Loaded Language: When Words Become Weapons

_superhero_portraits__wonderwoman_by_artisticasad69-d79irccThe last few months have been busy. I went on holiday, became the Managing Editor of a Canadian medical journal, spoke at an editing conference, landed a bunch of new clients, and brought home an Alaskan Malamute puppy. Busy might just be an understatement.

*dusts page, removes cobwebs from corners*  Continue reading


The Perils of Punctuation

killer_squirrel_by_reevolver-d32jfpbPunctuation is one of those things that we tend to use intuitively, but sometimes our intuition is a bit off. Most people know when to use a period and when to use a question mark. But knowing when you should use a semicolon instead of a colon demonstrates that you take the craft of writing seriously, and is the sort of thing editors consider when selecting a piece for publishing.

With that said, let’s look at some particular punctuation that is often the cause of confusion.


A comma is used to indicate the smallest pause in a sentence, while a period indicates the longest pause and a semicolon falls somewhere in between. But when should you use a comma?

To separate elements, like nouns, adjectives, descriptive phrases, and lists.

  • I planted tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and beans in my garden.

To separate non-restrictive clauses, which are clauses that could be left out without affecting the sentence. Non-restrictive clauses are often introduced by the word which (while restrictive clauses are often introduced by that).

  • The eggplants, which were almost ready to pick, had disappeared overnight.

To separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

  • The squirrels laughed at me from the trees, but I vowed to have the last laugh.

To separate dependent clauses when the dependent clause comes before the main clause.

  • When the cucumbers started to vanish, I nearly lost my mind.

To introduce something (exclamation, a phrase, direct address)

  • Squirrels, this means war!

Finally, a brief word on the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), which is when you use a comma before the conjunction that joins the last two items in a list of three or more things. The serial comma’s job is to remove ambiguity and make your meaning crystal clear, which allows your reader to focus on your story instead of getting bogged down in trying to figure out what you meant.


A colon is used to introduce something to the reader. Its job is to direct the reader’s attention to what comes next. There are four general ways you should use a colon in your writing. The first is to introduce an element (or elements) related to the independent clause that precedes the colon.

  • Mary finished packing her son’s suitcase: hopefully she hadn’t forgotten anything.

The second is to introduce an element or a series of elements after an introductory phrase, like as follows or the following.

  • Mary had packed the following items: shorts, t-shirts, socks, underwear, and toiletries.

The third is to introduce speech or dialogue.

  • Mary’s son yelled from downstairs: “Mom, the bus is here!”

The fourth is to identify the person being addressed in formal communication (e.g., a letter or an email).

  • Dear Mom: I really miss you. Oh, and you forgot to pack my toothbrush.


A semicolon is used to link things that are related. There are two situations in which you should use semicolons. The first is to link two independent clauses. They can be two closely related thoughts:

  • Tracy lay on her towel and closed her eyes; the angle of the sun was just perfect.

Or two clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs (however, also, consequently, etc.) or transitional phrases (as a result, for example, etc.):

  • Tracy wanted to fall asleep; however, she was waiting for her piña colada to arrive.

The second way you can use a semicolon is to link items in a list when any of the items contain commas. In this case, semicolons are used to provide clarity.

  • Since she’d arrived, Tracy had tried a Margarita, from Mexico; a Caipirinha, from Brazil; a Singapore Sling, from Singapore; and a Zombie, from the United States.

Em Dashes

An em dash is a long dash, not to be confused with a hyphen, used to indicate a sudden break:

  • “Allow me to demonstrate how sharp—ow, my finger!”

Or to indicate something that either explains or amplifies the element that precedes it, kind of like an aside.

  • Neville—who was a knife salesman—fainted at the sight of his own blood.

The Takeaway

That concludes my review on using punctuation. The rules above are not always hard and fast, especially when writing poetry or prose—but bending the rules should always be done mindfully.

The most important thing to remember when you use any of the elements above (or any other types of punctuation) is clarity. I can’t stress that enough. The rules are there to help you tell your story. Your use of punctuation should make the reader’s experience easier, not harder. When you sprinkle commas everywhere, or use semicolons with wild stylistic abandon, you aren’t helping anyone, least of all yourself.

