Who or that: Survey says . . .

Grammar, along with its close relatives usage and style, is a common cause of pearl-clutching in some circles. I associate it with prescriptivists, myself. Those who cannot conceive of the correctness of anything other than what they know themselves to be “correct,” for varying degrees of that word. These folks also often conflate grammar with usage and style, which is not the best understanding. The latter two items are closely entwined with grammar, certainly, but they are not the same, nor can they be understood in the same way. Grammar is a set of rules. Usage is a set of guidelines. Style is a different set of guidelines about mechanics, mostly: when to capitalize, when to italicize, how to write initialisms or acronyms, where to place punctuation (when there is no grammatical guidance already in place). Both usage and style also vary with the English being considered. I’ve written here and elsewhere about the differences between American and British English. The grammar is the same; the usage and style vary.

The latest kerfuffle has been about using that to refer to people. A number of vocal participants hold that it is wrong to do so. I do not regret to say it is not. It is grammatically correct, and it always has been. Continue reading “Who or that: Survey says . . .”

Whose thing is this, anyway?

I’ve blogged about possessive formation several times here, and I’m going to do it again. This time, I want to focus on those situations where a thing belongs to more than one person, either separately or jointly. This might be a physical thing, like a house or a car, or an abstract thing, like death or success.

Let’s say that in your novel, two people are killed in a car wreck. Perhaps there is a sentence like “Blake’s and Rhonda’s deaths could have been avoided.” Why is that genitive marker on each name? They didn’t have joint possession of one life, so they can’t possess a joint death, either. Two lives, two deaths. Each name gets the marker of the apostrophe and the S. Even in the case of conjoined twins, there are separate lives and separate deaths. Close together, yes, but separate.

[DISCLAIMER: I am aware, particularly in the medical writing/editing field, that there are different ideas about the phrasing of such things when it comes to “our hearts” or “our health.” That’s for the medical writers and editors to be concerned with. Me? I edit fiction. That’s my focus, now and always.]

Now, what about two people who jointly own a single item? “We were invited to Ben and Jerry’s house for dinner.” (Not just dessert, DINNER!) They own the house together, the same way they used to own their company.* The marker goes on the second name. If there were more people in the list, the rule would be the same; the marker goes on the last name in the list, if everyone owns the item together. “Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice’s bed hadn’t been properly made in weeks.”

It’s not difficult if you take a moment to consider how the item or concept is shared or owned. If the people in question share it, possess it jointly like the house or the bed in the previous paragraph, only the final name in the list gets the genitive marker (apostrophe S). If they each possess (or are connected/related to) a thing singly, like the deaths in the first paragraph, each name gets the marker.

 

 

*You’re not going to catch me. They sold (some say sold out) to Unilever back in 2000.

 

There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

National Grammar Day 2020

Before the day slipped away entirely, I wanted to publish a short post.

Earlier, I tweeted my single bit of advice for new editors and writers, which is to never trust your spellchecker. Use it, yes. It’s a safety net, in the same way that high-wire acts use a safety net. But, unlike the net that will prevent them from splattering on the ground, this one cannot save you from every error. Verify every result it gives you. Some will be incorrect. Dare I say, wrong. (And some will be wrong in uproariously funny ways. Take the laughs where you can get them, I say.)

I also suggested befriending a linguist or ten. You’ll learn things you never dreamed of about English. My colleague Sarah Grey added lexicographers; there is a lot of crossover between the groups. And both groups will teach you things that will leave you wondering why you ever thought you knew anything. In the best way, I might add.

My third issue on this Grammar Day is one I return to every few months. Grammar is not usage is not mechanics is not syntax is not semantics. Don’t come at me with a so-called “grammar quiz” that’s nothing but spelling and mechanics issues. (I won’t say errors, because a good portion of the time the “errors” are nothing more than style issues, and that’s another sore point of mine.) I write and tweet and talk about all of those things, which I call “GUMmy Stuff” (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics, and I make the S work double for Syntax and Semantics because I’m mean. Be glad I don’t make it work treble by adding Style to the set).

And that, my friends, is that, for this year. It’s late, I have a sleeping granddaughter on the couch beside me, and the old cat man wants me to follow him. Happy Grammar Day.

A wall or the wall? Does it matter?

Does it matter whether you use an indefinite article or a definite article when specifying a thing in your writing?

It does.

The reasons are less easy to explain, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Keep in mind, I’m talking about writing, here. Not speech. Writing.

“The” indicates something (could be a person or an item) that’s already understood or has already been discussed or mentioned.

“A” and “an” indicate something that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. Something that we cannot readily understand or define, something that hasn’t been discussed previously. (Like “a person” and “an item” in the previous paragraph.)

