Captain Comma and the Rise of the Romantic Robots

Hi everyone,

Last year I posted a prologue for a series of stories I wanted to write about Captain Comma and her crew. I’ve finally had time to write the first tale. Since we’ve just been through Valentine’s Day, I decided now was a good time to post it. Enjoy!

Captain Comma

Captain’s Personal Log, Bookdate 021416.

Today I received the details of our new mission from Admiral Apostrophe. Spot and I were in the middle of enjoying our usual romantic Valentine’s Day dinner (cheesy vegetarian lasagna for me, spicy chocolate-flavoured protein cubes for Spot) when we were interrupted by the system notification of our new story destination. It would have to be YA fiction…

 

“You’re kidding me,” said Sergeant Semi-Colon.

We’d materialized in the middle of a stereotypical high school corridor. Institutional grey lockers lined the walls, interrupted occasionally by beige classroom doors with narrow cross-hatched windows designed to keep out the light. The linoleum floors were a speckled white that failed to hide the stains. I could smell the remnants of rotten food, sweat, and desperation.

“Why do they have to make everything so bleak? It’s not like high school is the end of the world. Heck, I survived it just fine.” The Sergeant casually waved around his semi-automatic punctuation gun.

“Easy for you to say,” murmured Ensign Parenthesis. “You weren’t the skinny wimp who got picked on by all the girls.”

“Enough. We’re not here to change the tone, we’re just here to observe and see what sentences need fixing,” I said.

“Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything happening here, Captain,” said the Sergeant. Spot barked her agreement, littering an exclamation mark on the floor. Normally I’d be upset by her failure of protocol, but in this place, it’s not like anyone would notice.

A bell shrilled, and students began to pour out into the hall. Holding out my scanner, I looked for the source of the word disturbance.

“Uh-oh, here they come,” said Ensign Parey.

I looked up to find a group of four girls coming towards us. Although they were dressed in bright colours, their mannerisms were dull and impassive. They moved jerkily down the hall, shuffling their feet as they spoke to each other in monotonous voices.

“Suzy did you hear what happened to Scarlet.”

“No what’s the deal.”

“Well I heard that Brandon was going to ask her to go out with him. But then Jacinda got to him first and told him Scarlet was a horrible witch that nobody liked.”

“Wow that’s harsh.”

“Oh I don’t know. It’s not as if she’s exactly Brandon material.”

“Yeah I hear you.”

“Freeze page,” I commanded. The girls halted steps away from Ensign Parey, who backed away cautiously.

“Well, that was exciting,” said the Sergeant. “Luckily, I know just the thing to spice things up.” He patted the enormous barrel of his gun.

“Sorry, Mico, but I don’t think we’re going to need the heavy guns today. Looks like a classic case of comma failure.”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

“Your time will come,” I promised. I pulled out my punctuation phaser and set it to “Vocative comma.” “Parey, do you recall what the vocative comma is for?” I figured a distraction was in order, since he was looking a little green.

“Um…isn’t that something you use when you’re addressing someone by name?”

“Excellent,” I said, and fired.

“Suzy, did you hear what happened to Scarlet,” said the first girl, and stopped.

“I still think it’s creepy when we do that,” said Parey, who bravely came up to examine her.

“Aw, you get used it,” said Mico. “You just have to remember they’re not actually real.”

While the two of them talked shop, I set my phaser to rapid interjection with yes/no on a comma setting. I didn’t think we needed any exclamation marks. That dialogue was bad enough already.

“No,” “Well,” Wow,” “Oh,” “Yeah,” the girls chimed in.

“That was almost musical, captain,” complimented Mico.

Spot pawed at my polished regulation boots and cocked her head at the teenagers.

“All right, Spot. Go ahead and give them their question marks, so they can come alive.”

Spot barked twice, and we were ready to replay.

“Restart scene,” I commanded.

The girls bounded down the corridor, talking animatedly and gesturing with their hands.

Suzy, did you hear what happened to Scarlet?

“No, what’s the deal?

Well, I heard that Brandon was going to ask her to go out with him. But then Jacinda got to him first and told him Scarlet was a horrible witch that nobody liked.”

“Wow, that’s harsh.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s not as if she’s exactly Brandon material.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

Parey watched them as they continued on down the corridor. “I can’t say I’m going to miss this place. Talk about bad memories.”

“What did you think of high school, Captain?” asked Mico.

