Dreyer’s English: thoughts

I first encountered Benjamin on Twitter, not long after I joined the site. I don’t remember how it happened. However, I have seldom been so lucky to have made someone’s acquaintance in any kind of reality.

We’re of an age, he and I, and we both love words and language. When I found out his job title, I was floored. Someone with THAT kind of status in publishing would take time to chat with me? I’m a nobody from a blink-and-you-miss-it-but-we-do-have-one-flashing-red-light-at-the-main-intersection village, and he’s from NYC. (Via Long Island, where my dad’s younger brother used to live and work. So there’s that connection.)

However, Twitter is something of a leveling field. Like tends to find like, if like works at it hard enough, and soon I’d stumbled into Editing Twitter.

And of course, in Editing Twitter we love to talk about usage manuals and style guides and who still thinks Strunk & White is useful.

And of course, when word got out that Benjamin (I cannot bring myself to call him “Ben,” nor will I ever, I suspect) was writing a book about English, the denizens lost their collective mind. Genteelly, to be sure.

And so (yes, three paragraphs beginning with “and”—do I look like I care?), when the reviews started coming in, we read them with as much relish as we had the book. Or at least that’s how it began. The relish was a bit off after the first few. Some of the reviewers seem not to have read the book at all; others are of the peeververein variety, looking for anything to skewer as an error. It’s silly, and it does the book (and its intended readers, that “self-selecting” group—as if that’s a bad thing) a disservice.

As I tweeted last night, if you didn’t catch the playfulness in the typography on the dust jacket, you’re unlikely to catch a lot of other things, too. The nose-in-the-air tone of the subtitle, “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” is another clue to the tone of the contents, when taken together with that playful typography. Naturally, Benjamin is confident in his stylistic stance. He’s spent decades steering Random House’s editorial staff, overseeing thousands of books. He also knows that there is room in style for variation. And on top of that, he has a delightful wit that sparkles on the page. He isn’t afraid to lay out his preferences, copiously annotated with footnotes that are worth the price of admission. (Someone else found another point worth that price. Wonderful! There’s a lot to be happy about in this book.)

If you’re expecting dryness such as what’s found in your grandma’s style guides, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting that you’ll agree with everything between the book’s covers, again, you’ll be disappointed. (I already knew that we disagree about exclamation points. I bought the book anyway.)

Should you read reviews? Sure. Should you pay attention to them? Maybe. Should you read between the lines in an attempt to figure out what axe is being ground? Probably.

Should you get this book?

Absolutely. Even if you love your Strunk & White. (Perhaps even because you do.)

Settle down. Time for phrasal verbs

In my circles of friends and acquaintances, I have yet to meet anyone who learned about phrasal verbs before they got into college—and sometimes not even then, because they didn’t take the right courses.

“Settle down” is one such verb. “Down” is an adverb. We know that. But is it really working like an adverb when it’s connected in this way to “settle?” That’s the kind of question that (in my day, anyway) made the English teacher’s head explode and resulted in nothing approaching an answer. Continue reading “Settle down. Time for phrasal verbs”

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”).

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.

When I say “complex,” I mean …

This will be short, I hope. I think it’s time to define for my fine readers what “complex” means, grammatically speaking.

A complex sentence contains at least one subordinate clause.

Your eyes glazed over. I saw it. So here it is in plain language, following an example.

My brother, who was the valedictorian of his class, just lost his job.

That clause in italics is subordinate, meaning it can’t stand alone as is as a complete sentence because it’s directly related to another word, in this case a noun, in the sentence. It’s also called a dependent clause because it depends on the rest of the complete sentence to make sense.

When grammarians, some of whom are editors, talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about. There’s another dependent (subordinate) clause. “Some of whom are editors.” There’s a subject, “some,” and a verb, “are.” You can’t just say “Some of whom are editors” and have a complete sentence, though. What does “some” relate to? “Grammarians.” Pull out that dependent clause, and you still have a complete sentence: When grammarians talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about.

In fact, that sentence begins with a subordinate (dependent) clause: “When grammarians talk about complex sentences” can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence. Even taking out the subordinate clause beginning with “some” leaves us with a complex sentence. “This is what they’re talking about” is the independent clause, the complete sentence, the base on which the rest is built.

Sure, we speak in dependent clauses when we’re being informal, especially if we’re adding information to what someone’s saying. But grammatically? They’re not sentences, and they can’t stand alone.

Just because a sentence contains a lot of words doesn’t mean it’s grammatically complex. It may just have a lot of words.