Something Is Breathing in My Ear

I’m lying in bed, and cars are passing outside as if everything is normal, but there’s hot breath against my skin. I live alone.

What is it about first-person present that people find hard to connect with?

I’ve seen it said by some that they can’t read stories written in that tense because it’s unbelievable. “Someone wrote the story, right? So it’s already happened, it can’t be happening as I read it.”

Seems to me that those folks are missing the point entirely. This is about immersion. It’s about being in the story, not outside it. Whether it’s first person or third (or the even rarer second), this tense is all about presence. Experiencing along with the character, not after everything is done and the character is telling you over a shot and a beer. (Or a hot cup of tea, or a mug of coffee, or whatever.) To my mind, the people who claim that “someone wrote it already, so it can’t be happening” are making an excuse. Do they also avoid watching any visual entertainment that isn’t live? When we watch a movie or a tv show, we’re experiencing it in the moment. Yes, it’s been recorded in some manner, but we’re seeing it in our real time. The dialogue is, for the most part, in present tense. What’s happening to the characters is happening in their present time. Does that make it somehow lesser? Is its worth less because it’s not live? Because we’re not physically there? Perhaps this is reductive, but so be it. I think the point remains valid.

It’s the same, to me, with first-person present narratives. Obviously someone has written it because I’m reading it. But beyond that fact, there’s the art of pulling the reader in so thoroughly they forget about it having been written, and allow themself to experience the story alongside the characters.

Here’s a short article from Mignon Fogarty (the Grammar Girl) with her take on the topic.

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/present-tense-books

We don’t agree, and that’s okay. The point isn’t to find someone who agrees; it’s to think about the experience and form an opinion. Is first-person present just “edgy,” or is it skillful? Is it annoying, or is it engrossing? This isn’t a new undertaking. Updike’s Rabbit, Run is two years younger than me. Damon Runyon (whose short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” became the musical “Guys and Dolls”) predates Updike’s novel by nearly thirty years. If you tried a first-person book before and didn’t like it, perhaps it’s time to try again. If you’ve never tried reading one, I suggest you take a chance. And if you (still) don’t like it? That’s all right.

I’m just an editor, standing in front of readers, asking them to try a present-tense narrative.

GRAMMARGEDDON LLC

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen my big news already. I have finally incorporated as a sole proprietorship/LLC, under the name GRAMMARGEDDON.

It seemed obvious to use that for the business name, since I’m already associated with the word to the point where I am literally called “Grammargeddon Karen.” The name also encapsulates my feelings about grammar and editing: while the work can certainly be chaotic and frightening, it’s not the end of the world.

I wouldn’t be here without the support of my husband, Shawn Conlin. Thanks to him I’ve been able to do what I love. The magnitude of that is not lost on me.

Thanks also go to Ray Vallese, my partner here when we began the blog. We brainstormed the name, so I owe him for that.

Thank you also to all my clients over the years. Some of you are repeat offenders, some are one-offs. Which category you’re in makes no difference. Without you, there’d be no business to name.

I would be remiss not to thank my colleagues in ACES, for their unending cheerleading and commiserating. You’re the best.

Here’s to another nine years, at least.

“Underlay” is the underlying issue

I won’t rehash the lay/lie issue, except to remind you that “to lay” is transitive (taking an object) and “to lie” is intransitive (not taking an object). The problem here today is that “underlay” and “underlie” are both transitive verbs, so knowing how lay/lie work will do you no good whatsoever except to help you know how to spell the tenses.

(Full disclosure: I got myself so confused during a recent project that just today I emailed the client and told them to ignore the changes I’d made to “underlain,” because it turned out I was wrong. I own my mistakes.)

So. We have “to underlay,” meaning “to put something under another thing” or “to provide a base or a support for a thing.” And we have “underlie,” meaning “to be under or below something” or “to be the basis of or support for a thing.”

Underlay, underlaid, underlaid, underlaying (cf. “lay”)

Underlie, underlay, underlain, underlaying (cf. “lie”)

Let’s give this a shot, shall we? Say we have a construction crew, and they’re working on the flooring in a given room. They underlay the carpet padding on top of the plywood subfloor, before putting down the carpeting.

This leads us to saying “Carpet padding underlies the carpeting proper.”

Let’s take it another step, into the simple past tense. Yesterday the crew underlaid the padding for the carpeting. The padding underlay the carpeting.

One more step, into past perfect/pluperfect tense. The crew had underlaid the padding last month but didn’t get to the carpeting until today. Years from now, a CSI specialist will note that the padding had underlain the carpeting. (That’s a crap sentence, but at least the tense is right. Making up exemplars is a pain in the arse.)

Now, to the thing that tripped me up so badly: what do we use when we want to say something formed the basis of something else, as in provided support? As in: “The scent was [underlaid/underlain] by a sour note.” Well, that sour note wasn’t put there as a support; it forms the basis for that scent. We want underlain here. Turn the sentence inside out by making it active: “A sour note underlies the scent.” It provides the basis for it by virtue of its existence.

