Using the Past Perfect tense: Lesson 1

Present perfect and past deformed
Present perfect and past deformed (Photo credit: _Lev_)

Who ever would have thought I’d become an advocate for a verb tense?

But then, who ever would have thought a verb tense would need advocacy  – especially one as basic as the past perfect? (I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about the subjunctive.)

My earlier post titled Had been there, had done that explains the basics of how the past perfect tense is used and how it’s constructed (“had” plus past participle).

Some people don’t seem to use the past perfect. Typically, they substitute the simple past tense for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of these people really don’t have a “feel” for how and when to use the past perfect. So I thought I might try offering some guidance to these folks.

So here’s Lesson 1 on how to use the Past Perfect tense:

The past perfect really comes into its own in fiction writing, where it’s necessary whenever the narration (typically in simple past tense) refers to something that happened earlier in time. For example:

He stepped outside into a downpour and realized that he had left his umbrella eight flights up, in his office, and the elevator wasn’t working.

Most people don’t get a lot of practice with the past perfect in their everyday lives, especially if they don’t read a lot of narrative fiction. When we talk about ongoing action in our lives, we use the present tense:

“I have a meeting with my boss at 9:00.” “I like chai tea.” “I need to buy a new cell phone.”

Or possibly the present progressive:

“I am finishing the report.” “I am waiting for the repair man.”

For things we are intending to do, we use the future tense:

“I will stop at the store for some milk on the way home.”

And when we refer to something that happened earlier, we naturally use the past tense:

“I’m going to have to reschedule because I missed the meeting.”

“Don’t talk to me! I’m in a terrible mood. The repairman was two hours late.”

Basically, this is the rule of thumb for using the past perfect:

If you would transition from the present to the past tense at a particular point in everyday conversation, then you should transition from the past to the past perfect at the equivalent point in a past tense narration. Or, to put it more simply: Present is to past as past is to past perfect.

Here are three pairs of examples to illustrate this (present tense narration first, then past tense narration.)


I remember last Friday.  I was in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late, and I snapped at my wife.  I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. I’m in a terrible mood, but I’m not going to take it out on her.

He remembered last Friday. He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman had arrived two hours late, and he had snapped at his wife. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time. He was in a terrible mood, but he wasn’t going to take it out on her.


I’m standing in front of the gate, hesitating. I meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of my mind, but now all I can do is think about how that strategy might backfire.

She was standing in front of the gate, hesitating. She had meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of her mind, but now all she could do was think about how that strategy might backfire.


When I walk down the street these days, I’m not looking at my surroundings. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when I noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

When he walked down the street these days, he wasn’t looking at his surroundings. It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

So this might be an approach you could try if you have trouble knowing when to use the past perfect when writing past tense narrative. Try recasting the piece of narrative in the present tense and see where you feel the need to use the past tense. It might not always work well. I had a little trouble with the above examples, finding ones that worked in present tense. It helps to switch to first person, and think of it as a present tense “reflection.” Also it helps to use the present progressive instead of the simple present. Sometimes that feels more natural.

What do you think? Useful or possibly useful? Heard it before? Let me know.

On editing and self-editing

Edit Ruthlessly
Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My husband and I are redoing our front yard to convert from high to low water use. Being situated in the alluvial zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, our little property is “blessed” with an abundance of rocks – in all sizes. Hence our brilliant idea: Do a rock garden.

So I’ve been spending a little time out there several days a week placing rocks to hold and frame the dirt for planting succulents. I place those rocks very carefully. The effect I’m looking for is not exactly a natural arrangement, but a visually interesting and attractive one. Sometimes I go out in the morning and rearrange some of the rocks I placed the day before – or the ones I placed several days ago. Sometimes I find myself sitting inside looking out the front window and thinking, no… that one would be better a little bit to the right, or, yes… but I’m going to need a bigger one right about there to balance that other little grouping…

Eventually it dawned on me: I’m editing the rocks.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. We have a string of little white lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Every year it takes me a couple of hours to decorate the tree to something approaching visual perfection  – and then I spend the rest of the holiday season tweaking the lights and rearranging the ornaments to better balance the sizes and the colors, and to fill those annoying little “holes” that somehow weren’t apparent when I finished the original arrangement. Sometimes I’m sure I move ornaments to fill holes that were created by moving ornaments to fill other holes…

Yes, you got it. I edit the Christmas tree.

I think I’m a natural born editor.

Given that I’ve been writing things of one kind or another for most of my life, it’s hardly surprising that I edit my own writing. In fact, I do so constantly. Sometimes it feels like I can’t leave any two previously written words together. It also probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have become, here in my middle years, a professional editor – for scientific texts. I do scientific texts because I have a background in science that gives me added credibility for that task, but I could easily edit other things. The only thing remotely remarkable about my being an editor, really, is that it took me so long to come around to it.

After giving the matter some thought, I’ve concluded there are three basic requirements for being a good editor (of the text variety).

  1. An outstanding command of the language.
  2. The kind of patient and meticulous nature that makes giving “attention to detail” a foregone conclusion.
  3. A clear concept of what the final product ought to look like.

Obviously I wasn’t born with the first. I must have acquired it, although I do think a certain amount of talent must have been involved because it certainly required very little effort on my part. The second, I was apparently born with – in spades.  The third has always seemed pretty obvious to me and not particularly difficult to achieve. My method of achieving it can be summed up in three words:  Read good examples. (Of course, if your client has a manual or style sheet he or she wants you to use, it goes without saying that you use the manual or style sheet.)

It is a little bit surprising that it has taken me until fairly recently to really appreciate the need to have someone else edit my writing.  Well, maybe it’s not that surprising. When I started writing scientific papers, after all, I always edited myself – over and over – both before and after my thesis advisor had put in his two cents’ worth.  And when the proofs came back from the journal, I never noticed that any changes had been made to what I’d sent. There might have been some that I didn’t notice of course, but basically I think I wrote (and self-edited) well enough that my work didn’t need a whole lot of editing.

In other words, being that I’m a natural born editor, I think I might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the writer’s job to get it right in the first place.

The trouble with this concept is, you can’t.

