Tricky little things, -ing words. Writers often use them in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons, and they can turn serious situations into farce quite unintentionally.
The -ing ending occurs in different guises.
It’s part of a verb. That’s the present participle, used in continuous tenses both past and present (I’m loving it, I was enjoying it), and also frequently used as a sort of shorthand (The men watching the cricket cheered = The men who were watching the cricket cheered.)
There’s the gerund, where what is part of a verb plays at being a noun (the first sitting for lunch; my knitting is full of holes; bread and dripping).
If you use it as a verb, the –ing word has to have a subject. Use it as a noun, and it doesn’t – it is the subject.
You cannot have a present participle without a subject.
Running to catch the bus, the street shone with rain. Who is running? Not the street. There’s no subject here.
Shining in the puddles, Mark ran for the bus. Again, the subject – Mark – doesn’t belong to the participle. He’s not shining—he’s running.
Catching his breath, Mark ran for the bus. That’s better; Mark is the subject of all the actions. But see simultaneous actions below.
Reading is good for the brain as walking is good for the body.
It’s the equivalent of saying carrots are good for the eyesight. In the first part, reading and walking are gerunds, or verbal nouns. The line does not say that ‘you are reading’ or ‘you are walking’, but that the activities of reading and walking are beneficial. No specific person is implied – it’s a general statement.
Reading and walking are good for you. Carrots and broccoli are good for you.
But Reading and walking is not recommended.
Here reading and walking have both become verbs, and the combination of the two – that single is shows they have been bound together as simultaneous actions – alters the meaning. It’s the shorthand approach I mentioned earlier: Reading a book while you are walking is not recommended (which is not to say that it’s impossible.)
Some simultaneous actions should be used with care.
Walking across the road he ran up the steps. This is a physical impossibility. He can’t walk and run at the same time. There are (presumably) no steps in the road. Walking is a continuous state; he’s got to stop walking and start running up the steps. If you add while, you’ll see it more clearly: While walking across the road he ran up the steps. Not possible. He walked across the road and ran up the steps. These are two separate actions, and therefore acceptable.
Walking across the road he took out his phone. Yes, he can walk and put his hand in his pocket for his phone at the same time.
Continuous tenses need care too.
She watched them walking together, cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Who is doing the joke-cracking and smiling? It’s not clear. She could be smiling at their happiness; they could be cracking jokes. Maybe she does both. The continuous verbs need subjects – we need to know who owns which action. She watched them walking together and cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Better: we know that they are walking and cracking jokes, but the smiling is still slightly ambiguous. Better to change it to and smiled – we have her previous action described in the past tense, so this one will match it.
Cantering up the drive he swept her into his arms, closing the door with one booted foot. Multi-tasking heroes are one thing, but impersonating a horse is quite another. Make sure you aren’t making a laughing stock of the poor man.
Apostrophes are used to show that something is missing. That’s it. No magic, nothing difficult, no reason to worry: their job is to mark a gap. They are never, ever used for plurals.
If you read, He went to speak to the dog’s, you would – and should – ask, the dog’s what? That’s how you know it’s wrong: if you can ask what? and expect an answer – the dog’s owner – then it’s not a plural, it’s a possessive. If the man went to speak to the dogs, you wouldn’t be prompted to ask what. That, which, who – you could add all of those and more, but not what.
The woodsman cut down the tree’s. The tree’s what? What part of the tree? The woodsman cut down the trees.
Keeping up with the Jones’s. The Jones’s what? Their speed-walking butler? Keeping up with the Joneses.
They are used when to be, to have and to do are shortened. We’ve grown lazy; we join the verb to the pronoun and knock out a bit from the middle for speed.
I’m, he’s, she’s – that’s elision: shunting two words together and losing a little in the process. When we speak, context explains what’s intended; on the page, the apostrophe has been invented to do the job.
It’s – ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. How do you know which is referred to? It’s in the context. It’s correct – it is correct; it’s been done correctly – it has been done correctly.
That’s, there’s – never used for that was, there was.
They’re, we’re, you’re – They are, we are, you are. Again, not used for they were, we were, you were.
I’ve, we’ve, you’ve – I have, we have, you have.
I’d, we’d, I didn’t, he hadn’t, we wouldn’t – you get the picture.