Let’s say we’re walking through a house we’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re thinking of buying it. Before I go further, look at that first sentence. “Through a house we’ve never seen before.” Not “the house.” “A house.” We don’t know this house yet. However, it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying” (for the sake of argument); we’re only looking at one, and this is it, so it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying.” If we were looking at more than one, this would be “a house we’re thinking of buying.” (Or perhaps “one of the houses,” if  there’s a specific set of houses we’re visiting with an eye toward purchasing.)

We enter through the front door. There’s only the one, and we can see it and understand its purpose from experiences with doors, so “the front door.” Inside, we see a hallway leading to the back of the house, and another hallway crossing it in the middle. (Work with me here. I’m not an interior designer, and these constructions are purely to illustrate a point—not the layout.) Because we can’t say any more about these hallways yet—we don’t know where they lead, for example, other than the one going “to the back”—there’s a hallway and another hallway. Once we know more about them, perhaps one will become “the main hallway” and the other “the bedroom hallway” (if, let’s say, it leads to bedrooms on either side of the house).

In the big room at the front (there’s only one big room, from what we can see, so “the big room”) there’s a large window facing the street, a smaller window on the side wall facing the yard (if we said “a side wall,” folks will wonder how many other side walls there are here), and a doorway leading to what looks like a kitchen. We can’t know it’s “the” kitchen yet. And while we can see the windows, we haven’t seen them previously so we use “a” to indicate the unknown quality of them. Now that we’ve seen them, though, we can say “Jane walked over to the small window on the side wall.” If she did that immediately on entering the room, before any description has been given, we’d say “Jane walked to a small window on the side wall.” We didn’t know about that window before. Walls are more easily assumed.

“Hey, there’s a little door in the wall out here next to this cabinet.” (Hey, that room was a kitchen! Now it’s “the kitchen.” But it’s odd, seeing a little door in that position.)

“Aha! That’s for a dumbwaiter, I’ll bet.” (Whoever said this has an idea what that little door probably is, but can’t be sure until they investigate.)

If the person responding were the realtor showing the house, the answer would probably be “Yes, that’s for the dumbwaiter.” They know what it is, so they can use “the” to indicate it.

A couch sits in the middle of the big room. It’s covered in leather. The leather couch is black, but the layer of dust covering it makes it look gray. (It’s “a couch” when we first see it. Once it’s been mentioned, it becomes “the couch.” Someone probably dragged a finger over the surface and came away with dust, so “the layer of dust.”)

I could write more on this, but I suspect there’s enough here already to illustrate the point. Indefinite articles are for undefined, unknown, uncertain items/people (also for abstract nouns, like “an uncertainty” if it’s a vague feeling). The definite article is for defined (funny how that works), certain items/people (and also for specific abstract nouns, like “the uncertainty that comes with unemployment”).

Ask questions in the comments, if you like. This is a tricky subject, and if you need clarification, I’ll do my best to provide it. (“The comments,” because they’re a known item; blogs have comment sections. You may have “a comment,” so called because no one but you knows what it is until you write it.)

The editing letter: no longer a mystery

Some people refer to this as a query letter, because often it’s filled with questions for the writer from the editor.

More properly, though, it’s an editing letter. It’s still filled with questions, but it also contains plenty of praise for what was done right and well. (A query letter is what a writer sends to an agent.)

(I mentioned this in Part 2 of that three-part series on working with an editor, and then I didn’t include it in Part 3 as I had said I would. Not one of you called me out on it, either. I’m not sure what to make of that.)

(Maybe it just means no one really read it.)

As usual, I can’t speak for all editors, but I can tell you what my editing letter usually contains. As I said, questions and praise; but what kinds of questions? And what kind of praise?

I start with a general “what I liked most about this project.” It’s different every time, of course. Sometimes it’s the way the plot unfolded; sometimes, the characterization; other times, the dialogue. There is always something done well (even if I have to think about it for a bit). Then, I move on to the questions and comments that relate to the work as a whole. This isn’t “on page 72, you said John has brown eyes, but on page 104 they’re blue.” That’s in the file as a marginal comment. If that kind of inattention to detail occurs more than once or twice, it’s the kind of thing I’ll put in the letter. I’ll say it thoughtfully, of course: “I suggest looking at the comments with an eye toward noted inconsistencies. I can’t know which color you intended for someone’s eyes, or how tall someone is supposed to be, but there are times in the story where you’ve set up one expectation and delivered another. I don’t need to know which one you choose, but you need to choose one.”

