Thursday, May 23, 2013

Grammar Gray Areas

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

I've always thought of grammar as the math of the writing process. I've never liked it, never been great at it, and I'm not sure I could diagram a sentence more complex than "Stephanie wrote."

When working on a recent project, I found myself baffled by ellipses. My first agent had told me to always format my ellipses ... like this. With a space, three periods together, another space, and then a word.

But then I was told that there should always be spaces between the periods . . . like this. And then that there should never be a space, and they should be this.

To make matters even more confusing, someone threw the four-dot method at me, to be used with trailing sentences....

Or, wait. Maybe it should be like this . . . .

Frustrated, I pulled my Chicago Manual of Style from my shelf, and found it to be lacking. Almost all the examples were for using ellipses when abbreviating a quote. But what I did find helpful is this:

"Three methods of using ellipsis points are described here: the three-dot method; the three-or-four-dot method, and a refinement of the latter, here called the rigorous method. The choice between the three is usually made by the author, sometimes by the editor."

Gasp! There isn't one right way?! There are three methods, and I have a choice?!

This is why the ellipses in my Skylar books are formatted . . . this way, and why the ones in Jill's Captives are formatted ... like this. Because our publishers made a choice.

This discovery led me on a Chicago Manual of Style tour, where I was shocked by how often I saw the words "usually," "traditionally," and "often."

Like here:

"Religious events and concepts of major theological importance are often capitalized.
the Creation, the Fall, the Second Coming 
Doctrines are usually lowercased.
atonement, original sin"
I also found answers to questions I didn't even realize I had. Like the proper capitalization for classes, which is rather important as a YA author.

In this sentence, the class should be capitalized: I grab my bag and head toward Ballroom Dance.
In this it should not: Taking ballroom dance classes has not helped my coordination.

And I learned that even though it makes my spell check cranky, the editors of the Chicago manual of style "prefer" that I use lowercase letters for brussels sprouts, french fries, dutch ovens, and other terms that take a proper noun out of its original context.

Spending time with my grammar manuals (I have three, all of which I recommend - The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner's Modern American Usage, and The Elements of Style, which is a hybrid) usually makes me feel dumb. But this time I learned even Chicago and Webster's disagree with each other on occasion, so it's okay if my ellipses don't match everyone else's.

And that I'll probably never again be asked to diagram a sentence, so I can let go of that fear as well.


  1. *GASP* Grammar isn't always...definite?!?! Wow. I never knew that. Hm. Good to know.

    *raises hand* I can diagram sentences! Thank you English books for the past 4 years! xD Not sure when or if I will need to use it, though.

    1. Good for you, Amanda! I'll be happy to get a refresher course when McKenna and Connor are learning about it in school :)

  2. Just to make our lives more complicated ...
    : )

    oh, I never saw brussel sprouts *as I was typing that, the spell check wants to capitalize that* that way.

    1. I know! Same with french fries and french doors and all that stuff. Makes my spell check so angry. But I've also always thought French fries looked a bit weird, so I'm a fan of CMoS's stance on this.

  3. This is good to know! I've always wondered about this, especially the ellipses. :)

    When I was in 5th grade I did TONS of diagramming. We even diagrammed one sentence that took up our whole blackboard. It was a pretty big blackboard too. I'm pretty sure that I've forgotten everything about diagramming sentences by now, though.

    Great Post!

    -Abby :D

  4. Why can't grammar just be simple and straight forward? Thanks for the explanaition on elipses though, cause I had a feeling I would never get them right, but now I know why, I think ...

    1. I know, right? Here I've always thought there was ONE right way.

  5. Sentence diagramming? I've never been taught how to do that :/

    Hopefully my life will never depend on that skill. I wondered about ellipsis too though, about spaces vs no spaces. Why can't they just agree on some definite global rules and make everyone's life simpler?

    1. Agreed! My husband says the same thing about measurements. He wants to switch the U.S. over to the metric system :)

      And unless you're an English teacher, you can probably get by without having to diagram a sentence. I've yet to use it in my profession :)

    2. Living in the UK, I can tell you honestly that, yes, metric is *much* easier.

      That's good to know :)

  6. Sorry about the crazy amount of spam on the blog today! I'm deleting it when I catch it, but the bots seem to know when I'm at the grocery store and not paying attention...

  7. Yea! I'm not the only one who struggles with grammar! It doesn't matter how many times I look things up in the Chicago Manual, the English language still doesn't make sense to me (probably why I was a science geek in school, that was a subject I could understand ;)

  8. I'd seriously never thought about that ... See, this is why I don't like grammar.
    I never learned how to diagram sentences, for some reading, but oddly enough, my mom loves it. It's the only thing similar to math that she actually likes.
    Thanks for the post, Stephanie! I'll be sure to keep this in mind . . .

  9. Really interesting post, thank you! I never knew a lot of that!

  10. The Elements of Style is an amazingly helpful guide. I'd definitely recommend getting a copy!!