff wondered if he should help Sue.” If the second phrase modifies the first, they’ll generally fuse together, for example, “Sipping his afternoon beer in the sunshine, Geoff wondered if Sue appreciated him” or “Rover ran along the beach in the rain.” For a non-essential phrase, a comma can be used if the phrases aren’t at the end of the sentence (if they are, this can create confusion as we described in the “joining multiple clauses” bullet). An example is “Running for the bus, a daily occurrence, Geoff considered his diet”. If the first phrase combines with the main sentence (the independent clause)—for example, “she walked through the park brimming with squirrels”—then the second phrase (assuming it doesn’t modify the first phrase about squirrels) will take a comma based on whether it’s essential or non-essential. A non-essential example is “She walked through the park brimming with squirrels, humming a tune.” This sentence would be surreal without the comma, and even if you felt the tune humming was essential, you’d use a comma to make the meaning clear. An essential example is “She walked through the park brimming with squirrels at a fair pace.”
  • Commas with separate words—general: Words that are separate from the nearby phrase or clause can be thought of as short phrases and the guidance should be the same as for phrases: a comma follows if it’s at the beginning of the sentence (except sometimes you can omit it) and, otherwise, commas are used when it’s non-essential. This is more or less true, but there are subtleties, so let’s look at some of these in the next few bullets.
  • Commas with words—conjunctive adverbs like however and therefore: Further examples of conjunctive adverbs are anyway, as a result, accordingly, finally, for example, meanwhile, moreover, rather, then, and that is (they can be several words). Conjunctive adverbs are adverbs that modify—or give extra meaning to—the whole independent clause they’re part of, in relation to a preceding independent clause. An example is “Rover was lost. However, there were loads of rabbits to chase.” The two clauses could also be separated by a semi-colon: “Rover was lost; however, there were loads of rabbits to chase.” Yet one more way exists to join two independent clauses, using a conjunction such as and or but, leaving “Rover was lost, but however, there were loads of rabbits to chase.” (A comma is not needed after butbut joins the next sentence which starts “however, there were….”) A comma normally follows a conjunctive adverb in all three scenarios. The conjunctive adverb can also move around the sentence (or independent clause); in which case, they’re still normally surrounded by commas. Examples are “There were loads of rabbits to chase, however” or “There were loads of rabbits, however, to chase.” A list of sixty-odd words or phrases that can act as conjunctive adverbs is given at ThoughtCo: Conjunctive Adverbs. Some can also act as normal adverbs or other parts of speech or have different meanings; the clue telling us they’re conjunctive adverbs is that they’re acting like them—by modifying an independent clause relative to a previous one. Here are some exceptions where a comma isn’t needed with a conjunctive adverb:
    • If the adverb only has one syllable, for example, hence or thus: “Rover couldn’t find the stick. Hence he executed a sophisticated sweep search.”
    • If the adverb forms a “weak” interruption, is not stressed, is essential to the meaning of the clause, the emphasis is on the adverb itself, or if the sentence is just as effective without it. I’ve seen all these listed as reasons to omit the comma; for me, the meanings aren’t entirely clear and are a bit contradictory. Examples are something like this: “This is indeed a problem”, “Sue therefore went down the pub”, or “Spot was lost also.” You can see that these examples show less of an interruption than something like “Geoff, however, was ten miles away”. I think the best guidance is by sound—if there’s not a clear pause, you can consider omitting the comma to give a better sentence flow. This is less likely to happen at the beginning of the clause, unless the two independent clauses are joined by a conjunction like and—“Sue arrived at the pub, and therefore she ordered a pint” seems ok. (You might omit the she in this sentence—see next bullet point for more on this). Some words are more likely to act as a weak interruption and some—like however—almost never will.
    • Conjunctive adverb when the subject is shared: By definition, these adverbs link two independent clauses, but there’s one scenario where this isn’t quite true. This is when the subject is shared between the clauses (which is a compound predicate). “Sue arrived at the pub and therefore ordered a pint” is an example. Since this isn’t two independent clauses, it can’t be written as two sentences or with a semi-colon. It also can’t be written with a single comma (as it would if the second clause was independent) because this would split the sentence in an illogical way. The choice is between no commas as above or two commas (which effectively parenthesise therefore)—“Sue arrived at the pub and, therefore, ordered a pint.” To decide, follow the earlier guidance—commas are needed unless the conjunctive adverb has one syllable or forms a “weak” interruption. In this case, I think therefore is a weak interruption and wouldn’t use commas. A more natural example (with the single-syllabled then) is “Sue arrived at the pub and then ordered a pint.”
    • Finally: then (with a comma) can be short for and then: This is a common shortcut. The last example could be “Sue arrived at the pub, then ordered a pint.”
  • Commas with words—adverbs: For this bullet and the next, I recommend Beth Hill’s excellent The Editor’s Blog: A Tale of Adverbs and the Comma. If an adverb’s modifying a verb, then it may be next to the verb, but it may also be separate. For example, we could say, “Fifi playfully approached Rover” or “Fifi approached Rover playfully” or “Playfully Fifi approached Rover.” No comma is needed with these. You might be tempted in the last case; however, although this may have attracted a comma in days gone by, the guidance now is towards less commas. However, a comma is needed with an introductory adverb if the sentence is otherwise confusing. An example is “Outside the snow was falling”, which appears to lump “outside the snow” as one unit; it should be written as “Outside, the snow was falling.” Adverbs can also modify an adjective or another adverb—such as in “very tall” or “incredibly loudly”—and in this case, always go before that adjective or adverb and can’t move around. There aren’t commas between two consecutive adverbs—like “incredibly loudly”—since the first adverb modifies the second. The one exception to this is for repeated adverbs, such as “developing superpowers is really, really hard”. Two separate adverbs which don’t modify each other are separated by a conjunction like and or but: “Rover backed away slowly and carefully.”
  • Commas with words—sentence adverbs: We’ve just talked about adverbs modifying verbs, adjectives or adverbs. They can also modify a sentence or clause; in this case, they’re called sentence adverbs. Consider “Sadly, the old man’s wife had died some years ago.” Here, sadly refers to the whole sentence: the man’s wife didn’t die in a sad manner; the full sentence provides the sadness. The sentiment of sadness is the opinion or judgment of the speaker or author (or viewpoint character), rather than a description of something (e.g., Fifi playfully approaching). Another example is “Amazingly, although the manhole was right in Geoff’s path, he stepped straight over it.” Sentence adverbs like this may also be in the middle or at the end of the sentence or clause, and commas are used for all cases. Other examples are fortunately, honestly, luckily, naturally and surprisingly—the link in the previous bullet lists twenty-five. These are also capable of acting as normal adverbs, for example, “he swam naturally”. Note the contrast with something like suddenly. In “suddenly the tiger roared”, you might be tempted to think suddenly applies to the whole clause, but it doesn’t really, or (ok) if it does, it more specifically refers to the act of roaring being sudden. If you swap the sentence round to “the tiger suddenly roared” it’s more obvious this is a normal adverb in the sense that the old man’s wife sadly dying isn’t. Beth Hill’s article also defines a slightly different type of sentence adverb which places the sentence in a particular context, although the effect is the same. These are words like generally, politically, religiously or scientifically, for example, “Scientifically, Sue was right about time travel.” As Beth says, these could easily be followed by the word speaking (“scientifically speaking”, etc.).
  • Commas with words—introductory adjectives: An introductory adjective takes a comma—for example, “Nervous, Geoff looked at the football score.”
  • Commas with words (or short phrases)—miscellaneous: See the following for guidance on a variety of scenarios:
    • Introductory interjections or exclamations: A comma (or an exclamation mark) usually follows a word or expression such as Yes, No, Ok, Well, Um, Oh, Ah or Heavens to Murgatroyd, as in “Ok, I’ll take the dog for a walk.” An exception can be made for emphasis, for example, “Yes I flipping will” or “No you can’t.”
    • Direct address—hello, hi, let’s go, etc.: This refers to expressions like “Let’s go, Rover”, “Hello, Guy”, “Come in, number six”, “Consider, team, what went wrong here,” “Hi, Geoff” and “Rover, put that down.” When a dog, person, boat, team or whatever is directly addressed like this, they should be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. The reason or at least part of the reason is that confusion can occur without a comma, for example, “Let’s drive George.” When you write letters with a greeting such as “Dear Guy”, this is different—Dear is a modifier of the name and not an address and hence doesn’t attract a comma. However, an email or text greeting like “Hi Guy” ought to have a comma after Hi, although no one ever uses one. Apart from this—where I’d go with common usage—a comma should be used, including for spoken dialogue like “Hi, Fifi” where you could get away without it.
    • Correlative conjunctions (either/or, not only/but also, no sooner/than, etc.): These don’t usually have commas, for example, “Sue arrived at hockey training not only late but also without her stick.” However, you could use a comma or an em dash to provide extra emphasis: “Geoff arrived at the airport—not only determined to catch his flight but also surprisingly in possession of his passport.”
    • For example, that is, namely, for instance, such as, like and including…and similar: You’ll notice that, for example, I’ve used for example a lot in this blog. Words like these provide extra information or clarity by expanding on the previous text. The first four can all act as conjunctive adverbs to link sentences or independent clauses: “Squirrels come in all shapes and sizes. For example, the Indian giant squirrel is three-foot long including the tail.” We saw earlier that they take commas in this case unless the interruption is weak (which is unlikely with these words). We’re more interested here in seeing how they work when they’re part of a single sentence and aren’t linking separate clauses. An example is “There are many types of squirrel, for example, the African pygmy squirrel and about fifty species of flying squirrel.” In this case, commas go before and after for example; the same would apply to that is, namely or for instance. Chicago recommends using an em dash in situations like this: “There are only a few mammals that glide—for instance, flying squirrels or flying lemurs.” This makes the sentence easier to read, especially if it continues onwards: “There are a number of traits—for example, flying, X-ray vision and affecting an air of nonchalance—that are desirable for a superhero.” I tend to switch between em dashes and commas, depending how long the example is. Parentheses could also be used sometimes. These words are treated as an introductory phrase, which is why they need a comma. Such as, like and including are different. They form a phrase together with the following words, and a comma should be before and after the phrase if it’s non-essential: “Grey squirrels, such as Rusty, are less active in winter but don’t hibernate.” This is nothing new—it’s the normal rule of enclosing words or phrases in commas if they’re non-essential. An example where the phrase is essential is “People like Geoff shouldn’t tell jokes.” (If you removed “like Geoff”, then the meaning is changed; rewriting as “Some people, like Geoff, shouldn’t tell jokes” makes the phrase “like Geoff” non-essential and you can remove it without changing the meaning.)
    • The abbreviations e.g. and i.e.: e.g. stands for exempli gratia and i.e. for id est, which are Latin words meaning for example and that is (or in other words). Most guidance says to use a comma after these, e.g., like this. This is logical because “for example” is followed by a comma. Informal usage does sometimes omit the comma, e.g. like this, which doesn’t cause great problems—but to be consistent and logical, you may as well use a comma. Some guidance (e.g., Chicago) says these abbreviations should only be used within parentheses in formal writing.
    • The abbreviations etc. and et al.: While we’re here, lets mention the abbreviations for et cetera (meaning and other similar things) and et alia (and others). They often act as the last item in a list, for example, “dogs, cats, squirrels, etc.” or “Professor Nutkin, Dr Bushytail, et al.). A comma goes before them (unless there’s only one item in the list, as in “Geoff et al.”). A comma follows them if required by the sentence but not otherwise, as shown by “dogs, cats, squirrels, etc. have run amok in Central Park.” A phrase of similar meaning like “and so forth” acts the same.
  • Multiple adjectives (coordinate and cumulative adjectives): Take the following examples: 1) “A gasping, exhausted Geoff staggered through Sue’s front door.” 2) “It had been a tough three-mile run.” The first one shows coordinate adjectives. They act independently on the noun (Geoff) and you could put an and between them or swap them around: “a gasping and exhausted Geoff” or “an exhausted, gasping Geoff”. Sometimes the and could be replaced with a but (e.g., “tired but happy). The second example shows cumulative adjectives. Three-mile modifies the noun run to become the single unit three-mile run, and then tough further modifies this unit. “A tough and three-mile run” or “a three-mile tough run” doesn’t make sense, or certainly doesn’t sound right. Other examples of cumulative adjectives are “three blind mice” or “an ambitious police dog”. The summary is that a comma between adjectives is equivalent to putting an and between them and means the order can be swapped; if you can’t put an and between them, a comma can’t be used. Consider a phrase like “tall red house”. Tall and red are cumulative since a “tall and red house” or a “red tall house” is clearly wrong, at least to the ear of a native English speaker. So we follow our rule and don’t use a comma. However, logically a “tall and red house” is fine, so let’s have a deeper look at what’s going on. There’s an order of adjective types (sometimes called the royal order of adjectives), which reads roughly as follows: adjectives related to quantity, then to observation or opinion, then size, age, shape or appearance, colour, origin, material, and finally type or purpose (like walking in “walking stick”). Guide to Grammar: Adjectives (about half way down, under the title The Order of Adjectives in a Series) gives a good summary of this. This explains why it’s a “tall red house” and not a “red tall house”—because size comes before colour. There’s no logic to this; it’s just the way English has developed. Similarly, it would be “two beautiful old red Welsh brick houses”, although using that many adjectives is a little excessive. There are occasional exceptions to this order, and you should rely on your ear if something sounds wrong—in particular, sometimes shape comes before age. Adjectives become coordinate adjectives and need a comma when they’re in the same category; for example, a “gasping, exhausted Geoff” includes two adjectives in the observation category, so a comma (or the word and) is placed between them. This also explains why repeated adjectives should have a comma, for example, “the dark, dark skies”. A string of adjectives might include both types, for example, “a beautiful, atmospheric tall red house” or “a tall red brick and stone house”. The presence or absence of the comma (or and) can also determine nuances of meaning, usually when an adjective can be in either the observation or the type category. For example, “a self-inflicted and sticky situation” is slightly different from “a self-inflicted sticky situation”. Not very, to be honest, but you get the point!
  • Commas relating to quotations and speech are explained in the “Quotations and Direct Speech” section.
  • Elision: A comma can be used to show omitted words (elision). We dig into this more in the “Semi-colons” section—an example is “Geoff had three beers; Sue, two.”
  • The comma splice: This is a comma joining two independent clauses, for example, “He looked at the guards, they weren’t looking at him” or “That’s what I do, I can’t help it.” It’s ungrammatical but arguably can be used to effect in fiction for stylistic reasons. You’ll find a lot of articles saying to never use these; however, renowned authors have deliberately done so. As Lynne Truss sarcastically says in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “do it only if you’re famous”. Comma splices might be useful to create an effect of fast-paced action or informality, especially if the clauses are short—but only rarely. My thoughts are not to use comma splices but to use the effect I describe below to achieve a similar aim.
    • Asyndeton (and polysyndeton): I didn’t use any comma splices in Culture Man, at least not intentionally. However, I did use something I’ve since found out is called asyndeton, which is the omission of conjunctions such as “and” within a sentence. This looks something like “He saw me, went for his gun” or “She sighed, turned away.” We can change the earlier splice example into a more acceptable asyndeton by writing, “He looked at the guards, saw they weren’t looking at him.” Louise Harnby has written a good article about this at The Parlour: Playing with the rhythm of fiction. She writes, in particular, about crime fiction and describes how this technique can often be effective within crime noir—as long as it’s not overdone. The rhythm speeds up and so this can portray fast-moving action or tension. Louise also talks about how it can show emotions such as frustration, fear or urgency, or to show a sense of dislocation. Perhaps this asks a lot of the technique, but it will certainly show a change in tone, so this can accentuate other changes in the story at that point (like a shift into action or danger). Louise also talks about polysyndeton, which is using multiple conjunctions, for example, “She faced the room and her boss was asking for the report and she felt sick and the phone was ringing and, worst of all, Harold hovered in the distance.” This can create a sense of excitement or of being overwhelmed.
  • Commas in complex sentences: This concerns sentences made up of multiple clauses, phrases, standalone words, adjectives, adverbs, et al. and is easier than you think. The key is to apply the guidance sequentially. For example, take the sentence “The man rushed into the saloon bar without taking his customary precautions.” This is an independent clause followed by the phrase “without taking his usual precautions”. A little judgment is needed, but the phrase is fairly obviously essential, so no comma follows “saloon bar”. The sentence is an independent clause in its own right (you can forget it consists of a clause and a phrase). Let’s add a dependent phrase to the beginning. Since a dependent phrase before an independent phrase takes a comma, we have the following: “Because he was under time pressure, the man rushed into the saloon bar without taking his customary precautions.” This new sentence is once again an independent clause in its own right (we’re starting to see a pattern!). So if we add another independent clause to the end it should be joined with a conjunction like and, plus a comma: “Because he was under time pressure, the man rushed into the saloon bar without taking his customary precautions, and he rapidly realised his error.” Now let’s add a couple of adjectives, a sentence adverb and a phrase before the final clause, following the usual guidelines: “Because he was under time pressure, unusually, the tall, red-haired man rushed into the saloon bar without taking his customary precautions, and paying no attention to the squirrel at the piano, he rapidly realised his error.” Again, this increasingly large sentence is an independent clause, so let’s add the dependent clause “before it was too late” and a conclusion. Remembering that dependent clauses after independent clauses don’t require commas unless they’re non-essential, we now have the following: “Because he was under time pressure, unusually, the tall, red-haired man rushed into the saloon bar without taking his customary precautions, and paying no attention to the squirrel at the piano, he rapidly realised his error before it was too late—and did his flies up.” We could keep going like this indefinitely, although the sentence will quickly get out of control (if it hasn’t already). Well-paced writing tends to have a mix of short, medium and long sentences. A sentence of the above length—forty-six words—is rare, but the occasional well-crafted long sentence can be useful, for example, to build up tension, provide detailed description or give precise analysis. This applies to both fiction and other writing; more formal writing such as academic or legal writing is likely to have longer average sentence lengths than fiction. Sentence length relates to readability and we dig into this a little more in the final section of the blog, “Good Writing”.  See below for a couple of further comments on commas in complex sentences. These don’t contradict anything in this section but expand on them a bit. They also explain why there’s no comma before “paying no attention to the squirrel” in our example.
    • When a dependent clause or phrase is between two independent clauses, the comma is before the conjunction joining them. Our updated example is “The man rushed into the saloon bar, but since his dog had escaped that morning, he forgot to check for piano-playing squirrels.” This is as we discussed above: the sentence from since onwards is an independent clause (made up of a dependent and independent clause); joining the first clause to it needs a comma and a conjunction such as but. The same would apply if the middle section was a phrase like “because of dog-related issues” or “having had little sleep”. Some people—more so in the past—would also put a comma after but. There is some logic in this because you can build the sentence in a different order. Consider “The man rushed into the saloon bar, but he forgot to check for piano-playing squirrels.” You could argue that a dependent and non-essential clause inserted into the middle of such a sentence should have commas around it, resulting in “The man rushed into the saloon bar, but, since his dog had escaped that morning, he forgot to check for piano-playing squirrels.” I don’t think this holds since the part about the dog belongs with the second clause not the sentence as a whole, but this is why you’ll sometimes see it. Anyway, don’t do it—it’s not necessary! How about if the sentence (minus the phrase in the middle) is not two independent clauses but a compound predicate (which I asked you to forget about—it means the he is omitted): “The man rushed into the saloon bar but forgot to check for piano-playing squirrels.” Now this is simply one sentence (not two independent clauses) and putting in a clause or phrase does require commas around it: “The man rushed into the saloon bar but, since his dog had escaped that morning, forgot to check for piano-playing squirrels.” So, if the subject is omitted in the second clause, the comma is after the conjunction.
    • Multiple dependent clauses and phrases: You can write quite complex sentences by stringing together dependent clauses or phrases:  “The renowned superhero, famous for the Armada incident, disregarding all signs of danger, charged into the saloon bar, although it was shut and despite the squirrel at the piano, with hope in his heart”. A sentence like this has its place, perhaps to give a playful tone or a sense of ceremony (for example, when a list of achievements or qualities are read out).
  • Pitfalls to look out for: See below for a few examples where it’s possible to trip up. There are doubtless others. When creating longer sentences, care should be taken that they can’t be read in different ways than intended.
    • Multiple and’s: These always need a bit of care to make sure the sentence reads as intended. Even single and‘s can trip you up. Consider “We bought a hamster and a fishing rod to catch some dinner.” Assuming the hamster isn’t going hunting, we need to restrict the dinner catching to the fishing rod. We could try swapping the order: “We bought a fishing rod to catch some dinner and a hamster.” This might work sometimes, but in this case it creates a new problem. A comma can be added to fix this: “We bought a hamster, and a fishing rod to catch some dinner”. Em dashes could also be used: “We bought a fishing rod—to catch some dinner—and a hamster.” Using lists where the items have different (non-parallel) structures can create similar problems. As ever, the point is to focus on making the sentence clear. An example with multiple and’s is “Squirrels eat nuts and seeds and like trees.” The sentence reads ok and is understandable, but the reader would have to backtrack to realise that eat no longer applies when they reach “like trees”. A sentence like “Squirrels eat nuts and seeds and trees are their favourite places” is even more awkward. So, for both logic and clarity, a comma is added: “Squirrels eat nuts and seeds, and like trees.” (A purer solution might be to make the second clause independent, “Squirrels eat nuts and seeds, and they like trees.”) In this case, swapping the order would fix the problem—”Squirrels like trees and eat nuts and seeds”—so this would also be ok.
    • Running phrases into lists: Consider “After Sue met the dog trainer, Rover and Spot betrayed a strange nervousness.” Here, “dog trainer, Rover and Spot” can be read as part of a list and indeed the sentence could have continued as “After Sue met the dog trainer, Rover and Spot, she realised they’d all work together fine.” Reversing the order makes for a clearer sentence: “Rover and Spot betrayed a strange nervousness after Sue met the dog trainer.” The problem is that dog trainer, Rover and Spot are all things Sue could have met (it would be worse if they were all names—”after Sue met Tom, Geoff and Roger were nervous”). The structure works fine in other circumstances, for example, “After Sue came home, Rover and Spot barked joyously.”
    • Long phrases or clauses may need commas to avoid confusion even if the logic doesn’t seem to demand it: Consider “Sue and Geoff played volleyball with friends on a beach in the evening sunshine.” This is fine—all the information is relevant, and no commas are needed. Let’s make it a bit more complex: “Sue and Geoff played a strenuous game of volleyball with friends they’d known since school on a beach that stretched along miles of white sand and reminded them of their first holiday together in the evening sunshine.” This ought to be fine, but you get a bit lost and the phrases run into each other. You could read “friends they’d known since school on a beach” as Sue and Geoff only ever knowing their friends on a beach; you could also read “first holiday together in the evening sunshine” as a very short holiday in the evening sunshine. Once the reader thinks a bit, they’ll probably untangle the sentence—but being clearer is better. We might be able to play with the word order and fix the sentence without commas. Alternatively, we could add commas to avoid the confusion: “Sue and Geoff played a strenuous game of volleyball with friends they’d known since school, on a beach that stretched along miles of white sand and reminded them of their first holiday together, in the evening sunshine.” I might use dashes here, but the commas are ok. Note that if you can write a long sentence like this that avoids confusion and doesn’t require commas, they don’t need to be added for the sake of it.
    • Subtleties of compound predicates: I keep saying to forget compound predicates, yet here we are again. To remind you, this is a sentence where the subject is shared between two clauses, such as “Rover chases sticks and wonders about the mysteries of the universe.” There’s no comma since Rover is common to both clauses. How about if we add an extra phrase to each clause: “Rover chases sticks in his spare time and wonders about the mysteries of the universe that the Sky at Night often highlights.” No commas are needed since each phrase is essential to the clause it’s attached to. Let’s add a non-essential phrase to the first clause: “Rover chases sticks, an activity he’s only recently taken up, and wonders about the mysteries of the universe.” Now we have a pair of commas to separate the phrase about him taking up the activity recently, and this belongs with the first clause (chasing sticks). How about adding a non-essential phrase to the second clause: “Rover chases sticks in his spare time and wonders about the mysteries of the universe, which he’d only taken to doing recently.” Suddenly this isn’t so clear, and we’re getting to the point of this section. Does “which he’d only taken to doing recently” apply to the second clause (wondering about the universe) or to both clauses (chasing sticks and wondering about the universe)? I think technically it refers to both, but it’s best to avoid this since there’s scope for confusion. To refer to just the second clause, we could either swap the two clauses around or turn the second clause into an independent clause, like this: “Rover chases sticks in his spare time, and he wonders about the mysteries of the universe, which he’d only taken to doing recently.” For the phrase to apply to both parts and make the sentence easily understandable, something like this would work: “Rover had only recently taken to chasing sticks and wondering about the mysteries of the universe.”
    • Confusing antecedents: An antecedent is an expression that’s replaced by a shorter expression for reasons of brevity or to avoid repetition. Often this is a noun replaced by a pronoun—for example, in “Geoff lost his dog again”, Geoff is the antecedent and his the replacement pronoun. In the general case, the antecedent can be any word or group of words (including a whole sentence), and the word or expression standing in for it is called a pro-form. For example, in “playing in the glade is great fun, and all the squirrels do it”, “playing in the glade” is the antecedent and “do it” is the pro-form (see Wikipedia: Antecedent for more details and examples). These can cause confusion with or without commas. Consider “Sue had coffee with Jill after her exam.” After whose exam? We need more clarity, for example, “After Sue’s exam, she had coffee with Jill.” Commas can create greater confusion. Consider “The property mogul, son of a prominent lawyer, who was jailed in 1996, prepared to face his demons again”? Who was jailed? Or “Dragons and krakens, which drag ships under the sea, are examples of mythical beasts.” Is it both dragons and krakens that drag ships out the sea, or just krakens? Or “Geoff went running on Monday evenings, and Sue visited her poker friends, unless the weather was stormy.” Does the unless phrase refer to both Geoff’s running and Sue’s poker, or just one of them (probably Sue’s poker, being the closest phrase)? The last example mirrors a legal principle called the “Rule of the Last Antecedent”, which says a qualifying phrase (the unless phrase here) applies to all previous antecedents if it’s preceded by a comma. Following this rule, the unless would apply to both Geoff and Sue. However, the principle isn’t widely or consistently applied by the courts, as far as I can see, and does have caveats. A Canadian case along these lines involving Bell Aliant made headlines in 2007. In fact, there shouldn’t be a comma before unless because this is an essential phrase and, written without the comma, it would just apply to Sue since this is part of the independent clause about Sue—this may or may not be what was intended. Since this leaves scope for confusion, splitting Sue’s and Geoff’s activities with a semi-colon or separate sentence would be better. To apply to both, the sentence should be rewritten, for example, “Unless the weather was stormy, they each did their own thing on Mondays: Geoff went running and Sue visited her poker friends.” The key point is to write these sentences so the meaning is clear and unambiguous—and without relying on the subtleties of grammar rules or guidance.
  • This section was far too long!

Numbers, dates and times

Well, this section is easy because there’s an excellent article on The Editor’s Blog: Numbers in Fiction, by Beth Hill. I don’t need to say anything except suggest you read that post on anything relating to numbers, dates or times. However, since I couldn’t resist, I’ll summarise a few points and delve into a couple of extra issues that sidetracked me. Note that we have come across numbers and dates a little already: on the difference between US and British dates in the section on British and American English; on hyphenating numbers in the hyphen section; on ranges of times and dates, also in the hyphen section; and we discuss scientific terms and units later, in the “Quotes and Italics” section. As ever, style guides vary on this.

