Thursday, July 28, 2011

Three Word Wednesday: Love in an Elevator

This week's Three-Word Wednesday words are banter, fumble, and glance. It turned into my Friday Flash, which I posted on Thursday. What a week!

Has this ever happened to you? It happens to me three or four times a week:

Love in an Elevator

or, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Office Park

The doors slide open and she stands there, watching me expectantly: the most beautiful woman in the office, if not the world. I step onto the elevator and my heart quickens as my nose fills with her fragrance. A part of me knows that she's wearing some expensive perfume, but I only want to believe that this is her natural scent.

I reach for the elevator buttons and see that the first-floor button is already lit. Of course — she has already pressed the button that brings her down from heaven to mingle with us mere mortals below. I push it again anyway, trying to look confident.

"Hi," I say. As beautiful as she is, she is no match for my witty banter. She will be in my arms soon.

"Hi," she sings as the doors slide closed on our own boxy Garden of Eden.


I glance at her hazy reflection in the brushed steel of the doors and deduce from the various foggy splotches of color that she is clutching a book to her perfect chest. My shoulders tighten with jealousy of that book.

I ask, "What'cha reading?" Let the seduction begin.


I turn my head and look into her sapphire eyes, but it is too much to bear. I lower my gaze to her long, slender fingers wrapped around the spiral binding of a blue notebook. The ring finger of her left hand, I notice, is enticingly bare.

"Oh, this?" she sings. "It's just for taking notes in the meeting I'm headed to."


"Oh," I respond, coolly nonchalant.

The elevator shudders and then stops. The lights flicker out for a moment and then glow dimly, casting malevolent shadows into the corners of the elevator. She abandons all pretense, drops the notebook to the floor, and runs into my arms. She's trembling in fright, but I sense from the slowing heaves of her chest that my embrace calms her.

She looks into my eyes and her fear transforms into something more intense and passionate. We kiss for a long time, deeply and warmly. For two hours, we are isolated in this broken-down elevator, exploring each others' minds and bodies, forming an emotional bond that I had previously believed existed only in books and movies.

Fourteen months later, at our wedding reception, I stand and tell our assembled friends and family the story of how our relationship began in a broken-down elevator, and how—


The doors slide open and she strides onto the first floor. "Have a good day," she sings to me, heading toward the conference rooms on the right.

I exit the elevator and stop, watching her walk away. (How I love watching her walk away.) My mind fumbles for the right words to say, the words that bring her back to me, that let her know how wonderful we would be together, how the great writers and poets of our time will write the story of our love, and how that story will be told in awe for generations.

"You, too," I say. I turn left and head toward the parking lot and a late lunch, wishing I worked in a taller office building.

Monday, July 25, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Semicolons

I have a number of editorial peeves that fall on the S list. I'll go after some of them later in the week, but today, I'm just going to tackle the semicolon, the chimera of punctuation. It annoys me that some people are afraid to use semicolons. They're really not that difficult to understand, and they are really quite useful.


I've been a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut my entire reading life, but he has given one bit of writing advice that I just can't swallow. "Do not use semicolons," he tells us. "They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

I think one of the reasons so many people have a problem with semicolons is that they're misnamed (the semicolons, not the people). In modern usage, the semicolon doesn't have anything at all in common with the colon except how it looks: It's a colon with a tail. People might understand the purpose and use of the semicolon if it were called, maybe, the semiperiod or semistop, or the metacomma or supercomma.

Why would these names make more sense? Because if you already know how a period and a comma work, these names can give you some glimpse into how this semicolon thing works.

The semicolon has only two uses: as a "second-level" comma, and as a "soft" period.

The Supercomma

If you've ever taken an algebra class, you should be fairly familiar with the idea of grouping in equations using parentheses, brackets, and sometimes braces. For example, keeping in mind the order of operations,

5 + 6 × 7 – 8 ÷ 2 = 43
5 + [6 × (7 – 8) ÷ 2] = –15

The parentheses and brackets allow you to nest individual mathematical statements, so that the final equation says what you want it to say. In the same way, English uses commas to group things together, so we can turn

Jack and Janet and Chrissy and Maddie and Dave and Moe and Larry and Curly
into the more manageable
Jack, Janet, Chrissy, Maddie, Dave, Moe, Larry, and Curly

But this still doesn't say what we want it to say. Nested within this list of eight names are three groupings that we can't separate using only commas. We need something more — in much the same way that the algebra equation used brackets instead of more parentheses.

Enter the semicolon or, in this case, the supercomma. It allows us to separate items in a list when those individual items themselves use commas, so that the following sentence can be easily understood, even to someone who has never seen Three's Company, Moonlighting, or The Three Stooges:

Three TV comedy groups who have no place on the silver screen — much less in 3D — are Jack, Janet, and Chrissy; Maddie and Dave; and Moe, Larry, and Curly.

