Possessive Apostrophes' Problems

Most writers are quite clear about how to use apostrophes with possessives:

Singular nouns— for most nouns, the possessive is simply made by adding an apostrophe followed by an s:

The mustachioed man’s chickens have laid their eggs.

Plural nouns — except for a few irregular plurals* that don’t end in s, the possessive is made by adding an apostrophe after the s:

Many of his chickens’ eggs are ready to hatch.

* For example: Many mustachioed men’s favorite egg-dish is the humble omelet.

But in my experience, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to proper nouns, particularly names ending with s, and since many writers—particular those who write fantasy!—tend to choose names that end in s, x, or z, this issue arises frequently when I am editing.

The general rule** is that for (most) proper nouns, and this includes nouns that end in s, z, and x, the possessive still takes an apostrophe followed by an s.


Thomas’s toenails

Cortez’s gold fillings

Jimi Hendrix’s hairy knuckles

Karl Marx’s moustache

Robbie Burns’s sideburns


The Williamses’ washboard abs (Everyone in that family is an exercise nut!)

The Higganbothams’ horrible halitosis (Mr and Mrs Higganbotham are, sadly, both sufferers. Probably just as well).

Of course with every rule in the English language, there are exceptions happy to confound the unsure. The Chicago Manual of Style (7.18 – 7.22 15th Edition) gives lots of lovely examples including:

For Jesus’ sake but Jesus’s contemporaries

Also: Euripides’ tragedies (“a name of two or more syllables that ends in the eez sound”)

Decartes’ three dreams (“singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s”)

Confused? I suggest you follow the general rule… or you could just use of, such as the dandruff of Dickens and the sneezes of Strauss.

** According The Chicago Manual of Style, the fiction editing standard. 

Punctuation: How to write a character's thoughts

Once, I was involved in an interesting discussion on our regional SCBWI listserv. One member asked a whether a character’s thoughts should be denoted by quotation marks, no quotation marks, or italics.

This is a commonly asked question, and this was part of my short answer:

When I edit, I let the context and target audience dictate quotation marks or no quotation marks. If it's a dialogue heavy text, I use no quotation marks for thoughts. If it's a work for younger kids, then I suggest quotation marks for thoughts. If it's MG or YA, I'd generally go with no quote marks. 

The Chicago Manual of Style*, the industry standard for fiction editing, states:

Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

For example:

“My dear friend must fly south for winter,” thought Wordy Bird, “or else he will surely die.”


We must say goodbye, thought Wordy Bird, but perhaps we will meet again.

Both usages are clear and easily comprehended, are they not?

You’ll note that the Chicago Manual of Style is silent on the use of italics to denote thoughts. But, many people do use italics when they are writing to denote thoughts, and I’m sure we all know published books in which italics are used in this manner. 

From Michael Sussman’s fabulous picture book Otto Grows Down (Illus. Scott Magoon, Sterling 2009):

             I love this rattle, Otto thought. Why does Anna get to have it?

But then in this book, as in so many picture books, typography is used in exciting ways throughout (which my daughter loves as she gets to read the ‘big words’).  

But—and this is the main reason for this post—I think there’s really more to discuss here.

Often, there may be a more seamless way to convey what a character is thinking, without resorting to what may at times be a rather clunky use of internal dialogue and dialogue tags which may tend to toward verbosity such as ponderedconsideredspeculatedconjectured, and so forth. (Dialogue tags are, of course, a subject for another blog post!)

Let's look at some randomly chosen examples from my bookshelf. From Judy Moody #1 by Megan McDonald, Candlewick Press 2000:

“ROAR!” said Judy. She would have to get used to a new desk and a new classroom. Her new desk would not have an armadillo sticker with her name on it, like her old one last year. Her new classroom would not have a porcupine named Roger.

From Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Simon & Schuster 1999:

Jessie didn’t think it was fair that she still had to wear Hannah’s old clothes. Jesse was an inch taller. It wasn’t her fault Hannah was fatter. But people in Clifton didn’t care about a girl’s ankle showing a little. She’d heard Ma and the other women say it was a scandalous thing back east, but on the frontier people had other things to worry about.

In each of these examples, it is clear these are the protagonist’s thoughts. When writing in first person and limited third person there’s really no necessity to present thoughts as dialogue.

But, there are times that using unspoken discourse will certainly add weight to the thought and to the moment. Here’s an (italicized!) example from The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Delacorte Press, 2009) which comes at a pivotal moment.