I’d could be I had, I would – I’d have had the fish if I’d known the soup would be so bad. You’d have done the same.
To recap: if you’re squashing two words into one, something has got to go – otherwise why bother? – and the apostrophe is the symbol that marks the gap and the change in sound that results.
2. They signify possessives.
The dog’s dinner. The cat’s pyjamas— the dinner of the dog, the pyjamas of the cat. What’s missing is ‘of the’, and the thing that is possessed has been moved from before the owner to after it. The sentence is shorter as a result, which is the whole point.
It doesn’t matter whether the object being possessed is singular or plural: it’s the owner’s number that governs the apostrophe.
If there were multiple dogs and cats, the apostrophe would move along a little.
The dogs’ dinner was put in their bowl; the cats’ pyjamas were stripy: the dinner of the dogs, the pyjamas of the cats. You don’t add another ‘s’ after the apostrophe: we don’t say the dogs’s dinner.
The dogs’ dinners were put in their bowls – the dinners of the dogs. The cats’ pyjamas – doesn’t change, because pyjamas is a plural noun (though the cats’ pyjama trousers).
The child’s toys – the toys of the child.
The children’s toys – the toys of the children. It would be wrong to write ‘the childrens’ toys, because you wouldn’t say the toys of the childrens. What happens before the apostrophe has to be able to stand as a word in its own right. The children’s rocking horse – the rocking horse that is shared by the various children.
The woman’s car – the car of/belonging to the woman.
The women’s car – the car of the women.
The women’s cars – the cars of the women.
2A (for Anomalies)
Its own right: here is a possessive that doesn’t take an apostrophe; if it did, it would be the same as it’s, which it isn’t. The same applies to hers, ours, yours and theirs – these possessive pronouns have come to be complete on their own.
3 Individually and collectively
The sister and brother’s cats; the sister’s and brother’s cats. The first says that the cats belong to both the sister and the brother; the second says that the sister and the brother each have cats, but they’re not under shared ownership.
The sisters’ and brothers’ cats – the cats belonging to the sisters and the cats belonging to the brothers; the sisters and brothers’ cats – the cats belonging jointly to the sisters and brothers.
My sister’s cat’s pyjamas — the pyjamas of the cat owned by my sister.
Shakespeare’s comedies; Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s comedies – not Chaucer and Shakespeare’s comedies, because they didn’t co-write them; they didn’t share ownership.
The King’s daughter, but the King of Spain’s daughter – the first is the daughter of the King, the second specifically the daughter of the King of Spain.
If the singular noun ends in s, it’s pretty much up to your ear to say how you use the apostrophe:
Rabies’ effects are disastrous, not rabies’s effects.
The scissors’ handles, not the scissors’s handles, nor the scissor’s handles
The bus’s brakes didn’t work – you would say it, so punctuate it that way.
Apostrophes crop up in other places too.
Let’s – an elision of let us in common speech.
Can’t, didn’t, won’t, wouldn’t – contraction of cannot, did not, will not, would not.
One o’clock – one of the clock, an archaic way of telling the time which we still use but without knowing it, because the contraction has replaced the original phrase and become the norm.
He OD’d on heroine. When an abbreviation is being used as a verb, you don’t write he ODed, or OD’ed, which would sound wrong if you pronounced it: odeeded. You’d say he odeed – so OD’d.
6. To recap: Never use it in a plural: and if you see one, ask it what it’s doing there.
When people talk, they don’t always finish their sentences. They can be interrupted, or they may tail off into uncertainty; they may speak for ages, or in short bursts. We’ve seen how punctuation can change the sound of a piece of dialogue, so now let’s have a look at other ways to use it to good effect.
Pauses and Interruptions
“What if what?”
“What if I can’t think what to say next?”
“Then use an ellipsis.”
“What’s one of those?”
“It’s a sequence of three dots – no more, no less – to show that you’ve trailed off.”
“Why not use a dash?”
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“—and I jumped in, just like that?”
“Exactly. That would require a dash.”
The difference between an ellipsis and a dash is clear: one sentence fades, while the other breaks off.
I could have the interrupter opening with a capital and no dash: “And I jumped in, just like that?” It would be perfectly correct; but I’ve written it to show the speaker finishing the other’s sentence for him. If he were saying something different, he would need a capital.
