Guidelines Are Not Rules (and Vice Versa)

Just a friendly reminder that in English, there are precious few rules and a metric ton (which is a tonne) of guidelines. Style guides do not agree. Dictionaries might not even agree. Grammar guides will agree on most things but not on everything.

What’s a rule?

“Start a new sentence with a capital letter and end it with terminal punctuation.”

That’s about as close to a rule as you’re going to get. And even here there are exceptions. If the sentence is in dialogue, it might NOT begin with a capital letter (it could be an interruption of the previous speaker’s words). The terminal punctuation might NOT be a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point, if the speaker’s drifting off into thought or being interrupted — then it might end with an em dash for an abrupt intrusion or with suspension points to signal the drifting.

No one HAS to follow the guidelines YOU like. And they’re not WRONG if they don’t. They’re making their own choices. They get to do that, and so do you.

Here’s another rule. “An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.” A complete thought contains a subject and a verb (or a noun phrase and a verb phrase, to use different terminology for the same thing). But what about “COME HERE!”? That’s a complete thought, and there’s no noun phrase in sight. That’s because the subject/noun phrase is understood to be “YOU.” “YOU COME HERE!” The subject is clear but it doesn’t appear in print.

If you’re new to this writing thing, do yourself a favor. LEARN THE RULES of grammar before you go breaking them. Having to relearn grammar SUCKS. Learning it and THEN choosing to break the rules? That can be a lot of fun.

I’m all for more fun  in 2015.

Yes, I have seen Weird Al’s video.

I quite like it, too. Surprisingly he’s far more of a prescriptivist than I ever would’ve pegged him for, but to each his own, right?

Here is my take on the types of grammarians.

Now, just this morning I found links to an article about Weird Al’s “grammar gaffe” in my Twitter feed.

And here is what I had to say about that subject some time back.

I’ve said more over at Google+ in the past 24 hours, too. Like this, from yesterday afternoon when my Twitter feed was still roiling like a shark tank at feeding time.

Just in case you haven’t yet seen “Word Crimes” for yourself, here. It’s fun, and it’s funny, and I’d rather listen to it than “Blurred Lines” any day of the week.

“Word Crimes” at YouTube

Now, it’s time for more coffee and some chair dancing.

When is a dictionary like a usage manual?

Well, depending on the dictionary, the answer could be “sometimes.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked me how Garner’s Modern American Usage compared to the OED. Honestly? That’s apples and oranges. And if you add stylebooks to the set, it’s apples and oranges and bananas.

I know you know what a dictionary’s for. That’s where you look up spellings, definitions of words, parts of speech, and sometimes — but only sometimes, depending on which dictionary you have — usage tips. If you’re a really bad speller, a “normal” dictionary might be next to useless. You’ll want a misspeller’s dictionary instead. If you’re a person who often can think of the concept of a word, but not the word, perhaps a reverse dictionary would work better for you. Here are five dictionaries I keep on my reference shelf, right here where I write and edit. I use the Encarta the most, but truthfully, I more often than not look online at the Merriam-Webster site. The Chicago style references M-W, so that’s where I go for “business.” I love my Encarta, though, for “pleasure browsing.” It contains a lot of usage information, but not as much as a dedicated usage manual.

Next, I have two usage manuals. As the name would suggest, they’re dedicated to English-language usage. Not to spelling, or definitions, or how the words should appear on the page, but to how words are (or should be, or should not be) used. The paperback M-W I’ve had for years and years. The copy of Garner I just got a couple of weeks ago. I’m very, very happy with the latter most of all because of the “five stages of acceptance,” as I’ve taken to calling them. I wrote about those over on G+ not long after I got the book, in a post about the shift in meaning of the word “nimrod” from “mighty hunter” (the Biblical Nimrod) to “fool, idiot” (thank you, Bugs Bunny). That shift epitomizes Garner’s “stage 5”: “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Once a change reaches stage 5, the ship has sailed. The train has left the station. Give it up; there’s no going back. I find Garner’s book most useful for identifying when it’s still worth fighting to retain a usage, or when it’s best to just let it go and grumble to myself.

I grumble a lot.

