Hugo nomination baby!

Nominated, baby!Speculative Fiction 2012 has been nominated for a Hugo!

That’s the book in which one of my posts has been published, OMG.

Whilst the nomination is really for our illustrious editors, Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, I am still tickled pink to have my essay included in something that’s been nominated for a Hugo. That’s, like, whoa.

I remember being a lonely geek girl smelling the books in WH Smith, gazing with wide eyes at books with dragons and spaceships that said on them ‘Nominated for a Hugo Award’, and I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew it was important. The idea that my writing might be in a book nominated for such an award makes me very happy indeed.

I’m tickled pink for me and I’m tickled pink for Jared and Justin and all the other contributors, and I’m tickled for Margaret Cavendish, too – writer of the first science fiction novel whose work is frequently overlooked, and for whom my essay sought to correct an oversight of history. Recognition of SpecFic 2012 gives the essays therein a certain status, and I hope that it adds weight to my words that this should be a thing more people should be aware of, too.

So, anyway, I’m really pleased. Of course, I hope we Jared and Justin win as well, but just being nominated is beyond rad. :D :D :D

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Proofread Along with Rhube #4: Colons and the Rules of Grammar

An excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of GawthwateMost people find colons to be more intuitive than semi-colons, but even so, it helps to have a clear idea of when to use them, rather than just a general feeling. Some confuse them with semi-colons, or have a general uncertainty about which is appropriate and, where intuitions are confused, it’s easy to go wrong. There are also a number of myths about colons. All of which can turn something that’s actually quite straightforward to use into an intimidating nightmare.

But never fear! Rhube is here!

What I’m gonna do, first off, is give you the rules of colon use. If you follow these, you’ll be doing it right. But I’ll also go on to debunk some of the myths about colons that might be floating around confusing you about which rules are the real rules. Then I get into what this rules business is about, anyway, and my thoughts on how to walk the line of creativity vs intelligibility in the matter of using and breaking the ‘rules’.

Colons: the Rules

When to use a colon:

1. to introduce a list (such as this list)

2. to introduce an explanation or example that clarifies the clause that precedes it

The example in my excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate (above) performs both these functions (lists often perform an explanatory or expansive role for some aspect of the clause that precedes them):

Calith learnt all the skills he was going to need in battle: sword fighting, lances, archery and that sort of thing

This is both a clarification of the kind of skills Calith needs in order to go into battle, and a list of those skills.

Note that sometimes (usually only in non-fiction works) a colon can be used to introduce what is called ‘displayed material’. It’s ‘displayed’ in the sense that it’s set off from the rest of the text – typically by being placed on a separate line (or lines), with extra line space before and after, and often also indented (set further into the page horizontally), as is the case with the quotation above. Displayed material will perform one of the two roles listed above, but note that listed items are usually only displayed where they constitute a full proposition (statement/independent clause), rather than a single word or brief phrase. Quotations are usually only set as displayed material if they are quite long, or if they are of a form where parts of the text are divided by ‘lines’ (i.e. poetry, lyrics, plays).

Styles differ as to how displayed propositions should be treated. These can be numbered (’1, 2, 3…’, ‘i, ii, iii…’, ‘a, b, c…’) or bullet-pointed. Bullet points are less accessible (they are harder for screen readers, used by blind and visually impaired people, to process), so I try to avoid those. If you do use bullet points, some people will tell you to put a semi-colon at the end of the bullet point. Grammatically, this is wrong. Bullet points are used for independent clauses, just like semi-colons, but they render the semi-colon unnecessary – they perform the same role. However, I have been told that bullet points are made more intelligible to screen readers if used in conjunction with semi-colons, so then you have to choose between style and accessibility. I prefer not to use them at all to avoid the conflict.

Numbered lists introduced by a colon also should not have terminal punctuation. A lot of people want to use a full-stop at the end of each one. This doesn’t make sense, in that each is part of a list introduced by the colon, so they’re all part of the same sentence, and therefore shouldn’t be punctuated by full-stops. You also really ought not to include more than one sentence in one bullet point or numbered proposition (where introduced by a colon) – it’s supposed to be just one point you’re making, and if you’re using more than one sentence, you’re making more than one point. If you really feel the need, try a semi-colon instead, but where possible, consider if the point doesn’t really deserve it’s own line. Also, consider that numbered lists permit of more than one level. Your first level can be numbered ’1, 2, 3…’, and then you can have sub-lists of points dependent on 1, or 2, or 3, numbered by ‘a, b, c…’ or ‘i, ii, ii…’ (convention is to avoid using the same type of numbering more than once in your list, as this confuses the reader and inhibits your ability to refer back to numbered statements later on). Some people like to put a full-stop at the end of the final numbered statement, ending the ‘sentence’. I prefer not to. I follow OUP style, which treats displayed lists as a break in conventional punctuation, but I can see the argument the other way, and have worked with style guides that recommend that.

At the end of the day: if it’s up to you, and there is disagreement amongst style guides, pick what you like and stick to it; if you’re working for a company or person with a specific style guide, you follow the style guide, regardless of person feelings.

