Janice Hall Heck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

Archive for the category “Punctuation”

Dear Readers: On Flying Deeper into the Blogosphere

Dear Readers,

From time to time, I sit back and evaluate my purpose and progress in maintaining a blog.

Three years ago, on a lark after I retired from the world of education, I started my first blog, Janice Heck: My Time to Write. I tiptoed into the blogosphere, filled with beginner’s anxiety, to test the atmosphere. I joined Kristin Lamb’s little army of baby bloggers in WANA112 (We Are Not Alone) and launched out into unknown territory.

Feeding My Blog

At first I wondered how I could maintain a blog because these word-swallowing vacuums have voracious appetites and must be fed constantly. I thought I would rapidly run out of ideas. I also wondered if I had the sustaining power to keep a blog going. After all, I have been known to start projects, and then let them drop when other interests crashed the party. (Moi? Yes, moi.)

But look! Now, almost three years later, my blog is still alive, still begging for fodder, still holding my attention, still getting regular visitors.

I call myself an “eclectic blogger.” That is, I write articles or post photographs about whatever strikes my fancy: cats, family, travel, book reviews, current events, food, recipes, senior health issues, eldercare, grammar, writing tips, writing quirks, and writing “fix-its.”

I love blog challenges and have entered a number of writing and photography challenges.

My first A to Z Challenge (to publish a post six days a week in the month of April) in 2012 helped me prove to myself that I really could blog every day. I began to see myself in a new light: as a writer and a blogger. Since then, I have joined the A to Z every year and met that same goal. In the process, I have met many amazing bloggers and photographers.  Here are my three survivor badges from those challenges.

I joined other challenges well and enjoyed posting on them: Cee’s Photo Challenges, WordPress Weekly Photo Challenges, Post-A-Day Photo Challenges, and others.

Feeding my blog has been easier than I thought possible.

Stats Report

My stats look pretty good with 52,593 visits (as of 8-31-14) and almost 500 regular followers. I’m not a Jeff Bullas, a Kristin Lamb, a Bradley Will, or Matt Wolfe, but I have had fair success (i.e. regular readers) for a novice. My Time to Write has had visitors from 176 countries. Alas, Greenland is still white on this map. (Hint, hint, Greenland bloggers. I know you are there.)

Blog Viewers by Country-Janice Heck, My Time to Write

Blog Viewers by Country-Janice Heck, My Time to Write

Of course, no visitors from Iran have dropped by. No surprise there. But look at Africa. Each time I check this map, more readers from Africa have visited my blog. Amazing. English as second language (ESL, ESOL) readers pop up everywhere. I have had visitors from countries that I have never heard of until I started blogging. (Brunei Darussalam? Djibouti? Vanuatu?) Yes, Mr. Disney, “It’s a small world after all.”

Funny thing, though, the posts that I thought would be the least interesting have turned out to be the ones that people search for: grammar posts, “writing quirks,” and other topics related to writing. With the exception of one oddball post, Two Oceans Meet in Gulf of Alaska. Not., which has now had 15,279 hits, the English writing and grammar posts get the most daily visits. (For a sampling of these posts, check the end of this post.) Other posts have shorter term interest.

Decision Point

The stats on my blog dashboard indicate that my free WordPress blog is currently at 87% capacity (2667.67 MB). In other words, a decision point. Should I shell out some bucks and buy more space? Or should I morph into a dotcom? WordPress encourages me almost daily to do either of these things. Should I? Shouldn’t I?

Focus, Focus, Focus

Years ago, I went to a writer’s conference and met with an editor who gave me this advice: “You are a good writer… BUT… [always the but ! ] you need to FOCUS.”

He called me on my eclectic writing behavior, my tendency for random thinking, my propensity for great ideas, and, well, my many unfinished writing projects. How did he know?

At any rate, I see now, that he was right. And that is the issue on my current blog. It is eclectic. On the one hand, that is good because it has wider audience appeal; on the other hand, people who visit my blog looking for help with writing have to surf through all sorts of material not immediately relevant to writing.

Final Decision: New Focus, New Dotcom Blog

With T. S. Eliot’s line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” firmly in mind, “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…,” I started playing with a blog (Janice Heck Writes) that has been sitting dormant on my WordPress shelf since I initiated my first blog.

