The requisite end-of-year post, or “four books I read this year and think you will enjoy”

I’m the first to admit I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I’d like. That’s something to work on in the coming year. However, of the handful of books I did read this year, I’ve chosen four I think will interest most of you.

They’re in alphabetical order by author’s last name. No favoritism, nothing hinky going on. I decided to organize them by some normal, rational method. (That should tell you how important I think they are.)

The Joy of Syntax, June Casagrande. The grammar lovers among you need this book. I mean, NEED it. This is the deep stuff you know you should know (it even says so in the subtitle!), but it’s not intimidating. At all. If the thought of opening Greenbaum or Huddleston & Pullum scares the bejeezus out of you, this is the book you want. (I own both of those, too. I’ve used them, but I use this more.) It’s written in her trademark style, as if you’re sitting on her porch sipping a cool drink on a hot day and chatting. You know, about infinitives and clauses and the subjunctive mood. As one does.

I particularly like this, the final paragraph from Part 1, Chapter 1 (“Who’s in Charge Here?”): “A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them—a fact some people fail to understand.”

You Are What You Speak, Robert Lane Greene. The subtitle tells you what you need to know about this one: “Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity.” The introduction’s by John McWhorter. With only eight chapters, this book packs a lot of punch into a small space, covering language myths, peeververein (my preferred term instead of “sticklers”), linguistics, nationalism (“You live here now, so speak X”), language legislation, and alternative ways of considering language, in addition to a few topics I haven’t mentioned.

I give you two quotes, because I have to limit myself somehow, don’t I? “Language is too enjoyable to get so angry about it” is the first. The second is this: “A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom.” All right, I lied. Three quotes. “In this world of homogenization—everyone speaking one standard language the same way, all the time—are we richer or better off? Not at all.”

The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy. Here’s another where the subtitle is defining (as one should be, but often is not): “The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.” If you don’t know Professor Murphy, she’s a linguist born in the US and living in the UK, currently teaching at the University of Sussex. There’s so much to delight in, in this book! If you are familiar with her blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” you already know the kinds of things she gets tied up in. Here are 350+ pages of such discussions, clarifications, and outright flinging up of hands.

For this one, I give you my favorite chapter title: “America: Saving the English Language Since 1607.” I’ll also tell you I was greatly entertained by the discussions of which English invented what word/phrase. Lots of finger-pointing goes on, lemme tell you. Lynne sorts it. And yet, through it all, she doesn’t take sides. Not really. You want to know more? Read the book, honey.

Word by Word, Kory Stamper. Subtitled “The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” this is a charming in-depth look at lexicography. At the work of defining words. Like “is.” Someone has to write those definitions, y’know.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a quote or excerpt, but I forced myself. In her discussion about the letters of the alphabet and which are “better” or “worse” from a definer’s standpoint, we come to this.

S is, to put it in the modern vernacular, the worst. It is the longest letter in the book and an absolute heartbreaker, because you can see the end of the alphabet from it, and you know that once you clear S, you are moving on to T–Z, and half of those are barely even letters. But SS goes on for-fucking-ever. Exactly 11 percent of your dictionary is made of words that begin with S. One-tenth of your dictionary is made up of one twenty-sixth of the alphabet. I bet the guy in the picture who supposedly went home and shot himself was in the middle of S when he did.”

So, there you have them: four books I read (or reread) this year that I think will be of interest to you. Happy New Year, folks.

Whether to use “whether”

Here’s another thing I bump into quite regularly. When is “whether” the right choice? And when should you choose “if”? (Choosy writers … y’know, I’ll just stop there. If you got it, thanks. If not, blessings on you.)

When there’s an overt or implied choice, you want “whether.”

When the statement’s conditional, you want “if.”

There you go.

Oh, that’s not enough. Right. Sorry about that.

“Whether I finish this post depends on how many cats interrupt me.” I hope I’ll finish, but if they keep parading across my desk it’s not going to happen.

“If I finish this post, I’ll make coffee.” On the condition that I finish writing, I’ll schlep downstairs and fire up the coffeepot.

“If it mattered or not” is the same as “whether it mattered.” The presence of alternatives (one or more) is contained within the definition of “whether,” so you don’t have to write “or not.” Neither must you slavishly remove it if it’s present. Let the voice and register guide your decision on which wording to use, and how picky to be.

“If he made it out alive, he’d be home for the holidays.” It’s contingent on the fulfillment of a condition: he has to get out alive.

“Whether he made it out alive didn’t matter. The family would gather for the holidays.” Makes no difference if he lives or dies; that ham will be on the table at noon on Sunday.