Then we have stylebooks. These are unlike either dictionaries or usage manuals. The main thrust of any stylebook is to engender consistency in presentation. Nearly all journalistic media uses the AP stylebook. That’s why for the most part when you’re reading a news item, it looks pretty much like every other news item out there as far as actual appearance. The title is capitalized a certain way. There’s a dateline, and the date is styled a certain way. Times are presented in a certain way. You get the drift, I think. You don’t use a stylebook to look up a definition of a word. You use a stylebook to see how a word should be presented (styled) in your work, to conform to that style. For example:

mecca Lowercase in the metaphorical sense; capitalize the city in Saudi Arabia.” (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2012)

If you don’t know what “mecca” means as a metaphor, this won’t tell you. You need a dictionary for that. However, now you know that if you use this metaphorically, you don’t capitalize it. That’s a style issue. In the AP stylebook, this particular word is found right where you’d expect it: under the letter M, just like in a dictionary. In the Chicago Manual of Style, though, you won’t find “mecca” listed in that way. CMoS is positively labyrinthine compared to AP. They have different focuses, different audiences. I learned Chicago style long before AP, and I still have to look up some things to make sure I’m not mixing them.

I bought a copy of the New Oxford Style Manual so I would have a reference handy when I’m copy editing UK writers’ work. Not that it seems to matter much, honestly. I asked a number of them online if they used the term “full point” (which NOSM says is the preferred term, now) or “full stop.” No one had even heard of “full point.” The schools are still teaching “full stop.” Take THAT, NOSM. I won’t even go into the issues with quotation marks, save to say everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Mostly. Apparently in the fiction market, dialogue is set the same way as it is in the US: double quotes for direct quotations, single quotes for quotes-within-quotes. BUT, in the nonfiction market, that is reversed — that is to say, it’s the way I expected, with direct quotes set in single quotation marks, and double ones used for quotes-within-quotes.

NOSM doesn’t reflect that, though, which I find interesting in the extreme.

So, right. I can’t compare a usage manual to a dictionary to a stylebook. They’re different books with different purposes. Dictionaries have some elements of usage manuals; usage manuals have some elements of dictionaries; stylebooks might contain abridged dictionaries (the NOSM contains the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), and often contain brief notes about usage. But, all in all, one cannot replace another.

Review: Lapsing into a Comma, Bill Walsh

I don’t normally review books here, but for this one I’m making an exception. Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them is a delightful and insightful work that would fit nicely into any copy editor’s reference shelf. (You might have to turn it sideways, but still. It would fit.) Walsh is copy editor at the Washington Post; journalistic concerns are prevalent in his writing for good reason. If that’s off-putting to you, get over it. Just because you have no need for datelines in your writing doesn’t mean you can’t make use of his assertion that every good copy editor needs the sensibilities of a 13-year-old boy. (It’s in there. I swear. And he’s right.)

Just over half the book is taken up by “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook.” I hesitate to call this the meat of the work, because honestly the whole book is packed with important stuff. This section, though, is an alphabetical listing from “a/an” to “yes, I have/yes, I do.” (If you don’t know why that last entry’s needed, I envy you. I really do.) Preceding this are chapters with particular focus: how to think while using a stylebook (it’s not blind obedience to “the rules”), how to use a dictionary (in which I found out I did know what I was doing, despite what some folks tried to tell me!), how to deal with Information-Age trends (including a wonderful rant about the United Nations), how to “say what you mean and mean what you say,” why “innumeracy” is a problem (why is the sentence “An average caseworker might handle up to 100 cases a month or more” meaningless?), how to deal with sensitive issues like race, sex/gender, and the ubiquitous “singular they,” and how to manage punctuation.

Also included are two chapters specific to journalistic style, on  writing headlines and dealing with quoted material. For my money, those two are the least helpful pieces in the book. I don’t write headlines per se (I don’t count blog post titles as headlines, particularly), and I don’t use much directly or indirectly quoted material (as in, “Bill Walsh of the Washington Post admits that he’s never seen an entire episode of ‘Star Trek,’ but he still knows who Mr. Spock is”). YMMV, of course. (Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means. Get thee to the Urban Dictionary and look it up.)

All right. That’s what’s in the book. I would hope you can tell from my writing that Walsh is of the same mind as I on many things (especially that mind-of-a-13-year-old-boy concept), with the same “reverent irreverence” I tend toward. I had no idea of this before reading his book. It’s very heartening to me to find out I hold the same views as such a big fish as he. The need to think while using a stylebook is paramount to my work. To quote him: “A finely tuned ear is at least as important as formal grammar, and that’s not something you can acquire by memorizing a stylebook. But reading and thinking about a stylebook writer’s reasoning might help you develop that ear.”

I’m pretty sure my ear is under constant development, and I need to thank Bill Walsh for his contribution to that. To get your own copy, you can click the link below if you like.

Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh




A look at my bookshelf

Sometimes people ask me which books I use for my work. I figure everyone knows by now that I’m a Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition kinda gal when it comes to style, but what about other books?

