Yes! We Have No Banana’s*

*Superfluous apostrophe intentional—please, no angry letters.

A recording of the Broadway revue tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas” spent five weeks at number one in 1923 (which speaks to a simpler time, I think). It tells of a greengrocer who has string beans, onions, cabbages, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, coconuts, walnuts, and two kinds of red herring but is out of bananas. An agreeable fellow, “he never bananas_cutoutanswers ‘no,’” so when customers request the tropical yellow fruit, he responds with the famous titular line. Believe it or not, there is a tenuous connection between this novelty song and superfluous apostrophes in plural words. Can you possibly imagine what it is?

The insertion of an apostrophe before the final s in a plural noun is a common pet peeve among the “apostrophe intelligent.” But did you know this contentious grammatical error has a name—a really cute one? It’s called a “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” after the misuse of apostrophes on the often handwritten signs in greengrocers’ shops: “FRESH ENGLISH PEA’S,” “SEEDLESS GRAPE’S,” “JUICY NECTARINE’S,” “LEMON’S, 25¢ EACH.” By the way, I am not insinuating that Jimmy Costas, the Long Island greengrocer who allegedly inspired the song about out-of-stock bananas made this blunder himself—he was just an interest-creating device.

In case it’s news to you that apostrophes have no place in plurals, or you are a greengrocer, let’s review the rule for creating standard plural forms (from The Chicago Manual of Style):

Most nouns form their plural by adding s or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding esFor example:

  • boy/boys
  • apple/apples
  • watch/watches
  • dish/dishes
  • tax/taxes

But what would a rule be without exceptions? For some words, you just have to learn the correct plural form or (as a last resort) consult a dictionary:

Words ending in y that changes to ies

  • ruby/rubies
  • family/families

Certain words ending in o

  • tomato/tomatoes
  • hero/heroes

Certain words of Latin or Greek origin

  • bacterium/bacteria
  • crisis/crises

All words with irregular plurals

  • child/children
  • ox/oxen

Of course, there are additional nuances—we are talking about the English language. For example, Chicago recommends using the singular form for the plural for names ending in an unpronounced s or x, as in “the seventeen Louis of France.” There is also one instance in which an apostrophe should be used to indicate a plural, to aid in comprehension: for lowercase letters used as words, such as “x’s and y’s.” On a related note, capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations form the plural by simply adding s: “two As and three Bs,” “the 1970s,” “PCs.” There are exceptions to this rule, as well, but we won’t get into those here.

Today’s takeaway: don’t be possessive about plurals!

Winky Face: Rebirth of the Semicolon

mixed signalWhile walking in Manhattan, I encountered a literal mixed signal: a traffic light showing an orange hand and a white walking figure, both illuminated. Should I stop? Go? Of course, in New York City, pedestrians cross at a (reasonably) safe opportunity, regardless of the indicated right of way. Punctuation marks are like traffic lights for written words, directing and controlling their flow. A period says, “Stop.” A comma says, “Pause.” A semicolon, the mixed signal of the punctuation world, says, “Pause slightly longer than you would for a comma, but don’t stop like you would for a period. Thank you, and have a nice day.” (I imagine the semicolon to be civilized and well-mannered.)

sun_orangeAuthor Kurt Vonnegut was not an admirer of semicolons. He said, “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” I tend to align more with Abraham Lincoln, who stated, “I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” (See what he did there? He used a semicolon to illustrate his point.) Still, when I pondered the idea of devoting an entire post to this period-comma hybrid, I was concerned that no one would be able to relate. I mean, who uses semicolons aside from making winky faces? Over 90 percent of my Facebook friends, based on a sample of 35. If the vast majority of us are using semicolons, we should probably make sure we’re doing it right.

Here are some basic guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style, accompanied by examples. If you are already a semicolon savant, skip ahead to the quiz that follows.

A semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would. (Recall from seventh grade that an independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and can stand on its own.)

  • Example: “The sun was setting; Timmy wouldn’t make it home before dark.”
  • Example: “Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets; my favorite is 30.”
  • Example: “Carmen pondered becoming a chef; she would have to go to culinary school.”

Certain adverbs, when they are used to join two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon rather than a comma. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then.

  • Example: “Lisa couldn’t be late for the hearing; therefore, she allowed ample time to get to the courthouse.”
  • Example: “I wanted the trout; however, the restaurant was out of it.” (This is a real-life example.)
  • Example: “The cat seemed hungry; indeed, he devoured the can of tuna we gave him.”