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, get on with it!”
That’s a new sentence, not a direct extension of the previous speaker’s words, so takes a capital.
If you have a character making an extended speech, one long chunk of text is off-putting; you need to break it up, but the punctuation has to show that it’s all in the one person’s words.
“The answer is that you have no closing inverted commas at the end of a paragraph, but you do use openers at the start of each new one, as shown here.
“That way it’s clear that the person is still speaking, simply because the reader hasn’t been told that she has stopped. The second opening set of inverted commas denotes continuation.
“The only time you close inverted commas is when she finishes speaking.” She pauses to take a sip of tea. “That’s a case in point. She’s still speaking now; but for a moment there she shuts up.”
I read a short story recently, which consisted of a conversation between two people. No-one else entered the scene at all. It was completely unnecessary, therefore, for the writer to go to great lengths to tell me every single time who was speaking. ‘Amy said, Dora nodded, Amy sighed, Dora twitched, Amy laughed, Dora fiddled with her cup…’ Why?
In a short story you have a limited number of words, and every one is precious. The author could have written an entire extra paragraph with what was saved by deleting all these pointless directions.
If you have two people talking, the sequence – if you have used your line spacing correctly – will be enough to tell who is speaking. If Amy has line one, and Dora has line two, then Amy has line three, and so on, unless something happens to change that. In that case you tell the reader what he needs to know, and go on as before. Don’t use movements as an excuse, either – it’s the same thing in disguise. If your character needs to scratch, fine; just don’t employ it as a desperate alternative to ‘she said’.
One last point:
All punctuation relating to the speech itself goes inside the inverted commas.
“If I write a line of dialogue”, she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go outside the speech marks”. Wrong – both meaning and punctuation. It should be as follows:
“If I write a line of dialogue,” she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go after the speech marks.” Meaning still wrong, but correctly punctuated.
The comma after ‘dialogue’ marks a pause in the speech, and so belongs to it, not to ‘she said’: it goes inside the inverted commas.
The inserted words ‘she said’ have their moment of glory with their own comma; they don’t get the full stop too. If I were to leave out ‘she said’ the speech would read as a single sentence, complete with its full stop, all inside the marks that point out that it is in fact dialogue.
It’s all quite logical really. Honest…
Dialogue and punctuation go together like bread and butter, cheese and toast, rhubarb and custard.
It’s not just a matter of following the rules, though they’re important; it’s what you can do with different symbols to make your characters really speak.
Each person should start their speech on a new line. This works as an unmarked form of punctuation – it’s simple demarcation. If you have two people talking, it’s clear where one stops and the other starts, so you don’t have to give each speaker’s name every time he opens his mouth. This will come as a great relief to your reader.
Speech should always be separated from the main text by the use of inverted commas. If you use double inverted commas for spoken words, use single ones for quotations. If you choose singles for speech, use doubles for quotations. Often the choice comes down to a publisher’s house style, so if you’re submitting to a magazine or a publisher, check their rules. Otherwise, make a choice and stick to it.
The reason for using dialogue is to wake up your story, and coincidentally break up chunks of text. If your characters’ words only ever appear in reported speech, you set your reader at a distance.
Davis told Burke to get out of the car and to lie on the ground, hands behind his head. We know what he said; we know what he wanted; but we’re not there. It’s not exciting, and it all seems to belong in the past.
“Get out of the car,” Davis said. “Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” I’ve moved it up a notch by giving Davis’ actual words. They’re in present tense now, so much more immediate. It’s still not exactly punchy, though.
“Get out of the car. Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” This sounds more like he’s giving orders, and we’ve lost the annoying insertion, ‘Davis said’, but there’s still no emotion. Now, it may be that Davis is a very cool customer, and doesn’t get excited in these situations; but what if he’s at the end of his tether?
“Get out of the car,” Davis shouted. “Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” Now we know it’s urgent, but we’ve got that insertion back, and it’s slowing things down.
“Get out of the car! Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head!” There: Davis is angry, or excited, or exhausted, without me having to spell it out. I’ve replaced ‘Davis shouted’ with an exclamation mark. The eye picks it up and the brain instantly translates it into the sound effect that I want because I’ve used the right piece of code.
