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?

 

 

A GUMmy thing which might interest you

If you read that and you’re shouting “THAT!” at the screen (or your phone, or your tablet, or whatever device you might be reading this on), this is probably for you.

If you read that and you have no reaction whatsoever, you might not care. Read if you want. I won’t know if you go no farther (further?) than this.

So. The “which/that” issue is one that (or which) editors struggle with (or not, depending on their background), but that other folks don’t think much about. Brits, for example. They don’t differentiate, as a rule, and use the two words interchangeably.

However, some of us (::raises her hand high::) had it drilled into us that “which” is “nonrestrictive” and “that” is “restrictive” and we have, for decades, some of us, dutifully gone on “which hunts” every time we start a new project, ensuring that all usages adhere to the tradition we learned in high school.

The higher the register of the work, the more likely it will be expected to adhere to the differentiation. Generally speaking, of course.

Here’s how it works.

Bring me the red cloak that is behind the door.

Presumably, there are other red cloaks elsewhere. I want the one that’s behind the door. I’m restricting the options. “Behind the door” is important, because it’s telling you which (HAHAHAHA SEE WHAT HAPPENED THERE) red cloak I want. Not the one on the hook. Not the one on the bed. I want the one that is behind the door.

Bring me the red cloak, which is behind the door.

Two things are at work here. First, there’s that comma after “cloak.” Second, there’s “which” instead of “that.” There’s only one cloak, we can assume, in this scenario. It happens to be behind the door. I’m telling you that as an extra bit of information; it is not restricting you to only one cloak, because, well, there IS only one cloak, and it happens to be behind the door. The comma is a clue that we’re about to get more information that’s additional, not required. “Which” is the word of choice in this situation.

The thing is—and I’m looking over my shoulder for the Ghost of Mrs. Capps (because if anyone would haunt me over this, it’d be her)—that distinction is often overlooked, especially once you get away from the formal register. I’ve gotten to the point where I make my editorial decision based on readability. If I have to reread the sentence because the guideline wasn’t followed, I change it and I comment to the client, explaining why I did. Or, I’ll query without changing.

Bring me the red cloak which is behind the door. [Do you mean there is only one, and it’s behind the door? Or are there more, and you want that specific one? If you mean the first, we need a comma after “cloak.” If you mean the second, I suggest changing “which” to “that” here.]

Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist on Twitter) wrote a highly informative post about this at her blog, “Separated by a Common Language.” Check it out if you’re so inclined.

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.)

When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else

(And a digression at the end)

I’ve been involved in several discussions over the years about this particular issue, and I remain unmoved. I hold to the belief that it does no one any good to continue to conflate “grammar,” “usage,” “mechanics,” “syntax,” and “style” into one big blob called “grammar.”

Because it’s not true, it’s not accurate, and it’s not helpful in the long run—to anyone who wants to truly understand their language. (I won’t say “English,” only because how rude is that? EVERY language has grammar and syntax.) Continue reading “When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else”

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.)