When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity. If ambiguity seems unlikely, commas may be used instead.

  • Example: “In 2016, Colin Hay will perform in Clearwater, Florida; Franklin, Tennessee; and Bristol, New Hampshire.” (Check out his tour schedule. If he is playing in your area, go! Incredible show.)
  • Example: “The votes received by the candidates for class president were as follows: Jessica, 457; Emilio, 398; and Logan, 272.”
  • Example: “I visited the Tower of London, where I attended the Ceremony of the Keys; Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer; and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone.”

Want to test your semicolon skills? Determine whether each item below is punctuated correctly. (The answers appear at the end of this post.)

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style is my bible; it is full of important information.
  2. Danny disrupted the class; accordingly, he was sent to the principal’s office.
  3. The fireworks were loud; but the dog didn’t seem frightened.
  4. The bride’s bouquet consisted of three types of flowers; namely, roses, tulips, and dahlias.
  5. The car’s last three oil changes took place February 3, 2015; August 21, 2014; and December 14, 2013.

Thanks for reading! ;)

Answers: 1. Correct. 2. Correct. 3. Incorrect. 4. Incorrect. 5. Correct.

Cherished Annoyances

A pet peeve is a source of irritation that is almost fun to complain about. Maybe grumbling about the little things in life is a way to release frustration over the bigger issues. Following are some common pet peeves, according to the Internet:

  • Loud cell phone conversations in public
  • Open-mouthed chewing
  • Poor driving etiquette
  • Talking during a movie
  • Cutting in line
  • Snapping gum
  • Double-dipping
  • Dishes in the sink
  • Nail biting
  • Tardiness

Do any of these behaviors or circumstances excite you to impatience or anger? (Or are you, perhaps, a perpetrator?) Judging by my friends’ posts on my Facebook Timeline, I am a person with a lot of pet peeves—all surrounding the improper use of English. Here is a sampling of the items others have shared with me:

ancient grammar police_300  jane_300

dog_250  fruits and vegetables_350

I don’t believe I’m as critical of word-related errors as others assume I am. But I admit to bristling at the occasional linguistic blunder. Over the last few weeks, I paid attention to the verbal gaffes that raised my blood pressure. Here are a few:

Pet peeve: Using “phenomena” as a singular noun.
Incorrect: “The phenomena of global warming is a divisive political issue.”
Correct: “The phenomenon of global warming is a divisive political issue.”

Pet peeve: Not using commas to set off nouns of direct address, especially in conjunction with the word hi. (Even editors I know get this one wrong.)
Incorrect: “Hi Rachel.”
Correct: “Hi, Rachel.”

Pet peeve: Using “track” when “tract” is correct.
Incorrect: “The gastrointestinal track consists of the stomach and the intestines.”
Correct: “The gastrointestinal tract consists of the stomach and the intestines.”

Pet peeve: Using the superlative form of an adjective when comparing two things.
Incorrect: “Between Adele and Rihanna, who is the best singer?”
Correct: “Between Adele and Rihanna, who is the better singer?”

Pet peeve: Using “I” instead of “me” because it sounds correct (but isn’t).
Incorrect: “The waiter was very attentive to Caitlin and I.”
Correct: “The waiter was very attentive to Caitlin and me.”

It can be satisfying to lose our s#*t over an issue of minor importance. We briefly get to play the victim, which confirms our personal innocence. I know I enjoy it.

The Short of It


A street in Dublin

Last month, my husband and I flew 5,200 miles to Dublin and spent three nights there. Then we came home. We didn’t tool around the continent, the British Isles, or even nearby towns. A 72-hour trip to Europe sounds crazier as I write about it here than it seemed at the time, although a woman at the hotel bar pronounced us “fantastic” for making such a whirlwind visit to her country. We were in Ireland’s capital long enough to have afternoon tea, take a selfie by the River Liffey, walk the city, catch a cold, and test the medicinal properties of Guinness.

When we returned, I felt a surge in creativity—to a degree I hadn’t experienced in years. Traveling to a far-flung destination had interrupted my routine, and my routine ways of thinking. I hoped to capitalize on this sense of inspiration by enrolling in an online short-story-writing course I had wanted to take for several months. It started on a Thursday, which was the same day I considered getting my money back. After reading the lecture materials, I discovered that the first assignment—the beginning of a short story—was due in just three days! I didn’t even have a topic.

reviewsOver the next four weeks, I met my deadlines and produced a 3,200-word first draft. Waiting for my instructor’s feedback was almost as agonizing as reading it. (I discovered that I would much rather be the person with the red pen.) According to my custom, I focused on the negative aspects of the critique and disregarded the positive. As I proceed to fix the issues with the piece (namely, its lack of an ending that works “in dramatic terms”), I will try to remember and be encouraged by my instructor’s favorable comments.

