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.”

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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.

 

 

 

Spelling Bee

Are you ready for a tough spelling bee?

Here are twenty-five words that sometimes give people grief.

  1. address
  2. all right
  3. asphyxiate
  4. camouflage
  5. carburettor (Americans may spell it with only one “t.”)
  6. chrysanthemum
  7. commitment
  8. committee
  9. desiccated
  10. diphtheria
  11. embarrass
  12. exhilarate
  13. gorilla
  14. grammar
  15. harass
  16. hemorrhage
  17. inoculate
  18. intercede
  19. liquefy
  20. ophthalmologist
  21. penicillin
  22. seize
  23. siege
  24. supersede
  25. vaccinate

Why not have a look at these words and then have someone give you a spelling test? How do you think you’ll do?

If you don’t get 100%, don’t worry. You won’t be alone.

Are you sweating blood yet?

 

 

 

Ten Words That Give Us Pause

The English language has many words that sound similar, or are spelled the same, but have different meanings. Some are close to sounding right, but they may be the wrong one. Some are just a problem to spell correctly.

Here are some that many people get mixed up or misuse.

  1. rapt/wrapped

You may be rapt in thought (engrossed, or enRAPTured by an idea),  but a gift is wrapped.

2. rack/wrack

You can pretty much forget about wrack. It’s an old leftover from wreck. You may see it used in the expression wrack and ruin, but for everything else, use rack. You can rack your brain to figure out why that is.

3. languid/limpid

A stream can be limpid (clear and calm), but that does not mean it is limp or listless.

Languid, on the other hand, is used to mean limp and listless.

4. kindergarten (NOT kindergarden).

It comes from the German words for children (Kinder) and garden (Garten). A child going to kindergarten is called a kindergartner.

5. jamb/jam

The side of the door frame is a jamb.  It comes from the French word jambe, for leg.

A sweet spread for toast is jam.

6. forego/forgo

Forego means to precede (to come before). Forgo means to do without something.

7. flora/fauna

Many people use these words together without knowing that flora refers to plants while fauna refers to animals.

8. florescent/fluorescent

Florescent means to be in flower, while fluorescent means radiating light.

9. better/bettor

Better is an improvement, while bettor is one who places a bet.

10. bandanna/banana

She took off her bandanna to eat her banana.

 

 

Punctuating Dialogue – A Simple Start

  Did  you say something?    she asked.

I’m going to assume that you will stick to the basic “said” and “asked” when using dialogue tags. This is a good way to keep out of trouble when writing dialogue. If you keep in mind that people don’t smile words or laugh them, it will help you to keep the punctuation correct as well.

Here are some simple sentences using quotation marks (note the location of the punctuation).

“I’m going to practice writing dialogue,” Rose said.

“Is it difficult?” George asked.

If you want to avoid the dialogue tags (said and asked) you could use some action verb instead, but it must be separated from the spoken words and placed in its own sentence.

“It’s as easy as making a pie.” Rose laughed. 

George rolled his eyes. “Then it’s pretty hard to do.”

Notice the periods separating each sentence.

If you want to put a dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence (that is, if the spoken words would make a sentence if you take out the dialogue tag) it might look like this:

“Writing dialogue,” Rose said, “is as easy as making a pie.”

“In that case,” George said, “it’s pretty hard.”

Notice the comma before and after the dialogue tag and the lower case letter where the second part of the spoken sentence begins.

If you have one person speaking two separate sentences and you want to put the dialogue tag between the sentences, you would use a comma before the dialogue tag and a period after it. The new sentence begins with a capital.

“I like to write dialogue,” Rose said. “It’s as easy as making pie.”

“I think I have a lot to learn,” said George. “Will it help if I have a piece of pie as I write?”

Exceptions to Exceptions

Rules are meant to be broken, and in the English language, they are broken all the time.

After the difficult “Numbers and Hyphenation” post last time, I thought I would go easy on you and only talk about one rule (and of course, its exceptions).

You’ve all heard this rule since elementary school:

“i” before “e,” except after “c,” and when it says “ay” as in  “neighbor” and “weigh.”

Usually, it is “i” before “e” when you have a long “e” sound, such as in these words: achieve, believe, brief, chief, diesel, field, grief, hygiene, niece, piece, relieve, reprieve, shield, shriek, siege, thief, wield, yield.

But after “c,” the “e” comes first, as in:

ceiling, conceit, conceive, deceit, deceive, perceive, receipt, receive.

Having said that, here are some words that don’t follow the “i” before “e” rule, and there is no “c” to change the rule. What do you think about words like these, where “i” does NOT come before “e” and it still has a long “e” sound:

caffeine, Keith, Neil, protein, seize, Sheila, weir, weird.

 

When the sound is “ay,” the spelling is also “ei”:

beige, deign, eight, freight, neighbor, reign, rein, veil, vein, weigh.

And finally, even the exception to the “i” before “e” rule where it says “except after ‘c’,” has an exception of its own. 

Here is “species.”  The “ie” makes a long “e” sound, and follows “c” but it is not spelled “ei”  (as in “ceiling”).

What a CRAZY language!

