Pronouns, politeness, and paying attention

There’s been a lot of chatter of late about pronouns. I’m not here to engage in the discourse (that sounds so lofty, don’t it?) about the singular they as applied to a specific individual who uses it to refer to themself. To be sure, that is a topic of great interest, and it generates discussion, but that’s not why I’m here right now.

My topic at this moment is twofold: Why does one need to pay attention when examples are provided in a discussion? And what is the best way to steer that discussion in another direction, if that is your desire?

I semi-regularly beg people to stop hypercorrecting because they had the fear of [insert deity of choice here] put into them in elementary school by some teacher or other (mine was Mrs. Dentler) that when one is speaking of oneself and another person or persons, one always puts oneself last. That is, one always is to say “James and I are going to dinner” and never “I and James are going to dinner.” In that construction, one needs the nominative (also called subjective) case pronoun, “I,” because it is part of the subject (which in this situation is compound, comprising “I and James”). I’m here to tell you that lightning will not strike you down for putting “I” first in such a construction. Politeness is a nicety, not a rule. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with “I and James.”

When I discuss this on Twitter, I leave out the subjective discussion because that isn’t the issue; it’s not the point. I see no need to muddy the already turbid waters with something that isn’t part of the problem. The point is, one does not say “Please join I for dinner.” (I can say without hesitation I have never heard anyone say this.) Therefore, one also does not properly say “Please join James and I for dinner.” (And yet, people DO say this.) The pronoun you want there is “me.” You can also say “us,” if you like. There are many ways to say things in English, many of which are utterly correct and standard. I am focusing here on the I/me problem. The hypercorrection is the use of the subjective “I” when the construction calls for the objective “me.” I see this regularly in public-facing writing from people and companies I feel should know better. (I hold them to a higher standard. I expect standard grammar and usage from, say, a publishing company or an elected official. More the fool me, I suppose.)

I have linguist colleagues who have discussed this at length, and I fully appreciate their input. What I don’t appreciate is someone deciding that I am wrong for not also discussing the subjective pronouns at length in what would become, of necessity, a pretty hefty thread, and then being passive-aggressive about it. That is a bad look, folks. If you want to talk about the subjective pronouns, have at it on your timeline. Knock yourselves out. But quote-tweeting me or anyone in order to attempt to prove me or them wrong, somehow, is not a good move. (Especially if you’ve had no interaction with the person you decide to take to task, before doing this.) Asking a question is far better. “What about ‘Julio and me are going to the store?’ Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Julio and I’?”

When we see examples provided in a discussion, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how they are constructed. If all the examples show objective case pronouns, why would the discussion be about subjective case? Think about reading entries in a style guide. The examples elaborate on the specific rule/guidance in the entry. Sometimes examples read a little strangely (“Why would anyone say that?”), but they’re constructed to provide instruction on a particular issue. The examples I provide support the topic under discussion, not something different (even if it’s related).

So, let’s recap.

“James and I are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case

“I and James are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and me for dinner.” Standard, objective case

“Please join me and James for dinner.” Standard, objective case, perhaps less polite

“James and me are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position

“Me and James are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and I for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection

“Please join I and James for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection, perhaps less polite

I trust that I have satisfied everyone who feels I need to address more than one topic at a time. And whether I have or not, they can join me (not “join I”) for drinks at a conference sometime, when it’s safe for us to do that again.

“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.

Who or that: Survey says . . .

Grammar, along with its close relatives usage and style, is a common cause of pearl-clutching in some circles. I associate it with prescriptivists, myself. Those who cannot conceive of the correctness of anything other than what they know themselves to be “correct,” for varying degrees of that word. These folks also often conflate grammar with usage and style, which is not the best understanding. The latter two items are closely entwined with grammar, certainly, but they are not the same, nor can they be understood in the same way. Grammar is a set of rules. Usage is a set of guidelines. Style is a different set of guidelines about mechanics, mostly: when to capitalize, when to italicize, how to write initialisms or acronyms, where to place punctuation (when there is no grammatical guidance already in place). Both usage and style also vary with the English being considered. I’ve written here and elsewhere about the differences between American and British English. The grammar is the same; the usage and style vary.

The latest kerfuffle has been about using that to refer to people. A number of vocal participants hold that it is wrong to do so. I do not regret to say it is not. It is grammatically correct, and it always has been. Continue reading “Who or that: Survey says . . .”

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.

The “new” singular they

You’ve seen the posts and tweets and articles, I know you have. Jane Austen. William Shakespeare. Literary greats for centuries (literally) have used the singular they.

So why are folks so bent out of shape about it? Why now?

Because this is a new singular they. It’s not the one Jane and Will used, referring to an unknown person. It’s used with a new purpose. It’s nongendered and refers to a known individual. Nonbinary individuals may choose it as their pronoun rather than the gendered “he” or “she” or the many options that have never really caught on (like “zie”).

It’s the difference between “Every student needs their own pencil” and “Robin needs their own pencil.” (I tweeted this exact example a couple of days ago.)

And along with this new singular they comes the matching reflexive pronoun: themself. Used for one person who is referred to as “they.” Think about it. “Themselves” makes no sense whatsoever in a singular context. “Themself” is sensible.

It hasn’t yet made it into the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, but here’s the page at American Heritage Dictionary’s site. Take note that the second entry is labeled “nonstandard” and that it uses this word to refer to more than one individual. The main entry is not labeled.

We’re getting there. Happy Pride Month 2019, folks.

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”

Branching Out: Social Media for Publishers, Agents, and More

While you all know about my work as an editor with indie authors, you might not know that I have also worked with national marketing companies to ensure that their clients’ social media posts were error-free.

I see many posts from publishers, agents, a la carte author-assistance businesses (those who offer multiple services at various prices, sometimes as bundles), and so on, with errors that a simple proofreading could prevent.

Do you want your potential clients to see sloppy tweets or Facebook posts? What about your Instagram feed? Are those comments error-free and focused?

I’d love to help you up your social media game to the Flawless Level. Contact me at and let’s discuss how to make that happen.


More information here: Social Media Proofreading

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”