Weird Victorian mechanics: Ca’n’t, wo’n’t, and more

Yes, I’m speaking of the mechanics of punctuation.

In reading Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Beer, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016), I’ve been sidetracked by the appearance of apostrophes where I’m unused to finding them. I’ve put them right up there in the title; that’s how distracting they are. They deserve greater notice.

And explanation.

But in my research into this oddity—and to be sure, it is an oddity, even for Carroll’s contemporaries—I’ve found an amazing blog post from 2007 by Gabe Doyle, then a doctoral candidate at Stanford, to which I link below. There’s little point in my regurgitation of its contents when it’s perfectly simple to link to it, and let you all read at your leisure (or ignore it entirely, if you choose).

Also note that although he makes no mention of “ca’n’t” in his post, it appears in Carroll’s works and thus in the text I’m reading currently. This curious use of apostrophes is apparently related to the logic of using one where a letter is omitted, rather than letting it stand in for more than one as we do with “can’t.” That, at least, is the short form of the explanation. And such logic is logical, coming from a mathematician like Dodgson/Carroll.

And what’s up with “won’t,” anyway? Where’s the O come from, if it’s short for “will not?”

Find the answer to that and much more at the link below.

Will you, wo’n’t you, will you, wo’n’t you, will you click the link? (with apologies to the Mock Turtle)

National Grammar Day 2023

Martha Brockenbrough started this particular grammar ball rolling back in 2008. Because the date, March 4, is also rendered March 4th in certain circumstances, it is not only a date but an imperative with a homophone for “fourth”: March forth! It was (and presumably still is) her intention that people fond of grammar would take the day to celebrate the joys of “good grammar” (as she called it) and share those joys with others.

My take on “good grammar” might not be yours. Or Martha’s.

I’m not a prescriptivist. I don’t get the vapors when I see a “less than 10 items” sign at a checkout. Some of my colleagues and I had a discussion about that very thing (the “rule,” not the vapors) just this past week. Turns out that it’s not so much a rule as a guideline, rather like the pirates’ code of which Captain Barbossa spoke so fondly. We were hard-pressed to find precisely when this rule entered the common knowledge; it seems that some fellow named Baker opined on it in 1770, and within a century or so his opinion had been hardened into a so-called rule by others quoting him. (You can find this information in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, 1997.)

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Butterfield, ed.; fourth edition, 2015) says this about the controversy:

“The starting point is that according to the rule, infringement of which causes a violent, Pavlovian reaction among the grammatically pure in heart, the comparative adjective fewer is used with count nouns . . . or with collective nouns. By contrast, less is used with noncount nouns.”

But wait! There’s more. In the third section we find the following.

“The injunction against less in front of plural count nouns seems to have been launched by one grammarian in 1770, related specifically to less in front of numbers, and was tentative rather than dogmatic. Since then it has developed into a rather more extreme and expansive ban.”

So, not only was it not intended as a rule from the start, it was a guideline/opinion about a specific usage of the word. But people being people, they love their binaries. Yes/no, right/wrong. Now, what was never wrong to start with gives some folks the vapors.

Note that this usage is more common in spoken English than in written, and that it’s wholly idiomatic. We can trace it back to Alfred the Great circa AD 888 (first recorded—written—use).

This is also likely why, when I dug for it, I found no trace of such a rule in either the Cambridge or Oxford grammars.

All of this to say: There are many “good grammars.” I wouldn’t recommend going out and purposely riling folks up over idiomatic usage, but I don’t feel we need to rein it in, either.

March forth, readers, and speak and write English as you do!

Is an eminence front imminent?

Those of a certain age will remember “Eminence Front” from The Who. Its lyrics describe the illusion of fame, the faux importance of posers. Influencers, perhaps, although they weren’t called that back then.

In any case, there’s eminence meaning importance, having elevated status in one’s field, the quality of being eminent; and there’s imminence, the state of being imminent or about to happen (the imminence of war); and then there’s the one even fewer people know about, which is immanence. That one means existing as an inherent part of something, the quality of being immanent, and it appears most often, but not exclusively, in writings on religious ideology: the immanence of Spirit/God, for example. I include it here because it sounds very similar to both of the other two, not because I see it misused.

I see “eminent” and “imminent” far more often than “eminence” and “imminence,” for what that’s worth (exactly what you paid for it, honestly). That’s merely an observation, for which I offer no reference other than my own experience. (But if you wanted, you could try an Ngram search, maybe.)

