On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

The Em Dash

This post is dedicated to my favorite punctuation mark—the em dash. Incidentally, an em dash is the punctuation mark that I typed just prior to its name in that last sentence and the one that I’m typing right here as well—that line separating one part of the text from another.

The em dash is also known as the long dash (as opposed to its relative, the en dash, or short dash, which has a very different function to be explained in a future post). An em dash can serve the same function as a comma, parenthesis, or colon, except that it adds an extra bit of emphasis to whatever follows it, or—in the case of a pair of em dashes—whatever text appears between them. In fact, that’s a good way of remembering how to use an em dash—the word emphasize begins with em, so use an em dash when you want a pause with some added emphasis.

For example, you can use an em dash like you would a comma to create a pause, as I did in the sentence above beginning with “Incidentally,” but it’s a slightly longer pause than a comma affords, placing more focus on the word or words that follow it. You can also use an em dash much as you would use a colon, to introduce something that explains or clarifies whatever precedes it, again, if you want to add that extra bit of emphasis to the word or words following it. I did this in the very first sentence of this post when I introduced my favorite punctation mark with the mark itself. Similarly, the sentence that I wrote above that contains two em dashes is an example of how a pair of them can act much like a pair of commas or parentheses would to set off the text between them. Em dashes are much more striking than commas or parentheses, so use them when you really want to draw the reader’s eye to the text that’s set apart. By contrast, if you’re adding a bit of text that isn’t as important (an afterthought, for instance), use parentheses instead.

Aside from the use cases mentioned above, there are a couple of additional instances when an em dash can be used that are specific to writing dialogue. You can use an em dash to indicate an interruption in a character’s speech, for example, “What the—?” Using an em dash in this way signals to the reader that the character’s sentence or thought was abruptly cut off. You can also break off part of a word in a character’s speech in this manner, such as, “What the f—?” Similarly to a pair of em dashes being used to insert a thought into a sentence, you can do the same when you’re interrupting a character’s dialogue with an action, without using speech tags like so-and-so said. An example of this is, “Hey”—she stepped between the man and her dog—”leave my dog alone!” Note that in instances like this, the dashes are not set inside in the quotation marks. I fully admit to writing constructions such as this one incorrectly; I always put the dashes inside the quotes.

Now that you know how to use an em dash, you might be wondering how to actually type one into your text. Well, unfortunately (in my opinion), the em dash isn’t exactly the easiest punctuation to type. If, like me, you work in a Mac OS, then you can typically just insert an em dash by typing two hyphens in succession on your keyboard (on a US keyboard, the hyphen key is located just to the right of the zero). I’ve found that this shortcut works in word processing programs, email, and when I’m typing on my iPhone. It doesn’t, however, work in WordPress, which means that if I want to use an em dash in a blog post like this one, I have to use this shortcut: Option+Shift+hyphen. In Windows applications, you can hold down the Alt key and the Shift key simultaneously along with the hyphen/minus key or hold down the Alt key, then press 0151 in sequence. Note that these shortcuts may not work on all types of computers or devices.

The correct way to format an em dash in your text is to place it right between the text with no spaces surrounding it. The only exception to this formatting is some writing that uses Associated Press (AP) publication style, such as news articles or magazines.

And that, gang, is all I’ve got on em dashes, except to say that, because they’re my favorite, you’ll obviously see a lot of them in my writing.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 72

Practice the art of observation by engaging in some people watching. Spend an hour or so at a park or a mall or some other area frequented by people and write down what you observe. This trick can help you not only with describing appearances in more detail but also with writing dialogue and exercising your imagination. When you’re writing your visual descriptions of people, try to be specific about what you see (hairstyles, types of clothing, the color of a person’s hat/glasses/bag, etc.). If you’re listening to conversations (without eavesdropping, of course), take note of accents, pronunciations, inflection, tone. Also pay close attention to what people are doing—their expressions, gestures, body language. What might these various things reveal about a person? What might the people be saying, feeling, or even thinking? Make up a backstory for a person or people you see and use this as a future character sketch.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 71

“I don’t belong here.”

“Yeah, not really my scene either, man,” the person next to him said, misunderstanding.