I mean, you can’t reliably get it completely right in the first place.  Not when you’re writing the tens of thousands of words – the dozens or hundreds of pages – that go into something the length of a book. The average essay or scientific paper is only a few pages or a few thousand words.  A writer who happens to be a pretty good editor has a fighting chance of catching all the errors in something that length, but not in a book.

Many people have noticed that we all tend to have trouble seeing our own mistakes on the page (or the screen.) You know what you wrote, after all. The fact that you didn’t actually write what you know you wrote can be really quite shocking when someone finally points it out to you. It can be positively mortifying – especially if you’re an editor, believe me.

Even when it comes to other people’s writing, there are certain kinds of errors that we have trouble seeing. The absence of small common words where a line is broken, for example, or the same word repeated at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.

Why are we error prone in this particular way?

Well, it obviously has something to do with expectations.  But I think it also has something to do with how our brains work. The brain is famous for filling in gaps in our perceptions to create the impression of a seamless and coherent world. Studies have shown that our visual systems only take samples of what’s out there. The fact that our eyes are constantly moving and taking samples, together with the vast amount of experience our brains have with interpreting those samples, combine to give us the impression that our minds simply look out through the windows of our eyes and see the world as it is.

Did you know that the design of the eye is such that the image cast by the lens on the retina is inverted, top to bottom, and left to right? As far as the eye is concerned, objects appear to fall up. Why doesn’t it look as if objects fall up?  Because, at a very early age, your brain learned to turn the images around.  It’s an amazing thing, the brain – quite miraculous. Right up to the point where that miracle prevents us from being able to see our own mistakes.

So, even though I’m an editor, I know that I still need an editor. When it comes time to get my manuscript ready for publication, I know I’m going to have to hire one. (And that’s not just me trying to promote my own profession.)

Talent: How to tell if you have it

Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute
Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute (Photo credit:

(Warning: This is a long post, and not for the faint of heart. No sugar-coating, here.)

The first thing I want to say is that talent is a gift, not an accomplishment. Accomplishments are achieved through effort. No effort: no credit. Using one’s talent to achieve something impressive usually requires some effort, maybe even quite a lot of effort, but a person with little or no talent may deserve far more credit for achieving far less simply because of the amount of effort involved.

The second thing I want to say is that there are different degrees and types of talent –  as some astute readers of my previous post pointed out. Talent isn’t all-or-nothing, and even in a given field, it comes in different flavors.  Within the field of fantasy fiction, the talent of J.R.R. Tolkien differs from that of, say, Ray Bradbury, whose talent is different from that of Louis Carroll.  A.A Milne and Dr. Seuss both wrote wonderful fanciful works for children, but those works are very different in just so many ways. Each of these writers produced something unique and special in its own way, and I don’t think any one of them could have done as well at what any of the others did.

What qualifies me to write on the subject of talent, you may ask. Well, how about half a century of trying to do things – of succeeding and failing – and of watching other people try to do things and succeed and fail…

Let me give you some examples.

There was always a piano in the house when I was growing up, and I tried three times in my childhood and youth to learn to play, at least twice through paid lessons. I remember best the last and most prolonged effort. It was marked by a discouraging rate of progress that stalled completely when I began learning to add simple chords to the melody. I simply could not get through The Irish Washerwoman (played at half-speed) without making a mistake (usually several). It seemed the need to play multiple notes simultaneously with both hands was more than my nervous system could handle.  My general lack of talent for things requiring manual dexterity was confirmed when I later tried playing the recorder (baroque flute) – on which you play one note at a time but using more than one finger for each note – and touch-typing, which uses only one finger at a time to produce each letter.  The bottom line: When it comes to rapid-finger-movement manual skills, I’m slow, I make a lot of mistakes, my rate of improvement is glacial, and my skill plateaus at dismally low levels.

Now contrast my experience with drawing: When I was in elementary school people started saying, “That’s really good, Carol; I wish I could draw like that.” Those early drawings weren’t that good, actually, but I guess they were better than what other kids could do, and I kept getting better at such a rate that the compliments kept coming. People would also ask how I’d gotten so good. I couldn’t tell them. I’d drawn spontaneously from an early age and I spent quite a lot of hours doing it, certainly, but I did so because I liked it. It wasn’t effort, for me. I was generally pleased with what I produced, but kept trying to do a little better because I just wanted to.

I had no art lessons as a child. While I took art classes in junior high and high school, those classes were largely just opportunities for students to show what they could do and experiment with different media. There was very little taught of a how-to nature. I did learn a few things in art classes at the college level, but I wouldn’t have been taking college art classes if I hadn’t already been pretty good at it.

Now, one could hypothesize that there’s something fundamentally different about playing a musical instrument than about drawing – that if I’d spent enough time at the piano, I could have ended up with a scholarship to a music conservatory. I don’t buy it. Take my father in law (not literally). He grew up in rented rooms above a blues bar in Pittsburgh before WWII. The family didn’t have much, but they did have an old piano. (I think maybe his mom gave lessons on it.) Well, he taught himself to play that thing by sitting down and trying to play the things he heard wafting up from downstairs. He had no lessons, and he couldn’t read a note of music. He played entirely by ear, and in a horrendous key that was all sharps, but he was good enough that when he enlisted in the army at the age of eighteen, everyone in his unit knew him as the piano player. He played the accordion too. Basically, if it had a keyboard, he could play it. But if you ever said, “Gee, I wish I could play like that,” he’d tell you to just sit down and try to play something.  Sure, you had to work at it some, but basically that was all there was to it as far as he was concerned.

My father in law always kept a drawing on the wall that I’d done of my husband about the time we were married. It seemed I couldn’t visit without having him go on about how good that drawing was and how he didn’t know how I could do that. Finally I told him that for me drawing the picture was like him playing the piano. It wasn’t that hard for me because I had talent for drawing, just like playing the piano wasn’t that hard for him because he had talent for playing the piano. He finally seemed to get it.

Okay. So I define “talent” as an innate ability to do something that a lot of other people can’t do. It may also manifest as an ability to do something better, or with less effort.

