More on using “a” or “an” before acronyms/initialisms

That’s a previous post about this subject. However, because this topic is evergreen, I can write more!

This question comes up regularly on social media. I’m not sure if that’s because it is actually that confusing or because people simply don’t read closely.

If the term in question begins with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant! It’s about the sound, not the letter!), use “a,” like this:

A friend who applied to be a CIA operative used me as a reference.

We use “a” because we say “see eye ay,” which begins with an S sound.

Look again at “an S sound.” Remember, it’s about the sound of the beginning letter, not the letter itself. Because “ess” (what we call that letter) begins with a vowel sound, we use “an” with “S.”

With the initialism “NYC,” I see both articles used even in text produced within the city itself. The article guides me, as a reader, toward the expected pronunciation. If I see “a NYC bistro,” I know I’m meant to read that as “New York City.” If I see “an NYC bistro,” I’m meant to read that as “an En-Why-See bistro.” People who live in NYC have strong opinions about which is correct. (Which way did you read it that time? There’s nothing to guide you; there’s also no right or wrong answer. At least not to me, there isn’t.)

Recently this question arose about the term “FAQ.” Within the IT community, it’s universally accepted as a word, pronounced like “fack”: Read the FAQ. Outside that group, opinions and practices vary. Some people say “eff-ay-cue,” which would necessitate using “an” if one required an indefinite article. Others say “fack,” which of course would take “a.” I wager nearly everyone who has ever ordered anything online has encountered “FAQ” at some point, usually in wording like “Questions? Read our FAQ before contacting us.” It’s not so much unfamiliarity with the term that’s the issue. It’s whether you’re inside the IT community, where it’s just a word and pronounced like one, or outside, where you don’t hear or use it regularly. (Disclosure: My spouse has decades of experience in IT. I learned early on that it’s “a FAQ.”)

Remember: It’s the sound of the letter, not the letter that makes the sound, that matters in choosing the indefinite article that will guide readers to the intended pronunciation.

Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

Things Editors Might Not Know About: Regionalisms

We know a lot, but we can’t know everything, right?

A little while ago Dave Nelsen (@The_GrammarGeek) tweeted that at his daughter’s medical appointment today, the nurse used “zipper” as a verb. As in, “Can you unzipper your jacket for me?” It’s a Wisconsin thing*, and I have heard it myself many times. I didn’t even blink.

But.

How would someone not from here know this? If an editor from, say, Nevada encountered it in a manuscript, I think they’d be likely to a) “fix” it by changing it to “unzip” or b) at the least, leave a comment asking if it’s what the author meant to write.

I’ve written before about style sheets (created by editors) and world bibles/story bibles (created by writers). This is precisely the kind of thing that writers should include in their story bibles, along with proper names spelled the way they intend (is it “Aaron” or “Aron” or something else entirely?). It’s the same with phrases their characters use. If there’s something that’s normal for the character but not in common usage, it’s a great idea to include that in the world bible.

I’m not talking about contractions or shortenings/clippings or slang common to AmE in general. I’m talking about regional speech, like using “zipper” as a verb.

In some settings, this will extend to usages like “widow means anyone who has lost a spouse, not only to women.” Or “king refers to any ruler of a country; kings can be (and are) of any gender.” I have my amazing client Garrett Robinson (@GarretAuthor) to thank for those examples. His world bible is an ever-growing organism, with new additions for nearly every new book in his setting. It’s a shared Google Doc we both use, and it’s a life-saver.

If the author hasn’t done this, of course it will fall to the editor to query and add to the style sheet if required. “Oops! No, I didn’t mean to use it like that” is a valid (and not uncommon) response from an author. So is “That’s what I mean to say, yes.”

Writers, you can save yourselves time (and often money!) and endear yourselves to your editors if you tell us up front what oddities we’ll encounter in your work. Like “zipper is used as a verb by Nurse Bren.”