In the process of penning my first short story since I was a teenager, I made a number of observations:

  1. Writing is tedious; having written is thrilling.
  2. Writing is challenging. It makes you appreciate your day job. (“What I wouldn’t give to be proofreading an index . . .”)
  3. Adding your byline under the title is a heady moment.
  4. The instant you have a creative breakthrough, the dog needs to go out.
  5. I can still pull an all-nighter if necessary.
  6. I understand why writers go on retreats, because writing comes (at best) sixth or seventh, after work, chores, errands, exercise, spiritual practice, meeting the needs of others, etc.
  7. When you’re writing, every word is a decision.
  8. It’s good to have a plan, but you have no idea what might come to you in the moment.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne was right: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
  10. I don’t know why I waited so long.

The question is, will I continue to write creatively outside the construct of a class, without the threat of humiliation for failing to turn in an assignment? I think I have a shot, because I am so good at humiliating myself.

Is Responsibility the Enemy of Creativity?

fortunes raccoons

Last week, raccoons knocked over one of the trash cans. I had made chicken soup from scratch, and the local nocturnal carnivores couldn’t resist the bones. Among the scattered contents of the clawed-open bag, I came across something intriguing: the little strips of paper from two fortune cookies. There was no sign of the cookies themselves, which I had discarded intact. I imagined the scene that took place the night before: two satiated raccoons leaning back, cracking open the crisp cookies, and comparing the vague prophecies inside.

Who could blame them? It’s hard to resist finding out what a baked good has to say about your life. I dare you not to go to this site and open a virtual fortune cookie for yourself. (It’s gluten-free!) I clicked through a few:

  • “You will be called upon to help a friend in trouble.”
  • “You are cautious in showing your true self to others.”
  • “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
  • “Love comes quickly, whatever you do.” (Thank you, Pet Shop Boys.)

The predictions, observations, recommendations, and aphorisms found in fortune cookies are ingeniously general; they can be interpreted as applying to almost anyone’s life. Even if we don’t take these messages seriously (with the possible exception of those who have played the “lucky numbers” and won), their allure reflects our desire to understand ourselves and to anticipate the future. Some people may seek this kind of insight through more formal divinatory tools, such as astrology, numerology, and the tarot. I recently had a meaningful experience in this regard.

I have written about Jean Haner before. She is an expert in Chinese face reading, an ancient branch of Chinese medicine. She also has the ability to read the patterns in a person’s birthdate. Several weeks ago, I submitted a written question to her monthly call-in show. As I had done for the previous several months, I asked what my date of birth said about being a creative writer. Unlike in previous months, however, she chose my question! Here is her reading, excerpted for brevity:

You’re talking about writing creatively. There’s a huge part of you that will resist that. It [that part] feels overly responsible; it feels like first you have to pay attention to the practicalities and making sure everything’s in order, so it can kind of block the creative juices. I think that a lot of your focus has been on that up until now, and what I want to do is turn your direction into the second major influence in your life, which is an incredibly creative person. I want you to open to that and allow yourself to do that. There’s some perfectionism here, there’s some issues of self-confidence and worry about—you think you’re not creative.

There’s such a creative person here. In order to let that girl come out, you have to be much more light-hearted about it. You have to allow yourself to goof up. You have to allow things to get messy. You have to be more of a free spirit. That’s a big part of who you are, but I think that you’re such a responsible person that you kind of shoved the creative girl to the side and focus on being responsible. We never have to worry about you being responsible. We always have to worry about you having fun. And you’re meant to have fun with your writing, with your life. The creative process in the beginning and for a long time is messy; you don’t know what’s going to come out of that. And you like things nice and tidy. And so you’re going to have to tell that girl to go stand in the corner.

When I played the full reading for my husband, he asked how long Jean and I had been best friends. Indeed, she had accurately framed my current situation as a conflict between the impulses of responsibility and creativity; specifically, my exaggerated sense of duty to various things in my life is keeping me from accomplishing the writing I know I am meant to do. But there’s no point in marveling at amazingly astute advice—you have to act on it.