We generally apply the term to the ability to do complex and impressive things – not to trivial traits like tongue-rolling, or obvious physical attributes like being tall enough to reach the top shelf. I assume that talents are written in our genes, if we knew where to look – but I would also bet that they are multi-gene traits that would be pretty hard to sort out completely.

And, based on my vast (ha ha) experience, I’ve identified a few basic characteristics of talented people.  And, if you still have the stomach for this, here goes:

1. Talent manifests early – not necessarily early in a person’s life, but early in a person’s efforts to do a thing. In a group of students trying something for the first time, the ones with talent will stand out, if not in their very first effort then within the first few efforts. If there is any delay it will be because someone or something is holding them back – there is some misconception, they’re being told to do things wrong, (the judges are taking bribes), or they’re hampered by some identifiable handicap.

The bottom line: Talented people don’t work and struggle through years of mediocrity and then suddenly discover – wow! I’ve got talent! Barring some conspiracy of fate or humankind, if you’ve been working on a thing for quite a while and the talent hasn’t come shining through, it’s not going to.

2. For talented people, effort yields progress that is relatively rapid and continuous. This applies to activities that require acquisition of skill or knowledge. (The word relatively is important here.) If progress could be plotted on a graph, the more talented person’s curve would rise more rapidly and top out at a higher level than that of the less talented person. Talented people can, of course, hit temporary snags or plateaus, but they tend to reach higher levels than less-talented people before this happens – and, it’s temporary. They can also, of course, be adversely affected by those external circumstances or handicaps mentioned above, but an observant person should be able to figure out what these are.

So, if you’re trying to learn to do something – and trying, and trying -­ and you just don’t seem to be making progress, it’s time to worry. If there’s nothing obvious getting in your way, and you’re not at the level you want to be at or need to be at to achieve success in your field, it’s probably time to find a new field.

3. Talent is self-rewarding. Talented people often work quite hard at what they do, but they tend to do so voluntarily. They may say that they “love the work” or that it “isn’t work” for them. This is because talent leads directly to success, and success is rewarding. (It helps that they also get lots of praise.) If their lives permit, talented people tend naturally to pursue their talents once they find them – assuming they have any interest – because they’ve found something that works for them. The more diligent and driven will pour in effort and will soar, the more indolent may persistently dabble. Talented artists “struggling for their art” are generally struggling against external circumstances, or perhaps against a conflicting personal handicap (Beethoven with his hearing loss). Perhaps their work isn’t appreciated by the society of their time, or they are being pushed to perform at extravagant levels to satisfy the demands of their patrons or the public. Those who choose professions that depend upon their talent may struggle because of the need to support themselves financially.  Their art may not pay enough. In other words, art is relatively easy for the talented artist.  Being an artist may not be.

So if the pursuit of your dream seems to be all work and no reward – on any level – that’s another bad sign.

4. Talented people know what they are trying to do, and just do it. I think it’s said of Michelangelo that he could see his intended creation within the block of marble and all he had to do was remove the bits that didn’t belong. What I’m getting at here includes this concept but goes beyond it. Talented people tend to evolve within themselves a “vision” of what they want to create or achieve. They can see it, hear it, feel it. Even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, they know what they’re trying to do. And, because they are talented, doing it is a relatively straightforward matter of putting in the time and effort. Relatively straightforward, I say. Some skills may have to be learned. Michelangelo wasn’t born knowing how to use a chisel. Once he’d acquired that basic skill, however, I doubt he had to think much about it. Learning one’s way around a piano is probably a bit more involved than mastering a chisel, but once you’ve gotten there, if you’re talented, basically all you have to do is play.

So, to put it bluntly, if you consistently feel like you’re floundering, odds are it’s time to get out of the water. The course ahead should be clearer than that, and the necessary steps should feel do-able.

A related point involves being able to distinguish quality from the lack of it. The ability to discern quality is not, however, a defining characteristic of the talented person. Obviously there are lots of people who know quality when they see it but have no ability to produce it themselves. These people may become patrons, aficionados, or critics. I can imagine, also, that a talented person might be able to naturally and effortlessly create wonderful things without himself being able to see what was so special about them. People can be blind to their own talent, and yet follow it because it’s what comes naturally. In general, though, knowing what you’re trying to do and knowing what quality is are pretty close to the same thing.

It’s a whole lot easier to write well if you at least know what good writing looks like.

And finally:

5. A word to the talented is sufficient. Talented people often don’t need a lot of instruction.  Depending on the activity involved, they might not need any. A person with musical ability could demonstrate their talent on a deserted island – with their voice, or improvised instruments. Someone with a talent for computer programming is going to need a more specialized environment.  Less-talented people will try to improve their performance by reading advice columns, following rules, or going to seminars on “ten ways to improve your… (whatever)  Talented people will find these same pointers either obvious, or unnecessary – and occasionally just plain wrong.  They either just know these things instinctively, or they figure them out for themselves. And if there is a trick of the trade they haven’t found on their own (yet), telling them once is sufficient (or showing them – semantics and technical jargon can get in the way). They get an instant aha!  and implementation for them is just a matter of doing it.

So, if you’re getting critiques on your work from knowledgeable people, and you can’t figure out what they’re telling you to do, you’re in trouble. Ditto if you keep on getting the same criticisms even after you think you’ve made the corrections.

Talented artists don’t paint by the numbers; they just paint.

Talented writers don’t write by the rules; they just write.

Sometimes life demands that we keep on struggling to do things we’re not very good at – like balancing the checkbook. I felt I needed to become a touch typist, and after thirty odd years (some of them really odd), I am a touch typist – just not a very impressive one, and I never will be. Generally, though, I don’t recommend beating your head against walls. Life is too short. If you find you don’t have talent for a thing, leave it to those who do – unless there’s some pressing reason why you must do it (or you just really want to), and you’re content with doing a less than stellar job of it. There is no shame in this.

Do the best you can, and then go find something that you are good at.

The T-Word (No, not that t-word, the other one, and shhh! Don’t say it!)

Caution: if you’re an aspiring writer, this post contains potentially disturbing content. (This post is NOT about torture.)

