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.

Another wrongly ID’d run-on: main clause plus serial relative clauses

It all started with a tweet from a young editor (who gave me permission to use their tweet, but I’ve decided not to put their name out in public) who said “A developmental editor is not the same as a copy editor is not the same as a line editor is not the same as a proofreader is not the same as a beta reader.” Then, parenthetically, they said editors would be horrified by that run-on.

Except it’s not one. It’s a perfectly grammatical sentence.

I checked with Lisa McLendon (@MadamGrammar) to see if I was on the right track. I was, but my diagramming skills are a little rusty. I left out “the same as” for convenience; that doesn’t affect the grammaticality of the overall structure one whit.

Here’s the quick diagram she sent me:

norunonLisa

The fleshed-out version of the sentence in question goes like this: “Developmental editing is not the same as copy editing which is not the same as line editing which is not the same as …” I’m sure you get the idea. Should there be commas before every instance of which? That depends largely on the register (c’mon, you knew I’d go there) of the piece. For my blog here, and for a tweet, commas are largely unnecessary; it’s part of internet register, and it’s fitting for the “front-porch chat” feel I aim for here at my blog home. If we were to hear someone say that sentence, chances are probably 50/50 there’d be pauses. Me? I’d run it all right into one big thought. “This is not that is not that other thing is not that thing way over there.”

If that sentence was used in a text, say, for a 101 editing class, you bet I’d put commas where you’d expect to see them. “Developmental editing is not the same as copy editing, which is not the same as line editing, which is not the same …”

Register drives everything from word choice to style choice to mechanics. And, with or without those commas, this isn’t a run-on sentence.

That’s the heart of the matter, here.

Back to basics: forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s

For whatever reason, people seem to confuse (and maybe conflate) forming possessives of plurals with forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s. I’m hoping to untangle the concepts for them with these last two posts (today’s and the previous one).

First, what’s a proper noun? Well, the easiest example is your own name. Karen is a proper noun. Fred is a proper noun. Oktober is a proper noun. How do we make those into possessives?

Simple. Add an apostrophe and an S.

Karen’s

Fred’s

Oktober’s

You won’t find any contradictions in any style guide to that rule. It’s super simple.

It gets sticky, though, if the proper noun ends in an S.

Which is right: James’, or James’s?

Both. There’s not a damn thing wrong with either version. The Chicago Manual of Style has adopted what is to me a very logical guide: if you say it, write it. We say the last S in “James’s,” so that’s what CMoS calls for.

If the name ends in an -eez sound, you also use an apostrophe and an S. “Xerxes’s troops.”

If the name ends in a silent S, you still use the apostrophe and the S, because you’ll pronounce that final S. “Descartes’s hypothesis”

The former guideline about “historical names” is no longer included as of the 17th edition. (It might have gone away in the 16th, but I don’t have that handy.)

They do provide an alternative guideline, which omits the S from all names ending in an S. However, they also restate their guidance that if it’s pronounced, it should be written, and therefore this alternative is “therefore not recommended.”

Y’all should know by now that I’m a CMoS gal. Of course, if you’re being paid to use AP, or APA, or MLA, or what have you, that’s whose guidance you should be following on this matter. In any case, I strongly recommend ditching whatever you think you remember from your salad days (mine were mostly made with rancid Miracle Whip) and that English teacher who smelled either of Shalimar or English Leather (or, if you were really unlucky, Wind Song or Hai Karate), getting yourself an up-to-date style manual  or a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. (When you see it,l you’ll understand why I styled it that way and not the traditional all-italic way.)  In all honesty, I reference my copy of that more than I do CMoS because it’s much easier to find what I’m after. (The really esoteric stuff I still use CMoS for, but not the everyday stuff.)

I hope this has helped unmuddy the waters. By all means, if you have questions, leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. I do my best to answer in a timely manner.

Back to basics: forming plural possessives

Every time I think it’s useless to rehash basic GUMmy stuff, something happens to prove me wrong. This time it was seeing an incorrectly formed plural possessive of a proper noun in a published children’s book.

I saw red.

So, I’m writing what’s sure to become the first in an informal series on the basics. Welcome, and I hope you enjoy the ride.

First, let’s talk about plural formation. There are two basic types: regular and irregular. A regular plural simply adds -s or -es to the singular form, like this:

house/houses

car/cars

An irregular plural sometimes changes the form of the noun, like this:

goose/geese

mouse/mice

die/dice

But sometimes, it doesn’t change at all.

deer/deer

moose/moose

Now, what if we need to form a possessive of those plurals?

Well, for the regularly formed plurals, we only have to add an apostrophe. That’s how it’s done. Honest. Just an apostrophe.

houses’ (as in “All those houses’ exteriors will be repainted according to the HOA’s specifications”)

cars’ (as in “Their cars’ bumpers were torn off in the collision”)

But for the irregularly formed plurals, we need to add an apostrophe and an S.

geese’s (as in “The geese’s diet was organic”)

mice’s (as in “The mice’s blood was sampled every six hours”)

dice’s (as in “The dice’s results were suspect”)

deer’s (as in “The three deer’s hides were tanned behind the cabin”)

moose’s (as in “I heard those moose’s bellows from all the way down by the river”)

Now, what about a proper term, like Taino? That’s the name of the indigenous people Columbus met when he landed in 1492. In the free version of the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, it states that the plural is either “Taino” or “Tainos.” The first one’s irregular (the form doesn’t change at all), and the second is regular (just adding an S). Form the possessives according to the rules: Taino’s OR Tainos’. Context helps the reader know when “Taino’s” is plural. (And if it doesn’t, it should.)

Similarly, if your surname is Dickens, a number of you are the Dickenses. Together, all of you live in the Dickenses’ house. (Sure, you can say “there’s the Dickens house,” but the meaning’s not the same, and it totally misses the point of this post.) It’s a regular plural that adds -es to the singular form, so you use only an apostrophe to form the plural possessive. We’re the Conlins. Our house is the Conlins’ house. Regularly formed plural takes only an apostrophe.

There are no stylistic variations for forming plural possessives. This isn’t a guideline; it’s a rule.

There you have the basics. Remember, this is only for plural possessives. If we need a refresher on forming possessives of proper names like “James,” I’ll cover that in a separate post. (Hint: there are stylistic variations for forming proper singular possessives.)