Category Archives: Publishing

Fun With Grammar

Hey, all! I feel like I’ve been severely neglecting this blog, and I want to apologize because that is not my intention. I’ve just been busy working on some creative writing projects, some non-fiction as well as reading as much as I can so I can better update this very blog! I promise (though I feel like I say that all too often) that I will get to a new, thought-provoking (at least I hope) post soon, but for now I thought I’d compile a fun one based on a few things I’ve learned as of late. Working as a proofreader, I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over words and punctuation. I have a BA in Literature and have been an English/Literature enthusiast since grammar school. However, years and years of writing, rewriting, revisions and editing surprisingly do not prepare us for all the grammatical errors we will encounter in later life. Proofreading has also taught me that grammar is ever-changing.

I consider myself pretty affluent in spelling, grammar and punctuation but I’ve been knocked off my high horse many times for having such thoughts. There are certain things in the English language that I just never really gave a second thought to, or  as it is in many instances, have just been doing wrong all along. And while the internet is a great resource for correcting errors, one will find that it’s hard sometimes to get the  various sources to agree on the same topic (will the MLA, AP and CMS ever agree?!). This has led me to another discovery: grammar is not only evolving, but also way more flexible than one might think! Sure there are plenty of “rules” in grammar (and many that can often be broken in creative writing–with sufficient knowledge of them first), but there are also plenty of instances where the writer has much more control over what to use and how to use it; That’s where the “fun” part comes in.

So, as I’ve been going along I’ve been taking note of certain grammatical tips that I find interesting, and many I’ve made notes of as a reminder myself to keep a keen eye for–not only in proofing, but in writing as well. (Can we skip the part where we go back and count how many I’ve goofed on in these prior two paragraphs?–I’m still learning!!*) I’ve decided to share the notes I’ve made on here, as both useful tips for myself and for anyone who reads this. I’m going to try my best to put these in some kind of readable order, but bear with me; I’m working from notes I’ve jotted quickly in passing.  This is, of course, just an abridged version of grammar and syntax tricks and tips and there’s much more out there to learn on the topic. Below the entry I will include all of the sources I look to most for further reading. That said, here are my notes:

**Keep in mind, these rules are strictly for American English, many of them will differ in British English, etc.**

Our Friend (and Foe): The Comma

  • The Oxford/serial comma boils down to a matter of taste. I suggest always using a serial comma when listing names, especially when crediting them with a piece of work, so no one feels as though they’re lumped in with another person or that two people worked as a team instead of individually. (e.g. “Kevin Mitchell, Jonie Watson, and Michael Tulley,” and especially when only last names are used, so it doesn’t end up sounding like a law firm!)
  •  While listing inanimate objects, it’s okay to omit that extra comma: “please pick up milk, butter and bread.”
  • However, it is best to drop in a serial comma in order to eliminate any ambiguity/confusion: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and my cat” (your parents have some mighty interesting names)  does not read as well as “I’d like to thank my parents, God, and my cat.” But remember: it is always best to be consistent. Oh, and about that whole AP dropping the Oxford comma for good debacle? Just a misunderstanding. Here’s a great article all about it, as well as all about the comma itself.
  • Do not use a comma to replace the word “that.”

Colons v. Semi-Colons  

  • A semi-colon is used to separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other, but could stand on their own as complete sentences.
  • The purpose of a colon is to introduce or define.
  • Do NOT use a capital letter after a semi-colon, unless it is followed by a proper noun.
  • The semi-colon and the colon are the only two punctuation marks which should be placed after closing quotation marks when they follow a quoted text.
  • After a colon, more often than not, the following sentence should start with a capital letter. A few exceptions to this rule include: if the independent clause is a quote, if the explanatory statement is more than one sentence, if the introductory phrase is very brief, or if the second clause expresses a rule.