Now with my first blog pool almost filled to capacity, I have decided to officially launch Janice Heck Writes as a dotcom. focusing completely on the writing process and writing craft. My goal is to help writers move to the next level in their writing abilities, whether they be wannabe writers or published writers.

As I attend writing conferences and meet and read the writing attempts of many wannabe writers, I encourage them to keep writing and writing and writing. Then when I notice the randomness of their writing, I tell them to focus. There it is. That advice given to me more than ten years ago has come spouting out of my own mouth! We become like our own editors!

Posts on my new blog will focus on helping writers develop their writing craft using this formula:

Writing graphic by Janice Heck

While natural talent and a wide background in reading help create a good writer, a strong grasp of writing craft (grammar, usage, punctuation) helps build a writer’s power. Effective writing strategies can be learned.

So this new blog Janice Heck Writes: Power-up Your Writing! Build Your Writing Craft will focus on the specific writing techniques to enhance your writing as well as quick fixes for the most common errors in writing. I will also include book reviews and writer interviews that focus on building effectiveness as a writer.

Of course, I will keep my darling kitties (a regular feature on my first blog) in my posts as often as possible because their witty remarks often bring chuckles to readers… and extra comments to my blog. But don’t worry, my dear eclectic readers, I promise to post on this ole blog as well. Since I love the writing and photography challenges and the relative freedom of topics of my first blog, I will continue to post there. Gradually, I will pull my grammar, usage, punctuation, and writing tips posts over to the new blog.

Come on over and check out my new blog: Janice Heck Writes: Power-up Your Writing! Build Your Craft.  I’d love to see you there. Leave a comment if you have time. (Launch date: September 1, 2014)

Read the first post here: What? Another Blog on Writing?   URL address: http://janiceheckwrites.com/

Your Turn

So, what do you think? Am I making the right decision? Do I have any other options?

Popular posts of the past in order of highest frequency of hits. (Alphabetical posts come from the A to Z Challenges.)

Q is for Quirky Dreams, Susie Q., and Prepositional Phrases
R is for Reflexive Pronouns Cause a Ruckus
K is for Kernel Sentences: Nouns and Verbs Control the World
D is for Direct Object or Happy Birthday
A is for Adjectives, Anteaters, Armadillos, and Aardvarks
Hyper-hyphenated Words Make Surprising Adjectives
I is for Invented Spelling of Kids and Cats
“Don’t Use Adverbs.” Book Reviewers Use Them!
Common Errors or Effective Writing?
G is for Great Gobs of Gramma’s Grammar Goodies and Goofs
And more…


A to Z Challenge, 2014: Hyperventilating on Hyphens

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Oh Heck! More Quirky Writing Errors

June Casagrande, author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, titles her chapter about hyphens this way:

Hyphens: Life-Sucking, Mom-and Apple-Pie-Hating, Mime-Loving, Nerd-Fight-Inciting Daggers of the Damned

Many people would agree with that assessment. There are just too many rules for hyphens.

Hyphens get nine full pages of coverage in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Following an introduction of nine general principles, CMOS then lists out over 100 specific points related to words or phrases that need or don’t hyphens. That sounds like enough to make you hyperventilate. Let’s try to simplify some of that.


My sister just sent me a childhood picture of the six girls in my family. This picture makes me smile.

Kroey sisters. back row L to R  Joyce, Joanne, Shirley. Front row L to R: Beverley, Judie, Janice

Back row L to R: Joyce, Joanne, Shirley.
Front row L to R: Beverley, Judie, Janice

I can only guess at our ages in the picture: eighteen-year-old Joyce, seventeen-year-old Joanne, fourteen-year-old Shirley, eleven-year-old Beverley, seven-year-old Judie, and little five-year-old me.

Note three things about these ages:

  1. Use hyphens on ages. Omission of hyphens on ages is a common error in the drafts of articles for our community newsletter.
  2. Newspapers generally use numerals for ages according to their own style sheet. Use the style of the publication for which you are writing.
    9-year-old brother
    11-year-old sister
    3-year-old bobcat
  3. When talking about an age group, use a hyphen and space after the first age group:
    The five- to ten-year-olds had a field day at the park.
    The school has classes for three-, four-, and five-year-old children.