Eminence can be a noun, too, referring to an individual possessing that elevated status. It appears in the phrase eminence grise: as such, it means what one might call “the power behind the throne.” One who wields power without having been granted authority. One who is able to control, through shadowy means (hence “gray”).

To answer my own question, I’d say the eminence front is far past imminent. It’s been here for years, now. (See my comment about influencers. No, I don’t have a high opinion of them in general.)

“Head-hopping” Is Not Multiple POV

I just saw someone on Twitter ask a question about “head-hopping,” but it became clear they were actually asking about third-person shifting POV.* What’s the difference?

“Head-hopping” happens when the writer loses track of who knows what in the story. Not every character knows everything that’s happening. They know what they think, but they don’t necessarily know every other character’s thoughts, motivations, beliefs, and so on.

Multiple third-person POV, however, keeps the focus on one character at a time, perhaps chapter by chapter. Having more than one POV character is neither new nor uncommon.

It’s vital for a writer to keep characters’ thoughts in their heads, to be spoken by them when they decide to reveal them. Losing track can mean, for example, that the old woman on the street corner is thinking or saying things that only the young person down the block, whom she is observing, knows or would say. Let’s work with that for a moment. Sadie is waiting for the bus. She’s rolling things around in her head: the bus number, her destination, what she’ll do when she gets there. Down the block, the young person (male, female, enby, who knows, doesn’t matter right now) is watching for someone they’re supposed to meet. It may look, to Sadie, like they’re watching her. If she’s our POV character, we expect that her thoughts would reflect this: nervousness, perhaps fear, maybe curiosity.

If the writer has lost the thread, though, Sadie might unexplainably feel anticipation or excitement, perhaps as the person Jaden is meeting walks past her. She doesn’t know the person, nor does she know about the meeting. Sadie has no reason to react to the person. We’ve hopped heads. (This is a very poor, very obvious example. I’m not a fiction writer, nor do I claim to be. I’m hard pressed to remember a specific example of this issue; it’s been years, literally, since I’ve had to point it out to a client.)

It’s more than just a shift in perspective. It’s the information from one character’s perspective coming from a different character entirely, one who has no access to it. That is head-hopping.

If the writer has a handle on perspectives, the characters’ thoughts and motivations will stay in their own heads, as it should be. Perspectives can shift from chapter to chapter, but the characters still know what they know and not what each other knows. (Unless we’re in certain spec-fic settings, but that’s a different kind of post entirely. “Sense-8,” anyone?)

#AmEditing #HeadHopping #Craft #Writing #POV

*Edit: A few hours after I wrote and published this, I had a brief and pleasant chat with the Twitter user whose thread inspired it. As it happens, he was indeed asking specifically about intentional use of head-hopping. The commenters on that thread misunderstood and veered toward multiple POV, and a few of us were wondering aloud (as one does in tweets) what had actually been meant by the question. Regardless, this post is my perspective on the difference.


Others have noticed the same thing I have: The misuse of “tenant” for “tenet” seems to be increasing.

A TENET is a foundational belief, a cornerstone of an ideology. (That’s my definition from my own head. You want something better, look it up in your preferred dictionary.)

A TENANT is someone or something (it can be a corporation, sure) that rents space from someone else. If you’re a renter, you’re a tenant.

Beliefs certainly occupy one’s mind, but that doesn’t make them tenants. They don’t pay rent.

Side note: The actor who portrayed the Tenth Doctor spells his surname with two N’s. Tennant. So does the Pet Shop Boy Neil.

#SpellcheckCannotSaveYou #GUMmyStuff

A non-grammar post for St Crispin’s Day

No, I don’t want to put a period/full stop after “St,” because in BrE standard mechanics there isn’t one. (There’s a logic to it, but that’s another post. Stick around and I might explain someday.)

In 2015 I got a wild hair and wrote a parody of the famed “St Crispin’s Day” speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” The speaker is Hereford V, rallying his troops for St Frisian’s Day. Of course, there is no “St Frisian.” I’m of Frisian heritage, and it amused me to toy with the words.

Anyway, here’s my poor effort at parodying that rousing passage. I hope you at least groan and roll your eyes.


Welsh Black. O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those bulls in England

That do no work to-day!

Hereford V. What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin Welsh Black? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer bulls, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one bull more.