If there are major problems with basic writing skills, I’ll note that as well, along with suggestions for how to address them. This happens rarely, but it happens. (Remember, I work with indies. Some folks have never written anything except their college term papers. Writing fiction ain’t like writing a research paper.)

There might be something like “I feel like I lost a couple of plot threads in the fourteenth chapter, but they came back quickly in Chapter 15.”

A valuable skill I picked up in a developmental editing class deals with tension in the plot. If I get the sense that the plotting is uneven, I sketch out the narrative spine. That means looking at the end of each chapter and marking on a sheet of paper whether it’s positive or negative for the characters. Are they standing at the edge of a cliff that’s crumbling? Negative. Are they curled up on a couch, eating popcorn while the rain patters against the windows? Probably positive. Did someone receive an upsetting text message? Negative. Then, look at the relative number of positive and negative endings, and how they’re grouped. Too many of either in a row means too little (positive) or too much (negative) tension in the story as a whole. Remember when I said that my style of editing combines developmental, line, and copy? This is part of that. Then I can make general suggestions, based on what I find. The client can take them or ignore them. I get paid, either way. (I’ve done this maybe twice in the last four years, since taking that class. The majority of my clients have enough experience at plotting to get the balance right.)

After I’ve briefly outlined the major things I want the client to look at, I close with one more positive thing. You know about “the sandwich,” right? Praise on the top and bottom, constructive criticism in the middle. Only once that I can recall did I have to work hard to come up with something good to say at the end.

Admittedly, for my long-time clients I tend to ignore the niceties and dash off a quick “Here’s the book. Great job, as usual. Watch out for the prepositional phrases. Can’t wait for the next one!”

We understand one another. And that’s part of what I love about this work.

Work with your editor, part 3: You are part of a team

I’ve written about one method of finding an editor, and about what I expect from my clients (new and old alike), but what about after the editing? What happens then?

It’s not that difficult, really.

I’ve given your work at least two complete read-throughs and one pass with PerfectIt4 for proofreading/consistency. I’ve made changes for which there is no debate (actual misspellings, errors in grammar and mechanics) and for which I welcome discussion (usage and style issues). I’ve left copious comments for you, at least some of which are positive (“I LOVE THIS!” “Great phrasing here”) while the rest are neutral or warnings (“Watch out for this phrase, you’ve used it at least twice in every chapter so far” or “I’m not marking every instance of this, but if I were you I’d go through and reconsider every usage of it for deletion”). Some of them are miniature essays in usage or diction (word choice). Deletions are marked in red, additions are marked in blue, and all of my comments are in the margins, never in-line.

I was a teacher, once. I cannot not teach on some level.

I may well have emailed you with requests for clarification of things I can’t figure out on my own. Sometimes it’s a problem on my end, sometimes there’s information missing in the work. I’ll only email if the issue will keep me from continuing the edit. If I think I’ve sussed it out, I’ll mark and comment and keep going.

I will not have fiddled with your formatting unless there was a major issue of some kind, such as no spaces between paragraphs or no paragraph indentations. (I don’t care which format you use. Block paragraphs are lovely, as long as there’s a space between them. First-line indents are great, as long as they’re in place. I follow your lead. As I have said repeatedly, I am an editor, not a designer/formatter.)

All of my edits are visible. Some editors do “silent edits” for things like extra spaces, obvious misspellings, missing mechanics, and such. These things aren’t negotiable; they’re wrong, and editors correct them. That’s the rationale for doing them silently. I don’t. Back when I began freelance editing, I took an informal poll and overwhelmingly the respondents said they wanted to see everything. So, you see everything. Every space, period, apostrophe, and hyphen, whether it’s been added or deleted.

Eventually, then, on or before the deadline we agreed on (unless life blew up and I had to renegotiate with you), you get your file back with all of my markups. You could, if you wanted, just say “ACCEPT ALL” and be done.

But you wouldn’t learn anything then, would you.

I suggest going through it and reading the comments, to get a feel for what’s generally happening. Make a list of questions for me. Seriously. I love discussing edits with clients. Perhaps there’s something I missed that led me to suggest a certain change. That might point to a problem on my end, or it might mean there’s something missing from the text that you need to address. Once you’ve gone from end to end, maybe then is the time to send me your questions. Or perhaps you want to wait until you’ve accepted those you agree with, and send the questions afterward. I can’t tell you what the right time is.

I don’t expect to see the work again after I return it. However, sometimes a client wants me to see a rewrite, to ensure they haven’t messed something else up in the process. That’s totally fine. I won’t say no to another chance to look at your work.

At some point, then, you’ll let me know we’re done, and I’ll thank you for the chance to work with you, and I’ll invoice the final payment. You’ll pay it, and we’ll go on.

And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to work with you again someday.