This article was originally written as part of the 2014 yeah write summer series. I hope you enjoyed it!

Image credit:  ReevolveR deviantART

Rules for Writing Killer Dialogue

werewolf_by_freeminds-d59ejtzIf you look for advice on how to write good dialogue, you will find all kinds of articles with a variety of suggestions, rules, or tips for writing dialogue. Many of these articles contain great suggestions about how long your dialogue should be, what kind of content it should include, or what function it should serve in your writing. Today, I would like to focus on the technical side of dialogue: how to structure it within your story, how to punctuate it properly, and how to use dialogue tags.

Structuring Dialogue

If there is only one thing you learn here today, then let this be it. When you decide to use dialogue in your writing, you should always start a new paragraph each time a new speaker says something. Always. It eliminates reader confusion, especially when things are moving quickly. Let’s look at some examples:

Example 1: No formatting

“Did you remember to pack the silver bullets?” Dean asked. “Yes. Wait, which silver bullets?” “Seriously, Sam?” Dean shook his head. “The ones that were on the table.” “In the blue box?” “Yeah, those are the ones.” “Ah. Then no, I didn’t remember to pack them.” Dean punched Sam.

Example 2: Formatted

“Did you remember to pack the silver bullets?” Dean asked.

“Yes. Wait, which silver bullets?”

“Seriously, Sam?” Dean shook his head. “The ones that were on the table.”

“In the blue box?”

“Yeah, those are the ones.”

“Ah. Then no, I didn’t remember to pack them.”

Dean punched Sam.

Starting a new paragraph each time a different speaker says something makes your dialogue much easier to understand.

Punctuating Dialogue

The other important thing to remember when writing dialogue is that you must punctuate it properly. So if your speaker asks a question, a question mark must appear within the quotation marks, not outside them. Same goes for periods, commas, and exclamation marks. And if you interrupt the speaker with a dialogue tag, that should be punctuated properly too. Here are some examples:

  • “Grr,” said the werewolf.
  • “Dean!” Sam yelled. “Look out!”
  • “Crap,” said Dean as he fumbled for his wolfsbane. “Got it! Okay, bring it on, you oversized puppy.”

Dialogue Tags

These are the words we use to indicate who is speaking. And the general consensus is that dialogue tags should be “invisible”—which means that readers should absorb them as part of the dialogue, rather than getting hung up on the tags themselves. Said and asked are the two most common dialogue tags.

Sometimes, we add an adjective or an adverb to a dialogue tag (he said noisily; she asked coldly). Or we use a verb instead of said or asked (he screamed; she whimpered). While this can add context or emotion, you should be careful about overusing them (and about using words that don’t physically make sense). Instead, you should use action to describe the context or a character’s emotion. Compare the following examples:

  • “I’m so hungry,” the werewolf said despondently.
  • The werewolf lay on the ground and clutched his growling stomach. “I’m so hungry.”

Using this type of “action beat” instead of a dialogue tag allows you to demonstrate behaviour or motivation that is unique to the character.

If you’d like to read more about writing dialogue, here are a couple of good articles to get you started:

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Image credit: freeminds @ deviantART

Happy Punctuation Day!

Punctuation marks

Well, in honour of this very special day, I would like to share a few lesser-known punctuation marks with you.


First, let’s meet the caret. Not to be confused with the kind of carats you look for in gold. The caret is also known as a wedge, a circumflex, or a hat (chapeau in French). It looks like this:

The caret comes from Latin and means “it lacks” — this is fitting because in proofreading a caret is often used to signify that something is missing from the original text and should be inserted in the spot the caret points to.


Many of us are likely familiar with the pilcrow, but never knew it was called that. It is sometimes referred to as a blind P, a paragraph mark, or an alinea. A pilcrow is a funny-looking backward-P with two vertical lines. It looks like this:

The pilcrow comes from the Middle Ages and was used by specialized scribes, known as rubricators (who were essentially early desktop publishers), to indicate a new train of thought. This was before the use of distinct paragraphs became the default.