  • Numbers: Spell out numbers up to one hundred. So it would be sixty-two, but 156. If the number is a multiple of a hundred or a thousand (or beyond), use the same rule for the first part: it should be six thousand or twenty-three million, but 156 million (this is preferable to 156,000,000). If you ever do spell out a long number, there are no commas, for example “one thousand one hundred and twenty-three”. Any number starting a sentence should be spelt out (or the sentence restructured to avoid it), even if it’s over one hundred—some style guides make an exception for years, as in “1985 was my greatest year”. For numerals over three digits, include commas every three spaces from the left, for example, 1,345,276. Exceptions are made for serial numbers (for example, “Rover’s stick-fetching certificate was number 195842”), telephone numbers or years. The one hundred limit is not universal (AP recommends using numerals after nine) but is probably the consensus. The same principle applies to ordinals, so it would be twenty-third, but 102nd. This all applies to narrative, but more flexibility applies with dialogue or quotes. Normally, dialogue veers towards the actual spoken words, even if over one hundred, because the sounds made are more important here. An example could be “I’ve sold three hundred and fifty-two copies of Culture Man.” However, if it becomes unwieldy—lots of numbers or really large ones— then use numerals in speech. On the flip side, if a written quote uses numerals, so would you; for example, a note on the fridge might say, “Please buy 2 pints of milk.” Decimals are written in numerals, as in “The temperature was 3.5 degrees in the flat”, “Culture Man has a 0.1 percent chance of winning the Booker Prize” or “I have £2.2 million in the bank.” Again, within dialogue, you may want to emphasize the way the words sound, for instance, “Your odds of success are nought point nought one.” Simple fractions are written as hyphenated words, such as two-fifths. Whole numbers plus simple fractions are generally written numerically (such as 5 ⅔), although, as Chicago says, they may be spelled out if short (“five and two-thirds”). Chicago says there shouldn’t be a space between the number and the fraction, and AP says there should be. It’s probably not critical. More complex fractions are usually written as decimals (0.653), although they could be spelled out (“thirty-two forty-ninths”) or written as fractions (32/49). Word has symbols for the more common fractions (like ⅔), but for others you either have to use a slash (32/49) or get creative by using superscripts and subscripts to make it look better. A few extra snippets about numbers are below. By the way, if I had £2m in the bank, I’d be out on my yacht, not writing this blog.
    • Numbers (including fractions) that are part of lists are figured, for example, “The Fibonacci sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…” or “The ingredients were 1/4 cup flour, 1/2 lb tuna and 2 dog biscuits.” The latter example is on the edge—a longer list would have numerals and fractions, but if this is just a snippet, spelled-out words would be ok. In non-fiction—especially technical documents where numbers are more prevalent—the rules will be different, and numerals will be used more often. As per the last example, recipes in cookbooks use numerals for the ingredients.
    • If an abbreviation is used for a unit of measure, a numeral is always used, for example, “Geoff had meant to train for the 10 km race.” According to our rule for numbers up to a hundred, we’d say “the ten-kilometre race”, but if this is often repeated, it would make sense to abbreviate it to “10 km”. The one thing you shouldn’t write is “ten km”. In dialogue, you wouldn’t normally use an abbreviation such as km. Note that multiples of units are singular when they act as an adjective (a seven-ton elephant) but plural otherwise (the elephant weighs seven tons).
    • A space almost always goes between a numeral and a unit, as with our “10 km” earlier. The only exception in SI units (which we’ll explain in a second) is for angular degrees, minutes and seconds, for example, 32°30′30″. The latter two symbols are prime and double prime (not single quote and double quote). Degrees of temperature do require a space (“normal body temperature is 98.6 °F or 37 °C”), although not all style guides enforce this. The (non-SI) abbreviation for feet and inches unit also has no space, for instance 3′6″ (or 3′ 6″; some guides put a space between the feet and inches, some don’t). See the NIST Guide for the use of the International System of Units (SI Units). NIST stands for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
    • No comma should be used for different measurements that describe the same thing. That’s not clear at all! What I mean is examples such as “six pounds eight ounces”, “five feet three inches”, or “two hours twenty minutes”. Note that the whole lot would be hyphenated if used as an adjective, for example, “a six-pound-eight-ounce cat”.
    • Consistency and flexibility: If the rules you use cause inconsistency or awkwardness, try to adapt. For example, “He managed 80 press-ups in the first week and 123 in the second” is more consistent than sticking to the rule of spelling out eighty. Similarly, if you have numbers next to each other, it usually reads better to switch between numerals and words (with the higher number in figures). An example is, “She loved the dance show, with 20 six-packs on show.” I’m not sure what she was thinking.
    • Percentages: The more technical the writing, the more likely you’ll write with numeral and symbol, for example, 20%. In fiction, the advice seems to be either “twenty percent” or “20 percent”. I used the “twenty percent” format in Culture Man; however, if I wanted to quote from something technical, I’d use 20% for authenticity. As with numbers in general, if the number is decimal, use numerals (e.g., 20.5%), except in dialogue where you may want to emphasize the word sounds. No space is needed between the number and symbol. There’s also no hyphen in a phrase like “5 percent beer” or “five percent beer”—hyphens are there to make things clear and it’s obvious the five belongs with the percent.
  • Times: Either spell them out, such as “eight thirty”, “six o’clock”, “eleven twenty-five” or “half past eight”; or use numerals, such as 8:30. If a.m. or p.m. are used, then numerals should be used, such as 8:30 a.m. Numerals should be used for exact times (like 8:37), except in dialogue when they’d normally be spelled out.
  • Dates: See the “Date format” discussion in the earlier section on British and American English.
  • Decades: Can be written in three ways, as follows: the eighties, the 1980s or the ’80s.
  • Money: I’m going to follow Chicago here, since it seems sensible. For isolated amounts of money, spell them out up to a hundred, as with numbers in general; for example, “twenty-five dollars” or “fifty-eight pence”. However, for amounts over a thousand, write them numerically, even for multiples of a hundred or thousand. This is different than for numbers—we write £2,000 rather than “two thousand pounds”. Once we reach the millions, write £10 million or $2.5 billion. The rationale is simply to be clear and concise and I think this hits the spot. For dialogue, we need to use judgement as we explained earlier, balancing the need to hear the sounds against not being unwieldy. For pounds and pence (or dollars and cents, etc.), the numeric value would normally be written ($4.99); for dialogue, you’d spell it (four dollars ninety-nine) unless there were multiple or complex amounts and it became unwieldy.
      • In newspapers or financial documents, you’ll often see abbreviations for millions or billions of a currency, for example $15m or $2.2bn.
    • Miscellaneous extra: bytes. Since I often forget this, here we go. Bytes, kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes are abbreviated as follows: 10 B, 32 kB, 112 MB, 2.5 GB. Since the B might cause confusion about whether bytes or bits are meant, it may be best to spell out “bytes”. The link on SI units, a few paragraphs above, gives more details on prefixes to units, such as kilo or mega—and much else.


If you dig deep into the grammar of tenses, you’ll come away thinking this is a complex subject. However, I don’t think tenses cause many problems because they’re instinctive. Natural-English speakers have been seamlessly switching between tenses from a young age. The first sentence in this paragraph started in the present tense and moved to the future, the second was in the present, the third was in the present perfect and this one is in the past (apart from the last bit). But it was all perfectly natural, I think. I explained some of the grammar in the “Verbs” subsection in the earlier “Parts of Speech” section, including the present and past participles and how to form the twelve major tenses. We’ll reference this in passing here, but mainly this section will look at how tenses are used and what they mean, with the usual diversions.

    • Tenses in fiction: Most fiction is written in the past although present-tense fiction is becoming more common, especially in literary fiction—for example Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Within past-tense fiction, not all sentences will be written in past form. Much of the narrative will be in past tense—for example, “the gunman approached”— although there are occasions when the present tense is used in a past setting (see the later bullet, “the historical present”). The dialogue, however, captures what was said at the time, so could be any of present, past or future—for example, “Don’t shoot me”, “You shot the sheriff, didn’t you?” or “Are you going to shoot me?” By the way, the gunman didn’t shoot the deputy.
    • The tenses: Wikipedia: Grammatical tense defines sixteen tenses. I’ll stick to twelve for now and mention the final four (future-in-the-past) separately. The way Wikipedia explains it, there are three actual tenses—present, past and future—and four aspects of each. The aspects are simple, continuous (also called progressive), perfect and perfect continuous. There’s a linguistic debate that, structurally, the future tense—and future-in-the-past—aren’t proper tenses. We’re not going near this discussion, you’ll be relieved to know. A quick summary of the tenses is below, together with a diversion on flashbacks. You can also find a good link at Education First: Verbs, with clear examples (click on the links for each tense). As a quick prelude, the continuous and perfect continuous tenses are formed using the present participle and the perfect tenses using the past participle, each using the appropriate form of the verbs “to be” or “to have”. Full details are in the earlier section on verbs within the “Parts of Speech” section.
      • Present tense: The simple present denotes acts occurring in the present, such as “Rover gnaws his bone” or “The supervillain strolls across the carpark.” The continuous present shows activities in the present that are continuing, for example, “Rover is gnawing his bone.” The perfect present refers to activities that started in the past and either continue up to the present, were completed in the recent past, refer to a time period that’s ongoing (like “this week”), or were completed at an indefinite time in the past (the precise time is unimportant or not known). Examples are “They’ve lived here for five years”, “Rover has gnawed his bone recently”, or “I’ve played cricket at Lords.” This is a complex definition, but the key point is there’s no reference time in the past—they relate to something that happened between the present and an indefinite time in the past. Once you put a time in, it becomes the simple past: for example, you don’t say, “I’ve played cricket at Lords in 1986″—it should be “I played cricket at Lords in 1986.” Finally, the perfect continuous present combines the perfect and the continuous: “Rover has been gnawing his bone for the last hour.”
        • Quick note: the present can also be used to express a habitual action or general truth, such as “Dogs chase squirrels, so he kept Rover on a short leash.”
      • Past tense: Similarly, there are simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous past forms. Using our bone example, these would translate as “Rover gnawed his bone”, “Rover was gnawing his bone”, “Rover had gnawed his bone earlier” and “Rover had been gnawing his bone earlier.” The past perfect refers to an activity that completed “before another specified or implicit past time or action” (quoting from Chicago). This is an easier definition than we needed for the present perfect and is common in fiction. Assuming you’re already in the past tense, the past perfect allows you to go to a previous time to explain what happened earlier, for example, “Earlier that day, she had….” You can use this to enter a flashback, which could be a few sentences or considerably longer.
        • Flashbacks and the past perfect: Flashbacks are useful to sprinkle a character’s backstory. However, care should be taken against overdoing them as the main interest is usually what’s going to happen next rather than what’s already happened. Assuming you’re writing in the past tense, flashbacks will be written in past perfect (if in the present tense, they’ll be in simple past). One issue is that, for a long flashback, you’ll be writing had in virtually every sentence. Here’s an example: “Geoff threw a stick for Rover. He recalled this morning’s conversation with Sue. She had asked him to get some drums. He’d asked why. She hadn’t told him, said it was a secret. He’d gone to the second-hand shops near the docks. A man had recommended the Fifties Store and he’d found a battered drum set…. Rover brought the stick back.” This can get tedious, and the general advice is to dip out of the past perfect and into the simple past once it’s clear you’re in a flashback. In the above, you could perhaps switch to “He went to the second-hand shop…” and drop the had from that point. The sentence with Rover returning the stick makes it obvious you’re back in the main story (which should normally be in a new paragraph). I’ve seen advice to revert the last few sentences of the flashback to past perfect to make it more obvious when the flashback is exited. I don’t think that’s a good idea because the reader may think you’re entering another flashback, which is unnecessary if you’ve written it well enough. There can be flashbacks within flashbacks, where you drop further into the past and dip into the past perfect again; this needs careful writing to avoid confusion. A final word: some books are written with parallel threads—one written further in the past than the other—which gradually come together as the climax approaches. They’re often written as alternate chapters. The thread in the further past is essentially a series of long flashbacks, although won’t be written in past perfect. Other types of parallel narratives exist, for example following separate people (unknown to each other) at the same time with a linked theme. I’m getting off track.
      • Future tense: The future tense uses will or occasionally An example of the four types are “Rover will gnaw his bone”, “Rover will be gnawing his bone”, “Rover will have gnawed his bone before the day is out” and “Rover will have been gnawing his bone before the day is out.” Of course, no one writes a novel using future tense (having said that, I’m sure there’s an exception somewhere). It references the future, for example to predict something (“Arsenal will win the Cup”), express an intention (“I’ll do that”), ask a question (“Will she come back?”), express unwillingness (“I won’t do that”), and various other forms that you’ll easily recognise. The future perfect refers to an activity that will be completed before some other future event or time. Shall is relatively old-fashioned and formal, and it’s most likely to be used to ask questions or make a suggestion in the first person, such as “Shall we dance.” It can also be used to imply a command, threat or promise such as “You shall not pass” or “You shall go to the ball.”
    • Future-in-the-past: This provides the “extra” four tenses, to take us up to sixteen. Future-in-the-past expresses a time in the future relative to a time in the past. An example of simple future-in-the-past is “Geoff poured a beer. He would talk to Sue in the morning.” The passage is in the past, but “would talk” refers to a time in the future (relative to that past). It’s formed using would and the root form of the verb. Since most fiction is written in the past, then most fiction will express the future using this future-in-the-past form within narrative. Dialogue is often in the present, so normal future is more likely, as in “I’ll talk to Sue in the morning.” An example of future-in-the-past dialogue is “When Geoff saw the size of the giant octopus, he knew he would be in trouble.” There are also continuous, perfect and perfect continuous versions. They take the forms “he would be talking”, “he would have talked” and “he would have been talking”. The form of the four future-in-the-past tenses are exactly the same as the future tense—the only difference is that would is used instead of will. “Was going to” can also be used to express future-in-the-past, in which case would in the above examples is swapped for was going to.
    • The conditional tense: What’s referred to as the conditional tense, and sometimes the conditional mood, is the same as the future-in-the-past construction above. I’m not sure it’s really a tense, but some verb conjugation sites include this as the conditional tense. Anyway, there’s a simple conditional—sometimes, confusingly, called the present conditional—(e.g., “I would talk”), a continuous conditional (“I would be talking”), a perfect conditional (“I would have talked”) and a perfect continuous conditional (“I would have been talking”). Other modal verbs such as could, should or might can be used instead of would. Conditionals are mostly used in conditional sentences, which include a conditional clause and a main clause, for example, “If things went well, Sue would make light of him losing the dog.” The conditional clause is usually an if clause, although not always (other examples are “had I realized, Sue could…” or “unless Rover comes back, Geoff should…”). The actual tense of the sentence depends on context: the if clause can be set in the present or past and the main clause in the present, future or past. For example, “If the dog comes back, Geoff will be relieved” has a present if clause and a future main clause. Future-in-the-past is a subset of the conditional tense, where the sentence is in the past, would or was going to is used, and an if or similar conditional isn’t needed. Five types of conditional sentence are defined, referred to as the zero, first, second, third and mixed conditional. I think using if clauses is fairly natural, but if you want to read all about it, check out Education First: Conditional for a good description.
    • Thoughts are often in the present tense (Where’s my bone?) but will usually be converted to past tense to match the tense around them (Where was his bone?). This is discussed more in the later section on “Interior Monologue (thoughts) and Points of View”.
    • The historical (or historic) present: This simply refers to using the present when writing about the past. It’s common in a few situations and can be used for effect, creating a sense of importance, immediacy or of “being there”. See below for some examples and discussion:
      • Newspaper headlines do this, for example “Arsenal win”, “Prime Minister holds talks” or “Dog returns to relieved owner.” The events probably happened the previous day—or earlier that day for online versions—but the headline gives a sense of immediacy.
      • Summaries of fictional stories—for example, a book synopsis or film review—are usually in present tense. Check the back cover of most fiction books to see this. Culture Man is one example, including “a supervillain stalks Winchester” and “a thrilling climax approaches”.
      • Historical summaries or timelines: As an example, the Chronology of World History by Ken Polsson lists a set of events by date, all in the present, such as “An asteroid or comet impacts Earth in modern-day Indo-China” (76,800 BC), “Aristotle dies of indigestion” (322 BC), “First run of 2,000 guineas horse race at Newmarket, England”(1809) and “Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States” (Jan 20, 2017). It’s a great site.
      • To refer to “timeless facts, such as memorable persons or works … that are still enduring” (quoting from Chicago). An example is “Charles Dickens is one of our greatest writers.” This also applies to beliefs or opinions that are still true, for example, “My friend Duncan thinks England will win the World Cup in our lifetimes.” The writing around this may be set in the past, but the thought is (perhaps) still held. However, if at the time of expected reading, the thought will have “run out”, then you’d phrase this in the past, for instance, “Duncan thought England would win that year’s World Cup.”
      • Sometimes people naturally drop into the present tense when they’re speaking about past events, for example, “I was talking to this guy and he suddenly says, out of the blue, ‘Who are you looking at’, and then he gets all threatening.” You can portray this in fictional dialogue, although fictional dialogue isn’t the same as normal dialogue (it’s edited, so you don’t get lots of um‘s and er‘s, disjointed conversations and irrelevancies). As such, most dialogue in most fiction doesn’t do this, and the technique is more effective when rare, imparting strong emotion such as passion or panic. I’m sure there are exceptions that have made this work, with maybe an individual character always speaking like this.
      • Jokes are often told in the present: “A man walks into a bar and says ouch.”
      • Within fiction: This might be for an entire book (or a large portion of it); or an occasional dip into the present tense for effect. At the beginning of this section, we said that, although rare, a fashion was developing for books written in the present. This gives the effect of the action unfolding as you read. However, it (usually) describes the past, so this is the historical present. Is this always true or are some books meant to be set at the time you read them? I think perhaps interactive books are written in the “real” present (“You go into the room and see the wizard….”). Some present tense books are set in real historic times, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall follows the story of Thomas Cromwell in the 1500s. Since the reader will know how events turn out, this can provide power and poignancy to a present tense narrative: the protagonist might say something like “I rest and a feeling of calm and confidence engulfs me; the trial is much in my favour”, when all along the reader knows he will be found guilty. Hilary Mantel says the present tense is natural for capturing “the jitter and flux of events”. The reason for dipping into the present for a short section is to make events seem more intense, vivid or immediate. Wikipedia: Historical present gives an example from Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, saying this gives “a sense of immediacy, as of a recurring vision”. I’ll finish by recommending the thoughtful Everything is happening now—the present tense in fiction blog post by Jean McNeil. She talks about the advantages and disadvantages of using the present, plus controversies and examples. She also references research into the neurology and psychology of the present, saying that what we experience as the present is actual a slightly delayed past—“the reality of the moment is like a tape delayed broadcast, carefully vetted by the brain for information before it reaches us”. She quotes the neurologist David Eagleman, who says the brain “is trying to put together the best possible story about what’s going on in the world, and that takes time”. This is fascinating stuff.
      • Criticism of the historical present: The increasing use of the historical present has attracted criticism. The Booker prize longlist of 2010 had a majority of novels in the present tense and was criticised by, among others, novelists Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher. Pullman says (notice what I did) that used sparingly to provide contrast, it can work very well, and quotes examples from Jane Eyre and Bleak House. However, he wants to see a “wider temporal perspective” and for the writer to be “in charge of the story”, choosing the point of view, time and place appropriately and saying what happened and when and why. See The Guardian: Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense for his point of view. Philip Hensher said the present tense is intended to make writing more vivid, but “writing is vivid if it is vivid”. The presenter John Humphries attracted newspaper columns in 2014 when he had a “playful feud” with Melvyn Bragg, criticising the use of the present tense in Melvyn Bragg’s radio show, In Our Time, such as “So, Darwin arrives on the Galapagos, starts to explore.” There are counter opinions and I’ll leave you to roam the Internet as you wish.

Colons, Semi-colons and Dashes

I’ve just checked: Culture Man had 112 colons, 80 semi-colons and 564 dashes (em dashes, as in “—”). These punctuation marks are sometimes interchangeable and sometimes not and there are occasions when each should be used. Sentences can often be restructured to avoid them—for example, by turning one sentence into two—so using them is a conscious choice. There’s also a rarity value to them—by contrast, Culture Man had 3,487 commas—and a stylistic value, as they can impart different interpretations to expressions. As Lynne Truss says in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: “ ‘Wait for it,’ the single dash seems to whisper, with a twinkle if you’re lucky….”


A colon introduces something, such as an explanation, a list or a quotation. The scenarios are summarised below although be aware that style guides vary, especially on lists.

  • A colon is used after a full sentence to introduce something that expands on the first by explaining, clarifying, illustrating, amplifying, or even undermining. The item that follows can be a full sentence or several sentences or a sentence fragment, but the initial clause must be a full sentence (or independent clause, which is the same thing). It’s saying that what follows continues the strand, and a full stop would be too abrupt. An example is “Rover was bored: there was nothing to chase.” You could write that as two sentences, but the colon has created a closer connection. An example of the following item being a partial sentence is “He only feared one thing: next door’s cat.” You can’t write this as two sentences, but you can again restructure this without the colon: “The only thing he feared was next door’s cat.” Choosing how to write these sentences is a matter of style and can depend on how the story is flowing at that point and the voice of the character. An example with multiple sentences is “My plan looks something like this: Distract the receptionist with a rambling question. While she’s trying to get rid of me, Geoff sneaks past and up the stairs. Make my excuses and leave, hoping for the best.” Here, we need to make it obvious when the sentences linked to the colon have finished, which we’d normally do by starting a new paragraph.
    • Capitalisation guidance is not to capitalise the first word after the colon if a partial or single sentence follows (unless it’s a proper noun), but to capitalise it if more than one sentence follows. The logic of this is that if there are several sentences, then unless the first sentence is capitalised it’s not obvious that more than one sentence relates to the colon. American English tends to also capitalise a single sentence following the colon, although style guides vary.
  • To introduce a list, for example, “He checked the ingredients: toast, butter and baked beans.” The list could contain more complex items, for example, “To prepare for my trip, I needed to do the following: get a visa from the High Street, Winchester; take the dog to the kennels, which he’d got wind of and was already protesting about; pack my suitcase; and, tragically, set the alarm for 4.30 a.m.” Here, the items are separated with semi-colons rather than commas to avoid confusion because some list items contain commas themselves. If the list items are independent clauses, then semi-colons rather than commas must be used. The last item should be preceded by “and” or “or”, depending on the logic. The text before the colon should be a complete sentence. A sentence introducing a list and containing phrases such as “the following”, “as follows”, “these” or “thus”, may not make sense on its own—for example, “These are the ingredients” or “The ingredients are as follows.” However, they’re structurally correct sentences and adding a colon and list creates the meaning. A horizontal list like this—as opposed to a vertical list, where each item is on a separate line—is usually a single sentence with commas or semi-colons separating the items. The list can be composed of multiple sentences though. Here are a couple of examples: (1) “She read the instructions on the door: Put on a lab coat before entering. Don’t take food into the theatre. Make sure the door is closed behind you.” (2) “A number of things happened in quick succession: A cat ran across the road. It was small and fast and had been concealed behind the blue van. A car screeched to a halt. The suspect darted up an alleyway and disappeared in the confusion.” The following points delve deeper into lists:
    • Lists without colons: Often a list is built into a sentence without using a sentence and colon as a prelude. The first example could have said, “The ingredients were toast, butter and baked beans.” The second might be rewritten as “To prepare for my trip, I needed to get a visa from the High Street, Winchester; take the dog to the kennels….” In these cases, the sentence naturally leads into the first item, and subsequent items are separated with commas or semi-colons. The sentence is punctuated as normal, which can mean there’s no punctuation before the first item. However, there may be a comma or em dash, as would be the case for introductory phrases like “for example”, “for instance” or “namely”. An example of this is “He makes cakes in many different shapes—for example, triangular, rectangular and squirrel-shaped.” If the list items create a sentence (an independent clause) of their own by using an introductory phrase, then a semi-colon or perhaps an em dash follows the lead-in. An example is “She had many talents; for example, she played the violin, was great at football and was exceedingly modest.”
    • Parallelism in lists: The structure of each list item should be the same. An example where this isn’t true is “Rover’s favourite activities included chasing sticks, gnawing the table leg and chess.” This is grammatically correct but harder to read because once a pattern has been established, the reader expects it to continue. It reads better as “Rover’s favourite activities included chasing sticks, gnawing the table leg and playing chess.” There isn’t an exact rule for “the same structure”, but it typically means start each list item with the same type of word (e.g., verb or noun) and the same tense, and make them the same type of phrase (e.g., all single words, sentence fragments, questions, or full sentences, etc.). You don’t need to be too exacting about this; for example, you could add extra information to individual items as in “Rover’s favourite activities included chasing after sticks; gnawing the table leg, which was his absolute favourite; and playing chess.” For complex examples, you’ll have to think how best to make the list items match in structure—this may involve adapting the lead-in statement, using bracketed asides or splitting the list. As ever, you can sometimes cheat if it paints a story, for example, “Sue loved gardening, going for long walks, reading superhero novels—and Geoff.” Parallel structure applies beyond lists; for example, “Rover likes sleeping and to go for walks” is an example of bad parallelism. This also cropped up in the description of correlative conjunctions (such as either/or pairs) in the “Parts of Speech” section.
    • Numbers or lowercase letters can be used in the list, which is useful if you want to impart a definite order to the list, refer to the items again without quoting the full item, or simply if the list is long and complex. The first example (with a colon) could read “He checked the ingredients: (1) toast, (2) butter and (3) baked beans.” Without a colon, it could be “The ingredients were (a) toast, (b) butter and (c) baked beans.” No extra punctuation is around the bracketed numbers or letters—the sentence is punctuated as if they weren’t there. For an example as simple as this, you probably wouldn’t do this, but I gave a more complex example previously (at the end of the “to introduce a list” bullet), where, without the numbers, it wouldn’t be obvious where one item ended and the next began.
    • Vertical lists consist of a lead-in statement, followed by bulleted, numbered or lettered items, with each item on a new line. Unusually, there may be no symbol at all—just text on a new line. Vertical lists are common in PowerPoint presentations but can be used in fiction. I’ve used loads in this article. The rules are mostly the same as for horizontal lists. The lead-in statement ends in a colon if it’s a complete sentence; if not, it will use normal punctuation before the list—usually none or a comma—as for a horizontal list. You may have an extra sentence after the lead-in; in this case, it will finish with a full stop and not a colon. Examples are as follows:
      • We saw the following animals. All of them were running away from us.
        • Rabbit
        • Deer
        • Rhinoceros
      • We saw the following animals (all of them were running away from us):
        • Rabbit
        • Deer
        • Rhinoceros
      • My favourite animals are
        • Dogs
        • Squirrels
        • Otters
      • Still on vertical lists: A vertical list is more likely to be composed of complete sentences than a horizontal list. If so, each sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop (or question mark or exclamation mark). If the list items are sentence fragments, capitalisation is optional. End punctuation of each list item is also optional—if used, this would be a comma or semi-colon (a semi-colon if commas are already in the fragment), with an “and” or “or” before the final item and a full stop after it. Personally, I tend to use capitals for list items and not put punctuation at the end of them (unless they’re full sentences), as in the examples above. Horizontal lists do have commas or semi-colons between their items, but I feel the single line format means you don’t need to add any further punctuation to be clear. The key, as ever, is to be consistent. A final note: the last example, which is introduced with a partial sentence—my favourite animals are”—should not have a colon after it, although you often see one (you might also choose not to capitalise a list like this and include end punctuation to make it look more like a sentence, but either way is fine.)
    • To introduce a quotation or speech after a complete sentence. We’ve moved on from lists now! The first word of a quote is capitalised if the quote is a complete sentence (it usually will be after a colon). Some style guides allow a colon and then a quotation or speech after a sentence fragment (something like, She stared at him and said: “Stop right there.”). I think this is outdated, and the consensus seems to be that a comma should be used in that situation. We discuss quotations in more detail in the next section, but some examples are below:
      • The headline made an interesting point: “Squirrels hardly ever caught by dogs.”
      • She looked at him and said a strange thing: “Are you sure squirrels are hardly ever caught by dogs?”
      • My favourite quote is from Thomas Jefferson: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
      • He had a thought: If squirrels are so smart, why haven’t they made any decent movies?
        • Note that this is a direct thought, which means it uses the exact words that the character thought. A direct thought is punctuated as for speech, except without quotation marks; this is why it starts with a capital letter. There are some subtleties with thought, which we’ll discuss in the “Quotations and Direct Speech” section.
      • As she looked down the tunnel in alarm, the old saying occurred to her: Be careful what you wish for.
        • A saying counts as a quotation, which is why it’s capitalised, but proverb-type sayings don’t have quotation marks (presumably because there’s no known author).
      • After short introductory words, which are more like titles than sentences, for example, “Dinner: fish and chips.” Here’s another example: “He considered the plan. Pros: none. Cons: lots.” This is stylistic and you shouldn’t overdo it, unless it highlights a particular voice.
      • Nesting of colons is likely to be confusing. You could just about use something like “An example of colon use is as follows: Rover was bored: there was nothing to chase.” However, I wouldn’t recommend it.
      • Non-grammatical uses: The colon is also used to express time (10:23 a.m.), to write ratios (3:1this might be better as “three to one” in fiction, but you would write larger ratios such as 150:1 in numeric format), for Biblical references (Genesis 1:31), to separate volumes from pages in a reference (Squirrels Quarterly 3:32-35, which means pages 32-35 of volume three of Squirrels Quarterly), in business correspondence (Attention: Guy Cook), or to introduce speech in plays or scripts. Note that 12-hour times can be written with a dot in British English (10.23 a.m.), although a colon is also acceptable. Time in 24-hour format always has a colon.


This section will be shorter! Semi-colons can be used in the following situations:

  • To link two independent clauses that are related, for example, “Rover tore after the stick; Spot ambled about in the hedge-side.” The semi-colon is used instead of a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, …), so they shouldn’t be used together. If you want to use a conjunction, then a comma is used, for example, “Rover tore after the stick, but Spot just ambled about in the hedge-side.”
    • An exception is made to the rule that a semi-colon isn’t used after a coordinating conjunction if one or both clauses are lengthy or already punctuated with commas. Here’s an example: “Rover, with a dash of style, charged after the stick; but Spot, a more cerebral dog, really wasn’t interested.” You could still use a comma here, but the longer the clauses, the harder to follow.
    • The semi-colon can hint that the clauses are related. Sometimes, the relationship only becomes apparent by the use of a semi-colon: “Geoff expounded at length on Brexit; Sue went for a walk.”
  • Between two independent clauses separated with a conjunctive adverb, such as however, meanwhile, accordingly, therefore or nonetheless. First, a quick reminder of conjunctive adverbs, which we discussed in the “Commas” section (where you can find more details and examples). They’re adverbs that modify—or give extra meaning to—the whole independent clause they’re part of, in relation to a preceding independent clause. An example is “Susan failed nuclear physics; however, she did pass bionics.” You can see that however relates the second clause to the first. When a conjunctive adverb links two independent clauses, there should either be a semi-colon before it, the clauses should form two separate sentences, or (less usually) the clauses should be linked by a coordinating conjunction such as and or but. The example given could therefore be written as “Susan failed nuclear physics, but however, she did pass bionics” or “Susan failed nuclear physics. However, she did pass bionics.” A comma usually follows the conjunctive adverb in any of these scenarios. A conjunctive adverb can move about the sentence as demonstrated by the following: (1) “Susan failed nuclear physics; she did, however, pass bionics.” (2) “Susan failed nuclear physics; she did pass bionics, however”. However still links to the previous clause and (usually) commas are around it. As we explained in the “Commas” section, the exceptions where a comma is not needed are as below:
    • If the adverb only has one syllable, for example, hence or thus: “Susan passed bionics; hence she was in demand from robots.”
    • If the adverb forms a “weak” interruption. We went into more details on this in the “Commas” section, but a typical example using indeed is “Susan was invited to speak at the international robotics conference; she was indeed chuffed.”
  • Omission of repeated words with semi-colons. You can do something like this with semi-colons: “Geoff had five beers; Sue, two.” Here’s a more complex example: “The girls’ scores showed an increase of 10%; the boys, 5%; and the mature students, 30%.” The comma indicates missing text that exists in the first clause and makes the writing more concise.
    • This is called an elliptical construction (omitting words like this is called elision, and omitted words are said to be elided), which isn’t unique to semi-colon use. The first example could read, “Geoff had three beers, and Sue, two.” The comma isn’t needed if the meaning is obvious, for example, “Culture Man ran the hundred metres in six seconds, and Paul in fifteen seconds.” The comma should be used if a semi-colon is used: “Culture Man ran the hundred metres in six seconds; Paul, in fifteen seconds.” If the missing words are at the end, there’s no need for extra punctuation; an example is “Sue can juggle, and Geoff can’t.” If there are more than two clauses and you need commas to show missing text (as in the boys’ and girls’ scores example), then you’ll need to separate them by semi-colons, otherwise the commas will make the sentence confusing. There’s a good article on this at Daily Writing Tips: A Guide to Elliptical Constructions, which also tells us the correct structure for comparative sentences such as “Golden eagles are as large as and just as impressive as bald eagles.” The important point is that you need the “as” after “large” (because “as large as bald eagles” and “just as impressive as bald eagles” are the separate phrases, and “bald eagles” not “as bald eagles” is the common element being omitted). The Wikipedia: Ellipsis (linguistics) link is technical, showing this to be a complex area of linguistics and describing different types of omission, such as sluicing, gapping, stripping, and others. Feel free to read up on this, but life is short and elliptical forms are in everyday use, often without you noticing them—for example, “Rover and Geoff left the park.”
  • To separate list items which contain commas or are independent clauses, as we saw earlier in the colon section. Semi-colons can also be used if the list items are long or contain other punctuation (like brackets or dashes)—the main aim is to make the sentence easy to read.