…talking to a classroom of six-year-olds about dinosaurs definitely beats talking to a room full of adults about politics.   WE ARE TEACHERS    (blog), “12 Reasons Teachers Have the Best Job in the World”

tumblr_inline_n30dmjBRVx1ri33kd classroom

Why add hyphens when using numbers?  To ensure clarity.

eleven year olds  or  eleven-year-olds

Is it eleven children who are each one-year-old, or is one child who is eleven-years-old? The hyphens clarify.

Other ages:  five-and-a-half-year-old girl, four-month-old baby, seventy-five-year-old man

Note: if the age comes after the noun, do not use hyphens.

The baby is four months old.
Sarah is ten years old.
The gentleman is seventy-five years old. (Use the hyphen on the compound number only.)

Use Hyphens On Time:

The fourteen-year-old girl took a four-week class on babysitting at the YMCA.

photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org

photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org

How about making spaghetti sauce? How long should you cook it?

But for those cooks in the know, breaking down a Jersey tomato into a five-hour sauce is a no-no….Blasphemy,” says Robert Bell, executive chef of the group that runs Gourmet Italian Cuisine, The Carriage House catering hall and Sweet Gourmet Bakery, all in Galloway Township (NJ). “A good Jersey tomato you just eat like an apple, in my opinion.”      Felicia Compian, “Gourmet for the Whole Family,”  The Press of Atlantic City,  July 23, 2013:

Use Hyphens On Sizes:  

a nine-by-twelve rug

Use Hyphens and Numerals on Measurements
12-story, stainless steel model of the Earth
10-foot-tall ladder

How much is civic pride worth? In Whatley, Mass., at least $650. That’s how much the local historical society spent to refurbish a 20-foot-tall concrete milk jug in the middle of town. The group felt it important the bottle be in tip-top shape because it’s the “symbol of Whatly.”   AP news brief, “Milk makeover,” The Press of Atlantic City, NJ, July 23, 2013

Use Hyphens On Compound Numbers from Twenty-one through Ninety-nine.

twenty-four,    thirty-three,      ninety-two,       two hundred ninety-two,    five hundred

Be sure to check the style guidelines for different genres to see how numbers whether numbers should be spelled out. Newspapers generally spell out numbers from one to nine, but even that is not consistent with all newspapers. Otherwise, write out numbers above 100.

On fractions:    one-quarter , one-half, two-thirds majority, half-inch

The boys ate three-quarters of the pizza before dinner.

Hyphenated words can be tricky, but if you develop an eye for them by finding them in your reading material, you will master them. For review, read my previous posts on hyphens:
D is for Deep-Fried Hyphens
F is for Freshly Squeezed Adverbs
G is for Gobs of Hyphens Used Correctly

And just for fun, here is a picture of my mother and her sisters. Mom is top row, third person.

Mom and her sisters  1930 maybe


Your turn: What quirky errors do you find in writing? Which ones annoy you the most?

Janice Hall Heck is a retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ.


A to Z Challenge, 2014: E is for Extra Exclamation Ecstasy

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910Oh Heck! Another Quirky Writing Error

When I was in high school so many long years ago, my girlfriends and I loved to dot the letter -i- with little circles or hearts as an expression of our creativity and independence. The boys thought we were just being show-offs and teased us, but we just laughed at them and their own sloppy writing.

Another fad was to use an excess of exclamation points at ends of sentences in love notes, letters, essays, and reports, or other homework assignments.

Sally loves Johnny!!         Sally loves Harry!!!        Sally loves Joey!!!!   

Sally loves Sam!!!!!

Cute, but oh so high school. Definitely not cute in adult writing.

Here’s the rule:

An exclamation point at the end of a sentence indicates strong emotions or high volume. It can also be used at the end of ironic statements. The Chicago Manual of Style states that exclamation points should be used sparingly to be effective.

F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly disliked exclamation points and urged writers to cut them out of their writing. “An exclamation mark,” he supposedly said, “is like laughing at your own joke.”