Dialogue uses standard punctuation in some unusual ways, and it’s important to understand how it does it.
“Get out of the car,” Davis said, pointing his gun at Burke’s head. The part inside inverted commas is complete in itself, so why not use a full stop? This is a dialogue punctuation anomaly. ‘Davis said’ on its own doesn’t mean anything; ‘said’ has to have an object. It’s tied up with, and is completely dependent upon, what he said, so the two are linked by a comma.
“Get out of the car!” he shouted. I know ‘he shouted’ is redundant, but this demonstrates another anomaly. An exclamation mark is a value-added full stop pretty much everywhere else except in dialogue when, as in this example, it is followed by something that adds to the speech. As before, this information–who spoke the words, and how–refers directly to the part inside the inverted commas, so there is no capital letter at ‘he’; the exclamation mark has become a value-added comma.
“Get out of the car!” He gestured with the gun. Here the exclamation mark works as a full stop, because what follows is independent of it. It’s a different action, not referring the speech, and a sentence in its own right, so takes a capital. I could remove the speech altogether and the second part would still make sense.
The same anomaly applies to the question mark, another value-added full stop that can play at being a bit of a comma in this specific circumstance.
“Did you really think you’d get away?” he asked as he cuffed Burke’s hands.
“Did you really think you’d get away?” He cuffed Burke’s hands as he spoke.
Punctuation makes a huge difference, properly applied; and when it’s improperly applied, it can make a total nonsense of your dialogue, and undermine any effect you thought to convey.
Try writing your dialogue without any words outside of the speech itself, and see how you can make it work. No said, exclaimed, asked, or any other such verb: the punctuation must manage the job on its own. It won’t tell the whole story, but that’s not the point of the exercise: it’s to make you put down on paper the spoken words as you hear them inside your own head. If you punctuate, you communicate.
If punctuation had a union, the most vocal members would be commas.
They’re the over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers of the written world. They’re not allowed to do their own job, or more frequently are made to do that of others for which they are not qualified. They’re stuck, defenceless, where no punctuation should be, or ignored altogether.
It’s possible to read whole pages of text where the author has used only the comma and the full stop to cover all possible bases. It’s not a deliberate choice; it’s a failure to grasp the rules and the opportunities of punctuation. Worse, it’s letting down the reader, who has to struggle to make his way through the resulting mess.
This is a plea for understanding on behalf of these maligned little marks.
Commas have a role to play, and a vital one; they exist to separate things, but only up to a certain weight. Above that, something stronger is called for.
Nearly all sentences here include commas.
They mark off items in a list: ‘over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers’.
They come between clauses that can’t stand alone as separate sentences, but also can’t be left as one long one: ‘The comma has a role to play, and a vital one.’ Here the first clause is complete as it is; the second isn’t. They need a linking piece of punctuation, so a comma is employed.
You may say, ‘But there’s an ‘and’. You shouldn’t put a comma before ‘and’.’ Not so: there is a case for saying that if you have a list, as in, ‘I ate sausage, eggs, beans and fried bread for breakfast,’ you don’t place a comma between the last two items. If you do, it’s called an Oxford comma, which I use whenever I think those last two items are sufficiently different to warrant a pause. The disputed ‘and’ from my previous example introduces a clause, not a list. (The breakfast, I hasten to add, was imaginary.)
Confused yet? Imagine how the comma feels.
All too often a comma is used when it isn’t up to the job. In such cases a semi-colon, a colon, or a full stop should be dragged out of wherever punctuation goes when it’s on standby, and made to earn its keep.
Look at the semi-colon; see how it’s formed. It’s a value-added comma. It’s what happens when a simple comma isn’t strong enough; that tiny dot above it gives it a little extra oomph. The semi-colon separates two parts of a sentence which could both stand alone, but want to club together. The first sentence of this paragraph is such a case. A comma simply couldn’t do that job properly. A full stop could be used, but it wouldn’t be read the way I want it to sound.
‘The first sentence of this paragraph is such a case, a comma simply couldn’t do that job properly.’ See? That’s comma-abuse, sometimes called a comma splice. Call it what you like; it’s still wrong.