Dashes (the em dash)

An em dash provides an emphatic interruption from the rest of the sentence. If the interruption is in the middle of the sentence—like this—the dashes will be paired to indicate the start and end of the interruption. This performs a similar function to paired commas or parentheses, but the dash provides more emphasis or dramatic license to the material. Also, dashes can separate an entire independent clause or sentence, which a pair of commas can’t (although parentheses can). If the interruption is at the end, there will only be one dash. This can be equivalent to a colon, if it expands on the initial clause—but is less formal and more emphatic. The em dash is yet more versatile—it can also take the place of a semi-colon. Dashes are often used for surprise or humour, but also for simple explanations or asides which are a little more emphasized and a little less formal than the alternative punctuation. They can also make the sentence easier to read—given a separate section of the sentence that’s long and contains commas, then a dash can aid readability. Dashes can also be used to show interruptions, a change in thought or missing letters. Let’s have a further look:

    • The em dash is not surrounded by spaces according to most American sources and some British sources (as per the Wikipedia: Dash entry). You’ll sometimes see like this  the spaced version. However, I recommend not using spacesthis was good enough for 564 incidences in Culture Man.
    • How often should you use dashes? Em dashes are used less often in formal writing and more often in fiction or casual writing, such as letters or emails. However, there’s nothing wrong with using them in formal writing. Fiction guidelines say not to overuse them, or they’ll lose their effect. So how much is too much? In fact, since I used a total of 192 colons and semi-colons, and 564 dashes in Culture Man, did I overdo it? Certainly, a surfeit of dashes—really? how can that be? and who would do that?—can make writing gushing and add unnecessary asides and distractions. Emily Dickinson, a nineteenth-century American poet, was notorious for using dashes; as Lynne Truss said in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “she used the dash in preference to any other punctuation”. I can’t find much guidance for how much use is excessive but have convinced myself that my dash use, at about 2.5 per page (many of which were part of a pair), was ok.
    • Dashes to break speech: If you want to show an action mid-speech and then continue with the speech, dashes provide a good method. Here’s an example from Culture Man“Your”—he could hardly get the words out for laughing—“suit”—which was shredded and splattered with mud and vegetation stains—“you’ve got to…go back…to work.” This is unusual, having two interruptions in the sentence, but I liked it!
    • Inverse colon and list use: The dash can be used to reverse the normal order of a colon or list construction. Our ingredients example could be written as “Toast, butter and baked beans—these were the ingredients.” Similarly, Rover’s state of mind might be written as “There was nothing to chase—Rover was bored.” The list or explanation is given first, and then the introduction.
    • Missing letters (redaction): I remember reading old thrillers, where the author redacted names or dates, for example, calling someone B—, or writing a date as 19—. I don’t know why, since the names and dates were fictional. I did read a snippet online suggesting there was a fashion in nineteenth-century fiction to use initials or blanks to enhance the illusion of reality. You might also see a swear word redacted (which you have to guess), for example, b—. Anyway, an initial letter and a dash means the rest of the word is redacted. Three dashes (———) means the whole word is redacted. As a more modern-day example, a legal document could say, “Mr M— clearly misled Miss T—, telling her that cats rarely catch mice.” Redaction is important in sensitive political, security or legal documents, or to remove personal information from documents. Organisations will have proper processes to do this, to make sure all the relevant data (including metadata) is redacted and can’t be recovered. The redacted data may be replaced, for example, by X’s or by text saying [REDACTED] or [INFORMATION REDACTED], or be blacked out (in which case, the data underneath must be deleted or it may be able to be recovered). There’s plenty of advice online of how to do this and software tools to help.
    • Interruption of a speaker, as in the following example. If the original speaker resumes the same strand, a dash marks the beginning of the resumption. However, if the speaker moves to a different subject, it doesn’t.
      • “Did you know that dogs rarely catch—”
      • “Not the squirrel example again!”
      • “—rabbits.”
    • If the speaker comes to an abrupt halt (as opposed to trailing off), but isn’t interrupted by another speaker, you would still use a dash at the end of their speech. Maybe they see something surprising or walk into a tree.
    • Self-interruption or sudden change of thought: The em dash shows a sudden change of thought in a speaker, for example, “Did you know that dogs—forget it, I’ve told you that before.” This is different from a trailing off in speech, which is shown by an ellipsis. If the speaker had trailed off, we’d have “Did you know that dogs…? Forget it, I’ve told you that before.” The ellipsis signifies a delayed change of thought and implies a pause in speech; the em dash shows an abrupt change, and there would be no pause. Note that in this and the previous two bullet points, the interruption could come in the middle of a word although this is slightly less usual; this also applies to the ellipsis for a pause or to trail off (which we’re just about to discuss).

Quotations and Direct Speech

I’ve lumped these together because they’re similar and use mostly the same rules. The difference is that quotations are referenced, either by a character or within the narration, while direct speech is spoken by a character who’s actually there (in the scene). The quotation could be something a historic or fictional character has previously said, or a quote or passage from a book, film, newspaper or similar. A quotation must match the exact words spoken or written. If it doesn’t, the words will be paraphrased, and this is called reported or indirect speech—there are no quotation marks in this case. An example of reported speech is “Sue said she’d be here by ten,” Geoff said. If Geoff had used the exact words, this would be a quote: “Sue said ‘I’ll definitely arrive by ten’,” Geoff said. We’ve leapt into quotes within quotes here, so let’s look at some of the details.

    • Double or single quotes: The most common guidance is to use “double quotation marks” for American English and ‘single quotation marks’ for British English. However, many British books use double quotes and I think it’s gradually taking over. Culture Man used double quotes, so what more authority do you need? Quotation marks are also referred to as quote marks or quotes.
    • Direct speech: Direct speech by a character (or a real person) typically looks like this: “Rover looks like he understands the TV,” Sue said. There are a couple of things to note: (1) the comma goes inside the end quote marks; and (2) the name goes before “said”. The latter is easy to remember because it clearly should be “she said” and not “said she”, and the same principle gives us “Sue said”. The comma might be replaced by a question mark or exclamation mark: “What’s he watching?” Geoff said. If it’s obvious who’s speaking, you can omit the speech attribution (this is easy with two people as they speak in turn, but harder with three or more people). The response could be as follows, since it’s clearly delivered by Sue: “One Man and His Dog.” Speech attribution should use said, or maybe asked for questions (but even here, I prefer said). I remember reading kids’ books (the Hardy Boys sticks in my mind), where all kinds of synonyms for said were used: exclaimed, observed, responded, suggested, spluttered, growled or gasped. This marks a writer out as hack these days (unless you’re deliberately doing it for effect or parody); said is meant to be invisible and not detract from the actual spoken words. An occasional added or shouted (when relevant) is also ok. By the way, a character can splutter, growl or gasp, but spluttering, growling or gasping words is trickier. The following is fine, though: The sheep looked like it was going to escape. Rover growled.
      • Speech attribution can also be at the beginning of a sentence, for example, Sue said, “Do you want a cup of tea?” Or the middle, as in, “Yes please,” Geoff said, “and a biscuit.” The first incidence of speech in a sentence starts with a capital letter, but not the second.
      • A final note on speech attribution: You can reverse the order (from Sue said to said Sue), if an identifying phrase follows the name of the speaker, since this makes it easier to read. Something like this might appear in a newspaper report, for example, “The caped figure just scaled the walls and flew away,” said Julie, a twenty-seven-year-old accountant.
      • A new paragraph for each new speaker: Every time the speaker changes, a new paragraph is needed. You can occasionally get around this with a bit of trickery, for example, “No you can’t have Match of the Day”—she ignored his protest of “Arsenal are playing” and kept hold of the remote—“this is Rover’s favourite.” Here, Geoff’s “Arsenal are playing” is heard explicitly from Sue’s point of view; this is less like direct speech and more like she’s quoting Geoff within her thoughts.
    • Multi-paragraph speech or quotes: Direct speech by one person that continues for more than a paragraph without interruption is unusual but can happen. A quotation that continues over several paragraphs is also possible. In either case, opening quotation marks are at the beginning of each paragraph of speech, but end quotation marks only appear after the last paragraph. (For the quotation, the alternative option of using block quotes exists, which is discussed below.) The rationale is that if there were end marks after each paragraph, it wouldn’t always be obvious if the same speaker or quotation was continuing or a new speaker or quotation had begun. I’ve never done this, but below is an example:
      • “This is my first paragraph of speech.
      • “And this is my second paragraph, where I continue speaking (but stop afterwards).”
    • Speech or quotations introduced by “says”, “said”, “states”, “reads”, etc.: A comma precedes the quote in these cases. Some style guides allow colons to be used in a construction like this—but don’t do it! Examples of standard use are below.
      • The headline read, “Squirrels hardly ever caught by dogs.”
      • She looked at him and said, “Are you sure squirrels are hardly ever caught by dogs?”
    • Quotations built into the sentence (without an introduction such as “says”, “said”, etc.): In this case, a comma doesn’t precede the quotation. Often this is done by using the word that. An example is below.
      • The professor is right when he says that “Squirrels have a long history of escaping from dogs.”
    • Quotations that are partial sentences or selected words or phrases: No capital letter is needed. A couple of examples are below.
      • The professor says that squirrels “have a long history of escaping from dogs”.
      • The guidebook says that Mars is a “fabulous” planet with plenty to do, including “low-gravity golf”.
    • Words as words: Here, you are writing about the word itself. See the below examples. Note that italics could also be used; both are acceptable, but italics are probably more favoured—and quotes are more awkward if the word is pluralised. In the second example, the word is in single quotes because it’s already within speech (double) quotes.
      • The word I was looking for was “ridiculous”.
      • “ ‘Lupine’ means wolflike,” he said.
      • Lots of “ooh”s and “aah”s echoed around the room. (It would be “lots of ooh‘s and aah‘s” if italics were used, which is definitely better.)
    • Speech or quotations introduced by a complete sentence and a colon: We summarised this in one of the subsections on colons and gave a number of examples, such as the following: The headline made an interesting point: “Squirrels hardly ever caught by dogs.” Assuming the quote or speech is a complete sentence (which it usually will be), then the first word is capitalised.
    • Phrases as phrases: Whereas there’s a choice with words as words, there isn’t with phrases used as phrases: these should be within quotation marks. Ok, this isn’t agreed by all the style guides (what is?), but it’s the most common and I’d go with it. The rationale is that long sections of italics are disruptive to the reader, so the longer a phrase, the more italics are discouraged and hence (for consistency) all phrases should be quoted, as in the examples below. Note the hierarchy here: letters as letters are italicised (we get to this later); words as words can be italicised or quoted; and phrases as phrases are quoted.
      • “Hanged for a sheep as a lamb” means if you’ve already committed a small sin (stolen a lamb) you may as well commit the larger one (steal a sheep), as you’re going to meet the same fate (hanging) all the same. So be careful, Rover.
      • He heard many “Avast me hearty”s and “Hoist up the Jolly Roger”s, which was strange because he was in Sainsbury’s.
        • Although the above is ok, the plurals look a bit odd, so you could rewrite to avoid them: He heard many cries of “Avast me hearty” and “Hoist up the Jolly Roger”….
      • Examples: This blog article contains tons of examples. These are effectively the same as phrases as phrases, in that the actual words are not relevant to the narrative—they exist to demonstrate a structure. I’ve therefore used quote marks for these, although with exceptions: firstly, this isn’t necessary if the example is on a separate line of its own (as with a bullet point); secondly, if quote marks are in the example itself, it can be confusing to surround the whole example in quote marks—so I’ve generally used italics instead. The important point is to be clear. I hope I’ve come reasonably close to this!
      • Scare quotes are an informal term for quote marks used to distance the writer from a word or phrase. Wikipedia states they’re quotation marks placed by a writer around a word or phrase “to signal that they are using it in a non-standard, ironic, or otherwise special sense”. They can indicate that the author is “using someone else’s term, is sceptical or disagrees with the phrase, believes the words are misused, or that the writer intends an opposite meaning”. They’re the written equivalent of a speaker using their fingers to put air quotes round a phrase. You’ll see this in newspapers quite often. The technique is sometimes criticised; for example, Wikipedia quotes Jonathan Chait, who says they allow a writer to make an insinuation without proving it or even saying what the insinuation is. I take that point, and it’s more accurate and less lazy to explain things properly—for example, Scientists from the Royal Institute claim to have proved the theorem, rather than Theory has been “proved”. However, in fiction, I think it can be ok if the character is genuinely expressing irony or scepticism. Other techniques can also be used, such as using the character’s body language or implying the intent by the context and the character of the speaker. I didn’t use any scare quotes in Culture Man, but here are some examples:
        • Geoff was telling his “hilarious” joke again.
        • Columbus “discovered” America.
        • Women achieved “equality” when they were granted the right to vote in 1920.
      • Scare quotes 2: to emphasize a term that’s new, unfamiliar, slang or used in an unfamiliar setting – don’t use them! The Arrant Pedantry: How to Use Quotation Marks says, “Scare quotes quickly shade into more emphatic uses, where the purpose is not to signal irony or special use but to draw attention to the word or phrase.” Some examples are 1) Many dogs now have an “iFetch”, or 2) Geoff “liked” a post on Facebook. The general advice is that these are not needed and could cause confusion if the reader thinks they’re being used in an ironic way. If the term is unfamiliar, simply explain it, e.g., Many dogs now have an iFetch (a robot ball thrower). For the second example, “like” is being used in a non-standard way, but most people are familiar with this social media use of the word, so the quotes should be left off. If you think readers will be confused, explain it.
      • Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks? Direct speech is quite clear—punctuation goes inside the quotes. For quotations, the picture is more complex and British and American English differ. The logic is clear though, with two rules. For British English, these are as follows: 1) punctuation is inside the quotes if the punctuation is part of the quote and outside if it isn’t; and 2) if punctuation is needed both inside and outside the quotation, then avoid doubling up and only use it inside the quotation marks. American English alters the first rule to always place commas and full stops inside the quotes, although it keeps to the rule for other punctuation such as question marks, colons or semi-colons. Grammar Monster: Punctuation in or outside quotation marks gives an excellent table on this subject, and also see the examples below (based on British English):
        • I came across the word “gark”, which the Venusian dictionary tells me means “a particularly gregarious dragon”. American English would place both comma and full stop inside the quotes in this sentence.
        • Did Sue really say, “I’m quitting my job as world supremo”? The question mark relates to the sentence, not the quote, so is outside.
        • I’m sure she asked, “Should I quit my job as world supremo?” This time, the question mark is part of the quote.
        • Did she really say, “Should I quit my job?” A question mark applies to both sentence and quote. In British English (but not American), you might just be able to write Did she say, “Should I quit my job?”? However, don’t do this—to avoid doubling up, only put the question mark inside the quotes.
        • As I learned from Abraham Lincoln, “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” The full stop is inside the quote marks because the quotation is a complete sentence with a full stop. Technically, this is both a quote with a full stop and a sentence with a full stop after the quote, but the rule about not doubling up prevents the use of two full stops. If only a partial sentence is quoted, the full stop is after the quote marks (although inside for American English): Abraham Lincoln said that none of us “has a good enough memory to be a successful liar”.
      • Multiple quotes in one sentence: I struggled to find much guidance for this, but there is one clear rule—never end a quote with a full stop in the middle of a sentence. Given that and a few Internet examples, it seems clear how to do this. If the quotes are partial sentences, you include suitable punctuation around them. If you have multiple quotes that are complete sentences, you should omit the full stop at the end of each quotation except the last one. It’s fine to leave exclamation or question marks in the quotes since they don’t necessarily terminate the sentence. If your sentence continues after the end of a full sentence quotation, also don’t include a full stop. Each full sentence quote should start with a capital letter. If you’re mixing partial and full sentences, then just the full ones start with a capital. Examples make this clearer:
        • The survey responses included “I decided how to vote at the last minute”, “My decision was made weeks before the election” and “My dog chose which party I voted for.”
        • Several suggestions came from the group. There was a “Why can’t we go to Barbados?” from Dave, someone said “Brighton’s nice this time of year”, Abigail wanted to know when we were going to the pub, and I’m sure I heard a “may not be able to make it”.
      • Quotes within quotes: If you’re using double quotes for the initial speech or quotation, then use single quotes for quotes within quotes (and vice versa). For example, “I don’t know why he said, ‘I’m disillusioned and have lost my nuts’,” Geoff said. If you end up with a single quote mark next to a double quote, you can optionally put a space between them, though different styles offer different advice, and it doesn’t look too bad if you don’t. Here’s an example: “ ‘Never give up’, he always told me,” Geoff said.
        • You can also use a thin space between double and single quotes, which is slightly smaller than a normal space, or even a hair space which is smaller (you can type these in Word using Insert, Symbol, Special Characters—more easily, you can type “2009” followed by Alt-x for the thin space or “200A” then Alt-x for the hair space (2009 and 200A are the Unicode characters)). To be honest, I’d use a normal space. However, because of the space between the quotes, the first quote might end up at the end of a line, similar to this: “ ‘Never give up’, he always told me,” Geoff said. If this is a possibility, a non-breaking space can avoid this, which makes the characters either side of the space move to the next line together; you can type a non-breaking space in Word using Ctrl Shift Space.
      • Extended or block quotations: Where a quotation, for example, from a book or a newspaper, extends over several lines, then the longer it is, the more sense it makes to provide a block quotation. This is text that is indented on the left and possibly the right as well. It may also use a different font type and/or size. Quotation marks aren’t used. The formatting doesn’t have any solid rules, though you can find suggestions online; the main point is to clearly distinguish the quotation from the surrounding text. You would normally have a blank line before and after the block. I used this for fictitious newspaper articles in Culture Man.

Ellipses for pauses or trailing off

The ellipsis, which is three dots, is used to show a trailing off or a pause in speech, for example, “Did you know that dogs rarely…catch rabbits.” The plural of ellipsis is ellipses. The style guides are all over the place with the ellipsis. The first point concerns how to write the ellipsis: some guides recommend spaces between the dots (. . .) and some don’t (…). An ellipsis character exists (…) and Microsoft Word will, by default, autocorrect three individual dots to this; you can alternatively write it by simultaneously pressing Ctrl, Alt and a dot. It looks very much like three dots without spaces, but the spacing is slightly different. An advantage of the ellipsis character is that it’s treated as a single character, so you’ll never get one dot on one line and two on another. I use the ellipsis character, although reputable style guides (for example, Chicago) put spaces between the dots. The next issue is whether to surround the ellipsis with spaces (“dogs … rarely catch rabbits”) or not (“dogs…rarely catch rabbits”). I don’t use spaces—if you’re pausing or especially trailing off, I think of this as following on immediately from the previous word (why do you need a space?). Again, there’s no consensus, so you need to make a choice. Once that decision is made, there is consensus (to a degree) on most usage, except for whether a full stop follows an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. Let’s go through some scenarios:

    • Before we start, note an entirely separate use of the ellipsis exists, which is to show missing text in quotations. That’s more relevant to technical or legal writing than fiction, although it can be used in fiction, for example, to summarise something a character had read. This is discussed in the next section.
    • Here’s a further prelude: although the ellipsis for pauses or trailing off is most common in direct speech, it’s also used in thought or narration. For thought, it could look like this: “She felt Geoff shouldn’t have had three…four…five pints at lunchtime.” You can also do this in narration because, in fiction, a scene is usually told from a character’s point of view (or possibly the narrator’s point of view). What’s described is coming from their viewpoint, so there can be pauses or a trail off, based on their experience of the scene: “As Geoff crept down the dark, tree-lined lane, he heard a rustle and then saw a shape. Perhaps a cat…or a dog…or something larger.”
    • Now onto the scenarios. A pause mid-sentence is straightforward: “I’m not sure…if that’s true.”
    • You can use the same structure for sentence fragments: “I thought…there’s no way…are you sure?”
    • If a speaker trails off and speaker attribution is given, a comma (or question mark or exclamation mark) follows the ellipsis: “I think five beers is…,” Sue said.
    • If the trailing-off speech is a question, a question mark follows the ellipsis: “Did you know that dogs…?” The question isn’t complete because it trails off. Chicago says to use the question mark if it aids understanding—that is, use a question mark if enough words are given for it to be clear a question’s coming. The same would apply for an exclamation mark.
    • If a complete sentence is given and the speaker trails off, you’ll have a full stop to show the sentence has ended and then an ellipsis to show the trailing off—giving four dots in total. But hang on. How can you trail off once you’ve already finished the sentence? This is more likely to indicate words deliberately unsaid—to create intrigue, suspense or a cliffhanger, or to suggest more is to come. Wikipedia: Ellipsis also says it can be used to create a sense of melancholy or longing at the end of a sentence (or the beginning, but this is rarer). Another possibility is for the situation or speech to continue but the scene to finish (for example, the character is listening to a lecture drone on and you leave them there, moving the action elsewhere).  The following gives some examples:
      • “If only I’d paid Sue more attention….”
      • “Don’t look now….”
      • The lecture started. “I think everyone understands the basic principles of riboswitch activation….” (the scene ends at this point)
      • He stumbled backwards, lost his footing, and then he was falling and everything went dark…. (I don’t think this last one is necessary, but you do see it.)
    • If a sentence trails off before it finishes, I use an ellipsis to show the trailing off, followed by a full stop to end the sentence (so four dots). I think this is similar to the examples where other punctuation (a comma, question mark or exclamation mark) can follow the ellipsis. Some style guides agree, but the majority only use three dots. Their logic is that a sentence trailing off hasn’t finished and therefore doesn’t need a full stop. Once again, this is your choice, the key point being to be consistent. Culture Man used four dots, as in this example: “She has these eyes that light up when she laughs, hazel with flecks of….” If this isn’t the last sentence in the speech or paragraph, you continue as normal, with a space and a new sentence: “She thought of her next tennis match, how superpowers could do so much good, Roger’s latest text…. And then it clicked.” When an ellipsis interrupts a list like this, a comma shouldn’t follow the final list item.
    • Can you use an ellipsis to show a pause between spoken sentences, for example, “She wouldn’t do that”, followed by a pause before “Would she?” No, because there’s a pause between sentences anyway. You can show a longer pause in other ways, such as with an action or observation: “She wouldn’t do that.” Geoff paused. “Would she?” Or a dash could be used, which will also provide some emphasis: “She wouldn’t do that—would she?” If you do see the sentence “She wouldn’t do that…. Would she?”, this is fine, but indicates the first sentence trailing off, rather than a pause—the full sentence, including unspoken words, might be “She wouldn’t do that to me.” The difference is subtle, but our readers are smart!
    • An ellipsis also shows stuttering or stammering (repetition) of complete words, as mentioned in the hyphen section (a hyphen shows stuttering within words): “I…I can’t go back in there.” I guess this is like a pause, which is why the ellipsis is used. An occasional stutter when someone is stressed can be effective, but I suggest more research if you have a character who genuinely stutters.
    • A final point: AP says “ellipses may be used to separate individual items within a paragraph of show business gossip or similar material.” It doesn’t apply to fiction writing, unless you’re mocking up journal-type headlines, but it might be fun, for example, at the beginning of newsletters to your readers: “Geoff apologises for fifth pint. … Dog catches squirrel. … Blog still a long way from end. … Author fails to win village writing prize. … Again.” In this case, spaces are used to separate the headlines.

Ellipses for omitted text and (briefly) citations

Ellipses for omitted text are not much used for fiction and are generally the stuff of more academic books and papers. They’re used to indicate missing text from a quote, when it’s not necessary to provide the complete quote. Equally, the usage above—for pauses or speech or narrative trailing off—is pretty much the sole preserve of fiction. However, the two may occasionally meet; for example, fiction might quote an academic or reference work (real or fictitious) and omit some text, or a reference book might quote a fictional source where ellipses are used to pause or trail off. If the two are in danger of clashing, Chicago suggests bracketing the ellipses used for omission (like this: […]), but only after explaining you’re doing so. Anyway, this whole scenario is rare for fiction, so I’ll just give a few bullet points here:

    • Assume the following text for the examples to come (the classic opening lines to Culture Man): “Ok, done it. I feel quite sad now—leaving behind the desperate last-minute searches for culture, the uncool bands, the weekly blogs, the dubious nature of the entries—but I guess that’s a sign it was a good thing to do. Of course I can’t leave it like that, I need to have changed in some way. I must naturally do the kind of cultural activities I’ve forced myself to do over the last year. Over and out.”
    • The style guides again disagree here, especially when the missing text spans more than one sentence. I’m going to suggest the simple rules below, which mostly follow consensus:
      1. Use the ellipsis character as described in the previous section (three dots with no spaces between them).
      2. This time put spaces before and after the ellipsis. This is different from my style for the ellipsis for pauses or trailing off (“Rover was…lost” as opposed to “To be or … , that is the question”). But why should they be the same—they serve different purposes. I think using spaces for omitted text makes sense: you have text, a space, an ellipsis to denote omitted text, a space, and then more text; exactly as a real sentence is. All the other advice I’ve seen uses the same structure for both omitted text and pauses and trail offs. I may patent this.
      3. It’s important not to skew the meaning. An example is original text of “Geoff loved Sue and no longer Josephine” quoted as “Geoff loved … Josephine”. Biasing a quote can be more subtle than this!
      4. Text omitted at the beginning or end of a quote isn’t usually denoted by an ellipsis; the author decides where to start and finish a quote. An exception is if a quote is left deliberately incomplete, for example, He quoted Churchill’s famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds ….”
      5. If the missing text is within a sentence, use the three-dot ellipsis. Here’s an example from Culture Man‘s opening: “I feel quite sad now … a sign it was a good thing to do.”
      6. Punctuation before or after the omitted text should be included only if it’s relevant. Consider the following, again from Culture Man: “Ok, done it. … leaving behind the desperate last-minute searches for culture”. The full stop after “done it” tells us the sentence has finished, but the dash before “leaving behind” isn’t necessary, because this relates to omitted text. The full stop at the end is after the quote mark because the original sentence didn’t finish at that point.
      7. If the missing text includes one or more full stops, use four dots (an ellipsis plus a full stop) to show that you’ve skipped over one or more sentences. An example is “I feel quite sad now …. I need to have changed in some way.”
      8. You can make minor changes to capitalisation or grammar to make the quote fit the sentence. Stricter style guides—only relevant for more academic work—require square brackets when you do this. An example is The narrator intrigues us by saying, “of course I can’t leave it like that”. The strict version of the quote would be “[o]f course I can’t leave it like that”, to show the author has changed to a lowercase “o”. You can also use square brackets to add explanations, clarifications or corrections, for example, The report said that “the activity [chasing squirrels] is unsatisfactory for both dogs and squirrels”. This shouldn’t be overused, though—you can always explain points outside the quote.
      9. There are quite technical rules for citations, varying with style guide. The nuts and bolts are that citations can be in footnotes (at the bottom of the page); in endnotes or a bibliography (at the end of the work); or in-text, which is within the body of text and is generally in brackets directly after the quotation. In-text citations can be brief, with further details in a reference section or bibliography. The details provided should include author, title of work and any extra details needed (such as publisher, date and page numbers). For references in fiction or blogs this can be informally structured, but it’s important to provide credit and mention the source material. Examples are “Professor Bertrand extensively studied squirrels in his classic, Squirrels through the Seasons” “Only one researcher has delved deeply into squirrel-dog relationships (Professor J. Bertrand. Squirrels through the Seasons, chapter 4. 2014)”; and “For more details on squirrels, see Wikipedia: squirrel.” In the Wikipedia example, there isn’t a clear author, so I haven’t used one, but the author name should be used if available. If your work will be published in print form, you’ll need to specify the full url for web references. For fictional references, you’ll want to decide how much authenticity you need and how formal to make the citation. You don’t need to read the squirrel article unless you’re interested.
    • Ok, only nine rules—not too bad. Academic or technical publications will have clear style guidelines on the use of quotes, ellipses and citations; you’ll need to follow them when targeting such publications. If you’re not sure what academic publication you’re targeting, stick to something official, like Chicago. But for fiction, blogs, etc., I’m happy to provide the above more-or-less correct guidance for free!

