What do you mean by “careful?”

Last week I saw a post from Grammarly that asked the question “Have you become more or less careful with your writing?” (That’s the gist. I don’t recall if there was a time span mentioned, nor does it really matter.) My first thought was: That all depends on what you mean by “careful.”

I’ve made no secret of my opinion about Grammarly’s software. However, their blog posts often have merit. This is one such post, even if the question I heard wasn’t the one they asked, and if my response isn’t the one they expect. I’m giving it anyway. They’ll probably never know.

“Careful” writing means different things to different people. For some, it means adhering to every rule whether it’s a rule or not, no matter how many times it’s been disproven or debunked. For others, it means ensuring no typos creep into their work. Still others might feel as I do, that “careful” means different things under different circumstances.

When I see the question “Have you become more or less careful with your writing?” I think of how I approach writing for different audiences and purposes. I like to think I’ve become more careful–as in more aware of register–over time, and that by now I’m pretty well able to peg the right register for a given audience. Here on the blog, I’m quite informal. This certainly isn’t how I’d write for a thesis presentation. (Not that I’m going to be doing that. I have plenty of student loan debt already, thanks.) Over the four and a half years I’ve been writing for this blog and building my editing client base, I’ve done a lot of reading. A lot. A LOT. Usage books. Grammar books. Style guides. “How to write fiction” books. “How to edit fiction” books. Copyediting books. Developmental editing books.

A LOT OF BOOKS. And most of them are on my reference shelves.

Because of all this reading and referencing, I’ve become stronger as an editor and nonfiction writer. (I still can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. Fiction writers, you have nothing to fear from me.) I’ve found my voice, and I’ve gotten better at adapting it to registers from the very casual (I’m very fond of internet speak/slang, much to some folks’ chagrin) to the very formal (I can write academic arglebargle with the best of them, and I can write sensible prose in that same voice–which is an ability not to be sneezed at, believe me).

Have I become more careful? I say yes. I’ve stopped obsessing about tombstones (the nonrules that never were rules but hang around anyway, like “never split an infinitive” and “never end a sentence with a preposition”) and focused on learning about walking in the no-man’s land of the pragmatic editor. Descriptivism has a place, as does prescriptivism. Neither place is my place, though. I live in the between. I work there, too. And I’m careful about where I step.

#HomophoneHell: Bear and Bare

I see this error so often in both edited and unedited work, I have to write about it. As usual, it’s something I never had trouble with, so I have problems understanding why it’s so hard to get it right. I’m mean like that. However, I’ll do my best to explain. I’m helpful like that, too.

The issue isn’t with bear as a noun. I never see that misused. The issue is with bear as a verb. “The right to keep and bear arms” as stated in the second amendment to the Bill of Rights is probably one of the most famous usages in AmE. There, it means “carry” or “use.” (I’m not looking this up; I find that providing my own words usually helps people more than quoting dictionaries. If you want to look it up, I’m sure you know how to go about that.) Bear can also mean “endure” or “withstand,” as in “It’s more than I can bear.” (“I can’t take it anymore.”)

Women bear (carry and birth, “birth” used as a verb here) children. We all have our burdens to bear (carry, endure). Sometimes they’re crosses. Sometimes they’re not.

Bare has nothing to do with carrying or enduring, and a lot to do with being uncovered or revealed. “The wolf bared its teeth.” (They were hidden by its lips, but it snarled, pulling its lips back, and thereby bared them.) A sleeveless shirt leaves one’s arms bare (revealed, naked, uncovered). Ground might be bare (naked in the sense of there being no vegetation whatsoever). Bare can also mean minimum (as in the repetitive phrase “bare minimum” or as in “the bare necessities,” made famous by Baloo the Bear in the Disney animated version of “The Jungle Book” — a bear, singing about bare … ). Then there’s “lay bare,” to expose. There’s a lot of that going on in this election year. Threadbare fabric has been worn thin.

So — if you’re enduring something, you’re bearing it. (Perhaps badly, but even so, you’re bearing it.) If you’re carrying something, you’re bearing it. If you’ve taken off a garment, you might be baring part of your body. If you’re having an emotional moment, you could be said to “bare your soul” — to expose it to others.

Bear the standard of proper usage high, my readers. Lay bare the misunderstandings that lead to homophone errors!


#HomophoneHell: Stationary/stationery

The word pair is right up there (::points to the blog post title::): stationary and stationery. They sound exactly the same, and sadly the latter has fallen into disuse to the point where some people don’t even know the word anymore.

Something stationary is stable, unmoving. Stable and stationary both have an A in them. That might help you remember. (I know, there’s also an E in stable. However, the problem syllable isn’t “sta,” it’s “ary.”)

Stationery is paper goods for writing letters or note cards. Some people include writing implements in the category, since you can’t write a letter on stationery without a writing implement. You remember letters, don’t you? We wrote those before we had email. (Some of us still do it.) Stationery shops can still be found if you hunt hard enough; of course, if you’re not in the mood for hoofing it, you can always shop online. The words letter, pen, and envelope all contain the letter E, and so does stationery. That’s always been my mnemonic for it. (You’ll note I use words that do NOT also contain an A. That would be madness.)

You hold your stationery stationary with your hand while you write your letter.

#HomophoneHell Is Coming!

It’s almost time for #HomophoneHell again (October’s coming up fast!), so I’m getting the jump on it with this post about some of the most troublesome words in English: lead/led, and their rhyming partners read/red. For whatever reason, I don’t see the last ones misused nearly as often as the first ones. Continue reading

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.