Books I bought this month (and should’ve bought sooner)

I’ve said this a lot in the last couple of weeks, and I’m saying it again.

I’ve learned more about my craft and English in general after my formal education (I graduated from college in 1979) than I ever did during it.

While I was in school studying to become a teacher (which I actually did do, for a year), I believed that we had Rules and only Rules, no guidelines. Rules were made to be Followed, and if one did not Follow the Rules, one would be in Serious Trouble.

I was SO WRONG.

Anyway, before this turns into a wholly different type of post than I intend it to be, here are three books I bought this month and really should have bought long ago.

 

See links in the post to get your own copies!

See links in the post to get your own copies!

 

The Business of Editing by Richard H. Adin is a rather heavy read for me, but not unreadable by any stretch. I’ve skimmed the entire book and am now taking my time, forcing myself not to read only the chapters with interesting titles (like “The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson”). By the time I’m done I’ll have gotten some validation, some thwacks on the knuckles, and a good deal of excellent advice. As with Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor, I’m finding that I’m already on the same page in many areas as the esteemed author. How I managed to do that with no formal training as an editor — only OTJ for me! — I have no idea. But I think as they do, when it comes to interacting with clients. That’s a big HOORAY for me.

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business: Being interesting and discoverable by Louise Harnby is a handy little text, too. Most of us editorial types see “marketing” and freeze. That is NOT what we do. We’re not marketing people. But we must be. No one’s going to market for us, not even our happiest clients. Word of mouth goes only so far. Harnby’s book is filled with ideas to take and make one’s own, from cold-calling (UGH) to social media posting (YAY). Again, I’m glad to see that I’m getting some of it right all on my own. I can do more, though, and I will.

The third book, on the bottom in the photo, is (sorry, Mr. Adin and Ms. Harnby) the most invaluable of the three in my professional (I can say that!) opinion. Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications is proving just as useful to me, with my 20+ years of experience, as it would to someone just starting out. It is not a style guide. It’s a thorough discussion of the rules of copyediting. Quoting the back cover: “[This book] is a lively, practical manual for newcomers to publishing and for experienced editors who want to fine-tune their skills or broaden their understanding of the craft.” There’s nothing for me to add, really. So far I have worked through three of the exercises (yes, it’s a workbook! With an answer key!) and scored 100% on each.

I’m waiting for the shoe to drop. And then the other one. (And probably a few more.)

Each of these books is available from Amazon.com. Even with the “we’re sorry, we’re not able to ship these together” emails, I still had all three texts within a week of ordering, and they came a day apart in two shipments. I can’t complain.

The Business of Editing at Amazon

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business at Amazon

The Copyeditor’s Handbook at Amazon

So I wrote something a few months back.

Ultimately, it came back to me unused, but I was paid for it and all rights reverted to me.

So, I’ve made it available as a shared document via Google Drive.

A Stroll in Boom’s Garden

Feel free to leave comments if you’re so inclined. No one’s seen it but the previous editor, Jean Rabe (with whom I worked back in the day). I hope you like it. Or at least don’t hate it.

She left him at the alter

Well, no. She left him at the altar.

This particular pair of homophones is one of the most troublesome, based on what I see come across my desk. Perhaps I can provide some helpful hints for telling them apart, so you’ll know which one you should be using in a given situation. We’ll see . . .

An altar is a raised surface, first of all. It could be a simple table, or a flat rock, or perhaps an elaborately constructed piece of furniture with storage space underneath, hidden behind doors or curtains. But I digress. An altar is a surface on which one puts ritual items, for the purpose of then enacting said ritual. I’ll wager most of you readers are familiar with the altar at the front of a church (Catholic, Protestant, doesn’t matter — churches have altars). I’ll also wager that a number of you are equally familiar with the pagan analog, usually set at the center of the ritual space. (Not that I’d know about that or anything . . . ::cough::) If you’re writing about a ritual, you’ll likely need to use the word altar.

Altar can be used figuratively, as well. They worship at the altar of freedom.