Thomas looked back at his captors, feeling awkward but desperate to ask questions. Captors, he thought. Then, Why did that word pop into my head?

When conveying a character’s thoughts, do consider saving actual interior discourse for those pivotal moments. And whatever you choose—quotation marks, no quotation marks, italics—be consistent throughout the text. If your manuscript is acquired, the publisher will adjust according to what best suits the book and their house style.

Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Point 13.41, The University of Chicago Press 2010


Bad Seeds: Began to [verb]

Consider the following:

It was dawn. Wordy-Bird began to fly to the window. She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like anything is wrong, right? But there is an issue here, which I see in just about every manuscript I edit and sometimes in published books. It’s an issue of clunky writing, which can also become a big deal in manuscripts with blown-out word counts.

The offending phrase? Began to fly. Or its variations: began flying, started flying, started to fly.

Wordy Bird doesn’t just begin to fly to the window, she continues and finishes flying to the window, too, because in the next sentence she is there, looking out at the rising sun. So began to fly is not only unnecessarily wordy and unwieldy, it’s also lacks complete logic. Why not just write:

Wordy-Bird flew to the window.

Not only does that strengthen the sentence and complete the logic, but right there you’ve cut 28% of the words in that sentence. If this is a phrase that's consistently used in a manuscript—and when writers use began to (verb) it’s often very liberally—that can add up to a surprising number of excess and clunky words.

But consider the second sentence:

She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

In this context, started to sing works well. We don’t know what happens after she begins to sing, so it is suitable and actually adds weight to her act of singing to greet the dawn.  

As you become more aware of it, you’ll find that begin to (verb) and its variations rarely add more than excess words and an undesirable smattering of clunk. 

Bad Seeds: Lay and Lie

One of the Wordy Bird’s biggest pet peeves is misuse of the words lay and lie, and it's also probably the most common grammar mistake I see. 

Nestmate pointed at Baxter. “Lay down,” he said. Baxter laid down. Nestmate laid down beside the dog. Chickling laid on top of them.

What’s wrong with this?

“It’s lie down!” puffed Wordy Bird. “Not lay down. Unless you are actually laying the dog down, which you’re not.”

Lay is a transitive verb, so Baxter cannot lay down—

Ok, let’s back up a bit. What’s a transitive verb? A transitive verb takes an object. For example: put. You wouldn’t say:

The dog put.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? A transitive verb must take an object for the sentence to make sense.

The dog put the bone down.

The opposite of a transitive verb is an intransitive verb, for example: run.

The dog runs.

An intransitive verb doesn’t take an object.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t take an object. Some of the confusion between the two verbs comes from similarities when they are inflected:

Lie, lay, lain

Baxter lies down. Baxter lay down. Baxter has lain down.

But the transitive verb lay is inflected like this: lay, laid, laid

Baxter lays the bone down. Baxter laid the bone down. Baxter has laid the bone down.

So when Nestmate wants the dog to be on the floor, he should say:

“Lie down, Baxter. Good boy.”

Then he can lie beside the dog and Chickling will lay herself over both of them and everyone will be happy. Especially Wordy Bird. 

Bad Seeds: Dangling Modifers

I’d like you to take a look at the following paragraph:

As Wordy Bird perched there, watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast. Her wings flapped faster, just knowing how good it would taste. When she landed, her head tilted, listening for that telltale rustle of worm flesh beneath the earth.

What is wrong with these sentences—grammatically? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to weigh you down with too much grammar-junkie jargon today.)

Let’s look at the first:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

This is a sentence of a kind that I see in writers’ manuscripts on an almost daily basis, so that means a lot of writers are making this error. Let’s break it into parts:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest,

her belly rumbled,

thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

The first two work together, right?

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled…

What about this part:

…her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

Do you see the problem yet?

If you don’t see it yet, ask yourself this: who or what is thinking of the worm? In this sentence construction, it’s her belly. And apart from giving us a gnarly case of butterflies when we’re about to do something scary, bellies are not known for their capacity for intelligent thought.  

Now, if you go back to the second and third sentences, perhaps you'll see why I have a problem with those, too. 

Some of you, including those of you who have worked with me before or taken one of my classes, may pick up on at least one other (potential) problem when the three sentences are put together. Can work out what it* is?

* Hint: try reading them aloud. 

The moral of story is: Don't dangle your modifiers. (*And watch out for repetitive sentence structure!)

He Deflected, She Retorted (aka “He Said, She Said” or "Basic Tips for Writing Dialogue")

“Hey there,” whispered Wordy Bird. “I think it’s time we had a little chat.”