Genevieve Graham, in a blog post on entitled “Hurray a Blog about Excess Exclamation Points. How Exciting!” suggested that the ultimate function of an exclamation mark is “to provide an editor with one more thing to delete or replace.”

However, if you really want to be cutesy on special occasions, here’s a font you can use

Your turn: What quirky errors do you find in writing? Which ones annoy you the most?
Janice Hall Heck is a retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ.


A to Z Challenge, 2014: D is for Deep-fried Hyphens

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Oh Heck! Another Quirky Writing Error

Hyphens can be troublesome little pipsqueaks. You see them used incorrectly just about as often as you see them used correctly.

Today I went down to the 42nd Annual Flowertown Festival in Summerville, South Carolina, a street fair that covered many blocks on Main Street and much of downtown Azalea Park. The gorgeous azaleas, already in full bloom, filled the park with pinks, lavenders, and whites. Showy dogwoods displayed their white flowers. Beautiful flowers and beautiful weather. Perfect for the festival.

summerille festStreet vendors lined the streets and park pathways: arts and crafts, ornamental garden décor and wooden outdoor furniture, flowers and veggies, jellies and sauces, doggie leashes and outfits, gourmet foods and hand-made soaps, and much more. Food vendors claimed their share of the festival real estate, too.

And among the usual hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken-on-a-stick food vendors, I found the following items for sale: deep fried Oreos, deep fried Twinkies, deep fried Snickers, deep fried peaches, and deep fried apple fries (all minus a required hyphen).


Being a picky editor, I cringed about the spelling/usage, but I still ate a deep-fried Oreo, snickering all the while about the lack of hyphen.

Here’s the rule.

In a multi-word adjective (phrasal adjectives), when each word by itself does not describe the noun, you must use a hyphen.

These high-calorie yummies are neither “deep Oreos” nor “fried Oreos,” but “deep-fried Oreos” (Oreo cookies that have been submersed in hot oil and fried). Therefore the multi-word adjective should have a hyphen: you need both deep and fried together to describe this yucky incredible treat.

Obviously, rules for hyphens do not apply at street festivals, county fairs, zoos, and other food-filled outdoor activities!

Here’s the corrected, but definitely unhealthy menu:

deep-fried Oreos
deep-fried Twinkies
deep-fried Snickers
deep-fried peaches
deep-fried apple fries..

Here’s to your health!

Your turn:  What quirky errors do you find in writing? Which ones annoy you the most?
Janice Hall Heck is a retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ.



“Scare Quotes,” “Zombies,” “Dracula Girl,” and other “Unnaturals”

This time of year can be quite “dangerous.” It’s “Halloween,” you know, and you never know “who” (or “what”) you will see out there in the “dark forests” and “cemeteries” on your “lovely” evening stroll. Take these two “zombies,” for example. They belong to the world of “unnaturals,” for sure.

Zombies--varnamszombies- varnams

They “pretend” to be “ghouls” or the “living dead.” But who knows, maybe they just like to throw “scare quotes” around and paint their faces with black, red, and white paint (with a touch of green, please) just to add “local color” in their neighborhood.

Okay, I admit it. These two are “relatives”…just showing their “true colors.” And, no, I don’t think you want to meet them. They are a bit, well… forgive me… “weird.” We can overlook their little “oddities,” okay? But the “scare quotes” (overused quotations marks) are another matter. They get annoying.

What are “Scare Quotes”?

Scare quotes use quotation marks around non-quoted material to emphasize selected words for specific purposes.

1. For (unneeded) emphasis. “Greengrocer quotes”

“Greengrocers” use quotes about their “fresh” veggies and fruit.

"Happy" Pomegranites on sale today!

“Happy” Pomegranates on sale today!

Like greengrocers, some writers emphasize commonly understood words in their writing by putting quotes around them.

Scare quotes. Photo by Savandyke.worpress.com

Scare quotes. Photo by Savandyke.wordpress.com

Our new filters use fewer chemicals and result in “better quality water” in the pool.
Sammy and Bill are joining “old” friends on their Caribbean cruise.
She calls herself an “actress,” but she has less talent than a string bean in a chorus line.

But these are not scare quotes at all. These are, plain and simple, overused and unnecessary, quotations marks.