Colons: myths

A lot of people think that you need a capital letter after a colon. You do not. The thinking is that, when it comes to colons and semi-colons, you obey the dot at the lower level. I.e. colons have a point at the bottom, so they should be treated like full-stops, and the next letter has a capital letter; semi-colons have a comma at the bottom, so they should be treated like commas. This is misguided. There are no full-stops or commas in either colons or semi-colons. They are their own symbols, they merely resemble commas and full-stops in form. If you’re using a colon or a semi-colon then you are making the decision that you want whatever follows to be treated as part of the same sentence as what has gone before. So you don’t use a capital letter after a colon as though you were starting a new sentence.

EXCEPT, where  a colon introduces displayed material that is the start of a new sentence (typically only in quotation), OR where a colon introduces a question. Not all style guides agree on these exceptions. But the thinking is that sometimes a colon allows you to introduce a whole new sentence. This is typically only in the case of questions, because the tone of the independent clause following the colon is entirely different to the tone of the sentence prior to the colon. Prior to the colon is not a question, after the colon is, and we indicate that by using a capital letter as though it were a new sentence.

Personally, I’m inclined to never use a capital letter after a colon. However, when I’m editing, I follow the guide given. It’s like the golden rule of editing and proofreading: house style always trumps personal preferences.

Another myth is that you can also use semi-colons to introduce lists and explanatory clauses. I don’t know where this one comes from, but I suspect it originates in a desire to use semi-colons combined with an uncertainty about when to use them. Some people seem to view semi-colons as anathema, others as though they are a mark of sophistication. At the end of the day, they are neither. Colons and semi-colons are tools, and to be effective they need to have discrete roles.

Rules, flexibility, and creativity

You may be concerned about this laying-down-of-rule-ness. Didn’t I say in my first post that it’s all just convention, and a lot of the conventions conflict? Well, yes. All of language is convention, and language is by nature fluid and dynamic and always changing. The flipside of that is that we need to hold some stuff still in order to make sense of the rest of the moving masses. And, actually, as much as language is fluid, the vast majority of it is widely agreed upon within the language – that’s what distinguishes one language from another. In English, we all agree that a cat is a ‘cat’, whereas in French it’s a ‘chat’, and whilst those are similar, they are distinct, and we distinguish ourselves as language users by which group of rules we broadly stick to. And whilst larger groups of languages share similar punctuation rules, there can be some variation, there, too. So, where the English use quotation marks, the French use guillemets: « »

So, some of it is about making sure we’re all doing enough the same to be understood. Most writers are in the business of wanting to communicate with their readers as easily as possible, so it’s best to follow the central conventions of your language. When I say that something is a ‘rule’, that’s what I’m saying: that if you don’t follow it it will be jarring and/or confusing to your reader.

Sometimes, you may have a specific reason for wanting to do something even though it might be jarring to the reader – or even because it will – especially if you’re into experimentation with form and style. You just need to be sure you know why you’re doing it, and what affect you’re trying to achieve. Emily Dickenson made heavy use of the ‘dash’ in place of conventional punctuation, both to give her poems a sense of urgency and as a deliberate violation male, patriarchal restriction on female creativity. e. e. cummings’s use of lowercase and avoidance of full-stops also represent a break with tradition and a rejection of artificially imposed absolutes. These are interesting and creative innovations that have changed the way we view language today. But if you think using a semi-colon where a colon is needed sends a similarly important message, you may wish to check with yourself whether the message you intend is going to clearly come across.

I really hate the oft-asserted idea that you ‘need to know the rules before you can break them’. There’s a strong whiff of elitism about it, and I feel like it introduces an extra layer of uncertainty that inhibits creativity. Most of us have successfully internalised the majority of the rules of grammar. Human beings are really startlingly good at understanding one another and how to use at least their first language. I think if you tell people that they need to know the rules before they can break them there’s an implicit attempt (conscious or not) to control who gets to be an innovator.

I don’t think most people who say ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them’ consciously mean to inhibit other people – I think there’s a deeper, better truth, which is what they intend to convey, bundled up with this uncomfortable baggage. And this is the truth that there is a difference between making a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply ignoring the rules because you think they don’t matter.

It’s a fine line. It’s difficult to provide a rule for when it’s ‘OK’ to break the rules, which is why I think people go for the overly restrictive version – it’s easier to encapsulate. What is the difference between a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply thinking that grammar doesn’t matter? Is not thinking that traditional grammar doesn’t matter itself an act of rebellion? I think the answer is ‘In some cases’.

How I would make the judgement call is based on how likely your aim is to come across to your reader. At the end of the day, language is all about communication. You can choose to stop trying to use the form of language – the signs and syntax that are usually used for words and sentences – to try to convey meaning, but at that point, you’re no longer engaging with language at all. You just look, superficially, as though you are. As long as you’re still trying to convey something to your reader, the success of that act is still going to play a role in determining whether your methods were suitable to the task.