I love my Encarta World English Dictionary, but honestly I don’t use it for my work. For that, I rely on the online Merriam-Webster entries. My reasoning is pretty simple. M-W is an established name in the reference world. Additionally, CMoS recommends M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary first, followed by Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Oxford University Press, and Random House. Encarta doesn’t have the same reputation (yet, anyway), despite it being the database used in MS Word. (Yep. When you click on the dictionary function within Word, you get Encarta entries.) For just browsing a hardcover dictionary, though, I adore my Encarta. (I do that. What? Why are you looking at me that way?)

I also have copies on my shelves of the New Oxford Style Manual (for UK usage), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, the Oxford Companion to the English Language, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. Oh, and I also have that 2012 edition of the AP style manual for the day job. My copy of the MLA style guide is one edition behind, and I’ve never had cause to use it, but I keep it around anyway. One never knows when one might need it. If I end up editing something that requires the current version, I can get help at the Purdue OWL site.

Here’s a photo for you to peruse at your leisure. I like having my reference books within arm’s reach; this sits on top of my desk, to my left. Usually there’s a cat blocking the bottom shelf.

All of this is within arm's reach, just to the left of my workspace.
All of this is within arm’s reach, just to the left of my workspace.

“Amongst” or “among?” Honestly — it doesn’t matter. But . . .

My colleague Deb Bancroft asked me about this one a month or so ago. I’ve debated writing this long enough. I’m among friends, right?

“Amongst” is the older form of the word. There’s no difference in meaning between the forms, none whatsoever. “Among” is the same thing as “amongst.” My personal preference is for “among,” and as I often say: “Unless I’m reading Austen, I don’t want to see amongst in a book.” And for the most part that’s true.

However, if you’re writing a period piece and the older form makes better stylistic sense, by all means use it. If you’re writing a fantasy piece and you’ve chosen to use more archaic or even obsolete language as flavor for your characters’ speech, by all means use it.

Just don’t use it in your term paper about mitochondrial DNA, okay? Cool.

If your character might use these, then you might want "amongst."
If your character might use these, then you might want “amongst.”

Subjected to your approval . . .

Before I get rolling here, I wish to thank Deborah Bancroft for suggesting this particular pair of problematic phrases. I welcome suggestions from you, readers, so please don’t hesitate to leave a note here via the Submissions form or to contact me by either Gmail or through my G+ profile. (I am also on the Book of Face, but am much less active there. It could be quite a while before I would find your message to me.)

Now. Where was I? Oh, yes. “Subjected to” and “subject to” are the subjects of this post. They do not necessarily mean the same thing. Except when they do. And yes, the one I used in the title is incorrect. Did you get that answer right? Did you know there was a quiz? There’s almost always a quiz . . .

The key here isn’t even the spelling. It’s the pronunciation. The meaning depends on the pronunciation of “subject” — subJECT means one thing, SUBject means another.

“Subject (sub – JECT) to” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to cause someone/something to experience something” (thank you to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms for that definition). This phrase may use “subject, subjected,” or “subjecting” and be correct. The accent is always on the second syllable for this particular meaning.

“As a teacher, I subjected my students to regular doses of Shakespearean language in everyday speech.”

“The auditor is subjecting all the ledgers to close scrutiny because of a discrepancy in the Entertainment entries for the month of May, 2011.”

“Be careful, or I’ll subject you to Coen Brothers movies for the rest of the weekend.” (For the record, I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan. Deal with it.)

“Subject (SUB-ject) to” indicates that one thing needs to happen before another will be allowed.

“Students’ attendance at the film night is subject to parental approval as indicated by returning a signed permission form.” [Unless the parental approval form is returned, the students cannot attend the movie.]

“The prisoner may be allowed more time in the yard. However, this is subject to her adherence to rules regarding conduct in the common areas within the block.” [If she doesn’t behave indoors, she won’t be allowed more time outside.]

“The vegan option for our feast menu is entirely subject to us being able to find the proper ingredients in time.” [If we can’t find the right kind of tempeh or TVP, all bets for a vegan dish are off.]

And this post’s title? Rightly it should be “Subject to your approval.” I’m not causing the post to experience anything. Rather, I am writing it and and hoping that you will approve. So, subject (SUB-ject) to your approval, I might find encouraging comments on this post in a day or so.

On the other hand, I could be subjected (sub-JECT-ed) to your disapproval, indicated either by utter silence or by nasty notes left under my door. Or here. Or at G+. I’ll be wary, in any case.

If Cambridge University Press ain’t safe, ain’t nobody safe.

I’ve talked about this before in other venues, but this time I’m including photographic proof.

When as prestigious a company as Cambridge University Press releases a book — and not just any book, but a dictionary with a study guide — with an egregious typographical error, we can be assured that no one is safe from the threat.

