GUMmyStuff: What is it?

I use the hashtag #GUMmyStuff on Twitter at least once a day. I’ve explained it there several times, but I’ve never done a post here. Time to fix that.

Grammar. Usage. Mechanics (which includes spelling and punctuation). Take the first letters of each, and you get “GUM.” Things about or containing gum are gummy, so: Posts or tweets about grammar, usage, or mechanics are gummy. Gummy stuff. #GUMmyStuff.

It makes more sense to me to use this than to have separate tags for grammar and usage and mechanics (splitting that into spelling and punctuation), because, let’s be frank—#GUMmyStuff is eye-catching. It makes people stop. It’s oddball (like me). It’s also accurate, because those tweets and posts are about those things, often in combination.

I’ve initiated hashtags before. The one that’s taken off is #SpellcheckCannotSaveYou, which some folks insist on writing with “WillNot” instead. Will has nothing to do with the situation. Spellcheck is incapable, unable to save your sorry butt from using the wrong word spelled correctly. It’s not that it won’t. It can’t.

That’s separate from GUMmyStuff, because it’s specific to one situation. GUMmyStuff is a catchall category into which I toss many things: grammatical voice, verb tense, subject/verb agreement, syntax issues, and more.

It’s stuff. GUMmyStuff.

New Year, New Rates

Happy 2022 to all my followers! May this year be an improvement over the last one.

Effective today, 3 January 2022, my rates have increased to five cents per word. You can see more at my Fee Structure document, which is linked to from my personal page here at the blog.

When I first started as an indie editor, ten years, ago, I charged a cent and a half. It took me nearly five years to raise my rates. I’m no longer shy about the process. While I don’t blow my own horn too loudly or too often, I am an award-winning editor and I’m worth the price.

Thank you for being here. I appreciate every one of you.

Obligatory year-end review post

It’s been, as they say, A Year.

At least I made it through this one without any major health scares, surgeries, procedures, and the like. I’m triple-vaxed (two Modernas and a Janssen booster). I got my flu shot. I’ve been coughing and sneezing like mad for the last 10 days thanks to leaf mold, but that’s nothing contagious. I’ve not had so much as a cold all year, thanks to COVID precautions. Yes, I mask when I leave the house. I’ve recently begun using KN95s from MaskC, instead of my previous cloth coverings (from various sources like Etsy and SockFancy). While Illinois has a state-wide mask mandate, I see plenty of scofflaws when I’m out. I can’t trust anyone but myself and my immediate family. So, KN95s it is.

I had to close the business for the months of April and May because we were moving from Wisconsin to my childhood home, here in Illinois. I won’t bore you with the many sordid details (and there are many, and they are indeed sordid). Thank you to all of you who gave so generously when we ran the GFM to help us relocate and pay the associated fees, taxes, bills, and so on. Without you, we’d have sunk.

When I did reopen in June, business was very slow indeed. That’s precisely why I had decided in August of 2020 to file for early retirement benefits. I needed to know there would be some base income every month, and that was the best guarantee. It’s amusing to me, in a sad sort of way, that my business has lessened every year; my clients who were writing series have all finished them, and new ones are few and far between. That has turned out to be not entirely a bad thing during the last year. Work shows up when I need it the most, and really, that’s a pretty good deal.

For now, I’ve settled in to redecorate the kitchen to my taste instead of my mother’s. It’s slow going, but I’m fine with that. Act in haste, repent at leisure. So far I have changed the window valances from a pale print of cherries on a cream background (from Martha Stewart, of all brands) to a rich print of green and purple grapes on the vine. Etsy is a gold mine. Next, I think I’ll hunt for chair cushions. The current ones are past threadbare.

Oh, and there’s a Holstein-Frisian cow-print stand mixer cover on its way to me from . . . Ohio? I think? An Etsy seller. I’m about supporting small business when I can, especially now that I’m officially a small business owner myself.

Right, that’s the other big thing that happened in 2021. I incorporated as a single-member LLC. And three months later, we moved. ::mad laughter:: That meant domesticating the LLC in Illinois, and before tax time I’ll have to dissolve the one in Wisconsin. Never, EVER a dull moment.

So, apologies for this post having nothing to do with grammar or editing or usage or any of my usual topics. It’s been A Year.

And we are still here. Cheers, friends, and here’s to 2022.

Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters

I’m running into a common error lately, one I haven’t addressed previously.

The writer sets down a line or three of dialogue, ending with an ellipsis or an em dash to indicate the thought breaks off. However, they follow that with a lowercase letter and a complete sentence. A beat, in other words.

In every case, the word following the closing quotation mark needs to be capitalized. It’s beginning a sentence, not starting a dialogue tag.

What I’m seeing, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” she stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What it should be, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” She stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What I’m seeing, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” he stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

What it should be, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” He stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

Compare both of these to speech that’s interrupted by a beat, action that occurs while the speaker is talking. Like this:

“In Paris, as I was saying, I was standing on my balcony, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower” — he tapped his empty rocks glass, shooting a glance at the bartender and nodding thanks — “and I felt a hand on my shoulder. But I knew I was alone!” *

The key to getting this right is remembering that the ellipsis always belongs with the speech, so whatever comes after the closing quote will begin with a lowercase letter if it’s an actual tag (like “he said”). If it’s anything other than a tag, it begins with a capital letter. Honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a situation where a tag would be worthwhile in this position. A beat, yes. A tag, not so much.

