Number 71 — February 10, 2006
Thinking Abount Punctuation

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I have tumbled into the winter "blahs," my mind in neutral with no destination in sight, the problem aggravated by idleness bred by closing my business. So, I coasted into February, wondering what comes next, when the same question arose from two unrelated sources.
     I chair a monthly meeting of a Life-Writing group at a local residence for seniors. I encourage fourteen octogenarians—a few in their nineties—to write their memoirs; a well-educated group with diverse backgrounds. Their story is the message without concern for syntax and grammar. Last Saturday, one member requested a discussion on the use of commas. Meanwhile, I began editing old family diaries for a new genealogy report. I found punctuation errors galore. These events suggested a dissertation on comma use. Here are some recurring errors.
     The most common error results from not recognizing the difference between independent and dependent clauses. By definition, an independent clause has a subject and a predicate; a dependent clause does not. I worked for IBM as a programmer is independent. I later joined Air Canada, is also independent. If I put the two clauses together to form a compound sentence with a conjunction, I should separate them by a comma before the conjunction: (1) I worked for IBM as a programmer, and I later joined Air Canada.
     Omitting the subject I from the second sentence makes it a dependent clause. When joined with the preceding independent clause by a conjunction, a comma is not required. (2) I worked for IBM as a programmer and later joined Air Canada.
     Many writers get these two reversed, or omit the comma in both cases. The subject I, being present only once in sentence 2, becomes the inferred subject of the dependent clause. Omitting the comma melds the two clauses, thus sharing the same subject. On the other hand, each part of sentence 1 has its own subject, meaning the two independent clauses could as well become two sentences by inserting a period for the comma and deleting the conjunction.
     Another common error omits a comma between an introductory dependent clause, phrase, or single word and an independent clause that follows. (See the sentence beginning with So in the first paragraph of this article.)

3. After his parents bought the farm, Jim went to the local school.
4. In 1970, Jim left the local school.
5. Hopefully, Jim found a decent job.

     I suspect sentences like 4 and 5 include this error more often than 3. To correct the error, find the subject and put a comma in front of it.
     A less common error, but not an infrequent one, arises from ambiguity. Consider these two sentences:

6. Jim started the car and was ready to go when Marian arrived.
7. Jim started the car and was ready to go, when Marian arrived.

     The same words, but different messages. Beware.
     Returning to my octogenarian writer who started me on this article, I noted as she read the following sentence from her own writing, she paused between the words van and I; Switching to the van … I waited for the others to arrive. When I examined her manuscript, I noted the comma between van and I was missing, which suggested one way to check your work may be to read it aloud, searching for natural pauses. In her case, the comma was not there, but she paused anyway. If you pause naturally in a place without punctuation, it may be a sign something is missing.
     Before I leave this subject, I want to note I am a frequent semi-colon user, particularly to link two elements instead of using a conjunction, or writing two sentences. Example: His action was neither insulting nor indecent; he had seen an actor do it in a movie. The two parts have a cause and effect relationship. Read them as two sentences or join with a conjunction; in neither case do they fit as well together as with the semi-colon.

Poundin' Commas

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Number 72 — February 17, 2006
More Thoughts About Punctuation

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I am happy to report my recovery from the winter blahs that afflicted me last week. While snow buried the East Coast, Arkansas enjoyed great weather. A high of 65 last Tuesday and I played my first game of golf in 2006; a sure cure for the blahs. On the deserted course, I had the opportunity to hit three balls on every hole, while pondering this week's article. My choice—give up golf and—no, I'm only kidding; it wasn't that bad. Anyway, while out in the bright sunshine, I elected to continue my discussion of punctuation begun last week. I begin with an excerpt from an essay recently sent to me for comment that deals with the impact of TV advertising:

How much damage this does to their "feelings," seeing themselves ….

