On lying, laying, and eggs

easter-eggs-2093315_960_720With Easter just days away, I’ve been hearing about all the Easter egg hunts going on around town at local day care centers, elementary schools, and churches. And all this talk about eggs is a fine time for me to address an issue that I know many folks still do not understand, and that’s the correct use of lie and lay. Here’s my easy rule that will help you stay out of trouble: If you’re going to use the word laying, ask yourself whether eggs could be involved.

Lie means to rest or recline. Lay means to put or place something down, and lay needs an object. An egg is an object. That’s why a chicken can lay an egg.

“I was laying on the bed” (or sofa) is something I often hear and read. And I always want to say, “No, you were not. If you were resting or reclining, you were lying on the bed. You were not laying on the bed.” The one possible exception to this rule? I once read a book by a fellow who claimed he dreamed about wearing a chicken suit and woke up with an egg in his bed, but I did not then and do not now believe him.

So. You lie on the bed. You lay the blanket on the bed.

Lay what? You can lay the blanket on the bed. You can lay a book on a table. You can lay those Easter eggs on the kitchen counter. And if you’re a chicken, you can lay an egg if you wish. Remember, if you’re laying, you have to be laying something.

I do realize much confusion stems from the fact that the past tense of the word lie is lay. Alas, I wish it were not so, but it is. And I’ll save that topic for another day, because today I hope to instill this one simple idea: Laying has to involve an object—for example, an egg.

Need a nice visual to hammer home this point? Here’s a favorite. Enjoy!

Writer groceries

“If thou of fortune be bereft

and in thy store there be but left

two loaves, sell one, and with the

buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

— John Greenleaf Whittier


I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but I sure like these lines from Whittier. I first learned of them years ago in some book or other about teatime. I instantly understood the meaning, which is basically that we need sustenance for the soul just as surely as we need sustenance for the body.

And that brings me to the topic of writer groceries. Every year at this time, I find myself totaling the amounts I’ve spent on writing-related books and magazines in the past year so all these purchases can be reported to Uncle Sam on my taxes. Did I really need one more book about the writing craft? Or another book on plotting? And the answer is yes. Yes I did. I needed to know more about the mechanics of grammar. I needed to know more about how to write snappy dialogue. I needed to know how to create the basic plot structure of a cozy mystery, and all of these topics have come to me in the form of books. I have termed such purchases writer groceries, and I no longer feel guilty about them.

Few things make me sadder than to hear someone say, “I have too many books.” Do we ever believe that we have too many ideas? Too many moments of sheer joy? Too many hopes for a better future? Too many insights into the ways of the world? Too many epiphanies? Then we can never have too many books, because books inspire such things.

(I do not argue, however, that we might not occasionally run out of room for all of our books, but this is why God gave us bookshelves and Kindles, right?)

So if you find yourself purchasing a lot of writer groceries as well, I say, lighten up on yourself. Just as there should always be room in life for one more friend, there should always be room for one more book. Books are our hyacinths for the soul, and Uncle Sam will just have to understand.

Confessions of a book group dropout

Penfield women and booksI am so envious of women who are longtime members of book groups. I have tried to be such a member, really I have, but I have failed. I’m currently in my third book group and scared to death that they will learn my membership practically demands that the group disband within a year or so, but so far, so good.

My first book group, which launched about a decade after I graduated from college, was primarily a way for some old high school friends to regularly reunite in a neighboring town, so the meetings were by necessity sporadic. I remember that we read The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose main character I thought was whiny, and next came a nonfiction book by whoever was the Pope back then. While I don’t remember much about the Pope’s book, I don’t have any negatives associated with it, so we can assume he wasn’t whiny. But the high school friends were headed to different jobs and different towns, and our group—if not the lifelong friendships—fell by the wayside.

A few years later, I joined a group of local women in my own town to form a new book group. Our group included a fellow church member, a coworker, a friend of the coworker, and a new friend I’d met through my job. The book I most remember us reading was Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter, a dreary tale that I absolutely hated but which others absolutely loved. But some of the book group members thought some of the other book group members dominated the discussion too much (not me! I know what you’re thinking!), and alas, that group disbanded as well.

