There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.

 

 

I’m loath to admit I loathe most country music.

That ought to raise a few eyebrows, but at least it won’t be for poor diction. (Also: Honestly? I’m not in the least bit loath to make that admission. There. I said it.)

Loath is an adjective; it means “unwilling to do something because it’s disagreeable for some reason.” I’m loath to eat raw octopus because the texture is offensive to me.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster online dictionary indicates that (much to the frustration of many copy editors) “loathe” is an alternate spelling.

Why does that frustrate some of us? Because, you see, loathe is the verb.There is no alternate spelling for the verb. It’s loathe. That’s it. And it means “detest, abhor.” I loathe the fact that “loathe” is an alternative spelling for loath.

I may be loosening up a little more in my pragmatic grammarian stance, continuing my journey toward descriptivism, but I still loathe this particular situation.

A developing developmental editor?

Had you asked me a year ago what my focus was as an editor, I’d have said (almost without thinking) “grammar, usage, and mechanics.” I was sure I could label myself a copy editor; I was aware of all those nit-picky things that average folks either don’t see or aren’t bothered by. Not only was I bothered by them (and I still am, make no mistake), I would stop reading a book if there were too many errors (as I define “too many,” of course).

Dialogue gets a pass because, well, it’s dialogue, and characters talk like people, and most people just, y’know, talk. They don’t worry about correctness, they worry about making a point. Being understood. Whatever that takes, that’s what they do. But narrative . . . oh, lawdy, if there were too many errors in the narrative passages within the first chapter or so? I’d close the book and that was the end. It never got another chance with me, no sirree.

Time passes. ::insert .wmv of analog clock with swiftly-moving hands::

Now, I would still call myself a copy editor, but I’m sending out tentative tendrils into the realm of developmental editing. I think some of my clients would say I am a dev-editor based solely on the types of things I mark for them. I rewrite paragraphs to improve flow. I rewrite sentences to vary structure. Sometimes, if I feel the writer is capable (not all of them are, but a good number, I think), I’ll leave comments along the lines of “too many compound sentences here. Rework for more variety.” If they don’t understand, they ask me. That’s a good thing. I want to be able to teach them how to make their own improvements. Not to put myself out of a job, but to make mine easier by improving their skills. If all I have to do is check GUM issues, I can work quicker than if I have to rewrite paragraph after paragraph.

Then there are those very few who come to me with work at which I take one look and shake my head sadly. “This isn’t ready for me,” I have to tell them, and I send them off to find a developmental editor who will be patient and thoughtful, equal parts creative writing teacher and Miss Thistlebottom. If the writing’s at high-school level–I mean average high-school, not honors/AP level–it’s not ready for me. I don’t charge nearly enough to teach grammar. If you can’t construct a complete sentence and don’t know how to organize a paragraph, you’re not ready to work with me.

I need to learn more myself about narrative structure. About the flow of the story, whether it’s a short story or a 110,000-word novel. Right now I’m not competent to critique on that level. I can say “this paragraph makes no sense here,” but I’m not able to say “this entire chapter needs to move.” Not yet, but I’m getting there. I think.

See? I don’t always sit here grousing about how the language is dying because “selfie” is now in the dictionary, or about how a misplaced modifier makes my blood boil. (More often it makes me chuckle. Not always, but damn, some of them are pretty amusing.) Sometimes I sit here thinking about how I can improve my skills. Because there is always room for that.

Even for me.

 

“Word Grenades” (via Plotnik)

I’ve said over on G+ that I’m exploring the requirements of developmental editing.

To that end, I’m also reading about the craft of writing. I know the fundamentals,so now–at least according to John Gardner–I am ready to learn the craft. If I’m going to be any kind of dev editor, I need to know how to write.

Write things other than blog posts about grammar, that is. I need to explore one of my personal bugaboos: creative writing.

Any desire I had (which was little enough in the first place) to write fiction or poetry was quashed quite thoroughly by a high-school teacher back in, oh, 1973 or so. Her critique of my work was savage and offered nothing constructive in exchange. Tear down, don’t build up. I stopped and didn’t look back. As long as it’s not fiction, I can write it. I can write the hell out of a research paper, an essay, a blog post . . .