 

Numbers and Hyphens

When do you hyphenate numbers? I hate to admit it, but it’s not simple. I will try to sort it out though, into something that’s easy enough to remember.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0

For a start, with numbers, the general rule is “twenty-one through ninety-nine are hyphenated; others are open.”

thirty-five

two thousand twenty-two

one hundred seventy-five

For simple fractions, here are some examples:

one-half

two-thirds

three-quarters

one sixty-fourth

two and five-sixths

Hyphenate, if you use the fraction as a noun (one-half)adjective (a two-thirds majority), or adverb (three-quarters done), except when the second element is already hyphenated (a one twenty-fifth share). Also if you have a whole number followed by a fraction, only hyphenate the fraction (two and three-quarters).

When a number is used with an abbreviation, it is always open (no hyphen).

a 5 lb. roast

a 4 ft. high fence

When a number is used with a noun, hyphenate before the noun, otherwise leave it open.

a three-hundred-yard race, but the race was three hundred yards long

a six-foot-two athlete, but the athlete was six foot two

a two-and-a-half-foot stick, but the stick was two and a half feet.

a two-and-three-quarter-inch stick, but the stick was two and three-quarters of an inch

 

And lastly, we have ordinals, basically the same rule.

a second-floor condo, condo on the second floor

third-row seat, seat in the third row

second-to-last candidate, candidate came second to last

I hope you don’t have a first-class headache after this intense session. If you do, I hope your medications are first class and you’ll feel better soon. Maybe it will be a half-hour remedy and you’ll feel better in half an hour.

 

Open or Closed

One problem writers sometimes struggle with is when to use hyphens to join descriptive words. Here are a few examples that show some of the basic rules to guide you in the use of hyphens.

 

  1. Sometimes we use an adjective and a noun to describe another noun.

Example:   a high-class event.

Without the hyphen we might wonder if it was a class event where everyone got high, or it took place on a mountain or in the penthouse. Did the event only allow the people from one class, such as grade 12?

The hyphen helps to clarify meaning.

The general rule is: hyphenated before but not after a noun, like this:

“a high-class event,”  but “the event was high class.”

Example:

“a small-town sheriff,” but “the sheriff was from a small town.” (If we wrote it without the hyphen [as in small town sheriff]  we might wonder if the sheriff from the town was small).

 

2. If you use an adjective and a participle, it might look like this:

“a well-dressed woman,”  but  “the woman was well dressed.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)

“an open-ended question,” but “the question was open ended.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)

 

3. Adverbs ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective are open, whether before or after a noun. No hyphens.

It was a poorly paid job.

We ate a quickly prepared meal.

 

4. Adverbs not ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective.

“She got some much-needed dental work,” but “her dental work was much needed.”

“He had the worst-paid job at the plant,” but “his job at the plant was the worst paid one.”

(hyphenated before but not after a noun)

However …

when using  more, most, less, least, and very, these are usually kept open (no hyphen) unless ambiguity threatens.

For example:

most talented musicians (refers to almost all musicians with talent; the most in number), but the most-talented musicians (the musicians with the most talent).

When the adverb rather than the compound as a whole is modified by another adverb, the entire expression is open.

(from Chicago Manual of Style)

Example:

a very much needed job

There is much more to know about hyphens but we don’t want to go on overload.

 

This or That?

Which word is the right one to use?

Some words are so similar in spelling, or sound, or meaning, that it can be difficult to know which is the correct one in any particular case.

Here are some that give many of us a hard time. I’ll begin with the two that I have problems with.

  1. discreet/discreteDiscreet means reliable, careful. If a person is discreet, they are not likely to blab something you’ve told them in confidence. Discrete means separate or distinct.
  2. canvas/canvass – I will canvass the potential voters to try to gain their support, and then I will hide in my canvas tent until the election is all over.
  3. cannon/canon – Think of the cannon as a big gun, and cannon is a bigger word than canon. A (little) canon is a senior clergyman. It can also refer to a piece of music.
  4. compliment/complement – The word “complement” looks like the beginning of the word “complete.” Complement is the completion of something. The dessert complemented the meal. Then when the cook brings a wonderful dessert, you can say something nice and give her or him a compliment.
  5. comprise/composed of – Oh! This one is troublesome. If you remember not to follow comprised with “of,” you are well on your way to using it correctly. A whole thing comprises some parts; the parts do not comprise the whole. They make up the whole, but do not comprise it.  The whole comprises the parts. Do not confuse this word with composed of, or consist of, or make up. e.g. The baked goods section comprises several kinds of pie. The puzzle is composed of pieces of many shapes. It comprises 500 pieces.
  6. extant/extinctExtant means still in existence. Extinct means something no longer exists. e.g. The extant works of the ancient authors were stored in a special vault. The dodo is an extinct bird.
  7. shear/sheer Shear is to cut, as with shears (scissors). Sheer can mean something like pure, or complete, as in sheer nonsense. Sheer can also refer to something that has fallen off or that drops straight down, as in a sheer drop-off on a cliff, or sheer, as in see-through (curtains), or sheer as in swerve abruptly.
  8. hoard/horde – A hoard is a collection of valuable things. Sometimes people hoard things that are valuable only to them. A huge group of people can be called a horde. Often they are called a horde if they are unruly.
  9. waver/waiver – If you waver, it could be that you are not as steadfast about an idea as you thought you were. A waiver is a document that gives up your right or a claim to something.
  10. plane/plain – A plane is a flying vehicle. It could also refer making a flat surface as on a wooden board, or it could refer to a level, as in being on a different plane (level), especially in thinking. The other plain could refer to something ordinary, especially in looks, and it can refer to the flat lands of the prairies.