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.

Thought for the day, July 25, 2018

“A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them–a fact some people fail to understand.”

June Casagrande, The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know

(I will add that I don’t call the contents of style guides “rules.” I call them “guidelines.” Furthermore, I usually say that unless one is paid to follow a particular set, one need not follow any at all–unless one wants to make an editor very happy. Run wild, run free!)

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.