That's the first and likely most common use of the semicolon, and a lot of people understand that. The second usage, though, is a bit trickier. At least, it is until you understand it.

The Semistop

A semicolon could also be thought of as a semistop (as opposed to full stop) when it's used for its other purpose: To separate two independent clauses* without using a conjunction. Why would you even want to do this? To show or imply a connection between the two clauses. To turn two statements into a single idea, showing cause and effect or some other relationship. To create subtext. Consider this:
Everyone treated the President like an old yet honored friend; only the President's friends could ensure that their children found work outside the mines.

See how the second half of the sentence colors the first half, creating motive and subtext, yielding a single sentence that tells you more than just what is stated in the two halves? You could use a period here instead, but that full stop would weaken the link between the two clauses. In the other direction, joining the two clauses with because would be too blatant and inelegant. The semistop — that is, semicolon — splits the difference perfectly.

And Then

I don't often see the semicolon misused. More prevalent is the use of a comma where a semicolon is called for — especially when then is involved. Take note: Independent clauses in a compound sentence are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet). Then is not a coordinating conjunction; it's most often an adverb. Therefore, when you put then between two independent clauses, it should be preceded by a semicolon, not a comma. Or you can write it in other ways.

Take the case of Albus Severus Potter climbing onto the Hogwarts Express to start his first year of wizarding school. First, he waves goodbye to his parents and his little sister Lily. After that, he climbs onto the train. You could write this in a number of ways:

Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family; then he boarded the train. (two independent clauses joined by a semicolon)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family, and then he boarded the train. (two independent clauses separated by a comma and a coordinating conjunction)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family and then boarded the train. (simple sentence with a compound predicate — that is, two verbs)
Correct: Albus waved goodbye to his family and boarded the train. (simple sentence with a compound predicate minus the adverb — if you really want to put a comma in there, read this to find out why you don't need it)
Incorrect: Albus waved goodbye to his family, then he boarded the train.

And that's it. The semicolon isn't a big mystery. It isn't some ancient rune or mystical symbol. It isn't an invention of sadistic grammarians. And it isn't anything you need to be afraid of.

*You remember independent clauses, right? A clause that has a complete subject and complete verb and that can stand on its own?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Friday Flash: The Darkness That Grows Within

The Darkness That Grows Within

or, Even Hypochondriacs Get Sick

or, It Isn't Just Depression

"You're just depressed."

"I am a little depressed, but it isn't just that."

"It makes sense," Don continued, ineffectually trying to slice through an apple with a plastic knife. "You spent a relaxing week backpacking through Vancouver, and now you're back at work. On a Monday. And it's raining. How was Vancouver, by the way?"

Arnold sighed. "Gorgeous."

"See?!" Don exclaimed. "As soon as you started thinking about your vacation, you smiled. Your face lit up. You weren't so depressed anymore. That's all it is: You're just sad to be back at work."

"It has been hard to get back into the swing of things. I can't get motivated to do anything at my desk," said Arnold, staring into his cup of warm soup as he stirred the spoon around and around. "But it isn't just that."

Don had given up trying to slice his apple and was spreading peanut butter directly on the apple's bright red — and now mangled — skin.

"I wasn't speaking metaphorically before," Arnold continued. "I really feel like there's something . . . black . . . inside me." He spread his fingers out on his chest. "And it's growing."

"Black," said Don through a mouth full of peanut butter and apple.

"I don't know how else to describe it. It's just . . . black. And growing."

"And it started before work this morning, right?"

"No. I first felt it Friday morning, the day after we got back. It only felt like a little, I don't know, annoyance then. Like the feeling that you've caught a cold but haven't really started feeling sick yet." He returned to staring into and stirring his soup, which seemed now the most unappetizing thing in the world. "By Saturday afternoon, I thought maybe I really did catch a cold, but I still wasn't showing any real symptoms."

"So you think you caught something on your last day of vacation, eh? Just in time for you to call in sick and put off coming back to work?" Don took another crunching bite of apple.

"I'm here aren't I?! I didn't call in sick!" Arnold let go of the spoon and pushed the bowl away. "Besides, I still don't have any symptoms. I'm not coughing or sneezing. No fever. I'm not bleeding out my ass or anything."

"Are you sure? Have you checked?" Don asked, grinning sarcastically.

Arnold rolled his eyes and gave Don the finger. "I just feel . . . I don't know . . . like there's something . . ."

"I know, 'something black inside of you that's growing'." Don rolled his eyes. "You're just depressed."

Through gritted teeth, Arnold growled, "It isn't just depr—"

With a sound like a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon, Arnold's chest exploded. Bone, blood, and flesh covered the table, mixed with the soup, and splattered the jar of peanut butter, Don's surprised face, the walls, and the floor of the nearly empty employee cafeteria. Arnold's body arched backward over his chair, his torn shirt absorbing the warm fluids that oozed from his open, mangled, empty chest.