With the em dashes, it’s a little trickier; if the dash belongs with the speech, whatever follows it needs to begin with a capital (unless it’s an actual dialogue tag, but see my previous paragraph). If the dash goes with the intrusion, what follows will begin with a lowercase letter.

Beats that interrupt dialogue begin with lowercase letters. Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters.

*The astute among you will notice spaces around the em dashes in the Paris example. I have deviated from Chicago style for that paragraph because there’s a glitch in WordPress that causes the opening quotation mark following the second em to be a closing quotation mark. (I use straight quotes in my draft, but they become curly in the final. The draft looks correct. The final, not so much.) Inserting a space around the em dashes results in the correct curly quotes. I’m not thrilled about it, but it works.

Honor the writer’s voice

Editors are told to “honor the writer’s voice.” But what does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that we leave their errors in place; that would be shirking our responsibility as editors. I would hope that’s obvious, but I’ve learned that what I think is obvious is often anything but to others.

To honor the writer’s voice, we have to get a feel for their style. Do they use contractions, or do they write everything out fully? Do they like long sentences or short ones, in general? What about their word choices? Do they lean toward simpler words or fancier ones?

Maybe they use contractions in dialogue but never in narrative. It is not my job, as editor, to change all the contractions in their dialogue to fully written-out wording. Nor is it my job to contract everything that can be contracted in their narrative. My job is to see and hear how they write, and then ensure consistency within that framework.

What if one character’s dialogue uses contractions, but only that one? Chances are very high that it’s a choice on the writer’s part, as one method of characterization. The same goes for the character who speaks in flowery phrases. “I don’t hear X saying this” is a frequent comment I leave in the margins, when something sounds off to me.

We are the polishers of prose. The writer chisels form from a block of an idea; we come along afterward and sand off the roughness, adding a highlight here or there, chipping off a stray protuberance, making that work shine.

Honor the writer’s voice. Hear them, and make your suggestions in harmony with their words.

Split infinitives: Not wrong, sometimes preferable

I saw a generalization early this morning that got my dander up. The writer stated that “almost every style guide” says to avoid the split infinitive. To put it bluntly, that’s wrong; it’s a misrepresentation of what they actually say. That the post went on to explain and clarify doesn’t much matter when what people will remember is that initial statement: “Almost every style guide” says not to use it.

I’ve looked up “split infinitive” in The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago, the style guide I use) and on the website for AP, and then I checked Buzzfeed for good measure. After that, I went to the usage guides: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern English Usage, Dreyer’s English (Dreyer), Words into Type, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Not one of these sources says that a split infinitive is to be avoided at all times. In fact, every one of them says that not only is the construction grammatically correct, but it is also preferable to performing syntactical gyrations. There’s no reason to avoid using it when that usage is the clearest and changing it would alter the intended meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, I’ll note here that the APA style manual, 7th edition, does not even mention split infinitives. As I said to someone in a Slack chat earlier, “APA does not recognize this as a problem.” (Yes, I was being snarky. Imagine that. Thank you to my colleagues DeAnna Burghart and James Fraleigh for being my reference checkers.) Rather, the manual refers users to “a trusted grammar reference” for questions about issues not covered. Which reference? That’s users’ choice.

The only place one might routinely consider avoiding the split infinitive is in the most formal writing, where the most readers are likely to think poorly of its presence (because they’re not grammarians, obviously). Annoying one’s intended audience is seldom if ever the best option.

I will quote only one source here, that being Chicago:

“Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.” (Chicago 17th ed., 5.108)

“If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, the split infinitive is justified and often even necessary. . . . Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or to avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning of the sentence.” (5.171)

The style guide most used by journalists, the venerated AP text, changed its guidance in 2019 in an admission that the split infinitive can aid comprehension and readability.

Of the usage guides, I will quote only from Dreyer, and that itself is a quote from Raymond Chandler:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” (Dreyer, 1st ed., p. 11)

I can say without reservation that we are free to confidently split infinitives without fear of repercussions.

Chicago Manual of Style comes to PerfectIt 5

I honestly didn’t see how PerfectIt 4 could be improved upon. I’ve been using it since it came out. And I used PerfectIt 3 before that. I love, love, love this program.

Believe me when I say that Daniel Heuman and the team at Intelligent Editing have found a way to improve upon it.

When you get PerfectIt 5, you’re not only getting the kind of proofreading/copy editing support you’ve become accustomed to in the past, but if you have a subscription to CMOS online, then you’re also getting real-time support via the site (chicagomanualofstyle.org). When PerfectIt5 highlights stylistic problem areas, it also provides you with a live link to CMOS guidance.

If it’s something you already know and are comfortable with, something you’re sure about, of course you can ignore it and keep on trucking. However, if it’s something that makes you wonder whether you know what you thought you knew (and it happens to all of us!), just click on the link and you’ll see the “chapter and verse” about the issue. For example: “The term half brother is usually open. See more from CMOS 7.89”. Clicking the “see more” line brings up the relevant text directly from the CMOS site, with the numerals in bright red bold type.