Santa’s Helpers a.k.a. Subordinate Clauses

  • Subjunctive: “Wishful” sentences call for the subjunctive mood of the verb “to be,” so the right choice is “were” instead of “was.”
  • The subjunctive “were” is hypothetical in meaning and is used in conditional and concessive sentences and in subordinate clauses after verbs like “wish.” The form is “were” for all persons.
  • “Was” is used when supposing something that might be true, but it all depends on the context of the sentence.
  • Conditional mood: Indicating a conditional state that will cause something else to happen. Marked by the words might, could and would.
  • Concessive clause:  A subordinate clause which refers to a situation that contrasts with the one described in the main clause. For example: “Although he was tired, he couldn’t get to sleep.”
  • Subordinate (or dependent) clauses are groups of words containing both a subject and a verb, but cannot stand alone as a sentence. Some examples include: if, although, as, because, since, though, unless, whenever, whether.

Em Dashes, En Dashes and Hyphens–Oh My! 

  • The em dash is an elongated or double dash: ““ or “– –“ (it should be the length of the typed letter “m”).  Always use in formal writing as opposed to a hyphen (“-“).
  • Spaces should typically not be used around an em dash but can change based on dramatic emphasis or the publication it appears in.
  • The en dash is a shorter dash, but longer than a hyphen: “–“ (it should be length of the typed letter “n”). It is only used to denote amount of time or numbers (e.g. “the years 2001–2006,” “April–May”).
  • Do NOT use the en dash with the word “from,” instead use the word “to.” For example, you would write “from April to May” as opposed to “from April–May.”

Apostrophe Catastrophes

  • Apostrophes ONLY indicate a contraction or possession.
  • Apostrophe after names that end in “s”: Classic pre-CE names only need apostrophe, not ‘s. The same goes for names ending with a z-sound (Adams’), and for plural nouns (e.g. cats’, boys’, men’s). But in most other cases, “‘s” is correct. The idea is to convey the notion of possession without creating an awkward pronunciation. Though this can be chalked up to a style choice.
  • Possessive of singular nouns ending in an S or Z sound are usually formed by adding ‘s, unless the next word begins with an S or Z sound.
  • When writing out an abbreviated version of decades:  the apostrophe should only go BEFORE the first number, and nowhere else!
  • The apostrophe at the beginning of the number should be pointing in the direction of the omitted numbers, it should look almost like a small number 9: “ ’80s”
  • Possessive of plural nouns ending in an S or Z sound are formed by adding only an apostrophe, e.g. churches’.

 Verb Agreement

  • Collective nouns are nouns that describe a group, such as “family,” “band” or “couple.”
  • When you are thinking of the individuals within the group as separate things, use a plural verb. (The couple are travelling home in separate cars.”) However, when you think of it as a single unit, use a singular verb. But there is no real rule attached to using was/were with collective nouns.
  • “None” can be singular or plural. It can mean “not one” and followed by a singular verb, or it can mean “not any” and take a plural verb.

 Miscellaneous Musings

  • “Somewhere” is classified as an adverb, but actually has a noun-like function.
  • The phrase “somewhere where” is not necessarily superfluous since “somewhere” can be an antecedent of a relative clause (e.g. “where”).
  • The word “farther” indicates physical distance, while “further” is used metaphorically.
  • In certain cases, “further” and “farther” can be used interchangeably, but if you can’t decide which to use, you’re safer using “further” because “farther” has some restrictions.
  • Avoid using wordy phrases in place of “because.”
  • “Internet” is capitalized because it is a proper noun referring to a specific network, “website,” however, is not.
  • “Web” as a proper noun can be either.
  • Dropping the “had” in “had better” is acceptable only in speech or recorded language.
  • The word “yet” is what’s known as a coordinating conjunction. Others include: for, nor, but, or and so.
  • “i.e.” stands for “that is,” while “e.g.” stands for “for example.” I.e. is used to further clarify a subject, while e.g. introduces examples. Example: “Michelle likes reading old mystery novels (i.e. And Then There Were None and The Hound of the Baskervilles).” These are the only two novels of the genre she likes.  “Michelle likes reading old mystery novels (e.g. And Then There Were None and The Hound of the Baskervilles).  These are just two of the mystery novels she likes.
  • The word for this punctuation mark “?!” is called an interrobang.