Alter is foremost a verb, meaning to change something. I say “foremost,” because there’s also the psychiatric usage meaning “a distinct and separate personality” when talking about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder [MPD]). She has fifty-four alters. However, unless you’re writing a piece on DID, you’ll probably be using the verb form and talking about something being altered. Think of “alterations” made to clothes by a tailor or a seamstress. They alter the clothing.

Alter is also the verb used to mean “to spay or neuter an animal.” The procedure changes the animal, so that it can no longer reproduce.

Alter is also the word in “alter ego,” meaning a different side of a personality or even a close friend who holds the same views as one’s own. It’s important to note, I think, that this is the common usage; we can all have alter egos, but not be diagnosed with DID. It literally means “second I.” Drinking brings out his alter ego; he’s quite the Jekyll and Hyde.

It will probably help to remember that “alter” is part of “alternative” and “alternate.” If you need a word that denotes change, something different from the expected, you want alter.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to alter my altar setup for the upcoming feast day.

It ain't fancy, but it's a mighty fine stone altar.

It ain’t fancy, but it’s a mighty fine stone altar.

Sneak a peek at that peak to pique your interest

Well, I suppose you know what this post is about now, don’t you. We’re descending into homophone hell today with that terrible trio, peek/peak/pique.

Peek means to look quickly, usually surreptitiously and often from some kind of hiding place (like behind a curtain or around a corner). “Take a peek and see if Mom’s home yet!” There are two e’s in “peek,” and two e’s in “see” and in “eye.” That might help you, as a mnemonic.

Peak means the top of a mountain, or (as a verb) to reach the highest point of (something). “The Dow peaked at 14963.82 today at close of trading.” (Okay, it hasn’t closed yet today, but that’s where it sits right now as I write this post. That’s also not a peak, since it’s off by over 100 points . . . but I digress. The usage is correct, even if my facts are outright wrong.) There’s an a in “peak,” and an a in “mountain,” too. There’s also an a in “stand,” and you can stand on top of a mountain peak. One of those is bound to work as a mnemonic for peak.

Pique means to stimulate or irritate, as in to pique one’s interest in something or to be piqued by something. “He was quickly piqued by her rudeness to the waiter.” There’s an i in “pique,” and there are i’s in both “stimulate” and “irritate.” See the pattern to my mnemonics? Of course you do.

So . . . offer your readers a sneak peek into your next work. Dream of the day your career reaches its peak, and hope that it doesn’t decline too swiftly for you to enjoy the ride. And, if it does tank, don’t be piqued.

 

If it looks like a fragment . . .

. . . it might be a sentence, anyway.

Commands look suspiciously like fragments, but are complete sentences. “Put that down.” “Read this book.” “Feed the cat.” At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be a subject in sight. Each of those sets of words begins with a verb and includes a direct object (the thing being acted upon: “that,” “book,” “cat”). So where’s the subject? It’s understood to be “you” (the reader or listener). Back in my day — you know, when we were busy inventing dirt — that was known as “you understood.” Brilliant, isn’t it? On a grammar test about terminal punctuation, each of these would require a period.

“Putting that down.” “Reading this book.” “Feeding the cat.” These are not proper sentences. Again, there’s no visible subject to any of them; however, we could assume that “I” is the subject, and “I” is the person answering this question: “What in blazes are you doing over there?” We often answer questions with this kind of phrase. The person asking knows from context that “I am” begins each of those responses. However, on that grammar test about terminal punctuation, technically each of these would be marked incorrect if someone placed a period after the final word. They’re not grammatically complete, nor are they grammatically correct (except as I’ve noted).

In fiction writing, of course, those second sentences could very well appear in dialogue. Sentences of the first type — commands — often appear in technical writing. (Think about the last user manual you read. I’ll wait while you stop laughing . . .) As with so much of my advice, the same caveat applies here. Know your audience. Let your writing be appropriate for the audience and the purpose.

If it looks like a duck . . .

If it looks like a duck . . .

Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)

Prepositions, Churchill, and You

“This is the sort of pedantic(bloody/tedious) nonsense up with which I will not put.” — Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps, perhaps not)

First, I shall provide a link so I don’t have to summarize here. I suspect many of you know where I’m headed with this already. Those who don’t, clickity the link, please. We’ll all wait.