Text-speak is widely criticised as laziness and a failure to learn rules – always be wary of criticisms of language innovation that go in the direction from privilege and age towards the less privileged and youth, especially where they use words like ‘laziness’. But what we see is actually the development of new rules designed to facilitate a specific purpose: quick and easy communication. The users of this language group are often criticised from outside by complaints of ‘But I can’t understand a word you’re saying!’ It’s tempting to see this as satisfying my criterion of failure-to-convey-meaning, but the crucial point is that the ones who are failing to understand are not the intended recipients of the meaning. Text-speak has its own grammar and rules - rules which are understood by those who use it. Those who will not take the trouble to learn those rules when they wish to communicate with those who use it, they are the ones who are being lazy. Or, perhaps more accurately: disingenuous. For if they had really wanted to communicate, they could have learnt the rules – they are not that complicated. The ire comes not from the laziness of text-speak users, but from a frustration with being expected to learn new rules when one has already learnt a set of rules for a shared language, and from the sense that one is being excluded from communication by those to whom one expected to be able to communicate with ease.

Which, of course, is one of the purposes of text-speak: to exclude parents and the uninitiated. One can have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with being excluded from a conversation, but falling back on elitism to try and bully the other person into talking in a way you can understand is an action one should be wary of.

'Hello, world' rendered in leet-speak, lolcat, and doge.What I find particularly wonderful is that from functional adaptations, like text-speak, and deliberately exclusionary languages, like 1337 (AKA ‘Leet’), we see an evolution of language experimentation, and joyful play in other internet-languages, like lolcat, and, more recently, doge. There have even been translations of The Bible into lolcat, and a LOLCODE coding language. These are breakings of the rules of grammar with the intent to forge new ones, and for which an expression of joy and playfulness is a central component of most communications using these rules. Laziness? No, not in translating the Bible into lolcat, or devising a whole computer code in lolcat. But there is a definite intent and the rules have been broken and reforged with purpose.

And note that, although people have since retro-analysed lolcat and doge for grammar rules, these evolved organically. You can break the traditional rules of grammar without either trying to or even necessarily being able to articulate the traditional rules yourself.

But if you want to be a successful communicator with some audience, you should think about whether the way you break old rules or forge new ones is likely to communicate the desired effect upon the reader. Even if you only think about it in such as way as ‘If cats spoke, it would be with imperfect grammar and spelling’ or ‘If dogs spoke, it would be with great enthusiasm and they would be easily distracted’. Playing with languages doesn’t have to be stressful or overthought, but understanding the rules can help you to make informed judgements about when to break them.

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Eve’s Apology: A Reading for International Poetry Day

The Dream of Pilate's Wife, by Alphonse François

The Dream of Pilate’s Wife, by Alphonse François

It’s International Poetry Day! What better day to celebrate the poetry of one of the women I celebrated on International Women’s Day? Aemelia Lanyer – first female poet to be published in the English language.

Click below for a reading of her ‘Eve’s Apology’, read by me. ‘Eve’s Apology’ (here meaning ‘defence’, rather than ‘sorry about that’) is an extract from the epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. It’s from the bit where Pilate’s wife is trying to persuade him to pardon Jesus, and Pilate thinks he can just wash his hands of the matter and put it all on the crowd. And Pilate’s wife is, like, ‘You men are always shitting on women because Eve ate the apple in the garden of Eden and then everything sucked, but bitch? We’ve suffered enough. And, frankly, it wasn’t our fault, anyway, ’cause Adam never told Eve what God said about not eating from that tree. And now you’re gonna do this, even though God sent me this dream about how crappy an idea this is? And I’ve told you my dream, so if you think you can wash your hands on this, then LOL, because men won’t have shit on women after this.’

It’s basically a massive smackdown, and you gotta listen to it to really feel the way it builds.

Read more about Aemelia Lanyer in my post for International Women’s Day.

(If you enjoy this reading, please consider putting a little something in the tip jar – it’s helps me to add a little extra to this blog.)

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A question about poetry…

I’ve learnt a lot about fiction publishing, over the years, but not so much poetry. I was runner-up for the Berkshire Poetry Prize a teenager, but that’s about it. I write poetry so infrequently that I only rarely think about trying to get it published.

But I think some of my poems are pretty good (some not so much, but that’s why no one gets to look in my poetry folder without my permission), and then I… don’t know what to do with them, really. I don’t write them to just sit on a folder in my computer, but that’s all most of them do.

I wrote a poem today. I think it’s pretty good. It’s punchy, political, personal. And I was like, well… what do I do with this, now? I looked around the web a bit. I’m so used to only looking for places that pay pro or semi-pro rates for speculative fiction, I’m basically clueless when it comes to anything else. What I’ve gathered is that, a) there are a lot of poetry magazines out there, b) a lot of them don’t pay, c) most of them still want snail-mail submissions (o_O), d) I have no clue how well respected any of them are or aren’t.

