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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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

Most Annoying Punctuation Mark: Poll Results

And the results are in! Thanks to everyone who voted in my poll on the most annoying punctuation mark. For several days, the comma had the clear lead, but then the semi-colon pulled up from behind, until they were neck and neck for a final finish! Here are the results:

Comma: 41%

Semi-Colon: 38%

Hyphen: 21%

Comma cartoon by Debbie Ridpath OhiImage terms of use

Some of you also pointed your fingers at other punctuation marks, like the ellipsis, the colon, and quotes. (And then there were those of us who freely admitted to abusing the exclamation mark!)

Thank you for all your comments and suggestions. I will now be retreating to my writerly cave for a little while to plan out this series, which will likely start with the comma. I look forward to the challenge of making punctuation rules entertaining!

 

Yours in punctuation angst,

Sue

Quick Poll: Most Annoying Punctuation Mark

Writing a series on how to deal with rogue words was a lot of fun, and now I’m thinking of taking on punctuation. I’ve already talked about everyone’s favourite, the apostrophe, in a few popular posts: Night of the Apostrophe Ninja, Separating Siblings With Apostrophe S, and You’re Not a Yutz. Now I’d like to see if I can make other punctuation marks fun to learn about!

keep-calm-and-use-an-apostrophe

To help me figure out what to focus on, I’d love it if you could let me know which punctuation mark drives you crazy:

 

Please feel free to share any of your punctuation horror stories below, and I’ll do my best to write some tips that will help!

***

P.S. For those of you who are interested in learning about how art books are edited, I have an interview with award-winning editor Grace Yaginuma this week on the Editors’ Weekly.

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: X-Ray Vision Won’t Help You Now

A to Z Letter XX-ray is an exasperating word because there is a lot of disagreement over how to spell it. Should it have a hyphen? Should the X be capitalized? Is it X-ray, x-ray, X ray, or x ray? All of these variations have been used.

Some people will tell you that X-ray should be hyphenated when it’s used as an adjective (as in X-ray vision or x-ray vision) and not hyphenated when it’s a noun (as in getting an X ray or an x ray). Sounds complicated. No wonder people are confused!

My advice to you is to follow the generally accepted style rule for words that have a letter as a prefix: Capitalize the letter and hyphenate the word (X-ray). You can’t go wrong with this, because it’s consistent with other words in this category (T-shirt). It’s also described as the most common style in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Crookes X-ray tube

And now…as I’m sure you have come to expect, I have written you a story to help illustrate this rule. And since we’ve been talking about X-ray vision…

Extra-Special Man was doing his usual flyby over the city when his extra-sensitive hearing caught the sound of maniacal laughter somewhere behind him.

That sounds like someone who is about to execute an evil plan, he thought, and did a U-turn in the air. As he neared the extra-large building that was the source of the sound, he used his X-ray vision to examine the top floor.

He spotted a large shape that was radiating the energy of an A-bomb. Alarmed, he crashed through the nearest window, only to be blinded by the sight of a man with an electric blue mustache wearing a neon pink-and-yellow striped suit and a lime green top hat.

“I should have known it was you, Fashion Nightmare,” said Extra-Special Man. “What exasperating action are you up to this time?”

“Ah, Extra-Special Man! I am happy that an A-list superhero has come to witness my exciting triumph. I have finally completed my V-gun, and it is time to unleash it on this city.”

“A V-gun?” asked Extra-Special Man. “What does it do, exactly?”

“I’m glad you asked. After I press this extra-small button, the entire city will be wearing one of these!” He brandished a scratchy woolen V-neck sweater with a garish picture of a purple moose on it. “It’s my own exclusive design,” he said proudly.

“You can’t force the people of this city to wear that ugly sweater. That would be un-American.”

“This coming from someone who wears tights? And why do you care?” asked Fashion Nightmare. “After all, you’re an alien from Xenon.”

“Well, that was rather xenophobic of you,” said Extra-Special Man, miffed.

“Besides, you’re too late,” said Fashion Nightmare, and pressed the extra-small button.

The V-gun sputtered and exploded, enveloping Fashion Nightmare in a haze of yellow light. When it cleared, Fashion Nightmare’s clothing looked somewhat different.

“A white T-shirt and blue jeans!” he exclaimed in horror. “How exceedingly banal! I can’t possibly wear this!” He tried to rip the shirt off, but it wouldn’t budge. “Someone get this off of me!” He started whimpering.

“Well, I hope you learned your lesson,” said Extra-Special Man. “Exulting in the extreme exercising of evil deeds only leads to execrable results.” He paused. “And there’s nothing wrong with my tights!”

***

Image of the Crookes X-ray tube from Wikimedia Commons

This post is dedicated to my copy editing instructor, who taught me how to deal with the complexities of hyphens.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where I will yell about the yellow-bellied letter Y…

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Rogue Words From A to Z: Separating Siblings With Apostrophe S

A to Z Letter SOne of my readers has asked me how to successfully sort out plurals and possessives for words ending with the letter s. Stupendous idea! Let’s see if we can solve through storytelling all the different situations where s can cross us.

Once upon a time in another star system, there lived two clone siblings named Silas and Simon Sassafras.

Pluralizing Family Names

Neighbours had no idea what to do with “those Sassafrases” because they couldn’t tell the two of them apart.

When you are referring to more than one family member with a last name that ends in s, you add -es.

Showing Possession for a Singular Word

Silas’s smile was exactly the same as Simon’s.

Simon’s laugh was exactly the same as Silas’s.

If a word is singular, you add apostrophe s to the end of the word to indicate possession, even when the word ends with an s (Silas’s smile, Silas’s laugh).

Note: In the past, exceptions have been made for names that were considered special (like Jesus). In these rare cases, the apostrophe was used without an s (Jesus’). However, today’s trend (which is simple) is to always use apostrophe s for singular words.

Showing Possession for a Plural Word

The clone siblings’ eerie sameness was getting on everyone’s nerves. (Even if they were both very friendly.)

If a word is plural and ends in s, you add an apostrophe at the end without an s (siblings’).

Showing Possession For a Pair of People

Silas and Simon’s stubborn tendency to stump their neighbours would soon be over.

When you are referring to something that belongs to both people in a pair (tendency), you add an apostrophe s at the end of the second name.

In desperation, the community forced Silas and Simon to go to a barber shop and get different haircuts.

Silas’s hair was now short.

Simon’s hair was now not so short.

Silas’s and Simon’s hairstyles were so different that they could be seen as completely separate beings. The neighbours sighed in satisfaction as Silas and Simon sobbed.

When both people in a pair own different kinds of the same thing (like different hairstyles), then you need to put an apostrophe s at the end of both names.

The next morning, everyone in the neighbourhood woke up to find a clone sleeping next to them. Mass panic ensued. When they tried to get haircuts, their hair grew back. When they put on different clothes, the clothes instantly changed to become the same. They all ran to the Sassafrases’ house, but no one was home.

They later found out that Silas and Simon had left on a spaceship to become famous intergalactic movie stars who paid off all their new neighbours’ mortgages.

Bonus Word: Separate

Separate (like definitely) is one of those super tricky words to spell. Here’s a quick tip to help you remember that separate has a “par” in the middle (instead of a “per“): When you separate things, they are now apart.

***

This post is dedicated to Ameena and Nicole Roder. Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where I will taunt the troublesome letter T…

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015