     Feelings, as used by the author, is a common word clearly intended to mean the subjects' emotional reactions to their circumstances. So, why did he put it in quotes? I could find no reason within the context of his writing, so I presume the purpose was for emphasis. If so, this is a mistaken use of quotes.
     The proper action in such circumstances is not to use quotes—or italics either, for that matter—for emphasis, but to expand the sentence, or paragraph, to give the message the impact the author wants to deliver. For example, the author might write: The thirty-second commercial in which a sufferer is seen to be instantaneously cured from a painful infliction by a person who happens to have a package of pills in his pocket, can be damaging to the emotional sensitivities of true victims of such a disease. The caveat ending the commercial that those suffering from kidney disease, heart problems and assorted other maladies should not take this medication seems only to exacerbate the victims' emotional distress. The feelings of the low-income, insuranceless, long-time sufferer are further aggravated by the final inducement to "ask your doctor about medication XYZ." Such a person probably does not have a doctor.
     I suggest this would be a good moment to reread articles 53, 54, and 55 that deal with the subject of conciseness. My rule: if a message needs emphasis, give it its due with words, not typographical tricks.
     I think the same rule may apply to ellipsis—from Greek meaning "to leave out"—that has three functions:

  1. indicating omissions in quoted material;
  2. indicating hesitation or trailing off in dialogue;
  3. imparting extra significance to a sentence. (Quoted from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman.)

     My recommendation: Use sparingly. I sometimes find ellipses inserted in various places where the author senses a need for some sort of punctuation, but not knowing what, inserts an ellipsis. Here is an example from a recent submission that begins with this line:

It was a cold day … unusual for that time of year.

     The ellipsis does not fit any of Ms. Stilman's functions. The author's intention may have been to suggest a pause as the character reacts after stepping outside. How to correct? Either replace the ellipsis with a comma or an em dash, setting off a parenthetic interjection, or show the reader the action that motivates the thought. As above, I think adding words to make writing concise and to deliver a clear meaning or image is better than the vagueness of inappropriate punctuation.
     Misuse of punctuation, while we all do it to some degree, is nonetheless inexcusable. It is an ugly birthmark, disfiguring the products of self-publishers. Before inserting indiscriminate punctuation, the best procedure is to consult a grammar and learn to punctuate correctly.

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Number 73 — February 24, 2006
Peeking At Pronouns — Part 1

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I begin with a definition of a pronoun: "A word used as a substitute for a noun or a noun equivalent that refers to persons or objects named or understood in the context." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.)
     No surprise there! But pronouns are different from nouns because they change case depending on their function and place in a sentence. There are three pronoun cases:

  1. Subjective or Nominative case represents the doer or actor in a sentence: I will write an article about pronouns;
  2. Objective case represents the entity that is affected by the action: It was written by Stephen;
  3. Possessive case represents ownership, and its form depends on its position. This is my article on pronouns; / This article on pronouns is mine.

     You would never say, "Me will write an article," or "The article was written by I." Not all cases are so obvious. Errors sometimes creep in largely because of our poor speech habits. Our objective in this and subsequent articles will be to examine pronoun use in general and discuss instances where errors often occur. Let's begin by listing the pronouns in each category.






my / mine



your / yours






her / hers






our / ours



their / theirs




     Here are examples of a common method of determining correct pronoun use.

My wife cooks better than (I / me)?

     To select the correct pronoun, complete the sentence by adding the implied verb cook at the end of the sentence. My wife cooks better than I (cook). We immediately recognize I as the correct pronoun because we now see it as the subject of the inferred verb. But nine times out of ten, asking who is the better cook will bring this response: "My wife cooks better than me," which is grammatically wrong. Because it is common parlance should not blind us to correct grammar, although we might use the incorrect sentence in dialogue for realism's sake.

Paul needed the car more than (I / me)?

     We must take care that our pronoun use does not create ambiguity. In this case, the choice depends on where you place the implied verb needed.

Paul needed the car more than I (needed the car);
Paul needed the car more than he needed me.

     Presumably, once he got the car, he didn't need me to drive it. In such a case, the author must restructure the sentence to remove any possible ambiguity, but more often than not, even the author fails to see the possible mistaken interpretation.
     The same implied-verb technique may be used to choose between she and her, he and him, we and us, and they and them. A few examples:

  • Mary's not as hungry as she. (… as she is);
  • Take the cake to Paul and her. (… take the cake to her);
  • Paul sings better than he. (… can sing);
  • Mother asked Paul and him … . (Mother asked him …)
  • Paul and he were asked by Mother. (… he was asked …)
  • The winners played better than we. (… played);
  • We lost the game organized by the chief and us. (… the game organized by us.)
  • The broken window upset Daddy more than them. (… more than it upset them.)
  • She preferred chocolate as much as they. (… preferred chocolate)

     Sometimes the perceived awkwardness of the correct grammatical construction as compared to a common incorrect verbal usage may be thought to be an error. For instance, many people would incorrectly say, "Paul sings better than him." When readers see "Paul sings better than he," they may think the phrase is wrong. Substituting Paul sings better than his brother removes the discomfort. The corollary is when unable to decide the correct pronoun, rewrite the sentence to avoid the issue. The tragedy is authors never make corrections when they lack the grammatical knowledge to recognize incorrect usage.