In short, although I know a few poets and follow some blogs and Twitter accounts of you guys, I know diddly squat about how you do what you do. I know I do not produce the quantity of work any of you do, and I know I am not in the league of the most successful poet I know, who has had her own anthologies published. I know some of you publish poems on your blogs. I know one person has turned his blog into a book. And I know that is not going to happen for me.

So, the question is: do you have any advice? You know, for someone who will always be more of a fiction writer than a poet, but who doesn’t want to just dismiss her poetry.

I feel like, for most of my adult years, I have assumed that I wasn’t good enough, in some sense. I’m not sure how, or quite when that happened. I have read some of my poetry in public, but not since my undergrad days, I don’t think. It’s weird, this lack of confidence, when in all other areas, my writing is the one thing I remain confident about and undaunted of. When did I become the sort of person who writes poetry only for a forgotten folder on her laptop?

Should I just set it free on the Internet? Part of me wants to, but a) that’s a death knell to future publishing of that work, and b) poetry is pretty personal – there’s a rawness to baring of emotions that I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with just putting on a blog. There’s something about putting it out there in a defined venue – one designed for poems to be displayed in – which is separate enough to make it OK.

When I was runner up in that poetry prize I was invited to a ‘poetry and pimms’ event, to read my poem. And I was allowed to take a guest. For some reason, it ended up being my granddad. It was excruciating. My poem was highly personal – about bullying – it was the last thing I wanted anyone in my family to hear, let alone my Granddad – I’m sure it wasn’t the sort of pleasant subject matter he expected from going to hear his granddaughter read her poetry. Maybe that had something to do with me not wanting to share my poetry, although I have done a few times, since.

The idea of turning my poetry out on this blog, for instance, gives me the heebie jeebies. But the idea of not sharing something I think is current and relevant to others just… makes me feel sad. Why did I write it, then? Except that I felt compelled to.

So, poets in the feed, how do you publish? Do you just put it online? How do you decide what to put online, and what to try to submit elsewhere? Where do you submit? Does payment signify anything in the poetry world? Or should I just accept that most places only publish poetry for the love?

I’d be really grateful for any thoughts you’d like to share.

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Read Along with Rhube #30: Chapters 59 and 60

Hey gang, it’s baaaaaack! With season four of Game of Thrones just a few short weeks away, I’ve dusted off my reading hat and picked up my now-somewhat-battered volume of A Dance with Dragons (it’s heavier than I remembered). We’re at p. 783 – only another 176 to go!

I’ve also created an index page, which you can find in the drop-down ‘Index’ menu above. This is mostly an aesthetic change (I didn’t realise I could make drop-down menus this way before!). At the moment I’m still intending to keep the original index post up to date (apart from anything else, I don’t relish the thought of changing the links across 29 posts), but the new, ever so slightly swankier version is there if you want to just grab if from a drop-down menu.

That little bit of admin over with, let’s see if we can remember where we are, shall we?

Chapter 59: The Discarded Knight (Ser Barristan Selmy)

So, Daenerys has flown off with her dragon and nobody’s really clear on what happened – people are worried that she’s dead. Ser Barristan is now serving Dany’s husband, Hizdahr zo Loraq; although, what with the poisoned locusts that Dany nearly ate, suspicions are ripe. Was this a plot by Hizdahr to assassinate his queen? Could the Prince of Dorne have been trying to assassinate Hizdahr, in his role as a rival suitor for Dany’s (already claimed) hand? The answer to that one is no, btw, Ser Barristan – that boy just isn’t cut out for this level of intrigue. Unfortunately, the King doesn’t know that, and Ser Barristan is now rather worried for the boy’s life.

Whilst Selmy is considering plots within plots, the Yunkish arrive along with their sellsword, Bloodbeard, who chucks the head of Admiral Groleo across the throne room. Groleo had been taken as a hostage to ensure the safety of the Yunkish men who had entered the city to sign a peace accord with Dany. One of these guys died whilst trying to flee the dragon, and this is their vengeance.

Worse than the insult of killing Groleo, though, the Yunkish (who return three Meereenese hostages along with the head) now demand the destruction of the dragons in exchange for the remaining hostages. It’s an outrageous demand, made the more so as the Yunkish flatly declare that Dany is dead, killed by her dragon (‘Weeds grow through her broken skull’) but where the situation demands a decisive response, Hizdahr simply calls the audience to an end and says he must consult with his council.

As the people disperse, Selmy catches up to Quentyn – the Dornish prince – and warns him to stay away from court in Dany’s absence and to seriously consider leaving altogether. Hizdahr is not going to take too kindly to another suitor to his wife’s hand hanging around even without the whole poisoned-locusts business. Quentyn recalls to Selmy that he is known as ‘Barristan the Bold’ and asks him what name he, Quentyn, can expect to be called if he returns to Dorne without Daenerys. To stay is hopeless, but to leave means a dishonour that this prince, in his youthful determination, cannot accept.