*It might be a thing elsewhere, but I don’t know about elsewhere. Only about Wisconsin and northern Illinois. And this isn’t a thing in northern Illinois to my knowledge (and sometimes faulty memory).

Verb trouble (#1 in an occasional series)

I’ve seen it again in the last few days, so I’m writing about it.

“I have never nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Looks okay to some of you, I’ll bet. Others of you stopped to parse the sentence and found it wanting. Specifically, it’s wanting another form of “to eat” to go with “have.”

What we need is this:

“I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Why? Because, if you take the clauses apart, you’ll see you end up with “I have never eat.” And we know that’s incorrect, grammatically. (We know that, don’t we?)

When you’re writing about things that happened in the past in conjunction with those things happening in the future, you have to watch your main verb forms. I don’t see problems with the auxiliary (helping) verbs, but I see them often with the main ones. If it’s difficult for you to work with this within the single sentence you’re trying to write, try writing the two clauses separately at first and then combine them.

“I have never eaten kidneys.”

“I will never eat kidneys.”

See there, how there’s a different verb form in each sentence (independent clause)? When we combine them, we have to retain those forms to be grammatically correct (and keep our copy editors happy). Put them together and you get “I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.” Sure, there’s some position-swapping required, and “kidneys” appears only at the end of the whole sentence, and you’ve used “nor” as the conjunction to join the clauses. That’s all good stuff.

Unlike kidneys, which I can tell you are vital to our daily functions but to my taste are not very good.

Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

Look for the helpers (verbs, that is)

I’ve seen this issue popping up in various places of late, so I decided to explain how to avoid it in your own work. When you want to combine tenses in a sentence to talk about something that’s been going on for a while and continues to do so, you have to be careful about the helping (auxiliary) verbs. Let me show you.

“They had and are still being treated that way today.”

What the hypothetical writer wanted to say was that a kind of treatment had occurred in the past, and is still happening now. But what they wrote is ungrammatical and unclear. They had what? What does that “had” connect to, syntactically? Is there an object missing (what did they have)? Is it supposed to connect to “treated” somehow? “They had treated” surely isn’t what the writer meant. Look at the correction that follows.

“They had been and are still being treated that way today.”

[Here is where I point out that I am creating sentences as examples of a particular grammatical problem. They aren’t great writing. I might suggest an edit if I encountered either of them in a project. However, they serve the purpose for which they were created.]

In this particular case, we need to say “been” to go with the “had” in the first part of the compound verb, and hold on to the “being” in the second part. “Had been” and “are being” both fit with the past participle “treated.” We can’t get away with just the “had” auxiliary (you recognize it, right? The past form of “have”?) when we want to also use “are being treated” in the same sentence.

Now, here’s something to consider. If you don’t use “had,” you can use the auxiliary “be” in the forms “were” and “are being” with the past participle “treated.”

“They were and are still being treated that way today.”

It’s all the same verb, “be.” It’s just in different forms: were, are being. Bigger trouble comes in when you want to use different auxiliaries with the same main verb, as with “had been” and “are being.” You’re using “have” and “be” with a conjunction, so you have to be cautious about their forms.

If you’re reading a news article or blog post and you stop after encountering such a construction because the meaning is unclear, examine it. Work out what should have been written instead. Chances are good there’s a verb form problem hidden in what is (or rather, what should be!) paired with the auxiliaries.

Now’s a good time to remind you of what those auxiliaries are. There are three main ones with conjugations, and nine modals. Here we go.

Be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being)

Do (do, did, done)*

Have (have, has, had, having)

The modals are: can, could, may, might, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. These are not conjugated further. Can/could, may/might, shall/should, and will/would are already present/past forms. (And you wonder why we get so confused talking about when things happen, having to use a past form to discuss a future event . . .)

As always, if you have a question, please comment. I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Thanks for visiting.

*Hey, why isn’t “doing” in this list? Hmm . . . I wonder . . .

No first drafts, please.

I’ve written about this before, but perhaps not this baldly. (That’s “baldly.” Not “badly.”)

