Inconceivable Diction: an Intervention with Inigo Catoya

This post is brought to you by:

I know, I know: he’s not a cat. Can we nonetheless agree that Mr. Montoya makes an excellent point about some of our ability to choose words in a way that you won’t lose your readers?


Fine. Here’s Inigo Catoya:

Image You killed my father. Prepare to cuddle.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s say you’re writing about your cat–not a stretch, right? You’ve got the cat right in front of you, lounging decadently yet sophisticatedly on the windowsill, and all you want, with every iota of your being, is to communicate the grace and beauty you see before you. Your task now is to pick the right word.

Then this happens:

She walked into the room. She saw the cat. The cat looked directly at her with a smoldering green gaze.

Here’s how that works when I read it:

First sentence: cool. Second sentence: cool. Third sentence: ooh, smoldering! Nice word cho–what is “gaze” doing there?

A screeching halt, that’s what happens. No one is going to get carried away by your verbiage if they have to stop and process what’s happening. And this is what I imagine when I see “gaze” used that way:


The gaze is the invisible line between your eyeballs and whatever you’re looking at. “Invisible” is the key word. Eyes can be blue; a gaze cannot be blue. (“Cannot” in this case meaning, “your editor will be imagining blue lasers beaming from your character’s eyes.” If this is your intention, by all means, carry on.) A gaze can, however, be intense or glassy or passionate or whatever. A gaze can also travel at will. “His eyes wandered across the room” is ambiguous at best and requires immediate medical attention at worst.

A look and a gaze are close relatives. Both of them work as verbs and nouns:

The cat looked at me incredulously.

The cat gave me an incredulous look.


The cat gazed at me, murder in its eyes.

The cat’s gaze was murderous.


What you see right before you die.

Even eye works this way:

The cats eyes were full of promises of what was to come.

The cat eyed me like he knew what he was doing.



But when the thing you’re picturing in your mind is your character’s eyes, for the love of cats, say “eyes.” Don’t say “look” or “gaze” or something weird like “scan.” If you use “scan” as a noun, this is what I will picture:


Cat scan. HEH HEH.

“But but but,” I can hear you saying, “I have to talk about my cat’s eyes for six sentences! If I keep using, ‘eyes’ every time, it’ll be really repetitive!”

First of all, if your paragraph is dwelling so heavily on one thing that you have to dig deep into the pits of the thesaurus to avoid repetition, one might choose to take it as a sign that something needs to change. Something that is not word choice. Second, there are still plenty of other things you can use to describe the thing on your cat’s face that it uses to watch birds out the window. Let’s use as our example a confused cat, because it turns out there are a lot of those on the Internet.

The cat’s face showed his confusion.



Confusion radiated from the cat’s countenance.


The cat looked severely confused and alarmed.



There you have it: gaze and eyes (and some other stuff). Mess it up and Inigo Catoya will give you scans of withering scorn…


…or something.


Let Sleeping Cats Lie

You’re not going to like this, grammar cats. I don’t like it either. I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off:

“Lie” and “lay” are two different words.



Lay and lie get confused because even though they have slightly different meanings, they share the word “lay.” The present tense of “to lay” is the same as the past tense of “to lie.” So we can say:

Frank decided to lay the cat on the dog while the dog lay sleeping.

catTerrible idea, Frank.

The first “lay” is from “to lay”; the second is the past tense of “to lie.” Are you confused yet? Well, it gets worse: Speaking as someone who has to look this up four or five times a week even though I know the rule, I’ve realized that you just have to memorize it.


But it’s okay! Cats can help us. If there’s one thing in the world cats are good at, it’s being motionless.


Like a goddamn champion.


Though we all know cats are noble and honest by nature, they’re good at lying…on things. The present tense of to lie is lie; the past tense is lay; the past perfect tense is had lain.


When you use lay, it should usually take an object. So if you find yourself typing lay, ask yourself, “laying what?” (If you’re not laying anything, you probably want to use lie.) The present tense of to lay is lay; the past tense is laid; the past perfect tense is had laid.

