Pronouns, politeness, and paying attention

There’s been a lot of chatter of late about pronouns. I’m not here to engage in the discourse (that sounds so lofty, don’t it?) about the singular they as applied to a specific individual who uses it to refer to themself. To be sure, that is a topic of great interest, and it generates discussion, but that’s not why I’m here right now.

My topic at this moment is twofold: Why does one need to pay attention when examples are provided in a discussion? And what is the best way to steer that discussion in another direction, if that is your desire?

I semi-regularly beg people to stop hypercorrecting because they had the fear of [insert deity of choice here] put into them in elementary school by some teacher or other (mine was Mrs. Dentler) that when one is speaking of oneself and another person or persons, one always puts oneself last. That is, one always is to say “James and I are going to dinner” and never “I and James are going to dinner.” In that construction, one needs the nominative (also called subjective) case pronoun, “I,” because it is part of the subject (which in this situation is compound, comprising “I and James”). I’m here to tell you that lightning will not strike you down for putting “I” first in such a construction. Politeness is a nicety, not a rule. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with “I and James.”

When I discuss this on Twitter, I leave out the subjective discussion because that isn’t the issue; it’s not the point. I see no need to muddy the already turbid waters with something that isn’t part of the problem. The point is, one does not say “Please join I for dinner.” (I can say without hesitation I have never heard anyone say this.) Therefore, one also does not properly say “Please join James and I for dinner.” (And yet, people DO say this.) The pronoun you want there is “me.” You can also say “us,” if you like. There are many ways to say things in English, many of which are utterly correct and standard. I am focusing here on the I/me problem. The hypercorrection is the use of the subjective “I” when the construction calls for the objective “me.” I see this regularly in public-facing writing from people and companies I feel should know better. (I hold them to a higher standard. I expect standard grammar and usage from, say, a publishing company or an elected official. More the fool me, I suppose.)

I have linguist colleagues who have discussed this at length, and I fully appreciate their input. What I don’t appreciate is someone deciding that I am wrong for not also discussing the subjective pronouns at length in what would become, of necessity, a pretty hefty thread, and then being passive-aggressive about it. That is a bad look, folks. If you want to talk about the subjective pronouns, have at it on your timeline. Knock yourselves out. But quote-tweeting me or anyone in order to attempt to prove me or them wrong, somehow, is not a good move. (Especially if you’ve had no interaction with the person you decide to take to task, before doing this.) Asking a question is far better. “What about ‘Julio and me are going to the store?’ Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Julio and I’?”

When we see examples provided in a discussion, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how they are constructed. If all the examples show objective case pronouns, why would the discussion be about subjective case? Think about reading entries in a style guide. The examples elaborate on the specific rule/guidance in the entry. Sometimes examples read a little strangely (“Why would anyone say that?”), but they’re constructed to provide instruction on a particular issue. The examples I provide support the topic under discussion, not something different (even if it’s related).

So, let’s recap.

“James and I are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case

“I and James are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and me for dinner.” Standard, objective case

“Please join me and James for dinner.” Standard, objective case, perhaps less polite

“James and me are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position

“Me and James are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and I for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection

“Please join I and James for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection, perhaps less polite

I trust that I have satisfied everyone who feels I need to address more than one topic at a time. And whether I have or not, they can join me (not “join I”) for drinks at a conference sometime, when it’s safe for us to do that again.

There’s passive, and there’s passivity

It happened again. I was scrolling through my timeline on Twitter, and there I saw it: a tweet with a link to a post that claimed “she was walking” (I have changed the words, but that is the structure) is a passive construction.

No.

It is not a passive construction. The subject is “she” and the verb is the past progressive “was walking.” The subject is performing the action of the clause. That is active voice.

Now, if that read “She was being walked on a leash by her captor,” we’d have passive voice. Here, “she” is the subject of the sentence, but she is not performing the action. Her captor is. They have put a leash on her, and are walking her in the way one walks a dog. She (the grammatical subject) is the object, syntactically speaking. The captor (the object of the preposition “by”) is the actor (the syntactical subject) in the sentence.

