Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.)

Usage is just what it sounds like. How are words used in language? Sometimes we use one word when we’re writing and another when we’re speaking. That’s usage. I’ll quote Bryan A. Garner’s introduction to the “Word Usage” section of the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all—they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers.” Which word do we use in a given situation: less or fewer? What are the nuanced differences between convince and persuade? Do we say “a myriad of” or “myriad?” (See that question mark? Its use is mechanics, but its placement is a question of style.)

Mechanics is an inclusive term for punctuation and spelling. Calling a run-on sentence a “grammatical error” is incorrect. It’s a mechanical (specifically punctuation) error. Here’s an example of one, I’ll just use a comma there instead of a period or a semicolon. That’s two complete thoughts, two independent clauses (that’s a technical term), with only a comma between them. The rules of mechanics tell us that it’s wrong. Mechanics are also covered to a point by style (as I pointed out in the previous paragraph). More about that later, too.

I don’t think I need to explain spelling.

Syntax tells us how we put words together and make phrases, clauses, and sentences. It’s different from grammar in that it describes how the words work together, but it works with grammar to allow us to speak and write. Without one, we can’t have the other. You may hear them spoken of together: grammar and syntax. Both are part of linguistics, which is the study of human speech. Syntax is why “the lazy dog caught the cat” means something different from “the cat caught the lazy dog.” (The latter makes better sense, don’t you agree?) Syntax is also why it sounds strange to us to say “the red big barn.” Native English speakers tend to put the more general descriptor first (“big”) and the more specific ones after (“red,” and perhaps “wooden” for good measure).

Then we come to style. Style guides contain guidelines (that’s why they’re guides and not rulebooks) for how the words look on the page, whether it’s an actual printed page in a bound book or a page on a website. They’re for written English, not spoken. Calling a style difference a “grammatical error” is an error itself. We don’t need to worry about style most of the time. Many writers have no clue about style guides; they don’t need to. Their editors need to, though. Of the five terms I’m covering, this one is perhaps the least important—and also the most contentious.

Perhaps the most familiar style point is the serial, or Oxford, comma. At least one satire site has published a faux news story about casualties caused during a battle over it between Chicago and AP style users. It’s the difference between the presence of a comma before the last item in a series (Chicago, APA, and MLA all use this) and the lack of a comma in that position (AP). Here’s an example: red, white, and blue flags OR red, white and blue flags. Here’s another: eggs, toast, and juice for breakfast OR eggs, toast and juice for breakfast.

Style also governs things like capitalization of terms, use of abbreviations and the styling of those abbreviations, and hyphenation guidelines. Guidelines. Not rules. Other style issues are margins, line spacing, use of italics and boldface, and index/reference list conventions. I’m not even trying to provide an all-inclusive list. Get yourself a style guide (AP for news style, APA for science, MLA for academic, Chicago for most everything else) and poke at it. Better yet, save a bunch of money. Get a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. Why do I say this? Because most of what’s different from style to style is the punctuation, and punctuation is one of those triggers for people. This book covers the four major guides in a very accessible format.

The Chicago Manual of Style contains a chapter on grammar and usage as a reference for users of that style. The rules don’t change from style guide to style guide; they’re rules. However, Chicago has a section on grammar for users to ensure they understand things like how to use prepositions in parallel structure. It also contains a section covering common “problem words.” (I told you these things all work together, didn’t I?)

That’s a lot of information covered by the single heading of style. I say it’s perhaps the least important of the five, though, because our understanding of the words, whether spoken or written, is less affected by style considerations than by any of the other four points. If our grammar is poor, people will have trouble understanding us. If our spelling is poor, people will have trouble reading our words. If our punctuation is poor, the meaning of our sentences might not be what we intended. If our usage is poor, people may form a different opinion about us than if it were “standard” or “correct” (both contentious terms in themselves). If our syntax is poor, our message will almost certainly be garbled. (It’s rare to find truly poor syntax, thankfully. That’s because, much as with grammar, we tend to learn proper syntax by osmosis. We hear how words are put together to form phrases and clauses and sentences, and we copy what we hear.)