Interior Monologue (thoughts) and Points of View

Interior monologue means the expression of a character’s thoughts in a story. For a great description of how to write this, see Novel Writing Help: The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue and also check out good articles at The Editor’s Blog: Inner Dialogue and Writing4Successs: Using Italics to Show Thoughts (italics are recommended in exception and not as standard). Here’s my summary about writing thoughts, gleaned from my usual trawling of the Internet plus the excellent book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King:

    • A key point is that quotation marks are not used—these are reserved for speech or quotations; otherwise it would be difficult to distinguish thoughts from speech.
    • Direct thought—where the exact words of the thought are used—looks the same as speech, including an initial capital letter, except without quote marks. Examples are:
      • What’s Geoff talking about? Sue wondered.
      • Geoff thought, She’s not listening to me.
      • How, she thought, does Geoff know that?
      • Should I stop talking? Geoff wondered.
    • These examples use dialogue tags (wondered and thought), but they often aren’t necessary because it will be clear who’s doing the thinking.
    • The examples are in the present tense and the first person because they’re the exact character thoughts at the time. If the story in written in the past tense and third person (as most stories are), then this can look a little odd in a way it doesn’t for speech. Consider the following example for speech: Sue crept down the stairs and heard the noise again. “Who is it?” she said. The jump from past tense in the narrative (crept, heard and said) to present tense for the speech (is) is perfectly natural and the reader probably won’t notice it. Consider an example for thought: Geoff tentatively continued along the lane. What’s that shadow? This is less natural because there are no speech marks to give a cue and a reason for the switch of tense. Because of this, authors usually convert thoughts into the past tense and third person: Geoff tentatively continued along the lane. What was that shadow? The previous examples would look as below:
      • What was Geoff talking about? Sue wondered.
      • Geoff thought, She wasn’t listening to him.
      • How, she thought, did Geoff know that?
      • Should he stop talking? Geoff wondered.
    • Direct and indirect thoughts: I’ve structured these as direct thoughts even though the words aren’t the exact words that were thought. They look like speech, with the thought separated from the speech attribution with a comma (or question mark) and a capital letter to start the thought. My intent is that the words are those the characters thought, except converted to the past tense and the third person to match the narrative structure. An indirect thought provides a sense of the character’s thoughts rather than the exact words. To turn the example into an indirect thought, I could have written something like Geoff thought that she wasn’t listening to him—“thought” doesn’t act as a dialogue tag here, because it doesn’t have the same structure as a speech tag. This is less intimate and perhaps implies that Geoff isn’t so bothered. The line between direct thoughts and indirect or paraphrasing of thoughts can often be blurred. There are a couple of situations where it’s clear the thoughts are direct: 1) The words jump to the present tense when the story is in the past; and 2) Using dialogue tags as in the examples above gives a clue that the words are pretty much as thought (although they may be converted to past tense and third person). Otherwise, the author can indicate how direct the thoughts are by the wording, for example, are they succinct and in the character’s voice, or do they read more like a summary of thoughts?
    • Dialogue tags often aren’t needed. This is because a scene is typically told from one character’s point of view and once this person is identified, the reader will know them to be the thinker. At the beginning of a scene this may not be obvious, or the scene may start with a description or narration from the author (a kind of omniscient narrator) before moving into the point of view of a character. In these cases, a dialogue tag says who’s doing the thinking. An occasional dialogue tag may also be useful to fit the rhythm of the story or to stress that the thoughts are more direct. Assuming dialogue tags aren’t used, thought looks as below (assuming we have made clear this is Sue’s point of view):
      • Geoff had been droning on about squirrels for a while. Why?
    • Italics used for thoughts: This is often frowned upon because lots of italics distract readers. However, italics do have their place. They can make the occasional thought stand out, for example, to show a powerful emotion. When this is done, they use the exact words of the character—the real thoughts in present tense and first person. This is more intimate (putting the reader in the character’s head, at the time of the thought). The italics also warn of a change of tense, so it’s not so jarring. Sparingly used, this can be a good technique:
      • Geoff realised he was exploring the spooky lane with no torch on the very night the lion had escaped from the zoo. Why am I doing this?
    • Interior monologue: how much and different strategies within scenes and between scenes: Interior monologue or the ability to see inside someone’s head is what makes books so different from film, TV or plays and provides an extra level of intimacy. It can also be overdone. A golden rule of fiction called “show not tell” means it’s better to show things than to tell the reader about them. For example, if someone is angry or jealous, you show the reader this by their actions, not by having them tell you their thoughts. The point is that you treat the reader as intelligent and make them understand through the story—to an extent you make them work, which gives them more enjoyment and reward from the story. Within this, there’s a balance. Sometimes, of course, you do want to cut to the chase and spell out thoughts clearly or provide back story from the character’s viewpoint. In addition, some authors and some genres use interior monologue more than others. A gritty thriller by James Burke will have less than a stream of consciousness literary novel (such as this year’s Booker winner, Milkman by Anna Burns). Given that we don’t want to overwhelm the reader with interior monologue, but we need some, I found a good tip from the earlier Novel Writing Help link. It recommends using thoughts sparingly within a scene where action and dialogue is happening—as the piece quotes, “a line of thought here and there—enough to directly connect us to the viewpoint character’s mind, but not enough to disrupt the flow of the scene”. It then advises that longer sections of interior monologue should go in the interlude between scenes, or within quieter scenes (for example, travelling across town with not much happening). Even here, reflection or backstory should be sprinkled through the story because long passages of thought can slow the pace too much. Exceptions can be made for Booker-winning literary novelists.
    • Points of view: We mentioned points of view a few bullets up—I’ll give a slightly expanded description here. If the story’s written in the first person, then the thoughts will be those of the first-person narrator. For stories in the third person, each scene is normally told from a single character’s point of view and that will be the person whose thoughts are shown. Sometimes there’s an authorial voice (the so-called omniscient narrator), as well as character voices. At its more obvious, this will talk directly to the reader, for example, “If you wandered down Oxford Street one sunny day last May, you may have spied a most extraordinary scene.” This used to be more common, but not so much now. More likely, an author’s voice will be found in passages of prose with no sign of any characters (perhaps a description of a scene or a summary of new events), before characters gradually appear in the scene and one becomes the focal character. A subtlety exists here: this is a genuine author voice if there’s a consistent style (and perhaps an opinion) to these passages. If the text is simply description, this is more likely fly-on-the-wall or dramatic point of view, which may extend to the whole scene, including character interactions and speech. In this case, there’s no point of view—just a description as if viewed on film—and there will be no character thoughts. Let’s move back to character points of view now. Showing the thoughts of several characters in one scene is known as head-hopping, which is confusing for the user and not recommended. Points of view are on a scale from intimate (where the reader is close to the character’s feelings and will often know their thoughts) to distant (where the narration is more like a description of events or a film reel and the reader only occasionally sees inside the character’s head). With a more intimate point of view, the onus is on the author not to overdescribe thoughts. With a more distant point of view, the onus is on the writer to make the character’s state of mind clear by the language used and how the characters act. The writer needs to strike a balance between the emotional impact and closeness of an intimate point of view and the action focus of a distant point of view. Points of view is a complex subject and there’s room for all kinds of styles here—google “points of view in fiction” and you’ll find lots of well-written articles.
    • A summary of the advice is to use dialogue tags only as necessary, to write thoughts in the past tense and third person, to take care how direct the thought is and to phrase accordingly, not to head-hop in a scene, and to (maybe) occasionally include an italicised thought in the present tense and first person to make it stand out. This is not gospel. Some authors may, for example, use present tense for all thoughts and, if they provide a strong voice for this, could make it work despite the changes in tense. For first-person stories, the advice is similar—here, thoughts will always be in the first person, and dialogue tags will be even less required as the story’s voice is always that of the first-person narrator. The Novel Writing Help link, given earlier, covers thoughts for both first-person and present-tense novels.
    • To finish with, here’s a quick story, where I move into present tense at the end. You did want to know how it ended, didn’t you?
      • Geoff tentatively continued down the lane. What was that shadow? He took a step forward. So did it. How far was the guesthouse? He darted to the verge and flattened himself against the hedge. No movement for a second. Then an unearthly howl, a rapid padding and the shape flung itself towards him. He fell and scrambled for a footing before an impact knocked him onto his back. He rolled, desperate to escape. He was half in the ditch and half praying before the changing angle to the moon made the shape smaller and more familiar: it’s Rover. 

Quotes and Italics for titles (and italics in general)

This is a simple one (mostly). See the article at Thoughtco: When to Punctuate Titles in Italics or Quotes for a neat summary or at The Editor’s Blog: Marking Text for a longer description. The guidelines are as below:

    • Most named things (or people or places) are capitalised, and don’t require italics or quotes. This applies, for instance, to names of shops (Marks & Spencer), companies (IBM), sports team (Arsenal), museums (the Natural History Museum), band names (The Monkees), battles or wars (World War I), or scriptures and religious works (the Bible, the Koran or Genesis). This also applies to signs or notices (Do Not Walk on the Grass).
    • However, titles (of things) do attract italics or quotes. Titles of long works or things that stand on their own or works made up of smaller divisions are italicised. A book—composed of chapters—is italicised; for example, Barbara Woodhouse’s Dog Training My Way is a classic from 1981. Similarly, album titles (Muppet Beach Party), TV shows (One Man and His Dog), Films (Unforgiven) and newspapers or magazines (Horse and Hound) are italicised. Names of vehicles (ships, aircraft and train names like the Titanic, but not brand names such as Rolls Royce), long poems, cartoon strips, legal cases, works of art or blog titles are also italicised.
      • Note that the extra text in plurals or possessives is not italicised, nor the related punctuation; for example, “Horse and Hound’s last edition had a feature on squirrels.” Neither the apostrophe nor the s after “Hound” is italicised. An exception to this is when the punctuation is part of the italic phrase, for example, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    • Titles of shorter works or divisions of longer works have quotation marks. A chapter from a book (“Worry-Free Walks”) has quote marks, as does a song title (“House of the Rising Sun”) or a newspaper article (“Elvis found in Romsey”). Short poems, TV show episodes and blog articles should also have quote marks.
      • The basic rule for titles is good and consistent across most sources, but there are quirks and exceptions unique to individual style guides. In these cases, as ever, the rule is to make a decision and be consistent. In addition, AP doesn’t use italics for any titles, and some newspapers follow this, so you may well see Culture Man without italics in the papers!
    • Here’s a quick note on other uses of italics. We’ve met them a few times in this blog: for titles, as described in this section; for occasional emphasized thoughts in the present tense and first person; and as a rare alternative to hyphenation. Italics are also used in the following cases:
      • For emphasis, as in “He’s eaten five doughnuts”, or “She took her mask off: it was Julia Smith.” Most advice is to only do this rarely and never for long passages of text, as they’re distracting to the reader. Quite possibly this is never needed if the dialogue and description are good enough to convey the meaning and emotion and too much can look gushing. Maybe a once-or-twice-in-a-book occurrence.
      • For foreign words. Chicago states italics should be used for words and phrases in a foreign language if they’re likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If the phrase becomes familiar through repeated use, it only needs to be italicized on its first occurrence.
      • For certain scientific terms, including symbols for physical quantities, gene names and Latin names of species. Units aren’t written in italics, so the value of the speed of light can be written as c = 300,000,000 m/s (the physical quantity c is in italics). If you’re writing a scientific paper or have some serious science in your fiction, then specialist publications can help, for example, Scientific Style and Format, published by the University of Chicago Press as a sister publication to the Chicago Manual of Style. This is available as an online subscription ($50 per year) or as a book. Also useful (and free) is the NIST Guide for the use of the International System of Units (SI Units), which we mentioned in the section on numbers.
      • Words as words: as we said in the quotations section, these can use quotes or italics, with italics probably more common. An example is “Lupine means wolflike.” If a plural is used, then an apostrophe will be added (to avoid confusion with a different word ending in s). As with titles, the apostrophe and s will be in Roman (non-italicised) type, for example, “He should say more please’s.”
      • Letters as letters: Letters as letters are italicised. Examples are “My name begins with G” and “There are two o’s in my surname.” As with words as words, the plural form has an apostrophe before the s and the apostrophe and final s are in Roman type. Here are a few subtleties: plurals of capital letters don’t need an apostrophe (e.g., two Gs); idioms don’t use italics (e.g., mind your p’s and q’s); and capital letters as exam grades or music notes are not italicised (e.g., a grade C). There’s a good article on this at Daily Writing Tips: How to Style Alphabetical Letters. The same principle goes for numerals and symbols, for example, “he was at 6’s and 7’s” or “he suffered from an overuse of &’s”. (You’d normally write it as “sixes and sevens”, but you get the idea.)
      • Finally, reproduced sounds are in italics, such as grrrr, bzzzz or Often these have an exclamation mark after them (Grrr!), and—being pedantic—I think the exclamation mark, unusually, is in italics because it’s part of the sound (kind of). No quotation marks are used. If a word isn’t a realistic attempt to reproduce the sound, then it isn’t italicised, as below.
          • “Woof,” said Rover.


Tragically, I thought I’d finished with grammar at this point, until I realised there were a series of small topics I’d missed. See below for a mixture of short-ish topics I couldn’t fit anywhere else.


These are mostly straightforward, with two main uses. They’re used for contractions of words—to indicate missing letters—for example, can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), I’m (I am), ’twas (it was) or shouldn’t’ve (should not have). And they’re used to indicate the possessive, for example “Rover’s bone”, “the car’s engine” or “England’s green and pleasant land”. A key point is that the possessive apostrophe is not used with possessive pronouns, so “The parrot preened its beak” or “Is that car yours?” are correct. The possibility of confusion between its and it’s exists because an apostrophe is used when it stands for “it is” or “it has”, but not when it denotes the possessive. To be honest, I don’t think this is that complex, at least when compared to the guidance on comma usage. Another use of the apostrophe is to denote the plurals of lowercase letters (but not uppercase) or characters, and sometimes of words used as words. Examples are “His typewriter was made up of solely a‘s, b‘s, x‘s and &‘s” and “I tend to say lots of please‘s in her presence.” There are a few subtleties with the possessive apostrophe:

  • Plurals: the possessive of a plural ending in s adds an apostrophe and no additional s. Examples are “the dogs’ day out”, “the witnesses’ testimonies” or “Christians’ beliefs”. If the plural isn’t formed by adding an s, then an apostrophe and an s is added, for example, “the children’s playground”, “a people’s vote” or “women’s rights”. A few plurals with an s-sounding ending may not sound quite right, for example “the mice’s home”, but they’re ok (alternatively, you can rephrase to “where the mice lived”).
  • Singular words ending in s: There are two options here. The first is to add an apostrophe, for example, “Thomas’ book”, “Mr Jones’ dog” or “the cosmos’ secrets”. The second is to add an apostrophe and an s: “Thomas’s book”, “Mr Jones’s dog”, etc. In the latter case, the extra s is pronounced when spoken. The first method used to be more common, but the second seems to be taking over and I think most style guides now recommend this. Some style guides recommend the second method (‘s) but with exceptions for when the word is classical or biblical, difficult to pronounce with an extra s, or simply wouldn’t be spoken like that, for example “Socrates’ writing”. I’d go with the latter—use an apostrophe and s, except when it clearly doesn’t sound right, and then you can either just use an apostrophe or rephrase it (e.g., “the writings of Socrates”).
  • Place Names and Companies: These follow the same rules as above. An apostrophe and an s are added, for example “Germany’s policies” or “IBM’s workforce”. The United States is a bit of an anomaly and is treated as a plural for possession, for example, “the United States’ policies”. Some place names and companies have a built-in apostrophe, such as Bishop’s Stortford or Sainsbury’s. This is a matter of record and you need to check the correct form of the name.
  • Joint possession: If something is jointly possessed by multiple owners, then only the last one takes an apostrophe, for example, “Geoff and Sue’s dog”. However, when they individually possess things, they each take an apostrophe, for example, “Geoff’s and Sue’s appetites for adventure”.
  • Compound nouns: The possessive follows the last word in the compound, even when it’s not the most significant word, for example “daughter-in-law’s cat” or “the Minister for Dogs’ policies”.
  • Time, Money and Measurements: The possessive is used in phrases like “in one week’s time”, “two weeks’ holiday”, “five pounds’ worth”, “two inches’ length” or “a mile’s drive”. The rationale is that these would include of in the absence of the apostrophe, for instance, “in one week of time” or “two weeks of holiday”. This (more or less) matches the structure of something like “Geoff’s dog” which means “the dog of Geoff”.
  • Double possessive: This turns up in expressions like “a friend of Sue’s”, which is called a double possessive because both of and the apostrophe indicate possession. Style guidance says it should only be used with people (Sue, in this case). It isn’t strictly necessary as you could always say “Sue’s friend”. However, why not just say, “a friend of Sue”? The answer’s partly that it’s common usage, but there are also ambiguities in some cases, which the double possessive fixes. A classic example of the ambiguity uses a picture: “Sue had a picture of Geoff” is different from “Sue had a picture of Geoff’s”, with the latter meaning a picture belonging to Geoff, and hence the use of the double possessive. Despite this discussion, you can still say “a friend of Sue”. I found some advice on Daily Writing Tips: Double Possessive that the double possessive is more likely to be used in a less defined situation, such as “a friend of Sue’s”, but less so when something more specific is portrayed, as in “the best friend of Sue”.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to a collection of individuals, animals or things considered as a whole. Examples are team, herd, flock, crowd, army, group, government, couple and McDonald’s. They’re each an aggregation of smaller elements, whether that be footballers, birds, soldiers, employees, etc. The main question is whether to treat them as singular or plural. That is, do we say, “The flock is heading for Barbados” or “The flock are heading for Barbados.” The answer is pretty much that they’re singular and it should be “The flock is heading for Barbados.” Similarly, we would say “The army is on the march” or “The government runs the country.” This often trips me up, especially with company names, as I instinctively say, “McDonald’s are branching out into dog biscuits” (probably not true) whereas it should be “McDonald’s is branching out into dog biscuits.” If you change the sentence to refer to individual members, then (as you’d expect) the normal rules of plurals apply, for example, “the team members are”, “one of the team members is” or “McDonald’s employees are”.

The examples above concentrate on whether the associated verb takes a singular or plural form. We also need to consider pronouns that refer back to the collective noun. Consider “The flock is heading for Barbados. It’s trying to get there for Christmas.” As the verb takes a singular form (is), so does the pronoun (it). Another example is “The class is rehearsing for its play.” The noun that the pronoun refers back to (the flock or the class, in these cases) is known as the antecedent of the pronoun. We’ll see some examples below where a singular verb and plural pronoun can be acceptable, but those are exceptions.

Collective nouns where the members act individually: Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. If the group members are acting individually, rather than as a single group, then British English treats them as plural. An example is “The herd have gone their separate ways.” Others are “The couple are separated”, “The audience went to their seats” and “The team were sent home.” In each case, you can consider the individuals involved acting separately from the group. Sometimes this is obvious and sometimes less so. With the team being sent home, the assumption is that the team members are all sent to their separate homes, so act as individuals. However, you might think the team members were sent home together—so it should be “the team was sent home”—and they went home individually afterwards. A quick google shows about 60,000 of “the team was sent home” and 20,000 of “the team were sent home”, so people interpret this differently. Take the example, “The family were doing lots of different things.” Does that mean they were doing them together or doing lots of individual things? The writer can decide the meaning by using the family was (they did them together) or the family were (they did them individually). A slightly different example is given by Wikipedia: Collective Noun: “The team have finished the project.” In this case, the project is joint for the whole team, but the writer is choosing to highlight that they act as individuals within the group, by using have instead of has. That might be overthinking the issue and I’d be tempted to stick with has. American English, according to most guidance, uses a singular verb form for collective nouns whether they’re acting as a group or individually (e.g., “the herd has gone” or “the team was sent home”). However, American English does use plural pronouns if the group members are acting individually. This is because examples such as “The team went to its seats” sounds wrong—it creates a contradiction between individuals doing things and a singular pronoun—so their would be used. I’ve also seen American English advice to avoid potential plural situations like this by rephrasing, for example, “The team members went to their seats.”

Despite my quest to be brief, we still can’t finish because there are some exceptions and points of interest. Check the below bullets and then we’re definitely done.

  • Sports teams are usually treated as plural in both British and American English. The guidance is sketchy, but several grammar sites, the AP and Wikipedia say this. This is familiar to readers of sports pages or listeners of sports commentary: you’ll rarely hear, “Arsenal is winning” (no jokes please) and almost never “England is the champion.” This applies to verb and pronoun, so it would be “Arsenal are due a league win. They are struggling at the moment.” American English guidance sometimes adds a rider to this: when the team is referred to by their city name, it becomes singular—for example, “Los Angeles is winning” although a non-city name would be plural, as with “Los Angeles Lakers are winning”. You can find many singular examples of sports teams online, so natural usage is not clear cut—but most guidance is to use the plural form, so I’d go with that.
  • Proper nouns that are plural in form: Normally a collective proper noun—for example, a band like Squeeze or a company like Marks & Spencer—acts as singular unless the individuals are emphasized (except for sports teams), as we’ve discussed. However, there is a statement in Wikipedia: American and British English differences that says, “Proper nouns that are plural in form take a plural verb in both American and British English”. This is oft repeated on the Internet, although the wording is identical, so it probably comes from one root source. This is the only guidance I can find, so let’s go with it. Many examples refer to bands, for instance, “The Monkees are great” (or “were great”—RIP, Davy Jones and Peter Tork). This makes sense because a single member of the band can be referred to as a Monkee or you could say, “one of the Monkees”. A plural-form proper noun like this would also take a plural pronoun such as they. Company names like Debenhams, which look plural but aren’t really (there’s no singular Debenham), are still treated as singular: “Debenhams is a fine department store”. Note that the United States, like most—if not all—countries, is referred to in the singular, as in “The United States is not a leading cricket nation.” (This is like the Debenhams example, since a singular United State doesn’t exist.)
  • Things or people (who or which; it or they): Collective nouns are things, not people, so we reference them as which or that rather than who or whom. We also use pronouns relating to singular objects, for instance, it, its or itself—rather than gender-specific pronouns like he, she or herself (which wouldn’t make sense) or plural versions like they. Here’s a typical example: “The government, which stood for thirteen years, fell in 2010. It lost the election to a Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition.” As we’ve seen, sometimes a collective noun is considered as plural (e.g., if the members are acting individually or for sports teams or for plural-form proper nouns). In this case, a plural pronoun such as they, their or themselves is used—although we’d still use which or that (usually). You knew there’d be some exceptions, so let’s have a look:
    • Using who (or whom) with collective nouns: If a group is made up of people—as opposed to animals and things—who are acting as individuals, then who is used, for instance, “The team, who reluctantly took their seats, were boisterous.” Who is also used for sports teams and bands, since, regardless of whether they’re acting as a group or individually, they’re closely associated with their human members, and it would be odd to refer to them as which or that. Thus we have, “Arsenal, who were unbeaten in the Premier League in 2004, haven’t won the league since.” The same would apply to other human groups closely associated with their individuals (e.g., Power Rangers). An example using bands is “Squeeze is a seventies band, who are still touring.” We use “who are” rather than “who is” since we’ve emphasized the individuals by saying who, so it would sound odd to say “who is still touring”. However, we still have “Squeeze is”, so this is inconsistent—see the comments two bullets down.
    • Using they (or similar) instead of it with collective nouns: We’ve already seen that pronouns are plural (e.g., they or their is used) if the members of a group are acting individually (or are sports teams or plural-form proper nouns). The same would apply if the group is closely associated with their human members. A band such as Squeeze wouldn’t be referred to as it for this reason. So, extending the previous example gives “Squeeze is a seventies band, who are still touring. Their singles “Up the Junction” and “Cool for Cats” made number two.”
    • Inconsistencies and comments: We’ve just ended up with an example that starts with “Squeeze is”—showing Squeeze as a singular group—followed by “who are” and “their”, which both reflect the plural nature of a group of individuals. This mixing of the singular and plural is usually ok when it does occur (often with bands, I think) and is reflected in common usage. Changing it to be more consistent is also fine: “Squeeze are a seventies band, who are still touring. Their singles….” There’s a lack of information and consistency in references or style guides, so for bands or similar, go with your instincts. Common usage is varied both in harder cases like this and also where the guidance is more clear cut: for example, see the lyrics to Elvis Costello’s 1979 number two hit, Oliver’s Army: “Oliver’s Army is here to stay, Oliver’s Army are on their way.” The variation here is presumably for reasons of rhythm and flow (and perhaps stresses an individual aspect in the second line), which is fair enough. I’ve done my best to untangle this subject, but I must admit I’ve found it tricky in places!
    • Metaphorical gender: Sometimes an inanimate object—such as a ship—is referred to as she instead of it, based on tradition. Similarly, people might refer to things such as cars, robots, computers or tools as he or she. This is called metaphorical gender or creative gender assignment—and is becoming less common. The main relevance for collective nouns is for countries, which are sometimes referred to as she; for example, you might say “America and her allies”. However, it would be more common to say “America and its allies” these days.
  • Terms of venery: These are collective nouns for groups of different kinds of animals. The expression is based on the archaic word venery, which means the act of hunting game. Beware though, as it also means the indulgence of sexual desire. Examples include the familiar, such as “pack of wolves”, “swarm of bees”, “colony of bats”, “gaggle of geese” and “pride of lions”; and the less so, such as “parliament of rooks”, “murmuration of starlings”, “scurry or dray of squirrels” (a must-know!), “band of gorillas” and “skulk of foxes”. There are loads of these—see Wikipedia: terms of venery. Some of the terms differ between different sources, I think because they’re a mix of historic and newer terms and some are conceived in a humourous spirit (e.g., a “tower of giraffes”). If your novel centres on a romp of otters or a stand of flamingos, then go for it.

Mass (or uncountable) nouns

Mass nouns are nouns that can’t be counted. They either refer to an indeterminate whole like water, sand or luggage; or to something abstract like truth, honesty or evidence. They can’t use a number or a or an before them—you can’t have “a sand” or “two evidences”. In contrast, collective nouns can be counted (you can have “an army”, “twelve herds” or “two Englands”—although the latter would be in a non-literal sense). Often nouns can act as both mass nouns and countable nouns, depending on context; for example, truth can refer to the “truth about the matter” (a mass noun) or you can tell someone “three truths” (a countable noun). Many mass nouns can be made countable by adding a type of measurement, as in “grains of sand”, “eight pieces of silver” or “bodies of water”. The main point is that mass nouns are generally singular (they take singular verbs and pronouns). Examples are “Water is vital for life”, “The furniture was so heavy it fell through the floor” and “Her courage stands her in good stead.” There are a few mass nouns that are plural, for example, police, manners, trousers, scissors or clothes. “Manners are a sign of civilisation” is my quick example before we move on from a successfully short section.

Indefinite Pronouns and Quantifiers (and plurals)

Indefinite pronouns are words such as everyone, someone, none, all, most and few. They refer to non-specific things, beings or places. Examples are “somebody has stolen the biscuits”, “all are born equal” and “few have my understanding of squirrels”. We want to understand whether these words are singular or plural. Usually this is clear to the ear of natural English speakers. “Somebody have stolen the biscuits” and “All is born equal” are clearly wrong. However, all is singular in “all is good”—perhaps in response to “how’s it going young’un?”—so it’s worth understanding how this works. The key is that some indefinite pronouns are always singular, some are always plural, and some can be either. The following lists the words in each category, though I’m sure it’s incomplete.

  • Always singular: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everyone, everything, everybody, less, neither, nobody, nothing, one, somebody, someone, something.
  • Always plural: both, few, many, others, several.
  • Singular or plural: all, any, enough, less, more, most, none, some.

Quantifiers are words or groups of words that come before a noun (or noun phrase or pronoun) and modify the quantity associated with it, such as every, some, plenty of, no, numerous or each. Some definitions specifically exclude numbers—but ignore this, we’re talking about something that modifies the amount of a noun and the principles are the same. Examples are “every squirrel learns how to bamboozle dogs”, “few dogs catch squirrels” and “lots of people won’t get to this section”. Note the overlap between indefinite pronouns and quantifiers: few acts as an indefinite pronoun in “few have my understanding…” and a quantifier in “few dogs catch squirrels”. As above, some quantifiers are singular, some plural and some can be either. If a quantifier is singular it can only be paired with a singular noun (and similarly for plurals). See below for another incomplete list.

  • Always singular: each, either, every, neither, one.
  • Always plural: both, few, many, numerous, a number of, several.
  • Singular or plural: all, any, enough, less, lots of, more, most, most of, no, plenty of, some.

I’ll make a few points and then we’ll be gone.

  • How to remember which is which: You don’t need to remember those which are always single or always plural, since this is usually obvious from the word. Somebody refers to a single person and is singular, many means more than one and is plural, and the rest are similar. One or two perhaps need a bit of thought, for instance the pronouns starting with every, like everybody. This does refer to a great deal of people—all of them, in fact—but is singular because they’re considered as a single whole (this is more obvious if you split the word up, e.g., “every body” includes the singular word “body”).
  • Quantifiers that can be singular or plural: This is an easy one. If the noun (or noun phrase, etc.) being quantified is singular, the expression is singular and if it’s plural, the expression is plural. Examples are “all the horses are ready”, “all the mountain is over there” or “all the wine has been drunk”. If a quantifier ends in “of”, the same principle holds: you’ll have “half of the horses were agitated”, but “half of him is uncertain”. Often, the singular version is related to a mass noun like wine.
  • Indefinite pronouns that can be singular or plural: This is the same as above—if the pronoun (e.g., more or most) is associated with a singular subject, the expression is singular and otherwise it’s plural. The only tricky thing can be identifying the subject. This is straightforward if it’s named nearby—for example, “The field was full of rabbits. None were left by the time Sue climbed the style.” If the subject is implied rather than named, it can be a bit harder and you need to look at the context. The “all is good” example from earlier—apart from being a well-known phrase—would likely refer to something like wellbeing or health, which are both singular and hence you use is. How about a king who says, “None is good enough for my daughter”? Or should that be “None are good enough….”? It depends. If the sense is something like “not one man in the whole kingdom is good enough”, then the expression is singular, and it should be is. If the meaning is more like “no men are good enough” then the expression is plural and we should use are. None can throw up complex examples and the choice of singular or plural may not be obvious—in which case, the writer can choose based on context, characterisation, narrative power, etc. For the record (according to a Google search), “none is good enough” is slightly more popular than “none are good enough”.
  • Referring back to an indefinite pronoun or quantifier: when a pronoun refers back to an indefinite pronoun or quantifier (which is known as its antecedent), it takes the same plurality as the verb would. A singular example is “Something has occurred between Rover and next door’s cat. It was long expected.” A plural example is “Most squirrels are surprised to be so prominent in this blog. They are flattered (possibly).” A complication is when the gender is unknown for a singular word like someone. Consider “Someone has stolen the dog biscuits. He or she must have got in through the skylight.” That’s correct and ok. However, you might also write “They must have got in through the skylight.” This is called the “singular they” because it refers to the singular word someone. See the “Gender neutral options” bullet in the “Brackets” section below for more on this.

