ESL and the pronoun

I’m editing a novel by a foreign author. His English is quite good (as one would expect from someone with a doctorate in media and communications), but still — I can tell he’s an ESL writer. The kinds of errors I find are peculiar, in my experience, to ESL speakers and writers.

Take the lowly pronoun “his.” This particular ESL writer often uses “his” to mean “belonging to the main character, the man whose point of view controls the narrative.”

The problem is, quite often “his” grammatically refers to an entirely different character, and when I dig into the sentence, that “his” needs to become “Name’s” (the name of the main character) instead to make the meaning clear. Let me see if I can construct an example. (I don’t have permission to use this author’s writing in this manner, so I’m going to create something that’s similar. Bear with me. It’s difficult for me to make this kind of error on purpose, let alone by accident. No bragging, just facts.)

They sat at the table, John and Sam. Sam could see the wound on John’s arm. John’s tunic was bloody from the cut, even though it had been stitched neatly by his sister.

This ESL writer would contend that “his sister” means “Sam’s sister,” since Sam’s the one doing the seeing. That’s not how English works, though; grammatically, the referent for “his” in this instance is “John,” since he’s the one wearing the bloody tunic. (And granted, it takes a little work to get there, too. I purposely made this a little unclear, to show you the issues as I find them in ESL writers’ work.) Even if we’ve never been told that John has a sister at all, and we know that Sam does, that doesn’t mean “his sister” always means “Sam’s sister.” For the reader to know without a doubt whose sister did the stitching, the sentence needs to read “by Sam’s sister.”

We had a rather lengthy discussion about POV when I edited his first novel in this series. It was difficult to persuade him that yes, English really does have rules about pronouns, and no, “his” cannot always mean “belonging to the main character whose POV controls the story.” Just because “he” is the one through whose senses we’re experiencing the events does not mean that “his” will always refer to “him.” That “him,” that is. I mean the “him” who is the main character.

See the problem?

YouTube! I am on it.

It came to my attention last night (thanks to my auto-tweets) that the link from two years ago was broken. Quelle surprise, non? Pursuant to that information, here’s an updated link. Just follow the trail if you want to see more.

Karen Conlin and David Arney, Professional Editors Podcast Ep. 101

We did eight or ten of these. I’m honestly not sure they’re still all available. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Feelin’ Alright”

If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.

You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?

I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.

Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.

My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”

Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953″ according to Online Etymology (http://etymonline..com).

And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.

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