Now I’m going to bombard you with examples.

Present Tense:


Lie: The cat lies on the book.

Lay: She lays the cat on the book and realizes she’s not going to get to read it anytime soon.

Present Continuous Tense:


Lie: The cat is lying on the floor, minding its own business.

Lay: Someone is laying office supplies on that poor, long-suffering creature.

Past Tense:


Lie: Grumpy Cat lay in some jerkface’s hands.

Lay: Jack laid Grumpy Cat down and apologized.

Past Perfect Tense:


Lie: The cat had lain too close to the tracks because it thought it had eight lives left.

Lay: He had laid his cat down in the subway station, so he no longer had a cat.

There you go! Repeat those examples to yourself a few thousand times (or put it on a sticky note and attach it to your monitor) and you’ll be ready to navigate treacherous examples like:

The standing lion laid its mouth on the lying lion.

big cats

I’m sure it’s an affectionate gesture.

Dashes: What All the Little Lines Mean

You ever find yourself with some alone time—maybe you’re cleaning out a litter box, maybe you’re taking the cat for a walk—when your brain puts together the pieces of a puzzle you didn’t even know you were trying to solve? We all have those moments, and for many of us, one of them is when we realize that there is a dramatic difference between the practical uses of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

It's okay, I do all my best thinking in the bathroom, too.

Let’s be real. This is where 90% of those realizations happen.

For those of you who have yet to experience this heart-stopping, adrenaline-filled punctuation epiphany, this post may help you along in a more subtle, nurturing manner.

Our topic for this post comes from a new reader, who is definitely, completely, not in any joking manner named Duai Rilly Hafta:

My question, Grammar Cat, concerns the use of the em-dash.… My book is full of them because it seemed to reflect how I think, but I wonder if there are conventions for good usage versus, for example, the dry, uninteresting semi-colon.

All cheap jabs to the majestic semicolon aside,  this is a great question.


This is the smallest of the little horizontal line thingies that the English language uses. The most common use is to connect words for clarification. The function is basically the same as when people hold hands to let everyone know they’re together. It’s the “he’s with me” of the punctuation world.

The most common culprit of hyphen use is the phrasal adjective, which you probably already understand, even if you don’t know you know it. Let’s start simple. An adjective is something that describes a noun. A phrase is a group of words that may have a noun or a verb included, but no one is actually doing anything, meaning it’s not a complete sentence with a subject and verb.

The CMoS is kind enough to give a set of rules to follow for phrasal adjectives. Here they are, paraphrased and with cats.

1) If the phrasal adjective is placed before the noun it describes, hyphenate!
ex. That was a cat’s-out-of-the-bag moment.

“Your boyfriend got you a spatula for your birthday.”

2) If the phrasal adjective before the noun contains a compound noun, the compound noun must also be hyphenated.

Compound nouns are just nouns that require more than one word to describe them. For example, cat litter is a compound noun, because either word alone does not express the same idea as the two words combined.

I need to buy some cat. ←Sounds like you’re buying cat meat.

I need to buy some litter. ←Sounds like you’re making terrible financial decisions.

I need to buy some cat litter. ←Okay, I get it now.

So if one of those compound nouns shows up in a phrasal adjective that comes before the noun it describes, hyphenate it along with the rest of the phrasal adjective.

Ex. My cousin Gary is a cat-litter-scooping maniac.

“Is Gary gone yet?”

3) If more than one phrasal adjective is used to describe a noun, you better get your act together and hyphenate each one separate from each other.

Ex. Dude, I think I accidentally adopted a twelfth-regeneration time-lord cat.


4) If two phrasal adjectives share a common ending element, then… Well, I’ll spare you the jargon. Just do it like this:

Ex. Both blue- and green-eyed cats are fully capable of stealing your heart.

But not:

Blue-and-green-eyed cats, because that refers to cats with one blue eye and one green eye.

“Look what your bad hyphenation has done to me! I’m a freak!”

However, if the shared element of the two phrasal adjectives is at the beginning, then you don’t get to use this convenience, and you have to write it twice.