On the table, a creature the size of a coffee mug shook itself clean, sending fresh drops of blood, bits of bone, and globs of Arnold's lungs around the room and causing its inscrutably black hair to bristle. One impossibly large yellow eye opened and stared up at Don, who, frozen in shock and surprise, still held his blood-and-peanut-butter-covered apple to his open mouth.

The creature's lips parted, revealing two rows of tiny, sharp teeth. "It isn't just depression," the thing said in a high, gravelly voice.

Don finally found the voice to scream, but the black thing that had grown inside Arnold didn't allow him to scream for long.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Communication Breakdown — Automobile Edition

No, I'm not going to rant about how horribly designed the tire pressure light on the dashboard is. (It really is, though. When it came on in my car, I had to go online to find out what it meant.)

But I do want to share with you two little communication-related nuggets of joy that I saw from my car.

First, on the way home from work today: In the rearview mirror, I saw the woman in the car behind me make air quotes with her free hand while she was talking on her cell phone.

Think about that: Air quotes, while she's talking on the phone. And by "free hand," I mean the hand that wasn't holding the phone — the one controlling the steering wheel.

People sometimes get lost in their own world when they're on their cell phones.

Second: If you have a sense of humor anything like mine, these signs, outside Fazoli's, might be the funniest signs in Indiana:

Monday, July 18, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: R

Today, I tackle one (and only one) controversial element of language that we've all seen: Words that only repeat information that has already been stated, either explicitly or implicitly.

They are otherwise known as redundancies.

ATM machines. PIN numbers. Mixing together. Free gifts. Passing fads.

If you're looking for redundancies, you'll find them everywhere. But when you find one, what do you do? Do you whip out a Sharpie and "correct" it? Do you tweet a picture of it and quip about its creator's stupidity? Do you blog about the decline of editorial standards and bemoan the imminent loss of English-as-we-know-it?

Or do you store it away so you can avoid it in your own writing — or use it later yourself?

I hope you're the store-it-away type, because it's the other types — the people who deface, ridicule, and wail — who I don't like. They are my peeve.

See, what some people fail to recognize is that a redundancy is not necessarily an error. Sure, a redundancy repeats information, but some information is worth repeating. Redundancies can be used to great effect to emphasize a particular point ("first and foremost"), to create a sense of urgency or insistence ("Sit down and do not speak a word!"), or any of a number of reasons, including the simple fact that people just use a phrase that way ("period of time," "safe haven").

Sure, some redundancies are outright mistakes — slips by an author that she would happily correct if you pointed them out. And there are certain redundancies that we, individually, find appalling or grating (personally: "ATM machine" and "the reason why"). And that's okay. You're allowed to have your own tastes.

But the moment you latch on to redundancies and label them as errors for the simple fact that they are redundant, you land yourself in hot water.

There's more to language than grammar, definition, and syntax. Sentences can have inferences, subtleties, and connotations — in short, subtext. A well-placed redundancy can create that subtext, making the redundant phrase not only correct but essential to the sentence, and not just a few needless words that ought to be omitted.

Redundancies are like a salt shaker. Using it too much and too thoughtlessly can have disastrous consequences, including elevated blood pressure for your, er, consumers. But that's no reason to avoid ever using it, and you have no reason to be afraid of it. When used properly, it can enhance the overall flavor of what you're creating, adding just the right spice.

Just for fun, here are a few examples of what I'm talking about. The first sentence in each pair is bereft of redundancies, and also bereft of subtext and subtlety. The second sentence in each pair gives the same basic information but contains one or more redundant phrases. Notice how the redundancies alter the overall meaning, mood, and tone of the sentence.

Pick up those army men before the company gets here, young man!
Pick up each and every last little army man before the guests get here, young man!

In my opinion, you vacillate between being too needy and too proud.
In my personal opinion, you vacillate back and forth and back and forth between being too needy and too proud.

I vote yes!
I vote positively and affirmatively yes!

Is it necessary that I present only facts?
Is it absolutely necessary that I present only actual facts?

I'd love to hear which redundancies grind on your ear the most. Or you favorite redundancies (or, as @jadoogan put it, a favorite redundancy that [you] love the most). Or even some more pairings like the ones I have here that show how redundancies, far from being errors, can be great tools (especially if the examples come from great literature).

Comments are open!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A New Look for Logophilius

I wanted to redesign this blog for a while. For the longest time, I felt that the main column was too thin and the blog overall was just too green (no offense to Bruce Banner or Hal Jordan).

Occasionally I'd poke around online, looking for a nice-looking and free template. Last night I found one I really liked. It was simple, it was wide, and it was clean. My intention was to work with it a little on my desktop to see if I could get it to look the way I wanted it to. Somewhere in there, I ended up pushing the whole thing live -- everything, that is, except the header image.

