Five More for your List


Morale (accent on the second syllable) usually refers to the general mood of a person or group. Are they enthusiastic and encouraged, or are they discouraged?

Moral (accent on the first syllable) is a lesson, often learned in a story like a fable. How often have we heard, “And the moral of the story is….”?


If someone has a flair for doing something, they have a natural talent or special skill. For example, my friend has a flair for home decorating.

A flare could be a light spreading out in a fan shape, a blaze, or a device that produces that flash of light. It could also refer to the fan shape of a pantleg. In the ’70s, pantlegs flared out at the bottom.


A flash of light in a thunderstorm is lightning (no e).

If something gets lighter in colour or in weight, we could say the sky is lightening, or the load is lightening. Think of getting lighter, as in to lighten, therefore, it is lightening.


Those cubes with dots are called dice. One of the cubes is called a die. But dice has been used as the singular for so long, that it is now accepted as meaning one or more cubes.

And now for the most fun one – how do you spell a teeny tiny thing?

It is minuscule.

I think I have always spelled this one wrong because I was thinking “mini,” when I should have been thinking “minus.”

There is only one i in minuscule, but there are two u’s.


Here Come the Relatives


When do you put a hyphen in the words for relatives? When do you use a capital letter?

I still struggle with the hyphenation. The capitalization is easier.

It works a bit like mom and dad. If you use the word as the proper noun (like a person’s name), it’s capitalized.

e.g. Did you bake a pie today, Grandma? Did Mom help you?


My grandma baked a pie. My mom helped her.

Same goes for aunt and uncle.


Are your aunt and uncle in town?

Yes, Aunt Mary and Uncle John are visiting us.

And now for hyphenation.

All the “grands” are one word:

grandmother, grandma (not gramma), grandfather, grandpa (not grampa), grandson, granddaughter (yes, it has two d’s), grandchildren.

If you put “great” in front of these words, put a hyphen after “great.”

great-grandmother, great-grandma, great-grandfather, great-grandpa, great-grandson, great-granddaughter, great-grandchildren.

If you need to add another “great,” add another hyphen.


The in-laws get hyphens; the outlaws don’t.

brother-in-law, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law, parents-in-law.

The blended family gets special treatment.

half sister, half brother (no hyphen, separate words)

stepsister, stepbrother, stepmother, stepfather, stepparents  (no hyphen, ONE word)


step-granddaughter, step-great-grandson


This would give me a headache, so I make a quick list where I can look them up. If you want you can just print this page.




Sun, Moon, and Earth: Capitals or Not

These are important celestial objects, but do they need a capital letter?

In the case of Earth, I just capitalized it. That’s because I used it the way I would use a person’s name, without putting “the” in front of it. If I were speaking of the earth, I would not use a capital letter.


I live on Earth, and I love the earth. 

There are a few oddities to note.

In an idiom, such as “move heaven and earth” or “down to earth” or “Where on earth have you been?” there is no capital. But when you use it as the proper name it is spelled with a capital.

The sun and the moon are not capitalized in non-technical usage. They are always in lower case when used in the plural.

How many moons does Jupiter have? 

Could any of the stars we see be suns with planets around them?

  • While we are at it, here is a reminder that heaven and hell are not important enough to warrant capital letters.


More Confusing Words

Here are a few more troublesome words to add to your list.


Who’s is a contraction for “who is.” If you want to say, “Who is  that man?” you will use “who’s” to say, “Who’s that man?”

If you want to know who owns that dog, you would say, “Whose dog is that?”


You might sign a waiver to renounce your right to something.

If you’re not sure if you should sign the waiver, you might be undecided and you might waver about making that decision.

used to/ have to

If you were in the habit of doing something in the past, then you used to do it. Don’t be fooled by the sound of the words. It is not correct to say use to when you mean used to.

Another expression that has a similar hard sound is have to. Believe it or not, I have seen it spelled hafto. Shudders!


Shear means to cut. Big scissors are sometimes called shears.

Sheer can mean vertical, as in the drop-off of a cliff. It can mean see-through, as in sheer (lacy or gauze) curtains. It can mean pure, as in “sheer nonsense.”


Loath without the “e” means “reluctant” to do something.

I am loath to walk down that dark alley in the middle of the night.

Loathe with an “e” means you dislike something intensely.

I loathe the taste of bitter medicine.


Again, it is a case of a final “e” or not.

If you can’t catch your breath, you can’t breathe properly.


Sooth is archaic for truth. Soothe with an “e” means to calm or comfort someone.


Italics – When to Use Them

You know how it is thought of as shouting if you use all caps in an email or in a blog comment. Think of italics in a similar way when you overuse them. While one or two shouts get your attention, if the shouting goes on and on and on, it becomes something you want to tune out. It is the same with italics.

But used properly, italics can be effective and serve a very useful purpose.

