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.

The only constant in life is change—Heraclitus

I’m still here.

You may have thought I vanished, or fell ill, or was kidnapped by wild elementary school teachers.

Nah. I’m still here. But it’s been a rough few months.

Back in April we were surprised to find out that someone was interested in buying my husband’s house. (It wasn’t on the market, not officially.) After a whirlwind of papers (thank you, DocuSign) and a house tour, the buyers made a cash offer we couldn’t refuse.

Two weeks later they backed out. I won’t bore you with details. Yes, it was legal. No, we couldn’t fight it.

In the meantime we had set wheels in motion to move to my house, the one I inherited from my dad. Old limestone and frame farmhouse, sitting on four acres, right on the edge of the teeny town I grew up in. In fact, my ancestors built the house. Both the frame part (now the kitchen, originally a 1-room cabin across the road) and the stone part (from a quarry owned by a family down the road, whose descendants still live there). Anyway . . .

We couldn’t stop the wheels once they began turning. We were going to move.

And it got hairy. It’s still hairy, but we’re in the house, and we have a real bedroom and an actual office (shared space, this time), and our second-oldest kid lives with us. They teach 2nd grade in a town about 45 minutes from here. Together we have four cats (you may have seen me tweet about losing the Old Cat Man a couple of weeks back, just after we moved here) and a dog. It’s a houseful.

And it’s wonderful, honestly.

We’re running a GoFundMe that my husband created, in which he explains some backstory. I’ll share the link here, and then I won’t bring it up again. The donors have gotten us to 70% of our goal, which is mind-blowing to say the least; it only went up on the 11th, and here we are 5 days later at nearly three-quarters raised. WOW.

If you want to donate directly instead of through the GFM, you can do that via http://PayPal.me/KarenConlin

Or, if you’d like to work with me on your book or short story or what have you, and you’d like to put the down payment toward our funding drive, that’s great, too. Details for my services are at my personal page here on the site. I’m happy to take an amount as a down payment and work out the details later (like the actual word count, a calendar slot, and so on).

If you just want to share the link, that’s fantastic too. Sharing is free. Sometimes that’s what we can afford to do.

Thank you all for reading. I’m planning to be around more now that things are settling down a bit.

Oh, here’s that link: https://gofund.me/a73badcf

Thanks, everyone.

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.