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The syntax of the English language is usually easy, sometimes complicated, and it's the biggest single problem with Internet fiction and creative writing in general, in my opinion. Punctuation and grammar aren't sexy, so nobody pays them any mind. Some writers seem to think that proper structure is only optional, as long as the basic message gets across; they appear to prefer to be judged for their ideas alone and not for the presentation.
I hate to say it, but writing is communication. In order to communicate well, it is important for your ideas to come across clearly to your audience. At its best, writing is powerful and thought-provoking. Words run the range from delicate to deadly. At its worst, writing is confusing, misleading, vague, and almost the opposite of communication, for you have communicated something to the reader, but you can't be certain what it was. At its worst, writing is merely random: the reader thinks he understands the writer, the writer thinks his reader understood him, but the two are miles apart in meaning.
If what you see below seems a bit remedial, well, it is. These are the very basics of sentence construction. To use a metaphor, these are your hammer and nails. Until you can use them properly you don't have any need for the blueprints.
What you will find on this page are the very basics, trimmed down based on my tolerance for being pedantic and your probable attention span. It is not a comprehensive style manual that covers every exception, disputed usage, or freak of English an adventurous writer might encounter. If you're serious about your grammar, check out http://www.alt-usage.english.org for more information, or better yet, invest in a style manual, and use it.
What is a Sentence?
If you weren't paying attention in English class, pay attention now. A sentence consists of a subject and a predicate or, in simple terms, an object and an action. A sentence comprises a single thought, or several related thoughts organized in a meaningful way. All grammar and punctuation is based on the sentence unit, so it's important to look at a sentence and know who or what is doing the action, and what action is happening. A very simple sentence is below as an example.
Parts of Speech
A discussion of grammar will be much easier if we assign terms to the multiple parts of a sentence.
Sentences can be dressed up with additional words to make the thing more flavorful, but there remains only one subject, the noun, and one predicate, the verb. The subject isn't always first, but we'll worry about that later.
Several dogs bark noisily.
Words that modify nouns are called adjectives, such as several in this example. Words that modify verbs are called adverbs, such as noisily in this example. Sometimes a word gives context to a noun; this is called an article, such as a, an, or the.
Instead of repeating our noun several times during a paragraph, we use a substitute word called a pronoun like he, she, we, they, him, us, and so on. Pronouns can show ownership, with words like his, hers, theirs, etc.
Multiple nouns can become compound subjects with conjunctions, and with conjunctions multiple sentences can be glued together. We use prepositions such as with, among, between, toward, in, and from to indicate position location, or sequence.
Subclauses and Complex Sentences
Writing with only the tools above would be extremely dull. Fortunately, we have a few other parts of speech to make things interesting. With them we can build much more complex sentences.
Subclauses are easy to construct and hard to punctuate properly. Of all the grammatical problems I see, this is one of the greatest.
Several dogs in my neighborhood bark noisily during the night.
The prepositional phrase in my neighborhood illustrates where the dogs are located. The phrase during the night tells us when they bark. They are not separated by commas because they directly modify the subject and predicate. You can string prepositional phrases together. I don't usually put a comma between them if they are all related and modify the same word. In the example below, all three prepositional phrases modify bark.
Several dogs in my neighborhood bark noisily during the night on the weekend between eight o'clock and midnight.
Another subclause is called a parenthetical expression (after the punctuation called parentheses, like these). Also called an aside, it is a clause that doesn't directly modify the noun or verb, but profides additional detail or color.
Several dogs in my neighborhood, such as Scruffy, bark noisily during the night.
The parenthetical clause can be taken out and the sentence will be the same. The tricky part here is the punctuation. A parenthetical clause always has a comma on both sides! Don't forget this! It's important! I mean it! You can't put in one comma without putting in the other!
A parenthetical aside can almost be a complete sentence by itself:
Several dogs in my neighborhood, which is normally quiet, bark noisily during the night.
However, it does matter where you put it. Here, instead of modifying my neighborhood, it modifies the night:
Several dogs in my neighborhood bark noisily during the night, which is normally quiet.
Build compound sentences using conjunctions. There are three types of conjunctions, and each of them is used a different way. Beware of these constructions. Many writers build them improperly!
The first kind are very simple. They can be used to create compound subjects (more than one noun attached to the same verb) and compound predicates (more than one verb attached to the same noun).
Dogs and cats are animals.
Dogs bark and growl.