Earlier this year, a friend suggested forming an online book group on Facebook. “Great!” I thought. “If we don’t meet in person, maybe this can work!” I’m not sure I’m good book group material, though. I think most people are predisposed to like the book that is being read. I am predisposed not to like it until the author proves me wrong. Happily, I have actually enjoyed the first two books we read this year (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile), tolerated that so-so third one just fine (Still Waters by Viveca Sten), and am looking forward to re-reading the book that’s been chosen for our fourth monthly selection (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle). On top of all that, I like the other women in the new book group and am enjoying learning their opinions. So I’ve managed to remain a member of a new book group for an entire first quarter of the year, and I must say this fills me with hope. If any of you readers belong to a book group, I’d love to hear about it!

Up your game with some ‘Platform’ inspiration

PlatformLast year my critique partner recommended that I check out the podcasts of author and speaker Michael Hyatt, the former CEO and chairman of Thomas Nelson, a well-known Christian publisher. I did, and I quickly realized why she was so impressed. When I came across Hyatt’s book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World at an Ollie’s store recently, I grabbed copies for both of us, as I had a feeling the book would be helpful as we continue to build our writing platforms.

This book was an easy read, and I loved the short, snappy chapters. Hyatt works his way up from the basics (“Create a Compelling Product”) to the more practical everyday topics (“Write Posts Faster”), and on to more advanced topics that will be most useful for those who are already building a platform (“Embrace Twitter,” “Set Up A Facebook Fan Page”).

As you read this book, I recommend that you keep a notebook at hand because you’ll probably find yourself inspired to take notes about changes you wish to make to your own social media and/or marketing strategy. For instance, as a result of reading this book, I have already changed my Twitter handle from Tea_With Friends, the one I (halfheartedly) used as a tea blogger, to AngelaWMcRae, since that can be used for all of my Tweeting—and it’s my personal name that I actually want readers to remember.

Motivational speakers are a dime a dozen, but Hyatt has an especially winsome way with words. I found myself writing down some of the quotes from his book, things like, “Every point of contact is an opportunity to create a positive brand impression—if you are intentional.” Some of his recommendations are simply common sense principles I needed to be reminded of, but he also explores enough new territory to challenge me to up my game when it comes to marketing myself (something that can be hard for an introvert!). So no matter what you’re marketing with your writing—your books, your message, your products, yourself—this book will be a useful tool to challenge and encourage you on the journey.

The $70 book I’m most excited about!

9780226287058Or perhaps I should rephrase that, because it’s actually the only $70 book I’m excited about, and it’s the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, coming this September. When I was a newspaper reporter earlier in my career, I was well acquainted with The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the standard in the newspaper industry. When the newspaper I worked for later purchased a magazine and I became its editor, I began going to magazine conferences and learned that in magazine world, The Chicago Manual of Style was the standard in stylebooks.

I quickly learned that some of the CMOS rules were different from the AP rules I was accustomed to using. For instance, AP Style is to spell out whole numbers one through nine and use numerals for the others. In other words: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10. And did you notice that I didn’t place a comma after the word “nine”? That’s because in AP Style, you don’t use the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.

If I were writing numbers in Chicago Style, however, the list would say one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and so on, all spelled out up to and including one hundred. Did you notice that I did have a comma before the words “and so on”? That’s because Chicago Style does use the serial comma.

Now I’m aware every writer is not going to get as excited about a new style manual as I am. But as someone who edits books, I like learning more about the CMOS grammar rules, and I especially like being able to help my clients make their writing consistent with the standards in CMOS (pronounced something like “sea moss”). Writers who pay for professional editing may not feel the need to have their own copy of CMOS, but I would encourage any writer to consider getting a copy. It’s a wonderful resource, it’s the standard for the publishing industry, and it contains answers to countless questions that come up in the course of my editing and writing work. So when September rolls around, I’ll gladly pony up my $70 to see how CMOS has changed, and I can’t wait. Do any of you already use either the AP Stylebook or CMOS?