The clause that caused me to write this brief post is not in passive voice. There is a passivity to it, yes; that’s a danger of “to be” verbs + participles. Sometimes, that’s what we want in a sentence. Sometimes it isn’t.

But it will never be passive voice, so long as the subject of the clause is performing the action.

Something Is Breathing in My Ear

I’m lying in bed, and cars are passing outside as if everything is normal, but there’s hot breath against my skin. I live alone.

What is it about first-person present that people find hard to connect with?

I’ve seen it said by some that they can’t read stories written in that tense because it’s unbelievable. “Someone wrote the story, right? So it’s already happened, it can’t be happening as I read it.”

Seems to me that those folks are missing the point entirely. This is about immersion. It’s about being in the story, not outside it. Whether it’s first person or third (or the even rarer second), this tense is all about presence. Experiencing along with the character, not after everything is done and the character is telling you over a shot and a beer. (Or a hot cup of tea, or a mug of coffee, or whatever.) To my mind, the people who claim that “someone wrote it already, so it can’t be happening” are making an excuse. Do they also avoid watching any visual entertainment that isn’t live? When we watch a movie or a tv show, we’re experiencing it in the moment. Yes, it’s been recorded in some manner, but we’re seeing it in our real time. The dialogue is, for the most part, in present tense. What’s happening to the characters is happening in their present time. Does that make it somehow lesser? Is its worth less because it’s not live? Because we’re not physically there? Perhaps this is reductive, but so be it. I think the point remains valid.

It’s the same, to me, with first-person present narratives. Obviously someone has written it because I’m reading it. But beyond that fact, there’s the art of pulling the reader in so thoroughly they forget about it having been written, and allow themself to experience the story alongside the characters.

Here’s a short article from Mignon Fogarty (the Grammar Girl) with her take on the topic.

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/present-tense-books

We don’t agree, and that’s okay. The point isn’t to find someone who agrees; it’s to think about the experience and form an opinion. Is first-person present just “edgy,” or is it skillful? Is it annoying, or is it engrossing? This isn’t a new undertaking. Updike’s Rabbit, Run is two years younger than me. Damon Runyon (whose short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” became the musical “Guys and Dolls”) predates Updike’s novel by nearly thirty years. If you tried a first-person book before and didn’t like it, perhaps it’s time to try again. If you’ve never tried reading one, I suggest you take a chance. And if you (still) don’t like it? That’s all right.

I’m just an editor, standing in front of readers, asking them to try a present-tense narrative.

Things Editors Might Not Know About: Regionalisms

We know a lot, but we can’t know everything, right?

A little while ago Dave Nelsen (@The_GrammarGeek) tweeted that at his daughter’s medical appointment today, the nurse used “zipper” as a verb. As in, “Can you unzipper your jacket for me?” It’s a Wisconsin thing*, and I have heard it myself many times. I didn’t even blink.

But.

How would someone not from here know this? If an editor from, say, Nevada encountered it in a manuscript, I think they’d be likely to a) “fix” it by changing it to “unzip” or b) at the least, leave a comment asking if it’s what the author meant to write.

I’ve written before about style sheets (created by editors) and world bibles/story bibles (created by writers). This is precisely the kind of thing that writers should include in their story bibles, along with proper names spelled the way they intend (is it “Aaron” or “Aron” or something else entirely?). It’s the same with phrases their characters use. If there’s something that’s normal for the character but not in common usage, it’s a great idea to include that in the world bible.

I’m not talking about contractions or shortenings/clippings or slang common to AmE in general. I’m talking about regional speech, like using “zipper” as a verb.

In some settings, this will extend to usages like “widow means anyone who has lost a spouse, not only to women.” Or “king refers to any ruler of a country; kings can be (and are) of any gender.” I have my amazing client Garrett Robinson (@GarretAuthor) to thank for those examples. His world bible is an ever-growing organism, with new additions for nearly every new book in his setting. It’s a shared Google Doc we both use, and it’s a life-saver.

