Quick Grammar Lesson Two: Less vs. Fewer

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a grammar lesson; it’s a vocabulary lesson. But I’m including it anyway because it was requested.

Less and fewer are commonly confused, and there are plenty of instances where the error has been institutionalized to the point that it’s believed to be correct (For example: “15 items or less” at the grocery store). Keeping these two adjectives straight is really pretty easy, if you just remember two simple rules:

1. Less is for mass or abstract objects (time, money, food), while fewer refers to specific, countable objects (hours, dollars, apples).

2. Less is used with singular words or plurals that don’t end with “s,” while fewer is used with plurals that end with “s.”

What does this mean? Here are some examples:

I plan to watch less TV by saving fewer shows to my DVR.

There are fewer products being manufactured in the Rust Belt, so there is less employment available.

I want to eat less, so I need to bake fewer cakes.

Got it? The “s” is really the easiest way to remember: Words that end in “s” are described with “fewer.” Of course, like any grammatical (or vocabulary) rule, there are always exceptions. And there are also cases where common usage trumps “correct” usage—”10 items or less” might be incorrect, but don’t be surprised if you’re told to get a life when you inform your local grocery store.

Playing with perspective: A Visit From the Goon Squad

I am a lucky, lucky book lover.

A few months ago, I casually retweeted a @VintageAnchor tweet about a contest to win a call from Jennifer Egan for my book club. And I was one of three people who won the call. A week after that, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad, and a few weeks later my book club actually had a chance to talk to her over the phone about her book.

She was wonderful—very prepared, answered all our questions, and had lots of anecdotes about the book and the writing of it to share. This was our club’s second Egan book (we read The Keep two years ago), and we had plenty of questions about her experimental style.

One thing that particularly stood out for me in this call (Warning: Spoilers ahead) was near the end, when we were discussing the final chapters of the book, set in the future. I mentioned that I found the last chapter absolutely terrifying and asked if Ms. Egan frequently got that reaction. It turns out she does; people find the environmental foreshadowing an eerie possibility for our future. But that wasn’t what I was talking about at all. When I asked the question, I was thinking of a scene between two characters in a restaurant, when a teenage girl begins texting the person sitting across the table from her because she feels too uncomfortable actually speaking to him. I think it speaks to the power of the world Ms. Egan created that there’s plenty of fear to go around, while the chapter is ultimately about music bringing people together and offering them simple hope.

We all have different things that we’re afraid of, but the beauty of using different perspectives in a long piece like this is that you get to understand all the variations of fear that exist. We stay in Sasha’s head for a while and learn her fears, then later we see those fears overcome from another perspective. By the time we get to the end, we’ve faced down so many fears that all that’s left is the unknown future and the vaguely frightening and hopeful possibilities it affords us. That’s one reason why I think the experimental style of this “shnovel” or novel made of short stories (a phrase invented by the great Jack Driscoll) is so captivating is that it offers us this variety of perspectives, not just for the sake of variety as an end itself, but as a means of finding the best way to explore each character.

Not all perspectives work for all characters. Some must be written in third person past tense, others first person present. If you try to match the wrong perspective to the character and the story you’re telling, it just doesn’t work. Your piece won’t sing the way it should. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way myself, when, after a little experimentation, I found myself rewriting the first 50 pages of my grad school novel from a different perspective. You can’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means throwing out work or starting over. It’s the only way to learn how the story wants to be told. The reason Egan was successful with this novel was that she experimented and started again and threw away pieces that weren’t working and ultimately came up with a Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of various viewpoints that all feel honest, rather than form driven or experimental for the sake of experiment.

Quick Grammar Lesson One: Em-dashes, En-dashes and Hyphens

One of the most common errors I see when copyediting is confusion of em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens. I don’t think these dashes are commonly taught in school—I know I learned the difference between them my first year in publishing. So here’s a quick lesson:

Em-dashes are the triple length dashes that separate ideas in a sentence.
Example: My dog—who loves to run—is chasing her tail.
Often em-dashes are used in place of parentheses.

