The Pragmatic Grammarian

If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?

Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.

This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)

Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.

I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).

Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?

Possession: The Sequel

I stumbled on this sign (well, not literally–it’s on a stand on a bin, not lying in the aisle) this afternoon while meandering around the nearby Goodwill store.

I’m honestly unsure of why it reads the way it does. It could be that whoever was making the signs felt the need to be consistent, since the other bins are labeled “Men’s Bin,” “Women’s Bin,” and “Children’s Bin” (all correctly, which was in itself a pleasant surprise). Of course, the linens don’t own anything. Nothing in the bin is for use by linens. The bin contains linens, for use by people. I think “People’s Linens Bin” probably sounds a little bit too Chairman Mao-ish. The correct signage would be “Linens Bin.” That’s all. Just “Linens Bin.” Then, of course, it doesn’t match the other signs–and I suspect that’s where it all went sideways.

Of course there’s also the argument that “$1.49” must apply to the bin as a whole, since the word “each” isn’t present on the sign. However, it does state “Ticketed items priced as marked”–so I think one can safely assume that the price applies to individual items that aren’t otherwise priced. (I wonder what would happen, though, if someone tried to make the claim for the entire bin for $1.49.)

I should note that I did not find any demons, demon souls, demon’s souls, or demons’ souls in Goodwill. At least, none that were labeled as such.


Baby puppies and High Velocity Angry Canaries

Many years ago, when I worked for Scott, Foresman and Company (yes, the Dick and Jane people), editorial seminars were de rigueur. At one such gathering, we received handouts containing examples of “baby puppies.” Regrettably, I no longer have the handout, and none of the other examples stuck with me like that one did. However, I can still discuss the concept–and how my view has changed over time.

We were told in no uncertain terms to avoid redundancies such as “baby puppies.” And, dutifully, we excised them from our texts. Luckily for those of us in the nascent Electronic Publishing Division (now extinct), our work seldom included such things. We dealt with user manuals for educational computer games and school management software. That gave us whole other grammatical and usage-related jungles to hack through with our CMoS-issued machetes, but very few “baby puppies.” I felt cheated, sometimes.

Now, I have a different perspective. Yes, a puppy is a young dog. But not all puppies are babies, are they? Some are nearly a year old, and certainly no longer deserving of the “baby” descriptor. Those little cuties who aren’t yet weaned, though–they’re baby puppies, for sure. The same logic applies to baby kittens. Baby kittens are itty-bitty furballs with tiny, high-pitched mews. And hypodermic-needle-sharp claws and milk teeth.

When I was forced to take a creative writing section in high-school English, I used the phrase “bone-dry dust.” In large (not-so-friendly) red letters in the margin, the instructor wrote “What other kind is there?” So much for my creative writing. That pretty much killed what little interest I’d had to start with, to be honest. Even at that age I was much happier fixing poor grammar and mechanics than trying to be creative. At least I didn’t have to go through that again.

We still find examples from the Department of Redundancy Department, often in the chromakeyed lower-third crawls on local news programming. “Fatally killed” is a common one. “Fatally shot,” fine. “Fatally stabbed,” sure. “Fatally killed” just makes someone who (thankfully) remains faceless and nameless look foolish (while being faceless, which is a pretty cool feat all by itself, isn’t it?).

Another issue pointed out on the handout for that particular seminar was assuming that your editor/proofreader knows what you’re talking about. The example was from a brochure for a heating and air-conditioning business. The copy used the acronym “HVAC,” and the senior editor had noted “write out” in the margin. A junior editor got the project next, and took a shot at the meaning without looking it up (this predated the Internet, you see–it would’ve meant physically moving around in search of a reference book or someone else who knew the information). That’s how the phrase “High Velocity Angry Canaries” found its way into one version of the brochure in question. No word on whether it actually saw print. One would hope it did not. (For anyone who doesn’t know, HVAC stands for “heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning.”)

If by chance you’ve written a technically-oriented piece, please do your editor a solid (ooh, I’m trendy!) and provide a file of the specialized vocabulary you used. That will save everyone involved time and frustration, and potentially could save you (the writer) money as well–because your editor won’t have to dither around looking up information you’d have been better off providing yourself. This is also true for fantasy/science-fiction writers, truth to tell. If you’ve made up a number of alien races, providing a file containing the names of each (spelled, capitalized, punctuated the way you want them) will save your editor hours of headaches wondering whether the right form is “Graz’zyt” or “Grazz’yt.” (And honestly? Apostrophes have been done to death. Please consider not using them in proper nouns. Thank you.) Also please include proper names of any members of those races, with correct mechanics and spelling. Extrapolate as you will from what I’ve said here and decide what else you need to apply this to. I have confidence in you. I really do.

And editors? Don’t be afraid to ask your writer about providing such a file. They might grouse and grumble at first, but once you’re deep into the project and you don’t have to harass them daily with questions such as how they really want to spell “Graz’zyt,” they’ll thank you. (And if they don’t, shame on them.)