Perfection in a finished written work is a lofty goal, and one that is not always (perhaps never) attainable. Still, we should work toward it whether we’re Cambridge University or Joe Blow.

As seen in SFWA Bulletin #202

Here’s an article I wrote for my friend Jean Rabe, editor of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (or “the SFWA Bulletin” for short). Now that the print copy has shipped, I’m able to post my work here for everyone else to see. This is my last version of the original file, before it was sent to Jean. Nothing substantial was changed.

As usual, this is an opinion piece and should be taken as such. Hope you like it.


Say the Secret Word

Some words are better used than others.

Some should be used once in a book, others once in a series of books, and others perhaps once in a lifetime.

I leave it to you to decide for yourself which words fall into which categories for your own purposes. As for me, if I never see another “exit” it will be too soon.

It’s a pretty common word, after all, isn’t it? We see Exit all the time while traveling interstate highways. It glows red above doors in public places. Those usages I can encounter without twitching. However, in a novel I really don’t need to see the word used ever again.


You see, it’s been ruined for me now thanks to something I read not long ago where every time there was a door or a tunnel opening or a cave mouth . . . every time someone left a room or a hallway . . . it was an exit. It wasn’t a door, or a tunnel opening, or a cave mouth. It was an exit. People didn’t leave. They exited.

Is there a secret club somewhere for authors with an entrance requirement that reads “Use one word to the exclusion of any possible synonyms every time you need to convey X concept or thought or movement”?

Did I miss the memo that said “For the month of February, we’ll be using the word ‘exit’ instead of ‘door, tunnel opening, cave mouth, or leave”?

Someone else told me that she’d encountered “undulate” in nearly every book she’d read over the course of several months, regardless of genre. Herpetology and belly-dancing notwithstanding, undulation’s not all that common a term in everyday parlance. It strikes me as one of those once-a-book words (unless the book’s about snakes or belly-dancers). While it’s certainly evocative, if it were to appear in every chapter (again, unless the main character’s a snake or a belly-dancer) the reader could well have one of two reactions: becoming inured to it, or becoming annoyed by it. Neither one is terribly desirable in my book. (Not that I’m writing one, you know. It’s a figure of speech. No, really, it is. I’m not a writer. Move along, nothing to see here . . .)

What’s the term? Oh, yes. “Hackneyed.” No one enjoys reading hackneyed writing. And things that weren’t hackneyed before can become so with overuse, like the convention of “a single tear.” It was powerful when we saw that public service announcement decades ago with that lone drop of saltwater coursing down the cheek of Chief Iron Eyes Cody. It really was.

But think about this; if every time characters become emotional we see a single tear course down a cheek, why should we care? Do they have a blocked tear duct in that other eye, since only one tear’s getting loose? That’s a serious medical condition, y’know.

Consider the act of nodding. Are your characters bobbleheads?

Sure, people nod in assent, they nod off, they nod to a friend they pass on the street. But do they have to nod every time they say “yes?” EVERY TIME? Can’t we assume they do, without seeing the word? We’re intelligent folks, most of us. If the dialogue tells us someone says “yes,” we’ll probably visualize them nodding. Now, if for some reason they’re nodding vehemently, we probably need to be told. But just nodding? Naah. We can figure that one out on our own, thanks.

Heaving bosoms. Alabaster ones, even. We don’t need ’em. Bodice rippers don’t even need ’em. Words that I could stand to see more often, but still only once per book: Mellifluous. Exaltation. Luxuriant.

Words I don’t need to see for a while (aside from “exit”): Massive. Cavernous. Stealthy.

And while I’m on about words I don’t need to see, let me rant for a moment about words that don’t really mean what you think they mean (like “massive”).  “Massive” carries a sense of weight, of enormousness. Buildings, mountains, even people can be massive. Caverns can’t. There’s no weight to a cavern. It’s a hole. A really really BIG hole, but a hole nevertheless. Caverns are—wait for it—cavernous. They’re enormous. They’re immense, perhaps. But they’re not massive.

So they’re enormous. But they don’t have enormity. See, “enormity” refers to an occurrence or a state of being. The tragedy of 9-11 can be called an enormity in the sense of “atrocity.”  Someone who is staggeringly brilliant can be described with a phrase like “enormity of intellect.” But a cavern doesn’t have enormity. It doesn’t have massiveness (it’s a hole, remember?).