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Have you ever seen one of those ads in a magazine that asks you to draw the bunny and send it to them so they can evaluate it (for free) to see whether you have artistic talent? And of course, if they say you you do, they’ll try to sell you art lessons to help you develop that talent.  I think we can all see what’s wrong with this picture. These folks make their money on the art lessons, right? So why would they care whether or not you actually have talent as long as they can get your money? Starry-eyed parents get sucked in by similar scammers telling them their kid has talent and could make big bucks in commercials or movies if they’ll just invest in…

We listen to these stories and shake our heads knowingly and say, “boy, how dumb can they get? They should have known better than to fall for that one.” These scams are obvious because we readily accept that artistic talent and acting talent are real things that are not uniformly distributed in the population. So it’s easy to be skeptical of people who have a vested interest in convincing gullible souls that they’re talented, when they’re not.

So why are there so many of us would-be writers shelling out dollars for courses, workshops, writing coaches, book doctors, and endless how-to tomes on every possible aspect of the writer’s craft – without seemingly ever wondering whether we are being led down the garden path? Think about it. How often, amid all the talk about hard work, persistence, dedication, and honing one’s craft, do we hear any mention of the t-word?

At least no one seems to be trying to convince us all that we have talent. Rather, there seems to be a kind of taboo against bringing up the subject. As if the question of talent is somehow irrelevant to the activity of writing. But seriously, do we really believe that hard work, persistence, dedication, and practice-practice-practice are enough? What’s our working hypothesis here? That a specific talent for writing does not exist? Or that it does, but everyone has it – in equal measure?

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a well-written book, I know I am in the presence of talent. Hard work, dedication, and a certain amount of experience are probably in there too, but what really makes it shine is talent. Some people exhibit a kind of genius, a mastery of language, of expressiveness, of just plain old good storytelling, that falls outside of the common mold.

I’m afraid that, much as I might prefer not to, I do believe in the t-word.  In fact, I believe there is variation in people’s innate abilities with respect to pretty much every human activity – including things like walking and running. (There’s this thing called body mechanics.) And for things involving higher brain functions – like writing – well, how could anyone imagine that we are all equally endowed?

(Personally, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the human species that we are not all alike in our capabilities, combined with the fact that we are social animals who live and work in groups where we can combine our diverse strengths and shore-up each others’ weaknesses. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Okay, okay, I know I’m being unfair to imply that would-be writers are being systematically scammed by all the folks doing workshops and pushing books on writing. Most of those folks, I’m sure, are sincerely trying to help. And there are things that can be taught and learned on this subject. It’s just that some of the people trying to become writers probably just… shouldn’t… and no one wants to say it. (Actually, some people probably do say it. It’s just that someone else usually steps in and says, “Of course you can do it! Don’t listen to them.”)

And in a sense, it’s true that anyone can write a novel. Assuming that they’re literate and aren’t so physically or mentally disabled that they can’t hold a pen, or press keys – or can’t afford voice recognition software – pretty much anyone can theoretically put enough words together end-to-end to produce a novel-length story. All that takes is hard work, dedication, and persistence.

But does that story actually make sense? Is it worth reading? Is it something anyone would pay money for? That’s where the trouble starts.  Some people seem to believe that although the answers to all those questions may initially be “no,” all it will take to turn the “no” into a “yes” is more hard work, dedication, and persistence.  And while that may be true in some cases, it doesn’t follow that it’s true in all cases. Most of the time, I would say – and depending somewhat on your goal and on your audience – at least a modest amount of talent is going to be required.

By now I’m sure everybody hates me.

Topic for next time:  “How to tell whether you have at least a modest amount of talent”

(And don’t worry; I’m not selling anything.)

What do you think? Is talent over-rated? Is writing talent a myth? Is there something you think you have talent for? Why, or why not?

And now for something really controversial: The serial comma

Life, Liberty, and the Serial Comma
Life, Liberty, and the Serial Comma (Photo credit: MBIMOTMOG)

Today I’m going to take on a really controversial subject:

The serial comma

I’m for it.

I’m speaking about the comma before the “and” that precedes the last item in a series, such as “red, white, and blue,” or “oats, peas, beans, and barley.”

I was taught in school to put it in and so were my sons. Lately, however, there seems to be a trend to leave it out, and this is shaping up to be one of the major punctuational battles of our times.  Seriously.  If you make the mistake of bringing the subject up in any group of serious writers (or editors), you’re likely to find that people start taking sides and the temperature begins to rise.

So what’s the big deal?

The argument for omitting that last comma goes (I believe) like this:  Since you have the “and” there, what do you need the comma for?  In other words, the claim is that the comma is redundant.

The problem with this argument is that logically commas separate things while “and” joins things together, which means that if you leave that last comma out, logically you’re connecting the last two items of the series while separating them from all the other items. It would make more sense to omit the “and” and keep the comma if you don’t think you need them both, except, of course, that we’re so used to the “and” being there.

Possibly the” and” at the end of the series is the last vestige of a more cumbersome construction: “red, and white, and blue.”  After all, the items in the series are linked in the sense that they all belong in the series, even while they are also each separate and distinct from each other. In practical terms, the “and” gives the reader (or listener) a little heads-up that the end of the series is at hand.  It says, “okay, you can stop making your little mental list after this next item and prepare yourself for a change of direction.”

If logic were the only casualty of serial comma omission it might not be worth getting up in arms about. The trouble is, clarity can also take a hit. The comma represents a pause. When you’re speaking, it’s the pause that separates the items in a series in your listener’s perception. And when speaking, you do pause before the “and,” whether you’re aware of it or not. You do it instinctively – and you do it for clarity. If you didn’t pause, you’d make it sound as if the last two items were parts of a single item, like “peanut butter and jelly” (one item) – which in not the same as “peanut butter, and jelly” (two items), or the same as “peanut, butter, and jelly” (three items).  (Say each of those aloud and listen to the difference.)

(You punctuate your speech. Why would you not punctuate your writing?)