It’s right there in the author documents I ask every potential client to read, but, well . . . we all know how bad people are at following directions, don’t we. (No, that’s not a question. No question mark.) I tend to use that to weed out the folks I probably wouldn’t work well with; if they can’t follow simple instructions like “please click this link and read the documents,” I have a good sense that they won’t make good partners in the work of editing their writing.

I do not take first drafts. I will not work on them. I am not here to teach basic English writing, including grammar and mechanics (never mind style and usage).

The materials I make available to potential clients (they’re linked from my bio page at this blog, and I ask everyone to read them) state clearly that I expect files coming to me to be as clean as the writer can get them. Maybe that means eleventy-million drafts. Maybe it means a critique partner (CP) or three, or a bevy of beta readers. I don’t care, honestly; how it gets cleaned up isn’t my business.

Why do I insist on this?

Because, folks, when I get copy that’s as clean as the writer can make it, I can concentrate on the real editing. I can look at their style and see how best to make suggestions for clarifications or wording changes. If the sentences are below standard, I’m taking all my time making them grammatical and fixing mechanics, leaving nothing for the actual work: polishing prose until it glitters.

I’m not a language arts teacher. I’m a professional editor. In order to do my best work, I need to have yours.

There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

A wall or the wall? Does it matter?

Does it matter whether you use an indefinite article or a definite article when specifying a thing in your writing?

It does.

The reasons are less easy to explain, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Keep in mind, I’m talking about writing, here. Not speech. Writing.

“The” indicates something (could be a person or an item) that’s already understood or has already been discussed or mentioned.

“A” and “an” indicate something that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. Something that we cannot readily understand or define, something that hasn’t been discussed previously. (Like “a person” and “an item” in the previous paragraph.)

Let’s say we’re walking through a house we’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re thinking of buying it. Before I go further, look at that first sentence. “Through a house we’ve never seen before.” Not “the house.” “A house.” We don’t know this house yet. However, it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying” (for the sake of argument); we’re only looking at one, and this is it, so it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying.” If we were looking at more than one, this would be “a house we’re thinking of buying.” (Or perhaps “one of the houses,” if  there’s a specific set of houses we’re visiting with an eye toward purchasing.)

We enter through the front door. There’s only the one, and we can see it and understand its purpose from experiences with doors, so “the front door.” Inside, we see a hallway leading to the back of the house, and another hallway crossing it in the middle. (Work with me here. I’m not an interior designer, and these constructions are purely to illustrate a point—not the layout.) Because we can’t say any more about these hallways yet—we don’t know where they lead, for example, other than the one going “to the back”—there’s a hallway and another hallway. Once we know more about them, perhaps one will become “the main hallway” and the other “the bedroom hallway” (if, let’s say, it leads to bedrooms on either side of the house).

In the big room at the front (there’s only one big room, from what we can see, so “the big room”) there’s a large window facing the street, a smaller window on the side wall facing the yard (if we said “a side wall,” folks will wonder how many other side walls there are here), and a doorway leading to what looks like a kitchen. We can’t know it’s “the” kitchen yet. And while we can see the windows, we haven’t seen them previously so we use “a” to indicate the unknown quality of them. Now that we’ve seen them, though, we can say “Jane walked over to the small window on the side wall.” If she did that immediately on entering the room, before any description has been given, we’d say “Jane walked to a small window on the side wall.” We didn’t know about that window before. Walls are more easily assumed.

“Hey, there’s a little door in the wall out here next to this cabinet.” (Hey, that room was a kitchen! Now it’s “the kitchen.” But it’s odd, seeing a little door in that position.)

“Aha! That’s for a dumbwaiter, I’ll bet.” (Whoever said this has an idea what that little door probably is, but can’t be sure until they investigate.)

If the person responding were the realtor showing the house, the answer would probably be “Yes, that’s for the dumbwaiter.” They know what it is, so they can use “the” to indicate it.