If the author hasn’t done this, of course it will fall to the editor to query and add to the style sheet if required. “Oops! No, I didn’t mean to use it like that” is a valid (and not uncommon) response from an author. So is “That’s what I mean to say, yes.”

Writers, you can save yourselves time (and often money!) and endear yourselves to your editors if you tell us up front what oddities we’ll encounter in your work. Like “zipper is used as a verb by Nurse Bren.”

*It might be a thing elsewhere, but I don’t know about elsewhere. Only about Wisconsin and northern Illinois. And this isn’t a thing in northern Illinois to my knowledge (and sometimes faulty memory).

Grammar Is Overrated: The Director’s Cut

But seeing as the director is an editor, this won’t be so much an expanded version of the article I wrote for the Winter issue of “Tracking Changes” (the ACES house organ) as it will be a more finely tuned version. I think. Maybe. Let’s find out.

When I say grammar is overrated, I’m not saying “throw it out.” I’m not saying we don’t need it. We absolutely do, or literally couldn’t string two words together and have them make any sense at all—okay, that’s more properly syntax, but let’s not split hairs here. As editors and writers (the groups making up the bulk of my followers here and on Twitter), we definitely need grammar and syntax.

The thing is: We already know most of what we need to do our jobs. My point in that article was that it isn’t a requirement to take courses in linguistics and “deep grammar” and the like in order to be an editor. Those of us drawn to that profession already possess the basics we need. We know about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and such (the parts of speech, as they’re called). We know about parts of a sentence (subject, predicate, predicate nominative/adjective, adverbial phrase/clause, direct/indirect object, blah blah blah). This is the stuff we were taught—perhaps not very well, admittedly—in elementary, middle, and high school. (I’m old. I got it in every grade, from first through twelfth.) And, to be honest, knowing this level of grammar/syntax is enough to be a good editor, especially when you’ve got that affinity for words. When you’re driven to find out how they function, how they work. That drive might lead you to taking classes to deepen your understanding, and that’s great! But it’s not a requirement for being an editor.

We have to be able to communicate to our clients about the problems we find in their work, in words that they’ll comprehend. Now, I work with indie authors. Some of them know grammar, some don’t. I can’t always tell a client “There’s a problem with this subordinate clause.” Their eyes will glaze over. What I can say, though, is something like “This highlighted bit here isn’t doing what you think it is.” And then I can suggest an alternative, and with any luck at all they’ll see the difference and either use my suggestion or come up with their own (Option C, as one client calls it).

I can, however, be fairly confident of telling a client “We need to work on your pronoun usage” and having them understand. Too many proper nouns and too few pronouns in a given sentence or clause is a common problem. The concept of referents (the words to which the pronouns refer) isn’t difficult, so when I say there isn’t a clear one, most of my clients get it. I also tend to leave fairly detailed comments; it’s the former teacher in me.

The point is this: We have to be able to talk to clients about their writing, using terminology they will understand, so they can improve. Throwing around terms like “fronted adverbial” (which sounds quite intimidating, until you realize it’s an adverb of some kind that comes first in the sentence) doesn’t do a lot of good. And let’s just not bother with things like “conditional past subjunctive in the third.” Only the true grammar nerds (or geeks if you prefer) will get that one. Learning the esoteric aspects of grammar and syntax is a fabulous thing, a wonderful indulgence. Just remember: If you can’t explain it to your client in terms they will understand, it isn’t of much use to them.

GRAMMARGEDDON LLC

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen my big news already. I have finally incorporated as a sole proprietorship/LLC, under the name GRAMMARGEDDON.

It seemed obvious to use that for the business name, since I’m already associated with the word to the point where I am literally called “Grammargeddon Karen.” The name also encapsulates my feelings about grammar and editing: while the work can certainly be chaotic and frightening, it’s not the end of the world.

I wouldn’t be here without the support of my husband, Shawn Conlin. Thanks to him I’ve been able to do what I love. The magnitude of that is not lost on me.