He shook his head. “No, I mean, I’m . . . ” He stopped. No one was listening. “. . . in this world but not of it,” he whispered to himself. I don’t belong here. I never have.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 70

This week’s writing prompt is another short, one-liner for you that could go just about anywhere.

It happened on a Tuesday.

Feel free to change the day of the week, but your job is to decide what happened on that day and why it was important.

Happy writing!

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 69

This week’s writing prompt is a one-liner:

“Don’t worry; everything will be just fine.”

First, determine the context in which these words are uttered and the intent of the entity speaking them. Are they meant to soothe or mollify or are they intended to frighten or unnerve? What is the tone and sincerity of the person speaking these words? Do they even believe them? What is the response of the person to whom these words are spoken?

There are numerous possibilities, each a new story waiting to unfold. See how many different scenarios you can come up with and which one you like best.

Ranée

Favorite(s)

I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

They’re, There, Their

Today’s post is obviously another installment in the Punctuation and Grammar category, which for the purposes of this blog, also includes word usage. This post happens to be about usage, namely, the use of a particular set of homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds the same as another word. Homonyms are notoriously troublesome because although they sound alike, they’re spelled differently and also typically have very different meanings, which can potentially lead to embarrassing, humorous, or even disastrous results if you happen to use the wrong one.

My husband and I encountered just such a problem on our honeymoon in Paris. On our first day in the city, we had lunch at a café and ordered some crème brûlée for dessert. Since we’d planned to share the dessert, my husband was going to ask our waiter for two spoons, deux cuillères. However, my husband doesn’t know much French, and although he’d picked up a little from a former roommate of ours, he asked me for a pronunciation check first. Thankfully, he did, or he would’ve said something rather vulgar to our waiter. Luckily, our waiter had a sense of humor and shared a laugh with us over this near-mistake; he even joked with me later.

Since English, not French, is the language that I know best, I’m focusing on homonyms in the English language. One particularly problematic group is they’re/there/their. One of these words refers to a place, another is a possessive form indicating ownership, and the third is a contraction that indicates people performing an action. So which one is which?

They’re

I think the easiest one to remember in terms of definition is the contraction, they’re. The apostrophe tells you that it’s a contraction—two words squished together into a shortened form with some letters missing (the apostrophe itself is placed where the missing letters would be). The full form of they’re is they are, so this is the one that refers to people engaged in some action, as in “They are coming to visit.”

There

The word there is the one that refers to a place, i.e., where something is located. If you have difficulty remembering this one, it might be helpful to consider it alongside its sometime-companion, “here,” which is also a place. Here and there both end in “-ere,” and both answer the question of “where” something is located (note that “where” also ends in the same letters “-ere”). If you’re a Beatles fan, this is the one in their song, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” a song title made up entirely of place words.

Their

I saved what I think may be the most confusing of the three homonyms for last because I can’t think of a trick to help you remember this one (if you’ve got one, please share in the comments). In any case, their is the one that is a possessive form, meaning it indicates ownership. Specifically, their (or its relative, theirs, which is the plural version) means “belonging to them.” So if you wish to convey ownership of a thing, such as “their shoes” or “their glasses” or “those papers are theirs,” then this is word you should use, not one of the other two.

Thankfully, any they’re/there/their confusion you might have isn’t likely to result in a horrendous outcome for you, but if you’re editing or proofing your own work, the tips I’ve listed here can help you make it a bit more polished. Write well, ink-slingers!

Ranée

Underneath It All

* Last updated April 28, 2022

I have sensitive skin. Always have. It’s been prone to redness, dryness, itching, rashes, eczema, even wrinkling. Products that were labeled “hypoallergenic” or marketed toward “sensitive skin” didn’t seem to help (newsflash: those are just labels that get slapped on products; they’re essentially meaningless as what is a sensitivity for one person may not be for another). I’ve done tons of research on skin care products and their ingredients—the benefits, cons, hype, and total b.s.—and tried tons of them too. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of money I’ve wasted in this quest to just stop the skin problems. It’s taken years to finally solve the mystery and most of the detective work was done by me. What I’ve learned from this journey is that, underneath it all, it really does matter what you put on your skin (not to mention into your body in general).