And just remember: it is always important to BE CONSISTENT. If there’s anything to take away from this it’s the one major rule of writing, consistency comes first. So, if you choose to stick to an MLA-approved style while writing, make sure you don’t waver between that and Chicago style. If you want to include the Oxford comma in lists, do so every time.  It can be a pain to have to go back and check every time, but it’s worth it for the end result of having an intelligent and eloquently written piece of work. Hope this helped in some way even if it was a bit scattered! I promise to have a part two when I encounter even more grammar tips! The links for all your writing needs are below the cut.

*I’m kidding, of course. Actually, if anyone who’s read this would like to point out any errors in the body of this text, please feel free to comment and chide me. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling–it’s all fair game! Sometimes the hardest work to edit is one’s own, so I’m completely open to fixing my errors and learning in the process. Also, if anyone wants to point out any errors, updates, or other ideas and suggestions in the notes I’ve made, please do so! I’d love to hear what everyone has to say!

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Filed under American Literature, Literature, Publishing, Thoughts

On Children’s Literature and Censorship – A Brief Look at Art, Literary Theory & Scary Stories

If you have not yet heard, there has been a lot of buzz going around the internet in regards to HarperCollins’ decision to re-release a 30th anniversary edition of the classic children’s book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The reason it’s been getting so much publicity? They’ve replaced all of Stephen Gammell’s original art with new art by Brett Helquist. For most children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark played a huge part in their formative reading years. And while the stories hold a special place in our hearts–it’s the haunting imagery that will forever lurk in the recesses of our brains.

Sure, I could go on about how this is an outrage and how it’s all kinds of wrong to mess with a modern-day classic–but that’s been done to death. And while the above statements are all true, I believe there’s a more larger issue at hand that isn’t being addressed as much: the issue of how literature and art can be censored/manipulated based on its position within the greater realm of literary theory. But let me not get too ahead of myself, instead, let’s examine the case from the beginning.

This story is not new (in fact, the 30th anniversary editions were released close to two years ago) it does not change the fact that people are still visibly upset by this change–it also doesn’t help that the original editions of the book series are nearly impossible to find, as the new ones have more or less completely replaced the original books. For those who may not have grown up with the Scary Stories series, here’s some background info: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was first published by HarperCollins in 1981, written by former journalist/reporter Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by artist Stephen Gammell. The stories were your typical scary story fare, folklore and urban legends written masterfully to both scare and delight the children and young adults reading them. But what was most often remembered was the artwork itself, which was very dark and unsettling, especially for a young audience, but, as with most children, always left you wanting more. A review from an Amazon customer describes it best:

To this day, the truly special part of Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” series has not been the tales, but the wonderful, horrifying illustrations by Gammell. Schwartz’s collection, while he put obvious effort into retelling these stories for a children’s audience, cannot by themselves evoke a feeling of dread or horror. If anything, they are comic horror, often ending in a punchline. If anything, the stories are a good introduction for black humor for children. But this is not what makes a classic. This means that the reason this book has survived and been wildly popular for so many years is probably not its stories, but something else. As many reviews have pointed out, that something is those Gammell illustrations. The rotting corpses. The shambling undead. Even the smiling, friendly “viper,” who is actually pretty benign in the story, but has something… sinister nonetheless. Gammell’s illustrations are so horrifying, that when I read this as a child, I could not help but imagine them… animated and moving around. In my nightmares. The best nightmares that make you love that feeling of being scared.