Thanks also go to Ray Vallese, my partner here when we began the blog. We brainstormed the name, so I owe him for that.

Thank you also to all my clients over the years. Some of you are repeat offenders, some are one-offs. Which category you’re in makes no difference. Without you, there’d be no business to name.

I would be remiss not to thank my colleagues in ACES, for their unending cheerleading and commiserating. You’re the best.

Here’s to another nine years, at least.

Verb trouble (#1 in an occasional series)

I’ve seen it again in the last few days, so I’m writing about it.

“I have never nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Looks okay to some of you, I’ll bet. Others of you stopped to parse the sentence and found it wanting. Specifically, it’s wanting another form of “to eat” to go with “have.”

What we need is this:

“I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Why? Because, if you take the clauses apart, you’ll see you end up with “I have never eat.” And we know that’s incorrect, grammatically. (We know that, don’t we?)

When you’re writing about things that happened in the past in conjunction with those things happening in the future, you have to watch your main verb forms. I don’t see problems with the auxiliary (helping) verbs, but I see them often with the main ones. If it’s difficult for you to work with this within the single sentence you’re trying to write, try writing the two clauses separately at first and then combine them.

“I have never eaten kidneys.”

“I will never eat kidneys.”

See there, how there’s a different verb form in each sentence (independent clause)? When we combine them, we have to retain those forms to be grammatically correct (and keep our copy editors happy). Put them together and you get “I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.” Sure, there’s some position-swapping required, and “kidneys” appears only at the end of the whole sentence, and you’ve used “nor” as the conjunction to join the clauses. That’s all good stuff.

Unlike kidneys, which I can tell you are vital to our daily functions but to my taste are not very good.

I didn’t read much in 2020

Aside from the books I was editing, I read very little compared to earlier years. However, I can tell you that The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow took my breath away, and I recommend it to everyone who asks (and even those who don’t). It’s a stunningly beautiful story with magic and emotion and heart, and I wish I could go back and read it for the first time. I can’t, but you can.

I also read the entire Malus Domestica series by my friend S. A. Hunt: Burn the Dark, I Come with Knives, and The Hellion. I’d read the first one in its first form way back in (I won’t say how long ago). If contemporary urban horror fantasy with witch-hunting punk YouTubers is your thing, here’s your series. And if that’s not your thing? Maybe reconsider your life choices.

Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers was my first “pandemic read.” Perhaps not the best choice for some, but for me it was perfect. The White Mask plague isn’t COVID-19. We’re not dealing with “sleepwalkers.” We are, however, dealing with governmental ineptitude and corruption at levels never before imagined, and with hate groups who fear nothing, and with many other aspects of the story Chuck wove. Recommended if you’re one of those whose anxiety is not made worse by reading about what’s essentially a parallel now.

Same goes for Mira Grant’s (Seanan McGuire’s) original Newsflesh trilogy: Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, available in one volume as The Rising. Here be zombies and some of the best fiction about virology I have ever devoured. (And I just realized I never got the fourth, Feedback, an oversight I have also just remedied.)

More Mira Grant: Her horror books about mermaids blew me away. Rolling in the Deep and Into the Drowning Deep are must-reads if you want biologically plausible merfolk. And if you don’t mind being scared out of your skin.

One more, very different from the rest: Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Heartfelt, moving, emotionally raw, realistic. I knew some of these people in college. I think maybe most of us did.

So, it seems I read more than I thought I did. Eleven books. Not my usual total for a year, but under the circumstances? I did damn good.

“Underlay” is the underlying issue

I won’t rehash the lay/lie issue, except to remind you that “to lay” is transitive (taking an object) and “to lie” is intransitive (not taking an object). The problem here today is that “underlay” and “underlie” are both transitive verbs, so knowing how lay/lie work will do you no good whatsoever except to help you know how to spell the tenses.

(Full disclosure: I got myself so confused during a recent project that just today I emailed the client and told them to ignore the changes I’d made to “underlain,” because it turned out I was wrong. I own my mistakes.)