Confusion is unlikely in a short, familiar list like, “red, white and blue.” Everyone knows these are the three colors of the American flag. (And there’s no such thing as a “white and blue.”)  But confusion can occur when the items are not familiar, when one or more of the items contains an internal “and,” or when the items are long phrases so that the nature of the series is not immediately obvious.

To illustrate the ambiguity that can arise when items contain internal “ands,” take this example of a hypothetical list of menu options at an ice cream parlor:

 “The choice of toppings includes strawberries and sliced bananas, chocolate chips, sugar sprinkles and peanuts and chocolate sauce.”

So strawberries and bananas apparently come together, and chocolate chips is a stand-alone. But do the sugar sprinkles come with the peanuts, or do the peanuts come with the chocolate sauce? You can’t tell because the missing serial comma could come either after the word “sprinkles” or after the word “peanuts.” This is, of course, a rather trivial example (unless you happen to be allergic to peanuts). You could always ask for clarification, and in all probability the person behind the counter in any real ice cream parlor would give you whatever combination you wanted. I cooked up this example to make a point, and hopefully you can imagine a less contrived and less trivial example.

The point is that when you write something, your intention is presumably to communicate. If your attempt to communicate requires further clarification, you have failed.

To illustrate clarity issues arising from sentence complexity and lack of familiarity of terms, consider the following example drawn from a recent grant announcement posted by the National Institutes of Health. (In which the writer very sensibly does not omit the serial commas):

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) invites applications to develop multidisciplinary career development programs that will equip new MD and PhD (or equivalent) investigators with the knowledge and skills to apply pan-omics and integrated approaches to elucidating genomic and molecular bases of lung disease, including heterogeneity, key regulatory networks, and relevant disease biomarkers, with the goal of advancing understanding of lung disease pathobiology and lung disease personalized medicine applications.


The passage contains two three-item lists.  Did you spot the two serial commas?  One is after the first occurrence of the word “lung” and the other is after “networks.” If the first one were missing it probably wouldn’t trip up most readers because we easily understand that “lung” and “blood” are separate things. But removing the second would make “key regulatory networks” and “relevant disease biomarkers” run together as if they were potentially a single item.  And for all most of us know, they might be. It wouldn’t be until we saw that the comma after “biomarkers” is followed by “with” that we would realize we must have come to the end of the series. Then we would probably have to go back to re-read the sentence so we could figure out what the list of items was intended to be.

Whenever your readers have to go back over a sentence to figure out what you meant, you just flunked Clarity 101.

This is why most technical or scientific writers tend to favor the use of the serial comma. It really helps in long complex sentences. Using it may not always resolve all possible ambiguities, but it never makes things worse.

One final point:

Authorities who advocate omitting the serial comma will often qualify their stance by saying, “unless required for clarity,” which amounts to advocating inconsistency. It means the poor reader never knows what to expect – especially since writers notoriously tend to believe they were clear simply because they know what they were trying to say. It means the writer has to pause to consider possible ambiguity every time he or she composes a list. This requires thoughtful attention to detail, accurate perception, and sound judgment. And can we really expect such traits in a person who would under any circumstances consider omitting a useful piece of punctuation?

Honestly, isn’t it easier and more reliable to simply make a habit of putting in the comma?

Come on, guys; it’s one little keystroke. You can do it!

So where do you stand on this burning issue? Did I put you to sleep in the second paragraph? Are you at this moment cudgeling your brain to come up with something about which you care less?

Dona nobis pacem

Dona Nobis Pacem    Peace…

(A brief poem for this day, Nov 4, 2012)


It’s the word that should begin and end every day of the world, and every thought of every mind in it.


It breathes like a sigh.

It whispers of hope and of the fulfillment of hope.

It sings a song to inspire us all.


Are you with me?

Oh Terry! …Pratchett, that is…

I heard somewhere that the late Ray Bradbury used to say one should write “love letters” to one’s favorite authors, just to let them know how much you enjoyed what they did.  I thought maybe I’d take his advice before the time slips by and it becomes too late.

Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, A...
Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, August 2005. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The addressee is Terry Pratchett, a writer whom I first discovered decades ago, one who grew on me steadily until by now I can’t imagine the world without his books in it. He’s a writer whose books I have read – and in some cases, re-read – to my children during their formative years. Over the years, I’ve become so intimately acquainted with Terry’s prose, that I find myself thinking about him on a first-name basis – this despite the fact that I have never met the man and don’t expect to. My children got used to having their mother stop after a particularly delicious passage and say, “Oh Terry!” – and then re-read the passage aloud just to savor it.

For those who don’t know him, Terry Pratchett is British. His specialty is humorous satirical fantasy. Basically, he uses a world of his creation as a mirror for ours, to highly amusing and often scathing effect. His world is the Discworld, literally a world in the shape of a disk that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of huge turtle, Great Atuin, swimming endlessly though space. It’s a world where magic is definitely real and science is at best playing catch-up. Over the course of more than thirty Discworld novels, Terry has taken on just about every topic and institution imaginable. (The wonderful advantage of doing humorous fantasy is that you can borrow as much or as little as you want from the real world and the readers won’t mind as long as you make them laugh.)

The first of the Diskworld books (The Colour of Magic, and The Light Fantastic) are satires of sword-and-sorcery. Besides their luckless hero, Rincewind the incompetent wizard, these books feature the 80-something Cohen the Barbarian with his dentures made of diamond troll teeth.

Several books feature witches as main characters, including Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Og (Wyrd Sisters, and Witches Abroad, among others), and more recently Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men, and A Hat Full of Sky). The rest of the supernatural spectrum gets in on it too: Elves in Lords and Ladies (they’re definitely not nice), vampires in Carpe Jugulum, werewolves in The Fifth Elephant, and zombies in Reaper Man.

That last book features Death as main character. I’m very fond of Death. Terry gives Death at least one speaking line in every Diskworld novel. (You can always tell because Death speaks in small caps). Although Death starts out as a kind of implacable grim reaper in the first two books, the character soon begins to morph into something more… well… endearing. I can’t say “human,” because of course he’s not. But what can you say about a being that likes kittens and has trouble killing a chicken because, while he shows up at every human death to sever the soul from the body, he’s never actually killed anything before.

