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”

Pronouns are personal

By which I mean, people get to choose their pronouns. Now that the breaking down of the gender binary is in full swing (and I hope it keeps right on breaking, personally), if someone identifies as NB (nonbinary, or enby), they get to choose “they” if that’s how they want to be referred to. (I’ll wager there are other flavors involved, like genderfluid, but as a bi cis woman, I don’t get to claim I know anything. I’ve seen it discussed, and the conversation’s far from over.)

So, when a professional editor tells an author (one they’re going to publish!) that “they” is unacceptable and that gendered pronouns must be used in the author’s bio (IN THEIR OWN BIO!), well …

Twitter drags them. And rightly so.

I wrote two tweets in response to this mess. The first one had my usual vulgarity (because yes, I believe this is utter bullshit and I call it like I see it); the second was written in a higher register, with more formal word choices and tone (but I still used singular they, ja you betcha). Why? Because of a related issue. At least I see they’re related. Actually, there are three that come to mind.

One is policing people’s language and word choice to reinforce the status quo. I suppose I get this one on level, maybe. But honestly, who is being harmed by someone choosing to be called “they/them?” Who’s injured by that? No one. Oh, sure, you can tell me it’s “harming the language.”

Guess what. It’s not doing any such thing.

Another is using your platform (as a editor, a publisher, a reviewer, whatever) to tell someone that your English is better and therefore YOU are better. That’s what happens when someone denies someone else the choice of a pronoun set. It’s classist (“I speak properly, you don’t”) and it’s phobic (“I’m straight and cis, and you’re something else, and that scares me so no, you can’t use those pronouns”).

It’s unethical and it’s rude (and it’s outmoded). I’ll bet you all know that “they” has been used in the singular since the 1300s. EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS. And a considerable amount of that usage has been printed and published.

Then there’s the “they never whine about ‘you,’ so why are they mad about ‘they?'” contingent. Well, they don’t whine about “you” because that particular change has been over and done (and the singular usage established) for nearly as long, coinciding with the Early Modern English years (roughly the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, or mid-1450s through early 1700s).

I’m no linguist, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ll take a shot in the dark at this. I wonder if the big pushback against “they” as a singular pronoun has to do with gender. Bear with me.

“Thou/thee” are/were second-person singular pronouns. “You/ye” are/were the plural forms. Here’s the thing: when you’re speaking to another person, you don’t NEED to specify their gender. (Oh DeAr GoDs A sInGuLaR “tHeIr”) You’re right there with them, looking at them. And with the plural, it doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t use gender markers with second-person pronouns. Only with third-person (he/him/his and she/her/hers, but the plural is they/them/theirs).

That fear of “not knowing if they’re male or female or what” is, I think, what’s keeping the fire lit under the cauldron of singular they.

Why is it so scary? They are who they are. You are who you are. I am who I am.

What’s scary about that?

Third, there’s the register issue. Formal registers use formal grammar and language and diction (word choices). Informal ones use casual forms. My first tweet contained the word “bullshit” twice. And you know what? I’m positive (and I do mean positive) that some folks brushed it off because of that word. Surely a professional, a former English teacher, would never, ever use such language. Therefore, this person (me!) must not really be a professional.

Guess what. Professionals curse. A LOT. And on Twitter? Boy, howdy. That’s like a big backyard party, with folks coming and going and just chatting and being themselves. I curse on Twitter, especially when I get angry about something. And ESPECIALLY when that something is a professional in my field (editing) behaving badly toward an author.

However, I decided this morning to RT the original tweet again, and this time my comment was in a far more formal register. (I still used a singular they, because TAKE THAT, ENGLISH TEACHER BRAIN!) And I noticed that a different group of people interacted with that one. Now, that could be merely a case of them not seeing last night’s tweet. But, it could just as well be a case of them choosing not to give attention to that one because of the language, and interacting with the “proper” one instead.

I dunno.

And I honestly don’t care. I’m not being harmed by it, and neither is anyone else. I choose my words as I see fit, taking many factors into account. I said basically the same thing in both comments, but one was more personal (“find a different publisher because this is bullshit”) and the other more formal (“it’s a breach of ethics and trust to deny an author the right to choose the pronouns they want used in their own bio”).

And I’m standing by all of it.

[There has been a non-apology issued by the publisher, by which I mean it was mealy-mouthed: “we had no idea” (you did, once the author pointed it out to you, but you ignored it and dug in) and “we apologize for any pain we may have caused” but without a direct “We’re sorry, and we’ll do better” to the wronged author. Ugh]

Whether to use “whether”

Here’s another thing I bump into quite regularly. When is “whether” the right choice? And when should you choose “if”? (Choosy writers … y’know, I’ll just stop there. If you got it, thanks. If not, blessings on you.)

When there’s an overt or implied choice, you want “whether.”

When the statement’s conditional, you want “if.”

There you go.

Oh, that’s not enough. Right. Sorry about that.

“Whether I finish this post depends on how many cats interrupt me.” I hope I’ll finish, but if they keep parading across my desk it’s not going to happen.

“If I finish this post, I’ll make coffee.” On the condition that I finish writing, I’ll schlep downstairs and fire up the coffeepot.

“If it mattered or not” is the same as “whether it mattered.” The presence of alternatives (one or more) is contained within the definition of “whether,” so you don’t have to write “or not.” Neither must you slavishly remove it if it’s present. Let the voice and register guide your decision on which wording to use, and how picky to be.

“If he made it out alive, he’d be home for the holidays.” It’s contingent on the fulfillment of a condition: he has to get out alive.

“Whether he made it out alive didn’t matter. The family would gather for the holidays.” Makes no difference if he lives or dies; that ham will be on the table at noon on Sunday.

I hope you all make it out alive, and that your holidays are happy ones.

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.