En-dashes are (usually) double length dashes that are used to show ranges.
Example: The shrubs may grow 36–42 in. high.
En-dashes are usually used between numbers, like dates or measurements. In some fonts, en-dashes and hyphens are indistinguishable.

Hyphens are a single dash used within words (such as en-dash and em-dash), to join words (such as compound adjectives) or to break words at the end of a line.
Example: She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini.

Like most grammar rules, these aren’t set in stone. Publications have their own styles. Many people use space–en-dash–space instead of an em-dash for example. Or they use a hyphen instead of a an en-dash. Or, when there is a hyphenated phrase containing a hyphenated word, the hyphens between words become en-dashes (as in the sentence before last).

To make it easy, here are three basics to remember:
1. Always use a single short dash (hyphen) to join words or break a line.
2. Always use a longer dash (en-dash or em-dash) to separate thoughts in a sentence.
3. Be consistent.

I suspect one reason people often use the wrong dash is that they don’t know how to insert the correct one. Hyphens are standard on any keyboard, including most smartphone keyboards. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can find both en- and em-dashes on the Symbol list on the Insert menu. On a Mac, the shortcut for en-dash is option+- and for em-dash is option+shift+-. If you can’t figure out how to make a real en-dash or em-dash, you can substitute a hyphen for an en-dash and two hyphens (–) for an em-dash.

Truth be told, these are old printer conventions, and as digital publishing evolves, things are going to change. As with most grammar quibbles, the important thing is to be consistent.

A Gate at the Stairs: Writing from a different perspective

Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs a classic coming of age story, set in a Wisconsin college town in the year following 9/11. Tassie Keltjin is a naive 20-year-old, looking to make money babysitting. Her job with a couple of east-coast transplants and their newly adopted bi-racial daughter brings both love and heartbreak into her life. The fear, uncertainty and racial issues of the post-9/11 world and War of Terror have an unanticipated impact on her sheltered life, both through her romantic experiences and family issues.

Moore’s descriptions and elegant sentences capture the post-adolescence of her young narrator perfectly. There’s an almost willful innocence, and sometimes ignorance, behind Tassie’s every move and thought, and the characters—even those that appear only briefly and then disappear—often tell us more about her and her mistakes and misperceptions than Tassie seems to realize for herself.

As a reader, I did run into a real dilemma reading this novel. As enjoyable as Moore’s writing is (as she does have a great style), the perspective and timing of the novel clashed completely with my own experiences. Perhaps I’m over-identifying (and it’s quite likely), but as a native Wisconsinite, who was in college at the time of 9/11, only a year older than the narrator, working as a part-time babysitter and as a classroom assistant in an urban kindergarten class in a Midwestern city with a sizeable college community, the perspective struck me as distinctly East Coast. The attitudes, especially in regard to race and world view, were exaggerated. I could tell that Moore, though she might teach at Madison, is definitely not a Midwesterner or a Wisconsinite. There were stereotypes and just some outright ignorance about the people and places she was writing about (especially Green Bay). Granted, young people exploring the world on their own for the first time will typically look back at their home with a little disdain (I know I did at that age), but since the narrator was looking back over a distance of time, this should have been tempered. It really read as though the mother, Sarah, was the one telling the story at times. Several members of my book club commented that the novel felt as though it were taking place ten or twenty years earlier than it was actually set. The Midwest of the novel is seriously dated.

How do we, as writers, write from a different perspective? Moore crafted a very well-written novel with a beautiful story, but the perspective will probably fail with many who should identify with it. Writers must stretch themselves to write beyond their own experience, but how do we stop short of writing caricatures? How do we capture a truth that we can’t know from experience? This is an issue I’ve encountered again and again: when the male author fails to capture the female perspective, when the author messed up the geography of my city, when I see movies featuring people who work as assistant editors living huge loft apartments…. Am I the only one who has this issue? I love reading stories about people who are vastly different from me in part because there’s little risk of this happening.

As a writer I don’t want to limit myself, but I’m reluctant to try to write from a male perspective. I think it’s incredibly brave when writers reach beyond their narrow world scope and try something different. (And in many ways, I think Fantasy and Sci Fi manage to escape this dilemma because none of us know what it’s like to live in the worlds these writers create.)