Ex. Brown-eyed and brown-haired cats are the best. 

5)  If the phrasal adjective includes a duration or amount, the plurals should be changed to singular. So say your cat has been alive for four months. That would make it a four-month-old cat. This is probably the most common misuse of hyphens around. Here are the two correct ways to write age:

a) I own a ten-year-old cat. ←Notice that it’s hyphenated because it appears before the noun “cat,” which it modifies. Also notice that it’s year instead of years.

b) My cat is ten years old. ←Notice that it’s not hyphenated because the adjective appears after the noun it modifies. Also notice that the plural years is back.

6) Sometimes these hyphen rules look terrible once they’re employed. CMoS suggests that in such cases, you find a way to rework the sentence so it doesn’t look so sucky.

En dash:

The en dash is not interchangeable with the hyphen. Ever. Never, ever.

Here are some uses of the en dash:

1) To indicate a rage of numbers, be it time, distance, page numbers, etc.

Ex.  I spent 3–4 hours working on this Grammar Cat post.

But if the word from precedes the range, the en dash will not work, and it must be replaced by the word to.

Ex. I worked on the Grammar Cat post from 2pm to 5pm. 

Being a Grammar Cat is not all fun and games.

2) To signify to in the context of scores or directions.

Ex. The Carolina Panthers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 35–17.

Ex. The Austin–Houston commute should be avoided at all costs.

…unless you have this sweet ride.

3) To indicate stuttered syllables in dialogue. Do keep in mind, though, that making a reader trudge through too much stuttering isn’t going to win you any fans as an author.

Ex. “I just w–w–wanted to p–pet the kitty,” the child said through his tears.

Em dash:

Before we get into the em dash and how it can basically be used for most other punctuation marks, let’s have a heart-to-heart conversation about moderation. Em dashes, like exclamation points, can be overused simply because they are so versatile. However, they’re also a fairly loud punctuation mark (like the exclamation point), and draw quite a bit of attention to the element they set off from the rest of the text. So imagine you have a friend who is totally into everything. Your friend is always touting the hottest new band who he loves so much. Do you go and listen to every band his says is the next best thing? Probably not. But if you have a friend who is rarely opinionated but implores you to check out this awesome band he heard, you’re likely to listen. Analogy complete.

1) Okay. The em dash, sometimes simply called “the dash,” can be used to replace parentheses, comma pairs, or a colon.

Here’s a sentence that uses a colon:

Alice in Wonderland provides us with one of the freakiest animal characters known to man: the Cheshire cat.

Now here it is with an em dash:

Alice in Wonderland provides us with one of the freakiest animal characters known to man—the Cheshire cat.

Totally not 100% nightmarish.

Both are correct; however, the colon is a little sharper of a punctuation mark than the casual em dash in this case. The colon is a jab, while the em dash is a nudge.

Here’s a sentence that uses a comma pair (meaning the commas are used to set off non-essential information):

The litterbox, the place where my cat spends most of his time, is starting to stink up the house.

Now with em dashes:

The litterbox—the place where my cat spends most of his time—is starting to stink up the house.

In these two examples, the commas are much more discreet than the em dashes and the separate ideas flow more smoothly.

Here’s a sentence that uses parentheses:

The kitten (he was really more of a cat at this point) no longer fit into his sweater.

Now with em dashes:

The kittenhe was really more of a cat at this pointno longer fit into his sweater.

“I think it shrunk, is all.”

So how does one choose between parentheses and em dashes? Consider parentheses are more of a whispered side note than the loud em dash.

2) The em dash can separate an introductory noun or series of nouns from the pronoun that describes it. Right? I wouldn’t be able to process that without an example, either, so here you go:

Ex. Hoping for catnip, naps, and staring into space—those are the three major pastimes of cats.

3) The em dash can be used to indicate a sudden interruption to thoughts or dialogue. This is not to be confused with ellipses, which indicate a trailing off of thought or speech. The em dash is much more sudden.

Ex. “Meow, meow, meow, me—”
“Shut up, Fluffy!”