Agreement between antecedent and pronoun

An antecedent is an expression that’s replaced by a shorter expression for reasons of brevity or to avoid repetition. An example is “Rover chased his tail”, where Rover is the antecedent and his is the replacement pronoun. We spoke about antecedents at the end of the “Commas” section, highlighting the scope for confusion in sentences such as “Sue had coffee with Jill after her exam”. Does this refer to Sue’s or Jill’s exam? The main point was to be careful to write sentences clearly where ambiguity is possible. This section is about making sure a pronoun agrees with its antecedent. (Antecedents are not always nouns and the replacement is not always a pronoun, but we’re restricting ourselves to nouns—or noun phrases or indefinite pronouns like somebody—and replacement pronouns because that’s where subtleties with plurals arise.) Consider the earlier example about Rover chasing his tail. The pronoun must agree with the noun, Rover, in three ways: gender, plurality and person. Rover is male, singular and in the third person; his is also male, singular and in the third person, so we’re fine here. The difficulties usually come with plurality. See some more complicated examples below.

  • Collective nouns: As we saw in the “Collective Nouns” section, a collective noun takes a singular pronoun if the members act as a unit, but a plural if they act individually. Examples are “The class finished its project” or “The class went to their homes.” There are some exceptions, such as with sports teams or groups that are closely associated with their members (like bands) which always tend to take a plural pronoun, for example, “Arsenal lost their way”.
  • Indefinite pronouns: The “Indefinite Pronouns” section explained that some indefinite pronouns are singular, some are plural, and some are singular or plural depending on the subject of the pronoun (or implied subject). Examples using the pronouns somebody, few and most are “somebody hasn’t paid his dues”, “few are left to fight for their honour”, and “most have fought their final battle”. For the singular examples, these can use the “singular they” if the gender is unknown—so you could write “somebody hasn’t paid their dues” (“somebody hasn’t paid his or her dues” would also work). The “Indefinite Pronouns” section gives more details on this; for more about the “singular they”, see the “Gender neutral options” bullet in the next section on brackets.
  • Quantifiers: If a quantifier—such as each, every, no, all or twenty-three—precedes a noun, the noun and quantifier together will either form a singular or plural. For example, “each dog” or “every dog” is singular (because they’re considered individually rather than as a group); “all dogs” is plural; and “all of the wine” is singular. The pronoun will therefore match this: “each dog has lost its way”, “all the dogs have eaten their dinner” or “all of the wine has found its way to Geoff’s house”.
  • Multiple antecedents: Two or more antecedents take a plural pronoun, for example, “Rover and Spot enjoyed their dinner.” However, if they’re modified to form a singular unit, a singular pronoun is used. Typically, this would be by using each, every or no, for example “Each council and parish rules over its people.”
  • Choice of antecedents (using or or nor): If the options are all singular, then the pronoun will be singular: “The council or the parish will win, and it will become all powerful.” If they’re all plural, the pronoun will be plural: “Neither the wolves nor the tigers achieved their aims.” If the options are a mixture of singular and plural, then the pronoun should agree with the antecedent closest to the pronoun: “Neither the knight nor the elves survived their battle.” The preference is to put the plural closest to the pronoun because this usually flows better: “Neither the elves nor the knight survived his battle” doesn’t sound as natural.
  • You and I, you and he, she and I: This is about multiple antecedents that differ in person (e.g., the second person and the first person in “you and I”). Consider “You and I should finish our pints”, “You and Sue should finish your pints” or “Geoff and I should finish our pints.” In each case, there are two people finishing their pints, so the pronoun should be plural. The reason why our or your is used is that when the antecedents relate to different persons, the first person is preferred for the pronoun, the second person is next favourite, and the third person comes in last. So if “I” is one of the antecedents, we’ll use our; if it’s not but “you” is, we’ll use your. Most of our examples have solely been in the third person, which is why we’ve used pronouns such as he, she, it and their. This is fairly natural, to be honest, but I’ve added it for completeness (I got this rule from Chicago).

Brackets (or parentheses)

We’re talking about curved brackets here (these things). They let the writer add an aside or clarification, or “gently add information” as a number of sources say. If you remove them and their contents, the sentence will be fine without them (except they’ll be an extra space). The main reason to mention them is to explain the punctuation around them.

All punctuation within parentheses is independent of the rest of the text and must make sense solely within them. If parentheses are enclosed within a sentence, then the contents may end with a question mark, exclamation mark or quotation marks (honest!). But not with a full stop. If a complete sentence is written in parentheses within a sentence, it should pretend it’s not a sentence—with no initial capital, except for “I” or a proper noun, and no full stop (although this is a complete sentence, I haven’t used a capital letter or a full stop because it’s in parentheses within a sentence). This means you should never write more than one sentence in parentheses that are contained within a sentence. (However, if parentheses are outside of a sentence, a full stop is ok. You could also write more than one sentence.)

For parentheses in the middle of a sentence (like this), any comma—or semi-colon or dash—that’s needed should come after them, not before. Two sets of brackets can sit side by side if the material within them is unrelated (quoting from Chicago) (this is an example). Nested sets of parentheses are allowed (these are rare (although possible)). The guidance in this section is as Chicago explains things, and I think it makes sense. I’ve seen alternative guidance that says to capitalise a question or exclamation in parentheses inside a sentence and allows more than one of these (Have I? Yes!). However, I prefer the advice to only include one non-capitalised sentence in parentheses that are inside a sentence. Note that you can have multiple questions inside a sentence and outside of brackets, as we discuss in the next section. Here are a few points worth noting:

  • Parenthetical text shouldn’t change the rest of the sentence. This is most likely to relate to extra text changing the sense from singular to plural, for example, “Geoff (and Rover) was late.” On initial reading you expect “were late”—however, giving a pause before and after the parentheses sounds ok and means that the sentence reads properly if they’re removed. Because this can still jar, I’d rephrase something like this, for example “Geoff—and Rover—were late” or “Geoff was late; so was Rover.”
  • Parentheses for acronyms/references/translations: Parentheses can be used to write out an unfamiliar acronym such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud), the first time it’s used. Alternatively, you can do this the other way round, as in “Geoff ordered a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.” After the first time, refer to LOL or SWAT teams for the rest of the article, without any further explanations. Similarly, short references or translations of foreign phrases can be placed in parentheses.
  • Parenthetical plurals: These are used when a word can be either singular or plural, for example, “Visitors are welcome to bring their squirrel(s).” This is quite common in forms, instructions and legal documents—although not relating to squirrels. Is a parenthesised plural like this considered as singular or plural? There are two options here. Chicago says the rest of the text should offer the alternative options, although should be rephrased if it’s unwieldy. An example is “If the squirrel(s) escape(s), its (their) privileges will be revoked.” However, AP says that the word should be considered as singular, which matches the earlier advice that words in parentheses shouldn’t change the sentence. Therefore, we’d have “If the squirrel(s) escapes, its privileges will be revoked.” I think that’s better, clearer and more consistent—once the reader sees the first brackets, they’re smart enough to understand the sentence needs slight changes if the plural word applies. To be honest, a simple (s) is ok and can be a useful shorthand, but once it gets more complicated, rephrasing is the better option. “Any squirrel that escapes will have its privileges revoked” is better.
    • Gender neutral options: Here’s a quick diversion on gender neutrality because one option is to use a similar technique to the above, using phrases like “(wo)man” or “his (her)”. These are clumsy and not much used. The point is to avoid using gender-specific words such as he, his or him to refer to persons of unknown gender, as in “The masked burglar dropped his swag bag.” One option becoming common is to use a plural pronoun: “The masked burglar dropped their swag bag.” This is called the “singular they”, and they, their, theirs, them and themselves could be used. Wikipedia states that most style guides are against this, at least in formal writing, but more are starting to accept it. It’s common in speech and informal writing. The alternative is to rephrase, for example, “The masked burglar dropped a swag bag.” Other rephrasing options are to use “he or she” or “his or her”; to repeat the noun (which doesn’t sound right in this case—“the masked burglar dropped the burglar’s swag bag”—but can work); or to use who or one where it makes sense (e.g., change “if a trainee can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube, he won’t make the grade” to “a trainee who can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube won’t make the grade”). Gender neutrality also refers to using words like firefighter instead of fireman, or bartender instead of barman or barmaid.
  • Don’t use too many parentheses. They’re interruptions, so too many will detract from the flow. There are alternatives like dashes and commas or simply not including superfluous information.

Questions and question marks

A direct question is followed by a question mark as we all know. Here are a few extra notes in what will definitely be a short section:

    • An indirect question doesn’t take a question mark. An indirect question is a question within a statement, such as “Sue wondered where Geoff and Rover were.” The embedded question’s word order is swapped: in this case, from the direct question of “Where were Geoff and Rover?” to “where Geoff and Rover were”.
      • An indirect question can also be embedded inside another question, such as “Do you know where Geoff and Rover are?” In this case, there is a question mark—because we now have a direct question “Do you know X?”
    • Implied questions: A question mark is used in an implied question, such as the following: “He wondered what to do next. Order another pint?” The second sentence stands for a direct question, something like “Should he order another pint?”
    • Rhetorical questions either don’t expect an answer, imply the answer or are intended to be immediately answered by the questioner. Examples are “She does like squirrels, doesn’t she?”, “Has this government achieved anything at all?”, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “Why ever did you do that!” or “Isn’t he amazingly boring.” These often end with question marks, but various guidance also says that rhetorical questions can conclude with an exclamation mark (for emphasis and to confirm the rhetorical nature) or simply a full stop (for flatness of tone and also to confirm it’s rhetorical). The first example is an example of a tag question, formed by adding an interrogative “tag” to a statement (in this case, “doesn’t she”). Another example—framed in the negative—is “You don’t like ferocious alligators, do you?” A tag question may or may not be rhetorical, and it can also be a leading question (designed to make the person answer in a certain way).
    • Commands disguised as questions don’t require question marks, for example, “Can everyone sit down please.”
    • Questions embedded in sentences: We saw in the “Interior Monologue (thoughts) and Points of View” section that sentences can continue after a question has ended or can start mid-sentence. Examples are “Where had Rover got to? she wondered”, or “Sue wondered, Where had Rover got to?” These are specific to direct thought, where the question is a direct quotation of Sue’s thoughts—they start with a capital, are not within quotation marks, and are separated from the sentence with a comma (or question mark or exclamation mark). How about other questions such as “The key issue is, Will Culture Man break the million-sales barrier?” Can we use the same structure, with a comma and a capital letter? The answer is—more or less—yes. However, some guidance (such as ThoughtCo: Embedded Questions) says that a capital letter is only used if the question is long or contains internal punctuation. That sounds reasonable, and an example of a short, embedded question is “My question is, was it you?” Chicago also says that one-word questions may omit the question mark (and the comma), for example, “My question is why.” There are several ways to write our earlier example. A colon could be used, “This is the key issue: Will Culture Man break the million-sales barrier?” Or it might be turned into an indirect question, “The key issue is whether Culture Man will break the million-sales barrier.” You can also invert the order: “Will Culture Man break the million-sales barrier? is the key question.” For the record, Culture Man is at about 350 sales so far!
      • The examples above had the question at the beginning or end of the sentence. However, it could also be in the middle, within dashes or parentheses: “Culture Man—will it ever make me rich?—is my pride and joy!” In this case, there’s no capital letter.
    • Multiple questions within a sentence aren’t capitalised. An example is “Is Culture Man‘s best feature the Winchester setting? the interplay between the characters? the set pieces? or the giant anteater?” Questions can also be mid-sentence: “Who could it have been—Rover? Spot? the dog next door?—that ate the biscuits?” The questions given are partial sentences, but it’s possible to include a series of full-sentence questions within a single sentence using an em dash. An example is “Open questions still surround Culture Man—how did Rob really get his superpowers? is the anteater a metaphor? will there be a sequel?” If this was written with a full stop or a colon instead of the dash, then the questions would each be capitalised and form separate sentences. There’s a good summary of all this at The Grammarphobia Blog: Punctuating a series of questions.
    • Question marks inside quotations: as we discussed in more detail in the “Quotations and Direct Speech” section, punctuation—such as a question mark—goes inside quotation marks if the punctuation is part of the quote and outside if it isn’t.

Literary Devices and Plot Types

This is whistle-stop tour, but please forgive me as I’m racing to finish the blog! I’ve provided links where you can dive deeper.

Reading this blog is like settling down with a glass of fine wine. Or possibly as much fun as a double maths assignment. These are similes, comparing things—using words such as like or as—which are not, on the face of it, alike. A metaphor is similar but refers to an object or action in a way that isn’t literarily true in order to paint a picture—for example, “She was the sun to my raincloud—I felt I had the better deal.” Foreshadowing provides a hint as to what might happen later in the story. For example, a local character might say, “The last person to go into those woods was never seen again.” It can be more subtle than that. Alternatively, a red herring leads readers towards a false conclusion. An example is a character in a murder mystery who acts suspiciously, but for a different reason than that they committed the crime (e.g., to hide an affair, to protect the real murderer or because they’re from another dimension). These examples are interesting in their own right; a more subtle red herring could be an action of little consequence that’s mentioned or stressed for no apparent reason. They can work well to keep a reader interested and guessing by providing options and possibilities, although beware of taking them down a completely irrelevant tangent to the extent they’ll feel cheated.

A cliffhanger is a plot device where the characters are left in a perilous or uncertain situation with no clear resolution. I’d include an unexpected revelation in this category. This in common in many TV series, especially thrillers, mysteries or police procedurals, where each episode ends in a cliffhanger to leave the audience eagerly awaiting the resolution in the next episode, until the final episode where a conclusion is (usually) provided. This can also apply at the end of a series run to leave the audience waiting for the next series—this can be problematic if the show is cancelled—or to leave the ending unclear (like in the film Blade Runner, where it’s not clear whether the protagonist—who hunts replicants—is himself a replicant). Similarly, books may end chapters on a cliffhanger or even the whole novel. I used to read The Hardy Boys books when I was young; they were written to a formula with each book having twenty chapters and each chapter ending on a cliffhanger or revelation. Deus ex machina is a method of resolving a situation by employing an unexpected or unbelievable and previously unmentioned solution. For example, the climax to a sci-fi novel could end with the hero hopelessly trapped, but then pulling out a futuristic weapon that the readers were unaware of. Its roots are in ancient Greek theatre, where in some plays—apparently Euripides started the trend—a god would appear at the end and explain and solve everything. The method is criticised because it exposes deficiencies in the plot—that is, you have no idea how to end it without a magical or unbelievable intervention. However, sometimes a fine line lies between deus ex machina and a just about plausible coincidence; sometimes an unexpected solution will have been subtly flagged and so won’t really be deus ex machina; and sometimes authors will use it in a “knowing” manner, possibly for comic effect. As an example of the latter, Richard Adams had a chapter towards the end of Watership Down called “Deus Ex Machina”, in which the rabbit hero Hazel was set free by his human captors—but it wasn’t the main crunch point of the book.

An allegory is a disguised story that tells a different story, with the characters and events representing real historical events or providing an underlying message often related to moral, religious or political views. One example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is really about the communist revolution in Russia and the subsequent Stalinist era of the Soviet Union; the characters represent particular figures such as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, and a clear subtext attacks the nature of the Soviet Union. There are shades of allegory: Animal Farm is a clear and an intentional example, but a looser message may underpin a story or part of a story. In addition, sometimes allegory is seen where none was intended by the author. The Bible is often interpreted as containing many instances of allegory—this is a big subject, which I won’t stray into here. A parody is a spoof or caricature of an original work. The parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith led to a spate of similar novels. The form is perhaps more famous in film, with examples being Airplane!, a parody of the disaster film genre, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which parodies the King Arthur legend. A pastiche is similar in that it imitates the style of an original work or artist but seeks to celebrate rather than mock. A euphemism is a mild word or expression used instead of a harsher, more direct or vulgar one—sometimes to amuse and sometimes to downplay something. Examples are “he didn’t make it” to mean he died, “sugar” as a substitute for a swear word, and “how’s your father” for sex.

Alliteration is a series of words or syllables in which many of them start with the same sound; some definitions say this should be the same consonant sound, while others allow vowel sounds. It’s common in poetry and is also used in fiction, well-known phrases, humour, advertising, brand names and character names. Examples are “she sells seashells on the seashore”, “the silken sad uncertain rustling” (from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven), Coca Cola, PayPal, Donald Duck, “good as gold” and “Rover rooted in the rhododendrons”. They can add fun, mood or poetry to a sentence. Hyperbole is exaggeration for emphasis or effect, or as a figure of speech. Politicians are sometimes accused of using it and advertisers can use it in a humourous way (e.g., “if you use our product, you’ll be irresistible”). Examples are “it’s boiling hot” and “sandwiches at the cafe cost a thousand pounds”. The opposite of hyperbole is understatement, which is used to downplay the important of something, perhaps for reassurance or humour. The above examples could become understatements by changing them to “it’s a bit warm” or “that cafe’s not the cheapest place in the world”. The latter is an example of litotes—using a negative form of a word to imply the opposite, for example, saying “not bad” when your dog wins Crufts.

Irony is…well various definitions exist for irony, but the commonality is that it describes something that’s different in actuality from how it appears on the surface, often to critical or humorous effect. Wikipedia: Irony defines three types of irony. Verbal irony is where someone says the opposite of what they mean, for example, Geoff’s house has fallen down and he says, “it’s been a good day, today”. Situational irony is where the outcome is incongruous with intent, for example, everyone using an upstairs gym takes the escalator instead of the stairs. Dramatic irony is a device where the audience or readership is aware of something that the character(s) is not, for example, Romeo thinking Juliet is dead (she had taken a sleeping drug) and killing himself to be with her at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Apologies for the spoiler. Pathos stirs up emotions of sympathy or sorrow towards a character or situation. Bathos is an abrupt change from a serious or beautiful subject to the commonplace, resulting in something ludicrous—it can be deliberate for comic effect or unintentional. An example is “she looked beautiful and unobtainable, as she glided away from the party with long dress flowing, head held high and proud, kicking the cat on the way out”. The link between the similar names is that pathos can tip into bathos if it’s too over the top. There are other literary devices such as allusion (an indirect reference), anaphora (the repeating of a phrase at the start of multiple sentences, to give emphasis), colloquialism (informal language or slang), imagery (a vivid description that appeals to the physical senses—an attempt to make the reader see, feel, hear, taste or smell what the writer is describing), personification (something non-human is described in human terms, such as “the clouds danced across the sky” or “her house was demanding urgent repairs”), satire (a criticism or ridiculing of something such as a person, government, belief or society, often using humour and designed to make a serious point), and more. And by the way—I mentioned asyndeton and polysyndeton in the section on commas.

To look at these literary devices in greater depth, I recommend Wikipedia: List of narrative techniques or The latter has 130-odd entries, twice as many as the Wikipedia article. The Wikipedia article is split into several sections such as plot types, perspective, style and theme, and each one gives a summary and example and links to a more detailed page. How much should you use devices like these? To some extent it depends on a writer’s style or voice—for example, some authors will frequently use metaphors for humour, or some use highly descriptive language with alliteration. I think they’ll sometimes be used naturally without an author making a deliberate effort to do so; for example, an element of foreshadowing may be in a story without this being explicitly planned. If you try and shoehorn lots of them in, then I suspect they won’t work so well. Simply being aware of them should help, setting you thinking as to when they might be useful or, in fact, you’ve already used them.

I’ll move into the territory of plot type for the second half of this section. Articles or books have been written saying that there are seven basic plot types—or three or thirty-six or some such number. The idea is that all stories fit into a limited number of plot structures or variations and combinations of them, although they may seem very different. For example, The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down are both Quests, or Cinderella and Pretty Woman are Rags to Riches stories. A particularly well-quoted book is Christopher Booker’s 736-page The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. I keep meaning to read it, but short of that, either Wikipedia: The Seven Basic Plots or, in more detail, How to Write a Book Now: Understanding the Seven Basic Plots (and its follow-up, here) delves into the plot types he defines. There are various other examples like this. Blake Snyder, an American screenwriter describes ten genre types that all movies fit into in his 2005 book Save the Cat! The last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and goes into considerable detail describing how to plot screenplays in this and two follow-ups. Ronald Tobias, also an American, wrote 20 Master Plots: And How To Build Them in 1993—you can see a description of each plot here. Georges Polti, a French writer, wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in the nineteenth century—it was translated into English in 1916 and is still published and has a Wikipedia summary here. There’s also something called the W Plot which describes a story in terms of a “W” graphic. A trigger event sets up a problem which leads to a turning point, after which the problem comes under control, and then a second trigger point deepens the problem, before a second turning point leads to a resolution. Sounds simple doesn’t it? To be honest I haven’t done it justice—see this YouTube video from Mary Carroll Moore (even though it’s out of focus). Many Internet articles describing plot types are based around these and a few others and you can also find good standalone articles and YouTube videos.

Christopher Booker’s book seems the most quoted and he did work on it for thirty-four years before it was published in 2004. There are positive and negative reviews, but there’s commonality between his plot types and those of others, so let’s have a quick look. His plot types are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Two further types were defined, which—as far as I can see from the reviews—he downgraded as less important: these are Mystery and Rebellion Against ‘The One’ (a hero who rebels against an all-powerful entity who controls the world). For each plot there’s an overall structure looking something like this: Anticipation where the hero is called to action; Dream where the hero starts out and reaps some success; Frustration in which the hero has first contact with the enemy and doubt sets in; Nightmare (the climax) when things appear hopeless; and Resolution for…the resolution! Let’s look at one example: Rags to Riches. Here, the hero is initially in a humble and unhappy setting; they are called into the world by some method; they enjoy initial success (perhaps encountering a romantic interest); everything goes wrong (including losing their love); the hero discovers an inner resolve or grows in some way and fights back; they win through and achieve success (perhaps a permanent position of higher status and/or regaining their love). As with most of his plot types, a darker version is possible, in this case where the hero fails to win through or achieves a hollow victory, usually down to some flaw in their character. You can have a fair guess at the others, or else check the links above.

Christopher Booker also talks about the Rule of Three, whereby things often appear in threes, with the third occurrence being the denouement. For example, a hero might cross swords with the enemy three times in a novel, each time an escalation of the previous, with the third confrontation decisive. The idea is that this is more satisfactory or effective than other numbers—if this happened eight times before a conclusion, it would be repetitive. The Rule of Three is a more general rule of writing. For instance, advertising will often use this, as in “a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”, or jokes as in “Rover settled down with his squeaky mouse, blanket and copy of Greyhound Weekly.” Series of books or films are often trilogies, literary examples are commonplace (from The Three Musketeers to A Christmas Carol’s three ghosts of past, present and future), and public speakers use it for greater impact—for example, Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech or Winston Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Ok, I know the last one (from Churchill’s House of Commons speech of 1940) was four, but I couldn’t resist it, and as a common saying, it’s often reduced to “blood, sweat and tears”.

Does this mean there are only a few stories to be written? Well no, because each story can have endless variety in setting, character, invention, atmosphere and much else, even if it shares a superficial plot structure with countless others. Is it a good idea to know about some standard plot structures? Yes, because these are tried and tested, so if your story is missing, say, an initial call to action or a major setback, that’s a clue the story is lacking something—although the door is always open to originality. Note that the change in mood of a story from expected success to doubt to disaster to hope to success is usually gradual so these things are revealed subtly and over time, although this can be subverted by abrupt events.

Right, only one section left….

Good Writing

This is a little bold of me, but let me present my thoughts. First, this will be brief. Second, a raft of materials are out there, providing far greater details: books on writing by bestselling authors, creative writing courses, specialist magazines, writing clubs, online websites, courses and videos, and any of the previous in specialist areas such as writing for radio, graphic novels, academia, etc. Consulting any of these is a good idea, although simply writing—and seeking reviews and feedback—is perhaps the most important thing in developing and improving skills. My aim here is to provide a brief framework or set of principles to bear in mind. This should apply to any type of writing, from a three-volume, galaxy-spanning epic to a text message. With that overly ambitious goal, let’s go:

  • Grammar, style and consistency: This was the intended subject of the blog—although I’ve strayed into other areas—and covers things such as correct and consistent use of commas, hyphens, semi-colons, tenses, numbers, collective nouns and the like. It also covers using the correct form for quotations, lists, speech, thoughts, flashbacks and whatever other structures you can think of. The word “correct” is contentious. As we’ve seen, varied and conflicting guidelines exist, and these can deviate from natural usage. The aim is to provide clear and easily understandable work, which I think mostly coincides with the grammar and style guides. When work can be improved by deviating from this (e.g., to invoke a certain atmosphere, or provide greater clarity or authenticity), then go for it. However, be aware that writing can be punished if it’s too far away from standard advice, for example, for CVs or new authors’ submitted work. If you’re a Booker-winning author, you can get away with anything! A final point is that writing shouldn’t be a chore, and none of us should be agonising over every comma. If you make an effort to be clear and consistent, use tools such as Word’s review tool, have a rough idea of the guidelines, and look things up as needed (e.g., by googling or checking a style guide of choice), you’ll be fine.
  • Words: The previous bullet discussed how sentences are put together. This is about the actual words used. Let’s use an example: “Geoff walked to the bank. It was averagely busy. A man with a gun walked forward to the counter. The man said, ‘Give me the money.’ The money was handed over by the cashier. The man quickly left the bank. Geoff was nonplussed by events.” The grammar is fine, but—outside of a deliberately minimalist style—this isn’t well written because it doesn’t paint a picture or engage the reader. Even as a minimalist effort, there are problems. However, different needs suit different purposes, and this style might work fine for bird table assembly instructions. Here are some things to watch for:
    • Passive sentences are usually better written in the active voice, especially in an action scene, since this is shorter, sharper and more direct. So “The money was handed over by the cashier” is improved by “The cashier handed over the money.” However, there are sound uses for the passive voice, which we discussed in the section on “Verbs” in “Parts of Speech”, such as when the recipient of an action is more important than the agent, the person performing an action is unknown or unimportant, or to place emphasis on the doer of the action by placing them at the end of the sentence. Overuse of words like was, were, has, had and have (and derivatives such as I’d or wasn’t) are clues that the passive voice is being used too much, although these words are also used in active constructions.
    • Repeated words and phrases: Repetition can be an effective rhetorical device. For example, we mentioned anaphora (providing emphasis by repeating a phrase at the start of multiple sentences) in the “Literary Devices” section. There are similar mechanisms such as repeating words or phrases at the beginning, end or within sentences (e.g., to be or not to be, that is the question). These are for emphasis or for poetic effect, but repetition is often unintentional. If a paragraph has eight it’s or the characters walked fifteen times in a chapter or a pet phrase keeps cropping up like “by the way” (unless you do it as a character tick—but still be careful), then it can be sleep-inducing. A repeated longer or unusual word or phrase is more noticeable than a shorter or common one. In our sample prose, we have three man’s, three examples of was, two of walked, and two Geoff‘s. Repetition occurs at different scales—at the  level of the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, the chapter or the whole book—and applies not only to words and phrases but also to sentence structure (e.g., always starting sentences with the same type of word, such as a pronoun), themes, ideas and characterisations. For example, showing a jungle environment is hostile or a character has anger issues is good but doing so six times a chapter reduces the effect each time—although there can be a case for repeated low-level reminders to sustain an atmosphere. When it’s natural to repeat something and a creative alternative can’t be found, that’s fine—a writer shouldn’t produce stilted or unnatural writing to desperately try and avoid it.
      • Repetition of common words: Some words are quite common and are bound to be repeated, for example, it, there, he, she, was, were, had or the name of your main character. The key here is not to delete them all—sometimes they’re the most natural word—but to try and repeat them no more than they would normally be used. I use an online tool called AutoCrit, which compares the number of times a common word like it is used against the average number of times it appears in published work (based on genre). I’ll talk more about AutoCrit and its competitors at the end of this section. As well as pure repetition, there are other reasons to be careful of some of these words. We already mentioned was and had can be markers of the passive voice. Words like it or there are often superfluous: for example, “There were wolves circling the camp, and it was going to be a long day” is crisper as “Wolves circled the camp, promising a long day ahead.” They can also be a sign of a lack of description or imagination. Consider “The volcano erupted in 1902. It was a major disaster.” This is more vivid and imaginative when rewritten as “The volcano erupted in 1902, spewing forth black ash and bubbling lava to create a major disaster.” Another category of words commonly overused are generic descriptions such as nice, good, great or look, which also suggest a lack of detail or description. Finally, as we discussed in the “Quotations and Direct Speech” section, the word said is effectively invisible and should be used most of the time that speech attribution is needed (although speech attribution isn’t needed when the speaker’s identity is clear).
    • Redundancies and unnecessary words: “Even though the end of this blog is approaching, it seems that there’s always just one more thing to write about.” Or alternatively, using seven less words, “Though the end of this blog approaches, there’s always one more thing to write.” It’s easy to write sentences like the first version, but once you examine them, you’ll often find they can be leaner and more concise. Certain words—like that (more often than you’d think), even, very or just—are a clue the sentence can be reduced. An even or a just can be justified it fits the flow or atmosphere or is something a character might say, but often they can be deleted. Reducing unnecessary words or restructuring for better conciseness is a key part of editing, which you should find becomes less necessary the more you practise. In the previous few sentences, I wrote “a number of words” before changing it to “certain words” and “they can simply be deleted” before I removed simply. Sometimes the sentence should be reordered; for example, “It wasn’t until he found his nut stash, that Rusty was able to retire to his drey” can be rewritten as “Rusty retired to his drey once he’d found his nut stash.” Redundancies repeat things that have been previously expressed (or implied) and should usually be omitted; for example, “Rover ran back to his kennel” can be “Rover ran to his kennel”. Microsoft Word (among other word processing packages) can help here, through the conciseness tips that are part of their review tool.
    • Adverbs: Pretty much all writing guides warn against overuse of adverbs (often described as ly words, although not all adverbs end in ly), since an adverb plus verb can usually be replaced by a verb that is more specific, vivid and descriptive. For example, “said angrily” can be shouted; “walk unsteadily” can be totter; and “sat down dejectively” can be slumped. Of course, sometimes an adverb is splendidly appropriate!
    • Cliches: At the end of the day, clichés aren’t a bed of roses! The point is that clichés are overused and unoriginal so should be used sparingly if at all. They can perhaps be justified in dialogue from a character who might realistically utter clichés. Otherwise, strategies can be either to omit them entirely, to rephrase or to subvert existing cliches. How about, “Come closing time, cliches won’t buy you an extra pint”?
    • Description and style: Even if we write in the active voice, make an effort to write sentences concisely, replace overused words such as it or was where sensible, avoid cliches, and don’t excessively repeat words or overuse adverbs…it’s still possible to write dull prose. “Sue walked to the post office” is not as interesting as “Sue flew through the cobbled streets bedazzled with rain droplets glinting in the afternoon sun to reach the nirvana of the only Post Office within twenty miles.” Literary devices such as metaphors, similes or alliteration can also be used to enhance description. A word of warning though. Sometimes people do just walk to the Post Office. Judgement is needed as to how far and how often to use description like this. I think that sentence is fun, but you need to be aware of the competing demands to tell a story in a reasonably succinct manner. This also comes down to individual style, and we all have our own voice or unique way of telling stories. The idea, I think, is to paint a picture in both a vivid and fairly concise manner so a mere few words conjures a vision. Articles on descriptive writing like Novel Writing Help: Descriptive Writing talk about appealing to the senses, saying it’s easy to concentrate on the visual, but the other senses are sometimes neglected (e.g., “crows squawked overhead” or “an aroma of lavender drifted through the kitchen window”). I’m not an expert here—my style tends to be less descriptive than some, with the odd vivid passage thrown in—but I’ll offer one thought: the best song lyrics are very good at capturing a succinct picture. Songs only have three minutes (including the chorus) to create an impression, so a well-crafted line is gold dust. The idea of course is not to copy them but to be inspired by how they’re put together. I’ll give you a few examples, but you should find loads if you listen much to music: “I was catching the sparks that flew from your heels, Trying to catch your eye” (Razorlight, “Somewhere Else”); “The silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload” (The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”); “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school” (Bruce Springsteen, “No Surrender”). If, just occasionally, you can hear the music when you write a passage, then even better.
    • Updated bank robbery example: Our updated version is as follows. It’s not award winning but is an improvement! “Geoff dragged himself to the bank before work, having lost his second debit card in two weeks. The bank resembled his aunt’s bingo nights, busier than expected but not packed. He joined the queue, yawned. Movement exploded from his left. A short man had charged through the meandering customers, knocking over an ornamental shrub. Geoff quickly woke up. The man shoved the people at the front of the queue aside and a gun appeared in his right hand. He wore a long coat and a black mask covered the top half of his face.  ‘Give me the money,’ he said. The cashier—young, male, frozen—didn’t move. The robber smashed the gun on the desk and shouted, ‘Now.’ The cashier scrabbled under his desk and shoved a wad of notes at him. The robber grabbed the money and scanned the bank. A short hesitation and then he sprinted out the building, almost tripping over the uprooted shrub. Geoff was nonplussed by events.”
  • Pacing and variability: Sentence and paragraph lengths should be varied for two reasons: 1) To provide variety since sentences or paragraphs all the same length are dull and monotonous; and 2) To match the pace and flow of a storytypically, sentences and paragraphs are shorter during action scenes. A slower paced scene is likely to have more narration, backstory and description. A faster paced scene has more direct action and possibly dialogue and moves on quicker. Having said that, an interplay exists between the two. To build tension, you can slow the action and let the tension build while the writing focuses on small details, creating an atmosphere where we know we’re waiting for something. I can’t find much advice on chapter length, but as with sentences and paragraphs, they generally vary to fit the pace of a story and what needs to be said. Often chapters have more than one scene (separated by blank lines, asterisks or something similar), so you have a choice of how many scenes to fit in a chapter—this is dictated by the logic of how closely the scenes are related or by pacing considerations. Lots of long chapters can be a struggle and some writers keep most the chapters short to make the reader read “one more chapter”. You can find more in-depth information on pacing and building tension by googling or in most writing magazines. It’s also worth scanning suitable material before writing an action scene.
  • Show not tell: This advice is a staple of most articles you’ll find on writing fiction. The difference is between telling the reader what’s happening (e.g., “I’m bored”)  as opposed to showing them by describing the action that demonstrates it (e.g., “I still had four pages of the blog to write; my head slumped in my hands”). The rationale to show rather than tell is—I’m making this up a bit—threefold: the reader will experience the story more; the writing is more descriptive; and the reader has to do some work to understand what’s happening and can put their own interpretation on events. A good strategy is sometimes to think of the action as like a film and describe what you can see happening. If someone thinks something or feels an emotion, you can show this by things they do (e.g., kicking the wall to show they’re frustrated) or by dialogue. If they’re executing an action, it’s often better to provide some level of sensory detail. For example, if someone walks across town, rather than saying “Geoff walked across town”, we could go with the following: “Geoff sauntered into town. He stopped a few moments to catch a street juggler in the High Street, before diving through the alley and past the Bakers’ Arms to emerge the other side of town, near Sue’s house.” The reader now has a better picture of the town (without us overdoing it), but providing this description also allows us to slip in further information in an economical way—note that we’ve highlighted Geoff’s relaxed state of mind by having him saunter and stop to watch a juggler. Like anything, you can overdo this.  Sometimes you want to cut to the chase so the action can commence, rather than spending time on description away from the main theme. In this case, Geoff might simply walk across town. Internal monologue also tends to directly tell a character’s thoughts—although excessive interior monologue is not necessarily a good idea for the reason it does mostly “tell” (we spoke more about this in the “Interior Monologue” section). Show not tell applied to factual writing is less about showing emotions, thoughts or vivid descriptions and more about being specific. For example, “The project will generate opportunities for young adults” needs to be fleshed out to something like “The project will generate fifteen direct jobs for young adults in the Hampshire area and a further ten indirect jobs in the supply chain according to Department for Transport multiplier figures.”
  • Structure: I’m considering structure to mean framework and to be separate from plot. An example could be a traditional thriller written in chronological order in the third person from the point of view of the main protagonist with about 80,000 words and twenty-five chapters. It’s as simple as that. Once you know this, you can concentrate on the plot and the writing. Other options could be to write the novel in the first person, have three points of view characters, start the story in the middle, write a three-volume sci-fi epic, or include two parallel strands meeting at the end. If you’re writing an executive summary for a sales proposal, the structure may be a four-page synopsis that includes sections for customer vision, solution overview, pricing details, next steps and conclusion. A reply to a text message could be a single sentence confirming an appointment and including a joke—then you think for thirty seconds and reply “I’ll be there at 7:30 unless the invisible squirrels get me.” The point is to have a structure and know what it is. Having this clarity should generate all kinds of relief. You might change the structure after you start writing, but that’s ok: you knew what the structure was, you’ve made an informed decision to change it, and you know what the new structure is. If you can’t decide, perhaps ask for advice or pick one and see how well it works (but you need to be happy with it fairly quicklyspending six months before deciding to change the structure is possible but annoying). You can take this a bit deeper by having a defined structure for smaller segments such as chapters; however, unless you’re changing the actual format at this scale, then the structure is understood and we’re more in the domain of plotting or content planning, which we’re just about to get to….
  • Plot or content planning: Here, plot applies to fiction and content planning to non-fiction. Some writers develop comprehensive plots before writing, with detailed outlines of each chapter, character backgrounds well beyond what will appear in the story, and research into all aspects of the world of their story. And some just start. To be honest, I suspect all authors have an outline of sorts, but there will be variety in the level of detail and how much time they spend on it. I think, in particular, non-fiction does require a rough outline of each section—or at least section headers—before serious writing starts. Short and informal items like emails or letters don’t usually need planning, although you’d have an outline or template for something important like a job application letter. For Culture Man, I initially developed a two-page outline of the novel, which provided a couple of sentences on each chapter. As I started to write each chapter, I wrote a few notes for the chapter to define in more detail the setting and a few things I expected to happen or characterisations to demonstrate. Quite often the writing took on its own life and deviated from my plans, and I updated the outline as I went. In terms of the actual story, unfortunately I can’t tell you how to come up with the perfect bestselling plot. One strategy is “what if” thinking; for example, what if that slightly lost-looking squirrel is really a superhero trying to save her tribe from an alien invasion? Another is to take an existing situation—real or fictional—and change or subvert it; for example, The Three Musketeers in 2000’s Winchester. Although there’s endless variety in plots, they fit into certain types, such as “Rags to Riches”, “The Quest” or “Overcoming the Monster”, as we discussed in the “Literary Devices and Plot Types” section. Further, there are common elements, which look roughly like the following: Anticipation where the hero is called to action; Dream where the hero starts out and reaps some success; Frustration in which the hero has first contact with the enemy and doubt sets in; Nightmare (the climax) when things appear hopeless; and Resolution, where the hero discovers an inner resolve and fights back to win—or perhaps fails through some weakness. It’s usually important to have conflict within the main character(s), where they need to overcome some internal issue. As a final word, a variety of software packages help you outline, research and write a novel or essay; for example, Scrivener is a well-known one. I don’t have any experience of them, but I’m sure some are very good.
  • Dialogue: This is a large subject and I won’t do it proper justice in this short section. Instead, I’ll try and summarise the common advice that’s out there and give a couple of thoughts. However, this won’t tell you how to write crackling dialogue, believably shift from the everyday to confrontation, or demonstrate sudden and moving tenderness. But you can do all that and more yourself! As a taster, see the examples and explanations in this Guardian: ten best dialogue examples in crime fiction article. Plenty of other material can be found online and in the usual places, such as writing magazines and courses. In addition, taking note of and studying good dialogue in books, TV and film is a good idea—for example, Bond: “Do you expect me to talk?”; Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.” One piece of advice is to listen to conversations in cafes to inject the natural rhythms of speech, but unless your cafes are more interesting than mine, you probably won’t find an example like that. Note that the earlier “Quotations and Direct Speech” section explained the mechanics of dialogue punctuation, as opposed to the text itself. All the writing advice we’ve covered applies equally to dialogue. That is, the need to write clearly, to handle pacing, to show not tell (in particular, not to use dialogue to provide lots of background explanations), to use it to move the story on or to show character—of the speaker or others—and to provide reasonably tight prose that avoids waffling. Dialogue also lets the writer give a voice to a character. A reader should often be able to identify the speaker without them being named, by their style or tone of speech, the words they use and what they say—which will reflect their character, background and the influences in their life. Like anything, it’s possible to overdo this, and some sentences can be said by anyone without needing to fit them to a character’s style; you also shouldn’t give all your characters blatant tics. However, the danger of having all characters sound alike is probably the greater. Fictional dialogue differs from real conversation since it needs to move the story forward, and it consequently shies away from many of the banalities, hesitations and tangents of everyday speech. However, it also needs to sound natural, so a balance needs to be struck. In addition, sometimes you want to include those banalities, hesitations and tangents to show something. For example, rambling speech or hesitations or the occasional “um” or “er” may show the person is nervous or stalling; a character answering a different question to that asked or interrupting could show they’re fixated on something or avoiding the question; or a banal conversation could show a contrast with something that’s about to happen, or perhaps set up a joke. I also think a more real-life mode of conversation can work occasionally to indulge a little and show a scene where everyone is relaxed. So, we have to fictionalise and tighten dialogue to meet the agenda of the story, stay natural, and sometimes use speech to throw light on an underlying issue or for characterisation. How do we do this? Perhaps an easier question is, how do we know when we’ve got it right? One common suggestion is to read speech aloud—or get a group of people to read the different characters—and use your ear to tell where it sounds stilted, unnatural, not something that the character would say, or simply boring. The final point I’m going to make is that speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its effect is reinforced and complemented by the surrounding text, the build-up, and the context of the story or scene it sits within. A particularly important consideration is the use of beats. These are narrative asides within sections of dialogue, for example, “Where’s Rover?” Sue said. Geoff paused and checked the omelette. It was burnt. As well as creating relief or variety within sections of dialogue, their purpose includes providing characterisation, description or details of unfolding events, adding tension or humour, and controlling narrative pace. There’s a great chapter on this in the Self-Editing for Fiction Writers book I’m about to recommend, but you can also find good advice by googling, for example, “dialogue and beats”.
  • Recommendations: I’ll make two recommendations because they’ve helped me tremendously, but a wealth of excellent material is out there.
    • AutoCrit is an online self-editing platform, which checks for repeated words and phrases; overuse of adverbs; redundant words, cliches and passive speech markers; pacing and readability; tense consistency; and some other stuff. It also includes help articles explaining why these things matter and a regular email newsletter. Typically, the software will suggest there are, say, ten too many adverbs in a passage compared to published fiction of a chosen genre. It’s your job to find alternatives (sometimes there’s a good reason for them and you’ll leave them alone). I’ve found that the more I use the tool the less I need to because my writing has changed to become leaner and crisper. One thing to be careful of, is not to blindly follow the recommendations otherwise you may end up with stilted writing just to get a high score. There’s a free version, which offers a reasonable number of features, but I use the Professional version which does cost thirty dollars a month (although special offers are sometime promoted). There are alternatives out there—for example, Grammarly, Ginger Software or WhiteSmoke—but I don’t have any experience of them.
    • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King: I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll reiterate how well-written and useful it is. It covers in detail things like show and tell, points of view, interior monologue, dialogue, proportion (making sure the writing focuses on the important and relevant points), characterisation and voice. The last is about creating a voice or style. Most famous authors have a recognisable and unique style. To an extent, developing a voice comes with experience, but there are some things you can do. One suggestion is to identify sections in your writing that you’re most pleased with and try and accentuate these (use them more often, more vividly or in a more exaggerated manner); however, be careful of overusing a distinctive style as it may be more effective when occasionally dipped into. If everything else is good—pacing, plot, not too many repeated words or themes, showing and not telling, limited adverbs, etc.—then the voice is the extra magic that will make you a bestseller. I’m hoping so, anyway.

Final word: Many people have dedicated much time and energy to publishing free material on any and all aspects of writing and grammar on the Internet. My thanks and appreciation to them all. I’ve done my best to reference and credit those that have helped and informed this blog—my apologies to anyone I’ve missed. Comments are welcome.

Right, I’m done. I’ve learnt loads and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but I’m keen to return to fiction—and practise my own advice—after spending a year of my evenings and weekends on this blog. From my actors, take a bow, Sue, Geoff, Rover, Spot, Fifi and assorted squirrels!

© Guy Cook, Sporting Tales, 2019, 2020. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material in this “Writing skills from Culture Man” blog article without the express permission of the author is prohibited. However, short extracts and links may be used, provided that credit is given to Guy Cook at the Sporting Tales blog.
Posted in Literature | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Sports Digest: Snooker update (Aug 2018)

My snooker digest and all-round summary of everything you need to know about snooker was published a year ago. You’ll be desperate to know who’s won the most recent Triple Crown events, who the number one is and the current situation in ladies’ snooker. Let’s deal with those questions:

2017/18 season
2017 UK Championship (December 2017): Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Shawn Murphy 10-5
2018 Masters (January 2018): Mark Allen beat Kyren Wilson 10-7
2018 World Championship (May 2018): Mark Williams beat John Higgins 18-16

2018 World Ladies Championship (March 2018): Ng On Yee beat Maria Catalano 5-0

World rankings: Mark Selby is still the world number one, as he has been since 9 February 2015, followed in the rankings by Mark Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins. Ng On Yee is the women’s number one, followed by Reanne Evans.

Summary of Events

First, note that the number of ranking events increased from 19 to 20, with the promotion of the China Championship to ranking status. Although Mark Selby remains number one, he had a relatively poor 2017/18 season, losing in the first round of the World Championship and the second round of the UK Championship, and only holds the position based on his performance in 2016/17 (snooker’s rankings are based on the previous two years). Taking 2017/18 in isolation, Mark Williams topped the list with Ronnie O’Sullivan second. Without a strong performance early in the 2018/19 season, there could be a new number one after the UK Championship in December. The World Championship produced a final between two ‘old-timers’ with Mark Williams (two times previously World Champion, but not since 2003) beating John Higgins (a four times winner, most recently in 2011) in an excellent, tight match. Mark Williams promised to perform his press conference naked if he won, and duly delivered, wearing just a towel.

In the World Ladies Championship, held in Malta, Maria Catalano—who had previously reached four finals and lost them all to Reanne Evans—beat Reanne 4-3 in the semis to scupper the expected final between Ng and Reanne. Ng won to retain her title and make it three world crowns in total. However, Reanne performed strongly in the season overall and is only narrowly behind Ng in the ranking points. Ng and Reanne both played in the first qualifying round of the World Championship, Reanne losing 10-7 to Dominic Dale and Ng 10-1 to Matthew Selt.

So what’s up next? Snooker rankings events are taking place pretty much from late July to the World Championships in April/May, with events scattered around the UK, the rest of Europe and Asia (especially China). The season comes to life with more frequent and higher profile events from late September, though. The next really big tournament will be the UK Championship at the York Barbican, which starts  27 November. We’re also wondering if Mark Selby will retain his number one ranking, how the rivalry between Reanne Evans and Ng On Yee will develop, and, looking further ahead, how next year’s World Championship and World Ladies Championship will pan out.

Posted in Sport | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Electricity: Part 2

Part 2: Atomic theory, explanation of electrostatics and what really is charge I’m going straight in.

Atomic theory, a quick tour: The essential atomic theory is that solids, liquids and gases are made up of either molecules or atoms. If they’re elements such as gold they consist of atoms; while if they’re compounds such as carbon dioxide, they consist of molecules—which are themselves made up of atoms, so we get to atoms in the end. Atoms consist of a central nucleus, made up of neutrons and protons, which is surrounded by electrons. The number of protons in an atom determines its type: e.g. hydrogen has one, carbon has six and lead has 82. An atom of one type can have a different number of neutrons. For example, carbon-12, with six neutrons (which is by far the most common type), differs from carbon-14 with eight, and these are called isotopes of carbon. Carbon-14 radioactively decays at a fixed rate and measuring the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 is the principle behind carbon dating of organic matter. The size of an atom is from about 1 x 10-10 to 5 x 10-10 m or 0.00000001 to 0.00000005 mm, which is round about a millionth the width of a human hair. Although the heaviest atoms are 200-odd times heavier than the lightest, the size discrepancy is much less (no more than five times larger, from biggest to smallest).

Atoms are mostly empty space. The nucleus is about 1/100,000 the size of the atom, though it varies with the atom—if the nucleus was a tennis ball, the edge of the atom would be roughly 30 km away. This is why structures such as neutron stars or black holes can be so incredibly dense, but that’s another story. Protons are positively charged, neutrons are neutral, and electrons are negatively charged. Each atom contains the same number of electrons as protons and is therefore electrically neutral, However, electrons can be stripped from an atom (the atom becomes a positive ion) or added to atoms (it becomes a negative ion). We’re not sure of the size of an electron but it’s mass is about 1/1,836 the mass of a proton, and protons and neutrons have similar masses. A number of other fundamental particles have been detected or created (they’re often short-lived), but as far as understanding the structure of matter is concerned we can stick to electrons, protons and neutrons.

The negative charge on an electron has the identical magnitude to the positive charge on a proton, which is a value called e for protons (and -e for electrons). The value of e is approximately 1.602 x 10-19 Coulombs. The charge on any object, when measured accurately, is always found to be an exact multiple of e—you can’t have, for example, a charge of 2.5e, and no charge can be smaller than e. I’ll briefly mention quarks and say the last comment isn’t completely true. It turns out protons and neutrons aren’t completely fundamental and, like some other particles, are made up of quarks. Quarks are never directly observed or found in isolation, and are only found as the constituent parts of particles such as protons. When they were first proposed (by Murray Gell-Man and George Zweig, independently, in 1964), physicists weren’t sure whether they were real or a just a device used to explain concepts that weren’t fully understood. However, scattering experiments showed that protons contained smaller particles (because occasionally electrons fired into protons were scattered at large angles as if smaller point-like particles existed within the protons), which provided evidence for quarks. Further evidence has shown the existence of all the difference types of quarks proposed (there are six in total). The point of this diversion is that quarks have charges of either -1/3e or 2/3e, but when combined in protons or other particles, the total always adds up to e or -e, and these fractional charges are never seen because quarks don’t exist on their own. The theory and classification of fundamental particles, including quarks, is called the Standard Model of particle physics and has been very successful, including predicting the discovery of particles such as the Higgs boson. The Standard Model also explains the mechanisms of three of the four fundamental forces of nature, but we’ll come to that later.

Atomic theory, how do we know? We’ll take a brief wander to highlight the major steps towards deriving the atomic theory, but this will be brief and won’t do justice to all the science and scientists involved. The concept of the atom can be traced back to ancient Greece (in particular, Democritus, Leucippus and Lucretius in about 440 BC), where philosophical debate discussed whether matter could be divided forever. Democritus suggested it couldn’t and proposed that eventually you could split matter no further and would be left with an indivisible, solid ‘atom’; and there were many different types of atoms with empty space between them. He used rational arguments, roughly saying that materials decay but can also be recreated. It was a good effort for the times, but the view didn’t prevail, and the opposing concept of continuous matter was supported by Aristotle and remained the consensus view for a long time (also supported by the Catholic church in medieval times).

Atomic views remained on the fringes for a long time, but gradually experimental results pushed them to the fore. Pierre Gassendi put atoms on a more acceptable basis in 1649, by publishing a manuscript separating the existence of atoms from the suggestion that this rejects God. Chemists provided the initial support of atomic theory by discovering that elements always combine in definite proportions, and John Dalton proposed an experimentally-based atomic theory in 1805. An example of his evidence is given by the law of multiple proportions: when elements combine to create more than one compound (e.g. carbon and oxygen can create carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide) then the ratios of the second element in each compound are whole numbers (e.g. 100 grams of carbon combine with 133 grams of oxygen to create carbon monoxide, and with 266 grams of oxygen to create carbon dioxide). Dalton interpreted this to mean carbon monoxide (CO) has one oxygen atom and carbon dioxide two (CO2), which is correct. Dalton built up a table of relative atomic weights for some elements, which also made use of the law of definite proportions (chemical compounds have a fixed mass ratio of their elements, e.g. water (H2O) has about 8/9 oxygen and 1/9 hydrogen, by mass). Hydrogen was defined to have an atomic weight of 1, and Dalton could then establish, for example, that an atom of carbon had a relative weight of 12 (was 12 times heavier); he didn’t get them all right, but his atomic theory was a major step forward. Since 1912, we’ve been able to measure absolute atomic mass using mass spectrometers, invented by the English physicist, J.J. Thomson. They use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate the atoms (which have been ionized—had electrons added or removed—so they are attracted by electric and magnetic fields); the acceleration is measured and Newtons second law (Force = mass x acceleration) is used to work out the mass of the atoms. This allows us to work out how many atoms there are in, for example, 12 grams of carbon-12, which is a standard chemical quantity called a mole. The answer is called Avogadro’s constant and is a rather large 602 sextillion, or 602 thousand million million million, or 6.02 x 1023. We’re going to leave chemistry behind now, but the chemists stormed ahead and derived the periodic table of elements, which now contains 118 elements, and did a whole bunch more.

After Dalton’s theory, atoms were still assumed indivisible. J.J Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, in experiments in Cambridge involving cathode ray tubes, and measured the charge to mass ratio of the electron. The American physicist, Robert Millikan measured the charge on an electron using what is called the ‘oil drop experiment’, and could therefore work out the mass of an electron, which was almost 2000 times smaller than the mass of a hydrogen atom. Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born British physicist published a model of the atom as having a small positively-charged nucleus and orbiting electrons. He was led to this by the result of the Geiger-Marsden experiments he managed at Cambridge. The experiment fired alpha particles (positively charged particles created from radioactive decay) at a thin gold foil and found most particles went straight through the foil, but a few deflected by large angles. Rutherford deduced the atom was mostly empty space, with the positive charge concentrated at the centre. Rutherford’s contributions to science are impressive he had been awarded the Nobel prize in 1908 for his work on radioactivity, before his atomic theory was published. James Chadwick, an English physicist (working under Rutherford at Cambridge) discovered the neutron in 1932 and won the Nobel prize for this in 1935. The discovery was based on showing that “radiation” emitted when alpha particles were fired at certain light elements was actually a neutral particle of about the mass of a proton. From here on, nuclear and atomic physics (and quantum physics which is needed for deeper analysis of atomic structure) continued apace, and we’ll head back to electricity!

Static electricity explanation A key point of atomic structure related to static electricity is that electrons carry a negative charge and are not bound to the atomic nucleus. In electrical conductors, such as metals, the electrons are free to move. In insulators (also called dielectrics), the electrons are bound to atoms and, although they do move within the atom itself, they don’t ordinarily move much within the material—but they can be moved under some circumstances, e.g. vigorous rubbing. Semi-conductors are somewhere in the middle and conduct electricity a little (and are crucial for electronics, which we’ll leave until later).

The explanation for static electricity goes like this: contact-induced static electricity is caused by one material rubbing electrons off another material. The material with the extra electrons is negatively charged and the one that’s lost electrons is positively charged. Two oppositely charged bodies are then attracted towards each other and two similarly charged bodies are repelled because of the Coulomb force between charged particles. The total force is the result of the sum of trillions of individual forces between electrons and protons. It’s possible to do some maths and work out the force between different shapes of charged bodies (e.g. two spheres or two parallel plates), if you know the charges on each—this kind of maths involves an infinite sum (integration) and is easier if the bodies have a simple shape. Once a charged body touches a conductor, the electrons will flow to or from the conductor to neutralize the charge. Induced static electricity is the result of either, in an insulator, atoms lining up so the electrons face towards a positive charge (like the balloon on the wall); or, in a conductor, electrons flowing towards a positive charge (like rubber shoes kicking on carpets). Piezoelectric static properties are related to their non-symmetric crystal structures. Individual cells of the crystal are polarised because of this structure (charges point in a particular direction), although this cancels out over the crystal and it is electrically neutral. Stress on the material changes the polarisations, such that they don’t cancel out and a charge is created which permeates through the material, leaving opposite sides charged. The size of the effect depends on which way the material is stressed (relative to the crystal structure). The explanation for pyroelectricity is similar, except temperature changes cause the change in polarisation.

So what really is charge? We’ve concluded that a body is negatively charged because it has an excess of electrons and each electron has a negative charge of –e; or it’s positively charged because it has an excess of protons, which each have a positive charge of +e. But what is charge and why does each electron have the exact negative of the charge on a proton and why does it have the value it does? I’d love to answer that question, but…we don’t know. Charge is considered to be a fundamental property of a particle (just like mass is). For example, an electron’s charge is –e, a proton’s is e, a neutron has charge 0, and a positron (an antielectron) has a charge of e. And charged particles are mutually attracted or repelled by other charged particles according to Coulomb’s Law (that is, the force between them is proportional to the size of the charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance they are apart). An advanced field of physics called quantum electrodynamics (QED) can explain the mechanism by which charged particles interact (it’s about photons being exchanged between the particles), but as to what charge is and why it’s there—that’s a deeper question. I hope you’re not too disappointed.

Posted in Science | Leave a comment

Electricity: Part 1

Introduction: This is my first science post, but nevertheless, let’s leap in. The definition I like best is that electricity is the set of phenomena associated with the presence and flow of charged particles. The electricity that travels through wired circuits and has such an effect on our lives is created by the flow of negatively charged electrons, although, in general, electricity can be the flow of any type of charged particles. Here are some questions we’ll try and answer: What is charge? What is static electricity? How do we generate electricity, and what’s the difference between AC and DC? How does electricity do anything, for instance light a bulb or run a motor? How does natural electricitylike lightningoccur? What are volts and amps, and how are they connected? Why can electricity hurt us (but not birds on power lines)? Because there’s a lot here and we may take a diversion or two, I’ll split it into several parts. The rough plan is:

  • Part 1: Electrostatics, Coulomb forces and applications
  • Part 2: Atomic theory, explanation of electrostatics and what really is charge
  • Part 3: Electric and gravitation fields, a comparison between the two, and the fundamental forces of nature
  • Part 4: Volts, amps, the Earth’s charge and lightning
  • Part 5: Magnetism and electromagnetism
  • Part 6: AC and DC circuits, capacitors, inductors and the like
  • Part 7: Power generation—batteries, generators, mains electricity and the national grid

Preamble: Since it may take a while to publish all the parts, here’s an advance summary:

The root of electricity is the Coulomb force which is either a force of attraction that exists between positively and negatively charged objects or a force of repulsion between two objects of the same charge. A charged object consists of the aggregation of the charges of a vast number of atomic particles, usually protons or electrons: an object is negative if it has more protons than electrons, and negative if it has more electrons. Charge is measured in coulombs. The reason why protons and electrons have charge, why their charges are equal and opposite, and why the Coulomb force between them is as it is—proportional to one over the square of their distance apart—is unknown, although quantum physics can (to an extent) explain the mechanism. Charged bodies can be created by rubbing certain materials together, which causes electrons to be transferred from one to the other. Static electricity—a short, sharp flow of electrons—is created when a charged body comes into contact with a conductor, and has many useful applications, as well as some unfavourable effects.

An electric current is a continuous flow of electrons. This can be created when a mechanism—such as chemical reactions in a battery—creates and maintains separate areas of charge. If a conducting path (or circuit) is placed between the two areas of charge, then electrons will flow from the negative side to the positive. It was discovered in 1820 that an electric current creates a magnetic field in the surrounding space, and, for example, a compass needle is deflected by a current. The reverse is also true: a magnetic field will create a current in a conducting wire, although only if there is relative motion between the two (either the wire or the magnet is moving). This is the principle behind both electricity generators and electric motors. Electricity generators in power stations either rotate turbines, consisting of large numbers of conducting wire coils, in the presence of a magnetic field; or rotate magnets around the conducting wire coils. This creates a current in the conducting wires, which is fed into the power grid. The mechanical energy to drive the rotation can come from various processes, for example coal-, gas- and nuclear-powered energy uses coal, gas, or uranium to create high temperatures which are used to heat water and generate high-pressure steam, which drives a set of turbines. Wind and hydroelectric power use wind and water to drive the turbines. The engineering details for efficient power generation are complex, but the creation of electricity by rotating magnets around conducting wires (or vice versa) is the basic principle. The electricity created is AC (alternating current) because the direction of the current reverses each time the turbine spins 180 degrees. AC is easier to transport across long distances than DC (direct current), and hence is used as the basis for national power grids. DC can be generated by using a mechanism to convert AC to DC, or directly by means of a battery. An electric motor does the reverse of a generator, and converts electric power to mechanical power. Magnets are positioned around wire coils, and when current flows, the wire will experience a magnetic force and will move, which can drive the turning of a shaft to do work, such as power a fan or turn a car engine. Electricity can do useful work in other ways; for example, current flow through a high-resistant light bulb filament heats the filament sufficiently to give off light.