And, but and or can also be used to create compound sentences. For very short sentences, the comma in between is optional. The conjunction is not! Remember this! It's important! I mean it! A very high percentage of Internet writers create run-on sentences because they do not know when to use the words and or because. Look at your sentence- if it has two subjects, two predicates and no conjunction, there's something wrong!
Dogs bark and cats purr.
Dogs bark, but cats purr.
Dogs bark in my neighborhood all night, but my window is closed.
Subordinate conjunctions create subordinate clauses. You know what a subordinate is, don't you? A subordinate officer answers to a superior officer. In the same way, a subordinate clause answers to a superior clause. Subordinate clauses should not stand alone! Remember this! Subordinate clauses are attached to a main sentence by a comma, although in very short sentences it can be left out.
A subordinate clause is a complete sentence by itself, with a subject and predicate. It is attached to the main sentence by some kind of logical extension, or explanation, or clarification. It leads up to the main sentence, or it carries the thought further.
If my window is open, I hear the dogs.
When the dogs bark, I close my window.
The dogs bark whether my window is open or not.
I didn't get to sleep, because my window was stuck.
The important thing to remember about sentences joined by a conjunction is that both sentences are independent clauses. Each half has its own subject and predicate and can be written separately. Some of the meaning is lost this way, but each independent clause should be able to stand alone.
My window is open. I hear the dogs.
The dogs bark. I close my window.
Correlative clauses draw comparisons between two phrases or sentences.
Either those curtains go, or I do.
It is possible to build a sentence with what appear to be multiple verbs. However, there is always only one predicate to a sentence. This illusion is caused by different verb forms which don't exactly behave like verbs. Think of them as verbs in disguise.
One form is called the infinitive. An infinitive is not conjugated, which means it does not change its shape when used with he or you or they. Infinitives usually appear as to be, to go, to walk, to fly, etc.
I like to sing.
The verb above is like, and because you have to like something, the infinitive form of the verb stands in as a temporary noun.
Another verb form that masquerades as a noun is called a gerund. These are -ing words to you and me, such as being, going, walking, flying, etc.
I like singing.
Again, the verb is like. Please observe that saying I like to sing is not the same thing as saying I like singing. In the first sentence, I enjoy being able to sing; in the second, I say I like the sound of singing no matter who's doing it. True, this is a subtle distinction that few people make. I don't always obey this rule because the meaning is usually clear, but be aware it can sometimes confuse a sentence or a reader. Imagine:
I like reading glasses.
Does it say I appreciate beverage containers with printing on the side? Or does it say I enjoy owning a pair of spectacles with which I am able to read?
In the sample sentence below, wish is a transitive verb, which means it is a verb that must have a focus. It transfers its focus to something, so it is transitive. Other transitive verbs are to try, to start, learn, etc. Each one has to have a focus, even if it's another transitive verb:
I wish to try to start to learn to sing.
The verb here is wish.
Writing critics and editors often talk about the passive voice and why you should avoid it. First I will explain what they mean.
Another way of constructing multiple-verb sentences is the use of to be in some form, as in the following examples:
I am leaping from tree to tree. The trees are swaying as I am passing along their branches. Birds are twittering when I am going by.
As you can see, the verbs in the sentences are all forms of to be. The structure is called the passive voice because it is as if things simply happen to the subject, rather than the subject taking direct action. Compare:
I leap from tree to tree. The trees sway as I pass along their branches. Birds twitter when I go by.
In this sentence, using the active voice, the subjects perform actions, rather than simply existing as things occur around them. The active voice is preferred because it gives the story boldness. The passive voice, when overused, sounds vague and wishy-washy, but it cannot always be avoided.
One final note on infinitives: some critics have been taught from an early age never to split infinitives. By this, the teachers told us never to put any word between to and the verb. To boldly go where no man has gone before is an example of a famous split infinitive. Why did this come about? Blame it on Latin roots. In Latin, the infinite is one word, so it cannot be split. Fussy language professors felt this was a much better construction because Latin Makes Sense.(tm)
Well, guess what? Latin is also a dead language. We're writing in English now, and in English the infinitive can be safely split. In some cases, it is even desireable. In short, I try not to, but if I come across a sentence where it works out better with a split infinitive, I saw screw 'em.
We whole-heartedly approved the plan to cautiously advance the money.
In this construction, alternatives to the split infinitive are not good:
We whole-heartedly approved the plan cautiously to advance the money.
We whole-heartedly approved the plan to advance cautiously the money.
We whole-heartedly approved the plan to advance the money cautiously.
