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.

Thought for the day, June 27, 2018

“You will often be judged, fairly or unfairly, on your use of language, both written and spoken, so it makes sense to learn the standards that teachers, editors, and potential employers are inclined to respect. Grammar may be magical, but remember this: a magician is an illusionist, someone who learns the strategic uses of physics and engineering.”  (Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar)

No one says “full point.” Full stop.

First, let’s go back to 2014 or thereabouts, when I first bought my copy of the New Oxford Style Manual. I’d taken on a couple of English clients, and I wanted to be sure I didn’t make any stupid mistakes in “correcting” their writing. I knew about the tendency to use single quotation marks (which they call “inverted commas,” for both single and double marks) where we use double and vice versa, but what didn’t I know?

As I skimmed the section on punctuation, I realized that almost everything was either the same as it was for American English, or I already knew about the difference. And then it happened.

Chapter 4, section 6: “Full point.”

What’s that? I’ve never heard of that. Oh, I see: “also called full stop, or in American English, period.” (emphasis theirs)

Now, I’d heard of a full stop. However, this is the English publishers’ equivalent to the Chicago Manual of Style, so I figured it must be correct. Right? Surely I was a woefully misinformed Yank. So, I set out to ask my English clients about this term.

They’d never heard of it.

Neither had their children. Not one teacher called it a “full point.” Full stop.

I set my concerns aside, and decided to call it what everyone calls it.

Now, let’s move forward in time to last week. I was reading Lynne Murphy’s delightful book on British and American English, The Prodigal Tongue, when I happened upon this bit: “By the 20th century, Americans generally used period and didn’t bother much with full stop, while Britons retained full stop and eventually lost period. (Full point is still occasionally found in printers’ jargon.)”

And then, I took my purple gel pen in hand and annotated the margin: “And the New Oxford Style Manual!” (Of course, I underlined the title as I was taught in grade school.)

[For those who are wondering, that text combines New Hart’s Rules with the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors in one volume.]

Just today, I tweeted that I was going to write a blog post about “this full point silliness” and I tagged Lynne, because it seemed the proper thing to do. After all, if not for her book, my memory wouldn’t have been jogged. She replied, asking “Who’s silly about full point?” So I told her.

I got a like. I’ll take it!

Full stop.

A linguistics book for the rest of us

For several years now I’ve been looking for a book about linguistics that doesn’t assume I know diddly squat about the subject. I tried Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.
I tried Pinker’s The Language Instinct. In desperation I got a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Not one of them was what I wanted or needed.

I ordered a copy of Steve Kleinedler’s Is English Changing? because I follow Steve on Twitter and I enjoy his tweets. (I’ve found that following lexicographers is one of the smartest moves a editor can make.)  When it came today, I opened it and started reading. At the beginning, as one should.

And I shouted for joy.

THIS IS THE BOOK I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR.

It’s part of the Routledge Guides to Linguistics, which means it’s on the pricey side for its size (172 pages of actual text, plus front and back matter), but already I can tell you that if, like me, you want a totally accessible text about what linguistics is and how it affects YOU, it’s worth the US$30 and change. This snippet is what made me shout HOORAY:

“You will be asked to observe how you use language. These observations will help guide your understanding of basic linguistic concepts.”

FINALLY! A simple book, in plain language, for me and folks like me who are interested in the topic but are put off by academic texts and theoretical presentation. I want hands-on exercises that don’t use highfalutin terminology. I want explanations that don’t rely on lingo. (Linguistics. Lingo. Ha.)

“The language you speak is different than that of your parents, and of their parents, and so on, running backward through a multitude of generations. Indeed, the language you yourself speak is different from what you spoke last year, or 10 years ago.”

[insert GIF of owl’s head turning to face the viewer with the text O RLY? below it]

Sprinkled liberally throughout every chapter are boxes labeled “Something you can do!” I cheer every time I see one, because I CAN DO A THING AND THAT THING WILL HELP ME LEARN!

I haven’t gotten past the first chapter, because I’m squeeing and nodding and rereading and THIS IS THE BOOK! THIS ONE!

Thank you, Steve, for finally writing the book I’ve wanted for years.

Listen to the words

I’ve blogged before about when to use “a” and “an” with initialisms. Here’s a real-world example, taken from Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:

It is typical for the subject of a clause to be an NP.

“But Karen, ‘n’ would take ‘a’ because it’s a consonant!”

Nope. “N” takes “an” when it’s pronounced as itself, the letter “en.” It begins with a vowel sound, which takes “an.”

Clearly, the authors intend for us to say “en pee” rather than “noun phrase.” The indefinite article “an” is the cue.

Intimate Register in the Real World

In my ongoing efforts to bring the various registers of English to light, so that writers, editors, and readers may make use of the knowledge and understanding, I’m linking to a thread from Iva Cheung that quite literally exploded on Twitter over the last couple of days, including being picked up by Buzzfeed. (How exploded did it get? She hit her tweet limit. There is one.)

Here are dozens upon dozens of terms from people’s familiolects (words they use only with their family members, or “intimate register”) for people, places, things, actions … all kinds of words for all kinds of situations.

I love that so many of them come from toddlers’ mispronunciations.

On peeververein and the burnishing of credentials

This post has been banging around in my head for a few days. I’m going to try again to get it out of my gray matter and into pixel form so I can stop thinking about it.

Perhaps I’m a bad editor, but I refuse to read the local papers’ columns by “grammar experts.” (When I say “local,” I mean local to anywhere; the tiny burg I live in has little more than a broadsheet filled with want ads, for-sale/giveaway ads, and minutes of the local school board and PTO meetings. However, the power of the internet lets me access papers from all around the country. But I digress.) Why don’t I read them? Continue reading “On peeververein and the burnishing of credentials”