“Who? Me?” asked Mr. Flippinflapper.

“Yes, you.” She frowned. “Who else?”

He gulped. “Do you think that’s wise?”    

“I think it’s necessary,” said Wordy Bird, leaning in conspiratorially, “even though we’d both love to avoid it. After all, it’s tricky to talk about—” She snapped her head away and gazed at the steam wheezing out of the Fluff Factory. It was particularly pink and puffy this evening.

“You don’t mean…” His beak slowly dropped open. He grabbed a plate of pickled herrings and thrust it hard toward her. “Here, wouldn’t you like some? They’re scrumptious,” he squeaked.

Wordy Bird took a deep breath and swept aside the suspicious looking fish. She slowly nodded her featherbrained head. “Yes, my dear friend, it’s high time we talked about dialogue.”

Dialogue. We all know it’s important. It connects characters to each other, and gives the interactions between them life. It makes a scene interesting. And of course, it helps show—not tell—who each character really is, what they think, and what they feel.  

This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on what makes great dialogue. It is simply a discussion of some of the very basic dialogue issues I very frequently encounter while I’m editing and teaching. What your characters say is up to you. But here are some things to avoid when you’re writing it, some things that will help you self-edit as you revise and develop your manuscript.


Identify the speaker early, especially in dialogue for young people, not at the end of multiple sentences of speech. This is especially pertinent when you have multiple characters in a scene, each of whom might conceivably be speaking. Sometimes, when there are multiple sentences of dialogue without a dialogue tag, if there’s any ambiguity about who might be speaking, I often I assume it is one character and then get an odd little shock to find it was someone else. It makes me stop and backtrack and readjust. It’s jarring. You don’t want anything in your manuscript that catapults the reader out of the story, even for a moment.

Avoid verbose dialogue tags such as responded, interjected, inquired, questioned, and queried. Use said most of the time. Said will disappear into the dialogue, not stick out like the awkward guy at the party, poking the reader in the brain and saying too loudly, “Hey, did you know—I am a dialogue tag. No, really, I am. I mean the same thing as said, but I’m a different word for it! How about that? The laaaaadies love it.” That’s what they always shout to me, and a lot of editors will agree. The dialogue tag’s primary function is to just show us who is speaking. Let them mostly sink away into the background.

Avoid superfluous dialogue tags.

“But I like pickled herrings,” said Mr. Flippinflapper. “Especially red ones. You’ll like them, too,” he continued, stuffing several in Wordy Birdy’s beak. “Won’t you try some?” he asked. “Here,” he said.

Second or third or fourth dialogue tags when the same speaker is still speaking are usually superfluous. You almost always only need one to identify the speaker near the beginning of his/her speech. The exception is when the speaker’s manner of speaking suddenly changes dramatically, for example:

“But I like pickled herrings,” mumbled Mr. Flippinflapper. “Especially red ones. You’ll like them, too.” He stuffed several in Wordy Birdy’s beak. “Won’t you try some?” he squealed.

Sometimes, you won’t need a dialogue tag at all.

Wordy Birdie chewed thoughtfully on the herrings, but something didn’t taste right. She very discretely disposed of them by coughing daintily into her handkerchief. “So, as I was saying about dialogue… shall we discuss grounding it?”

Ground Your Dialogue. Let us see what the characters are doing, with what they are doing it, and where they are as they speak. Nonverbal communication, such as body language, as well as the character’s general behavior, and how they interact with their setting and other characters can give the reader strong cues about their emotional state, what is important to them, and even what they might be trying to avoid.

It is rarely necessary to tell us that Character A looks at Character B while A is speaking to B. That is implied. It’s only worth noting if there’s something interesting or remarkable about the way A is looking B while they’re speaking to them, otherwise just leave the “turning and looking” out. What can be interesting and important is if a character doesn’t look at the person they’re speaking to. That can say a lot about what’s really going on between them, and/or draw attention to whatever is happening around them.   

“Isn’t this wonderful?” said Wordy Bird, twirling around in the sunshine. “Aren’t you glad we had this chat?”

“I am.” Mr. Flippinflapper said, staring long and hard at the herring. He tossed it over his shoulder. It plopped into the pond, scattering the floating autumn leaves. “I suddenly feel much better. That wasn’t so hard after all.”

Wordy Bird watched the bubbles rise to the surface of the murky water and smiled. “I’m glad you agree,” she said.