Punctuation is one of the more difficult aspects of reading Internet stories, because there is usually too much punctuation and not enough story. However, punctuation is important because it delineates clauses and separates thoughts in a clear manner. You can do more damage to a sentence with improper punctuation than you can with a misspelled word.
I am giving you the rules of punctuation that I follow most assiduously. Some writers will differ in opinion and style, especially on the Internet, but editors seem to vary quite a bit less in what they consider proper use. There are other uses for punctuation other than what is presented in fiction. I am only attempting to cover the uses in basic prose. If you wish to see rules on broader uses of punctuation, such as writing research papers, envelopes, or computer programs, see the appropriate style guide.
Periods are used to end statements. American usage also shows periods used after suspensions like Mister (Mr.), Doctor (Dr.) and Street (St.), and after abbreviations like Incorporated (Inc.), etc.
Periods also separate initials in a name (W.C. Handy) but are not used for acronyms (scuba, IBM, NORAD).
I waffle on the use of the period when it comes to very short abbreviations like i.d. card or i.v. machine. It could as easily be written id card and iv machine. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it's clear-it can't be mistaken for another word-and be consistent throughout your story.
A period is properly called a full stop. It can be typeset in a different way from an abbreviation. On your word processor, you are unlikely to have an alternative, so periods are fine.
No bonus points for already knowing this one. The question mark is used for interrogatives, questions, and queries. Do not use more than one question mark in a row. Multiple punctuation like that is not necessary.
The exclamation point. Use it to show the sentence is urgent, exciting, important, or is otherwise emphasized. Do not use multiple exclamation points; it does not make your sentence even more exciting. One will do.
Very rarely I will have a situation where a character asks something loudly, in shock or surprise. Question mark or exclamation mark? I use one of each, like this:
"What?!" he cried.
If you've read the above, you should have a good idea about the comma so far. The comma is used to separate compound sentences prior to the conjunction. Remember, on each side of the conjunction you will have an independent clause:
We tried to get tickets, but they were sold out.
Commas are used on both sides of a parenthetic clause:
The box office, which opened at nine, was sold out by ten.
Commas are also used to separate subordinate clauses from the main sentence. If the clause is very short, the comma may be left out.
Because it was cold we stayed indoors.
When the wind began howling like a banshee and the lights flickered, we huddled around the fire.
Commas are used to separate items in a list of more than two items. The last item should have the word and before it. Whether you use a comma as well is up to you. Grammarians argue over this one during breakfast.
You may have coffee, tea or milk.
You may have coffee, tea, or milk.
Be wary of the omission of serial commas where the meaning becomes ambiguous:
In walked my parents, the President and the First Lady.
The comma is also used on both sides of a title, name, or endearment when used to directly address another.
"Ollie, can you hand me the chainsaw?"
"Well, Stanley, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into."
Please remember, dear reader, that this is a true story.
"Look, Mom, no hands!"
"Step this way, sir."
Teachers like to tell students that a comma is a pause. Students therefore assume that more commas means a longer pause. Do not use multiple commas in a row. This only works for programming your modem.
The apostrophe is frequently misused. It never fails to surprise me how often beginning writers forget what an apostrophe is for. For the last time, it is extremely simple.
An apostrophe indicates possessive nouns.
Johnny's car, Susan's dog, the monster's dish
Possessive pronouns do not use an apostrophe.
his car, her dog, its dish
Apostrophes are used to replace missing letters in contractions:
can not = can't
does not = doesn't
he is = he's
we will = we'll
it is = it's
they are = they're
Do not confuse its for it's again! Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes!
The suffix -s (or -es) is used to create a plural. Plural, got it? It means more than one.
one dog, two dogs
one church, two churches
Sometimes words have irregular plurals. Do not create irregular plurals by adding -s, and please don't use an apostrophe! Apostrophes have nothing to do with plurals! Why is this so hard?
one French fry, two French fries
one leaf, two leaves
one medium, two media
one woman, two women
one moose, two moose
If you don't know to make a word plural, look it up. If it is irregular the dictionary will tell you how to make it plural.
Sometimes you need to create a plural from a letter or a number. I just add the -s on the end. I never use an apostrophe to make a plural.
the ABCs, the 1920s, two DJs
Ellipsis marks (...) are a group of three periods together. When typeset in a book, they are often separated by spaces (as . . .) but online I generally leave them together.
They are used to illustrate a dramatic pause in the narrative or to show when a character is temporarily at a loss for words. It is never necessary to use other than three ellipsis marks as a pause. Two periods seems like a typographical error. Four or more are not necessary in this context. It is a sign of bad writing to overuse ellipsis marks to dictate the pace of your story. I use them only sparingly, and almost always in dialogue.
