There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

National Grammar Day 2020

Before the day slipped away entirely, I wanted to publish a short post.

Earlier, I tweeted my single bit of advice for new editors and writers, which is to never trust your spellchecker. Use it, yes. It’s a safety net, in the same way that high-wire acts use a safety net. But, unlike the net that will prevent them from splattering on the ground, this one cannot save you from every error. Verify every result it gives you. Some will be incorrect. Dare I say, wrong. (And some will be wrong in uproariously funny ways. Take the laughs where you can get them, I say.)

I also suggested befriending a linguist or ten. You’ll learn things you never dreamed of about English. My colleague Sarah Grey added lexicographers; there is a lot of crossover between the groups. And both groups will teach you things that will leave you wondering why you ever thought you knew anything. In the best way, I might add.

My third issue on this Grammar Day is one I return to every few months. Grammar is not usage is not mechanics is not syntax is not semantics. Don’t come at me with a so-called “grammar quiz” that’s nothing but spelling and mechanics issues. (I won’t say errors, because a good portion of the time the “errors” are nothing more than style issues, and that’s another sore point of mine.) I write and tweet and talk about all of those things, which I call “GUMmy Stuff” (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics, and I make the S work double for Syntax and Semantics because I’m mean. Be glad I don’t make it work treble by adding Style to the set).

And that, my friends, is that, for this year. It’s late, I have a sleeping granddaughter on the couch beside me, and the old cat man wants me to follow him. Happy Grammar Day.

A wall or the wall? Does it matter?

Does it matter whether you use an indefinite article or a definite article when specifying a thing in your writing?

It does.

The reasons are less easy to explain, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Keep in mind, I’m talking about writing, here. Not speech. Writing.

“The” indicates something (could be a person or an item) that’s already understood or has already been discussed or mentioned.

“A” and “an” indicate something that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. Something that we cannot readily understand or define, something that hasn’t been discussed previously. (Like “a person” and “an item” in the previous paragraph.)

Let’s say we’re walking through a house we’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re thinking of buying it. Before I go further, look at that first sentence. “Through a house we’ve never seen before.” Not “the house.” “A house.” We don’t know this house yet. However, it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying” (for the sake of argument); we’re only looking at one, and this is it, so it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying.” If we were looking at more than one, this would be “a house we’re thinking of buying.” (Or perhaps “one of the houses,” if  there’s a specific set of houses we’re visiting with an eye toward purchasing.)

We enter through the front door. There’s only the one, and we can see it and understand its purpose from experiences with doors, so “the front door.” Inside, we see a hallway leading to the back of the house, and another hallway crossing it in the middle. (Work with me here. I’m not an interior designer, and these constructions are purely to illustrate a point—not the layout.) Because we can’t say any more about these hallways yet—we don’t know where they lead, for example, other than the one going “to the back”—there’s a hallway and another hallway. Once we know more about them, perhaps one will become “the main hallway” and the other “the bedroom hallway” (if, let’s say, it leads to bedrooms on either side of the house).

In the big room at the front (there’s only one big room, from what we can see, so “the big room”) there’s a large window facing the street, a smaller window on the side wall facing the yard (if we said “a side wall,” folks will wonder how many other side walls there are here), and a doorway leading to what looks like a kitchen. We can’t know it’s “the” kitchen yet. And while we can see the windows, we haven’t seen them previously so we use “a” to indicate the unknown quality of them. Now that we’ve seen them, though, we can say “Jane walked over to the small window on the side wall.” If she did that immediately on entering the room, before any description has been given, we’d say “Jane walked to a small window on the side wall.” We didn’t know about that window before. Walls are more easily assumed.

“Hey, there’s a little door in the wall out here next to this cabinet.” (Hey, that room was a kitchen! Now it’s “the kitchen.” But it’s odd, seeing a little door in that position.)

“Aha! That’s for a dumbwaiter, I’ll bet.” (Whoever said this has an idea what that little door probably is, but can’t be sure until they investigate.)

If the person responding were the realtor showing the house, the answer would probably be “Yes, that’s for the dumbwaiter.” They know what it is, so they can use “the” to indicate it.

A couch sits in the middle of the big room. It’s covered in leather. The leather couch is black, but the layer of dust covering it makes it look gray. (It’s “a couch” when we first see it. Once it’s been mentioned, it becomes “the couch.” Someone probably dragged a finger over the surface and came away with dust, so “the layer of dust.”)

I could write more on this, but I suspect there’s enough here already to illustrate the point. Indefinite articles are for undefined, unknown, uncertain items/people (also for abstract nouns, like “an uncertainty” if it’s a vague feeling). The definite article is for defined (funny how that works), certain items/people (and also for specific abstract nouns, like “the uncertainty that comes with unemployment”).

Ask questions in the comments, if you like. This is a tricky subject, and if you need clarification, I’ll do my best to provide it. (“The comments,” because they’re a known item; blogs have comment sections. You may have “a comment,” so called because no one but you knows what it is until you write it.)