::whistles and has a cup of tea::

Excellent. Now, to business.

It’s nonsense that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s how it sounds best and makes sense. Blame the essayist John Dryden, since apparently he’s the one who started all of this back in 1672. (If you’ve read the article you know this already. If you haven’t read it, and think perhaps now you should, please do so. We’ll still be here when you come back.) Patricia O’Conner, in her wonderful handbook Woe Is I, puts the blame on Robert Lowth, a English clergyman and Latin scholar, and sets the date fuzzily at the eighteenth century. In any case, who done it doesn’t matter. It was done. (And yes, that’s passive construction. However, I can fairly safely say this was not done by zombies.) Anyway . . .

Many idioms employ prepositions, and altering the word order can create mayhem with your meaning. Turn up (as in “turn up the volume” or “something’s bound to turn up”), lean on (as in “put pressure on someone for answers”), space out (as in “sorry, I spaced out there for a minute”). You can think of more, I’m sure. Cambridge put out a whole dictionary full.

The point of all this is to assure you that there’s no need to twist your sentences into pretzels to avoid ending them with prepositions. There’s simply no reason to do so. If what you have to say sounds best and makes sense with a preposition at the end, run with it. As long as it’s not something that’s really incorrect, such as “Where are you at?” (the “at” is redundant; where already contains the sense of location or placement), no one has any reason to be concerned for your grammatical soul.

My normal caveats apply. If you’re writing dialogue, clearly you might well have a reason to have a character use nonstandard grammar. These hints are generally for more formalized writing, or for the narrative surrounding your dialogue. If you’re writing an academic paper, you will do well to avoid terminal prepositions (ones at the end of sentences) in favor of more standard, formal language. Even journalism (or what passes for it these days) should hew to a slightly more formal standard; avoid ending sentences with prepositions if you can, while maintaining clarity and sense.

Otherwise? No one should care what word your sentence ends with.

(Thanks to a G+ pal who asked me about this earlier today, thus sparking this post! You shall remain nameless. Fear not. I won’t turn you in. Heh.)

The Pragmatic Grammarian

If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?

Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.

This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)

Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.

I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).

Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?

Everyone can decide for themselves.

No, really. Everyone can make their own decisions about the singular “they.” (I happen to know that Ray and I are on opposite sides of this particular issue. I’m posting about it only because someone I’ve known longer than I’ve known Ray posted about it over on my Facebook wall about a half-hour ago, and in the process of responding to her, I relocated the two wonderful blog entries that helped me face my fear of “singular they” and move past it.)

You may or may not realize that being up in arms over “singular they” while remaining placid about “singular you” could be called hypocritical by some. (Not by me, but by some who are even more rabidly grammar-nerdly than I. There are such people. Oh, yes, there are.) I point this out as a matter of concern for my readers’ relative safety while roaming the Internet.

Once upon a time, long long ago (but not in a galaxy far far away), “ye” (now “you”) was the plural second-person pronoun, and “thou” (now mostly extinct except in historical and fantasy writing) was the second-person singular. Over time, the latter fell into disuse and the former became the acceptable catch-all second-person singular and plural pronoun. And that, my readers, is how we wound up needing phrases like “all of you” and dialectical constructs like “you’uns” and “all y’all” (because “y’all” is singular, you know?). Pitching a fit over a singular they, but accepting singular you without question, causes some people to react very badly indeed. Of course we’re still in the very midst of the shift for the singular they, while most of us were raised with the singular you (unless we lived in Yorkshire in the 1940’s, for example, when “tha” was the dialectical form of “thou” used in everyday speech).

And so, here are the links I mentioned at the start of this ramble. I hope that if nothing else you will find them entertaining. (I can also hope that some of you might decide that the singular they makes sense, just like the singular you does.)

http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2011/12/16/pronoun-agreement-out-the-window/

http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/01/05/dogma-and-evidence/

I want to address one more point, because I can hear the thought rumbling around out there in the ether. While I have come to accept the usefulness of singular they when the gender of the antecedent cannot be known and I want to avoid the wordiness of “his or hers” or “himself or herself” or what-have-you, when I am copy editing this is an issue I discuss with the author. If said author is apoplectic at the concept of the singular they, I will do my best to recast sentences to not need gender specificity. If said author is receptive to the concept, happiness ensues. It’s all part of my job, ensuring that the author’s voice is clear even after I’ve fixed all the problems. This isn’t really a problem. It’s a choice–one that everyone can make for themselves.