So. We have “to underlay,” meaning “to put something under another thing” or “to provide a base or a support for a thing.” And we have “underlie,” meaning “to be under or below something” or “to be the basis of or support for a thing.”

Underlay, underlaid, underlaid, underlaying (cf. “lay”)

Underlie, underlay, underlain, underlaying (cf. “lie”)

Let’s give this a shot, shall we? Say we have a construction crew, and they’re working on the flooring in a given room. They underlay the carpet padding on top of the plywood subfloor, before putting down the carpeting.

This leads us to saying “Carpet padding underlies the carpeting proper.”

Let’s take it another step, into the simple past tense. Yesterday the crew underlaid the padding for the carpeting. The padding underlay the carpeting.

One more step, into past perfect/pluperfect tense. The crew had underlaid the padding last month but didn’t get to the carpeting until today. Years from now, a CSI specialist will note that the padding had underlain the carpeting. (That’s a crap sentence, but at least the tense is right. Making up exemplars is a pain in the arse.)

Now, to the thing that tripped me up so badly: what do we use when we want to say something formed the basis of something else, as in provided support? As in: “The scent was [underlaid/underlain] by a sour note.” Well, that sour note wasn’t put there as a support; it forms the basis for that scent. We want underlain here. Turn the sentence inside out by making it active: “A sour note underlies the scent.” It provides the basis for it by virtue of its existence.

If someone or something physically places a thing to provide support for another thing, they underlay it. If a thing provides support by its existence, it underlies the thing it supports. Both verbs are transitive. Figuring out the tenses isn’t so difficult, once you have that difference in your head.

Obligatory Year-End Post

And Some Ruminations

First off, I’m sorry for having gone silent for months over here. It’s been . . . well, hell. You’re in 2020 just like I am, so you know what it’s been. But additionally, I was quite ill in September and October, and spent a good part of November just existing, so. Kidney stone first found in January led to infection by September (even with a couple of rounds of antibiotics in the months between), which led to renal failure with sepsis and a stent mid-month, and then to a lithotripsy (breaking up the stone by ultrasound) in October. And meanwhile, my husband had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery the week before my lithotripsy, so that was fun.

Then there was finalizing things with the family home, which came to me when Dad died in 2019. It took until this late summer/early fall for me to get with the attorney to update the deed, file papers with the county, get ready for the sale/attend the sale/clean up after the sale, and so on. Doesn’t sound like much, but honestly? It was tiring. Even the paperwork was tiring.

Work got pretty spare this year compared to previous ones, but I managed to keep busy most of the time even if I wasn’t writing here. My regular clients keep writing books, and they keep asking me to edit them, and so we muddle along, pandemic or no. I don’t even care that it had been two years (TWO YEARS!) between projects for one client. The point was, they finished another book, and they brought it to me. That’s what matters, not how long it took.

Meanwhile, I yammer about things on Twitter, things like grammar and usage and mechanics and the shameful state of US politics and more grammar, and life goes on. I can tweet even when almost deathly ill, I found out back in September. Working and blogging, not so much.

My latest Tweet thread was about the difference between rules and conventions (guidelines are conventions) as they relate to grammar, usage, and mechanics. Syntax is in there too, with grammar, because you quite simply can’t have one without the other. Grammar and syntax are where the rules live. Everything else is convention, guidelines on which we have agreed over time and that can shift over time as well. The fact that singular they, which has been around literally for centuries, became An Issue didn’t change the fact that “they” remains a pronoun. That is a rule: “they” is a pronoun. The usage of it to denote one person who chooses it specifically as the one they use, as opposed to a random person whose gender is unknown and irrelevant—which is the usage that’s been around for centuries—is what changed. The convention shifted.

Here’s a link to the thread I’m talking about, in case you’d like to read it. I turned it into a blog post over at TotallyNovel.com, too. (I hadn’t blogged there for at least two months, either.)

Thank you to all of you for being here. Thank you for your patience and your understanding. And may we all have a better year in 2021.