If someone or something physically places a thing to provide support for another thing, they underlay it. If a thing provides support by its existence, it underlies the thing it supports. Both verbs are transitive. Figuring out the tenses isn’t so difficult, once you have that difference in your head.

Obligatory Year-End Post

And Some Ruminations

First off, I’m sorry for having gone silent for months over here. It’s been . . . well, hell. You’re in 2020 just like I am, so you know what it’s been. But additionally, I was quite ill in September and October, and spent a good part of November just existing, so. Kidney stone first found in January led to infection by September (even with a couple of rounds of antibiotics in the months between), which led to renal failure with sepsis and a stent mid-month, and then to a lithotripsy (breaking up the stone by ultrasound) in October. And meanwhile, my husband had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery the week before my lithotripsy, so that was fun.

Then there was finalizing things with the family home, which came to me when Dad died in 2019. It took until this late summer/early fall for me to get with the attorney to update the deed, file papers with the county, get ready for the sale/attend the sale/clean up after the sale, and so on. Doesn’t sound like much, but honestly? It was tiring. Even the paperwork was tiring.

Work got pretty spare this year compared to previous ones, but I managed to keep busy most of the time even if I wasn’t writing here. My regular clients keep writing books, and they keep asking me to edit them, and so we muddle along, pandemic or no. I don’t even care that it had been two years (TWO YEARS!) between projects for one client. The point was, they finished another book, and they brought it to me. That’s what matters, not how long it took.

Meanwhile, I yammer about things on Twitter, things like grammar and usage and mechanics and the shameful state of US politics and more grammar, and life goes on. I can tweet even when almost deathly ill, I found out back in September. Working and blogging, not so much.

My latest Tweet thread was about the difference between rules and conventions (guidelines are conventions) as they relate to grammar, usage, and mechanics. Syntax is in there too, with grammar, because you quite simply can’t have one without the other. Grammar and syntax are where the rules live. Everything else is convention, guidelines on which we have agreed over time and that can shift over time as well. The fact that singular they, which has been around literally for centuries, became An Issue didn’t change the fact that “they” remains a pronoun. That is a rule: “they” is a pronoun. The usage of it to denote one person who chooses it specifically as the one they use, as opposed to a random person whose gender is unknown and irrelevant—which is the usage that’s been around for centuries—is what changed. The convention shifted.

Here’s a link to the thread I’m talking about, in case you’d like to read it. I turned it into a blog post over at TotallyNovel.com, too. (I hadn’t blogged there for at least two months, either.)

Thank you to all of you for being here. Thank you for your patience and your understanding. And may we all have a better year in 2021.

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.

Time to tighten up

Of course I’m talking about writing.

One of the main problems I see with new writers is a tendency to overwrite. Sometimes it’s like reading a play replete with stage directions. Every move is explained in excruciating detail. “He lifted the glass with his left hand, while his right hand idly stroked his thigh, which was covered by fine wool trousers in a shade of gray not unlike brushed steel. The ice cubes, square, not round, clinked against the glass as he sipped the single malt Scotch. His tongue darted out to catch an errant droplet, and then he wiped his lips with the back of his right hand before letting it come to rest on the hand-crocheted cotton armrest cover protecting the upholstered arm of the Chippendale chair.” Continue reading “Time to tighten up”

Referencing Referents

Or: How to Point Your Pronoun to the Right Word

I’ve been quiet (too quiet) in the last month because I’ve been working.

Shaddup, you. I do too work. A lot. And my work involves correcting grammar, among many other things. A big part of correcting grammar concerns pronouns and referents.

I see you out there, frowning a little, scratching the tip of your nose, rubbing your temple. Your elementary school English (or did they call it language arts?) teacher used to drone on about pronouns and referents, and you learned it just long enough to get past the pop quiz and the unit test, and then POOF gone.

That was me in every math class I ever took. But we’re not talking about me, or about math. We’re talking about pronouns and referents. Continue reading “Referencing Referents”

REVIEW: The Perfect English Grammar Workbook, McLendon

Any grammar text that makes me literally laugh aloud is a winner on at least one level. Making grammar fun is one of my personal goals, so I always enjoy seeing others succeed at doing so. I laughed a lot during my read-through of Lisa McLendon’s workbook. This is a very good thing.

Not only does she know her grammar (she’s the one who teaches the Deep Grammar classes at various editing conferences), she explains it in plain language. No small feat, that. Lisa won me over right off the bat with her statement that she’s not a “grammar cop,” but rather a “grammar cheerleader.” I don’t know as I’m bubbly enough to be one of those, but I appreciate the imagery, that’s for sure. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Perfect English Grammar Workbook, McLendon”

Humbled and happy

Late last month, I was mentioned in this article by Ben Yagoda at the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As the title says, I’m humbled to have been included with such editing stars as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun and Benjamin Dreyer of Random House. I’m also happy for the same reason. I don’t think of myself as anyone terribly notable, but apparently Ben thinks otherwise.

I thanked him on Twitter, but I’ll say it again: Thank you, Ben. It’s an honor.