“Oh, that’s a story for another day,” I said.

 

Captain’s Personal Log, Bookdate 021516.

Well, the mission was successfully accomplished. It’s been a while since I’ve had to correct interjections. Visiting that YA story made me think about all the drama that I went through in high school. I wonder how Slash is doing now, and if I’ll ever see him again…

***

Thank you to my son for the fabulous illustration.

I hope you enjoyed the first Captain Comma story. Stay tuned for further adventures! And if you have any comments, suggestions for future story topics, or questions about commas, please feel free to post them below. Thanks for reading!

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2016

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The Ghouls Have Returned!

Ghouls just wanna have funHappy Hallowe’en, everyone! I hope you are having a ghoulishly good time. I will shortly be shuffling through the streets with my son in search of brains, but before I do, I want to share some frighteningly fantastic news.

My grammar story “Abracadabra! Addressing Affect vs. Effect” has been published in the fall issue of The Ghouls’ Review by Grammar Ghoul Press. If you’re in the mood for creative reading treats so delicious they will pop out your eyeballs (ah, those pesky loose eyeballs), come by and haunt this fiendish site!

(There is also a monstrous picture of me, where you can see what I look like at midnight.)

Ghoulishly yours,

Sue

(Image credit)

Blast From the Past: Back to the Future Tense

In honour of Back to the Future Day, I put the pedal to the metal in my retro DeLorean and went back in time to August 2014. I needed to save my grammar story saga on verb tenses before it faded out of existence.

The Time Traveller’s Verbs

Part 1: Telling Campfire Tales

Part 2: How We Changed the Past

Part 3: To Save Our Future

You just never know when you will unexpectedly travel through time and suddenly need to explain what happened the day before next week. So if you missed this the first time around, you may want to take some notes.

Off to try out my hoverboard now…

Back to the future 2 hoverboard

Image from the movie Back to the Future 2, Universal Studios

A Punctuation Series Prologue

Captain’s Personal Log, Bookdate 091015.

Admiral Apostrophe is at it again. He’s pushing hard for all the stories in his sector to be scanned before the end of the year, so he can confirm there are no prohibited punctuation violations. Sometimes I wonder if he’s completely forgotten about our Prime Directive — to let language evolve according to the needs of the readers.

NASA picture of dying star

It’s going to be a tricky balancing act for our crew. We need to clear away grammatical errors while preserving the writer’s right to choose on matters of style. I suspect I’ll be dictating some creative reports over the next few weeks to satisfy all those prescriptive politicians back home.

At least I have a supportive crew behind me. They believe what I do — that our purpose is to help writers communicate their ideas. We’re not there to defend arbitrary rules in the face of common usage. (But try telling the Admiral that!)

Poor Spot. I think she’s picking up on my agitation as we prepare to head out. She’s been barking exclamation marks and now they’re scattered all over the corridors. It’s a good thing we got those upgraded maintenance bots, or it would be a real mess.

Sergeant Semi-Colon is winking at me and tilting his head to hurry me up, so I’d better close this now. I’ll write again when we get to our first story destination.

Comma out.

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Attack of the Adverb-Sucking Robot

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read the advice to avoid adverbs when writing. With the way adverbs are vilified, you’d think that inscribing one inevitably causes a writer’s fictional world to collapse.

I read an article last weekend that discussed Stephen King’s take on adverbs and the themes that are raised. It said that writers use adverbs out of fear — fear that their writing will be poor if they don’t use descriptive words.

I think writers are more afraid of being attacked with admonishments about adverbs. They either fear that they have adverbs that weaken their writing, or they fear that removing adverbs in some kind of robotic way will make their writing sound flat.

But you don’t need to be afraid of adverbs — you just need to know when to remove them and why.

Here are three reasons why you might want to remove an adverb:

  1. The adverb is redundant. Having two words that mean the same thing weakens the sentence rather than strengthening it.
  2. The adverb is a useless intensifier like “very” or “really.” These intensifiers are overused and have become meaningless.
  3. The adverb is telling the reader something that should be shown instead. (This relates to another common piece of writing wisdom: “Show, don’t tell.”) The adverb is compensating for something that is missing from the scene. Instead of using an adverb to convey something, it would be better to add in some details that remove the need for an adverb.

To illustrate all this advice, I have written a short story. It’s not all that scary, I promise.