By Jersey, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my meat;

It yearns me not if bulls my pastures graze;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a bull from England.

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one bull more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Welsh Black, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; the barnyard gates shall open,

And none shall speak him ill as he departs;

We would not die in that bull’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call’d the feast of Frisian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-hoof when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Frisian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Frisian.’

Then will he turn his flank and show his scars,

And say ‘These wounds I had on Frisian’s day.’

Old bulls forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Hereford the King, Bernaise and Evolene,

Warwickshire, Shetland, Salers and Gloucestershire—

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

This story shall the good bull teach his son;

And Holstein Frisian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered—

We few, we happy few, we herd of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And peaceful bulls in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their stud fees cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Frisian’s day.

Split infinitives don’t exist in English.

Is that a shocker to you?

First, let me explain an infinitive. It’s a verb form in English that uses the word “to” with the root form of the verb. The result, a kind of verbal, is called an infinitive. It can function as a noun, as in “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” There, it’s the subject of each clause. I wrote about two kinds of verbals here. This one, the infinitive, is the one I didn’t cover there. In this post I’m focusing on the false belief that there is such a thing as a “split infinitive.” I’m not explaining the verbal form.

So, all right. We have a two-word formation, like “to lose.” That “to” is not grammatically part of the infinitive. Rather, in Oxford English Grammar Greenbaum calls it a subordinator, while Huddleston/Pullum in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language prefer “the infinitival to.” The grammatical part is that root form, “lose.” No grammatical rule says that other words can’t come between that “to” and the root form. Some folks in the 19th century got it into their heads, though, to force Latin grammar rules onto English, so we ended up with the specious nonrule against “split infinitives.” But here’s the thing: In Latin (and other languages as well, like French), it’s impossible to “split” an infinitive because that form is a single word. There’s nothing to separate, nowhere to intervene with another word.

Don’t tie yourself into knots trying to keep that “to” with that root verb. It’s not wrong. There’s no rule saying you can’t write “He wanted to just be left alone.” (The question of whether that “just” is worth keeping is a separate one, and I’m not touching it here. One could as easily replace it with “simply,” if that makes it more palatable to the reader.) And if you see it written that way, you’re under no obligation to “correct” it. There’s nothing to correct, from a grammatical standpoint.

If you’re up for a bit of research, I’ll recommend getting your eyes/hands on the aforementioned grammar texts. Personally, I have the student guide version of Cambridge because the full edition was out of my price range. In Greenbaum, the “split infinitive” is relegated to a chapter note in the section at the end of the text. (It didn’t even earn space in the main text. Only a note.)

Show & Tell (or not)

The “show, don’t tell” discourse has come around again as it does, and this time I have a little something to add. I want to thank Maria Heater and Ian Martinez Cassmeyer for inspiring me.

It’s been pointed out that this isn’t an absolute. It’s not “ALWAYS show, NEVER tell.” It’s more a case of “explain when it’s needed, and when it isn’t, describe.” Background is often best done by telling/explaining. Give the reader what they need to understand! Don’t let them flail around in the dark while you “show” them. Tell them, straight up. “The flight was late, and by the time he left the jetway he was moving at a dead run.” I don’t need to know he’s feeling his heart pound while he’s running. You’ve told me he’s late. That’s good information, presented as it needs to be. Describing the entire sequence of movements from jetway to ride-share pickup point would be tedious as hell. Just explain it and get on with the story. (Now, it’s possible that something important to the story happens during his dash for the Uber. Then, maybe we need some describing. It’s a balancing act!)

I usually end up reminding clients to “show, don’t tell” when they’re overusing filter language. Don’t tell me or your other readers what someone feels. Show me how they feel it. (Or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, or see it.) “She felt cold.” Yippee. She needs to put on a coat. “The gusts of driving sleet bit through her parka as if it were a windbreaker.” NOW I’m there with her.

Or: “He was nervous.” Poor guy. “Droplets of cold sweat dripped down the back of his neck, soaking into his shirt.” Is he at an interview? Is this the guy who was racing through the airport? I want to know!

It takes practice to strike the best balance of showing and telling. A good editor will help clients figure out how to reach that balance. That might be suggesting a change from one to the other at certain points, and providing some possible wording. It might be leaving comments like “This is perfect at this juncture!” or “I’m lost here. How about some explanation of why she thinks this?”

Show AND tell, but do so judiciously. Give readers what they need to enter your story and stay there.

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.