Anyway. One of the books I’m reading is Plotnik’s The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words. And I’m loving it. This is all stuff I’ve known to a point anyway, but I’m seeing it in his words, and finding more behind them. It makes me think that perhaps I can do this writing thing after all. Perhaps.

When I’m doing substantive editing, one of my focuses is on word choice. Is this the best word for the intention? For the audience? For the meaning? For the SOUND? Plotnik’s chapter “Elements of Force” talks about word choice. About onomatopoeia. About rhythm and music and sincerity. About strong verbs. Powerful verbs. In-your-face verbs. And wonder of wonders, about adjectives and adverbs too. He’s for using the best ones (yep, even the adverbs). The ones that pack the biggest wallop. The ones that he calls “Grade-A.” He’s for creating one-time compounds if there’s nothing extant that will do the job. I’m particularly fond of this phrase:

weapons-grade stupid

Now THAT, friends and readers, is stupid. Not your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill stupid. It’s world-changing in its stupidity. Damaging. KILLER stupid.

“Elements of Force” discusses far more than verbs and intensifiers, but I’m not about to go into those other things. Get the book. Read it yourself.

It’ll help fend off the weapons-grade stupid we encounter every day.

Edit a ms? An ms? Say it out loud.

How do you pronounce “ms” when it’s the abbreviation for “manuscript?”

According to both the online Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, it’s pronounced “em ess,” making it an initialism rather than an abbreviation. (It’s also shown in capital letters, MS, in keeping with it being an initialism.)

My own experience styles it lower case, ms, and I’ve never heard anyone say “em ess.” However, that’s exactly what both sources give as the US pronunciation. (Perhaps my colleagues and I were all quite sheltered. I don’t know.)

To me it makes sense to use the article that matches the reading you intend as a result. If you expect the readers to say “em ess” in their heads, use “an ms” / “an MS.” For the result “manuscript,” use “a ms” / “a MS.” Give the readers a clue about your intention, and they’ll follow.

 

And whatever you do, do not style it “Ms.” That’s an entirely different issue (and it’s pronounced “mizz”).

 

Creating a “fusion usage”: Blending UK and US (mostly) seamlessly

This is a bit of a departure from my usual types of posts, but I think it’s worth writing about.

I’m in the middle of editing the final book in a wonderful fantasy series by a UK author. I’m in the US. I’ve read a lot of UK authors, though, both historical and modern, so I feel I have a fair grounding in what “sounds British” to American ears. (Thank you, all you UK authors along with Monty Python and “Masterpiece Theatre,” for your parts in my media education.)

In particular I want to focus on one structure: the infinitive verb form + [noun or pronoun, nominative or possessive] + [preposition for the US] + the participle verb form. Like this:

stop Kevin going to town

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop him going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

Standard US usage says we should write one of the following:

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

 

Here’s where I note that the New Oxford Style Manual is precisely that: style. There is no grammar section, as presented in CMoS. Therefore, I have no printed UK grammar reference. What I have discerned from reading, listening, and editing is the following:

In the UK, one says or writes:

stop Kevin going to town

stop him going to town

I’m honestly not sure whether UK usage employs the [preposition + participle] structure. I’ve not seen it, but that means nothing aside from I’ve not seen it.

In order to achieve the “fusion usage” this particular author and I have worked toward, I’ve settled on splitting the difference when this structure appears. Rather than the dreaded “rewrite to avoid,” I simply do not use the prepositional version; I substitute the possessive form of the noun or pronoun and call it finished.

The author and I have discussed this from the very first book. It seems to us that this option maintains most of the sound of the UK usage, and adheres to one of the accepted US forms. We keep the UK spellings, but phrasing that stops a US reader cold is something we work to avoid.

No one’s complained so far.

The Artist Use to Be Known as . . .

Does that look right to you?

It doesn’t look right to me. The phrase is correctly written (and said) “used to,” when we mean to say “formerly.”  The incorrect usage of “use to” to mean “formerly” doesn’t even have a rating on Garner’s language-change index. I’ve only noticed it within the last year, maybe, in my editing work.  He addresses it, certainly—he just doesn’t give it a second thought as anything but an error.