The colon is not used as much now as it once was: fashion exists in punctuation as elsewhere. There – I found a use for one. It could as easily be a full stop, but I’m making a point. What it could not be is a comma, but it’s amazing how many times writers force one to bridge such a gap. It’s laziness and ignorance, and it affects how the piece is read. This is all part of the code that tells your reader what you mean to say and how to say it. Get it wrong, and they will be perfectly entitled to go away and read something else instead.
The colon is a value-added semi-colon, or a value-depleted full stop. It creates a bigger pause than the semi-colon, and a much more important one than the comma. No capital letter follows, however, so it’s not bringing anything to a crashing halt. I could find another use for a colon: to mark the beginning of a list, for example. ‘They mark off items in a list: ‘over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers’.’
There’s a crowd of commas over there waving banners at me, saying, “What about speech?” That’s a whole new area, so I’ll get to that in another post.
That’s the thing about punctuation: once you start talking about it, you realise how much there is of it, and how poorly it is understood. I haven’t even started on question marks and exclamation marks, and they all want to have their say.
If punctuation had a union, it would be something to do with communication workers, because that’s what all these signs are for – to convey information. Darn it, there’s a dash now. This series could go on for a long time…
Let’s start at the beginning. The written word was developed as a way of recording something that has no physical presence. From the very start, it was there to tell a story: I was here, and this is my hand print. I was here, and this is a picture of me killing a mammoth. I was here, in this lousy wet, cold country, when I’d rather be in Rome.
Humans progressed from simple daubs to pictures to runes to ogham script, and so on; as the need to communicate and record grew, so did the complexity of the way in which spoken words or thoughts, or indeed actions, were represented. While spelling may not have been fixed, the letters and words had to be recognisable to more than just the writer’s intimates. The written language began to be formalised, and more unified, in the hands of scribes and monks. It became a tool of church and state, which demonstrates its importance. A man dictating a letter in England wanted it to be read in York or Rome: to do that, it had to follow rules that the readers in those places would also comprehend.
Move on a few centuries: printing has taken care of the forms of the words so successfully that people are writing for pleasure as well as for matters of business, law, or religion. Now there’s a desire to convey nuance as well as simple meaning. There’s a need to clarify, to avoid misunderstanding. Words that run together can be read wrongly, unless there’s a way of making certain that there can be no misconstruction – and that’s where punctuation comes in.
If you were writing a piece of music, you’d give all the instructions necessary, using the internationally accepted code, for any orchestra anywhere to reproduce the tune the way you heard it, and the way you wanted the audience to hear it. Anyone playing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does so as he intended: ‘da da da DUM, da da da Dum’, not ‘diddly dum, diddly dum’, because he told them exactly how to do it. He gave them the key, a time signature, the length of the individual notes, and spacing.
If you wrote a piece of computer code, you would have to get it right, or the machine for which it was intended wouldn’t function. (Everyone who owns a computer knows how much fun that is.) The same applies to the written word.
Punctuation is just such a piece of code: it’s there to provide information. It tells you, for example, not only that there is speech, but how it is spoken; you know that the speaker tails off, or asks a question, or exclaims. It divides lines of text up into usable chunks with pauses of different lengths, just as they would be when spoken. It’s a way of moving the prose along, by marking out what belongs together and what should be kept separate.
When we read silently, we hear the words inside our heads. We provide the soundtrack. For precisely that reason, the writer has to give us all the clues available to him to tell us how to make the work sound as he intended. He uses the code. It may vary according to the language in which he writes, but every language has the same idea – to provide the information necessary to reproduce the work as it was conceived.
No-one ever hears your work in your voice; they hear it in theirs, like a dubbed film. If you have ever watched the credits of such a production, you’ll see two cast lists – one for the actors, dumbly moving about on the screen, and one for the voices of people you will never see. The vital thing is that the dubbed voices match the original for content and meaning, even if the syncing is off. The same applies to a reader’s version of your work; it is still yours, and it should say what you meant it to say – it’s just got a different voice-over.
So unless you want your sweated-over novel to come out sounding like a badly-dubbed film, or Beethoven’s Fifth opening like the theme for ‘Captain Pugwash’, get it right; give the reader all the clues. Make friends with punctuation. It really isn’t your enemy.