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 https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1028792 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 OxfordDictionaries.com, 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. The-conjugation.com 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 The-conjugation.com: 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 https://literarydevices.net. 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.
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One Response to Writing Skills from Culture Man

  1. Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
    A design like yours with a few simple adjustements
    would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your design. Appreciate it

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