To Terry nothing is sacred. He does a number on Hollywood in Moving Pictures, and on rock star idols in Soul Music. Organized religion takes its knocks quite regularly, most notably in Small Gods. The world of academe gets skewered repeatedly as well through the recurrence of Rincewind’s alma mater, Unseen University.

Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for ...
Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for Myrmi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I do love Terry Pratchett.

He’s a master of humor (of course) but also of story-telling, of characters, and of the well-turned phrase (those Oh Terry’s). There is often a seriousness underlying the humor. (Check out the Terry Pratchett Quotes link, below. His wit and wisdom are just boundless.)   And the thing that most endears him to me is his keen observations of humankind – both as individuals and in aggregate.  In the earlier Discworld books, the observation is sharp and biting. In the more mature works, the sharpness is not lost, but there is also something I can best describe as a subtle affection. He knows us better than we know ourselves – with all our foibles, flaws, and weaknesses – but he also has an inherent sympathy for us. He understands what we’re up against as well as what we’re up to.

I wanted to include a few excerpts. I really had trouble choosing these, because there is just so much that is good in his writing. In fact, there is little that is bad, or even ordinary. Anywhere you open one of his books you quickly come to some choice passage, and it’s hard to find a place to stop the quote because it just keeps on and on being good.  What I had to do was look for bits I thought could stand alone with a minimum of explanation from me.

In the first excerpt, from Interesting Times, Rincewind has been transported to the Agatean Empire by magical means over which he had much less control than he would have liked, and, after some preliminary adventures, he is riding a horse through the Agatean countryside. (This is not Imperial China. It just looks like it.) Terry Pratchett is not generally long on description – just enough to serve the purpose. Here he sketches the appearance of the physical setting in two short paragraphs which segue effortlessly into elucidation of social dynamics.

The hills gave way to scrubland which in turn led down to an apparently endless damp plain which contained, in the misty distance, a river so winding that half the time it must have been flowing backwards.

The land was a checkerboard of cultivation. Rincewind liked the countryside in theory, providing it wasn’t rising up to meet him and was for preference happening on the far side of a city wall, but this was hardly countryside. It was more like one big, hedgeless farm. Occasional huge rocks, looking dangerously erratic, rose out of the fields.

Sometimes he’d see people hard at work in the distance. As far as he could tell, their chief activity was moving mud around.

Occasionally he’d see a man standing ankle-deep in a flooded field holding a water buffalo on the end of a length of string. The buffalo grazed and occasionally moved its bowels. The man held the string. It seemed to be his entire goal and occupation in life.

There were a few other people on the road. Usually they were pushing wheelbarrows loaded with buffalo dung or, possibly, mud. They didn’t pay any attention to Rincewind. In fact, they made a point of not paying attention; they scurried past staring intently at the scenes of mud dynamics or bovine bowel movement happening in the fields.

Rincewind would be the first to admit that he was a slow thinker.  But he’d been around long enough to spot the signs. These people weren’t paying him any attention because they didn’t see people on horseback.

They were probably descended from people who learned that if you look too hard at anyone on horseback you receive a sharp stinging sensation such as might be obtained by a stick around the ear. Not looking up at people on horseback had become hereditary. People who stared at people on horseback in what was considered a funny way never survived long enough to breed.


The water buffalo, introduced above, is a recurrent theme. Here’s a bit from further on in the same book ending in an Oh Terry!  A battle is brewing and Rincewind is trying to find a place in which not to get killed…

Cover. Now that was a good word. It was a big plane and the armies weren’t too far away. The hill looked curiously peaceful, as if it belonged to a different world. It was strange that the Agateans, who otherwise seemed to farm everywhere a water buffalo could stand, had left it alone.          

Someone was watching him.

It was a water buffalo.

It would be wrong to say it watched him with interest.  It just watched him, because its eyes were open and it had to be facing in some direction, and it had randomly chosen one which included Rincewind.

Its face held the completely serene expression of a creature that had long ago realized that it was, fundamentally, a tube on legs and it had been installed in the universe to, broadly speaking, achieve throughput.

(Oh Terry!)


And in this excerpt, which actually occurs in between the other two, Rincewind enlists the unwitting aid of a local inhabitant, a street vendor (D. M. H. Dibhala, whom he had met earlier), in the fine art of starting a rumor. It is evening, and they are standing on the outskirts of the encampment of a very large army. The passage is an example of Terry’s masterful control of dialog combined with small details that contribute to characterization. (The bit with the asterisk is my explanation.)

“You know how you seriously wanted to become very rich in international trade?” Rincewind said.

“Yes? Can we start?

“Soon.  Soon.  But there’s something you must do. You know this rumor about the army of invisible vampire ghosts that’s heading this way?”

D. M. H. Dibhala’s eyes swivelled nervously. But it was part of his stock in trade never to appear to be ignorant about anything, except, perhaps, how to give correct change.

“Yes?” he said.

“The one about there being millions of them?” said Rincewind. “And very hungry on account of not having eaten on the way? And made especially fierce by the Great Wizard?”

“Um . . . yes?”

“Well, it’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“You don’t believe me? After all, I ought to know.”*  (* Rincewind is supposed to be the “Great Wizard”)

“Good point.”

“And we don’t want people to panic, do we?”

“Very bad for business, panic,” said D. M. H., nodding uncomfortably.

“So make sure you tell people there’s no truth in this rumor, will you? Set their minds at rest.”

 “Good idea. Er. These invisible vampire ghosts . . . Do they have any money of any sort?”

“No. Because they don’t exist.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot.”

“And there are not 2,300,009 of them,” said Rincewind. He was rather proud of this little detail.

“Not 2,300,009 of them . . . ” said D. M. H., a little glassy-eyed.

“Absolutely not. There are not 2,300,009 of them, no matter what anyone says. Nor has the Great Wizard made them twice as big as normal. Good man. Now I’d better be off  -“

Rincewind hurried away.

The trader stood in thought for a while. It stole over him that he’d probably sold enough things for a while, and he might as well go home and spend a quiet night in a barrel in the root cellar with a sack over his head.