And finally, let’s meet the interrobang, a more modern piece of punctuation that combines an exclamation mark with a question mark. It has really taken off in recent years and here’s what it looks like:

Depending of whether or not you watch Mad Men, you may or may not be surprised to find out that an advertising executive came up with the interrobang in the 1960s. While it is not generally used in formal writing, it is a great way to express excitement and disbelief or ask a rhetorical question.

So enjoy this day and make sure you punctuate it with all the enthusiasm it deserves!


Image credit: Dzmitry Lameika / PhotoXpress.com

The Complicated World of Commas


First of all, I want to say Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers! I hope the weather where you are is as nice as it is here in the nation’s capital.

And now, dear readers, the moment I know some of you have been waiting for. Today we are going to talk about commas.

Unlike other types of punctuation, the comma is the most versatile, which is perhaps what causes the anxiety some people feel about using commas correctly. In addition, not all grammarians agree on certain uses of the comma, such as the serial comma, which can further add to the confusion. Today, I will attempt to bring a little clarity to this subject. So let’s get started!

The most important thing to remember about the comma is that it’s used to indicate the smallest break in a sentence, which translates into a slight pause when read aloud. (You can contrast this with the longer pauses indicated by a semicolon or a period.) Here are a few rules to help you out:

Separating Elements

A comma can be used to denote an element in a sentence, which includes individual nouns and adjectives, appositives, and descriptive phrases. When used in this manner, you should place one comma on either side of the element, like so:

  • The sign said we had just entered Transylvania, Saskatchewan.
  • Igor, who was a strange little man, answered the door.

Likewise, if you are listing items in a series or using two or more adjectives before a noun, you should separate those items with commas, as in the following examples:

  • The doctor asked us to bring a staple gun, sutures, bubble gum, and jumper cables.
  • Frankenstein’s lab was dark, musty, and littered with limbs.

A serial comma, or Oxford comma, is when you place a comma before the conjunction joining the last two items in a series of three or more elements. Some people frown about this use, but the idea behind a serial comma is to remove any ambiguity. Check out both versions of the following example:

  • The doctor had invited Gertrude, Marcus, Helga, his mother and his ex-wife.
  • The doctor had invited Gertrude, Marcus, Helga, his mother, and his ex-wife.

Note how the serial comma clarifies the meaning. In the first example, it kind of sounds like Helga is the doctor’s mother and also his ex-wife. In the second example, it’s much clearer that those are actually three different people.

Which and That

Which and that is probably a whole other post, but this often trips people up, so let’s look at it briefly. The word that is often used to introduce a restrictive relative clause, which contains information that is essential to the sentence. Restrictive clauses never require a comma. On the other hand, the word which is often used to introduce a non-restrictive relative clause, which could be left out without affecting the sentence. Non-restrictive clauses do require a comma. Here are examples of each:

  • The brain that Igor placed in the monster’s head was the final step.
  • The experiment, which had cost Frankenstein dearly, was a success!

Independent and Dependent Clauses

Commas are generally used to separate independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction. (If the clauses are very short, it’s okay to leave out the comma.)

  • The lights in the castle flickered wildly, and the monster sat up.

In dependent clauses, a comma should be used when the dependent clause comes before the main clause. However, if the dependent clause follows the main clause, a comma is not used. See the following examples:

  • When the monster broke free from his restraints, Frankenstein’s audience began to scream.
  • Frankenstein’s audience began to scream when the monster broke free from his restraints.

Exclamations, Introductions and Direct Addresses

Commas are also used to set off words that are exclamatory (Oh, crap!), introductory (Well then, we’d better fetch our pitchforks.), or in direct addresses (Dr. Frankenstein, your cadaver has gone AWOL.).

And that, dear readers, is an overview of the comma. If you still find yourself confused about when and where to place a comma, my suggestion is to read the sentence out loud. Where did you pause naturally? That’s probably where the comma should go.


