The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

My students, bless them, are my source of writing goofs. They very much want to write—so how did they wind up making this many mistakes? Well, not every one of them makes the same mistakes, but a lot of them make particular ones… I think (a) they sleep-walked through some of their high school classes, and/or (b) their teachers, not knowing any better themselves, didn’t instruct them properly.

I believe the second is what happened to me. And I actually worked as a writer and editor for many years before learning certain style standards. Yes. I think teaching at all levels is hit and miss, and when language and punctuation rules are missed, our common culture ends up with a mishmash in books and publications.

The one advantage I had in grade school was that we learned to diagram sentences. That was a big plus. But a big minus was a lack of training in mechanics. Mechanics means all those (mostly) mechanical actions we take such as putting a period at the end of a sentence or punctuating dialogue.

Mechanics, though mostly mechanical, can still leave a certain amount of room for decision, and not all decision guidelines in regard to mechanics and style are that clear. They require a knowledge base, but also a logical putting of two and two together as well as an educated ear for how punctuation and other elements sound on the page.

So if some editor—maybe me—has perhaps marked up your manuscript, don’t feel inadequate. Writing is an art form like any other, and we always have to be in the process of upgrading our skills. Just go right ahead and upgrade.

The particular subject I had in mind today was, as I say in the title, the question of job roles and relationship roles. The difficulty many students and clients encounter is that they don’t know which job titles and relationship titles to capitalize. The answer is actually a simple one, but even then isn’t always followed.

In reading an article in a major magazine, I was appalled by a certain set of errors. And I hadn’t too long before read a piece by the copy editor at that publication telling how carefully she applies the rules. Well, if this editor was applying house style, the style for the publication is an odd one.

The magazine piece I’m referring to capitalized both President and Presidential. The commonly accepted rule, however, is that we don’t capitalize job roles. We would say: “The president gave a speech tonight. Though he may sometimes try to sound presidential, this evening he was off the mark.”

We don’t capitalize “president,” unless the word is used as part of a name or as a name. Here’s an example:
Hoover, elected president in 1928, later presided over the country’s deepest-ever economic depression. Though painted as cruel and uncaring, President Hoover made efforts to aid business, farming, and the unemployed.

Naturally, if this is the case for “president,” the same rule applies to other offices, from generals to justices of the Supreme Court.

“Excuse me, General, but you’re wanted at the White House.” The colonel was happy to see the general go.

John Jay served as chief justice of the Supreme Court until he was elected governor of New York and then resigned from the court. Chief Justice John Marshall died in office.

Similarly, relationship roles aren’t capitalized unless they’re part of a name or used as a name.

I asked Mother not to come to my graduation as the event would be tiring for her. I told the guys in advance that my mother wasn’t coming, but that I’d asked Uncle Steven, who would enjoy going to lunch with us. He was my favorite uncle and a very cool guy.

I think that’s clear and easy to follow, but for questions, email me: Or download the Kindle version of my style and composition guide, The Naked Writer at Amazon.

Or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

The Naked Writer

One Mother, One Father, One Sister, One Brother

No, this isn’t a religious piece or about family matters. This is about a certain comma…

That is, when we write:

My mother, Suzanne,


My husband, George,

we need commas.

Why? Well, generally, we have only one mother or one husband. Though, of course, this particular person might have more than one mother or one husband, for some reason having to do with social mores or… I can’t guess.

But when we have one of someone named in a relationship, we need a pair of commas.

That is:

My mother, Suzanne, cooked roast beef last night.


My husband, George, went bowling with the guys.

The same would be true of any relationship, and not just family relationships.

My boss, Steven, asked me to redo the report.

If, however, we have more than one of same—no commas.

My brother Eddie took the kids for a walk.

But if Eddie is special:

My oldest brother, Eddie, took the kids for a walk.

Definitely we don’t use a comma if we have more than one of a type.

My friend Argone returned to his home country.

Or, again, if the person (or whatever) is noted as special, yes, commas:

My Turkish friend, Argone, returned to Turkey.


My brown and white cat, Frieda, has been fighting with my other cats.

What if we don’t know how many others might be around?

Larry’s brother, James, went with him to the circus. I don’t know if Larry has other siblings, but James is the only one Larry has mentioned.

Just another reason we use commas—a rule that puzzles many people.

If you’re confused about this or other comma rules, you can download my style guide, The Naked Writer, at Amazon for your Kindle.

Or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

Or see how I punctuate in one of my novels, such as Question Woman & Howling Sky or Strings (a middle grade fantasy adventure) or The Heroine’s Journey (a young adult fantasy).


The Naked Writer

The Naked Writer

Comma for Direct Address

“Thank you Miki,” my students often write. You’d think I’d be gratified. But no, I’m not. I’m in turmoil. Where is that comma for direct address? Where did these people go to school? Why, now, as adults, don’t they know that a comma is always used for direct address? Why isn’t the comma as automatic as that thank you?