His route led him through quite a large part of the camp. He made sure that soldiers he met knew there was no truth in the rumor, even though this invariably meant that, first of all, he had to tell them what the rumor actually was.



I would dearly love to able to write like Terry Pratchett, but that is not my gift.

Truth, Justice, and the Happy Ending

Parthenon from west
Parthenon from west (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My brother says the main difference between “great” literature and the rest of it is that great literature isn’t allowed to have a happy ending.

If there’s a happy ending to it, it automatically isn’t great.

Of course he’s being a little facetious, but not much. There does seem to be some truth in the notion. If one goes back to the ancient Greeks, for example, (always a good place to start for western culture), those folks wrote just two kinds of plays – comedies and tragedies. There was no “drama” category. A “comedy” was light entertainment, not to be taken seriously. Anything that was serious was a “tragedy.” The distinction still seems to be with us when we get to Shakespeare and it lingers with us today in that you still hear a happy ending described as too “easy” or too “trivial.” Happy endings aren’t “realistic,” people say. If the function of literature is to hold up a mirror to the world that reflects “truth,” then your story ought to be a downer since the real world can’t be counted on to deliver a happy ending.

Happy endings do, of course, occasionally happen in the real world, although arranging one often requires that one chose carefully where to end the story. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13.  It’s such a great true story.  But that sublimely feel-good moment of homecoming is tempered by the voice-over epilogue that tells us about the subsequent lives of the three astronauts. It’s obvious that “they all lived happily ever after” can’t be literally true – because nobody lives forever. As Peter S. Beagle put it in The Last Unicorn, “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”  (That’s one of a number of profound observations made in that book – which I highly recommend.) Tolkien’s variant is better: “He lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” That, at least, is possible.

Cover of "The Last Unicorn"
Cover of The Last Unicorn

My brother’s rather cynical point is that there’s a certain smug, highbrow snobbishness to the rejection of the happy ending. Happy endings are popular, and if one is going to practice “high art” one mustn’t stoop to the level of appealing to the masses.

All of this got me to thinking about why happy endings are so popular. Obviously they make us feel good. We often identify with the protagonist, so a good outcome for the protagonist is, vicariously, a good outcome for us. On the other hand, some of us also take pleasure from reading about bad things happening to other people (generally the rich and famous), as shown by the popularity of the tabloid press. So what, exactly, is going on here?

There are probably various hypotheses one could offer, but the one I’m going with today is simply this:

Human beings crave justice. And justice, in the real world, all too often eludes us.

We want the world to be fair, and it isn’t. We enact laws in our societies in an effort to create justice in the world. We offer up prayers and make sacrifices to our gods in an effort to persuade them to give us – or those we care about – what we believe we each deserve. We join causes, we found nonprofit organizations. Some of us turn to vigilante-ism. If we have managed to come out on top in life, we may persuade ourselves that we have earned it, that those who are less successful must be less deserving. When all else fails, we tell ourselves that death is not the end and that it will all be made right in the hereafter.

Or, if we happen to be writers of fiction, we write stories with happy endings.

I think story-telling is a fundamental human trait, like bipedalism, complex language, tool use, and being a social animal. I previously wrote about the instructive nature of stories, and their entertainment value. But fiction also offers us a powerful opportunity to indulge our craving for justice. When, as a writer, you create a work of fiction, you are the god of your fictional universe, and the temptation inevitably presents itself to make the story turn out the way you know it ought to.  If someone works hard, he ought to be successful. If a person takes on an evil-doer, he should win. The sweet child who faces a life-threatening illness with faith and courage should pull through. Good deeds should be rewarded. Sacrifices should not be in vain.

We know that every story needs conflict in order to be interesting, and conflict implies that something has to go wrong for somebody. We happy-ending-lovers just want the story to turn out right in the end. Is that really too much to ask? I mean, if we want to see things turning out wrong, all be have to do is look around us. I, for one, get tired of all the injustice, the pain, the tears.

Turning out right can mean seeing bad people get their just deserts, as well as seeing good people get their just reward. A story that focuses entirely on a “bad” person could have a “bad” ending and still be “right.” (I just don’t personally enjoy focusing on bad people.) Endings that satisfy my desire for justice don’t have to have “happily ever after” endings.  They only have to make things right.

Two of my favorite movies are Gladiator and V for Vendetta. Neither is a happily-ever-after tale. Both revolve around men who have suffered great wrongs, who have essentially lost everything but their lives, and who are trying to change the world for the better before they die. Both are stories about setting things right.

My husband and I originally had a disagreement about the ending of the movie “Inception.” He thought the little top left spinning at the end was intentionally ambiguous, and he liked that ambiguity. I thought the fact that the top was beginning to wobble meant it would eventually fall. And I also said this was the “right” ending, because the other ending would not have been fair.  The main character had earned the right to the happy ending. (The filmmaker has since weighed in on the issue, and I was right.)

What about you? Where do you stand on truth, justice, and happy endings?

What’s in a name (a post-9/11-anniversary reflection)


Words (Photo credit: sirwiseowl)

What’s in a name?

The word “liberal” is derived from the same root as the word “liberty.”

The word “conservative” comes from the same root as the word “conservation.”

“Democrat,” of course, is derived from “democracy,” meaning “rule by the people.” That’s using the Greek root “demos” for “the people.”

“Republican” is derived from “republic,” also meaning a form of government in which the ultimate authority rests with the people. It uses the Latin root for “the people,” as in the word “public.” (Those Romans loved to copy the Greeks.)

I don’t know. It seems to me we all started from the same place. And we’re not that different. So, what are we arguing about?  Why is there so much heat and so little light?  Why such a need to vilify the other side? To make it sound like, if they win, it will be the end of the world? (It won’t, you know, because we are the people, and we won’t let it happen.)

After 9/11, we saw a lot of the slogan, “united, we stand.”

You know how the other half of that goes…  Yeah, that’s right:

Divided, we fall.

I’m not talking about silencing dissent, here. We’re never all going to agree, and the day we stop speaking our minds, or stop being allowed to speak our minds, will be a dark day indeed. But with any freedom (of speech, for example) comes responsibility (to at least try to communicate, in this case).