Image credit: chrisharvey / Photoxpress.com

A is for…

letter A

My dearest readers, I have been negligent in my duties as a Blogmistress. In my defence, a pile of work topped with a monstrous migraine may have had something to do with it.

In any case, today I’d like to introduce a new feature to my language posts. I’m going to call it my Vocabulary Series. It’s a simple concept. I’m going to work through the alphabet (in, well, alphabetical order), presenting two words from each letter in each post. I will review the etymology of the word, along with its definition, and then I will use it in at least one sentence. That’s it.

I do, however, want to encourage all of you to submit words you would like to see in this series.

Okay, so without further ado, here is the first word of this series:

Agony (noun)

Etymology: Comes from the Old French agonie or late Latin agonia, which came from the Greek agonia, meaning contest or mental struggle. This likely related to the Olympic games (or other games of competition), as the Greek word agon means to assemble for a contest. Its use to refer to mental anguish first appeared in the 14th century, followed by its use to refer to extreme physical suffering in the 16th century.

Definition: Anguish of the mind; extreme physical or mental suffering; death struggle; the final stages of a difficult or painful death

Example: The agony of trying to choose between a chocolate éclair and a profiterole was nearly too much for the Duchess to bear.

Example 2: Watching the Duchess through the window, the starving vampire’s body was wracked with agony.


And of course, given the title of my blog, it wouldn’t be right to touch on “A” and not look at the following word:

Apostrophe (noun)

Etymology: Adopted from the French apostrophe, which comes from the late Latin apostrophus, which was in turn adopted from the late Greek apostrophos, meaning turning away to one in particular. This came from the words apo, meaning away, and strephein, meaning turn.

Definition: A punctuation mark (’) used to indicate either possession or the omission of letters or numbers; omission of a sound or letter

Example: Nothing gets my goat more than a misplaced apostrophe.


Etymological information and definitions come from the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological English, the Oxford Dictionaries Online and the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Image credits: “a” courtesy of high_resolution / Photoxpress.com;
Apostrophe courtesy of
 Google Images

Quizzical About Question Marks?


Ah, the question mark. A staple of English punctuation, wouldn’t you say?

As far as punctuation goes, question marks are pretty straightforward. However, as with most things related to our lovely language, there are a few rules regarding their usage. So let’s get started.

A question mark, you may be shocked to discover, is used to indicate a question.

  • How did Icarus burn his wings?

It can also be used to express something called editorial doubt, which does not refer to an editor’s existential crisis (at least not usually). Editorial doubt refers to uncertainty about a fact, typically an unknown date, but any unknown fact can be flagged in this manner. Check it out:

  • Achilles’ lesser-known sibling was said to have had an (Achilles?) thumb. (Unfortunately, he decided to become a carpenter.)

Finally, question marks can also be used in declarative or imperative sentences to indicate disbelief, surprise or uncertainty.

  • Oedipus, she isn’t really your wife?

Now, here are some rules about when and how to use question marks.

If the question is contained within the sentence, you can use a question mark at that point and the following word does not need to be capitalized. For example:

  • Is Zeus really my father? she wondered.

If the question is indirect, it does not take a question mark. Compare the following examples:

  • Prometheus wondered whether the eagle would return again tomorrow.
  • Do I really want to eat liver again? the eagle wondered the following day.

And if the question is within a sentence, but is only one word (who, how, why, etc.), it doesn’t require a question mark, though it can be italicized to clarify meaning for the reader.

  • The question was no longer if but when Medusa would turn him to stone.

Similarly, if a request is presented in question form, it does not require a question mark.

  • Would you kindly ask your centaurs to stop eating my lawn.

Finally, when it comes to using a question mark along with other punctuation, such as parentheses or quotation marks, the question mark should go inside if it applies to the quoted/parenthetical material — but it should go outside if it does not. Compare the following examples:

  • “Who’s a good boy?” Hades asked, patting Cerberus on the head.
  • Hades, are you going to pick up after your hellhound (who’s left behind a smell worse than the Underworld)?

And that, dear readers, should answer all your unanswered questions about question marks!


Image credit: Freddy / Photoxpress.com