Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm

Right off the bat, let me say that there isn’t a typographical error in the title. I wager most of this blog’s followers know that, but some might not. My college-student stepdaughter winced when she saw my copy of this lying on the table, and said, “That typo on the cover, though.” I set her straight immediately.

Accidence is that portion of grammar that deals with inflection. Inflection is the way a word changes to denote a specific grammatical category. For example: “Sang” is the past tense of “sing.” We know that because it changes form. It changes again for the past participle “sung.” Of course, that’s an irregular form. The same process happens with regular verbs, like talk/talked/talked, but by adding a suffix instead of altering the spelling of the root form. It happens with nouns, too: cat/cats, goose/geese. Now you know, if you didn’t before.

Now that I’ve concluded the brief grammar lesson, on to the discussion. Continue reading

It’s not all GUMmy stuff.

What editors do to a project isn’t all GUMmy stuff. It’s not only grammar and usage and mechanics. Especially for those of us who work with fiction writers, a lot of the work is about appropriateness.

Don’t get all pissy. I’m not talking about censorship. I’m talking about whether a given item or word fits (is appropriate for) the setting of the story. For example, when I read the phrase “flavor of the day” in a steampunk story set in Africa, my “timeline radar” went off. Was that phrase used then? Nope, at least not as we know it today, which was how it appeared in the story. In that sense it took off in the 40s, and it’s American in origin. Two strikes against its appropriateness to the steampunk setting. First, the time frame is way off, and second, there are no Americans in the story anyway. A young British girl wouldn’t use that phrase in casual conversation, the way we do. I flagged it as a problem and explained it in a comment.

And it might not even be words that are the issue. It might be clothing. As in fabric types, garment construction, the order in which a lady put on said garments (that boned corset goes on over the chemise, not under it! No one wants something like that against their bare skin), and so on.

It might be timing. As in a timeline of the story. Editors pay close attention to days/dates, times, and so on, to ensure that things really could happen as the author’s written them. And of course traveling from, say, London to Paris took much longer in the 18th century than it does today. Or consider a story in which the children leave for camp on a Wednesday. We mark that down somewhere, somehow, and when it’s brought up that they’re coming home on whatever day however many days or weeks later, we check to see if the timing is on the money. Authors can prevent a lot of headaches by making a timeline for themselves. A corollary to this: If you have MCs who work, we expect to see mentions of that in the text. If they never go to the office (or wherever), we’re bound to notice. Not that we need to follow their every move, but if actions take place for a few days, we’ll expect to see something related to their movements, even if it’s a side comment from someone that “Joe hasn’t been at work for a while” or “Samantha’s working really late every night and even on the weekends.” Of course, if you’ve told us that Joe is flying to Fiji for two weeks, then we’ll be noting that instead. If we see something indicating he’s at work or the local bar or the laundromat before those two weeks are up? Maybe he came home early. Maybe he has a doppelganger. Maybe the timeline got screwed up. We’ll comment/query in any case: “What happened to two weeks in Fiji?”

Popular culture references are killers. With the ability to find just about anything on the internet, there’s no excuse for guessing about things like “the most popular songs in 1912 in America.” (I used to have to go to the library or use the telephone to get this kind of information. In the snow. Uphill both ways.)

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the picture by now. Commas are important, but there’s a lot more to editing than the GUMmy stuff.

That’s your opinion, man: thoughts on style


Over the weekend there was quite a discussion (from my standpoint, anyway, for a discussion on a Saturday afternoon) on Twitter about how to style a specific compound. What the compound was is of no consequence. I’m here to talk about opinions.

If you’re confident in your work, make a choice and run with it. Especially if you’re not being paid to adhere to a given style guide. As long as you’re internally consistent, it’s cool. Readers notice inconsistency within a piece more than they do across venues.

If you’re not confident in your work, check a few (as in, maybe, four) sources and make an informed decision. Realize that style guides are, at their heart, opinions. Very well-researched and informed opinions, but opinions nonetheless. I’d suggest one style guide, a couple of dictionaries, and Google Ngrams. More than that and instead of feeling informed you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and confused, possibly more so than you were before you looked.

And for goodness’ sake, DO NOT take to Twitter and ask your question and then follow up with “Well, I don’t care, I’m doing it the way I want.” Why did you ask if you’d already made up your mind? Did you just want to feel justified? Did you want to throw your amateur opinion in professionals’ faces? What is your deal? Own your decision. If you’re that confident in it, you didn’t have to ask anyone. Listen to Nike and just do it.

That’s what the professionals do.

(Except when we’re feeling uncertain, and then we ask politely of other pros and do our own research. We consider their opinions and the outcome of the research, and then make our decision. Like professionals.)

English. Do you speak it?

Not the language. Not really. Do you speak grammar? Do you know technical grammatical terms like “indirect complement” and “predicative adjunct?”

Continue reading

Titular or eponymous?

Here’s the definition of “titular.”

Here’s the one for “eponymous.”

Note that initially, “titular” has nearly nothing to do with the title of a book or story or what have you. It has to do with a title, as in an office (like queen or king or president), and with that title being “in name only” with no actual power. Continue reading

Humbled and happy

Late last month, I was mentioned in this article by Ben Yagoda at the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As the title says, I’m humbled to have been included with such editing stars as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun and Benjamin Dreyer of Random House. I’m also happy for the same reason. I don’t think of myself as anyone terribly notable, but apparently Ben thinks otherwise.

I thanked him on Twitter, but I’ll say it again: Thank you, Ben. It’s an honor.

The Joys and Terrors of Working with an Editor (a guest post from LJ Cohen)

I’m delighted to host Lisa Cohen today. She’s one of my regular clients, and she’s the author of both the CHANGELING’S CHOICE and HALCYONE SPACE series, among other titles.