There will always be differences of opinion in any large, diverse group of people. There will always be conflicting interests.  But we ought to be able to talk about these things – really talk about them, in clear, honest, practical terms.

The essence of government by the people should be that a group of elected representatives -representing all the conflicting interests – gets together to talk things out, honestly, respectfully, and in good faith.  And –yes- they have to be willing to compromise, if they’re ever going to be able to balance those conflicting interests. The idea that one side can “win” at the ballot box with 52% of the vote and thereby get everything its own way, ignoring whatever the other 48% wants, is as destructive as it is absurd. It pretty much guarantees that the other side is going to get mad, rally, and come back to “win” the next election and stick it right back to them. The U.S. government is not a football, guys. This isn’t a game.

Divided, we fall…

I really don’t want to think that I might be watching the “fall” of the United States of America, but I don’t like what I’m seeing (or hearing).  Has there ever been a time in our history when our political leaders were so rigidly and uncompromisingly divided?  As an advocate of clear communication, I am appalled by the dearth of civil discourse, the scarcity of honest efforts at persuasion, the stunning lack of simple, clear communication with respect to anything concerning politics in this country.

I, for one, am sick of it.

And, frankly, I’m a little bit scared.

Wag the dog… on thought and language


The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris


It seems pretty obvious that the way we think influences our language. What is less obvious is that our language also influences the way we think.


I remember having an argument once with my mother over whether it is possible to think without using words. She said it wasn’t, and I thought it was. Looking back, I think the real basis of our disagreement may have been a difference in what we each meant by the word “think.” To my mother, it just wasn’t really thinking if it didn’t involve words. It was something else, something more nebulous, like feeling, perhaps, or something more primitive, like reacting. On the other hand, I’m darn sure I can think without words. I’m reminded of the fact every time I get stuck because I can’t think of the right word for whatever I’m trying to say. I know I’m looking for a word that means just exactly… well, that… and it seems that there must be one, or at least there ought to be one…


Does that ever happen to you?  (Let’s see a show of hands…)


I’m getting off the subject, but the point is that our language and our thought processes are very intimately connected.  So much so that we often make the mistake of thinking that a thing must exist simply because we have a word for it – or that a thing must be possible just because we can say that it is. We fall into the error of believing that words or phrases define the world, rather than merely being imperfect tools used to describe it.


Safe.”  I once read an entire book on the subject of “acceptable risk,” the whole point of which was that nothing is absolutely safe – totally without risk of any kind. Yet people who ask, “is it safe?” routinely expect to be given a yes or no answer. When the doctor, scientist, or government official comes back with, “the levels are too low to pose a significant health hazard,” people aren’t satisfied. The think that’s weasel-wording, or government-speak for, “we want you to think it’s safe, even though it really isn’t.” In fact, the poor guy is just doing his best not to lie to you.

Other words like “clean” and “pure” – or any word that implies some absolute condition – have similar limitations. Did you know there is a maximum number of insect parts allowed per standard volume of ketchup? Yuck! Why doesn’t the government insist that there not be any insect parts in there? Because there is no possible way in any real universe for the manufacturer to insure that there won’t be any. The best you can do is to establish a level that is as low as possible while still being reasonably achievable.

Freedom.” Increasingly cavalier use of this word as a thing that is always desirable and good is saddling it with so much emotional baggage that it’s in danger of becoming an empty shibboleth – a catch-word thrown about to make you feel good, hook your emotions, or convince people that someone is on the “right” side. We’re starting to believe that freedom is always good, and so anything that limits anyone’s freedom must automatically be bad.  In fact “freedom” really just means the absence of coercion or constraint in any choice or action. In short, it means being able to do what you want. This is fine as long as it’s you getting to do what you want, but what if it’s someone else and what he wants to do is to hurt you? It’s perfectly legitimate linguistically to talk about freedom to rob, freedom to rape, freedom to kill, etc. We’ve begun to think that “freedom” is a treasured value of our democracy when in fact it is specific freedoms, such as freedom of speech, that are our treasured values.

There are two questions you always should ask when you hear the word “freedom” being bandied about: Whose freedom are we talking about? And, freedom to do what, exactly?

I heard a sound bite in which a member of the U. S. Congress said something like, “government should protect our freedom, not tell us what to do.”  I’m sorry; a government that doesn’t tell us what to do creates a society with no rules. And who is likely to benefit in the absence of rules? The strong, the rich, and the clever will benefit for starters – also the irresponsible, the unprincipled, and the ruthless. Government can’t protect any freedoms for the weak, the poor, and the well-meaning but perhaps a bit naive nice guys, except by curtailing some of the freedoms of those who would otherwise take advantage of people less able to defend their own freedoms.

Making money.” Let’s face it, the only people, apart from counter-fitters, who actually make money are the people who work in a mint. The rest of us don’t make money, we acquire it from other people – hopefully in exchange for having done an appropriate amount of useful work, or having provided the other person with a product of appropriate value. Why make this point? Because the word “make” implies something is being produced or created, and it’s hard to see any possible moral issue with that kind of activity. Once you realize that all the money you’ve accumulated came ultimately from other people – directly or indirectly – it puts things in a different light.

We can all be rich.” While it’s possible to say this, it isn’t actually true, because the word “rich,” in monetary terms, is defined as one end of a scale. “Rich” has no meaning in the absence of “poor.”  Simply put, “rich” implies having significantly more money than a significant number of other people. We could potentially all be prosperous, since “prosperous” implies having enough to meet one’s needs, with some to spare. I think we could all achieve that, especially if we helped each other. Yet I heard that half of the 2012 college graduates in a recent poll expressed a desire to become rich. I don’t blame them; I blame us older folks who are giving them the wrong message. We use “rich” in a non-monetary sense to mean all kinds of good things, from “a rich cream sauce,” to “a rich cultural heritage.” We’ve lost track of the negative moral implications of becoming rich monetarily. (There was something about camels fitting through narrow openings…)

With that, I think I’ve probably gotten myself into quite enough trouble.