Imagine if someone invented an amazing yet intimidating new writing tool: an adverb-sucking robot.

Attack of the Adverb-Sucking Robot

Adele was at her desk, writing. She saw a shadow creep over her desk and looked up. Not again, she thought.

Adverb Sucking Robot

“Why won’t you just leave me alone? I can’t concentrate with you hovering over me!”

Beep beep beep.

“Okay, so I wrote a few adverbs…big deal! What do you know, anyway?”

BEEEEEEP.

“Fine. I’ll show you adverbs!” Adele scribbled a sentence.

The robot stood menacingly over me.

The dreaded roaring noise began. Adele slammed her hands on the paper as the air was sucked away from her desk. But she knew it was useless. The words now read:

The robot stood over me.

“Now look what you’ve done! This is boring. Where’s that sense of dread I get every time you invade my life? I need to tell them exactly how I feel about you, you tin monstrosity.”

Boop. A brief rush of air ruffled the page.

The robot towered over me.

“Hmmm…okay, I admit that towered is a strong verb. But that’s not saying enough about how I feel. I need to add something…” Adele concentrated, then wrote another sentence.

I was really afraid that the robot would destroy my writing.

“There! Argue with that, you interfering hack. I dare you.”

ROARRR…

I was afraid that the robot would destroy my writing.

“But I’m not afraid! I’m really afraid. I’m…I’m…”

Boop.

I was terrified that the robot would destroy my writing.

“Yes, terrified – that’s it. Because how can you possibly have any good judgment on this? You’re a robot, not a writer…you don’t feel things the way people do. Speaking of which…” Adele wrote another sentence with a flourish. “Witness the truth of your existence.”

The robot unfeelingly sucked away all her adverbs.

Roarrr…

The robot sucked away all her adverbs.

Adele stared at her paper and waited. But nothing happened.

“What, no boop this time?”

Silence.

“Oh, I get it. A robot is obviously unfeeling because it’s a robot, so I don’t need to tell anyone that. It would be redundant.”

Wheeee.

“Why are you making that noise? I must admit that’s an improvement. But I’m confused. Hang on…”

She shook her head confusedly.

“No, wait, don’t say anything —”

Adele scribbled.

She shook her head confusedly.

“We already know I’m confused, right? Because your behaviour is so different from before. So I don’t need an adverb to tell anyone that!”

WHEEEEE.

Adele thought maybe she could get used to that new sound. She looked over her page and realized that her writing did look better.

She smiled happily.

***

Thanks to my wonderful son, who gave me both the idea and the stellar drawing.

What do you think about using adverbs? Do you have words that you watch for, and how do you deal with them? (I sometimes use the Hemingway app to find adverbs in my own writing.)

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

DBW Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Writers are surrounded by style guides instructing them on how to write. Probably the most popular of these is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which is a mainstay of colleges and universities. In a previous post, I lamented how prescriptive guides such as this one are used to attack other writers and promote a black-and-white view of what constitutes “bad writing.”

The Sense of StyleBut there are other guides that take a more flexible and positive approach to writing style. One of these is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is known for writing thoughtful and provocative works on language and the mind. In this book, he applies his scientific background to advice on how to write in a way that will reach your audience.

What I Liked

Pinker’s approach to style is to recommend approaches that make it easier for the audience to mentally process your writing. This doesn’t mean that writing needs to be plain or simple, but that it needs to match people’s cognitive approach to language. Instead of stating universal style rules (like a prescriptive guide tends to do), Pinker explains why a particular approach is successful and in what situations. I found his brain-focused perspective fascinating.

Pinker covers a wide range of topics that are useful to the writer. He elaborates on the common advice to “show, don’t tell” by describing the components of a classic writing style. He discusses how sentences are constructed and identifies constructions that are easier for the mind to process (using sentence diagrams). He provides various tips on how to make your writing coherent across sentences. I especially liked his list of methods for relating two statements together, such as through contrast or generalization.

Pinker ends his book with a substantial chapter (over 100 pages) on “Telling Right from Wrong,” where he provides advice on aspects of grammar, word choice, and punctuation without resorting to a black-and-white list of rules. He incorporates research on actual language usage to support his choices. I can see this chapter in particular being a useful ongoing reference for writers.