We’re doing a giveaway in conjunction with this post. To qualify, simply leave a comment here on the blog. (Tweets and comments on G+ do not qualify. The comment must be here on the blog.) At the end of one week, starting today, one winner will be chosen at random. The winner can select any one title from all of Lisa’s ebooks, in whatever format they prefer.

Without more prattling from me, here’s Lisa. Continue reading

“Okay,” quoth he

That’s extreme, but it’s also an example of today’s subject: choosing the right words for your work.

One of my biggest concerns when I’m editing is “voice.” I work hard to maintain my clients’ “writer’s voice,” because it’s their writing, not mine, that is being published. Part of that work is helping them choose the best words for the purpose. And part of THAT work is, quite often, teaching them about diction.

Not in the sense of “enunciation or elocution.” In the sense of word choice. None of my clients would come up with a sentence like the one I used for the title of this post. Some of them, though, have more trouble than others keeping a grasp on the language that best suits their purpose. It’s particularly difficult with “medieval fantasy,” a phrase I’m using here to encompass “the usual” in terms of a story with a pseudo-medieval setting, royalty, wizards, magic, dragons, elves (and perhaps orcs and so on), and the like. Your standard fantasy, perhaps.

When I’m reading a story with this kind of setting, nothing jars me more than modern speech patterns, phrases, and words. “Okay” is one of them. “Alright” (sic) is another. (Yes, I sicced that. I don’t like it. I’ve tried to get used to it, but — no. I see no point in it. I waffle about allowing it or not, and ultimately, if my clients overrule me, that’s on them. I mark it every time.) “Are you really going there?” is yet another, when used to mean “Are you actually taking that route in this conversation?” These words and phrases have no place, in my opinion, in a medieval fantasy setting unless there’s time travel involved. If a character from our modern world winds up in that setting? Well, I’d expect that character to speak appropriately for their origin, and for the other characters to be confounded by it.

Certainly there’s no need to write in the style of Shakespeare in order to write fantasy. But there’s no reason not to use appropriate language and sentence structures, either. The words shape the reader’s experience. What do you want your reader to see, hear, feel, taste, touch? For me as a reader, a voice that seems to have no direction, that wanders between the language I expect to encounter in a fantasy setting and that I hear every day, confuses me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing, hearing, feeling . . . I need to be grounded in the world the writer’s created. The diction is the basis for that grounding. It’s entirely possible to use simple sentences and words to achieve this, just as it’s possible to use complex ones. The secret is in the combinations. I am not a writer, but I know when I’m drawn into a story and when I’m left floundering.

Hook me. Pull me in. Let me breathe the air of your world. Don’t throw me back out with poorly chosen words.

Mechanics: Nested Quotes

Let’s say you’re writing dialogue. And in that dialogue, someone quotes verbatim what someone else said. How do you show that, mechanically?

“We were just sitting around talking, and all of a sudden Josh says, ‘Amy told me she’s leaving me.’ Just like that. No lead-in or anything. Just dropped the bomb on us.” Continue reading

The State of the Blog: The First Four Years

When Ray and I first had the idea for this blog, we were both solidly in the “English is falling apart, usage is doomed, grammar is abysmal” camp. I, in particular, had just read a few self-published ebooks (for which I paid nothing, in exchange for reviews) that contained a horrifying number of actual errors. I mean, grammatical errors. Not stylistic choices. We’re talking about missing words, wrong words, agreement errors, and so on. Not long after that, during the early discussions about the purpose of a blog (if we were to create one), I decided to hang out my editor’s shingle and help some of these poor (literally – they’re not wealthy folks, as a rule) writers publish professionally edited work. That was in June of 2012.

We’re nearly to June of 2016 as I’m writing this, and man, things have changed for me. (I won’t attempt to speak for Ray. He’s got a full-time job and does freelance game design, writing, and editing as well, and hasn’t been active on the blog for quite some time. We’re both okay with that.) I’ve gone from a very prescriptivist view (this is right, that is wrong, and I don’t know why the hell you’d want to write that like you did) to a pragmatic view (you can read about it here), and I keep inching toward descriptivism a little every day. Why? Mostly because I’ve been learning from linguists and lexicographers over on Twitter. I’ve been editing steadily (indeed, I’ve tripled my income since I started the indie gig), and I learn something from every client. Editing fiction is not like editing textbooks or game rules. If I were editing mostly academic or technical materials, I might well have remained firmly on the prescriptivist side of the fence.

But I’m not, and I didn’t.

So, rather than posting a lot of photos of greengrocers’ apostrophes and other mechanical errors and typos common to public signage (everything from professionally printed billboards to the corner store’s handwritten notice), I’ve been steadily moving toward writing about, well, grammar and usage and mechanics, but in a way that teaches rather than vilifies. I must be doing something right. One of my most popular series of posts remains the trilogy “The Mechanics of Dialogue,” which I wrote in October 2014. I still see people sharing links to that (particularly the third installment about interrupted dialogue) on Twitter. I’m happy it’s of so much interest and use to folks.

I was concerned that there wasn’t a place for my kind of grammar blogging because, frankly, there are already so many amazing grammar bloggers out there, what’s one more? However, some of them follow me on Twitter (and I squeal like a four-year-old when I get a notification that another one has added me!), and we chat sometimes, and that’s something I never dreamed would happen. My writing voice is unlike anyone else’s. My method of teaching is unlike anyone else’s. My blog posts might be about the same topics, but they’re written in a way that’s unlike anyone else’s.

I’m finding my voice. And while I’m doing that, I’m continuing to help writers find and polish theirs.

That’s what it’s all about, four years on.