The connection between electricity and magnetism is fundamental, and combined electric and magnetic effects are called electromagnetism. They’re described mathematically by Maxwell’s equations. Magnetism arises through the movement of charged particles (currents) and even permanent magnets have currents circulating within them. The deep explanation for why currents create magnetic effects needs us to look at relativity and quantum physics (and me to do some research).

Electric potential is measured in volts and is a measure of how much work it takes to move a charge from a reference point—typically ground or earth—to the point in question. The value depends on the charges (or the electric field) in the surrounding area. Electric potential difference, also measured in volts, is the difference in electric potential between two points—this is what is quoted in, for example, battery voltage. The higher the voltage between, e.g. the two terminals of a battery, then the stronger the forces will be that drive the electrons through a conducting circuit attached to the battery (because a higher voltage battery creates more charge at the terminals). Therefore, a higher voltage leads to a larger current, although the size of the current is also affected by the resistance of the circuit. Current is measured in amps, which show how fast the charge is flowing—one amp is one coulomb of charge per second. Electricity causes harm in humans due to two mechanisms: first, large currents generate a lot of heat and can cause burns and tissue damage; second, electricity disrupts natural electrical activity in the body, in particular the functioning of the heart. Birds on electricity pylons are safe because it’s easier for the current to flow through high-conducting wires than the bird’s body, which is more resistant to electricity. However, this would change if the bird also touched a route to a lower voltage, such as a second wire at a different voltage, or one of the ground poles. In this case a large potential difference would exist, and current would flow through the bird, with problematic effects. I’ll dig into this a little more in Part 4, because this can be explained better (how does the current know if the bird is connected to ground, what forces are acting?).

As we reach the end of this preamble, there are a few further points to quickly mention. First, electric and magnetic fields are a way of describing the electric and magnetic forces that would be felt by a charged particle in an area of space and consist of values and directions at each point (which can be represented by lines of force). Second, lightning is a complex example of static electricity, and is under active research—as a taster, though, the classic and familiar lightning strike is actually an up-strike from the ground and not a strike from the heavens down. Third, the Earth’s surface is negatively charged, which is more or less balanced by a positive charge in the atmosphere. Also, of course, the Earth has a magnetic field. And, finally, fourth, the flow of electrons in circuits is very slow and you would wait a long time to connect a telephone call across the world if you relied on this. What happens is that accelerating charges create electromagnetic waves, which move at the speed of light and transport electromagnetic energy. These waves travel outside the wires of a circuit, and the finer details of electricity transport are complicated (translation: I need to do some more research).

Electrostatics and charge: I’ve just rubbed a balloon against my head and stuck it to the wall. This effect—electrostatics or static electricity—has been known about since the ancient Greeks. Rubbing two materials together can change them such that they attract or repel other materials. The effect is more obvious on some objects. If you search YouTube for “electrostatic experiments” you’ll find some cool tricks to do at home, such as pushing coke cans or diverting flowing water with an ‘invisible’ force. Benjamin Franklin experimented with charge from 1746 and defined positive charge as that acquired by glass when electrified by rubbing with silk and negative charge as that acquired by rubber when rubbed with cat’s fur. Materials acting like electrified glass are said to be positively charged and those acting like electrified rubber negatively charged. Objects of a similar charge repel each other, while those of opposite charge attract each other. The choice of which was positive and which negative was arbitrary. (In fact, Franklin got it the “wrong” way round, because traditional circuit diagrams show charge flowing from positive to negative, whereas we now know that current flow in standard circuits is electrons flowing from negative to positive.) The French physicist Coulomb established, in 1784, the relationship for the force between two charged particles, showing it to be proportional to the magnitude of each charge and inversely proportional to the square of the distance they are apart. If the charges are the same sign, the force is attractive; if opposite, the force is repulsive.

The formula for Coulomb’s law is F = kq1q2/r2, where the q1 and q2 are the charges, r is their distance apart in metres, F is the force between them in Newtons, and k is a constant. Charge is measured in coulombs, and the definition of one coulomb states that a charge is one coulomb if, when separated from a similar charge by one metre, a force of 8.98742 x 10 Newtons is generated. That seems arbitrary, but it means that one coulomb (or 1 C) is the amount of charge transported by one amp in one second—we’ll get to amps later! Force is a vector quantity which means it has direction as well as magnitude. The vector formula for coulomb force uses vector notation, where vectors are denoted in bold: F = kq1q2r’/r2, where r’ is a unit vector (it has a magnitude of one) in the direction between the two charges A key reason to mention vectors is that the vector equation shows that the force acts in the direction between the two charges. Another reason is that if a charged particle is subject to forces from more than one other charged particle, then the total force is the sum of the forces from all the other particles. This is called the principle of superposition. The sum of the forces is a vector sum, which means that the direction (as well as the magnitude) of the force is worked out by the sum. There are always subtleties, and the value of k is smaller if the space between the two charges is not a vacuum (and the force will be smaller). Here are some things to note about charged materials and the forces between them.

  • Contact-induced static electricity: Examples of materials likely to gain a negative charge when rubbed are polyester, polystyrene and rubber; examples of materials becoming positive are human skin, human hair, nylon and glass. The triboelectric series orders materials from those most likely to become positive to those most likely to become negative; and rubbing a material higher on the list with one lower is likely to result in the former becoming positive and the latter negative. This is why you can get a shock from, for example, polyester clothes. The clothes rub against the skin and the skin becomes positively charged. This is contact-induced (or triboelectric) static electricity. If the charge builds up and you touch a conductor like a car door or even another person, there will be a rapid discharge of the static electricity which creates a spark and you’ll feel a shock through nerve stimulation as the charges flow through the body. To avoid this, the charge needs to gradually dissipate, either through the air or the ground. The charge will better dissipate in moist air because this is a better conductor of electricity than dry air, so you’re more likely to get a shock on a dry day. Similarly, if you’re wearing insulating shoes (like rubber), the charges are less likely to leak away through the ground because rubber is an insulator, which prevents the flow of charge—and again a shock is more likely. Humans can become positively or negatively charged, although positive is more likely because human skin is high up the positive side of the triboelectric series.
  • Electrostatic induction: Walking in rubber shoes on a nylon carpet can cause a static shock for a slightly different reason. The shoes pick up charge from rubbing against the carpet, which creates contact-induced static charge on the shoes. But rubber is an insulator, so how does this charge get from the shoes to the human body? The answer is by a process called electrostatic induction, or induced charge. The shoes have a negative charge (and the carpet a positive charge) because of the rubbing. Positive charges in the body are attracted to the charge on the shoes and negative charges are repelled. The body remains neutrally charged as a whole, because charges can’t flow through the insulated shoes, but the charge distribution in the body is changed—some parts are positive (near the feet) and some are negative, for example the hands. Note that all the charged areas are on the surface—the human body is a conductor and any ‘clumps’ of charge inside the body quickly balance out. When the negatively charged hand touches a conductor, charges will flow and there will be a shock.
    Electrostatic induction also explains the charged balloon sticking to a neutral wall, although the mechanism is different. Unlike the human body, which is a conductor of electricity, the wall is an insulator, which means charges are not able to move around freely. What happens is that the atoms in the wall orient themselves so that negative charges are pushed into the wall (because they’re repelled by the negative balloon) and therefore positive charges more prevalent at the wall’s surface, which then attract the balloon. Atoms lining up in a particular direction like this is called polarisation. The same effect is at play when dust is attracted to a TV screens or computer monitor—the back of the screen is negatively charged (because electrons are fired at them) and the front of the screens are positively charged and therefore attract polarised dust particles. This applies to the older style CRT (cathode ray tube) screens; the modern LCD (flat screen) monitors use a different mechanism, but I think they still create some static and dust attraction, and you can get antistatic cleaners and sprays for either. To be honest, dust even sticks to mirrors, so I’ll leave a certain mystery around dust and why it sticks to everything. If you can invent a machine that zaps the dust away without destroying everything else, you’ll be on to a winner.
  • Expert advice: All in all, the above is why it’s not a good idea to play squash on a nylon carpet while wearing rubber shoes and polyester clothes.
  • Electrostatic discharge and sparks: An electrostatic discharge happens when a charged material (e.g. your finger) touches a conductor and the charge rapidly flows from one to the other. When you see a spark, it occurs across an air gap between the two surfaces, just before the materials touch. It’s caused by electrons leaping the gap and heating up the air molecules, so they glow. The discharge is over in a fraction of a second, and the size of the spark (and whether a spark is seen) depends on the amount of charge and the distance between the materials. We haven’t spoken about volts and amps yet, but, for reference, voltage is a measure of the difference in charge between two surfaces, and current measures how much charge flows per second. Humans can be charged to several thousand volts when they get a static shock—but this doesn’t cause any danger to health because it is the current flow that can cause harm, and this is low and short-lived in normal static electricity scenarios. Lightning is an extreme and complicated example of a static discharge, and we’ll look at that later. Lightning is dangerous!
  • Problems of static electricity: Although a direct static shock is unlikely to endanger humans, static sparks around flammable materials can cause fires and explosions and there have been many related industrial explosions and deaths. The Hindenburg tragedy in 1930 is believed to have been caused by static electricity—see Hindenburg mystery solved. Fuelling operations, for example fuelling aircraft through pipes, are susceptible since fluids such as kerosene or diesel can accumulate charge during their flow through pipes and a spark can ignite fuel vapour. The small and intricate nature of electronic components makes them susceptible to static electricity, for example by the fusing of small wires due to heat or by voltage breakdown (which occurs when a static voltage is high enough for an insulating component to start conducting electricity, which is likely to permanently damage the component). Damage to electronics can either cause an immediate malfunction or be latent, with the effects appearing later. Aircraft accumulate contact-induced static electricity due to friction (rubbing) against the air molecules in flight. The amount of static and how it discharges depends on atmospheric conditions, and rapid discharge could disrupt radio communications or cause danger in fuel areas. Spacecraft also accumulate static electricity, and rocket launches are sometimes delayed due to cloud conditions. In addition, space exploration itself is subject to static electricity—moving over dry planetary terrain creates a static build up; and with no atmosphere (on the moon) or a very dry one (on Mars), this is less likely to be dissipated until an astronaut touches the rocket or other conducting equipment. It’s interesting that the Apollo astronauts didn’t report electrostatic shocks. However, the moon is believed to go through an eighteen-year cycle of varying charge (due to its orbit through the Earth’s magnetic field) and was at a minimum during the Apollo missions; so it may be that a permanent presence on the moon would need to pay more attention to static electricity. Hospitals need to take static-avoidance measures for several reasons: the effects on sensitive equipment; the use of flammable oxygen; and that if the high resistance of the skin can be bypassed (in a patient with a wound or being operated on), then a patient is much more conductive to electricity.
  • Antistatic measures: Industries where static electricity is a risk will have anti-static policies, processes and devices. Antistatic devices are also available for every-day use. The basic principle is to gradually dissipate static electricity away by providing a conduction path. This can be as simple as opening a window or using a humidifier to make the air more conductive. I’ll describe three main techniques here; the sophistication and expense will depend on the potential impact.
    Grounding: This is used to provide a conducting path to ensure the static leaks to the ground. Examples are antistatic wrist straps, antistatic mats and flooring. These provide conductive material which is built into the device and connected to the ground. To connect to the ground, you’ll have a connection (probably via a cord or a socket) that leads to an electrical grounding system—which is a system that conducts electricity into the ground, for example an eight-foot-long copper grounding rod driven into the ground. I believe that the earthing wire in a house electrical socket often connects to a grounding rod near the house, and you could therefore connect an antistatic mat or strap to a standard electrical socket—but don’t quote me on that (read the manual). Although these grounding devices allow the flow of static electricity, they’re also designed to prevent the flow of more serious electricity from shocks. They do this by having enough resistance to prevent low-voltage flow (which is associated with mains electricity shocks), but not to prevent the higher-voltage static electricity dissipation.
    Antistatic agents: These are chemicals that are either coated on the surface or mixed into a material, and work by making the material slightly conductive so that static can be dissipated away. Examples are antistatic bags for storing electronic equipment (a substance is added to the surface), aircraft fuel (chemicals are added to the fuel), or washing powder (chemicals are added to the powder to reduce static on clothes).
    Ionizers: the principle here is to use an ionizer (also called an ionizing or static bar) to create positive and negative ions in the air, which will be attracted to a statically charged material. If the material is negatively charged it will attract the positively charged ions and become neutral, and vice versa. This is often used on manufacturing production lines. Ions are molecules with extra electrons or missing electrons and are created by applying an electric current to a sharp metallic point which creates a corona discharge which creates the ions. Basically, electrons are occasionally knocked out of atoms to create ions anyway, but under a corona discharge, the electric field is strong enough that these ‘free’ electrons knock other electrons out of atoms and a chain reaction occurs with lots of ions being created. You may also need an airflow, such as a fan, to blow the ions in the right direction to eliminate the static electricity. Ionizers are also used as air purifiers, for example in homes. In this case the ions are intended to attract airborne particles such as dust, allergens, viruses or bacteria. This is simple induced static electricity—the particles are attracted to the charged air molecules and fall to the floor. This is different from air purifiers which use air flow and filters to capture small particles.
  • Piezoelectricity and quartz watches: There are other ways in which static electricity can form. Piezoelectric materials, which were discovered in 1880, generate a charge on their surface when subjected to a mechanical force or pressure. This is related to their structure, and particularly the polarisation of their molecules. Examples are crystals such as quartz, some ceramics, and biological materials such as bone or DNA. The reverse also holds—if an electric field is applied to piezoelectric materials, then a mechanical deformation is produced in the material (it bends or changes shape slightly). The amount of charge produced (or the amount of deformation in the reverse case) is very precise, which leads to practical applications. One example is the quartz watch, which works something like this: First, note that all materials have a natural frequency they vibrate at, whether they’re tuning forks, guitar strings or tall buildings. The frequency depends on their structure. Resonance happens when a force is applied to a material at its natural frequency (or some multiple of its natural frequency – these are called resonant frequencies), and this creates larger vibrations. This can be a problem in, for example, machinery or buildings or bridges, and avoiding resonance is an important part of building design.
    Anyway, back to the watch. A slice of quartz, usually shaped like a tuning fork, has bursts of electric current applied to it via the battery. The reverse piezoelectric effect means that the quartz is deformed and then restored to normal size by the electricity—that is, the crystal vibrates. Because the crystal vibrates, the (forward) piezoelectric effect creates static electricity on its surface. A conducting circuit allows the static electricity to discharge and create an electric current (or electric pulses) at the same frequency that the crystal vibrates at. The natural frequency of quartz depends on the angle of cut of the crystal, and its size and shape. Quartz crystals for watches are engineered so that the frequency is 32,768 vibrations per second (32,768 Hz). Going back to the electric pulses that have been output, electronic ‘dividers’ filter the pulses so that only one pulse each second is registered (32,768 is a power of 2, which helps the electronic logic). For an analogue watch, the one second pulses power a motor which powers mechanical gears which move the hands; for a digital watch, the pulses connect to electronic counters which keep track of the time and feed the numbers into an LED display. LED stands for light-emitting diode, which is a semiconductor device that emits light when a current passes through it. A lot of electronic engineering is required to design the circuitry of a digital watch, including (in better models) subtleties like correcting for temperature because the natural frequency varies slightly with temperature. The key point is that the piezoelectric properties of quartz allow it to vibrate at a precise frequency which can be used to accurately measure time with the help of electronic circuits. Quartz is chosen ahead of other piezoelectric materials because its natural frequency is stable with respect to environmental changes, and is ‘sharp’ (it’s easy to identify amongst other frequencies which are also created—technically-speaking, the crystal has a high Q factor). One final point to note, is that the electrical current generated by the vibrating quartz is amplified and fed back into the crystal—this creates resonance and helps keep the crystal vibrating at its resonant frequency.
    There are many other applications of piezoelectric materials, some relating to sound. Since the materials can be made to vibrate by application of a current, this means sound is created (even if we can’t always hear it, because the frequency is outside our hearing range). This can be detected and measured, which is the principle used in, for example, ultrasound therapy or ultrasound imaging.
  • Pyroelectricity and infrared sensors: pyroelectric materials show a similar effect to piezoelectric materials except that a charge is created on the material when it is heated or cooled instead of when pressure is applied. Again, the reason is down to the internal structure of the material. One example of its application is in infrared sensors, since the heat of a nearby human or animal can produce enough charge separation to trigger a detectable current.

Applications of electrostatics: Other applications of electrostatics include:

  • The Van de Graaf Generator: This is a staple of physics demonstrations of electrostatic charge, and also has applications in nuclear medicine and as a research tool for accelerating atomic particles. It was invented by the American physicist Robert Van de Graaf in 1929. Electric charge from a battery is sprayed by a moving belt on to the top of a hollow metal globe above an insulated column. See the Van de Graaf Wikipedia page for details.
  • Various types of printing, including xerography (used by photocopiers) and inkjet: The concept in xerography is roughly (mostly using Wikipedia): 1. The surface of a cylindrical drum is electrostatically charged to become negative; 2. The drum is coated with a photoconductive material (which means that it becomes conducting when exposed to light); 3. A bright light shines on the document to be copied, and the white areas reflect onto the drum (or, in more modern, digital versions, a laser or LED is used to scan the image to the drum) ; 4. Where light shines on the drum, the surface becomes conducting and the negative charge is discharged. The parts of the drum which aren’t exposed to light (corresponding to the image or text on the document) remain negative; 5. The toner powder is positively charged and applied to the drum. The toner sticks to the negative portions of the drum surface by electrostatic attraction to create an image; 6. The toner image is transferred to a piece of paper, again by electrostatic forces (the paper is negatively charged and the toner particles transfer to it), and then the toner is bonded to the paper by heat and pressure rollers. Color toner particles have precise electrostatic properties according to their colour (cyan, magenta, yellow, or black), and a colour image is created by superimposing separate images from each toner colour. Inkjet printers also use electrostatics, and I’ll leave you to look up the details.


Posted in Science | 1 Comment

Literary Prizes: the Booker Prize

Summary: Here I unleash the first of my literary-related posts, in a series describing the major prizes. We begin with one of the most prestigious, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, often shortened to the Booker Prize. The prize awards, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel originally written in English in the year of the award and published in the UK. The first winner was P. H. Newby with Something to Answer For in 1969, the current winner is Paul Beatty with The Sellout, and 2017’s winner will be announced on 17 October. The winner receives £50,000, but the prize also generates tremendous publicity—and sometimes controversy.

Foundation and Sponsorship:  Man Group have sponsored the award since 2002 and hence the ‘Man’ part of the name. The prize was established by Booker McConnell Ltd (now called the Booker Group) who sponsored it from the first award in 1969 until Man Group took the reins. During this time, it was known as the Booker-McConnell Prize. Man Group decided to keep the ‘Booker’ part of the name because of its strong association with the prize. Here’s a quick overview of these two companies.
Man Group are an investment management company, managing funds worth about $95 billion and with revenue of about $800 million. The funds are hedge funds, meaning they have lower regulatory requirements than other funds but are only open to institutional or accredited investors—the likes of you and I can’t put a hundred quid in each month. The company was founded in 1783 by James Man, initially as a sugar cooperage and brokerage—a cooperage is a facility for making barrels, if, like me, you didn’t know. They trade on the London Stock Exchange, their headquarters are in London and they employ about 1,200 people worldwide. In terms of corporate responsibility, Man Group set up the Man Charitable Trust in 1978, an independent charity with trustees from across the group, which administers grants to small and medium-sized charities, focusing on literacy and numeracy programmes. Together with Oxford University, they also co-founded the Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance, which pursues research into financial markets, especially machine learning and data analytics.
The Booker Group was founded in 1835 as the Booker Line, using a fleet of ships to transport goods. It ran sugar estates in the South American country of Guyana (previously called British Guiana, which was British-owned from 1814 to 1966) for much of its history and made trade runs between Guyana and Liverpool, with sugar and rum prominent among the cargo. The company controlled much of the country’s sugar industry until the sugar estates were nationalised in 1976, although Guyana invited them back in the ’90s. The company diversified into several areas, with UK wholesale food sales via cash and carry warehouses prominent. They also created an Authors division to purchase the copyrights of famous authors, amongst them Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie, taking advantage of favourable tax rules (also called loopholes) to the benefit of both authors and themselves. It was supposedly Ian Fleming who suggested the idea of a literary prize over a game of golf. In later years, Booker was purchased by Iceland Supermarkets in 2000, then by the Icelandic company Baugur in 2005 (who were implicated in the Icelandic financial crisis of 2008), then split off and merged with Bluehealth Holdings plc to create the current company the Booker Group plc. It’s now the leading food wholesaler in the UK, supplying stores, pubs and restaurants from about 170 warehouses; owns the Budgen and Londis stores; has operations in India; is listed on the London Stock Exchange; has an annual revenue of about £5 billion and employs around 13,000. To bring us up to date, Tesco announced they’d reached agreement to buy Booker Group plc in January 2017, and the proposed deal is undergoing investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority.

Rules and Administration: The Booker awards, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel originally written in English in the year of the award and published in the UK by “an imprint formally established in the UK”. An imprint is a trade name that a publisher publishes under (they may have several for different markets). The novel can’t be a translation, must be a full-length novel and the author can be any nationality. Here’s a few more details, mixed with the odd aside:

  • The actual rules are a bit longer, although refreshingly only two pages. I know you want them, so check out the 2017-rules. One point to highlight is that the original publishing date must be between 1 October of the previous year and 30 September of the current year (this is what “the year of the award” means).
  • Until 2014 there were nationality requirements for the award and only Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean authors were eligible. In previous years South Africans were stated as eligible, but once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth they were covered by the Commonwealth eligibility, so there was no need to mention them separately. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 after being suspended in 2002 for human rights violations, but their authors remained eligible.
  • A quick aside on South Africa and Commonwealth membership. They left in 1961 after the country had voted to become a republic with 52% in favour (only whites could vote). The rules of the Commonwealth at the time (and until 2007) stated that any countries becoming republics ceased to be members until they obtained the permission of other members to remain in the organisation. For example, India received this permission in 1950, but it became clear South Africa’s application would not be supported. This is a strangely technical reason for being forced out, since the real reason was opposition to their apartheid policies. They rejoined in 1994 after Nelson Mandela became President. Two South Africa authors won the prize during their absence from the Commonwealth, both known for anti-apartheid stances—Nadime Gordimer in 1974 and J. M. Coetzee in 1983.
  • The prize has been awarded every year from 1969, but two awards were (eventually) given in 1970. Here’s the reason: In the first two years, 1969 and 1970, the award was for books published the previous year, that is 1968 and 1969. In 1971, this changed to be for books published in the year of the prize, that is 1971. So it wasn’t possible for a book published in 1970 to win the prize. Forty years later this was rectified by the award of the “Lost Man Booker”, which was decided by a public vote from six shortlisted books. It was won by J. G. Farrell for the novel Troubles. He was dead, but since he’d won the award in 1973, maybe he wouldn’t be too disappointed.
  • The award has been administered by the Booker Prize Foundation since 2002, an independent charity sponsored by Man Group. The Foundation also promotes literacy, for example in Universities (providing copies of shortlisted Booker novels), for the visually impaired (funding braille, giant print and talking versions of the shortlist) and, with the National Literacy Trust, in community and prison programs.
  • An Advisory Committee to the Booker Prize Foundation, made up of 15 members from different aspects of the book world, advises on rule changes and the selection of the judges.
  • Each year there’s a hand-picked panel of five judges, one of them assigned as chair. A few people have performed the duty twice. The judges are selected from critics, writers, academics and public figures. From 1972-’76 only three judges were selected (except 1975 when there were four).
  • Publishers enter eligible books for the prize using an entry form. To try and limit the numbers, publishers are limited to only one entry (unless they previously had books selected). Typically, the number of entries are around 150: there were 156 for 2015, 155 for 2016 and 144 for 2017. This is the killer for the judges, as they’re meant to read all these novels and let’s face it, some of them must be pretty bad.
  • The judges whittle the entries down to a longlist of 12 or 13 (called the Man Booker Dozen), although prior to 2007 this list could be longer. The longlist has only existed since 2001—previously the entered books were reduced straight to a shortlist.
  • The longlist is then reduced to the shortlist of six books. In the past, the shortlist had anywhere from seven to only two books on the shortlist, but it’s been six since 1996.
  • The dates for the 2017 prize are: deadline for entries is 10 March, longlist announced 26 July, shortlist announced 13 September, winner announced 17 October. The longlist for 2017 is already published and there are 13 books which you can see at 2017-booker-longlist. I’ve double-checked and Culture Man is, inexplicably, not there.
  • The prize money started at £5,000, and currently stands at £50,000 for the winner and an additional £2,500 for each shortlisted author (so the winner gets £52,500).

The Books: The question you’re asking is when am I going to get to the books and the winners? Here we are, with a selection of expertly chosen facts.

  • For the list of winners see Wikipedia-booker and scroll down to find a simple table with winners and nationalities. If you need more, Wikipedia-booker-details gives the shortlist and judges for each year. The official site is, where you can find all kinds of booker-related news and history, including interviews with the current longlisted authors.
  • There have twice been joint winners, in 1974 and 1992, but this won’t happen again as the rules now mandate that one book must win. In 1974 the winners were Nadime Gordimer’s The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday. Nadime Gordimer (South Africa) died in 2014 at 90, was active in the anti-apartheid movement (with some of her books banned) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Stanley Middleton (England) died in 2009 at 89; in 2006, The Times submitted the opening chapter of Holiday to 20 agents and publishers and all but one rejected it—the novel does “take place entirely within the mind of Edwin Fisher” (a lecturer on holiday), but full credit he did write 45 novels and it was later found out he refused an OBE in 1979 because he “didn’t feel he should be honoured for doing his job”.  In 1992 the winners were Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (made into an Oscar-winning film in 1996) and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, novelist and editor. Barry Unsworth (England) died in 2012 at 81 (on the same day as the sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, best known for Fahrenheit 451), and was shortlisted for the Booker three times.
  • The winning novels that I’ve read are: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) and Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (1998). That’s not very good is it, although I’ve read a few more shortlisted works which restores some credibility.
  • Three authors have won the prize twice: J. M. Coetzee (South Africa) with The Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999; Peter Carey (Australia) with Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001; and Hilary Mantel (England) with Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. In addition, J.G. Farrell (Liverpool-born of Irish descent) won in 1973 with The Siege of Krishnapur, and had also won the “Lost Man Booker” for his 1970 novel, Troubles—these two books were the first two books of the Empire Trilogy about Britain’s declining colonial power, culminating in The Singapore Grip in 1978. He died in 1979, at the age of 44, swept to sea while angling on rocks in Bantry Bay, Northern Ireland. For an eyewitness account of his death, and commentary on his situation at the time, see a 2010 article in The TimesJGFarrell-eyewitness-account.
  • There was some controversy in 1979 when Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was shortlisted because he described the 166-page work as a novella, whereas the prize is for a full-length novel—but the wording states “a unified and substantial work” and the judges agreed that the work qualified. It didn’t win. The shortest winning book is the 132-page Offshore by Penelope Lively in 1979.
  • Thomas Keneally, an Australian novelist, won in 1982 with Schindler’s Ark, which Steven Spielberg made into the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List in 1993. The story is about Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), a Nazi Party member who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews in the second world war by employing them in his factories, having to repeatedly bribe Nazi officials to prevent their deportation and execution in the concentration camps. It’s an astonishing story, and the film, with Liam Neeson playing Oskar, was very successful, winning seven Oscars (including Best Picture), seven BAFTAs and three Golden Globes. Oskar Schindler was recognised by the Israeli government and is the only former Nazi Party member to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
  • Other winning novels to be made into successful films include: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), which starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the 1993 film; Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in 1996; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002), directed by Ang Lee and filmed in 2012. The Remains of the Day (which I can vouch is excellent, both in film and book) was nominated for eight Oscars but won none—the reason for this is because it was competing against Schindler’s List in that year. The English Patient won nine Oscars including Best Picture, and Life of Pi won four Oscars (though not Best Picture). There have been several other film adaptations, including shortlisted novels such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Schindler’s List and The English Patient are the only Booker-winning books whose film adaptations have won Best Picture at the Oscars.
  • As well as film adaptations, some winning novels have been made into TV series: Wolf Hall was a BBC six-part series in 2015, based on both of Hilary Mantel’s winning novels (Wolf Hall (2009) and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012)); Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013) is being adapted for a BBC six-part series (to be filmed in New Zealand); Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004) was a three-part BBC series in 2006.
  • A thought for Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010 aged 77, and made the Booker Prize shortlist five times (1973, ’74, ’89, ’96, ’98), never to win. The Booker Foundation created a special Best of Beryl Prize as a tribute in 2011, and asked the public to vote which of her novels most deserved the award. Master Georgie (her final nominated book from 1998) won; it was about the British experience of the Crimean War told through the adventures of a surgeon George Hardy, who volunteers to work on the battlefields.
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, the 1981 winner, was awarded The Best of Booker Prize in 2008, to celebrate the prize’s 40th anniversary. A panel of judges selected a shortlist of six and the winner was determined by an online public vote. The prize received some criticism since the public could only choose from six selected books and some favourites were left out—for example, an Evening Standard selection in 2016 had The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989), The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje, 1992) and The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000) as the top three, none of which made the Best of Booker shortlist. However, let’s not be churlish—from the description the book is highly inventive and intelligent with serious political and historic points, and Midnight’s Children also won a similar Booker of Bookers’ award in 1993 (for the 25th anniversary) which was chosen by three former booker chairs. The book’s genre is ‘magical realism’, and it’s ‘a loose allegory for events in India both before and after the independence and partition of India’. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai, born with telepathic powers at midnight of 15 August 1947, the moment when India became an independent country. The Midnight’s Children of the title are 1,000 other children born between midnight and 01:00am on that date, who also have special powers. He calls a conference of these children and events in the book mirror the course of modern Indian history. For the record, both the independence of India and its partition into India and Pakistan took effect on 15 August 1947 through a British Act of Parliament—the aftermath resulted in tragedy, with a refugee crisis and many deaths, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, if not more.
  • Here are a few other Booker Prize winners that are particularly famous, though I write this with imperfect knowledge and apologies to those I’ve ignored: The Sea, the sea (1978)  by Iris Murdoch (British, Irish-born); Rites of Passage (1980) by William Golding (England); The Old Devils (1986) by Kingsley Amis (England); Possession by A. S. Byatt (England); Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) by Roddy Doyle (Ireland); The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy (India);  and The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes. Kingsley Amis was considered past his best by the time of his 1986 award, with possibly his first novel, Lucky Jim, his greatest (I have read that and it’s terrific). I’ve seen The Old Devils described as both a return to form and as dated, so I’ll leave the question of its quality inconclusively hanging—but I will note that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which it beat, has lasted and is considered a classic. Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son, has been shortlisted once (Time’s Arrow, 1991) and longlisted once, and is also often mentioned amongst authors overlooked for the prize. To divert slightly, the only other family members to achieve shortlisted books are Anita Desai (India) who’s been shortlisted three times (1980, 1984 and 1999), and her daughter, Kiran Desai (India), the winner in 2006 with The Inheritance of Loss.
  • Here are the latest winners:

2011: Julian Barnes (England) The Sense of an Ending
2012: Hilary Mantel (England) Bring Up the Bodies
2013: Eleanor Catton (New Zealand) The Luminaries
2014: Richard Flanagan (Australia) The Narrow Road to the Deep North
2015: Marlon James (Jamaica) A Brief History of Seven Killings
2016: Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout

The Man Booker International Prize: The Man Booker International Prize (for fiction translated into English) is awarded for a book written in another language than English and translated and published in the UK by a UK imprint. The process and rules are pretty much the same as for the Booker Prize, with a chosen panel of five judges selecting a longlist of 12 or 13, then a shortlist of six, followed by the prize announcement. The prize is £50,000, split equally between author and translator, with an extra £2,000 for each shortlisted book (also equally split). The book must have been published between 1 May of the previous year and 30 April of the current year. The award was originally, from its foundation in 2005 to 2015, given every two years to a living author for a body of work published in English or available in English translation. This could include Commonwealth authors eligible for the main Booker Prize and was not awarded against a single work. It was won by an Albanian, a Nigerian, a Canadian, a Hungarian and two Americans. From 2016, the Booker International Prize merged with (or took over) the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the format changed to mirror the Booker format. The Independent prize had been for translated fiction published in the UK, and was founded by The Independent newspaper in 1990 and later run by BookTrust, a British literary charity. You can find the Booker International Prize winners and details at Booker-International, but since there’s only been two winning books so far, I’ll give you the details: the 2016 winner was The Vegetarian by Han Seng (South Korea), translated by Deborah Smith; and for 2017 was A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen. The 2017 winner was announced at a ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 14 June, and the longlist for 2018 will be disclosed next March.