This is an interesting chapter – lots of politics afoot. Hizdahr’s rather pathetic lack of decisive response to the Yunkish insult raises some interesting questions. The poisoned locusts having been Hizdahr’s makes him a prime suspect, but one cannot help but ask whether this is really the sort of man who could so calmly offer his queen poisoned food in a plot to claim the throne for himself. I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a dupe who genuinely wanted peace, whilst the other political powers in Meereen plotted murder. What’s clear is that, whatever mess Daenerys was making of ruling, she was all that was holding this place together, and there is no one her equal to step into the power vacuum she’s left behind.

As for Quentyn… Oh Quentyn. I like you, I like you a lot, but you’re no more cut out for this place than Hizdahr is, and, as Selmy notes, you do not have the kind of fire in you that would attract a woman like Daenerys. This will not end well.

Chapter 60: The Spurned Suitor (Quentyn)

Speaking of the Prince, this chapter is his. His advisers think he should listen to Selmy, but Quentyn thinks he owes it to the men who have already lost their lives getting him here to see it through, so they stay. Quentyn, Quentyn – too nice for this world. As his advisers slur the names of the Meereenese (“‘I call them all Harzoo’”) Quentyn will have none of it, and demonstrates that he remembers every single one (that’s how we know he’s a nice boy).

And he’s smart, too. ‘They do not see. His friends had lost sight of his true purpose. The road leads through her, not to her. Daenerys is the means to the prize, not the prize itself.‘ He knows that Daenerys is not simply an empty symbol of power or a prize to be won and that, in many ways, her hand in marriage is not nearly as important as her command of her dragons. That is smart… but is he smart enough?

Quentyn’s new plan is to ask the Tattered Prince – the man whose contract he and his companions ran out on – to help him steal a dragon. It’s certainly audacious. If Quentyn’s right, it might even be a stroke of genius. If you want help from a mercenary you’ve betrayed, you have to intrigue him as well as pay him, and stealing a dragon certainly has that. Such a gutsy prize also allows the Tattered Prince to ask for something more than money. He asks for Pentos. And given that this is where the chapter rather dramatically ends, I think we can assume that this is the deal that is made.

As for the dragon? Quentyn’s reasoning is that he has the blood of the dragon within him, therefore he will also go unburned, as Daenerys does. He’s certainly shown himself to have grown in bravery and wits, but blood of the dragon… we saw how that line of thinking worked out for Viserys.

Quentyn, I so want things to workout for you. I can’t help but think that you would make a good and kind king. But I’m not sure that this is a world for good and kind kings.

Posted in A Dance With Dragons, Game of Thrones, RAWR, Read Along with Rhube | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Proofread Along with Rhube #3: Semi-colons

A excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of GawthwateLots of people think that semi-colons are some kind of arcane pedantry that will disappear with time. They are wrong. I am a big believer in language fluidity, but semi-colons are soooooo important, and understanding them will really help your writing style. Even something as simplistic as The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate can require the use of semi-colons in order for it to make sense and read comfortably. Admittedly, The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate is not going to be saved by judicious use of semi-colons, but they’re not miracle workers. Just very useful things.

So, let’s break it down: when should you use a semi-colon?

1. To separate list items, where the items themselves are complicated by commas

For example:

The meal involved passion fruit; apples, but only red ones; strawberries; and plums.

The list item, ‘apples’, has been accompanied by a qualifying, dependent clause: ‘but only red ones’. You can think of this kind of clause as functioning like an aside – you look away from the main thing you’re doing with the sentence to slip a little something to your reader that qualifies the main statement you are trying to make. The main thing that we’re saying in this sentence is that the meal involved passion fruit, apples, strawberries, and plums. But I also wanted to tell you that we’re only having red apples in this meal, so I’ve just thrown that in there as an aside on the ‘apple’ list-item.

We need a comma after ‘apples’ to distinguish the list item from the aside, but then we would be using commas to perform two functions in the list – delineating list items and delineating asides. And that would be confusing for the reader. She might have to pause and figure out what each comma means in context – she’s going to expect ‘but only red ones’ to be another list item, and she’s going to be puzzled when she finds that it is not. That’s going to disrupt the smooth reading of your writing. We don’t want that, so we replace all the list-item commas with semi-colons. Now the reader can clearly see where the list items are delineated from one another and where the aside is. It’s not fussy, it’s not pedantic, it’s helpful. This is one of the ways in which semi-colons can seem scary and foreign, but they actually make everyone’s lives much, much simpler.

Now, the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the quotation above is similar, but not the same as, the example of how I’ve used semi-colons in the screen-cap I took from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate above. That’s because I wanted to give you a straightforward case of how to use semi-colons for list items. The LoCoG case is more complicated:

The meal involved passion fruit, apples, strawberries, and plums as starters; roast chicken and turkey as the main meal; and, for dessert, strawberries in cream.