For editors who are still learning the Chicago style, I’ll say this is nigh unto invaluable. No more wondering whether you’ve gotten it right. No more second-guessing yourself. And best of all, you’ll find you’re looking up fewer issues. Even for those of us used to using the online version, this is an improvement. The information will come up when we need it, at the precise point in our document where we need it. NB: This addition does not include the entirety of the CMOS database. There will still be times you’ll need to go to the book or the online version on your own.

The usual caveats apply as they do with any “checker” program. It’s better to be cautious and check each instance individually than cavalierly “fix all.” (Only when I can see “all” right there in one place do I ever even consider doing that.)

I say all of this as an editor who works only with fiction. I don’t have to think about heading hierarchies, tables, figures, footnotes, bibliography entries, and so on. If you do, I feel safe saying you will find this a godsend. The guidance will pop up immediately, right on your screen. No hunting through a print copy, no searching the website. It’s right there, and it will expand at the click of your mouse.

Congratulations, Daniel and team! You found a way to improve something I thought was already perfect.

[Disclaimer: I received a free one-year extension to my subscription for this review.]

More on using “a” or “an” before acronyms/initialisms

That’s a previous post about this subject. However, because this topic is evergreen, I can write more!

This question comes up regularly on social media. I’m not sure if that’s because it is actually that confusing or because people simply don’t read closely.

If the term in question begins with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant! It’s about the sound, not the letter!), use “a,” like this:

A friend who applied to be a CIA operative used me as a reference.

We use “a” because we say “see eye ay,” which begins with an S sound.

Look again at “an S sound.” Remember, it’s about the sound of the beginning letter, not the letter itself. Because “ess” (what we call that letter) begins with a vowel sound, we use “an” with “S.”

With the initialism “NYC,” I see both articles used even in text produced within the city itself. The article guides me, as a reader, toward the expected pronunciation. If I see “a NYC bistro,” I know I’m meant to read that as “New York City.” If I see “an NYC bistro,” I’m meant to read that as “an En-Why-See bistro.” People who live in NYC have strong opinions about which is correct. (Which way did you read it that time? There’s nothing to guide you; there’s also no right or wrong answer. At least not to me, there isn’t.)

Recently this question arose about the term “FAQ.” Within the IT community, it’s universally accepted as a word, pronounced like “fack”: Read the FAQ. Outside that group, opinions and practices vary. Some people say “eff-ay-cue,” which would necessitate using “an” if one required an indefinite article. Others say “fack,” which of course would take “a.” I wager nearly everyone who has ever ordered anything online has encountered “FAQ” at some point, usually in wording like “Questions? Read our FAQ before contacting us.” It’s not so much unfamiliarity with the term that’s the issue. It’s whether you’re inside the IT community, where it’s just a word and pronounced like one, or outside, where you don’t hear or use it regularly. (Disclosure: My spouse has decades of experience in IT. I learned early on that it’s “a FAQ.”)

Remember: It’s the sound of the letter, not the letter that makes the sound, that matters in choosing the indefinite article that will guide readers to the intended pronunciation.

Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

Semicolons Make Connections

I was recently told by a workshop attendee that my explanation of how semicolons work was the first one that made any sense to them. I stuck that feather in my cap immediately. Now to see if I can recreate it in blog-post form.

When you use a semicolon, you’re making a connection. It’s not just the visible one on the page or screen; it’s also a connection of concepts, of ideas, of sense. That punctuation mark tells the reader, “Pay attention to what comes next, because it’s closely related to what you just read.”

Using a semicolon entirely incorrectly is pretty difficult to do. Most writers I know have an understanding of what’s connected and what’s not. They would not, for example, do this: “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; a little girl was wearing an orange romper.” Those two ideas have no connection. The semicolon indicates that one exists, though, so we readers are left trying to “make connection happen.” And it won’t. That orange romper has nothing to do with the ice cream truck’s existence, arrival, or position. And the ice cream truck has nothing to do with the little girl’s clothing. That semicolon is simply incorrect.

Even if we rewrite the second independent clause (the part following the semicolon), it’s still a stretch to call it “connected” in the correct way. “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; the first little girl to run out to meet it was wearing an orange romper.” Those are still two discrete ideas. The truck is still not connected to the little girl’s clothing, nor can it be. A semicolon just won’t work there.

Look back at the second paragraph, where I used a semicolon to connect two related thoughts. (Start with the second sentence in that paragraph.) We could use a period there, but it’s stronger to place a semicolon after the first independent clause. That tells the readers that what follows is directly related. In this case, it’s a further explanation of the connection. There’s the visible one, and there’s the ideological, syntactical, grammatical one.

Nothing says you must use semicolons. Some writers prefer not to, ever. That’s certainly a safe choice. Some people believe semicolons should never appear in fiction. I disagree. I suggest to my clients that they use them where it makes sense, even in dialogue. Remember, punctuation marks are to the reader as road signs are to the driver; they guide. They assist. They are meant to be used, not shunned or ignored.