I hope you all make it out alive, and that your holidays are happy ones.

It ain’t necessarily so: the subjunctive mood

I’ve blogged about the subjunctive before, but as with nearly everything about grammar and syntax, it’s an evergreen topic. It’s December. I don’t have a tree this year. Here’s my stand-in. (Evergreen. December. Connect the dots, people.)

I bet you use this mood (it’s not a tense, it’s a mood) all the time without even thinking. “If I were you, I wouldn’t open that door.” “It’s important that we be ready to go by five.” There are the two major uses: for stating something contrary to fact (I am in fact not you, and never will be) and for a broad collection of statements about necessity, proposals, commands, suppositions, and suggestions (it’s necessary for us to be ready to go by five).

In my work, I see the first kind of usage done wrong often enough that it’s worth explaining again. 

You’ll use the subjunctive only if what you’re about to say is contrary to fact. It’s not true. It’s not the case.  And it can’t be true at all; it can’t possibly happen. If there’s a chance the thing you’re talking about is true or possible, don’t use the subjunctive mood. 

“If he were kidnapped, we’d have gotten a ransom note by now.” Using the subjunctive here means that it’s not possible he has been stuffed into a canvas bag and then into the back of a RAV4. If you suspect it’s happened, use “was” here. If it’s even possible it’s happened, use “was” here. (I’m not addressing the many other verb/tense options. This is purely an exercise in what not to do and why not to do it.)

“If he was kidnapped, the entire company would be thrown into an uproar.” We’ll say he hasn’t been, but he could be. Perhaps this is being said to the security detail, so they understand why it’s important that Quentin be protected 24/7. (And BOOM, there’s an example of another type of subjunctive statement: one of importance/necessity.)

“If she were late, all hell would break loose.” You’re saying she’s definitely not late, nor is there any chance she might be. No chance of a breakdown on the interstate or a delay on the metro. If it’s possible she is missing, don’t use “were” in that clause. Use “was.”

“If she were suffering from a gunshot wound …” She isn’t, is what this says. Maybe she’s got a stab wound. Maybe she has food poisoning. Whatever it is, it’s not a gunshot wound. “If this were a gunshot wound, it’d point to a number of suspects. But it’s not. She’s been decapitated.”

As you’re writing (or editing), ask yourself if the situation or state is possible. If it isn’t, at all, you can use the subjunctive mood. If there’s any chance the situation or state could be true, stay away from the subjunctive. 

Actions and words: what’s louder?

I have written and tweeted about this particular issue before, but I’ve just encountered it in a trad-pub book so I’m saying it again. (No, I won’t say which publisher or which title. That doesn’t matter one bit.)

Character A says a thing.

In the next paragraph, Character B reacts to it with an action. Character A reacts. Character B takes another action. There there’s a line of dialogue at the end of the paragraph.

Who said it?

Imagine it’s this bit of text.

“Stop it!” Dave said from inside the room.

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil in fear of it shattering inward. More banging and kicking, and one foot broke through at the bottom of the frame. “Why are you like this?”

Who spoke just then? Was it Dave, in reaction to Harry’s violence? Or was it Harry, in reaction to Dave’s locking himself in the room?

It’s not clear. We can take a guess, but what if we’re wrong? We shouldn’t have to read the next line to find out if we were right. If the next line is something like “I’m like this because you locked yourself in,” we know it was Dave who asked the question at the end of that paragraph. If it’s something like “Because you’re scaring the shit out of me,” we know it was Harry.

We shouldn’t have to guess. The uncertainty has intruded on our reading enjoyment, broken our flow. Clarity isn’t difficult. Actions might speak louder than words, and sometimes that’s a problem. 

How to address the issue, then? A little fiddling goes a long way. In the paragraph with the banging and reacting and kicking, we could recast like this: 

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil from fear of it shattering inward. When he saw a foot break through at the bottom of the frame, he dove behind the chair. “Why are you like this?” His breath came in great ragged gasps.

Now, there’s no question about who’s speaking. It’s not always required that dialogue go on a new line; in cases like this, it makes sense for it to flow directly after the narrative and be followed by a bit of description that clearly identifies the speaker (much more useful than “he said”).

I’m still here.

I know, it’s been nearly three months since I last posted here. Life keeps happening.

My elderly father’s been vacillating between “aging in place” and moving to an assisted living facility. Granted, he’s 92; he can no longer drive after dark; his closest friends are moving sometime in the next year, back to California; his health isn’t awful, but he’s in slow decline, more physically than mentally.

Other family things have been going on, which I won’t discuss. Just know that, as I said up there, “life keeps happening.”

