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How to Kill Off a Fictional Character

Basic Instructions: How to Kill Off a Fictional Character, by Scott Meyer

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part XII—Possession

In addition to subjective and objective, personal pronouns have a third case: possessive. Possessive pronouns show ownership. They are singular (my, your, his, etc.) or plural (our, your, their, etc.) in form.

The possessive pronouns my, our, your, his, her, its, and their act as adjectives that qualify nouns:

My friends Lindsey and Mitra visited from San Francisco this weekend.

They invited their friends out for sushi Friday night.

Then on Saturday morning, Mitra made plans to eat at her favorite brunch place, followed by shopping on Melrose.

The absolute or independent forms mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its, and theirs act as nouns. Just like nouns, they can be the subject of a sentence or the object of a verb or preposition:

My car is parked two blocks away; theirs is across the street.

Because Jeff bought his concert ticket, Scott paid both his dinner tab and ours.

On Friday night Jeff and I spent time with my friends; on Saturday we went out with his.

This table summarizes the numbers and forms of possessive pronouns:

Singular Possessive Pronouns

Adjectival                            Noun

First Person                    my                                  mine
Second Person              your                                 yours
Third Person            his, her, its                    his, hers, its

Plural Possessive Pronouns

Adjectival                            Noun

First Person                   our                                  ours
Second Person              your                                yours
Third Person                their                                theirs

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

Strunk Jr., William, and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

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Genius

Twitter was atwitter among literati this week with the news that a novelist, a short-story writer, and a poet were among the twenty-four 2009 “Genius” Fellows named by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation:

  • Edwidge Danticat, a novelist “chronicling the power of human resistance and endurance through moving and insightful depictions of the Haitian immigrant experience”
  • Deborah Eisenberg, a short-story writer “crafting distinctive portraits of contemporary American life in tales of striking precision, fluency, and moral depth”
  • Heather McHugh, a poet “composing richly layered verse that unabashedly embraces such wordplay as puns, rhymes, and syntactical twists to explore the human condition”

I’m always delighted to stumble upon this story, inevitably on NPR. I once even aspired to write a twenty-five-part poem based on the 2007 class of Fellows.

Naturally, I’m interested in the recipients in my own and related fields. In addition to the writers and poets profiled above, two more Fellows are keeping alive writing-related traditions that might otherwise fade into history.

  • Timothy Barret, a papermaker “reinvigorating the art of hand-papermaking and leading the preservation of traditional Western and Japanese techniques and practices”
  • Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter “ensuring that unsolved murders from the Civil Rights era are finally prosecuted by uncovering largely unknown details of decades-old stories of thwarted justice”

Also inspiring are those working in the arts in general. Check out these artists’ work:

  • Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist “creating a powerful visual record of the most pressing conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century”
  • Mark Bradford, a mixed-media artist “incorporating ephemera from urban environments into richly textured, abstract compositions that evoke a multitude of metaphors”
  • Rackstraw Downes, a painter “rendering minutely detailed landscapes of unexpected vistas that reconsider the intersection between the built and the natural world”
  • James Longley, a filmmaker “deepening our understanding of the conflicts in the Middle East through intimate portraits of communities living under extremely challenging conditions”
  • Camille Utterback, a digital artist “redefining how viewers experience and interact with art through vibrant, pictorial compositions that are activated by human presence and movement”

But I’m perhaps most fascinated by those working in realms completely foreign to me—economics, engineering, law, math, medicine, and science. Check out just some of these amazing Fellows:

  • Rebecca Onie, a health services innovator “building a low-cost, replicable program that melds the aspirations of college students and the needs of health care institutions to address the link between poverty and poor health”
  • John A. Rogers, an applied physicist “inventing flexible electronic devices that lay the foundation for a revolution in manufacture of industrial, consumer, and biocompatible technologies”
  • Elyn Saks, a mental health lawyer “expanding the options for those suffering from severe mental illness through scholarship, practice, and policy informed by a life story that adds uncommon depth and insight”
  • Jill Seaman, an infectious disease physician “adapting the tools of 21st-century medicine to treat infectious diseases endemic to Southern Sudan and other remote, war-torn regions of the world”
  • Theodore Zoli, a bridge engineer “making major technological advances to protect transportation infrastructure in the event of natural and man-made disasters”

These people and their work are stories screaming to be told.

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Usage Thursday: Decimate

If you look at the root of decimatedeci, from the Latin—its literal meaning makes itself known. Deci means “one tenth part of.” Think decimal, for example: decimals divide units into tenths (or hundredths).

Decimate, then, originally meant “to kill every tenth person”—a means of controlling the populace that hearkens from Roman times. Through popular usage, the term now also applies to drastically reduced numbers, particularly casualties.

This means that you can use decimate to describe, say, layoffs of even small percentages. Say you have ten coworkers and one is let go. You can protest, “Our staff has been decimated!” without exaggeration.

To decimate has also come to mean to cause great damage (e.g., the recession has decimated the economy), but given the word’s origins having to do with people, this usage isn’t recommended by Chicago. Moreover, because decimate is rooted in parts, don’t use it when referring to complete destruction (the bombing completely decimated a city block). Nor should you use decimate alongside a specific percentage (the monsoon decimated 26 percent of the island’s population—which is it, ten percent or 26?)