How to avoid a misused present participle

octopuspicWhat is a misused present participle? I’m so glad you asked. First, the present participle verb form is simply a verb with “ing” on the end, indicating continuous action.

• “I was writing.” 
• “The man was running.”
• “My friend and I were chatting.”

Those are all examples of present participles, and in those simple sentences, the actions continued to take place. The writing, running, and chatting were ongoing.

But for some reason, writers like to misuse these present participle verb forms and try to get them to mean something they don’t really mean. The sentences often go something like this:

• “Writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.” (Really? You’re able to write while getting up and making a cup of coffee? No? Then try this: “After writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.”)
• “Closing the door, I walked to the mailbox and fetched a package.” (“After closing the door,” methinks, is what is meant here. Unless the speaker has really, really long arms.)

• “Taking a sip of tea, I told my husband what I wanted for my birthday.” (Excuse me while I mop up the tea dribbling down the front of my shirt, which would surely be the case if I were to tell my husband anything “while” I was taking a sip of tea.)

If you train yourself to think of those “ing” verb forms as the continuing actions they are, you can see the problems immediately. You’ll also note that I like to mentally insert the word “while” before the present participle.

My favorite example of a misused present participle—several of them, actually—comes from a short story by an author I know well—me. I initially wrote this:

“Drying my hands on the dish towel and untying my apron, I gathered my pocketbook and reached for my old blue hat.” The woman who did all that would have to have been part octopus, wouldn’t she? I was so happy that I learned about misused present participles before I ever published such a dreadful sentence.

If you’re interested in learning more about this particular grammar issue, I recommend a fine blog post by Jordan McCollum, which helped me learn to avoid misusing present participles. Maybe it will help you as well!

When InkJoy turns to InkSorrow

InkJoy2I’ve been singing the praises of Paper Mate’s InkJoy gel pens for about a year now. I love to use brightly colored ink pens, and these gel pens have become the go-to pens I use for jotting down my daily list of tasks in my desk planner. The tasks are written in one color, and a check mark beside that task is written using another color. Some weeks I stick to two colors, and other weeks I’ll use a whole rainbow of colors. My favorites are currently Teal and Slate, but then this week I discovered the Berry color was missing from my collection and had to add it. So yes, I’m a fan of InkJoy pens. But I’m sorry to report that my InkJoy has turned to InkSorrow because Paper Mate had to go and put this label on my new pen: “For less smears.”

How, how, I ask you, does an august pen manufacturer like Paper Mate not know that it should be “fewer” smears? The simple rule is this: Use the adjective “fewer” for things you can count (such as my beloved InkJoy pens) and use the adjective “less” for things you can’t count (such as the smearability of gel ink). “Fewer smears” or “less smearability.”

Years ago, a friend commented that she appreciated Publix for having signage about its line reserved for shoppers with “15 items or fewer” since most store signs would have read “15 items or less.” I though she had a great point, and I smile and silently praise Publix whenever I visit and see their polished prose.

Every rule has its exceptions, however, and if you’d like to learn more about when to use “less” and “fewer,” I recommend you go here and here.

Meanwhile, I have removed the offending label on my new Berry-colored pen, and I’m happy to report that a state of InkJoy has returned once more. (But I do hope to see fewer such mistakes in the future, Paper Mate!)

Newsletters for writers

Newsletter collage

Do you subscribe to any newsletters for writers? I do, and I thought I’d share a few of the ones I’m currently enjoying.

• PW Tip Sheet. From Publishers Weekly, this e-newsletter includes topics ranging from the serious (picks of the week and Best Sellers) to the silly (weird things that librarians tell us people leave in books: bologna, paychecks, divorce papers). Sign up here.

• Signature. From Penguin Random House, this e-newsletter for readers (and thus writers) has as its tagline, “Making well-read sense of the world.” Again, you never know what each issue will contain. A recent one featured eight words “that have fallen out of the public consciousness” (including “swivet” and “gruntle”), a man who has never read a book by a woman, and quotes about spring. Sign up here.