If our style is poor, though, the worst that’s probably going to happen is someone tagging our house with comma-laden graffiti.

Maybe.

 

NB: I purposely strove to keep this as general as possible, to touch on only major points and not fine ones. There are scads of books available that go into detail about grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, and style. This is a blog post, not another book.

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 not making this up. Honest.

I’ve been ranting a lot here and elsewhere about the sorry state of ebooks from indie authors, relating to the (apparent) lack of editorial skills (paid or otherwise) applied to those ebooks. I decided to provide concrete examples from the book I’m currently trying to read. I say trying, because I want to read it, I want to enjoy it, but the appalling number of errors is really harshing on my serenity, dude.

I won’t name names or titles, or say where I got the book. I will say I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, though. If I’d parted with any money for this I’d be pretty upset. More upset than I already am. At least having paid nothing for it, I can’t bemoan the loss of money I could have spent on, I don’t know, food or gas or something useful. All I’m losing is time.

These, then, are actual errors from an actual book. I’m not making this up. Honest.

I will note that I’m only 25% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle. I took a tip from another editor and started highlighting errors as I came across them. What an eye-opener that was! I mean, I knew there were errors; I can’t not see them. Proofreading is hardwired into my brain. However, highlighting them makes them seem that much worse. Now I really can’t not see them.

Some of them I’ll explain, some I’ll let speak for themselves. By all means comment if you don’t understand why I’ve called something an error. I’ll do my best to enlighten. I will also state that I’m not quoting full sentences, but only the portions containing the error. It’s also important to know that the writer is from the UK, so some of the mechanics just drive me batty on principle and some of the word choices are unfamiliar to me.

#############

no sights, no sound (For parallelism, I’d change that to “sounds” in this description of a setting.)

standing next to it, was M (Delete that unnecessary comma.)

lit up the lens of his glasses (Unless he’s wearing a monocle, he has lenses, plural.)

gunge (As an American English speaker, I didn’t know this word. It’s a UK term that I figured out contextually and then checked against a dictionary online. If I had been editing I might’ve queried it even after finding the definition. Therefore, this isn’t so much an error as a language issue–but I’m still pointing it out as something that can stop readers in their tracks.)

” . . . we can-.” (Oh, dear me. No. Not even in British usage. If the sentence/thought isn’t finished, there’s no period, no full stop, whatever you wish to call that dot at the end. Also, rather than a hyphen, I’d have used an em-dash to indicate the sudden breaking of the thought/speech. This particular mechanical error occurs throughout the book. I cheated and looked ahead, so I know.)

“Just one . . . at a time”. (Again, no. The period’s at the end of the spoken sentence, so it goes inside the closed quotation mark. I’ve read quite a few blogs lately about US vs. UK mechanics, and quotation marks with other punctuation is one of the most confusing things on both sides of the pond. However–no. It’s a sentence; it has a definite end; put the period inside the quote.)

alright (It’s not all right to use this. It’s all wrong. Two words. Always. All right? Thanks.)

small with a blue studs on top (It’s either a single stud, or perhaps this is a possessive missing its apostrophe and its object. I think it’s the first, and I’d delete that “s” on the end of “stud.”)

industrial sized Hoover (Adjectives made from two words–called compound adjectives–are often hyphenated. “Industrial-sized.” To a point this comes down to the editor’s preference in conjunction with a style guide, such as the CMoS. I far prefer the unambiguous hyphenation to an open version that in some cases leads to confusion or misunderstanding. That, and I like the look of the hyphenated form. So there. I suspect that in this case one might argue that “industrial-sized” is a temporary compound. I’ve not looked for the term in any dictionaries, so I can’t say. The concept is familiar to anyone who shops at places like Sam’s Club or Costco, though.)

give a once over (The idiom is hyphenated. “Once-over.”)

cotton weaved interior (I’m not entirely clear on the intent, here. I think the writer means the interior of this particular wig is woven from cotton. I’d have suggested changing it to “woven cotton interior.” On further discussion with the writer, I might have ended up with something more like “woven cotton cap,” since I believe that’s what the base of a wig is called–the part that fits the head like a cap, that is. I’m indulging in conjecture, of course.)