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Number 74 — March 3, 2006
Peeking At Pronouns — Part 2

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Last week, I introduced the idea of deciding which pronoun to use in a particular case by inserting implied words. This week, I will look at some other common pronoun uses and continue to suggest ways to avoid problems.
     I begin with the basic grammatical rule that a pronoun following any form of the verb "to be" restates the subject and is therefore in the subjective case. Consider this sentence:

It was (he / him) hiding in the closet?

     I have ranted and raved for years about my dislike of substitute subjects and this is a case in point. The pronoun (he / him) renames or identifies the substitute subject it. Since the pronoun follows a form of the verb to be (was), the correct choice is the subjective case.

  • It was he hiding in the closet.
  • It was she riding the bicycle.
  • It was they playing in the park.

     The problem is that many speakers and some writers find these sentences stuffy, unnatural, or awkward, inserting the objective case of the pronouns because it sounds better, as in—
     It was him hiding in the closet;
     It was her riding the bicycle;
     It was them playing in the park;
     —each of which is wrong. What to do?
     My answer is to avoid the issue by eliminating substitute subjects.

  • He was hiding in the closet; OR he hid in the closet.
  • She was riding the bicycle; OR she rode the bicycle.
  • They were playing in the park; OR they played in the park.

     When rewritten without the substitute subject, the subjective case of the pronoun is automatic without a second thought.

     Sometimes, pronouns combined with nouns in compound uses cause trouble. To find the right pronoun, test the sentence with the pronoun alone, omitting the compounding words.

     (Paul and) I accepted Mother's gift.
     Such a sentence gives us no moment for pause because the compound subject Paul and I is in the subjective case. Let's switch to the objective case;
     Mother gave a gift to Paul and (I / me)?
     Using the pronoun alone—Mother gave a gift to me—we immediately see the correct form.
     The grammatical rule in this case states a pronoun following a preposition takes the objective form; that's a secret between you and (I / me)? The preposition between calls for the objective case; between you and me. The same applies when the compound object consists of two pronouns.
     Mother gave the gift to him and Mother gave the gift to me when compounded becomes Mother gave the gift to him and me. This, in effect is a repetition of the same procedure suggested in the previous article. Stretch the sentence inserting all the inferred parts, or divide it into complete independent clauses, and you will nearly always be able to decide the correct pronoun. Having done that, however, you may not like the answer.
     Your baby daughter cannot be found. You hear a scratching sound and open the closet door. "It's her," you shout. Sorry, it's not her—it's she. (Subjective case after the verb to be.)

      When personal pronouns follow conjunctions except, but, than, or as, they take the subjective form as subjects of a clause.

     Nobody enjoyed the show as much as he (did).
     Nobody cried as much as I (did).
     Paul is taller than she (is).

     Some grammarians suggest everyday speech has missused the objective case so much in these kinds of statements that it has become acceptable grammatical construction for some conjunctions to act like prepositions—although I have yet to see such a statement in a book on grammar—as below:

Nobody enjoyed the show as much as him.
Nobody cried as much as me.
Paul is taller than her.

     The foregoing suggests we look at prescriptivism and descriptivism that I will explore when I conclude the current series on pronouns. (Turns out to be in Article 77. A little bit of history never hurt anyone.)

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Number 75 — March 10, 2006
Peeking At Pronouns — Part 3

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Continuing with the subject of pronouns, I turn to the relative pronouns who, whom, whoever, whomever, which, and that. I start with the rule governing the first four:
     Use who and whoever when the pronoun should be in the subjective case and whom and whomever when the pronoun should be in the objective case. The trick to determine the correct relative pronoun in any situation is to test the sentence with a personal pronoun.

  1. If such a pronoun is in the subjective case, then use a subjective relative pronoun.
    Example: (Who/whom?) has read the article?
    Test: Has he/she read the article?. OR; Have they read the article?
    The substituted pronouns are in the subjective case, hence who is correct.
  2. If such a pronoun is objective, then use an objective relative pronoun.
    Example: To (who/whom?) did you speak?
    Test: Did you speak to him/her/them?
    The test pronouns are the objective case, hence whom is the correct choice.