I’m still editing, albeit less than before merely by dint of other people’s lives happening to them. Nearly every slot I booked has slipped by a couple of months or more, which means I can book into the now-empty slots, but money I had roughly planned for isn’t coming for a couple of months or more. (See “slipped by.”)

However, I’m still here. I’m still reading and editing and tweeting. I’m still that opinionated one who says what she thinks. I’m not going anywhere, at least not that I’m aware of.

(This is mostly a test of the new editor at WordPress, but it’s also a chance to touch base with those of you who have subbed to my blog. I haven’t forgotten you. I promise.)

Tool Time: Using Google Ngrams

I was sure I’d written about this before, but no. So.

Google Ngrams is a great, easy-to-use tool for finding the frequency of a word or phrase in printed material. Let’s say you want to know how popular the phrase “try and” is, compared to “try to.”

You go here and then you enter the phrases you want to search for, separated by a comma. (You can fiddle with the start/end dates, the corpus to be searched, and more, but for my purposes here I’m not getting in to that. I seldom need to change the default for my work.) Then you press ENTER, and voila. You’re presented with a simple line graph showing which word or phrase is more (or most, if you enter three or more) common.

Here’s the result for the example I used two paragraphs back.

What this means is that in edited, printed texts between the years of 1800 and 2000, “try to” is used far more often than “try and.”

There’s no judgement in that. It’s just numbers.

I’ve used it on the fly when editing to see which phrasing of a given idea is more common. I’ve used it to see whether a spelling is EVER used. (It’s more fun than a dictionary, sometimes.) I’ve changed the dates and checked for usage in a specific time period. Why? Because it’s faster than hauling out one of my reference books, mostly. If I have reason to question the result or I want more information, then I hit the bookshelf.

Click on that little drop-down at the far right of the search term field, and you’ll see more ways to search: wild cards, inflections, parts of speech, and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the process. (Not that I’ve done that, you know. Not me. ::cough::)

If you’re wondering just how useful this tool can be, perhaps it’ll help to know that Bryan A. Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage used it in the writing of that edition. Many entries include a ratio at the bottom, showing how often one word/phrase is used compared to another. If a usage is clearly an error, there’s no entry; however, for things like “try and” and “try to” you’ll see “Current ratio” as the last line of the entry. We have Ngrams to thank for that. (If you’re unfamiliar with Garner’s usage guides, and thus with his “Language Change Index.” I strongly suggest you rectify that situation. The Index is a time-saver, especially for editors. It helps me and many of my colleagues decide when a stance is worth fighting for.)

Learn the rules, THEN break them

I’m sure you’ve seen this before. “You can’t break the rules well until you know what the rules are” and other variations to the same effect.  (That’s a fragment, and it’s intentional.) What’s the deal with that, anyway? Why bother to learn them to break them?

Because, folks, if you don’t know what the rules are to start with, you won’t be breaking them as much as you’ll be writing badly. Think about any art medium: clay, paint, metal, paper. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your work is likely to be amateurish at best, and garbage at worst. You don’t know how to use the medium effectively (some might say “correctly”), so your results are substandard.

It’s the same with writing and editing. Yes, editing. Every kind of writing and editing has its own set of rules and guidelines, and they need to be learned before they can be effectively ignored, bent, or broken.

As Roy Peter Clark says in The Glamour of Grammar: “Make sure you can identify common mistakes. You can’t break a rule and turn it into a tool unless you know it’s a rule in the first place.”

My use of a fragment back there at the start is an example of using rule-breaking as a tool. Sure, I could change that period to a colon, but I don’t want to. I want that fragment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an independent clause. It isn’t. If you don’t understand why that’s true, you have some studying to do. (Yes, I used to teach English at the middle-school level. I nearly went to Japan to teach it as a second language. I have reasons for doing what I do.)*

As a fiction editor, I work with a lot of rule-breakers. I break a few myself in some of my suggested edits. There’s a different set of them at play in fiction than in, say, academic editing or medical editing. And guess what? Register plays a huge part in it, too. The expectations of the language’s formality makes an enormous difference in what can be gotten away with.

Remember: it’s not an editor’s job to teach you English grammar. It’s their job to help you polish your writing, to help you achieve your objectives. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you’re not ready to move on. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones–ones that will help you become the writer you want to be.

*Why is it a fragment? Because that whole thing taken as a unit is only a complex subject. There’s no verb to the thought. The verbs are in the quote, and they don’t apply to the phrase that follows “and.” Here’s another way to look at it: it’s grammatically the same as saying “this thing and that thing.” What about them? There’s no verb. And that’s the reason I wanted the fragment: as a teaching tool.