One of these uses in fiction writing, is to convey what a character is thinking. We use quotation marks to show conversation, but to show the reader what a character is thinking, we put his words in italics. It is not necessary to add a dialogue tag (no need to add “said Joe.”) The other important thing about using italics for thoughts is that the thought is in the present tense even if the rest of the text is in the past tense.

Here’s an example from my novel, Marlie.

“Might be starting to get dark soon. Mind if I walk you home?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “You don’t need to do that.” Now why did I say that? I’m so stupid.


Another use for italics is for words in a foreign language. Generally, if the word is not in the dictionary of the language you are using, it is considered a foreign word and should be italicized.

Try to work it into your writing in a way that the reader will know what the word means.

Here is an example from my novel, Orion’s Gift.

…as Antonio came out to clear the dishes away.

Algo más?” he asked.

I asked Kevin if he wanted anything more.


Italics can also be used to show emphasis.


He thinks my dog knocked over his garbage can? My dog?


Titles of books, magazines, movies, TV shows, and newspapers should be italicized, but smaller essays, articles, or poems within them should not be italicized.


I read an article in The New York Post entitled “Another Mass Shooting.”


Above all, don’t overdo it by italicizing too much. Italics are not as easy on the eyes as Roman font is, and don’t forget about it being too much of a good thing when it is overused. It loses its punch.

Headache Words

Even people who are comfortable in their native language run into word usage problems. English is especially difficult when it comes to word choice. In any kind of writing that you plan to publish or that others will read in a formal setting, proper word usage matters.

Here are some more troublesome words to add to your list.

gibe; jibe

A gibe is a taunt meant to hurt someone’s feelings – an insult.

Jibe means to fit. If something doesn’t jibe, it doesn’t go well with something. If people have opposing political views, for example, their ideas don’t jibe.

alright; all right

The correct form is all right. Avoid alright.

altogether; all together

When speaking of something as a whole, use altogether.

When a group is in one place, they are all together.


This is a combination of pass and time. It’s a way to pass the time, so it is a pastime. Note that there is only one “s” and one “t.”

Having said that, here are two other examples of similar words that are often used in the wrong way.

The time has passed us by.

It is past the time for talking.

Subtle differences, aren’t they?

pore; pour

Pour me some juice, please, while I pore over this sheet of instructions.

aid; aide

I can aid you in your work. That will be an aid to you. Then, if you like, I can be your aide.

grisly; grizzly

Something horrible can be described as grisly, if it is especially gruesome.

A grizzly is a very large bear. An attack by a grizzly can be very grisly.

Photo courtesy of Ken Johnstone.

Let’s try to use words correctly. I can’t bear it when I see them misused.


Getting to Know Characters

It would be easy to describe Edgar, the log salvage man, in a routine description, telling what he wore and how he talked, how he smelled, or how he behaved. But after a few sentences, would my readers still be with me, especially since Edgar was a secondary character? Why would a reader want to bother?

There are many ways to introduce characters and let the reader get to know them. Here is one method I used in my novel, The Wind Weeps. Edgar is important to the story, but he is a secondary character. Andrea, my main character, has a new job as a wharfinger’s assistant. She greets Edgar as he pulls in to dock at the wharf with his salvage boat and she goes to help him tie up.

Excerpt from “The Wind Weeps”

Edgar’s beat up log salvage boat, Prowler, sidled up to an empty dock space, the engine roaring and spewing blue smoke. Below the waterline, the exhaust sputtered and rumbled. A rainbow film of gasoline crept over the surface of the water. The floating wreck couldn’t have seen a coat of paint in years. Specks of white—all that was left of the original paint—stuck to dented, scarred aluminum. I assumed the jagged metal teeth attached to the bow like pieces of a huge, big-toothed saw, were for pushing logs. The open boat had a canopy over the bridge where the skipper and a deckhand might sit somewhat protected from the weather. But, exposed to the elements, the back was littered with coils of rope, peevee poles, power saws, axes, and piles of chains. Ugly, loud, and stinking of gas and oil, the Prowler’s arrival could not be ignored.

One of the older boat owners and a permanent resident of Lund, Edgar was probably in his seventies, but he hopped out onto the float with the spryness of a much younger man. He was shadowed by an invisible pong of oil and garbage. I wrinkled my nose and reached for the stern line to help him tie up.

“Hi, Edgar. I’m surprised to see you here. Don’t you usually tie up at the floats at Finn Bay?” I knew Bert wouldn’t be pleased to have him tie up here.

“Hey there, Andrea. Yah, that’s right. I won’t be long. Just have to run up to the general store to get some more tobacco. I run out in the middle of the job and it makes me right owly to be without it.”

“Course it does,” I said. He had the sallow, wrinkled skin of a seasoned smoker.