     Notice in case 1, the subjective relative pronoun who stands in for the subject of the action; In case 2, the objective relative pronoun whom stands in for the target of the action. This provides another way of choosing: Does the relative pronoun relate to taking an action or being the receiver of an action?
     Here are more sentences to help your understanding:

Example sentence

Pronoun test


3. Stephen was the one (who/whom?) received the money.

HE received the money. Subject of the action received.


4. Andrew was the one (who/whom?) we wanted to help.

… we wanted to help HIM. Target of the action help.


5. (Who/whom?) do you think will win?

Do you think HE will win?


6. (Who/whom?) do you think they'll elect?

Do you think they'll elect HIM? Target of the action elect.


     Let's move on to that and which. Use the relative pronoun that when the relative clause following provides specific information identifying the subject. The desk that Stephen built was … . Here, the words Stephen built identify a particular desk and therefore the correct relative pronoun is that. The tables, which Stephen built, were … . In this case, the words Stephen built supply information about all the tables in question and do not serve to further identify any particular one and therefore the correct relative pronoun is which. The which clause is set off by commas because it is non-restrictive; the that clause is not set off with commas because it is restrictive. I addressed this topic in Article 5 under the heading of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This would be a good time to go back and re-read it.
     Now we come to reflexive pronouns; those ending with the suffix self. Most of my instructors advised against the use of these with two exceptions, but frankly, I fail to understand the point of using them at all, unless they might serve a particular purpose, but even then, I can always avoid them.
     First case: The subject and the object are the same entity, meaning the subject performed the act alone. Consider if any difference exists in the message delivered by the following examples:

  • With a reflexive pronoun:
         Stephen coded the ebooks himself.
         Mary did the sewing herself.
  • Without a reflexive pronoun:
         Stephen coded the ebooks.
         Mary did the sewing.

     I think the sentences without the reflexive pronoun deliver the same message as the ones with the reflexive pronouns. In other words, the reflexive pronouns do nothing except add redundancy.

     Second case: Used for emphasis: Stephen himself was the builder of the desk.
     I can imagine a place where one might want to use such emphasis, but in my mind they are few and far between. As in the first case, I see the reflexive pronoun as redundant. If I need to emphasize Stephen as the builder of the desk, surely I could find a way to do it without resorting to a reflexive pronoun.
     At last, I arrive at the place where I find most of the errors regarding pronouns, which to a large degree, center around antecedents. Next week, I'll detail the eight common errors in pronoun use. Before I do so, I want you to remember the following definition:

The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun it replaces.

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Number 76 — March 17, 2006
Peeking At Pronouns — Part 4

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Bearing in mind the simple definition of the antecedent of a pronoun, I come to the most common errors in pronoun use.

     In my editing work, I sometimes find two nouns preceding a pronoun in the same sentence that result in confusion. For example:

Men prefer books by male authors. They have been polled several times.
     Does this mean men or male authors are the subjects of the polls? You recognize this error by inserting the subject referenced by the pronoun, which yields:
Men prefer books by male authors. (Men / male authors?) have been polled several times.
     Now edit your sentence to remove the ambiguity. One solution might be:
Several polls suggest men prefer books by male authors.
     This yields the best possible solution; the pronoun went away, taking the confusion with it.

     The rules for multiple antecedents:
Rule 1: Use a plural pronoun if the antecedents, whether individually singular or plural, are joined by and, making them a compound subject.
Rule 2: If or or nor unite alternate subjects, make the pronoun agree with the antecedent closer to it.
     Here are some examples:
Rule 1: Both writer and agent said they agreed. (Compound subject; both parts singular = plural pronoun.)
Rule 1: Both writers and the agent said they agreed. (Compound subject; one part plural and one singular = plural pronoun.)
Rule 2: Neither the writers nor the agent said he agreed. (Alternate subjects: first plural and second singular = singular pronoun.)
Rule 2: Neither the writer nor the agents said they agreed. (Alternate subjects: first singular and second plural = plural pronoun.)

     In the following sentences, what will dry and crumble?

Store tobacco in a jar with a slice of apple. The jar should be tightly sealed. Exposure to dry air causes it to dry and crumble.
     Obviously, the author cares about the tobacco, but the jar has intervened between the intended antecedent and the pronoun. This is a case where the author knew the intent, but went too fast and did not edit with care; a common case.

