Grammar: Why it’s Greek to me

img_6502 (1)A sweet New Year’s revelation: my spiritual studies and my grammar studies can overlap. At the end of the year, I was taking stock of my daily Bible-reading habit and realized it left me wanting … more. Yes, I read through the Bible again in 2018, but I wasn’t sure I’d gotten as much out of the reading as I would have liked. Then I remembered that a friend had passed along a Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible she no longer wanted. What if I tried reading that during my morning devotions? Couldn’t hurt, might help, I decided.

I also started reading with a notebook at hand to write down observations about the scriptures I read each morning. So far, my Bible-reading plan has me in Genesis in the Old Testament and Matthew in the new, and I have yet to finish a day’s reading without jotting down several new insights I’ve found. I can’t help thinking that this Hebrew-Greek Bible has something to do with these new insights.

This week, I found myself looking up the word “scribes” in the book’s concordance of Greek words. Imagine how it delighted my grammar-geek heart to learn that the Greek word was “grammateus.” The definition wasn’t especially profound (a writer, a scribe), but I did learn that the word could also mean “town clerk,” which was news to me.

The other big discovery? This Bible has a whole page of verb tenses that I had never even heard of. I was ridiculously happy when I found that, and I wonder how much time I’ll spend this year learning about things like the “aorist subjunctive active” (be still my heart!).

Of course, no matter how many Bibles I read and study from, I’ll be most happy if, at some point this year, I make some progress with the Christian basics, verses like Luke 6:31, and “do unto others as I would have them do unto me.” One day, I hope I’ll pass along a Bible to someone that will make them as happy as this one has made me!

The most suggestive notification I’ve ever seen

rewardsI realize I cannot save the whole world from poor punctuation, but in the matter of what we editor types call “direct address,” proper punctuation is quite easy to master. The principle here is simple. If you’re addressing someone by name, set if off with a comma. This is, again I say, easy. For instance:

“Happy Birthday, Jennifer!” (Not “Happy Birthday Jennifer,” no matter how many times we’ve seen it that way on Facebook.)

“Good morning, world!”

“No, officer, I didn’t realize the speed limit was only thirty-five miles an hour.”

“Would I like a Krispy Kreme doughnut? Yes, ma’am!”

See how simple it was to set off all those names and titles with a comma or two? Easy peasy.

This week, however, I signed up to join a restaurant’s loyalty program and nearly choked when I read the notification that popped up. It said, “You’re in Angela!” Grr. Grr. Grr. That’s the sound of me gritting my teeth. The message should have read, “You’re in, Angela!”

Gentle reader, the only person in this house to whom the words “You’re in Angela!” may accurately be addressed is my husband. And on the lovely occasions when those words happen to ring true, I trust he has not the slightest inclination to check any computer notifications … if you get my drift.

So there you go. It’s not “You’re in Angela” but “You’re in, Angela!”

Yes, my friends, punctuation matters.

Writer’s Digest: The 101 Best Websites for Writers

WD0617The new issue of Writer’s Digest has arrived, and it is one of my favorites because it’s the magazine’s annual issue devoted to the 101 Best Websites for Writers. Here are a few of the issue’s websites that I noted: — This site offers “grammar, etymology, usage, and more, brought to you by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman.” A perfect place for word nerds (like me) to hang out. — Love the simplicity of this description: “Burlington VT radio show about writing.” I plan to listen to these podcasts during evening walks and lengthy car travels. — I must confess, the name “Miss Demeanors” lured me right in. But the six mystery and thriller authors who share advice here will keep me coming back. —This blog apparently started in 2008 as a mystery lovers’ blog but now includes writing articles on any genre. It looks like good, solid info, so I’ll be visiting again soon.

and finally — Yippee, my favorite writing blogger made the list again! Way to go, Elizabeth! Love her.

If you have a writing website to recommend, by all means, let’s hear it!


Oxford comma in the news

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 7.30.55 PMBeginning writers sometimes express confusion when they first hear the term “Oxford comma.” I can almost see them thinking, “A comma’s a comma. What does Oxford have to do with anything?”

The Oxford comma, so named because it was preferred by the Oxford University Press, is simply the comma that appears before the word “and” in a list of items.

She enjoys reading, gardening, and cooking.

Use of the Oxford comma is preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style, the publishing Bible for those of us who write and edit books.

Another popular publishing style is the one favored by the newspapers of the Associated Press. AP Style does not use the Oxford comma, so those using AP Style would write the above sentence this way:

She enjoys reading, gardening and cooking.

Both those sentences are clear to me, but after spending the last four years teaching my AP Style–trained mind to “think” in Chicago Style, I now see the wisdom of the Oxford comma. What about this sentence:

Our sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.

Most of us familiar with American sandwich fillings would assume that the list was designed to indicate four fillings: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef 4) peanut butter and jelly. But to someone unfamiliar with our culinary preferences, it could be possible to think the choices were three: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.

To prevent a misread, we could write:

The sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef, and peanut butter and jelly.

Lately the Oxford comma has been in the news for legal and political reasons. Here you can read about the missing Oxford comma that’s causing headaches for a company in Maine. And here you can read about a bill in my own state that is causing some trouble because of a missing Oxford comma.

Do you use the Oxford comma? I do when editing books, and I don’t when writing press releases for organizations that plan to submit them to newspapers. And no, I don’t find it confusing to use two different styles. In fact, perhaps I might offer my editing services to the Georgia legislature!

No hedging

Do you know what a hedge word is? What about hedging your bets? Do you know that phrase?

Hedge has a number of definitions in Webster’s, and the one I’m thinking of is a definition for the noun hedge, the one that means “a calculatedly noncommittal or evasive statement.” Suppose a young man asks a woman for a date on Saturday and she  says, “Well, I’m not sure I’m going to be available that evening. Can I let you know by Friday?” Now she may be waiting to see whether her long-lost cousin makes it to town, which is one possible scenario. She could also be waiting to see whether a better offer comes along for the weekend, and in that case, she’s hedging and intentionally being evasive.

Hedge words can crop up in our writing, and we need to—how can I put this?—kill them. Yes, that’s it. Take. Them. Out.

As a writer and editor, I look for hedge words and get rid of them to create stronger sentences. I won’t share real examples from clients, but I don’t mind sharing a few hedge words I recently found in a sentence of my own. This sentence comes from a cozy mystery I’m working on and describes an artist who creates powerful collages from found objects. The first sentence is what I originally wrote, and the second sentence is the new and improved version.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 2.21.20 PM

See how awful those hedge words are in the first sentence? “Somehow.” If the author doesn’t know how, the reader won’t know how. She “managed to use.” Why not just “used”? “Find a way to weave.” Yuck. Just say “weave,” for goodness’ sake. I did decide I liked the repetition of “just the right element” and “just the right piece.” Because I whittled away those nasty hedge words, I felt good about keeping the repetition in the sentence.

Hedge words are timid little scaredy-cats that strip our writing of its power. At the high school dance, they’re the wallflowers standing by the refreshment table, the ones afraid to say “hello,” the ones who have zero self-confidence. I’m determined to make my words act like the prom king and queen, so the hedge words have to go.

So remember: If you’re aiming for powerful, clear writing, no hedging.