What we actually have, here, are three separate lists within an over-arching list. I’ve listed both the total contents of the meal and the contents for each course of the meal. It’s a list where the list items contain lists themselves. So, again, semi-colons delineate the list items for the main list, and commas are used to delineate the list-items and sub-clauses within those. Once again, semi-colons are making life easier for the reader. Honestly, I swear, they seem complicated, but they are your friend.*

2. To join independent clauses in a compound sentence, replacing a conjunction

This is one of the things people mean when they tell you that you should use a semi-colon to join two sentences. That more general instruction is sort of right, but also not specific enough. It’s right in that a complete sentence should be an independent clause, so what we’re doing is effectively joining two clauses that could each be their own sentence, but we don’t actually want them to be their own sentences, because we want to suggest a closer relation between the two clauses than that would allow.

The trouble is that a lot of people aren’t clear on what an independent clause is, so they start using semi-colons to join clauses that are not independent, but they think of as being candidates for being sentences because fragment sentences (sentences that do not contain a subject, verb, and object) have become a common stylistic choice. (See last week’s PAwR to get clear on what independent clauses are.)

The other problem is that people don’t realise that they should not be using conjunctions at the same time as using a semi-colon. So you get things like:

It was the end of term; and Ro had a mountain of marking to do.

And that, my friends, is not right at all. Your friendly ‘ands’, ‘buts’, ‘ors’ and so forth are what we mean by ‘conjunctions’. We use them all the time to join a bunch of different clauses together and they are very useful little words. But in this case, the conjunction is redundant. Its job is being performed by the semi-colon, and that ‘and’ has no business hanging out in this sentence. Instead, it should read like this:

It was the end of term; Ro had a mountain of marking to do.**

The semi-colon tells the reader that there’s a bit more of a definite separation here than there would be if I were to just write: ‘It was the end of term and Ro had a mountain of marking to do’. Sticking an ‘and’ in here ruins that effect and is confusing for the reader. If you use an ‘and’ after a semi-colon, the reader starts wondering why you bothered with the semi-colon at all. It suggests to the reader that maybe you don’t think the second clause could be its own sentence after all. Getting rid of the ‘and’ clarifies this. It restores the sense of separate, but not that separate, which is what we want out of a semi-colon.

3.To join complex independent clauses in a compound sentence via a conjunctive adverb

OK, let’s break this one down.

What’s a complex independent clause? Well, it’s an independent clause (a clause that contains a subject, a verb, and an object) that also has a sub-clause (just like the aside we were discussing above in our list case). So, if we want to link a complex independent clause to another clause, we can do that with a semi-colon, but in this case we’re going to need to use something called a conjunctive adverb to join the two clauses.

What’s a conjunctive adverb? Well, it’s a word like ‘however’, ‘moreover’, ‘nevertheless’, and so forth. It’s conjunctive because it can be used to join too independent clauses, but it’s not a conjunction because it can be used to start a sentence***, as well as joining independent clauses within a sentence. It’s an adverb in that it modifies the phrase or statement that follows it. So, if you say ‘however, I ate the cheese’ it’s different from saying ‘I ate the cheese’, in that it tells me that whatever I said previous to ‘I ate the cheese’ is something that my eating the cheese undermines, undercuts, or is in some sense an exception to.

If we put all this together, a conjunctive adverb is one that joins two independent clauses in a way that specifies how the first independent clause relates to the second. So, let’s take a look at this example:

It was the end of term, and for her students, the work was done; however, for Ro, the work had just begun.**

We’ve got a number of things going on, here. The main content of the first independent clause is ‘It was the end of term’. Nice. We could join this sweetly and simply to ‘the work had just begun’. No semi-colons needed: ‘It was the end of term and the work had just begun’. But, as it happens, that’s not what I want to do with this sentence. I want to do the much more complex operation of explaining how the end of term means more work for Ro, whilst comparing this to her students, for whom the work is over. So, I need to qualify ‘the work had just begun’ by specifying that it is Ro whom the work has just begun for. I also need to add in that for some people (Ro’s students) the end of term means that work is done. So I want to join those two thoughts together – awesome! Semi-colon ahoy! But I don’t want to just throw these two complex clauses together, that might just be confusing. I need to add in something that tells you why I’ve chosen to conjoin two already complex independent clauses – namely, that I am comparing end of term workloads between Ro and her students. And that’s what the ‘however’ does for us.

And… that’s it. That’s what semi-colons are for. I know it seemed to take a lot of explaining, but once you’re familiar with the concepts involved, it’s just three simple rules:

1. To separate list items, where the items themselves are complicated by commas

2. To join independent clauses in a compound sentence, replacing a conjunction

3.To join complex independent clauses in a compound sentence via a conjunctive adverb

*One of the myths about semi-colons is that any list of more than three items should separate the list-items with semi-colons. That’s just plain wrong. It’s confusing for the reader and will make your lists read as more stilted than you intended. Maybe it’s a feature of writing that the longer a list is, the more likely one of the list items will be complicated by a sub-clause, and that’s what led some people to think that longer lists needed semi-colons regardless. However it arose, though, it’s false.

**Apologies, these examples are what I used to use when explaining grammar to my students. I’m lazy. Not everything is going to be about The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate.