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

“deci.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 September 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deci>

“decimal.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 September 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decimal>

“decimate.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 September 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decimate>

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Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

This is another he or she post. Although I’ve already established my preference for this admittedly awkward construction instead of he, which is sexist, or they, which is grammatically incorrect, it bears reiterating as different scenarios present themselves.

Such as with antecedents of indeterminate gender:

If you use an artist’s image on your website, you should give him or her credit—it’s just good manners.

Here, using the traditional him would preclude the possibility that the artist might be female, and using the plural them is incorrect, since artist is singular.

The pronoun it can also be used to refer to antecedents of indeterminate gender, even if the gender could be identified, if the sex of the noun it refers to is not known or not important:

The baby cried for its mother.

The cat lapped up its milk.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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Tuesday Afternoon Punctuation: Commas, Part X—Adjectival Phrases and Appositives

With regard to commas, the same rules that apply to relative clauses apply to adjectival phrases and appositives. That is, if a descriptive phrase or clause is nonrestrictive, use commas; if it’s restrictive, don’t. Let’s review:

An adjectival phrase modifies a noun or pronoun. It could be a prepositional phrase or a participle phrase. If an adjectival phrase is essential to understanding the noun or pronoun it belongs to, it is restrictive, and no commas should be used:

This weekend my friend Sandra and I prepared the signature dish featured in Julie & Julia.

We found out that the recipe in the movie was a bit more complicated to prepare in real life.

Reread the first example above, but stop after “dish.” It doesn’t make sense, does it? You’re left asking yourself, what dish? The participle phrase featured in Julie & Julia is essential to understanding the sentence—it’s a restrictive phrase, so no commas should be used.

Likewise, in the second example, the prepositional phrase in the movie lets the reader know what recipe I’m talking about. Without it, the reader might not know and thus not be able to understand the sentence. In the movie is also a restrictive and so shouldn’t take commas.

Nonrestrictive adjectival phrases are not essential to understanding the sentence. They provide parenthetical information without which the reader would still glean the writer’s meaning:

Sandra bought the vegetables, including mushrooms and onions, at the farmers market on Saturday morning.

With shopping list in hand, I picked up the bacon, beef, and stock at the grocery store.

In both of these examples, the adjectival phrases are not required for the sentences to make sense. You don’t need including mushrooms and onions to figure out what Sandra bought at the farmers market, and with shopping list in hand doesn’t help you understand how I is. Therefore, these are nonrestrictive phrases and should be set off by commas.

These same guidelines apply to appositives.

In Apposition

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames a nearby noun. Like relative clauses and adjectival phrases, appositives may be restrictive or nonrestrictive.

If an appositive is necessary to understand which noun the writer means, it is restrictive, so no commas should be used:

My friend Sandra brought her groceries to my apartment on Saturday afternoon.

We used the recipe for boeuf bourguignon in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In the first example above, Sandra is an appositive renaming my friend. Without it, you would not know which friend I’m talking about. Likewise, without the appositive Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you would not know in which Julia Child cookbook we found the recipe. Both of these appositives are restrictive—necessary to understanding the sentence—and so do not take commas.

However, if an appositive is supplemental—i.e., it can be omitted without threatening a reader’s understanding of the sentence—it is nonrestrictive, and so commas are used:

We used the recipe for boeuf bourguignon in Julia Child’s first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

My boyfriend, Jeff, joined us for dinner.

Although very similar to a previous sentence, the first example above now refers to Julia Child’s first cookbook. Since Julia Child can only have one first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is supplemental information. Without it, the reader would still be able to understand which cookbook we used—Julia Child’s first. It’s a nonrestrictive appositive, and so takes commas. Likewise, I (presumably) have only one boyfriend, so the appositive Jeff is supplemental—i.e., nonrestrictive—so commas are used.

Do you have a question about the comma? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Commas

Part I—To Serialize or Not to Serialize

Part II—Independent Thinking

Part III—Co-dependents

Part IV—Making Introductions

Part V—Interjections

Part VI—Parentheticals

Part VII—It’s All Relative

Part VIII—Adjectives

Part IX—Contrast

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Wednesday Writing Exercise: Film and Approaches to Writing, Part VII—“The Damned”

Set during the early years of Hitler’s regime, Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1969 epic The Damned charts the shifting sympathies of the wealthy industrialist Von Essenbeck family, whose resentment toward Der Führer is eventually replaced by acceptance and loyalty.

Watch The Damned. Then try these writing exercises inspired by the movie, borrowed from my grad-school class on “Film and Approaches to Writing the Novel” with John Rechy:

  • Describe any conventionally genteel ritual—a game, a ceremony, a celebration—and render it ugly and/or grotesque, without using those words.
  • Using only the language of dance and choreography, and without dialogue, describe a scene of violence. Do not identify the violence.
  • Against a background of beauty, write a passage that depicts a destructive encounter (physical and/or psychological) between two people; do not use dialogue.
  • Write dialogue between two people in which they are discussing someone historical, contemporary or otherwise. Do not mention the person; suggest him/her and what single act (good or evil) prominently identifies him/her.

The Mots Justes Series on Film and Approaches to Writing

Part I—Persona

Part II—Sunset Boulevard

Part III—Providence

Part IV—Duel in the Sun

Part V—The Exterminating Angel

Part VI—Trouble in Paradise

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