Readability and Politics: Any prize based on judgement will invite debate and controversy. In contrast, sporting contests are usually more clear-cut since it is obvious who wins, although they have their own controversies (think offside goals, gamesmanship and banned substances). For the Booker, the award is for the best eligible novel, in the opinion of the judges. That invites questions such as how representative or unbiased are the judges, and do they come from a restricted group of people which encourages groupthink or only considers certain types of books. You could have a more metric-based prize by awarding it on a public poll or by sales figures, but that might lead to the bigger publishers and authors tying up the prize by spending more money. So anyway, we have the Booker judges, they’re industry experts, they do a lot of work to read 150-odd books, they’ve chosen some great books over the years, and they generate entertainment and column-inches galore. It can’t be that bad a system! Here are some of the talking points:

  • The prize has been accused of both rewarding unreadable books and of dumbing down. This came to an entertaining head in 2011 when Dame Stella Rimington (former Director General of MI5) acted as the chair of judges and said the panel were looking for readable books, which was backed up by her fellow judge Chris Mullen (an author and ex-Labour MP) who said the winning novel had to “zip along”. A number of literary commentators and figures attacked this sentiment, essentially calling the 2011 shortlist too readable and complaining about books that missed out (notably Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child). Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, said the focus on readability “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable”, and gave his own shortlist. I saw an off-the-record quote in the Guardian from an unnamed publisher saying “Basically, the whole thing needs to be an utter snobfest, otherwise how is it different from the Costas?”; a commentary from Lucy Scholes in The Daily Beast (a US news site) that said the (shortlisted) A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops “teeters dangerously on the edge of genre fiction”; and a comment from Jonathan Ruppin of the bookseller Foyles “we’d hate to see the Man Booker prioritise entertainment over literary merit”. There’s lots more along these lines, balanced by criticism of some ‘unreadable’ winners, and the ‘readability versus high-end quality’ debate is perennial, unresolved and part of the fun. In fact, after their announcement, the 2011 list broke the sales record for shortlisted books, selling more than double the previous record from 2009. At the 2011 awards ceremony, Stella Rimington hit back with “we’ve seen black propaganda, de-stabilisation operations…worthy of the KGB at its height”. The chair of the 2012 judges, Sir Peter Stothard, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, rowed back towards a more academic approach, saying “I’m afraid…a lot of what counts for criticism these days is…how many stars did it get? Did I have a good time? Would my children like it? It is opinion masquerading as literary criticism.”
  • The Scottish novelist Alison (A. L.) Kennedy, one of the judges in 1996, said (in 2001, and off-the-record, but it got widely quoted) that the prize was determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”.  She also said of the longlist “I read the 300 novels and no other bastard did [on the judging panel]”; though in fairness, 300 exaggerates the number of books! There doesn’t seem to be any evidence or real accusations of corruption, but perhaps a subtler network effect. Jason Cowley, a judge in 2007, said “Each of the judges has his or her prejudices. Some judges, especially those inside literary London, have a network of contacts and friendships which may lead them to act in ways that they don’t quite understand. Certain judges tend to protect certain writers and they are skilful about manipulating positions.” John Sutherland, an English professor and judge in 1999 said “There is a well-established London literary community. Rushdie doesn’t get shortlisted now because he has attacked that community.” Again, you can find more in this vein, including from Irvine Welsh, whose Trainspotting was pulled from the shortlist in 1993 when two judges threatened to walk out—he stated, “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.”
  • John Berger, the winner in 1972 with G. and known for his Marxist worldview, protested during his acceptance speech against Booker McConnell, blaming Booker’s 130 years of sugar production in the Caribbean for the region’s modern poverty and donating half his prize to the British Black Panthers.
  • The decision to open the prize to all nationalities attracted criticism, with fears that the prize would lose a distinctive (Commonwealth) character and would be dominated by American authors. There is some evidence of the latter, with two US authors on the shortlist in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and Paul Beatty becoming the first American winner in 2016. Four US authors also sit on the 2017 longlist and one of them is the favourite. I think the Booker Foundation have been smart here, trying to remain or become (depending on point of view) the prominent literary prize—it now serves as a global prize for both an English and a translated novel, there aren’t multiple categories as with many literary awards, the rules are simple and the prize is backed by powerful history and publicity.

My quick opinion: The Booker Prize is a story of itself, which is a good thing for literature. It has a history and the winner is likely to be a ‘literary’ novel. ‘Genre’ books (crime thrillers, fantasy, romances, etc.) are unlikely to win, although literary books with elements of those genres do. Some of the winners and nominated books are superb and readable, some are superb but require work, and some are undoubtedly poor or unreadable or both. There will be books that should have won and didn’t and books that won and shouldn’t have—you can find opinions on this across the Internet. It’s all part of the story! I suspect the Booker will sometimes lean one way and sometimes another between ‘readable’ and ‘challenging’, and will self-correct when it strays too far. Note that the Costa Book Awards (started in 1971 as the Whitbread Book Awards) for British- and Irish-based authors are intended to award literary merit but are also deliberately more populist with the remit to choose “well-written, enjoyable books that they would strongly recommend anyone to read”—there is occasionally overlap with the Bookers, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies winning both in 2012. On the corruption side, I’m sure there’s a literary set with an element of shared viewpoint, but it all adds to the intrigue, and I don’t think the Booker has ever been accused of real corruption. For the proper thing, you can perhaps look at a prize such as the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary prize. Jon Henley, in an article in the Guardian in 2005, reported that SCPA, a department of the French justice ministry, attacked French literary awards in general in a 2004 report—effectively saying that jury members, who are generally writers and often recruited for life in a secretive way, were indistinguishable from the publishers they wrote for, creating a clear conflict of interest. The Guardian article went on to say that the Prix Goncourt (established in 1903 and worth millions in sales to the winner) and other French literary prizes have long been accused of rigging their votes, taking it in turns to reward big publishers. [Legal disclaimer: please don’t sue me.]

The Media: The Booker Prize is covered worldwide by TV, radio and press media, and results in international recognition and a large increase in sales for the winner. Having said that, the popularity and public profile has varied over the years and not all winners stand the test of time. Right now, it seems the organisers know what they’re doing, and the prize is established as amongst the most prominent in world literature, helped by the decision to open the award to all nationalities. The main global rivals seem to be the Nobel prize (which is for a body of work and not a single novel) and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (restricted to Americans). A communications agency, Four Communications, handles the PR for the Booker Prize and undertakes activities such as improving social media presence, managing the relationship with the BBC, and increasing the reach of the prize, including a big push in the US. The awards ceremony has been held at London’s Guildhall since 2005 and the BBC News Channel have covered it live for the past few years.

Controversies and heavyweight authors help publicity and an example comes from 1980 with the ‘literary battle’ between two famous writers, William Golding (Rites of Passage) and Anthony Burgess (Earthly Powers), making front-page news. Both were favourites and Burgess refused to attend the ceremony unless he was confirmed in advance as the winner (which he wasn’t). Golding won the prize with the judges making the decision thirty minutes before the ceremony.

I’ll also give a mention to the Not the Booker prize, a spoof award run for the last few years by the Guardian columnist Sam Jordison. Readers are asked to nominate books to form a longlist, then to send reviews of over one hundred words to select the shortlist (the words aren’t counted, but reviewers are asked to make it look like they care), and then a panel of judges chosen from his readers select the winner. Although non-serious, the eligibility is the same as the Booker and it does look like it tries to find good literature, and indeed see if the winner is the same as the Booker itself (it never is). Last year’s winner was The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel, rewarded by a Guardian mug.

Latest Booker news: The 2017 shortlist is eagerly awaited on 13 September, and the winner will be announced on 17 October. The favourite is Colson Whitehead (US) with The Underground Railway, an alternative history novel about two slaves in the US who try and escape using the Underground Railway—this is an actual railway system in the novel, but in reality was a series of safe houses and routes. It’s already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke award (a British sci-fi award), and several others, which almost seems unfair on the rest! The longlist also contains Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (her first was the Booker-winning The God of Small Things), and fiction from four previous shortlisted authors—Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Sebastien Barry and Mohsin Hamid. Also on the list is Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, a single-sentence novel of 270-odd pages. This sounds bad, but a lot of reviewers say they expected a pretentious book and it turned out terrific. The book is about an engineer looking back over his life and is written as a stream of consciousness, given structure and made readable by line breaks. I’ll finally mention History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund because I like the title, but this is last in the betting odds. However, the judges are a law unto themselves, so let’s see.

Final word: I offer a humble recommendation that you pick a previous winner or something on the current longlist and give it a go. You can check reviews, or the Look Inside (or equivalent) feature on Amazon or other online sellers to read the first chapter and make sure it draws you in. To follow my own advice, I’ve just ordered Schindler’s Ark.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Sports Digest: Snooker

Preamble to Sports Digest series: Here I unveil my first post in a series of sporting summaries, which happens to start with snooker. First, a quick introduction. Any sport contains a multitude of stories, from sporting tales of particular matches or tournaments to the human stories behind the champions or nearly-champions or journeymen. There are also more stats than you can imagine, political intrigues amongst the sporting bodies, and, occasionally, crossover stories into mainstream news. You’re not going to get any of that! The plan here is to give the gist of the sport in terms of its history and major champions—you’ll see how the sport’s run, what the major championships are and who the top champions have been. And maybe we’ll find a story or two along the way.

Summary: Now for the snooker. In brief: Joe Davis won the first fifteen world titles, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry won six and seven world titles in the golden TV age, Mark Selby’s the current world champion, and The World Championship started in 1927 and has been held in Sheffield since 1977. We should also mention Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Ronnie O’Sullivan, the 1985 World Championship final and 147 breaks. There’s also a ladies’ circuit, with Reanne Evans winning the world title eleven times. We need a bit more than this though….

The Rules: You need to pot the balls in the correct order, you get points for balls potted, and once all the balls are gone the winner is the one with the most points. The real rules are a bit longer, and I’ll mention a couple of extras in passing. The balls on the table at the start are: 15 reds (1 point), and, worth 2-7 points, in order, yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black. A foul (missing the balls or hitting or potting an incorrect one, mostly) gives points to the opponent. The maximum break, if you pot everything in one break and always pot a black after each red is 147. There is one unlikely circumstance when a break greater than 147 is possible: if there’s a foul and a consequent free ball before anything is potted (because the player can’t see a red), the player can nominate a colour as an extra red to pot and effectively have 16 reds on the table, making a maximum possible break of 155. More of this later. See Wikipedia-rules for the subtleties and a cure for insomnia.

The Governing Body, The WPBSA: Professional snooker is run by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA). As the name suggests, this is the governing body for not only snooker, but billiards. We’re not going to get side-tracked by billiards here, but a quick scan of the world champions shows that India and England are the most successful nations. In fact, the WPBSA runs four subsidiaries: World Snooker, World Billiards, World Ladies Billiards and Snooker, and World Disability Billiards and Snooker. It was founded in 1968, is based in Bristol and sets the official rules. World Snooker is the commercial arm and WPBSA holds a 26% stake, but it’s majority-owned by Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Sport, a sports promotion company. Barry Hearn acts as the chairman of World Snooker and has been influential in bringing snooker to a global audience, as indeed he’s done for other sports including darts. The WPBSA website gives player profiles, rankings, the rules and more. The current chairman of the WPBSA is Jason Ferguson, an ex-player. The International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF), based in Dubai, governs amateur snooker and billiards.

The snooker season: The snooker season runs practically all year, but the official end of season is after the World Championship, held in late April / early May. For example, the 2016/17 season started with the Vienna Open from 5 to 8 May, 2017, and finished with the World Championship, which completed on 1 May 2017. The 2018 season started with the Vienna Open on 4 May 2018.

How World Rankings work: A little care is needed here as the details of sports rankings can stroll into anorak territory. The nuts and bolts are that snooker rankings are based on prize money over the last two years in designated ranking tournaments (there are 19 of them right now). They update after each tournament with prize money from more than two years ago dropping off a player’s total. The prize money is greatest for the most prestigious events, headed by the World Snooker Championship and the UK Championship.
How World Rankings used to work: The current system has only been in place since 2014. Prior to this, a points system was in place, with points allocated depending on the round a player reached and the prestige of the tournament. In addition, until 2010, the ranking list only used to update once a year (at the end of the season, after the World Championship). There’s all kinds of history here, with initially only the World Championship having ranking points and then…. Let’s not go there. Check the finer details on Wikipedia-rankings. The ranking system is run by the WPBSA and started in 1975. One final oddity—seeding for tournaments works like this: instead of purely using the rankings like, say tennis, the top seed at an event is the defending champion and the second seed is the world champion, and only then is the ranking list used for the remaining seeds. You also have provisional seeding lists and ‘race to’ rankings to predict qualification for tournaments or end of season rankings, but I’ll stop myself here.

The Main Snooker Tournaments: The World Championship is the biggest event and the UK Championship the third biggest by prize money. The Masters is actually the second biggest event, but is invitational and not a ranking event. These three tournaments together are called the Triple Crown. For your diaries, the current venues and dates are: the World Championship is at the Crucible Theatre (Sheffield) in April, the UK Championship at the Barbican Centre (York) in December, and the Masters at Alexandra Palace (London) in January. As well as the World and UK Championships, the ranking tournaments include events in China, India, Germany, Scotland, Wales, Latvia and Gibraltar.

Number-One Ranked Players: Rankings for the first 23 years (from 1975) is easy. Ray Reardon was number one for six years, Cliff Thorburn for a year, Ray Reardon for another year, then Steve Davis took over for seven years (1983-1990) and Stephen Hendry for eight (1990-1998). After that no one’s dominated in the same way, with the longest continuous period at number one a couple of years…until now, with Mark Selby who’s been number one for the last two and a half years. Several players have attained and lost the top spot multiple times, with Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, Mark Williams and Mark Selby prominent among them. The record for total number of weeks at number one is headed by Stephen Hendry (471), followed by Steve Davis (365), Ray Reardon (362), Ronnie O’Sullivan (260) and Mark Selby (236 not out). In total 11 players have held the top ranking. If you want the full details, check Wikipedia-number-ones.

World Championships: Now this is interesting (honest) and real sport. Snooker holds a World Championship each year, so the world champion is easily identifiable—as opposed to something like tennis or golf which have four equal-rank majors. As usual, Wikipedia is good at giving us the details – see Wikipedia-world-finals for the winners and scores in each final and Wikipedia-world-championships for the structure and a brief narrative of each tournament. Here’s a few details I can’t resist telling you.

  • Ten players entered the first championships in 1927, and they arranged their own dates and venues for the matches up to the semi-finals.
  • Joe Davis (1901-1978) won the first 15 tournaments and retired unbeaten after the 1946 tournament. He continued to play other events, and retired in 1964, having lost only four matches in his career, all against his younger brother Fred Davis.
  • The closest Joe came to defeat in the world championships was in the 1940 final against his brother Fred, winning 37-36. Fred had led 21-15, but Joe reeled it back and made a 101 break to seal a winning 37-35 lead (dead rubbers were played at the time, and Fred won the final one to make it 37-36).
  • The highest break in the initial 1927 championships was 60. Joe Davis gradually improved this through the years, making the first century break in 1935 (110) and his best of 136 in 1946.
  • Other multiple winners in the early years were Fred Davis (eight between 1948-1956) and John Pulman (eight between 1957-1968). Apart from the 1957 match, all John Pulman’s matches were challenge matches as a knockout tournament wasn’t played, so one player (presumably with the best credentials) challenged him. No tournaments were held for six years between 1958-1963, so Fred and John may well have won more.
  • Latter-day multiple winners are: Ray Reardon (six in the ’70s), Steve Davis (six in the ’80s), Stephen Hendry (seven in the ’90s) and Ronnie O’Sullivan (five between 2001-2013). The current champion is Mark Selby, who’s won three of the last four.
  • A thought for Jimmy White, who lost six finals including five consecutive ones from 1990-1994, the last one 18-17 against Stephen Hendry.
  • Since 1980, the finals have been the best of 35 frames, but in earlier days the matches could be much longer—for example, the best of 145 from 1946-1949 and in 1952, with the match playing over two weeks.
  • The most boring World Championship final is reputed to be that between Graeme Dott and Peter Ebdon in 2006, Dott taking the match 18-14 at 1:00am on the second day, so long were some of the frames. Fair play, though, you can’t take away the glory of being world champion, and if you prowl the Internet you’ll find many other sleep-inducing candidates such as a two-hour frame between Fergal O’Brien and David Gilbert in the final qualifying round for the 2017 World Championships (it was the deciding frame with the score at 9-9). Dott had previously lost the world final in 2004, to Ronnie O’Sullivan. He battled depression soon after the 2006 victory, due to a series of personal events. He recovered to reach a third World final in 2010, losing 18-13 to Neil Robertson, and published his autobiography (Frame of Mind) in 2011. His ranking stayed in the top 16 until 2014 and he’s currently at number 30. Peter Ebdon also has one world championship (in 2002) and two losing finals (1996, as well as the 2006 match against Dott) and is now ranked 40.
  • The venue for the 1946 final, the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, seated 1,250 spectators for each day of the two-week 145-frame match; this compares with a capacity of 980 for the present-day location at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

The 1985 World Championship Final, Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor: In selecting a featured match, there’s only one I can possibly choose. Steve Davis had won three of the last four World Championships and was overwhelming favourite against Dennis Taylor. He led 8-0, but was pulled back to 9-7 at the end of the first day’s play. Davis then led 11-8 to be pulled back to 11-11, then 15-12 to be pulled back to 15-15, and finally 17-15 before Taylor levelled it at 17-17 and forced a deciding frame. The final frame of the championships was the longest of the whole fortnight’s tournament at 68 minutes, and the match itself remains the longest-ever 35-frame match. The match finished at 12:23am (roughly) and 18.5 million viewers remains the largest post-midnight British TV audience. Davis led 62-44 and Taylor needed to pot the final four colours to win. He potted three difficult balls and then just missed a double into the middle pocket which would have won the championship. So now it’s a black ball game, gone midnight and a fantastic climax. There’s an excellent safety shot from Davis; an unlikely and missed double from Taylor; an even more unlikely double from Davis leaving the first clear chance, a middle-distance pot; which Taylor missed leaving Davis with a cut into the corner pocket for the match…which he famously missed, overcutting the ball. Dennis Taylor potted his fourth attempt at the black to win. Wikipedia-snooker-final describes it better than me, and this seven-minute-YouTube-summary is well worth watching. For some fun, you can also watch this 2010-attempt-to-replicate-the-match by Davis and Taylor—if you don’t have time for the whole 44-minute video, skip through to the 25th minute for the colours. Anyway, Steve Davis went on to surprisingly lose the next year’s final to Joe Johnson, before winning three on the trot from 1987-1989. Dennis Taylor had previously lost the World Championship final in 1979. He didn’t reach the same heights again, but remained a top-ten-ranked player into the early nineties and became a match commentator and has made many TV appearances outside snooker, as has Davis. They met again in the World Championships in the 1991 quarter-finals, Davis winning 13-7.

147 breaks (and 148): Joe Davis made the first officially-recognised 147 in an exhibition match in London in 1955, Steve Davis had the first 147 in official competition (which was also the first televised) in 1982 at the Classic tournament in Oldham, Cliff Thorburn hit the first 147 in the World Championships in 1983, and Ronnie O’Sullivan has the most in competition (13) and the fastest (5 min 20s). There were eight maximums in the 1980s, 26 in the 1990s, 35 in the 2000s and, so far, over 50 in the 2010s. Does that mean players have improved over the years, or at least their potting skills? Maybe, but past against present is a perennial debate in sport and I’ll leave you to it. There’s been exactly one break higher than 147 in professional competition, achieved by Jamie Burnett in the qualifying stages of the 2004 UK Championship, when a free ball allowed him to take the brown ball as an extra red. He cleared the table, potting (effectively) 16 reds, 12 blacks, two pinks, a blue and a brown, followed by all the colours to achieve a 148 break. He said he didn’t realise it was on until the break was over 100 and initially thought it no big deal. Higher breaks have been recorded, but not in professional competition; Jamie Cope made the first witnessed 155 in a practice frame in 2005, though others have also achieved the feat in private practice.

Ladies Snooker: There are no gender restrictions on the main tour (the professional world tour run by the WPBSA) and ladies can enter events if they qualify. Reanne Evans has twice played in the qualifying rounds for the World Championship (the ladies’ champion is invited to play in qualifying): in 2015, she narrowly lost 10-8 to Ken Doherty (a former world champion), and in 2017 she beat the world number 51, Robin Hull, 10-8 in the first qualifying round, but lost in the second 10-6 (out of three qualifying rounds in total). She became the first woman to reach the final stages of a ranking tournament, The Wuxi Classic in 2013. Reanne also played on the main tour in 2010-11 (although she didn’t win any matches), as did Allison Fisher in 1994-95. There are various ways to qualify for the tour including qualifying schools and discretionary invitations. So, in theory, there are no barriers to women competing with men, although snooker clubs have a traditionally male image and there’s not much money in the ladies’ game. The World Ladies Snooker Championship started in 1976 (known as the Women’s World Open Championship until 1981) and has been dominated by Reanne Evans (11 World Championships) and Allison Fisher (7), with Kelly Fisher (5, not related) close behind. Reanne won 10 titles from 2005 to 2014, before Hong Kong’s Ng On Yee beat her in the 2015 semi-finals and won the tournament. Reanne beat Ng in the 2016 final, but Ng won it back in 2017, again beating Reanne in the semi-final. Allison Fisher became well-known and played in Barry Hearn’s invitational Matchroom League in 1992 and 1994, beating and drawing with some of the top male players. She retired from snooker in 1995 and moved to the US to play on the pool circuit, where she’s been very successful and made far more money than she could on the women’s snooker circuit. The highest women’s break in competition is 143 by Kelly Fisher.

Snooker Today: Mark Selby is the player to aim at, being well clear at the top of the rankings and the world champion for the last two years. The players closest to him are John Higgins, Judd Trump and Ding Junhui. Mark Selby also holds the UK Championship, while Ronnie O’Sullivan holds the Masters. Snooker’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades, reaching a peak in the ’80s (thanks to UK TV coverage, and the UK only having four channels), and declining through the ’90s and 2000s. Now it receives a large global TV audience (with thanks to Barry Hearn’s promotion skills) and is highly popular in Asia (and especially in China, where Ding Junhui is a superstar), though slightly less so in the UK than the past. On the ladies’ side, Ng On Yee holds the world title and will therefore attempt to become the first lady to qualify for the World Championship in April; and will also resume what looks a close rivalry with Reanne Evans, who had dominated ladies snooker from 2005 until recently. Here are the last few world finals:

2012: Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Ali Carter 18-11
2013: Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Barry Hawkins 18-12
2014: Mark Selby beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 18-14
2015: Stuart Bingham beat Shawn Murphy 18-15
2016: Mark Selby beat Ding Junhui 18-14
2017: Mark Selby beat John Higgins 18-15

2015: Ng On Yee beat Emma Bonney 6-2
2016: Reanne Evans beat Ng On Yee 6-4
2017: Ng On Yee beat Vidya Pillai 6-5

Brief Profiles 
Alex Higgins: Alex “Hurricane” Higgins was Northern Irish and twice world champion, at his first attempt in 1972 and in 1982, and runner-up in 1976 and 1980. He was popular, and known for his fast and flamboyant play but also for self-destructive behaviour. His break of 69 against Jimmy White in the 1982 World Championships semi-final is considered one of the finest made—he was 15-14 frames down and 59-0 points down and needed to win the frame to avoid going out the tournament. He made a series of ‘extremely challenging’ pots for a clearance of 69, won the final deciding frame and went on to beat Ray Reardon 18-15 in the final. He was a heavy smoker and struggled with drink and gambling, and was twice banned from snooker for violent behaviour. After retiring in 1997, he was dogged by ill health, including battles with throat cancer and drink, but continued to play regularly in clubs and made attempted comebacks at the Irish Professional Championships in 2005 and 2006. He died in 2010 at the age of 61, bankrupt and in reduced circumstances, but he stood at the pinnacle in his heyday.
Fred Davis: I originally thought Joe Davis, winner of the first 15 World Championships and virtually unbeatable, would be the second person to feature here. I’ll leave that story to you though, because once I looked further, his brother’s sheer longevity and involvement at the top-level is stunning. Fred Davis first reached the World Championship semi-final in 1938, at his second attempt, and repeated the feat forty years later, in 1978 at the age of 64. He only narrowly lost the latter, 18-16 to Perrie Mans. In between he won eight World Championships in the ’40s and ’50s; was runner-up six times (although three of those were challenge matches instead of knock-out tournaments, as snooker’s popularity waned in the ’60s); was called up for the war in 1940, five days after his marriage; was awarded the OBE in 1977; and experienced two heart attacks. We haven’t finished yet—he won the World Professional Billiards Championship in 1980 and 1981 (actually in May and November of 1980 because they changed the date of the championships, but hey); he made the 1979 world snooker quarter-finals and the 1983 world billiard final and continued to beat the top players of his day through the ’70s and early ’80s; and was ranked world number eight as late as 1980. His last appearance in the World Championships main event was 1984, but he continued to play the qualifying tournament and other events. He announced his retirement in 1990 after losing a playoff match to retain his professional status, an arthritic knee causing him to limp from the arena to the press conference where a standing ovation was given from ‘spectators, players on other match tables and even those on the practice tables, who all ceased playing to acknowledge the moment’. One moment to applaud a sixty-year career and we should leave it there. To finish off, he did play a bit more because the rules changed, his final professional match coming in 1992, and he died in 1998 at the age of 84. His brother Joe had died in 1978 at the age of 77, two months after collapsing while watching Fred’s 1978 world semi-final.
Ronnie O’Sullivan: Nicknamed “The Rocket'” and known for his fast and exciting play, Ronnie has been the biggest box-office star of the last fifteen or so years. He currently stands on 28 ranking titles (joint second with Steve Davis and John Higgins, eight behind Stephen Hendry), including five World Championships (in 2001, ’04, ’08, ’12 and ’13). It’s well publicised that his father served 18 years for murder from 1992, he’s battled depression, he’s written a crime thriller (Framed), and has an ambivalent attitude with snooker, ‘taking sabbaticals and frequently threatening to retire’. He’s a keen motor racer and gifted runner (running the 10k in under 35 minutes), and regularly broadcasts for TV (Eurosport) and radio.

Media: There are plenty of non-fiction books about snooker, but here are a couple of fictional creations.

  • The Rack Pack—a 2016 UK film about snooker in the ’80s, featuring the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis.
  • Snooker Loopy—if you dare, this is a song by Chas & Dave, released in 1986, featuring many of the snooker players of the day, and reaching number six in the UK charts. With apologies, although the comments under the YouTube video do say this is ‘probably the greatest song of all time’.
Posted in Sport | Tagged , | 2 Comments

First post

Hello. Here’s my new blog, which will shortly unfold with an intelligent and interesting theme (hopefully).

Posted in General | Leave a comment