cheers and laughter . . . was a cacophony (I’d recast this, because while it seems a quick fix to say “were” and have the plural form for the plural subject, we’re also in that messy area of reciprocity. The sentence can’t be easily reversed using the same words (“cacophony” as the subject requires “was,” but “cheers and laughter” as the subject require “were”). I’d suggest recasting the sentence entirely to avoid the issue, and perhaps use the verb “created” instead of the form of “to be,” which is the heart of the problem.)

To the greying ice cream man, he couldn’t help but think . . (The greying fellow is the “he” following the comma. The sentence needs to be recast to eliminate the clumsiness. Perhaps “To the greying ice cream man the crowd looked like nothing so much as a cross between . . . .” Trust me, that’s where the sentence was going. I didn’t want to type the whole thing as it appears in the book, though.)

white-clothed (Again, this needs a hyphen.)

The driver slammed the breaks (No he didn’t. He slammed the brakes. A live proofreader would’ve caught this one.)

her inner thighs ran red raw from . . . (It took me a while to realize what’s needed here, I think because I was getting numb from the number of errors assaulting my editorial senses. Inserting a comma after “red” helps quite a bit, but I still would query the “running red” part. I know the condition the author’s describing, and I wouldn’t use the term “running” with it. “Were chafed and red,” perhaps. The way it’s written sounds like a hemorrhage.)

marine life getup (Another case here of needing a hyphen to create an adjectival compound. “Marine-life.”)

baggy (Pants are baggy. The plastic bag is a “baggie.”)

un-amused (Here’s one of the hyphens that was missing from the compound adjectives. It doesn’t belong in this word; “unamused” is a closed form.)

pre-occupied (Here’s another one. Delete it and close the space. “Preoccupied.”)

buy one get one free offer (Now we’re back to needing hyphens. “Buy-one-get-one-free offer.”)

collapse on to the floor (Usage problem. One could say “collapse on the floor” or “collapse to the floor,” but “collapse on to” is just poor usage.)

oxidisation (Aside from the UK s-for-z spelling issue, this just isn’t a word. The one the writer wanted was “oxidation.”)

pressed him for a minutae (sic) more (Just–no. No. One cannot have “a minutiae.” “Pressed him for more minuitae” preserves the author’s word choice and is grammatically correct. I had originally written another suggestion with a different word entirely, but I like this one much better. And I corrected the misspelling.)

spaghetti bolognaise (If you’re going to write about a food, know how to spell it. Particularly when the food is regional Italian, like “spaghetti Bolognese.” Capitalize the “B” because this is a proper adjective.)

############

That’s where I stopped taking notes for the time being. You’ll notice I’m not fussing about pacing, or characterization, or plot, or any of those bigger things. I’m not a story/fiction/developmental editor. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader. I see these little things that many people seem to consider “nitpicking.” They’re far from nitpicking, though. They’re signs of someone with an imperfect grasp of grammar and mechanics who would have done well to have hired someone like me–or any other professional copy editor/proofreader–to look over the work before publication. Then, readers like me wouldn’t find themselves becoming irritated and unable to enjoy the story because of the plethora of errors in the “nitpicky stuff.”

I’ll also say: I learned a new phrase from this book. “Keep schtum” means “keep quiet, particularly if you’ll get in more trouble otherwise.” While it sounds Yiddish, it apparently came from the criminal culture of the UK. It might come in handy someday, so I’ll tuck it away for later.

I would hope that this has shed some light on how a typical copy editor’s brain works while they’re reading. (I think I’m typical, anyway. I’m damned good at what I do, but I don’t think I’m all that special when compared to other professional copy editors.) That’s why I did it. Not to point at a writer and chastise his work. Not to complain for no reason. To point out the kinds of errors commonly made, to explain how I would correct them and why, and to provide an example of why writers really should drop some cash on professional editing and proofreading for their hard work. That’s all, really.

Thanks for reading.