With the spoken word, though, that “-d” on the end often vanishes thanks to poor enunciation. It elides with the “t-“ from “to,” and we hear “use to” instead of “used to.” (In written dialect it sometimes shows up at “useta” or even “us’ta” as a visual representation of the sound.)  This leads some people to say “See? It IS use, not used.” But spelling’s not everything, as just about anyone who speaks English as their first language will tell you. There’s “used,” yoozd, and there’s “used,” yoost. (I’m no linguist, and I don’t know from IPA or any of the other character sets used to properly designate pronunciations. I’m faking it. Deal.)

Yoozd is how we say “used” when we mean “utilized.” I yoozd a claw hammer to pull out the nail.

Yoost is how we say “used” in conjunction with “to,” to mean “formerly.” We yoost to say that differently.

 

There’s also “didn’t used to” (meaning “formerly didn’t”) and “used to could” (dialect for “used to be able to” or “could formerly”). Note that in both of these the word is “used.” Not “use.”

Of these, only “didn’t used to” rates a place on Garner’s index, and that’s a 5—it’s fully accepted these days.  “Didn’t used to . . . is the informal equivalent of the standard form never used to and the rarely encountered phrase used not to.” He then continues with a discussion of the pronunciation issue I’ve mentioned above (and I see, now, that he also used “yooz” and “yoost”), expands on what I said about how pronunciation gives us the clue to the correct word, and then says this:

“Remember the standard form that can save you headaches: never used to. It avoids the grammatical problem of did + [past tense]. It keeps used. And it doesn’t reek of dialect.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 836

No guarantess

They're "captive," all right. This was on the back of the ladies' room toilet stall door.

They’re “captive,” all right. This was on the back of the ladies’ room toilet stall door.

The agency this poster promotes promises a “captive audience” for your advertisement. It’s one of those that specializes in pre-show theater ads, you see.

It does not, however, promise that all the words will be correctly spelled.

(This was the middle panel of a triptych. I saw nothing wrong on the other two. Perhaps I was too gobsmacked by this one to notice.)

Yes, I have seen Weird Al’s video.

I quite like it, too. Surprisingly he’s far more of a prescriptivist than I ever would’ve pegged him for, but to each his own, right?

Here is my take on the types of grammarians.

Now, just this morning I found links to an article about Weird Al’s “grammar gaffe” in my Twitter feed.

And here is what I had to say about that subject some time back.

I’ve said more over at Google+ in the past 24 hours, too. Like this, from yesterday afternoon when my Twitter feed was still roiling like a shark tank at feeding time.

Just in case you haven’t yet seen “Word Crimes” for yourself, here. It’s fun, and it’s funny, and I’d rather listen to it than “Blurred Lines” any day of the week.

“Word Crimes” at YouTube

Now, it’s time for more coffee and some chair dancing.

The notion of “notional concord”

I know, I know. You haven’t a clue what I’m on about. Take a deep breath, get a drink, and have a seat. It will all be clear in due time.

Why, when we’re talking, do we say “Eight hours of driving is more than enough for one day” when grammar would seem to dictate we’d say “are more than enough” instead? (And if you say “are,” well . . . I don’t. You’re not wrong, but neither am I. It’s cool.)

My mom would use the word “notion” to mean “idea or inkling,” as in “If you get a notion to wash the cat, don’t.” (As if I ever would have. I know better than to attempt to wash a cat.) Webster’s says it means “an idea or concept.” Perhaps you’re seeing where I’m going with this.

When we’re talking about “eight hours of driving,” we have a notion (a concept) that that phrase indicates one concept, a single idea. Because we have that notion, we automatically and unthinkingly use a singular verb with it. That, folks, is “notional concord.” The grammatical number of the subject (five hours of driving) and the verb (is, for this argument’s sake) are in agreement, or concord, because we have the notion that the subject is a single concept.

If you’re like me, you had subject-verb agreement pounded into your skull from about fifth grade on. Miss Thistlebottom made sure we knew our singular and plural forms and how to make sure they always matched.

That old biddy. I got along with her all right, but in the back of my mind I always wondered: “If that’s so, why does everyone I know say it differently?”

Because everyone I know knows about notional concord, without knowing it’s A Thing. (Frankly, I bet Miss T. knew it too but was afraid to say so.)