• Copyediting Weekly. This e-newsletter is probably most of interest to those of us who actually commit some copyediting every now and then, but the free newsletter is so full of great tips on such topics as vocabulary, lexicography, and style manuals that I would recommend it to any serious writer as well. Sign up here.

• The Writers Network News. Last but not least, the newsletter I enjoy the most happens to be one with no glitzy graphics and just simple, helpful information. Its editor, Bobbie Christmas, was a guest speaker at a Sisters in Crime Atlanta chapter meeting I attended a few years ago. I liked her immediately. A lot of people these days claim to be editors, and since I’m an editor myself, I have to check out the quality of someone’s work before I can say I’m a believer. Bobbie, however, made lots of spot-on observations at that SINC meeting, and I have enjoyed reading her well-written and often humorous monthly newsletter. (At SINC, she also introduced me to a new word, “manuslips,” that I use for some of the funny errors I’ve come across in manuscripts. I keep these in a folder on my desktop so I can enjoy a chuckle every now and then.) You can subscribe to her newsletter here.

Looking for pleonasms

pleonasmLast year I learned a wonderful, new-to-me word that has helped me be a better writer and editor. The word is “pleonasm,” and it means “the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense.”

Here are a few examples of pleonasms:

• The woman squinted her eyes in the sunlight. What else would she squint but her eyes? Her ears? So instead, I’d say, “The woman squinted in the sunlight.”

• The little boy clapped his hands together. Two pleonasms are present here. First, what would he have clapped but his hands? His kneecaps? And can he clap his hands apart? No? Then the word “together” is not necessary. I would change this sentence to say simply, “The little boy clapped.”

• The man looked down at his feet. If the man’s feet are, say, poking out of his neck, that’s an unusual location and news the reader will want to know. Otherwise, it’s better to omit the word “down” and say, “The man looked at his feet.”

As I’m reading books now, I like to look for pleonasms, and I see them rather frequently. I find characters “looking up at the ceiling.” (Unless there’s been some sort of natural disaster that upends the house, where would the ceiling be but up?) Cookbooks tell me to “mix the ingredients together” rather than simply saying to mix the ingredients. (Mixing them apart would be beyond my skill set.) In business magazine articles, people are often “making plans for the future,” which certainly beats making plans for the past, but I wish these folks would simply make plans.

Did you know the word “pleonasm”? I did not. I knew to look for wording that was redundant, but now that I have another word for “redundancy,” I’m even more aware of ways to trim the fat from writing—my own as well as that of others. And if you spot a new pleonasm, I’d love to see it!



On jargon and flagpoles

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 5.58.22 PMLast year I attended a meeting along with a gentleman I’ll call “Mr. J.” All of the people at the meeting were community leaders, all of them giving up some of their time to help make our community better. But I began to notice that Mr. J. had an unusual way of saying things. When one idea was presented, he said, “Let’s run that one up the flagpole before our next meeting.” I took that to mean, “Let’s see what others have to say about the idea.”

Another idea was offered to the group, but Mr. J. thought it was too early to test that idea. What he said was, “Let’s not get too far out over our skis.”

When a final idea was offered and Mr. J. wasn’t convinced it was quite the time for that idea to be tried, he said, “Let’s put that one in the parking lot till next time.” By that point, I found myself trying to suppress a grin. I had started writing a list of his jargonistic expressions, which I imagined he’d learned somewhere in the business world.

The word “jargon” has several definitions, and one of them is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” Maybe Mr. J.’s friends and colleagues all use that kind of language. Surely he didn’t just wake up one day and speak that way.

As a writer, I try to avoid jargon. For one thing, it calls attention to itself, and I want my words to be remembered for their substance, not their unusual style. (Unless it’s a nice literary style. That would be okay!)

Recently I showed up at a meeting of that same group, and Mr. J. was not present. I missed his unusual wording, if not him. And I suppose I’ll just have to park my jargon-collecting skills in the parking lot until next time.