Please, dear students, write, “Thank you, Miki.” Ah. I like the thank you but if they don’t use the comma for direct address, the lack of a comma makes me wonder what else they’re doing while my back is turned.

Could they be writing, “Joe glared at his mother. ‘Mom please don’t tell Iris you spoke to me”  when they should be writing “Mom COMMA FOR DIRECT ADDRESS…” If I’ve told that student once, I’ve told him ten times or more.

Which brings a second complaint of mine to mind. Why is the student not paying attention? As I said to my friend who teaches a martial art, “We need to have classes somewhere in how to learn.”

Most, really most, students don’t appear to want to absorb correction, and most, really most, have the patience of gnats: That assignment didn’t go well, so I guess this writing thing isn’t for me.

Oh well… But try the comma for direct address, students. Really, I mean it.


All the uses of the comma are explained in The Naked Writer, my style and composition guide from Curiosity Quills, which you can download at Amazon.

And to see commas in action, buy a hard copy or download Question Woman & Howling Sky from Portals Publishing at Amazon.

Or if you want me to chide you personally for your comma use, take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

The Naked Writer

The Naked Writer

Basic Punctuation for Dialogue/Quotes


I met a mechanical engineer who teaches at Columbia University. I said I’d been reading a lot about Isaac Newton.

“Ah, Newton—80 percent genius and 20 percent nut.” He said.

(Let me quickly insert the correct punctuation: “Ah, Newton—80 percent genius and 20 percent nut,” he said.)

What drives me crazy here is not that my neighbor doesn’t understand where Newton was coming from—few do—but that type of dialogue or quote punctuation.

While on this occasion I’m the one who mispunctuated—because I wanted to make a point—I see this sort of punctuation all the time.

Let me first explain that the “he said” is part of the same sentence accusing Newton of being something of a nut. Now, I’ll return to my premise (see my other blog pieces below) that if you read the writing out loud, you’ll understand why we don’t come to a full stop between one part of the sentence and the next. Well, you’ll understand the thesis should you know how punctuation “reads.” A period represents a full stop, and a comma represents a fairly short pause.

If you appreciate how long we halt when we have a period, as opposed to how long we rest when we have a comma, and you can read the above sentence out loud to yourself, you’ll grasp that the “he said” is part of the quote (or bit of dialogue if you’re writing fiction), and you’ll know why we use a comma with a word of citation instead of a period. (This last sentence is long, but not what’s considered a run-on. You ought to be able to read this easily while breathing sufficiently because of the punctuation.)

This may also lead you to understand why we don’t use a comma in front of verbs—or other peculiar sorts of marks here and there.

“Ah, Newton, 80 percent genius and 20 percent nut,” he looked around for a way to escape the conversation.

(The correct punctuation: “Ah, Newton, 80 percent genius and 20 percent nut.” He looked around for a way to escape the conversation.)

Read that out loud as well and you’ll easily hear that “he looked around for a way to escape the conversation” is not a part of the main sentence. Thus, we need a full stop.

Most of you don’t make this mistake, of course, but enough of you do that I felt ought to help out you (common variety of) error-makers.

For lots further help, see my ebook The Naked Writer for the Kindle. Allegedly, the print version will come out before… Hmm, what comes next? The national conventions? The elections? Terrorists on the watch list denied the right to buy guns?

Or you can take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University—I have many classes coming up.

Or read in print or ebook, or listen to, Question Woman & Howling Sky. That might not help you with your own writing, but at least the book should entertain.



The Naked Writer


The Cruel Comma Splice

The comma splice is perhaps a tad bit cruel because this error will make you look a little not so smart. (I couldn’t use a cruel word here.)

Here’s a comma splice: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

What you might write instead:

  •  I was going to eat dinner. Joe insisted on joining me.
  •  I was going to eat dinner; Joe insisted on joining me.
  •  I was going to eat dinner, and Joe insisted on joining me.

You understand this easily enough if you comprehend what a sentence is. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know the characteristics of a sentence.

Yet I think most people would grasp what a sentence is if they read their writing back to themselves.

Here’s the comma splice again: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

How would you read that? How would the comma sound in the reading? I don’t know exactly, but to me it’s obvious that the stop—the pause—required by the comma isn’t sufficient for the contents of the combined, new (incorrect) sentence.

I believe that many writing failures are reading failures, that if the writer were a better reader, such a writer would come to realize what a sentence is and how to punctuate.

Now, to go backward and tell you what a comma splice is. A comma splice occurs when only a comma is used to join two independent clauses. What’s an independent clause? An independent clause is a full sentence. A full sentence is a clause that can stand on its own, having both a subject and a verb:

  •  She went.
  •  Birds fly.
  •  Alchemy is said to have been the precursor of chemistry because it had as its (supposed) goal not just the discovery of pure scientific fact, but the creation of something called the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would allow the alchemist to change metals such as copper into gold.