Several years ago, I had a very bad reaction after eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant where I’d consumed way more guacamole than usual. My entire body swelled up and broke out in hives. Still, because I’d had guacamole before, I didn’t realize right away that avocado might be the culprit. It wasn’t until I had a less severe reaction twice in a row after eating my own guacamole that I figured avocado could be the cause. After that, I omitted everything containing avocado and avocado oil, including some hair products that contained it. My scalp eczema cleared up some but my problems persisted.

As has seemed to be the theme with most of my health issues, I had to be my own advocate in order to break the endless cycle of useless “treatments” that weren’t actually addressing the real cause or solving my problems. I found that dermatologists and other doctors weren’t really interested in figuring out the underlying causes of my skin problems; they just gave me various creams or ointments to treat the symptoms (some of which only exacerbated the problem). Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a common theme among medical professionals. If I wanted to know once and for all what I was allergic to so that I could finally, actually treat my allergies or, at the very least, avoid the things causing them, then I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. So, this past year, I asked my primary care doctor to recommend an allergist so that I could get tested.

I had a prick test for environmental allergens that was enlightening (I’m primarily allergic to indoor allergies like dust mites and molds but also have minor allergies to a host of other outdoor trees and plants). The patch test for contact allergies was what I was most interested in, though, given that contact allergies were the cause of all of my skin problems. The results were a surprise as they didn’t turn up anything that had been a suspected cause (no fragrances or oils). I was already aware of my nickel allergy since every time I wore jewelry that wasn’t sterling silver or pure gold, I ended up with a really bad rash (my ears used to get really itchy, red, and swollen from certain earrings).

It did, however, show a common cleansing agent as one of the things I was sensitive to. That ingredient was decyl glucoside, which just happened to be in all of our soaps, my body wash, and my facial cleanser. Incidentally, decyl glucoside is a known allergen (quite a common one), yet it’s used in a tremendous number of personal care products marketed toward “sensitive” skin as well as products that are supposedly “hypoallergenic” (again, those labels are basically meaningless and the use of those terms isn’t regulated). I eliminated products that contained this ingredient from my routine, but my skin problems still persisted, so I played detective again and researched the ingredients in that specific cleanser. What I discovered is that decyl glucoside and similar related ingredients are made from coconut, which led me to wonder if coconut might be the real underlying problem. I did a little experiment; I began to remove items from my personal care regimen that I knew contained coconut to see if my skin improved. Lo and behold, it did. I mentioned this to my allergist and asked if I could be tested for a coconut allergy. They had a prick test for coconut and when I took it, we saw an allergic reaction almost immediately. The doctor marveled at how I’d come to suspect that coconut was the culprit, but I didn’t see anything awe-inspiring about my sleuthing. There was a mystery to be solved and I was determined to solve it. Period.

Once we identified the coconut contact allergy, then I began the arduous task of removing everything I was putting on my body that contained coconut, coconut oil, or ingredients that were derived from coconut. Well, guess what—that’s almost everything that goes into personal care products. Practically all cleansing agents/surfactants in soaps, shampoos, body washes, and even toothpastes come from coconut. A large portion of ingredients in lotions, creams, and serums do as well. An ingredient doesn’t have to literally have “coconut” or “coconut oil,” or even “coco” in the name to originate with coconut; things like vegetable glycerin, glycerides, and stearic acid are made from coconuts.

I’ve been going through a process of trial and error to find coconut-free products that work for me. Switching to olive oil hand soap has made a huge difference for me (no more chapped hands or itchy, red, flaky skin under my rings!). So far, I have found only one toothpaste that doesn’t have a coconut-derived cleanser or coconut oil in it (Weleda ratahnia); unfortunately, it also doesn’t have fluoride, so I’ve been using ACT mouthwash as well. I’ve listed below the products that are now in my regimen in case others like me have this rare allergy and are also seeking relief.