His grimy hand reached for the line I was about to tie. “Here, I’ll do that. These lines is kinda dirty and I don’t want ya gittin’ yer hands fulla grease ’n’ stuff.” I gladly gave the line over to him.


Available at amazon. com and for Kindle and paperbacks.

For other e-readers, go to

If you enjoy reading The Wind Weeps, please check out the sequel, Reckoning Tide.

The Long and the Short of it

Sentence Length

It seems to me that novels and also non-fiction books that were written more than 75 years ago had longer sentences. For me, this meant they were more boring to read, especially when I was still in elementary school.

Fortunately, to the great joy of most readers, this writing style has become less popular, and reading has become more enjoyable. Long sentences require more concentration to read. In a scene where the action is quick, it doesn’t make sense for the writer to tell about it in long sentences. That is a sure way to take the punch right out of the drama.

So is it best to use only short sentences? No. A mixture of longer and shorter sentences usually works best. At times, you could even just use one or two words to break things up. A one-word interjection adds emphasis as well. Notice the word “No” in this paragraph? You didn’t? Go back and look. See what I mean, how it changes things when you vary the sentence length?

In the “old days” when long sentences were more in vogue, these had to be written skilfully so as not to bore the reader. Some say that Hemingway had that skill. Perhaps he did, but I’ve tried reading two of his books and have put them down after a while because I found his long sentences so tedious to read. I prefer variety, at least in sentence length.

The same thing is true of paragraph and chapter lengths. Vary them, leaning towards shorter paragraphs and short chapters more often than long ones.

Even a one-liner can be emphatic.

Next time you write a scene, go back and have a look at your sentence length. If you have too many long sentences, or even if many of them are the same length, try for variety, and try to shorten some of the tediously long ones. Don’t throw away your original, but compare your work after you edit the sentence length and see if you like the one with variety better. I bet you will.


Do you know what, some say, is both the shortest and the longest sentence in the world?

It is “I do.”

Writing Thank-you Letters


Christmas is over, and the time is perfect for brushing up on how to write a thank-you letter. If you’ve received gifts or help of some kind, it never hurts to show your appreciation, and acknowledge kindness in a timely manner.

Let’s assume that you are thanking someone for a gift. It is good to have foldover note cards on hand. Handwriting your note gives it a personal touch.


What to Include

When you describe the gift, be sure to avoid tacky phrases like “the lovely gift” or “the nice present.” Instead, name the gift and tell how useful or appropriate it is. You might want to say how you plan to use it or where you will place it. Tell what it is about the gift that especially pleased you.

Add one or two sentences saying something nice about the giver of the gift, expressing affection or sending greetings to them and their family (if it applies).

Do Not

It’s not a good idea to ask where the gift was purchased so you can return it.

If you receive duplicate gifts, do not mention this to the giver.

If the gift is money, it is usually best not to mention the amount. Instead, you can mention the giver’s kindness or generosity.

Don’t include news, extra information, or questions unrelated to the gift. Find a different opportunity for this, if necessary.


The main thing is to convey to the giver of the gift, that you appreciate their thoughtfulness and to tell them a simple “thank you.”

There is no need to gush over the gift or the person who gave it. This would seem flowery and insincere. Simplest is often best. Show your genuine appreciation and you will make the giver of the gift very happy.

Semicolons and Colons


For years I have avoided using a semicolon, for fear I would do it wrong. It was almost the same with a colon, except that I knew it was useful for setting off a long list.

When I looked up the use of the semicolon I was surprised how simple the rules are for when to use it.

I thought I would share with you what I’ve learned.


One job of a semicolon is to link clauses that could stand alone as sentences, and that have a close relationship. The linking should be more effective than leaving them as separate sentences.

Here is an example:

The old man fell asleep whenever he began reading the book; the novel was obviously boring.

Why not use two sentences? Although each sentence could stand alone, they are closely related, and the point is better made by using the semicolon. Joining them with “and” would water down the effect.

Another job of a semicolon is for lists in text, or often in footnotes, where a dividing mark stronger than a comma is needed. Often we find this use of a semicolon in non-fiction writing to separate references.

Here is an example:

Attalos’ commands: with Alketas, Arr.4.27.5; with Koinos, Arr. 4.24.1; Meleagros, Arr. 4.16.1; 5.12.1; 6.17.3; Krateros, Arr. 4.16.1.

Notice that at the beginning of the list, after Attalos’ commands, we have a colon. This marks the beginning of a list, so we have a use for the colon in this sentence as well.

The colon is often used to separate a general statement from one or more items that support it. These explanations need not be complete sentences, but could be more like a list.

Here is an example:

I won’t be going to the party for two reasons: I have nothing nice to wear, and I haven’t been invited.

Other kinds of lists can also follow a colon.

My grocery list had several things on it: milk, eggs, sugar, flour, and baking powder. 

After you learn the use of semicolons and colons, and after my shopping is done, I could make pancakes for you.