I won’t discredit the work Alvin Schwartz put into his stories, but they are, at best, an excellent retelling and rendering of folklore. In his 1988 interview with Schwartz, “Night Visions: Conversations with Alvin Schwartz and Judith Gorog,” Leonard S. Marcus describes scary stories as a mix of “supernatural and surrealist fantasy, black humor, and the cautionary tale” then goes on to demonstrate Schwartz’s mastery in the genre: “A former reporter, Schwartz brings his to his work a journalist’s respect for clear, crisp prose and solid background research, and a keen sense of his audience” (44). And that’s exactly what  Schwartz envisioned while writing these books, bringing folklore to a new audience, as Schwartz states:

In all of my books what I’m doing basically is presenting adult material in a way that children can understand. Children are so sophisticated these days that it works for them . . . [sophisticated] in terms of their life experiences or maybe simply their life experiences through the media. What fascinates me is that with the scary material, you’d think they would be jaded. But they’re not. They’re refreshed.  (Marcus, 50).

Schwartz wrote these stories to an audience he knew would not only be able to handle the material, but would enjoy and seek it out as well. And this was proven to be true since, as Marcus states, “a number of children’s librarians and booksellers all said that the genre for which they get the most request is ‘scary stories.'” (46). But, again, as previously stated, it is not the text that most remember, but the art. The art that wonderfully accompanied the text to create just the right balance of humor and horror for a fully well-rounded piece of fiction. As stated in the Schwartz interview:

LM: Sometimes I suppose and illustration can be helpful in bringing forward a suggestion that you don’t want to be too explicit about in the text.

AS: One could illustrate that story by simply having the girl look back and not showing what she sees. Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination. (51)

The notion of text and art working together is one I’ve touched upon before, in my post “Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?“, especially in regards to teaching literature:

By examining the combination of images + words, students are not only learning how to analyze a piece of literature, but also an introductory course on how to examine art. Does a mix of the two make a piece of literature automatically disposable? I’d beg to differ. Would Sterne’s pages of doodles in Tristram Shandy, Vonnegut’s frequent drawings in Breakfast of Champions, and even Joyce’s dazzling way of creating an art from the placement of words on the page in Ulysses make the texts themselves worthless? Hardly. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe this indicates that introducing images and art into a piece of literature doesn’t have to demean the work or make it “childish,” but instead enrich and add even more layers of meaning to the text itself. The two forms of art do not always need to be mutually exclusive.

Schwartz and Gammell worked together to combine the two forms of art to bring folklore to a new generation, as well as introduce a new form of art to children, one that would forever leave a lasting imprint on their lives. And while it did impact many–and while children had most sought out and requested scary stories from libraries–Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark found itself on the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books for two straight decades, often protested by parents groups who deemed the material “inappropriate.” Despite this, HarperCollins stood by their decision to publish the book, and did not waiver by pulling it or censoring it.

So why now, 30 years later, have they decided to completely change the artwork?

Unfortunately, I have unsuccessfully been able to locate any comments whatsoever from HarperCollins regarding their decision (oddly enough, they seem to have never made any statements about it, and it seems as though it took so long for the masses to catch on because they discreetly re-released the books with the new artwork, so it was only after a few people made a stink about it on Amazon that people began to really get upset) so I can’t go on record to explain their choice. However, a Facebook group called “Bring back the original illustrations to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” speculates that  “changes made by Harper Collins were designed to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of the books’ would-be censors.” But again the question still must be raised: why now? Why are these images more offensive now than they were in 1981? And more importantly, why is it OK to go under the radar and completely change what made it a classic, without having to release any form of statement on the matter?

The only reason I can think of, is that it just seems that  censorship is just the “in” thing nowadays. In a world where laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA are still scheming to scrape by, using underhanded means to censor things is just commonplace. And in this specific case, censorship is even easier because, to put it simply, children/young adult literature just does not matter to the literary canon and literary theorists. In the wonderfully insightful article “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies” Cindy Lou Daniels states:

Some still believe that YA literature is merely a secondary category of childlike storytelling–didactic in nature–and unworthy of serious literary evaluation, when, in fact, it is really an overlooked and unappreciated literary genre that has only recently begun to attract the critical attention that it deserves. (78).