The “new” singular they

You’ve seen the posts and tweets and articles, I know you have. Jane Austen. William Shakespeare. Literary greats for centuries (literally) have used the singular they.

So why are folks so bent out of shape about it? Why now?

Because this is a new singular they. It’s not the one Jane and Will used, referring to an unknown person. It’s used with a new purpose. It’s nongendered and refers to a known individual. Nonbinary individuals may choose it as their pronoun rather than the gendered “he” or “she” or the many options that have never really caught on (like “zie”).

It’s the difference between “Every student needs their own pencil” and “Robin needs their own pencil.” (I tweeted this exact example a couple of days ago.)

And along with this new singular they comes the matching reflexive pronoun: themself. Used for one person who is referred to as “they.” Think about it. “Themselves” makes no sense whatsoever in a singular context. “Themself” is sensible.

It hasn’t yet made it into the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, but here’s the page at American Heritage Dictionary’s site. Take note that the second entry is labeled “nonstandard” and that it uses this word to refer to more than one individual. The main entry is not labeled.

We’re getting there. Happy Pride Month 2019, folks.

“Stay on target … stay on target …”

Get a drink and maybe a snack and settle in. Today I’m talking about keeping yourself focused and targeted when writing complex sentences (both those defined that way grammatically and the ones that are just long).

I see the same thing happening time and again. A writer creates a sentence, probably a grammatically complex one with at least one dependent clause along with the independent clause, and somewhere, somehow, the focus of the sentence gets lost. By the time we’re at the terminal punctuation, the thrust has shifted from the grammatical subject to something else that’s related to it, grammatically speaking. Continue reading ““Stay on target … stay on target …””

A sentence must have at least two words.

(And other things English teachers get wrong)

I’m hoping the pitchforks haven’t come out already, just because of that title (or perhaps that subtitle). I’m also hoping that most of you know why that statement is incorrect.

It’s true that a sentence needs a subject and a verb, BUT what most teachers forget (or never knew in the first place) is that the subject might not be overt. It could be understood, as with “HALT!” The implication is that you or someone else is to halt.

That doesn’t make “HALT!” any less of a sentence than “HALT, YOU!” or “HALT, THIEF!” Those last two are just inverted syntax, with the subject of the verb coming after it instead of up front.

Utterances like “Ugh!” and “Oh my God!” aren’t sentences, grammatically speaking; they’re, well, utterances. They’re spoken. They have meaning, but it’s based on context, on the words and circumstances surrounding them.

So once more, with feeling: Every sentence needs a subject and a verb. (Not necessarily “two words.”)

 

Lost in the words: a tale of two commas

Earlier this morning I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I came across a retweet concerning crop-circle art of Beto O’Rourke. About halfway through the text, I’d lost sight of the sentence structure. Why?

Here’s the tweet.

And here’s the text, copied exactly (links removed):

“Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures”

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but by the time I got to “Austin Texas” I was asking myself what the crop circle did. I had yet to come to the relevant verb.

Grammar will help sort this out. The sentence subject isn’t present; it’s “I,” which is understood. “I’m dying to know.” That’s the basic sentence, here. However, that’s not the really important bit.

What is the writer dying to know? “How this crop circle” did something, presumably. You’ll notice I’m leaving out the modifiers. They’re not germane to the basic sentence. They add information, sure, but they’re not vital to a subject/verb structure.

A quick and dirty fix is to insert commas after “circle” and “president.” Then we have this:

Dying to know how this 2-acre “Beto 2020” crop circle, made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president, shows up in @FEC campaign finance  disclosures

There’s no period because Twitter. That’s also why the subject, I, is understood and absent; it saves characters. Sure, we have 280 to play with now, but people are still stingy with them. This version uses 272.

Those commas I added indicate to the reader that what’s set off by them can be ignored safely to get to the meat of the sentence, which is this: Dying to know how this crop circle shows up in FEC campaign finance disclosures. (I’ve left out other modifiers, too, for clarity in making the point.) I’d prefer to see more commas, but as I said, this is quick and dirty. (Twitter register is oh, so forgiving.)

However, we could help readers more by making bigger changes. Those two commas are the minimum work. What if we rearrange the phrases and clauses a little?

Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures. Just over a mile north of an Austin, TX, airport, appearing less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president. Made of sand, mulch, rocks, clay & pecan shells.

Two hundred seventy-eight characters. The gist of the tweet, which is the crop circle showing up in FEC documents, is together now rather than separated by a string of modifiers (“made of this and such,” “just over a mile north of an airport,” “less than a week after (he) announced his run for president”).  I also used “TX” instead of “Texas,” with commas where style required them. The least important information, what the circle is made of, comes at the end. We don’t have to use full sentences, again because Twitter.

Do we take time to edit like this before hitting “TWEET”? Of course not. We’re working at speed, on the fly. Some folks are better than others at composing succinct yet descriptive tweets.

This is the kind of work I once did for a national chain’s social media. I edited tweets and social media posts, which were scheduled to go up at specific times. When I see one that’s difficult to parse, my editor brain jumps in to see what can be done: what’s the least amount of editing necessary to help the reader? What more could be done if there’s time?