This morning, I spent about an hour putting together an awesome (toot toot goes my own horn) animated GIF to put inthe header. Now, the image above may or may not have animated for you -- it was supposed to build up the layers of "Logophilius" one by one, and then the phrase "The Lover of Words" would fade in. That's what the animated GIF does, anyway, only Blogger doesn't really support animated GIFs. (Neither, I found out, does Flickr, which is why I now have a Photobucket account.)

But sometimes the animation does work. I have no idea what logic, if any, governs whether or not the heading will run. If it animated for you, consider yourself lucky.

At any rate, the blog is redesigned now. It should be easier on the eyes now, and in my opinion, it looks just a bit more professional.

Whatever that means.

I have noticed that the new template screwed up some formatting in older posts, though, and I'll fix those as I find them and find the time. If you find any fubared formatting, feel free to let me know (you can just leave a comment on the relevant post) and I'll get to it eventually.

And some day I will have to rebuild my blogroll. Some day.

My thanks to the folks at for putting together this Blogger template and offering it up for us copy-pasters.

Opinions welcomed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Q

I'll admit that I had a hard time coming up with an editorial peeve that starts with the letter Q. The obvious one is when businesses replace a qu with a kw (Kwik-E-Mart excepted), but I already covered that at the end of May, in the K list.

So I asked the Twitterverse for some ideas, and the Twitterverse answered. Or at least @WendySparrow did.

Questions in Internal Monologue

As @WendySparrow put it, one annoying choice that some writers make is "too many internal dialogue [sic] questions. It's something I cut in revision but my MCs sound like they're on Jeopardy."

It's a good point. Having a character's inner monologue appear as a string of questions is a violation of that old "rule" to show, not tell. A long list of internal questions tells us readers what the character is confused about, anxious about, or frustrated by, but completely bypasses the more interesting — and difficult — task of making the character act confused, anxious, or frustrated.

Writing a story is easy. It's writing a story well is hard.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: P

My continuing list of writing pitfalls and word choice conundrums.Find out what this is all about and why I'm doing it here, at the beginning.

Palate, Pallet, and Pallette

These three homophones are easy to mix up. Here are the differences and how you might remember them.

Palate: The roof of one's mouth or, more metaphorically, one's culinary tastes. Notice that it ends with ate, which can remind you that it has to do with your mouth.
Palette: The set of colors an artist uses in a painting, or the piece of wood the artist holds those colors on. Some of the colors on an artists palette might be considered pale.
Pallet: A small wooden platform, a straw-filled mattress, or a temporary bed. The only mnemonic I know is the process of elimination. It isn't something you ate and it isn't necessarily pale, so it must be a pallet.
Bob Ross and his palette pallet.

Prepositions, ending sentences with

If anyone still believes that it's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, they probably don't read this blog. Or newspapers. Or good literature.

Some have pointed, as a source of this non-rule, to Robert Lowth's A Short Introduction to the English Language, published in the mid-seventeenth century, and apparently popular enough to lead to multiple printings.

I admit that I haven't read the whole thing; I did some searches on the text in Google Books. The only bit I can find in this text that seems to back up the claim that Lowth was the progenitor of the preposition-as-non-sentence-ender "rule" is this, which begins with a quotation of Alexander Pope:
"The world is too well bred to shock authors with a truth, which generally their booksellers are the first that inform them of." This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style. (p. 141)*
Lowth isn't wrong in his belief that this sentence could be made clearer with a little editorial tweaking. But this isn't exactly the bold statement, "Never end a sentence with a preposition," is it? It amounts to no more than stylistic advice; moving the preposition, he says, would crete a "more graceful" sentence, but doing so doesn't make the sentence more grammatical.

Note also how Lowth writes "which our language is strongly inclined to," with that to rescued from sentence-ending status only by the deft use of a semicolon.

More interesting, though, is that on the same page (141), just one paragraph earlier, Lowth writes this:
The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the Verb at the end of the Sentence, or of some member of it: as, "Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with."
So not only did Lowth not create an editorial commandment against ending a sentence with a preposition, he included an example of when a sentence should end with a preposition.

So if the fake rule against ending a sentence really does spring from Lowth's book, it springs from a misreading of it. A preposition is a fine word to end a sentence with.

As long as it looks and sounds the way you want it to.

*Italics, capitalization, and punctuation for all quotations from A Short Introduction to the English Language appear as originally printed. I did, however, modernize the spelling, so that you read first, Preposition, and perspicuous instead of firft, Prepofition, and perfpicuous.

Pore vs Pour

Pore as a verb means to gaze intently, to read studiously, or to meditate steadily. Unless you're dousing them with water, thus making them unusable for future generations, you pore over texts; you don't pour over them.