I haven’t told the responsible girl to go stand in the corner. But I think I’ve engineered a meeting in the middle with the creative girl: a short-story-writing class that starts tomorrow.

The Accidental Profession


The “vintage” Olivetti I learned to type on (not the actual machine but the same model, available on eBay)


Copyedited manuscript page

About a week ago, I read the description of an online workshop being offered by Writer’s Digest University, called “Introduction to Copyediting.” The first thing I noticed about the course outline was its random capitalization, which either ironically undermined the validity of the curriculum or was a sly statement on the importance of copyediting. The topics covered seemed to capture what a copyeditor does. For example:

  • “How to properly use Quotations”
  • “Proper use of Commas, Colons, and Semicolons”
  • “Avoiding Redundant Words”
  • “Keep an eye out for consistency”
  • “How to prevent a writer from making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes”

I wondered, “How did I manage to collect these skills?” Based on my experience, here are the steps to becoming a copyeditor:

  1. Be exposed to the word editor at an early age. My first-grade teacher asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said “writer.” The girl next to me said “editor.” I wasn’t quite sure what an editor did, but I felt it had something to do with books.
  2. Learn how to type. When I was about 12, I taught myself from a manual, on a manual.
  3. Have Mr. Thorn for English. Almost everything I know about grammar I learned in junior high.
  4. Edit your college roommate’s paper. When I was a freshman, my roommate asked me to look over an essay she was about to turn in. It was my first editing job. She got a B and was very happy.
  5. Apply for a job as a secretary. A week or two after graduating with a BA in English Literature, I answered a newspaper ad for a secretary at a publishing company. I aced the typing test. (See item 2.)
  6. Get promoted. Over the course of eight years, I worked my way up to the position of senior editor. One of my tasks was to manage the work of copyeditors; I observed what they did and became overly familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style.
  7. Go freelance. Eleven years ago, I began offering my services as a copyeditor.
  8. Learn something new every day. Each manuscript presents its own challenges, providing a constant education.

My first supervisor called publishing the “accidental profession.” While becoming a copyeditor may have been a bit random, certain things in my life pointed toward a career in publishing. As a child, I made tiny books to sell; I vaguely recall unloading one for a dollar. I remember being inspired by an arts-and-crafts toy from the drug store, the final product of which was a bound book about a grasshopper. In junior high, I produced an anonymous newspaper, calling myself the “Phantom Editor.”

I’m sure there are doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, professional athletes, rock stars, actors, architects, teachers, artists, and writers who always knew what they “wanted to be.” And perhaps people who pursue advanced degrees or seek vocational training have a pretty good idea. But I imagine that the majority of professions are accidental. For example, the other day, I found myself musing, “Who sets out to work at a property management company?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I wonder if my precocious six-year-old classmate ever became an editor. Or a property manager.

Write What You Know, Edit What You Don’t

International Space Station

Earlier this week, I prepared a writing sample for a potential client. To expand a scene involving the International Space Station, I researched the ISS and studied photographs of its interior and exterior. I learned a number of interesting things about it, some of which I incorporated into the text: it’s about food on the ISSas long and wide as a football field, its maximum occupancy is six, the astronauts don’t wear shoes (except when tethered to a treadmill), and food has to be secured to the table so it doesn’t float up.

Speaking of microgravity, an editor can be thought of as hovering above a manuscript, at a distance that allows objectivity. From this perspective, the editor ensures that the content is logical, accurate, and—most importantly—clear to the reader. But what if this Track Changes whiz has no prior knowledge of the subject matter? This scenario is often the case. Otherwise, an editor might wait a long time for a project in his or her wheelhouse—or even general interest—to come along. I have yet to edit a book on cupcakes, romantic comedies, or the eccentricities of Basenjis.

People have asked me how I am able to comment intelligently on an unfamiliar topic. Based on my experience, such ignorance can actually be an asset. Unhampered by what I don’t know, I can easily put myself in the position of the reader. If I encounter material that doesn’t make sense, I know it will probably confuse the reader, as well. Then I educate myself sufficiently to suggest a reworking. In recent years, I have become a temporary expert in such areas as business, history, psychology, self-help, yoga, and surfing.

Here are some basic steps an editor can take to demonstrate ephemeral expertise:

  1. Forget what you know and what you think you know.
  2. Question everything.
  3. Check all facts against multiple reliable sources.
  4. Suggest appropriate changes.
  5. Forget what you learned, to make room for the next topic.

Don’t ask me how editors became temporary experts before Google!