     Test your grammatical knowledge by identifying the subject of this sentence:

The use of gloves when gardening is recommended. They protect against blisters.
     The subject is 'the use of' which is singular. While the intent of the plural pronoun is to reference gloves, they are not the antecedent of the pronoun. The obvious editing correction:
Gardeners should wear gloves to protect against blisters.
     Again, I eliminated the pronoun. (This might be a good time to review articles 53 through 56 on Concise Writing, which would avoid this type of problem in the first place.)

     Modern English lacks a pronoun that includes both genders. Presumably English ignored gender bias in the beginning because Man meant all humans, and therefore invoked the pronoun he to refer to both sexes. Modern speech overcomes the difficulty partly by using they as a singular pronoun. For instance, I might say; If a reader doesn't like my proposal, they can ignore it. In formal writing, such a misuse is not acceptable. The problem is further compounded by indefinite pronouns—everybody; everyone; nobody; anybody; somebody; someone; and probably a few more I can't think of—that have plural meanings with singular classifications. In grade school, my teacher taught me to write; everybody must bring his lunch. But half my class members were girls. The solution falls to the ingenuity of the writer. The lunch question might be solved with; each boy and girl must bring a lunch. Whatever solution you choose, try to avoid expressions using he/she or him/her. If you must resort to these terms, use them sparingly.

     This case calls for consistency. Here are the rules:
Rule 3: A collective noun treated as singular takes a singular pronoun.
Rule 4: A collective noun treated as plural takes a plural pronoun.

     Here are examples:
Rule 3: The team was disgusted by their play in the tournament. (was disgusted = singular verb: The pronoun should be singular = its.)
Rule 4: The student body aren't pleased, but it supported the coach. (aren't pleased = plural verb: The pronoun should be plural = they.)

     Few errors occur in number and person, but occasionally along come convoluted sentences—usually they are long—where subjects are plural and pronouns singular, or female subjects get labeled with a male pronoun. These mistakes are carelessness and the author knows better.

     Our grandmothers told us an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Twice in this article, I suggested a corrective measure is "to make the pronoun go away." More efficient is not to write sentences in the first place in which you do not understand the grammatical parts. The four great sins in writing are redundancy, verbosity, tautology and ambiguity. Find ways of avoiding them and you will not have pronoun problems. If choosing who or whom, he or she, that or which, or similar pronoun alternates perplexes you, recast your sentences to make the problems go away. In 99 cases out of 100, your writing will be more concise thereby avoiding the four great sins.

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Number 77 — March 24, 2006
Grammar Is Important

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I suppose I could go on writing about pronouns for a dog's age, but enough is enough, so let's switch to a bit of history. An interesting lecture series on tape called The History of the English Language. (The Teaching Company, Course No. 802.) begins with the origins of English from the various cultures infiltrating the British Isles—the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes and finally the French after the Norman Conquest—each leaving their impact on our language. Regional dialect is a major emphasis of the course. In the time of King Alfred in the late tenth century, the English dialect of one geographical area could be incomprehensible in other areas. The lecturer tells a humorous story of travelers from Northumberland asking a Kent farmer's wife for eggs, both speaking English in their regional dialects. The woman could not understand the question and replied, "I'm sorry, sirs, I don't speak French."
     I fast forward to the mid eighteenth century. In 1761, Joseph Priestley, Scotch empiricist and scientist, published his first edition of Rudiments of English Grammar. He argued grammar was not an essential quality of language but "a collection of observations on the structure of it, and a system of rules for the proper use of it." He favored simplicity in language, essentially suggesting that speakers and writers should not be obligated to obey a prescribed manner of expression. His theory became known as descriptivism.
     In 1762, Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, published his first edition of Principles of English Grammar. He contended grammar was essential to a language, basing his teaching of English on Latin. He preached prescriptivism; the belief that language should be governed by prescriptions or rules for speaking and writing. "To teach what is right by teaching what is right and wrong."
     These two schools of thought expanded to America as the English language moved across the ocean where Americans soon developed regional dialects, much of it infiltrating our literature. For example:

  • The southern voice of Faulkner: "Pappy ran out to the gate and told him not to come fooling around there no more." (Soldier's Pay);
  • The New York voice of Tom Wolfe: "A drunken woman got out of an automobile … screaming indictments … , 'Yuh gotta pay me, ya big bum!' she yelled." (No Door);
  • The underworld voice of Richard Condon: "Whadda you think? I just got off the boat?" (Prizzi's Family).