2. To indicate a questionable term.

On the other hand, Journalists, editors, academic writers, and other writers use scare quotes to let a reader know that an indicated term is not being used correctly.

The writer may be saying, “This is not my own term, I am just reporting on it. I have no opinion about it.” Or, “The writer I am quoting is using this term incorrectly or it’s the incorrect term.”

“Climate warming” has been identified as the cause of all extreme weather occurrences.

3. To indicate irony or sarcasm 

Correctly used care quotes generally imply skepticism, criticism, disagreement, disapproval, derision, even contempt. They call into question the truthfulness of the indicated word.

My brother complains about the “food” at the hospital.
Al Gore “invented” the Internet.
The “generosity” of that philanthropist is notorious.

The words “so-called” can be used in place of scare quotes, but don’t use both.

4. “Sneer Quotes” and “Smug Quotes.”

Sometimes scare quotes give off a bit of a superiority or sneering tone, hence the term, “sneer quotes” or “smug quotes.”

 “Dracula Girl” (Photo Caption)   WRITHING UNDER a “vampire” attack. Clarita Villanueva, 18, of Manila (Philippines), is watched anxiously by the city’s mayor… as she is held by a police doctor and a nurse. For the past 17 days since she was gaoled (and later acquitted) on a vagrancy charge, mysterious teeth marks have appeared on   the girl’s arms during her struggles with the invisible “vampire.” The Barrier Miner, May 28, 1953.

Translation: Hahaha. You really don’t believe this stuff, do you?

5. To insinuate but not prove. “Smear Quotes”

Politicians use scare quotes or smear quotes when they don’t like the language of the opposing party. Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic that

The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you’re insinuating.”

  • Liberal: We’ve heard about these conservatives and their tax “relief”.
  • Conservative: The liberals have proposed yet another form of “common-sense” gun control.

The downside of this practice is that it’s also a shortcut for the writers, allowing them to wallow in their ideological prejudices without spelling out their empirical premises. Jonathan Chait, “Scared Yet?”

Dan Bloom comments in his column entitled “‘Scare quotes’ having a ‘field day’ in the ‘media'”  in The China Post, September 29, 2012.

In the long run-up to the American presidential election this coming November [2012], an epidemic of so-called “scare-quotes” is turning political punditry and commentary into what might be called “a punctuation epidemic.”

So What? Who Cares?  “Irritation Marks”

Unnecessary quotation marks and scare quotes can become “irritation marks” to readers. If you write for a journal or newspaper, for your boss or your blog, or even for that little community newsletter, you need to be aware of how to correctly use quotation marks and scare quotes.

Avoid all unnecessary quotation marks.  An occasional scare quote is not bad. But when you use them so much that the reader gets irritated, that is not good.

One irritated Internet writer said it this way: “Scare quotes” “scare” the “hell” out of me.”

That’s how bad it gets!

Click on the following citations for more information on “scare quotes”:

Dan Bloom, “‘Scare quotes’ having a ‘field day’ in the ‘media'” The China Post
Johnathan Chait, “Scared Yet,” The New Republic
Daily Writing Tips, 3 Erroneous uses of scare quotes 
Grammar Girl, Quick and Dirty Tips single-quotation-marks-versus-double-quotation-marks
The Blog of Unnecessary Quotes.Com
Scott Thornbury, Q is for Quote Marks
Wikipedia, Scare Quotes
And of course, The Chicago Manual of Style.

And would you believe? Shakespeare supposedly used scare quotes.
Martin Harries wrote a book entitled, Scare Quotes from Shakespeare. Can you believe that? Check it out on Amazon.com.

The Last Meow

In the meantime, watch out for those “black cats” and those larger-than-life “conniving witches” in the woods. They can be “dangerous.”  “Happy Halloween”

Witches at Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ

Witches at Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ


Meow for now.  =<^;^>= 

For more Halloween fun, read more about these witches and other unnaturals on my previous posts:

Witches on the Prowl
Unnaturals Invade Grounds for Sculpture in NJ

V is for. . . Vampires Invade Grammar World

V-Day in the A to Z Challenge!a-to-z-letters-2013

Four days left in the challenge, but there are some tough letters yet to come: W, X, Y, Z.