 

Baby puppies and High Velocity Angry Canaries

Many years ago, when I worked for Scott, Foresman and Company (yes, the Dick and Jane people), editorial seminars were de rigueur. At one such gathering, we received handouts containing examples of “baby puppies.” Regrettably, I no longer have the handout, and none of the other examples stuck with me like that one did. However, I can still discuss the concept–and how my view has changed over time.

We were told in no uncertain terms to avoid redundancies such as “baby puppies.” And, dutifully, we excised them from our texts. Luckily for those of us in the nascent Electronic Publishing Division (now extinct), our work seldom included such things. We dealt with user manuals for educational computer games and school management software. That gave us whole other grammatical and usage-related jungles to hack through with our CMoS-issued machetes, but very few “baby puppies.” I felt cheated, sometimes.

Now, I have a different perspective. Yes, a puppy is a young dog. But not all puppies are babies, are they? Some are nearly a year old, and certainly no longer deserving of the “baby” descriptor. Those little cuties who aren’t yet weaned, though–they’re baby puppies, for sure. The same logic applies to baby kittens. Baby kittens are itty-bitty furballs with tiny, high-pitched mews. And hypodermic-needle-sharp claws and milk teeth.

When I was forced to take a creative writing section in high-school English, I used the phrase “bone-dry dust.” In large (not-so-friendly) red letters in the margin, the instructor wrote “What other kind is there?” So much for my creative writing. That pretty much killed what little interest I’d had to start with, to be honest. Even at that age I was much happier fixing poor grammar and mechanics than trying to be creative. At least I didn’t have to go through that again.

We still find examples from the Department of Redundancy Department, often in the chromakeyed lower-third crawls on local news programming. “Fatally killed” is a common one. “Fatally shot,” fine. “Fatally stabbed,” sure. “Fatally killed” just makes someone who (thankfully) remains faceless and nameless look foolish (while being faceless, which is a pretty cool feat all by itself, isn’t it?).

Another issue pointed out on the handout for that particular seminar was assuming that your editor/proofreader knows what you’re talking about. The example was from a brochure for a heating and air-conditioning business. The copy used the acronym “HVAC,” and the senior editor had noted “write out” in the margin. A junior editor got the project next, and took a shot at the meaning without looking it up (this predated the Internet, you see–it would’ve meant physically moving around in search of a reference book or someone else who knew the information). That’s how the phrase “High Velocity Angry Canaries” found its way into one version of the brochure in question. No word on whether it actually saw print. One would hope it did not. (For anyone who doesn’t know, HVAC stands for “heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning.”)

If by chance you’ve written a technically-oriented piece, please do your editor a solid (ooh, I’m trendy!) and provide a file of the specialized vocabulary you used. That will save everyone involved time and frustration, and potentially could save you (the writer) money as well–because your editor won’t have to dither around looking up information you’d have been better off providing yourself. This is also true for fantasy/science-fiction writers, truth to tell. If you’ve made up a number of alien races, providing a file containing the names of each (spelled, capitalized, punctuated the way you want them) will save your editor hours of headaches wondering whether the right form is “Graz’zyt” or “Grazz’yt.” (And honestly? Apostrophes have been done to death. Please consider not using them in proper nouns. Thank you.) Also please include proper names of any members of those races, with correct mechanics and spelling. Extrapolate as you will from what I’ve said here and decide what else you need to apply this to. I have confidence in you. I really do.

And editors? Don’t be afraid to ask your writer about providing such a file. They might grouse and grumble at first, but once you’re deep into the project and you don’t have to harass them daily with questions such as how they really want to spell “Graz’zyt,” they’ll thank you. (And if they don’t, shame on them.)

Until next time, then, I hope you all have as much baby puppy face time as you wish. (Or baby kitten face time, if that’s your thing. Or baby something else. Maybe you don’t even like babies, in which case–okay. I need to go now.)