*** It is becoming more common in informal writing (like this blog!) to start sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’, but this is less appropriate in most formal writing. The reason why you might want to do it is to give an impression more like speech (where we do not talk grammatically at all) or to create a sense of pace,like one’s sentences are running into one another. In all cases where a sentence starts with an ‘And’ or a ‘But’, the conjunction could be removed altogether or be replaced by a conjunctive adverb. However, this does give a distinctly formal tone, and many writers choose to start sentences with conjunctions anyway because they want to undercut that formal tone.

As a proofreader, I may occasionally let you have a conjunction to join complex independent clauses if I think there is a strong stylistic case, but I am far less likely to do so than I would be to let you start a sentence with a conjunction. Why? Because you’re already doing one thing to suggest that you want the independent clauses to share a closer relation than two sentences. Starting a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ is another way of suggesting that you want the relationship between two sentences to be closer than normal. But combining a semi-colon with a conjunction is overkill; it’s redundant and confusing for the reader and I’m gonna take some convincing to see how you had a good reason for doing that.

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International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #5: Geena Davis

Geena DavisYeah, sure, Hollywood actor, Oscar Winner, Golden Globe, big whoop. Except… she’s also a sportswoman, activist, and, frankly, Big Damn Hero.

As well as narrowly missing out on joining the US Olympics team for archery, she’s also fronting the Geena Takes Aim campaign for the Women’s Sports Foundation for an Act of Congress to bring equality of sports opportunities.

She’s sponsored the ‘largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment‘, which showed that there were nearly three male characters to every one female character on average for the 400 children’s shows analysed.

In 2005 she launched a project with the group, Dads and Daughters, aimed at equalising gender representation in children’s programmes, and in 2007 she founded the The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which conducts research into the representation of women in Media (and the impact of that) and advocates for a greater female presence in the media.

If you’re on Tumblr at all, you’ve probably seen the results of her work, which has shown that just 17% of characters in group scenes are female, and, as Geena comments:

That’s what starts to look normal. And let’s think about in differen[t] segments of society – 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women, 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn’t that strange that that’s also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we’re actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you’re an adult, you don’t notice?

- Interview with Geena Davis in ‘Casting Call: Hollywood Needs More Women’, by NPR staff

Prompting the creation of an (unaffiliated) dedicated Tumblr called 17percenttheory.

Basically, she noted a subjective sense that there were significantly less women in the media than men, was worried about what effect that might have on her children, and she went out and got the data and the research to show that there was a problem, and then she founded an institute to work towards providing a solution. Just the effect of the spread of information and solid data (and the revelation of how little evidence had actually been collected before) has had a palpable effect on the blog-o-sphere. And her willingness to put money, time and effort where her mouth is gives me hope that she can affect real change.

Oh, and she was in Thelma and Louise. Which is awesome and feminist and shit, too.

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International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #4 – Le Chevalier d’Eon

Le Chevalier d'EonThere’s gonna be some people who’ll disagree with this one, but I see how my trans friends get treated by some feminists these days, and I feel it’s important to include trans women. Moreover, reading up on le Chevalier d’Eon, I was deeply uncomfortable with the way that historians refer to her as ‘he’. The reasoning is that because a post-mortem examination revealed that Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (aka, le Chevalier d’Eon) that she had male genitalia, the famous transgender spy was ‘actually’ a man.

Why am I judging differently? Well, despite the fact that d’Eon presented as both male and female at different times, she lived as a woman for much of her life and petitioned the government to be treated as such. Whilst there are reasons a person could insist that they were one gender without really holding it to be so, trans people go through enough that if someone claims that status, to me, I think we have a duty to believe them, and the fact that people were curious enough to know what was ‘really’ inside someone’s pants to perform a post-mortem examination of the matter is just… all kinds of wrong. I think the least we can do is call her by her preferred pronouns now.

As for the woman herself? d’Eon was a part of the Secret de Roi, a network of spies operating in the service of Louis XV. She befriended Empress Elizabeth of Russia and became her maid of honour. When she found her finances stopped on a mission to England, d’Eon bargained for return to France by publishing some, but not all of the secrets in her possession. The English public came to support her and the French king ultimately renewed her pension, although she remained in exile.

She published her memoirs, La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d’Éon, although these are believed to be ghost-written by a friend. She led a division of women soldiers and taught fencing lessons until wounded in a tournament in 1796. She retired to live with a widow, Mrs Cole, and escaped debtors’ prison by signing away rights to her biography.

She was basically a badass who should have all the Hollywood movies made about her.

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International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #3 – Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai – Activist for the Education of Women

Malala: 16 years old, youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, shot in the head by the Taliban at 15 for the work she was already doing on behalf of women’s education. At which point she had been blogging articulately for the BBC for three years, after being banned from attending school.

Breathtakingly intelligent, brave, self-motivated, and self-sacrificing – if you aren’t inspired by Malala, I’m not sure that you’re human.