4) When dialogue is interrupted in the middle of a sentence by narration that does not include some sort of dialogue tag (he said, she yelled, etc.), use pair of em dashes to insert the narration.

Ex. “I wish I’d written The Cat in the Hat, because”—he puffed up his chest—“I could have added more violence.”

***Note*** Question marks and exclamation points can come before an em dash, but commas, colons, semicolons, and periods (with rare exceptions you may live your whole life without encountering) cannot.

♥ ♥ ♥

Along with the topic request, Duai Rilly Hafta writes, My other question is whether Claire has Italian aunts at all.

This is, of course, in reference to a previous post, which can be seen here. The answer is that yes, Duai, all of my aunts are fairly Italian, but they are not, in fact, named Maria. However, were I to tell you their real names, I would likely incur the wrath of a handful of fairly Italian aunts, which any fairly Italian niece knows is not a smart fight to pick.

“I will have my revenge in this life or the next.”

Deep Thoughts with Muffie the Cat

Grammar Kittens, they tell me it’s a new year. A time for fresh starts and resolutions. While many of you may be working on your vows to exercise more…


…or something, let’s make a collective grammar resolution, okay? Okay. Here it is:

We are all going to get it together when it comes to writing about characters’ thoughts.

Is this the biggest problem that English literature faces? No. Does it make me want to shoot laser beams out of my eyes?



What am I talking about, you inquire? As a matter of fact, I can show you many problems with one example:

Why had his owner given him such a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought to himself?

Though fiction editors are notoriously well-adjusted individuals, this sort of thing will make your editor get emotional in the margins and have to do a little deep breathing.

Direct thoughts are pretty much what they sounds like: you are showing exactly what a character is thinking, as they think it. Dialogue shows what a character is saying; a direct thought shows what he’s thinking.

A lot of the problems in the example above can be avoided if we simply pretend that the direct thought is dialogue. If Muffie were whining to his friends about his predicament, he would probably say this:

“Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?” Muffie the cat asked.


This cat is probably named Muffie.

You will notice several key differences:

1) Verb tense: If a thought is being portrayed as the character thinks it, it should be in the tense the character would actually use. That sounds simple. Apparently it is very difficult to remember, because sometimes it comes up. Since Muffie is as stupid a name now as it was yesterday, we’d say, Why did his owner give him such a stupid name?

2) Person: If you think of yourself in third person, we have bigger fish to fry. Let’s change that to: Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?

3) Punctuation: Remember that thing about dialogue? You would never put the final punctuation on a sentence after the dialogue tag (though sometimes that comes up too) (deep breaths). Hence, Why did my owner give me such a stupid name? Muffie the cat thought to himself.

4) Extraneous crap: “He thought to himself” is repetitive like “ATM machine” is repetitive.” Under no set of circumstances can the inclusion of something like “to himself”–or “silently” or “in his mind”–avoid confusion that the reader would otherwise have been plunged into.


“But did he think it out loud or silently?”

No. No one is going to be confused about that. The absence of quotation marks and the word “thought” are blinking neon clues that what is being thought is being thought deep, deep inside Muffie’s head. Once again, you may think that surely this has never in the history of all literature come up in an actual manuscript, but you would be incorrect. (More deep breaths.)

Speaking of italics, they’re a handy tool for conveying direct thought. In much the same way that quotes stake out the beginning and end of dialogue, italics can be used to show the boundaries of the thought. A common practice, and generally a pretty foolproof one, is to omit the italics when a direct thought tag is present. Thus:

Muffie is a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought.


Muffie is a stupid name. Muffie gazed out the window, feeling tragic.

Note the comma in the first example and the period in the second. “Thought” functions the same way “said” would if “Muffie is a stupid name” were spoken aloud. Call it a thought tag, like a dialogue tag. “Muffie gazed out the window,” being a regular old sentence, should keep its distance from the direct thought with a period.

So there you have it. All the rules. Now it’s up to you, Grammar Kittens. Make 2013 the year of writing direct thoughts properly:



Or make it the year of editors with laser eyes.:


If You Want Me to Understand the Sentence, Maybe You Could Put the Words in the Right Order.