Let’s have a go at V.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, author of The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, loves vampires, demons, gargoyles, mastodons, and other dark creatures of the night.

Why? Because she thinks they can teach us about grammar.

001 (8)Originally published in 1984, a new edition of this book was released in 1993. Evidently there were more monsters to be found in the deep, dark, dank grammar cellar. Despite its age, The Transitive Vampire holds the number 53 spot of best selling grammar books on Amazon.com. Monsters do not slink away, it seems.

Gordon has a positive use for the gnarly “menange of revolving lunatics” that invade her book, and that is to teach grammar to the wary. Even her definition of grammar has demons in it.

Grammar is a sine qua non of language, placing its demons in the light of sense, sentencing them to the plight of prose.

And the lunatics? Their stories and digressions lead through a formidable labyrinth, through the dark tunnel of myths and mistakes to the light at the end of the tunnel: pure and lovely understanding of grammar. A feat not lightly accomplished.

The creatures teach about sentences. Here is a little tasty bite for your chewing pleasure. First subjects of sentences:

 There were fifty-five lusterless vampires  dismantling the schloss.


The werewolf     had a toothache.
The persona non gratia    was rebuked.

Gordon marches her vampires and demons through the parts of speech (“verbs are the heartthrob of sentences”) up through phrases and clauses, and ends with comma splices and the creation of sentences.

Go ahead. Get this book and keep it on your nightstand. Read some of it every night. The artwork and the characters will keep you turning the pages well into the witching hours, and you will have such pleasant dreams about grammar. *devilish laugh here* *wolf howls in the distance* *skeleton bones rattle*

001 (11)

Gordon also wrote The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, 19981 and 1993. This book is guaranteed to entertain as you review the rules of punctuation you learned in grammar school but promptly forgot.

The Last Meow.

monster catMonsters? Demons? Ha. We can play that game. Check us out!

Don’t mind that other kitty. She’s just a scaredy-cat.

Meow for now.  ={`;`}=

cat is it Friday

Hyper-Hyphenated Words Make Surprising Adjectives

a-to-z-letters-2013Hello. It’s H-Day in the A to Z Challenge.

H is for Hyphens

Hyphens have been called lots of names: left-over punctuation marks, “the smallest of the little  hyphenhorizontal line thingies” (The Grammar Cat), and “short and sweet” as compared to the dash which is long and lean (Laurie Rozakis, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style).  Laurie Rozakis says that the dash and the hyphen are like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito: Confused so often they are taken for each other.

Sometimes called stacked modifiers, or make-it-up-as-you-go adjectives, these adjectives can be humorous if used sparingly, or annoying if overused. This is a “what-you-may-have-been-wondering-about topic” (Grammar Girl), or maybe not.

They look something like this:

  • He has a jump-off-the-page personality.
  • We went to a shoot-em-up movie.
  • I’m a pretty easy-going, live-and-let-live kinda girl.

Personally, I’m a love-those-hyphenated-compound-adjectives-kind-of-person! Evidently a few other writers like these phrasal adjectives, too. Here are a few samples.

So What. Who Cares?oh-my cat

Of course, these stacked adjectives can get silly if they are overused, but somehow, just once-in-awhile, a stacked adjective does the job.    This one, for example:  “my good-for-nothing, pot-smoking, boyfriend-of-the-moment…” (Heather Marie Adkins). Now that one just gets right to the point.

The Last Meow

Terribly Cute pic...cat attitudeNow to the really important stuff. Here’s how to make cat faces on your very own keyboard. How’s that for a neat cat trick?

=<^ . ^>=   Meow for now.

What’s your favorite hyphenated stacked modifier?

Common Errors or Effective Writing?

Sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences have gotten bad raps having been labeled as (heaven forbid)

common errors in writing.

But these two style elements should have a place in every writer’s paintbox.

Developing writers rely on basic sentence patterns in their writing because they haven’t yet developed the ability to write more complex sentences, nor have they learned common revision techniques such as sentence combining. Unintentionally, they use sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences in their stories, reports, and essays.

The result? Boring, ho-hum, unsophisticated, first draft writing.

Yet effective writers deliberately use sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences to make their writing stronger. What’s the difference? Check these examples from Sandra Cisneros and Shammai Golan.