Homemade body butter and sea salt spray

I’ve been making a couple of homemade products for myself as they’re pretty easy to create, help me to save a little money, and I haven’t been able to find anything that I like better. I used to make my own flax seed hair gel, but it required refrigeration, meaning it wasn’t portable, and a batch only lasted about a week, which seemed such a waste since I’d barely get halfway through a bottle/jar in that time. I recently switched over to making my own sea salt spray for my hair and have been making my own body butter ever since I suspected the coconut allergy. Recipes for both of those products are below.

Sea Salt Spray for Hair

Makes 8 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp organic aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp almond oil (you can use whatever oil you like or any combination you choose: sunflower, castor, marula, argan, etc. based on your own preferences, hair types, and allergies)
  • Optional: 20 drops of essential oil for fragrance

Directions:

  1. Boil the water in a pot on the stove
  2. Once boiling, remove from heat
  3. Add the salt, stirring until dissolved
  4. Allow to cool, then add the aloe and oil(s)
  5. Pour into a spray bottle

For best results, shake your bottle of sea salt spray well before applying, so as to mix up the ingredients and avoid getting oily patches in your hair.

Body Butter

Makes 16 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup beeswax
  • 1/2 cup cocoa butter
  • 1/2 cup sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup almond oil
  • 2 tsp arrowroot powder
  • Optional: essential oil/fragrance oil

Directions:

  1. Combine the beeswax and cocoa butter in a large bowl
  2. Melt them on the stove using a double boiler or in the microwave
  3. Remove from heat and whisk in your other ingredients
  4. Allow mixture to cool and then refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours
  5. Remove from fridge and whip the mixture using a hand mixer until it becomes creamy (it will look similar to whipped cream)
  6. Spoon into an airtight container and avoid adding water

Note that coconut is not a tree nut, despite being grouped with tree nuts in terms of allergens, and I do not have any known allergies to tree nuts, hence the inclusion of them in my body butter. However, if you do have allergies to tree nuts, then please do not make this recipe. Instead, substitute other ingredients that will work for you and your specific skin needs. If you’re not a fan of cocoa butter, the smell does dissipate once applied, but you can easily disguise it by adding fragrance or substituting a different ingredient. The body butter should be stored in a cool, dry place away from heat or it will melt (this happened to me on a trip over the summer).

In addition to the two products that I make for myself, there are also several products that I buy because, frankly, I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to make them myself. That list follows and I will continue to update it as I find my “Holy Grail” products.

OOlivia has become one of my favorite indie shops because they have a convenient “coconut-free” option. Gabriel Cosmetics also offers an extensive ingredient list on their site including a catalog of all coconut-free products.

LIST OF PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS

  • HAIR. Aside from my sea salt spray, I’ve been using True Love Soap Company’s shampoo and conditioner bars which are made for people with coconut allergies. Jayne’s honey, calendula, & meadowfoam shampoo bar and honey & silk conditioner bar are a match made in heaven for my curly hair. Her products and my sea salt spray are the only three things I put in my hair.
  • FACE. I’m currently using Gabriel Cosmetics hydrating cleanser and Desert Essence moringa, jojoba, and rose hip oil (unfortunately, I still seem to have some texture issues and occasional dryness or breakouts but this is the best I can find for now). The best lip balm I could find is Badger cocoa butter lip balm. I also really like their sunscreen, which doesn’t leave a white cast on skin and moisturizes without feeling too sticky or mask-like. Once a week, I use Oolivia’s matcha facial polish.
  • BODY. I have been cleansing with Clean Kids Naturally watermelon bubble bath from Gabriel Cosmetics. It’s coconut-free and works fabulously as a body wash. For SPF/sun protection, I’ve tried a Kiss My Face coconut-free sunscreen, but I wish Badger made theirs in a larger size because it’s much more moisturizing and doesn’t have a weird smell. My absolute favorite body product apart from my homemade body butter is now OOliva’s coconut-oil-free deodorant. It is hands-down the best! It’s unscented but keeps BO at bay even through interval workouts and the lack of fragrance means it doesn’t interfere with the perfume that I wear.

You’ll note that all of the products listed here are organic and/or cruelty-free, and many are made by small business owners because, yes, that matters to me almost as much as what I put onto and into my body. I am SO glad that I did my research and advocated for myself and my health, but most importantly, I’m delighted to be getting closer to living in happy skin because of it!