We have our first requested topic:

My cat is fascinated with dangling modifiers, and pretty much anything else dangling, but my professor, who is normally very much like a cat, is not a fan at all. What are they and who should I believe?


Osten makes a good point: dangling modifiers, like other dangling things, are highly attractive to cats. But Grammar Cats know better than the fall for the ploy.

cat with string


Dangling modifiers come in many flavors:

Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

You will notice these sentences have one thing in common: each contains a phrase that should be connected to a particular word in the sentence, but is instead connected to something else. That phrase is the dangling modifier. Why dangling? Maybe because it’s not attached to the word it’s supposed to be attached to. Or maybe because that’s kind of how it feels to read it, like you’re dangling.


Like this, but less comfortable.

On the off chance that you see nothing wrong with those example sentences, let me break this down.

First example: Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

Stepping out through the cat door must refer to the cat, because birds do not go through cat doors (the very idea!). But as soon as your eyes slide from the participle phrase, where do they land? On the bird. A reader ignorant in the ways of cats would assume the bird is the one stepping out through the cat door, which is preposterous.

Second example: The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The friends don’t have a bird clamped in their mouths; otherwise why would they be jealous? But even once readers work out that the phrase must refer to the cat, there’s no noun to which we can attach the bird clamped in his mouth. “The cat’s hunting skills” aren’t holding a bird in its (their?) mouth either.

Third example: The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Either the cat or the bird could be chasing its tail. Birds don’t really chase their tails, but how would you know from the sentence?

Fourth example: Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

Tall, dark, and handsome appears to be grammatically attached to the bird. In fact, those ignorant readers might float along, believing it does refer to the bird. This is obviously incorrect, as cats alone can be tall, dark, and handsome, but the sentence doesn’t point the reader in that direction.


Wait! But what if the introductory phrase can only refer to one noun in the sentence, just not the nearest noun?

That’s a good question, cat that’s making a face at me. Let’s say we have a sentence like:

With his furry tail and long whiskers, Mrs. Bird knew Mr. Cat was a fine specimen of god’s greatest creature.

Obviously “furry tail and long whiskers” does not refer to the bird. Furthermore, the “his” in the prepositional phrase tells us that this must refer to the male creature in the sentence, which would be Mr. Cat. Though the phrase is grammatically attached to the bird, deduction can tell us it describes the cat.

So sure, readers can figure it out. But why make them work any harder? If you are an author, your readers’ poor, feeble brains are overtaxed by the broad reach of your vocabulary. If you’re Osten, your professor is annoyed to have been woken from his extensive napping regimen in order to grade a paper. Don’t make them struggle to figure out what you’re talking about.


F minus.

To avoid angering a cat/your professor, restructure the sentence to place the offending phrase closer to what it’s intended to modify. Here are our original examples with the former dangling modifier in bold:

As the cat stepped out through the cat door, he was hit in the face by a bird. (The cat, not the bird, steps through the cat door.)

While chasing his tail, the cat looked at the bird. (Now it’s clearly the cat’s tail, not the bird’s.)

With his tail held high, the cat impressed all the ladies. (The cat’s tail is held high.)

The bird was very impressed by the cat, who was tall, dark, and handsome. (Damn straight.)


Tall, Dark, and Handsome Cat is pleased to meet you.

As these examples illustrate, restructuring a sentence is sometimes either necessary or expedient to avoid other problems. The first example, for instance, could have been revised by simply switching “bird” and “cat,” like so: Stepping out through the cat door, the cat was hit in the face by a bird. But now we have passive voice, and guess what? Cat professors don’t like that either.


Do you have a topic for the Grammar Cat? Send us your questions here.


Official Endorsement: Our Style Guide

hell yes CMoS
Grammar Cat is too broke for the 16th edition.

If you were wondering, we here at Grammar Cat have sworn blood oaths to the Chicago Manual of Style, namely because it is a thing of such beauty that even cats are wonderstruck in its presence.

If, however, you see us refer to CMoS, we are speaking of the Cat Manual of Style. Obviously.