Sandra Cisneros (1954-         )

Although born in poverty in Chicago, Sandra Cisneros, celebrated Mexican-American writer, did not remain there. Encouraged by her mother, a voracious reader, and mentored by teachers, Cisneros rose above the impoverished conditions that hold so many back. She graduated from Josephim Academy and Loyola University in Chicago, and then earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop program.

But college life was not easy for Cisneros. As a Chicano in primarily white college classes, she rebelled against the traditional reading assignments that just did not relate to her early life experiences as a Mexican-American. Out of frustration and anger, she chose to write about what others could not—her life growing up in a poor, urban, predominantly Puerto Rican Chicago neighborhood in Chicago—a place significantly different from those she read about in her college literature classes.

The result? Cisneros developed a highly distinctive voice that reflected her Mexican-American heritage, the voice of a poor, female child of Mexican parents growing up in big-city America. Speaking through Esperanza, Cisneros writes,

Everybody in our family has different hair. My Papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carol’s hair is thick and straight. He doesn’t need to comb it. Nenny’s hair is slippery—slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is the youngest, has hair like fur.
—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, “Hairs”

Here’s another piece from “A House of My Own.”

Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.
—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, “A House of My Own”

Cisnero’s writing captivates. It is conversational, warm, and comfortable, as if she speaks directly to you. Her fragments and short, choppy sentences slide out in a steady, smooth stream, but they fit her intended purpose—to reflect the natural conversational tone of her childhood. Just kids sitting on the front stoop, swinging their bare-feet, and talking about life and hope. Subject these pieces to an academic sentence-combining activity and the charm, rhythm, and honesty disappear. Her writing is not unsophisticated. It is a social commentary, rich in description about the truth of life in poverty. She uses sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences effectively for her own writing purposes.

Shammai Golan (1933-           )

Israeli writer Shammai Golan uses sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences with an entirely different effect.

Golan moved to Palestine (pre-Israel) as an orphan at the age of fourteen (1947), leaving Poland and the difficult years of World War II behind. In 1951, he joined the Israeli Army in the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict, the background for this disturbing and powerful account of an Israeli’s soldier’s agonizing death.

In this brief quote, Golan conveys fear, shock, disbelief, and horror using fragments and choppy sentences to describe the last thoughts and minutes of a soldier’s life.

The Uzi’s a good weapon. Effective. For defense. For attack. In face-to-face-fighting. But today’s Friday. And there’s peace at the borders. And I’m only on watch over their road. They fired. Suddenly. Why’d they fire, suddenly? In war one fires. People get wounded. Killed. In the War of Independence. . . .
I’m breathing. With difficulty though. That’s because of the blood. I’m all wet. Maybe it suddenly rained. Sometimes it rains in September. Even before Yom Kippur. And I’m already damp. And flowing. All is flowing. And all is vanity. And you can never enter the same river twice. The Philosopher teacher. A great sage. . . .
And the leaves fall over my body. Soft. Purple. Like the water under my belly. Soft. Warm. How long can one flow like this. An hour. Two. Three. . . .
—Shammai Golan, “Ten Centimeters of Dust” in Laurel Holliday, Children of Israel, Children of Palestine: Our Own True

Golan communicates the gravity of this tragic situation as the soldier moves in and out of consciousness, hallucinating, remembering, regretting, wondering. Truncated sentences and stream of consciousness thinking create a stunning emotional impact on the reader. This must be what happens when someone thinks he is dying.

Bad Guys Turn Good

So, yes, there are rules for writing, but good writers often ignore these rules in order to develop their own style. Short, choppy sentences and sentence fragments can be effective in writing for specific purposes. Consider your purpose in writing when you use them.

Narrative writing with dialog seems especially suited for these two stylistic devices. People do not normally speak in full sentences in conversation. Instead they use body language, clipped sentences, repetition, and reliance on commonly known information to carry their meaning. They speak in fragments and in short, choppy sentences.

Academic writing, on the other hand, is not the place to overuse these structures. Teachers and professors prefer the more complex sentence structures that demonstrate higher levels of thinking and organization.