While Scary Stories may be considered children’s literature, and not YA literature, the basic principal is still in place: literary theorists are unwavering in what their views of literature are and are not. And often landing on the “not” list include YA literature, children’s literature, scary stories, illustrated books, comic books, graphic novels and the like. Daniels then makes a bold claim:

What would help in this regard would be not only for critics to recognize the difference between genres, but to simply acknowledge that regardless of genre, both children’s and YA works are literature. (78)

A bold claim indeed, for an article published in 2006. What’s more interesting is the note attached to this claim, which directs the reader to an article titled “The Limits of Literary Criticism of Children’s and Young Adult Literature” by Hans-Heino Ewers, which explore the issue of whether or not children’s literature should be regarded as art. In it, he references Henrich Wolgast’s essay “The Misery of Our Children’s Literature,”  a classic German article that called for the valuing of children’s literature and the necessity of considering it art, which was originally published in–get this–1896.  116 years later and we STILL can’t come to terms with the notion of accepting children’s literature in literary theory.  As it appears, the restraints of literary criticism are not just dated by about 60-70 years, but instead over 100. Is there any wonder why I’ve called for a complete reboot of literary criticism as we know it?

In Literature for Children, David L. Russell states, “Literary criticism is the discussion of literature undertaken in order to interpret its meaning and to evaluate its quality” (48) and it is also true that “the purpose of criticism is to promote high standard in literature and to encourage a general appreciation of literature among readers” (48).  One would assume that the “general appreciation” would also include allowing readers, children, young adults, adults, to choose the works in which they want to read, criticize and appreciate (to essentially set their own “high standards”; especially forming these views and opinions at a young learning age. A good way to do just that is to, as most schools do, focus a large part of lesson plans on teaching and approaching banned and challenged books (especially children’s and YA books). The lesson plan “A Guide to Challenged and Banned Books” features the article “A Few Words About Censorship” by YA author Chris Crutcher. In it, he gives the scenario of, after stating to children that no books should be censored, if he thinks that material is “appropriate for my little brother to read?” Crutcher responds:

You didn’t ask me what was appropriate, you asked which books should be censored. I don’t think that stuff is appropriate for your little brother or you or, for that matter, me. But you live in a free country, and that means standing up for that freedom, not just for the things you agree with or believe in. If you live in a democracy, and you want to participate in that democracy, you have to learn to stand up for the expression of things you hate. It’s easy to promote material that represents what you believes–a littler harder to do that for material that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. (5)

Just as it’s hard for literary theorists to get behind or criticize anything that’s out of their scope of appreciation. Just as the families that may have had the hair on the back of their necks stand up after seeing Gammell’s art, but still sought to deny anyone else from seeing it.  Crutcher presents an excellent method and view to teach to children at a young age. The guide also explains The Freedom to Read. In 1953, the ALA and the American Book Publishers Council issued a joint statement which affirmed the responsibilities of librarians and publishers to make the widest diversity of views and expressions available. It also states that:

It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information. (5)

This is all fine and well, but, there’s just one, small thing that I can’t get past . . .

This lesson plan and “guide” was published by HarperCollins and can be downloaded on their website.

Perhaps HarperCollins is firmly behind the idea of not censoring text, but treating art on a different, lower-level that can be manipulated and changed and yes, censored. Perhaps they, like many literary theorists, don’t regard illustrated children’s books on the same level as other forms of literature. Either way, changing the art–assuming it was in response to 30-year old protests from parents and not the children who loved the books–is in direct violation of everything they stand for and impose on others in their guide. Though, then again, that’s not very different from how often literary theorists impose rules upon others that are in direct opposition of their own; it seems as though both literary criticism and the publishing industry are in need of a shake up. Maybe we can write up a guide on that get Stephen Gammell to illustrate it!

NB: If you feel so inclined, here is a petition to bring back the original artwork. While this is in no way meant to disregard the wonderful art created by Brett Helquist–and I absolutely suggest you check out his website for a more comprehensive look at all of his talented work–it’s the notion of letting HarperCollins Publishers know that censorship and manipulation without any sort of warning will not be tolerated.

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Filed under American Literature, Art, Authors, Banned Books, Books, Children's Literature, Comic Books, Literary Criticism, Manifestos, media, Opinions, Publishing