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).

Grammar Is Overrated: The Director’s Cut

But seeing as the director is an editor, this won’t be so much an expanded version of the article I wrote for the Winter issue of “Tracking Changes” (the ACES house organ) as it will be a more finely tuned version. I think. Maybe. Let’s find out.

When I say grammar is overrated, I’m not saying “throw it out.” I’m not saying we don’t need it. We absolutely do, or literally couldn’t string two words together and have them make any sense at all—okay, that’s more properly syntax, but let’s not split hairs here. As editors and writers (the groups making up the bulk of my followers here and on Twitter), we definitely need grammar and syntax.

The thing is: We already know most of what we need to do our jobs. My point in that article was that it isn’t a requirement to take courses in linguistics and “deep grammar” and the like in order to be an editor. Those of us drawn to that profession already possess the basics we need. We know about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and such (the parts of speech, as they’re called). We know about parts of a sentence (subject, predicate, predicate nominative/adjective, adverbial phrase/clause, direct/indirect object, blah blah blah). This is the stuff we were taught—perhaps not very well, admittedly—in elementary, middle, and high school. (I’m old. I got it in every grade, from first through twelfth.) And, to be honest, knowing this level of grammar/syntax is enough to be a good editor, especially when you’ve got that affinity for words. When you’re driven to find out how they function, how they work. That drive might lead you to taking classes to deepen your understanding, and that’s great! But it’s not a requirement for being an editor.

We have to be able to communicate to our clients about the problems we find in their work, in words that they’ll comprehend. Now, I work with indie authors. Some of them know grammar, some don’t. I can’t always tell a client “There’s a problem with this subordinate clause.” Their eyes will glaze over. What I can say, though, is something like “This highlighted bit here isn’t doing what you think it is.” And then I can suggest an alternative, and with any luck at all they’ll see the difference and either use my suggestion or come up with their own (Option C, as one client calls it).

I can, however, be fairly confident of telling a client “We need to work on your pronoun usage” and having them understand. Too many proper nouns and too few pronouns in a given sentence or clause is a common problem. The concept of referents (the words to which the pronouns refer) isn’t difficult, so when I say there isn’t a clear one, most of my clients get it. I also tend to leave fairly detailed comments; it’s the former teacher in me.

The point is this: We have to be able to talk to clients about their writing, using terminology they will understand, so they can improve. Throwing around terms like “fronted adverbial” (which sounds quite intimidating, until you realize it’s an adverb of some kind that comes first in the sentence) doesn’t do a lot of good. And let’s just not bother with things like “conditional past subjunctive in the third.” Only the true grammar nerds (or geeks if you prefer) will get that one. Learning the esoteric aspects of grammar and syntax is a fabulous thing, a wonderful indulgence. Just remember: If you can’t explain it to your client in terms they will understand, it isn’t of much use to them.

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.

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.

I didn’t read much in 2020

Aside from the books I was editing, I read very little compared to earlier years. However, I can tell you that The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow took my breath away, and I recommend it to everyone who asks (and even those who don’t). It’s a stunningly beautiful story with magic and emotion and heart, and I wish I could go back and read it for the first time. I can’t, but you can.

I also read the entire Malus Domestica series by my friend S. A. Hunt: Burn the Dark, I Come with Knives, and The Hellion. I’d read the first one in its first form way back in (I won’t say how long ago). If contemporary urban horror fantasy with witch-hunting punk YouTubers is your thing, here’s your series. And if that’s not your thing? Maybe reconsider your life choices.

Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers was my first “pandemic read.” Perhaps not the best choice for some, but for me it was perfect. The White Mask plague isn’t COVID-19. We’re not dealing with “sleepwalkers.” We are, however, dealing with governmental ineptitude and corruption at levels never before imagined, and with hate groups who fear nothing, and with many other aspects of the story Chuck wove. Recommended if you’re one of those whose anxiety is not made worse by reading about what’s essentially a parallel now.

Same goes for Mira Grant’s (Seanan McGuire’s) original Newsflesh trilogy: Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, available in one volume as The Rising. Here be zombies and some of the best fiction about virology I have ever devoured. (And I just realized I never got the fourth, Feedback, an oversight I have also just remedied.)

More Mira Grant: Her horror books about mermaids blew me away. Rolling in the Deep and Into the Drowning Deep are must-reads if you want biologically plausible merfolk. And if you don’t mind being scared out of your skin.

One more, very different from the rest: Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Heartfelt, moving, emotionally raw, realistic. I knew some of these people in college. I think maybe most of us did.

So, it seems I read more than I thought I did. Eleven books. Not my usual total for a year, but under the circumstances? I did damn good.

“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.

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.