Sentence fragments and short, choppy sentences are not such bad guys after all.  But use them wisely, as part of an overall strategy to vary your sentence structure. Tell your teacher or editor I told you so.

When have you used short, choppy sentences or fragments as stylistic strategies in your writing?
What authors have you read that use these two stylistic strategies effectively?

National Punctuation Day: The Common Period Makes a Dramatic Stand

September 24 is National Punctuation Day.

To celebrate this special day, I herewith honor a most humble punctuation mark, the common, everyday… *drum roll*


This homely little fellow is so insignificant it merits only a few small paragraphs in most grammar and style books.  It’s kind of a ho-hum topic and just a bit, well, boring.

Willian Zinsser commented about the period in his book On Writing Well:

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most people don’t reach it soon enough.

The period doesn’t even rate any cute nicknames, though it is sometimes called an end stop, a full stop, and a terminal mark. Lately, with the advent of URL addresses, it is called a dot. Those names all sound deadly dull with perhaps the exception of Dot. She sounds kinda cute.

Because it is so common, the period earns the Dullest Punctuation Mark Award. It is, after all, used far more than those other two boorish terminal punctuation marks: the question mark and the exclamation mark.

Only the King of the Punctuation Pack, the comma, beats out the period for title of Most Used Punctuation Mark. Of course, the comma does earn this by cheating. People (wrongly) throw in commas whenever they make a slight pause in their writing.

Whoever started that nasty rumor about putting a comma in whenever you pause needs to be hung up by their toes. Imagine the poor non-fluent reader who pauses after every word or two. That breathy comma rule only causes distractions and unfairly and artificially punches up the comma count!

But no matter. The period has hidden talents, and that’s the point of this post. This ubiquitous little dot has more power and cleverness than you might imagine.

Traditionally, the period has three jobs, maybe a few more if you want to nit-pick a bit.

  • It ends a complete sentence.

Apple Computer started selling its sleek new iPhone 5 this week.

People lined up at dawn to be among the first to buy this new iPhone.

  • It ends an indirect question.

Rachel asked Lisa when she purchased her new iPhone.

Isabelle asked her father if she could have his old iPhone.

  • It ends a mild  command.

Isabelle, turn your iPhone off and do your homework.

  • It is used with abbreviations; initials in names; and after Roman numerals, letters, and numbers in  outlines.

Okay, so those rules are pretty ho-hum, but let’s  take a look at what this common little black speck at the end of a sentence can do when it wants to stir up the action.

It controls time. It controls pace. It controls suspense. It controls drama. It controls tension. It carries emotion.

Did you notice how you slowed down when you read these short sentences? Did you stop to consider each idea? (Yes, I agree. I overused the short sentences here to make a point. You might not want to wear out this technique in your best-selling novel.)

The shortest verse in the Bible carries these features (pace, drama, tension, emotion) in two strong words and a period.

Jesus wept.    John 11:35

A period can speed up your reading and writing, and it can slow it down. Used effectively, a writer can hold you in suspense just by making a sentence longer, putting the subject and verb at the end, and delaying the period. (Of course, selection of words is crucial, too.) This type of sentence is called, guess what?, a periodic sentence. You just don’t know what is going to happen until you get to the very end of the sentence. Here’s an example from a song I used to sing in elementary school many years ago (not telling how many years ago that was!).

Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house             we go.

Here’s my little long-eared poochy friend to demonstrate how to show emotion (irritation and determination) by using periods. You can read more about him and his fellow pooches in the annual Ocean City Doo Dah Parade here.

I.   Will.   Not.   Go.   One.   More.   Step.   And.   You.   Can’t.   Make.   Me.

You are right. The above example is not a traditional sentence with all those periods. But don’t tell the pooch. He has made an emphatic statement, and he won’t change his mind.

Now a few sticklers out there thought I should mention a few more picky principles for using periods. Just humor them.

1. Put periods inside quotation marks in the U.S. (The Brits put them outside the quotes. Go figure.)

“Isabelle, I told you to turn off your iPhone.”

2. Put only one space after the period at the end of a sentence. (This is for you antiquers who learned to type on a SmithCorona!)

That’s it for now.


How do you use this little power-packed punctuation mark?  What’s your favorite punctuation mark?

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