A couch sits in the middle of the big room. It’s covered in leather. The leather couch is black, but the layer of dust covering it makes it look gray. (It’s “a couch” when we first see it. Once it’s been mentioned, it becomes “the couch.” Someone probably dragged a finger over the surface and came away with dust, so “the layer of dust.”)

I could write more on this, but I suspect there’s enough here already to illustrate the point. Indefinite articles are for undefined, unknown, uncertain items/people (also for abstract nouns, like “an uncertainty” if it’s a vague feeling). The definite article is for defined (funny how that works), certain items/people (and also for specific abstract nouns, like “the uncertainty that comes with unemployment”).

Ask questions in the comments, if you like. This is a tricky subject, and if you need clarification, I’ll do my best to provide it. (“The comments,” because they’re a known item; blogs have comment sections. You may have “a comment,” so called because no one but you knows what it is until you write it.)

The editing letter: no longer a mystery

Some people refer to this as a query letter, because often it’s filled with questions for the writer from the editor.

More properly, though, it’s an editing letter. It’s still filled with questions, but it also contains plenty of praise for what was done right and well. (A query letter is what a writer sends to an agent.)

(I mentioned this in Part 2 of that three-part series on working with an editor, and then I didn’t include it in Part 3 as I had said I would. Not one of you called me out on it, either. I’m not sure what to make of that.)

(Maybe it just means no one really read it.)

As usual, I can’t speak for all editors, but I can tell you what my editing letter usually contains. As I said, questions and praise; but what kinds of questions? And what kind of praise?

I start with a general “what I liked most about this project.” It’s different every time, of course. Sometimes it’s the way the plot unfolded; sometimes, the characterization; other times, the dialogue. There is always something done well (even if I have to think about it for a bit). Then, I move on to the questions and comments that relate to the work as a whole. This isn’t “on page 72, you said John has brown eyes, but on page 104 they’re blue.” That’s in the file as a marginal comment. If that kind of inattention to detail occurs more than once or twice, it’s the kind of thing I’ll put in the letter. I’ll say it thoughtfully, of course: “I suggest looking at the comments with an eye toward noted inconsistencies. I can’t know which color you intended for someone’s eyes, or how tall someone is supposed to be, but there are times in the story where you’ve set up one expectation and delivered another. I don’t need to know which one you choose, but you need to choose one.”

If there are major problems with basic writing skills, I’ll note that as well, along with suggestions for how to address them. This happens rarely, but it happens. (Remember, I work with indies. Some folks have never written anything except their college term papers. Writing fiction ain’t like writing a research paper.)

There might be something like “I feel like I lost a couple of plot threads in the fourteenth chapter, but they came back quickly in Chapter 15.”

A valuable skill I picked up in a developmental editing class deals with tension in the plot. If I get the sense that the plotting is uneven, I sketch out the narrative spine. That means looking at the end of each chapter and marking on a sheet of paper whether it’s positive or negative for the characters. Are they standing at the edge of a cliff that’s crumbling? Negative. Are they curled up on a couch, eating popcorn while the rain patters against the windows? Probably positive. Did someone receive an upsetting text message? Negative. Then, look at the relative number of positive and negative endings, and how they’re grouped. Too many of either in a row means too little (positive) or too much (negative) tension in the story as a whole. Remember when I said that my style of editing combines developmental, line, and copy? This is part of that. Then I can make general suggestions, based on what I find. The client can take them or ignore them. I get paid, either way. (I’ve done this maybe twice in the last four years, since taking that class. The majority of my clients have enough experience at plotting to get the balance right.)

After I’ve briefly outlined the major things I want the client to look at, I close with one more positive thing. You know about “the sandwich,” right? Praise on the top and bottom, constructive criticism in the middle. Only once that I can recall did I have to work hard to come up with something good to say at the end.

Admittedly, for my long-time clients I tend to ignore the niceties and dash off a quick “Here’s the book. Great job, as usual. Watch out for the prepositional phrases. Can’t wait for the next one!”

We understand one another. And that’s part of what I love about this work.