     An endless stream of descriptive writing pervades American literature from the founding of this country to the present day, but the rules of grammar are not to be ignored. Even as we read these fractured examples, we know if we delve further into each author's work, we will find a knowledge and understanding of the rules of grammar. To know what is wrong, we must first know what is right. Thus, while descriptivism appears to be the popular choice, we should not cast prescriptivism aside.
     The reason I write articles every week is simple: Grammar is important. In this series, I have discussed such grammatical questions as restrictive and non-restrictive elements, appositives, active and passives voices, and on and on for 75 weeks with the sole objective of bringing grammar to the forefront and I have hardly scratched the surface. Grammatically Correct (by Anne Stilman) contains over 300 pages, probably close to 100,000 words, every one of them directed at understanding grammar.


     There is a lot to learn. (In this case, there is a pronoun whose antecedent is grammar in general; it is not used here as a substitute subject.) Currently, my recent discussion happened to be about pronouns, a source of errors for many writers. Who or whom; that or which; she or her? Which to use where, and when, and why? An author's responsibility is to know the correct choice even when writing in the vernacular.

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Number 78 — March 31, 2006
Introducing The Power of Four

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I once considered producing a book on creative writing I proposed to call The Power of Four. My advisers frowned on the idea, but it lingered in my imagination. Last week, I received a short story—only 235 words—with a request for comment. Written in dialogue without tags (Mama said, Daughter said), scene setting, exposition, and character description, the story nonetheless develops good imagery. How did the author achieve this? Through invoking the writing formula I talk and write about all the time:

"GOAL versus OBSTACLE breeds CONFLICT that leads to ACTION and results in RESOLUTION."

     The story line is a daughter telling her mother she met a man who has serious intentions, while the Mother expresses doubts and concerns. I sensed room for improvement and made a few recommendations for the author's consideration.
     I suggested a need to increase the contrast between daughter and mother to heighten the conflict. Mama could be an irascible, old woman with a bagful of complaints who answers a question with a question. For example:
     "How are you. Mama?"
     "How am I? Such an ache in my head."
     The daughter understands, loves and respects her mother. Her words point to a good education as she uses more or less grammatically correct speech. Her responses are patient and kind, not confrontational as Mama's seem to be. The tension in the story rises as Mama questions each new piece of information in her backwards lingo, suggesting—but never saying—she will never bless the new relationship. The flaw I noted in the author's presentation was lack of a turning point in the exchange. About three quarters of the way through something should cause a thaw in Mama's seeming opposition. For instance, something as simple as a comment about the man's eyes:
     "Eyes? What color eyes?"
     "Blue, Mama. As blue as the sky."
     "Ah! Remember your father? Such deep blue eyes he had."
     Before this point, the reader should feel Mama opposes her daughter's new love. Although Mama challenges her daughter, in her heart the news delights her, but the reader should not become aware of this until the end. The turning point leads to the final line—" …when's the wedding?"—and the reader sees Mama's true feelings.
     While writing my report, my mind reverted to The Power of Four idea my mentors persuaded me to abandon. I wanted to present the argument that any source, such as nursery rhymes, can serve as the idea underlying a story. In reality, I did cheat a little on their advice and the following table appeared in my Creative Writing Workshop-Second Edition.

Chances are strong if you …
     1. omit goals, obstacles and conflicts;
     2. fail to identify characters attributes;
     3. do not set story events and signposts;
     4. and have no ides of the crucial event;
               … then your story will likely fail.

     I called the process The Power of Four. A procedure so ridiculously simple, there is no reason to fail. I contend by setting yourself on the right course, your story plot will evolve as if by magic.
     So, beginning next week, I will start a series titled Finding the Story in which I will examine my thesis called The Power of Four. I imagine it will continue for several weeks.