A sentence—an independent clause—can also have dependent clauses, clauses that can’t stand on their own.

Here’s the comma splice once more: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

Let’s change the second independent clause to a dependent clause: I was going to eat dinner, but then Joe insisted on joining me.

Obviously, “but then Joe insisted on joining me” isn’t an independent clause—a standalone sentence. That’s evident, isn’t it?

So you have another possibility for changing the comma splice to an acceptable written format.

With so many choices on hand and easily accessible, why would you use a comma splice and make everyone groan?

You wouldn’t unless you wanted to sabotage yourself. Think about it. Can you learn?

If you do want to learn, download a copy of The Naked Writer at or take a class I teach at Writers Digest University.

Next up are : 06/16/2016 – 09/08/2016 12 Weeks to a First Draft and 06/23/2016 – 08/04/2016 Writing the Mystery Novel .

See you there.




The Naked Writer

Use Contractions

I say this to students a lot: “Go for contractions. They’re more natural to our ears.”

Reading is, in part, a process of hearing with our (inner) ears. We hear what we’re reading or even thinking or writing—yes, in part. So if something written is unnatural to our ears, the reading doesn’t flow.

  • What would I want that I do not have now? I do not want for anything, and I do not worry about the future.
  • I can not agree to what the staff can not execute.
  • If you are anything like the rest of us, you are eager to get going on a lucrative project.
  • He was someone she could not remember from her years of living there.

This translates to

  • What would I want that I don’t have now? I don’t want for anything, and I don’t worry about the future.
  • I can’t agree to what the staff can’t execute.
  • If you’re anything like the rest of us, you’re eager to get going on a lucrative project.
  • He was someone she couldn’t remember from her years of living there.

I suppose that taking these out of context the difference between not using a contraction and the form with a contraction isn’t so dramatic, but trust me, when you’re reading along, the lack of contractions can be very old-fashioned, formal, peculiar.

Well, the lack of contractions isn’t really old-fashioned since writers have been using contractions for literally hundreds of years.

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet by William Shakespeare, 1601 (Note two contractions.)

Look at the language of the people in George Eliot’s writing from the mid-1800s—rife with contractions, although the language may strike us as archaic—which, yes, it is, and soft of countrified.

So in writing a novel set in the past, go ahead and use contractions.

Where else do writers fail to use contractions? Some avoid contractions in science fiction, some in ‘literary’ speech, and some to distinguish even a contemporary character (though it certainly doesn’t work).

Use contractions in all these instances as well as in general writing since contractions strike the ear as natural. When would we not use contractions? Sometimes, for emphasis, we avoid a contraction or maybe we do so to vary the wording a little.

Our tendency when writing can be to write out each word and skip the contraction. And that may be because we’re sounding it all out in our heads a little at a time. But we edit. When going back to edit, remember to use contractions except for the occasional use of both words for weight.


Take a class with me at Talk to me about a line edit at Buy some of my fiction such as Question Woman & Howling Sky or buy my style guide—The Naked Writer—with just about everything you need to write fiction or nonfiction (even letters) correctly. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section here.

The Naked Writer

The Naked Writer

Capitals Have Their Rules

I had a student once who capitalized every noun, common or proper. I was taken aback. Why, oh, why? That was what the nuns had taught her—and in another country. But still I see a lot of unnecessary capitalization. Capitals make people feel important. So we capitalize our Board and our Mothers and the breed names of our Pets, the names of our Trees and our Job Roles.

Please don’t.

He is the chief of police. That is, Chief of Police John H. Smith.

We capitalize job titles only when they’re used as part of a name. You can ask the president of the United States if that is so. I mean President Obama. Or should I guess here who will be the next president?

If your company has a board of directors, or a membership committee, you really should just use the plain, unadorned words.

If your mother did something nice for you, that’s great. You can say, “Oh, Mother, thank you. That was so nice. Not many mothers would do something like that.”

While the American Kennel Club would want you to brag about your Schnauzer, you can insist on bragging about your schnauzer. On the other hand if you have a French poodle, well, ooh la la—or a Labrador retriever—everyone likes those dogs.

And as for the elm tree in your back yard or the woodpecker in the oak, let’s leave them without any extra bragging rights.

Capitalization has many more rules, but since my friend wrote me about the pope, calling him the Pope, I thought I’d start here. Yes, Pope Francis—he seems like a nice guy. I doubt if he’d want a capital when he didn’t deserve one.


Oh, excuse me. Of course I capitalize the Blue Wind in Question Woman & Howling Sky—and his brothers: .

The Naked Writer