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.

Style Guides: A primer

I dare say everyone who writes at all regularly, even for casual purposes, knows that it’s vital to have access to a dictionary. And with so many of them now online for free, there’s really not much of an excuse not to use one.

But what about a style guide? Do you need to use one? And by “use,” I mean “have access to and perhaps own.” Isn’t that like a usage guide? No. A style guide is not a usage guide. Most of them contain some usage guidance, but that’s not the point of a style guide.

Continue reading “Style Guides: A primer”

PerfectIt 4: YES, you want it!

I’ve been going on and on about PerfectIt since I bought the previous version. It’s NOT a spelling or grammar checker. It’s a proofreading tool. You’re worried about inconsistency in hyphenation? PerfectIt has your back. Concerned about capitalization? No worries. What about acronyms being used without being defined? They’re covered.

(Full disclosure: I’m being compensated for this review. And no, it had nothing to do with that whisky bar in Providence. The agreement was made before that.)

(And another thing: This review is for the Windows version. If you’re on a Mac, you might like to know that this is catching us up with things you’ve already had!)

I’m not a power user. I wasn’t one before, either. My work is very simple compared to that of many of my colleagues. I don’t work with tables and figures. I don’t have to deal with footnotes or endnotes. No indexing. No tables of contents. No styles. (Sounds like I’m quite the slacker, doesn’t it.) However, I can still speak to how PerfectIt 4 helps with my work.

The most recent project, the one on which I was able to take this baby out for a test drive, had around 50,000 words. I opened the file, clicked “PerfectIt 4,” and unchecked the boxes of the tests I didn’t require (figures, tables, and so on). Then I clicked on “Launch.” (This is no different from the previous version. But …)

Within seconds (seconds! not minutes!), the program was ready for me to proceed. And this time, instead of my having to look at every instance of a change by clicking into the file location to see context, the context was right there in the box! That was magical for me. Instead of having to bounce back and forth to check each instance of “it’s,” for example, I could just click the radio button next to each one I wanted the program to fix.

One. Click. WOW.

The same was true of hyphenated compounds. I follow the guidance of “hyphenate before a noun, style open elsewhere” so again, it was a time-saver not to have to keep bouncing back and forth. One click per change I wanted to make. Boom. Done.

Sure, that doesn’t sound like much. Seconds? What’s the big deal? Multiply those seconds across all the projects you do in a year. It’s a cliché, sure, but: They add up. They save you time. (And annoyance, if you’re working in a 100,000-word file.)

I was using the beta version, because along with agreeing to provide a review I was asked to help beta test. (COOL!) Now, I’m married to a QA guru. But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing when it comes to testing. I wasn’t being asked to sit there and try to break the program (which is a good thing, because that scares the hell out of me).

So, I wasn’t entirely surprised when at one point during the run, an error message popped up. But it wasn’t just “oops, something went wrong.” Oh, no. It was a BIG box that included a bunch of code, and the message (which I’ll paraphrase) “Please copy this and paste it into an email to address@restofaddress.”

Of course, I complied. I had no clue what the code meant or what hadn’t worked, but I did my part. And eventually, the devs and QA folks there figured out what had happened, fixed it, and thanked me (and the other five or six people to whom the same thing had happened). I’m reminded of that ad for Seven Seas salad dressing: “And I helped!”

And yes, there’s still that wonderful “final actions” list where you can choose, as I always do, “change multiple spaces to one.” (It used to say “two.” Now those weird places where there are perhaps three spaces will be magically closed up. No more having to do that one twice!)

If you used PerfectIt3, making the jump to this one is an utter no-brainer.

If you’ve been waffling, now’s the time. (Less time than it took before!)

“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 …””

What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view

I’m not a lexicographer, but I know several from Twitter. That’s my disclaimer. What I’m writing here is taken from English-language dictionaries themselves (did you know the print versions usually include a “how to use this book” section?), personal experience, and Twitter discussions.

Dictionaries do not dictate how you are allowed to use a word. They do, however, tell you how words are used. Do you see the difference? They’re showing you a snapshot, in essence, of the English language at a moment in time. The definitions change with the language, but not as quickly as language changes. For a word to enter a dictionary, or for its definition to change, that word must appear in print in places where the lexicographers can cite it. That can be news media, fiction, nonfiction, periodicals, personal correspondence made public, transcripts of speech, websites, and so on. Continue reading “What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view”

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?

 

 

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”

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.