I’d be interested to know who you think writes well from a different perspective. What makes them successful?

Endings and beginnings

Benny

We lost our dog Benny last week. Not my dog, really, not anymore, but the last dog we got when I was still somewhat living at home. The silly, neurotic dog that sat on my feet day after day as I prepped application after application when I came home from college. The dog that had to do three counter-clockwise circles and army crawl under the dining room table every time he went from the kitchen to the front door. He was old, and skinny, and sick on regular basis the last few months and then, finally, he was done.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot this last week, particularly about my beginning with Benny. I was in California for the summer when he was born in our basement, part of Riley’s only litter. I almost missed him entirely, but his two littermates picked on him so much and so often that my parents kept him with them, separated from the other puppies for his own protection. By the end of the summer, they were so attached they couldn’t give him up. My mother had told me that the puppies had been taken away by the breeder, and I was disappointed to miss them entirely.

Riley (Benny's mother)

I flew back to Wisconsin on a red-eye flight, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I stumbled up the front-steps, bleary-eyed in every way possible, opened our front door, and pretty much tripped over him as he bounded outside.

New puppies are a marvelous distraction.

My story with Benny has a clean beginning, and a slow, unwinding end. I’ve been thinking about that, and how easy and difficult it is to write about beginnings and endings like that. Sometimes beginnings creep up so gradually you don’t know where to start. With my grandmother, for instance–where would I begin that story? Endings are, usually, much easier. Often there’s a definite finish.

One common problem that writers face is starting too early. Introductions drag on and on. Or a novel opens with a character’s entire back story, instead starting with the beginning of the story itself. (For this reason, I love Kate Atkinson’s “I am conceived!” beginning of Behind the Scenes at the Museum. You can only get away with this on purpose.)

How do we know where to begin? I think it’s part of the problem I’m having getting this blog going–I keep wanting all the support pages, the About Me and Links and other decorations to be in place before I start the conversation. I want the timing to be perfect, so I have time to think and write and edit everyday. But, obviously, that will never happen. Life always happens. There’s always going to be something.

This week, my dog died. But I’m going to try to begin here anyway.

“Writing is thinking”

Recently one of my friends shared this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education with me. “The Shadow Scholar” is essentially a freelance writer, writing assignments for students. I was fascinated with this article for a few reasons.

1. Ethics aside, I think this would be a fun and interesting job. Think of how much you would learn.

2. It’s really tragic. Think of all the things these students don’t learn.

Note: It should go without saying, but I feel compelled to mention I have a pretty strong anti-cheating stance. I’ve seen a very lackadaisical attitude towards cheating over the last few years, and it troubles me. But that’s not what this particular musing is about, so we’re not getting into ethics today.

Writing assignments aren’t just an exercise to prove you understand the material and can say something intelligent about it. Writing is about thinking deeply on a topic. The more you revisit and revise, the more creative and critical you become and the better you understand your subject. This is why revision and editing are the core of good writing and why, no matter how well you write or how well you understand your subject, writing about it always allows you to learn more–not just about the topic, but about your own thinking.

When I interviewed with my bosses’ boss for my current position, she said something that made me want to work with her: “Writing is thinking.”

Many people think that learning to write well is about mastering the mechanics of grammar or developing your own style. That’s important, it’s true, because without these fundamentals no one will understand what you are trying to say. However, developing an essay or a story or any other kind of writing is about exploration, discovering that idea that is uniquely yours and finding the best way to articulate it to someone else.

The best writers examine ideas both on a large scale (theme, logic, etc.) and a minute scale (Does this word, this sentence convey my ideas as clearly as possible?). If students skip writing assignments thinking that they can have those larger ideas while skipping the minutiae, they really are cheating themselves–although I suspect they don’t care to begin with. They don’t learn to think critically on the topic, and I suspect that the lack of emphasis on writing in school, and the misconception that good writing is all about grammar, is why there is such a lack of critical thinking (and good writing skills) in the work force.

As to my comment that the Shadow Scholar must learn a lot–sadly that can’t possibly be the case as fast as he is writing. There’s no time for the examination required of good writing. So there really are no winners here.