She’s been featured on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and as one of the 16 most influential teens. Winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, which has now been named the National Malala Peace Prize in her honour. Winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Spoken at the UN. She’s been made an honorary citizen of Canada, and she’s been nominated for a Nobel prize again in February of this year. She has already done more in her life than, well, probably everyone you know.

My heart breaks when I think that we might have lost her. She was shot in the head.

And it did not scare her off. She has only become stronger.

And now she has set up the Malala Fund, for empowering girls and educating children in developing countries.

Malala is my hero. If you’re moved to do anything for International Women’s Day, you could do a lot worse than donating to the Malala Fund.

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International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #2 – Aemelia Lanyer

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645): Poet

My second inspirational woman is Aemelia Lanyer (also called Emilia Lanier), 17th Century poet and first woman to be published as a poet in the English language. (Yeah, we’ve jumped a few thousand years, this is not in any kind of historical order.)

What’s more, her poetry pulls no punches. Her most famous work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a daring account of the life of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted in feminine terms and mankind, but not womankind, is scathingly condemned for his death, most particularly in the section most often referenced:

‘Eve’s Apology’

Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare;
Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.

That undiscerning Ignorance perceav’d
No guile, or craft that was by him intended;
For had she knowne, of what we were bereav’d,
To his request she had not condiscended.
But she (poore soule) by cunning was deceav’d,
No hurt therein her harmelesse Heart intended:
For she alleadg’d Gods word, which he denies,
That they should die, but even as Gods, be wise.

But surely Adam can not be excusde,
Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame;
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refusde,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpents craft had her abusde,
Gods holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being fram’d by Gods eternall hand,
The perfect’st man that ever breath’d on earth;
And from Gods mouth receiv’d that strait command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

And then to lay the fault on Patience backe,
That we (poore women) must endure it all;
We know right well he did discretion lacke,
Beeing not perswaded thereunto at all;
If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?

Not Eve, whose fault was onely too much love,
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all;
If one of many Worlds could lay a staine
Upon our Sexe, and worke so great a fall
To wretched Man, by Satans subtill traine;
What will so fowle a fault amongst you all?
Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay;
But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.

Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether trie,
By all their sinnes the wrath of God to get;
This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
As doth the Sunne, another little starre.

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;
Who did but dreame, and yet a message sent,
That thou should’st have nothing to doe at all
With that just man; which, if thy heart relent,
Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul?
To seeke the death of him that is so good,
For thy soules health to shed his dearest blood.

This is a finely crafted poem, it’s even meter and rhyme structure designed to evoke a sense of reasoned, rational discourse, it’s argument using the very charges laid against women as weapons to condemn men. Men blame women for all the sin in the world because of Eve’s original sin, but, Lanyer argues, Eve’s sin was committed in ignorance; Pilot, meanwhile, has been warned not to condemn the son of God to death, and he ignores that message. So how can men get away with punishing women for Eve’s offense, still (which, Lanyer argues, was really Adam’s fault, to begin with – one cannot be blamed for committing a sin when one does not know the action to be wrong)?

Make no mistake, this poem is dripping with bitterness, but it restrains its anger into this strict structure to say:

    If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

When we do remember the great women of history, we tend to focus on the Joan of Arcs, the Queen Elizabeths – women who are praised for leading men. But we should not overlook our great female writers and poets. Being a woman and a poet in the 17th century was a thankless enterprise. One Aemelia was only able to conduct thanks to her patron:  Lady Anne Clifford. And Lady Anne’s life was no walk in the park, either. Anne and her mother, Margaret, supported Aemelia at their estate, Cooke-ham, for which they engaged in a long and painful battle for inheritance against Lady Anne’s uncle and his son. The battle was ultimately won when the male claimants died, but not before Anne and Aemelia had been evicted from the estate – an event commemorated in Lanyer’s heart-breaking country house poem: ‘The Description of Cooke-ham‘. Which begins:

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content;
Where princely palace willed me to indite,
The sacred story of the soul’s delight.
Farewell (sweet place) where virtue then did rest,
And all delights did harbor in her breast;
Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.
Yet you (great Lady) Mistress of that place,
From whose desires did spring this work of grace;
Vouchsafe to think upon those pleasures past,
As fleeting worldly joys that could not last,

I must confess, I kinda ship Aemelia Lanyer/Lady Anne. Whether it was platonic, or something more, there was clearly deep love and sisterhood, holding to one another and creating a little haven in a world embattled against them. I’m getting teary just thinking about them.

So, this is a woman our children should be reading alongside the umpteen millionth Shakespeare play we forced them through. I’d studied four (and we did Macbeth three separate times and Hamlet twice) by the time I was sixteen, and nobody gave me something like this? Something that might really mean something to me and get my blood boiling? Something that might challenge assumed ideas of male supremacy in the minds of young boys who don’t even know why they think the negative things they do about girls?

Yeah, most people don’t know about Aemelia Lanyer. But they should. Remember her, pouring her heart out with emotion and relentless logic at a time when no other woman dared to call herself a poet.

I remember you, Aemelia. I cannot imagine the strength you must have struggled to find every day, but I admire it.

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