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Number 79 — April 7, 2006
The Art of Story Planning – Part 1

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Gifted authors have an artistry for words. In all my years of attending writing conferences, I have met only one such person; a young man who won a large cash reward in the first writing contest he entered. Writing was so easy for him, he chose a different career path, which in his eyes offered more challenge. In the 1960's, while working in Nova Scotia on a paper mill project, I met an engineer who played the piano beautifully without ever having had a lesson. He selected a career in engineering because he had no interest in music; it was too easy. The stories of other gifted people who lacked the motivation to develop their natural talent are legion. This is not to exclude the less talented from success. Many people dream of goals well beyond their natural ability. Wonderful success stories result, leading us to ask how they did it? I believe the answer is dedication and determination, which means setting goals, enabling plans and persevering with unrelenting resolve.
     Nobody would consider a construction project without a plan because the results of error are too severe. Most people would not take a vacation without a targeted destination because the results of error are too expensive. Few of us would begin our days without a plan—work, church, shop, party—because the results are too inordinate leading to idleness and despondency. So why would authors try to write without a plan? I think the answer may be because the method to create and fulfill a plan remains unexplained. My intent in the following articles is to address this vacuity.
     The technique I propose is to examine my own work. I preface my presentation with the caution that techniques of story planning may be individualistic and not ritualistic. So I address the subject not from the dictatorial this is how to do it, but from the demonstrative this is how I do it in the hopes that you may develop you own individualism from seeing mine. But, neither I nor anyone else can teach writing. Instructors can recite the governing rules, offer comments and critiques, and point to the works of authors who display extraordinary skills and achievements. Compiling words to tell a story is a skill authors are either born with or they must master on their own. So let's begin with my contribution.
     The four steps in story creation are finding, creating, writing and revising all of which are possible with or without a plan. Does this sound familiar? Do you notice something tugging at your memory? You should because I've written it before in this series and said it many times in my lectures. Instead of repeating my theme again, I offer an assignment for this week. I ask you to reread the articles on freewriting and creating a story, pages 47 to 65 and then we'll get on with the birthing process. In so doing, I will use my first novel, The Naked Jaybird, as the subject.

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Number 80 — April 14, 2006
The Art of Story Planning – Part 2

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Before I begin, let's review the four-step procedure I use to plan a story.

  1. Goals, obstacles and conflicts: At least one character will have the goal of solving the story problem and at least one character will provide opposition to finding the solution. The confrontation creates conflict.
  2. To be in conflict, logic dictates the pro and con characters must have conflicting attributes, meaning their beliefs, ethics, morals, philosophies, motivations and purposes are in opposition in some sense.
  3. Story events point to signposts, meaning the characters follow a particular path to resolve the problem.
  4. One single event—that I call the crucial event—results in the last signpost that leads to the climax and story resolution.

     Here is another analogy. I spent more than forty years in the commercial construction industry. My work began with the arrival of plans from an owner or architect with a request to price the work shown on the drawings. This involved an evaluation of every part of the proposed work, and a determination of an action plan if my company received a contract award. When that happened, a superintendent took charge of the work in which he had to make many more decisions than considered in the price evaluation, which nonetheless served as the foundation for his decisions. The process I want to describe now equates to the cost evaluation before the work begins. Its purpose is to create a foundation on which I will build my book if I elect to continue with it. Later, when I put on my "superintendent's" hat and become the author of the book, I will have to make many more decisions, some of which will be at variance with my first plan. But, my four-step plan sets a course towards a completed story in the same sense I set the superintendent on his way towards a completed building guided by a plan to control the work flow.
     All story planning begins with an idea. In the same way I invoked the idea of Jack and Jill going uphill to fetch a pail of water described in Article 21, I must have an idea to start my next story. In 1999, a Canadian newsmagazine published an article speculating the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) might no longer police white-collar crime in large corporations. (I do not know if they ever enabled such a policy). This suggested a strong-minded executive could possibly exercise enough control to benefit through pretense or deception. Two other concurrent news stories occupied the media: negotiations on free trade and Chinese military speculations about the downfall of America. With these ideas in mind, I began to exercise my imagination.
     I mulled a variety of choices before selecting the president of a Canadian bank as the instigator. A person in such a position would necessarily be a smooth-talking, dynamic individual. In opposition, I would need a bumbling, somewhat inept, inspector with unlimited tenacity to expose the culprit. Early in my deliberations, I decided the inspector would be the storyteller, making him both the protagonist and the main character. (See articles 10 and 11 for definition of these terms.) I felt I needed a sterling name for this guy, so I dubbed him Rolls Royce, which ultimately became Rolland Royce. Logically, he would have to be an employee of the bank as an internal inspector to replace the federal police force that no longer policed white-collar crime. Consequently, Royce works for and is under the control of the perpetrator of the crime. What crime? I didn't have the slightest notion.
     I pause here to suggest words of caution: Slow down. Paradoxically, taking time to plan results in time saving. My flight to Phoenix story is a good example. More care at the outset would have avoided the catastrophe at the end.

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