Musings for Grammar Day 2014

Time was, I taught middle-school English. (Except we called it “language arts” back then.) I drilled my students in the precision of grammar, in the parts of speech, in proper sentence construction, in the fine points of mechanics (where does that question mark go with those quotation marks, anyway?). I did very well with it, too, until we got to prepositions.

I couldn’t for the life of me get the concept of prepositions through their heads. I hadn’t yet learned the trick of “if you can do it to a box, it’s a preposition.” (In the box. On the box. Near the box. Inside the box. Between the boxes. And so on. Except of course that leaves out “for” and “of” because you don’t “do” that “to a box.” You don’t really “do” any of those things “to” a box, come to think of it. But I digress . . .) So, I abandoned grammar and quickly drew up lesson plans about Greek and Roman theatre, so they could unwind by making papier mache masks and cardboard sets.

We never did get back to the prepositions.

Since then, I’ve worked as a technical editor at two companies, as a retail associate and an assistant manager in a women’s specialty shop, as a creative director at what was then the premier role-playing company in the country, as a CNA on a locked Alzheimer’s ward, as a parts inspector, as a shipping clerk, as an assembler in an electronics plant, as a substitute teacher, and as a freelance copy editor. It always was going to come back to editing. Editing is very close to teaching, you see, except you’re working with one student on one project. Even when you have multiple concurrent projects, you’re still working one-on-one with the writers. It’s like tutoring, in that way.

I’ve continued learning as well. I have multiple dictionaries, multiple stylebooks, several usage guides (different from a stylebook, you know), and I read a number of language- and grammar-related blogs. (Not daily, but when I have a moment and want to unwind, or feel the need for some edification or validation. You can find them on the Blog Roll on the home page here.) I’ve gone from being a pretty strict prescriptivist (don’t you dare end a sentence with a preposition in your writing!) to what I term a “pragmatist.” (If you’re writing an informal piece, go right ahead and end that sentence with a preposition. If you’re writing a white paper, you’ll probably want to recast that sentence to avoid it, though; that requires the most formal usage, and you’d do well not to say things like “This was the part of the experiment the mice got the most tired of.”)

What about those split infinitives? Garner devotes a little more than one page to them in the latest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage. “(S)plit infinitives where they feel natural” is categorized as a Stage 5 shift (“universally adopted except by a few eccentrics”). I could go on, but this post isn’t about split infinitives or Garner; it’s about ME. Split ye infinitives where ye may. ::cough::

And you can start a sentence with a conjunction, too. Sometimes it just makes sense to lead with one. Not always, but sometimes. You can even write in fragments, when you’re writing something informal like a blog post. Even a grammar blog post.

I recently learned the term “dog-whistle editing” from a post over at Copyediting.com. That’s when someone (like I used to be) fixes things that no one but another copy editor is likely to notice, and that don’t really matter except to the most discerning readers. Depending on the requirements of the audience, it might be all right to let some things slide. I’ve always said “Let the audience determine the language” (or words to that effect), meaning “write (and edit) for your audience.” If less formal usage is all right for the purpose, then less stringent copy editing will be all right, too. If the work requires the most formal level of usage, then the editing had better be at the upper level of precision. (And “alright” will never, ever be all right. Just letting you know that.)

Here’s a link, if you want to see for yourselves.

http://www.copyediting.com/should-you-be-dog-whistle-copyeditor

That blog post delineates what I’ve known for quite a while already. Seeing it in print is very gratifying, indeed. I know now that I’m not alone in thinking that I can—no, I should tailor my editing to the job, based on the material and the intended audience.

And I can still keep my own sanity by insisting on maintaining the difference between “convince” and “persuade.” It’s a win-win.

2 thoughts on “Musings for Grammar Day 2014

    1. I’ve been a proponent of the epicene (singular) they for decades, literally. In cases where the gender is unknown or the person states they (HA!) prefer “they” to the gendered alternatives, I have no issues at all using it. If the gender is clear (the referent is obviously gendered), I prefer to see the matching pronoun.

      And of course in formal writing, I adhere to formal guidelines. Fortunately, I don’t do much of that (and neither do my clients). I’ve written about it here on the blog, too. If you search for “epicene they” you’ll see.

      Like

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