He graciously gave us very clear directions... and we turned down the wrong road.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean for it to happen..."
The hyphen is used to conjoin words to fashion compound adjectives. English is unusual because we can use nouns as adjectives, nouns as verbs, verbs as adjectives, and all kinds of other messy constructions. Hyphens group words together to form a single compound, as follows:
a red-furred hand
The Well-Tempered Klavier
one hundred twenty-five
There is a special case with hyphens when used with a compound subject. Note:
a red- and green-striped ball
The en dash is longer than a hyphen and shorter than an em dash. Because neither it nor the em dash translate into plain text emails, and since neither are readily available on a typical computer keyboard, their proper use is mainly a matter of typography.
The en dash is not found often in prose. It is used to bridge between a range of items or numbers, or to link together already-hyphenated words.
I don't personally distinguish between the em and en dashes in stories because the ens so rarely appear. However, some examples:
Read pages 44-50.
The Civil War (1861-1865)
the Einstein-Bose papers
The dash, also called the em dash, is used when there is a sharp break in the flow of the sentence, or when a new clause is introduced without warning.
We tried to get under cover-it was pouring down rain-but there was no shelter from the storm.
Beware the em dash and its overuse. It should only be used for a sharp break in a sentence and only when another form of punctuation is not appropriate. Don't use dashes instead of commas, for instance.
Em dashes are not found easily on the keyboard. Microsoft Word will automatically change a double hyphen (--) to an em dash, although the resulting character does not translate well into plain text, or from one computer platform to another. When I submit stories via email I use a double hyphen. When I post the story I convert them back to em dashes.
The name em dash comes from typesetting. In variable-width fonts, the em dash is as wide as the letter M.
The colon is used in fiction to introduce an amplification or a quotation. It has other uses, which I'm sure you're aware of, like denoting Biblical passages or keeping the hour hand and the minute hand from banging together, but let's concentrate on the other.
A colon should not be used after a verb, where it is unnecessary. Because a colon is rather formal, I try not to use it too much. Ordinary garden-variety punctuation, such as the period and comma, get me along most of the time.
The scene was chaos and confusion: everyone ran about in all directions at once.
The use of the colon above introduced an elucidation of the concept of chaos by providing specific examples and further detail. It could have been written with a period, but the connection between the two clauses would have been weakened.
Forget what you know from your C++ compiler. The semi-colon is used to conjoin two sentences of a similar topic. No conjunction should be used with a semi-colon.
You should always be able to change a semi-colon to a period (and capitalize the next letter) without damaging either clause.
There was nothing for it but to knock on the door; we drew together and approached the doorway.
Semi-colons can also be used to separate items in a list when the items include subordinate clauses.
Also at the party were Tony, the erratic long-haired student with the rich parents; Mike, who couldn't have even gotten a job at a car wash, and he had tried, multiple times; and Jeff, about whom no more need be said.
Quotation marks are tied up with dialogue, which I discuss on another page.
I mention capital letters here because I have to put them somewhere. I hope everyone knows by now how to capitalize letters at the start of sentences, how to capitalize proper names of people, places, things, titles, and all that.
What I want to say here is that using ALL CAPS as emphasis is not something I do in stories. I must correct myself: I may do it once in a blue moon. There are better ways to create emphasis than the typewritten equivalent of shouting. I save ALL CAPS for when the characters actually are... well, shouting.
Words to Watch Out For
There are many words in the English language that sounds the same but which have different meanings and different spellings. Misusing these words is cardinal sin! Well, okay, it's not actually sin, per se, but if you are serious about writing, you ought to learn these words and why they're not the same.
to too two
I went to the store to buy milk and bread.
I bought too much milk. I forgot to buy the bread, too.
I did two things wrong.
To is a preposition and part of the verb form called the infinitive. Too means in excess, in addition, or also. Two is a number.
their there they're
This is not my car. It is their car. I borrowed it from them. The car is theirs.
I am going to drive it over there.
They're waiting for me to return it.
Their is a possessive pronoun, meaning belonging to them. There is the opposite of here. They're is a contraction for they are.
It is five o'clock. It's five o'clock. It's time to go home.
The clock's batteries are dead. I changed its batteries.
This one drives people up the wall. It's is a contraction for it is. You can tell it's is a contraction because it's got an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never use an apostrophe. Therefore it's a contraction. Its doesn't have an apostrophe because its is a possessive pronoun.