Let’s go back to those exits for a moment or five. When I read something like the project to which I referred earlier, and I’m seeing the same word over and over, I start making notes on the side (usually actual notes, with real dead-tree paper and ink or pencil). Sometimes those notes end up going to the author after I’ve inserted them into the file as comments; sometimes they’re just for me. In the case of the excessive exits, most of them were just for me. I’d mark the sentence and make a note for myself to come back later and try recasting it to eliminate the word, tightening the prose as I did so. (I tightened an awful lot of prose in this project. A few thousand words’ worth.) “He stood up from the chair and exited the room” might have become “He rose and stalked out.” (I’m not giving you the actual sentences and changes. I’m using very similar sentences, though. They’re pretty much burned into my brain. Someday they’ll fade . . . I hope.)

Then there are the words that just plain don’t belong. At all. If you’re using voice-recognition software, you need to be aware that what you say might not come out the same on the other end of the process. You can end up with things like this: “The fact that all of those attacks had the same purpose couldn’t have been quintessential.” What? “Quintessential?” I kid you not; I stared at that sentence for a long time before I finally read it aloud. Then and only then did I realize the word had to be “coincidental.” Perhaps it would have clicked sooner for some of you, and perhaps not. Some of you might still be staring at it a month later. (I hope not, but it could happen, I suppose.) The words don’t sound that much alike to me, but if someone had less-than-good diction I can understand how a piece of software might confuse the two. That one incident caused me to do another round, this time reading aloud (which I don’t usually do) just in case I’d missed something else. (I hadn’t.)

I suspect the same thing might have happened to cause the word “perimeter” to show up instead of “parameter.” Those two sound far more alike than “quintessential” and “coincidental,” so I was far less confused. I bring this up because I know quite a few writers are turning to voice recognition; they’re dictating their drafts instead of typing them, because it’s faster. Faster is good. Faster isn’t always better. If you’re doing this, I beg you on behalf of copyeditors everywhere: Read your work after it’s transcribed. Aloud. Don’t skim it. READ it. You’ll save time and money and effort if you catch these errors before we do. (You’ll also save yourself the ignominy of being written about in essays, albeit anonymously so.)

But I digress . . .

Back to that repetition issue. If you have an assassin who wears black from head to toe, think twice before referring to him as “the man in black” every time he appears. A less-friendly copyeditor than I might change all references to him to “the MIB.” (Or they might refer to him as Cash. Points for getting that reference. No cash, just points.) Ask yourself how else he might be called, what other terms or epithets you could use. If his identity’s a state secret and only a handful of people know his real name (or perhaps no one knows his real name, but a handful know his code name) you’ll have to be more creative than usual with this, but I have faith in you as a writer. Read every scene where this fellow appears, and see how often you’ve repeated the same phrase describing him. You may well end up rewriting entire paragraphs to avoid the repetition. So be it. Your readers (and your copyeditor before them) will be forever grateful.

A caveat, though. Avoid the temptation to reference a thesaurus every time you get stuck. Readers have great radar for the results of this action. While the occasional twenty-dollar word (like ignominy) can boost your writing, using a whole passel of them in one or two paragraphs will set off every thesaurus-alarm in the country. Contemplate your intended meaning and choose the best words to convey it. Those might well be simple everyday words, not the pricey ones your reader will have to look up. How they’re put together will make the difference.

Words are our friends. Let them do the talking, in all their variations, their shades of meaning. Don’t send your readers running for the exit (door, tunnel opening, cave mouth) before the story ends.

How do you plead?

More apropos: “How have you pled? Or pleaded? Which one is it, anyway?”

The answer is: Both. Yes. Either. Doesn’t really matter.

I told you you probably wouldn’t like the answer to that question in my last blog post. But did you read it? Did you listen? Do I sound like your mother?

This site provides an interesting perspective that, to me, cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s a legalese issue from my point of view. Think about it for a moment. What’s the real difference between “The mother pleaded for mercy on her child” and “The suspect pled not guilty”? The first one takes place outside the courtroom (one assumes, anyway), the second inside it. Dictionaries tell us that “pleaded” is the standard form, but we’re used to hearing “pled” because we’re addicted to courtroom dramas from “Perry Mason” to “Law & Order.”

Another site points out the poetic use of “pled” (citing Spenser, among others) over “pleaded,” and explains that while lawyers also tend to use “pled” over “pleaded,” they use “deeded” instead of the “unfortunate-sounding alternative” one would arrive at if following the same formula. (I’ll wait while you work that out.)

It would seem to me, based on these readings and several dictionaries, that “pleaded” is the standard form for the past tense of “plead.” It would also seem to me that if the writer prefers the sound of “pled” for some reason (be that poetic license or legalese), that is also acceptable in general. As always, check your preferred usage manual if you care about that sort of thing. (And you should care about it. If you don’t, why are you reading this blog in the first place?)