What Could Be Better

The “Telling Right from Wrong” chapter is a long one, but it is broken down into small sub-topics that are logically presented. Some of the other chapters in this book are also long, but there are no clear break points. I found it a bit unfortunate that a writer who talks about how we process information in chunks did not include sub-headings in these chapters. I sometimes lost the thread when I had to put the book down in the middle of a chapter.

The first chapter talks about how to identify good prose by developing an ear for writing. Pinker analyzes some writing samples to provide us with his idea of good prose. I didn’t find this section as helpful because there were too many ideas being presented and they didn’t tie in as well with his overall theme.

Favourite Learning Moment

After describing how sentences are constructed and the easiest ways for readers to understand them, Pinker has this to say about the prescriptive style “rule” to omit needless words:

The advice to omit needless words should not be confused with the puritanical edict that all writers must pare every sentence down to the shortest, leanest, most abstemious version possible. Even writers who prize clarity don’t do this. That’s because the difficulty of a sentence depends not just on its word count but on its geometry.

This was an “a-ha” moment for me: A long sentence can be easier to read than a shorter one, depending on how it is constructed.

Verdict

If you are interested in the whys of language rules and are not put off by academic-style writing, then this is a great book to add to your collection. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking and makes you appreciate the wonder of language. I’ll let Pinker have the last word:

[Grammar] should be thought of … as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful.

***

If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think? What is your ‘go-to’ manual for advice on writing style? Do you prefer the idea of universal rules, or do you like to have more flexibility?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Rogue Words from A to Z: If Wishes Were Wanting…

A to Z Letter WOne of my readers suggested that I write about when to use were with a singular subject (heard in the classic song from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man…”). Why don’t we sing, “If I was a rich man?”

The short answer: “If I were a rich man” is written in the subjunctive verb mood. What on earth is that? I wrote the long answer to that question many moons ago, when I first started blogging. Hardly any of my readers have seen that post, since it’s back from the times when my readers were mostly crickets.

So I figured it was time to bring this out again and answer my reader’s question. I hope you enjoy it!

If Wishes Had Genies…

Verbs have moods, just like genies do. And we all know you need to pay attention to someone’s mood if you want to get your wish. (“Can I have a cookie, Mom? Pleeease?” Oh, no, it’s not working! Time for the cute face. “I love you.”)

Disney’s Aladdin shows us all about moods and how we can stay on the good side of verbs. The film’s characters use the three verb moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Let’s see how each mood can affect your chances of getting your wish.

Indicative Mood

We use the indicative mood most of the time. This verb mood is good for stating facts, making requests, or asking questions. Aladdin uses this mood when he says, “Genie, I wish for you to make me a prince.” The verb in this sentence is wish. This is a simple request, and Genie is happy to lend a hand:

Disney's Aladdin and Genie shaking hands

You’ve got a deal!

Imperative Mood

We use the imperative mood for commands. Our story’s villain, Jafar, is fond of using the imperative mood. After he steals the lamp, he commands: “Genie, grant me my first wish.” Here, the verb is grant. Jafar could have said, “I would like you to grant me my first wish,” which would have been more polite (and indicative). But no. And guess what happens when you use the imperative mood on a genie?

Genie cheering for Jafar in Aladdin

Can you tell I’m motivated?

Subjunctive Mood

This final verb mood is the trickiest. We use the subjunctive mood for unlikely possibilities, things that are not true, and (you guessed it) wishes. You often find the subjunctive mood hanging around with the word if. Aladdin uses the subjunctive when he protects children from being whipped by a rude prince. He says, “Hey, if I were as rich as you, I could afford some manners!”

We can tell this is the subjunctive mood because Aladdin says I were. This can sound strange to our ears, because normally people say I was. With the subjunctive, however, the verb form were is always used (if I were, if you were, if he were, if she were…).

So why is this verb mood important? It tells us that Aladdin thinks he will never be rich. After all, he doesn’t have a genie to help him with that…yet.

Disney's Aladdin on manners of the rich

If only I had a genie…

Once Aladdin finds Genie, he never uses the subjunctive mood again. Why? Because he knows that his wishes will come true. They are no longer unlikely to happen. So, unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t need to think about when to use the subjunctive mood.

After talking about this, now I really want a genie. I’m sure it would improve my mood. Imagine the possibilities…

***

Images from Disney’s Aladdin

This post is dedicated to my loyal readers from the beginning blog times who are still with me. I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s (new) post, where I will eXamine the xenophobic letter X…