Grammar Day 2018

I love grammar.

More precisely, I love grammar, usage, syntax, semantics, and mechanics.

I’m one of those bitchy editors who will point out that “grammar” as used by Average  Robin encompasses all of those things, which is why “grammar quizzes” are usually bullshit. Most of what’s in them isn’t grammar. It’s mechanics or spelling or usage or style. And that last one has a lot of gray areas, so making a generalized quiz about it is fucking cruel. No, it’s NOT wrong if you don’t use a serial comma. Not as clear as it could be, perhaps, but it’s not wrong. Continue reading “Grammar Day 2018”

Best words, best order

My editing-Twitter colleague @SheckyX gave me the idea for this post earlier this week, when he responded to a tweet of mine. It was a link to an old post here, actually. He commented to me that aside from worries about putting prepositions at the end of sentences, writers might do well to consider other aspects of prepositional placement. For example, moving “on” makes a big difference between “she turned on him” and “she turned him on.” Continue reading “Best words, best order”

“For N o’clock” or “by N o’clock?”

When you have an appointment, do you say you need to be there “for” or “by” the scheduled time?

I have always said “by.” I need to be at the office by nine o’clock.

My husband, however, has always said “for.” He needs to be at the office for eight o’clock.

The first time I heard it, I mentally stopped, stock still. “For?” Surely you mean “by,” right? I didn’t ask, though. I just made a note and kept listening. Sure enough, that’s the phrasing he always uses. He was born in MA and grew up in RI. He’s not British, which this usage would seem to suggest (it’s “exclusively” BrE, according to Algeo’s British or American English?”: A handbook of word and grammar patterns).

I’ll suggest it may be less “exclusive” than his research led him to report. He states “0 iptmw in CIC texts” for AmE. In English (AmE, precisely), that means zero instances per ten million words in the Cambridge International Corpus. I can swear to the existence of three American English native speakers (my husband and his two daughters) who use “for” where I use “by” in this particular construction. Is it a spoken AmE thing, but not a written AmE thing?

I’d love to hear from linguists who have experience with this wording. Is it as “exclusive” as Algeo says? Or are there other AmE speakers (perhaps from New England, or perhaps only in that little bit of MA and RI) who use this? I’m a corn-fed Midwestern gal of Frisian extraction. This British thing . . . I didn’t grow up with this.

You want me to use WHAT?

Substitute or replace?

A few years ago I’d have wondered why this is even a question. At the time (let’s say, ten years ago or thereabouts) I had yet to see them used the way I do now, with what is to me alarming regularity.

I even checked Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd Edition) to see if there was an entry with a language-change index rating. There is not.

Then I pulled out my dog-eared Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (copyright 1989, a full 20 years earlier than Garner’s 3rd), and lo. An entry. At the time I purchased this book, I had never encountered the usage discussed.

And I should probably tell you what that usage is, shouldn’t I. I get so discombobulated when I see it, I have trouble being clear. It makes me verklempt, I tell you. Continue reading “You want me to use WHAT?”

Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.

 

 

There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.

 

 

Me and Julio

Paul Simon’s lyrics notwithstanding, it’s nonstandard to say “Me and Julio went down by the schoolyard.” (Note, I didn’t say “improper” although I admit to having typed that initially.) Keep in mind, I write tips for standard English — not for dialects or regional speech or what have you. Those have their own grammars and their own rules, none of which I’m qualified to write about; I’m not a linguist.

How do you know when to use “me” and when to use “I?” Or “us” and “we?” (This is covered by a real, live rule — not a guideline. It’s a rule.) There are nominative case pronouns (like “I” and “we” and “he” and “she”) and objective case pronouns (like “me” and “us” and “him” and “her”), and they’re not interchangeable.So, how do you know which to use when you need to say that you and that guy and that woman over there all did something together, and you don’t want to name names?

Would you really say “Us went to the movies last night”? Would you? I highly doubt it. So, you wouldn’t say “Me went to the movies last night” either, most likely, or “Him went to the movies” or “Her went to the movies” or “Them went to the movies.” I hope you’re seeing a pattern here.

“We went to the movies last night.” That’s the nominative case; “we” is the subject of the sentence. If you went alone, you’d say “I went to the movies last night.” Now, let’s add more words and see what happens.

“James and me went to the movies last night.” Really? If you weren’t telling me James was with you, would you say “me went to the movies”? I didn’t think so. So, you don’t say it when you are adding James to the subject. “James and I went to the movies.” Take the other person (or people) out of your sentence and figure out which pronoun you’d use, and then use that one when you put the other people back in. You’ll still be correct.

“Paul and she went to the movies last night.” If Paul wasn’t in the picture, you’d say “she went to the movies.” There’s no need to change the word when you put Paul into the sentence. You can even put her first: “She and Paul went to the movies.” If you don’t want to name him, but you want to tell us that Paul and she went, you say “they went to the movies,” not “them went.”  Follow that logic out (because here’s a situation where logic actually works in English), and you’ll find that you can also correctly say “They and I went to the movies.”

Now, let’s look at which words to use with prepositions, like “between.” Prepositions take the objective case (me, us, him, her, them). “Just between us” is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard often. It’s correct. So, again following the logic (which is a rare thing in English, so it’s pretty exciting!), you’d say “just between you and me” — NOT “just between you and I.” That’s a classic case of hypercorrection stemming from your mom (or me!) telling you not to say “James and me went to the movies.” If it’s wrong there, surely it’s wrong everywhere. Except it’s not.

“Join James and I for a Hangout-On-Air.” Think about that, given what I’ve explained. Is it correct? Remove “James and” from the sentence; what pronoun would you use to refer to yourself?

I’m not telling. Consider this a quiz. (You know I was a language arts teacher, long ago and far away.)