Until next time, then, I hope you all have as much baby puppy face time as you wish. (Or baby kitten face time, if that’s your thing. Or baby something else. Maybe you don’t even like babies, in which case–okay. I need to go now.)


From soup to nuts (with a proofreader)

A dear friend of mine just purchased a franchise from Zoup! (They use the exclamation point the same way our blog does, as part of the name.) I jokingly commented to him to please tell me their menus will be professionally edited and proofread–and then, of course, I went to the franchise’s site to see a menu for myself. My friend won’t have any control over what’s printed on his restaurant’s menu, sorry to say.

It’s nowhere near the eyesore provided by Alice Cooperstown, but it’s not perfect, either.

The first question I have is: If the name of the place is Zoup!, why isn’t “soup” spelled that way as the menu category? It’s probably some copyright/licensing issue, but it really looks odd to me. I expected to see the “cute” spelling carried through. They’ve replaced the “s” on “greens,” and the “es” on “sandwiches,” so why not the “s” on “soup”?

I won’t pick the whole thing apart, but I’ll speak to it in generality. Numerous hyphens are missing from compound adjectives (like “tomato-based” or “low-fat”). Nouns and adjectives are randomly capitalized (look at the kinds of breads, and the types of salad dressings). Then there are the other inconsistencies: Are the “Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette” and the “Raspberry Vinaigrette dressing” the same, or different? If they’re the same, they should be worded the same. Otherwise picky editors like me ask picky questions like this one. Parentheses are also apparently random. Some entries use the format “(prepared this way on that kind of bread)” and others use “prepared this way on that kind of bread.” (Add the random capitalization to that and you have a right mess.)

What’s with that “.” before “cobb” (sic)? If it’s supposed to be a joke of some kind, I don’t get it.

These are the things that keep this copy editor/proofreader from falling asleep easily. Menus are in need of correction somewhere in the world!

Will this keep me from visiting my friend’s restaurant? Not on your life. I won’t even take my red marker with me. (He’s been a friend too long for me to antagonize him that way–and as a former member of the legal profession, he’d find a way to get back at me. I’m kidding. He wouldn’t do that. At least I don’t think he would.)



The name’s Spiderman. Harvey Spiderman.

So there’s a new Spider-Man movie out now, conveniently titled The Amazing Spider-Man, and I don’t intend to get into a debate over whether they really needed to reboot the franchise already with another origin story. (The answer is “no,” by the way. Thus ends the debate.)

I’m here instead to say that I’ve already seen several reviews, including this one in the online Seattle P-I, of an apparently different movie with a similar title: The Amazing Spiderman.

Okay, okay, I know it’s the same flick, but really—when you’re reviewing a movie, I think it’s kind of important to get the name right, and as Karen noted in a recent post, hyphens are cheap, my friend. Plenty to go around. Besides, when you run the word together like that, the movie sounds more like a documentary about a two-bit magician named Harvey Spiderman.


Back to basics

Thanks to Anthony Gaff ( for sharing this one with me. He saw it while out and about today and snapped the pic just for the blog.

As I said, we’re back to basics–both in terms of why Ray and I started this blog, and in grammatical terms. “Yours” is the possessive form, people. “Your’s” is–well, it’s wrong. It’s not even a word. It’s meaningless, to be blunt.

So–play the Indiana lottery if you want, but for heaven’s sake stop putting apostrophes everywhere as if you were salting your dinner plate!

Looks like we need to go back to basics.

School’s Out

I don’t know how many of you know this, but Alice Cooper (yes, that Alice Cooper) and Randy Johnson are co-owners of a sports/rock eatery in Phoenix, AZ, called–what else–Alice Cooperstown.

Now, I really like Alice Cooper. I thoroughly enjoy his syndicated radio show. And I knew who Randy Johnson was before I found out about this joint. So, this isn’t some bizarre personal vendetta. It’s simply that the menu for their eatery is horrific in its use of punctuation (or nonuse, as the case may be). I won’t even go into the cases where the incorrect usage results in misspellings to boot. I’ll let you good people see for yourselves.

Click here to visit the homepage, from where it’s only another click to the menus.

I especially want to point out the children’s menu, or “Kid’s Menu” as it says. Apparently only one kid gets to eat. However, the three main sections aren’t even possessive: “Kid Drinks,” “Kid Foods,” and “Kid Dessert.” Why? Got me. I’d have used the possessive, or if I was trying to be clever (or something) I’d have said “Kid Menu” so it all matched. Also, there’s the misplaced apostrophe attempting to turn “soda” into a plural.

At least they got the “whipped cream” right. If it said “whip cream” I might have to hurt someone.

I should also warn you about the (in my opinion) excessive use of Exocet. Consider this a public service announcement. A little Exocet goes a long, long way, and there’s a LOT of it on these menus. Protect yourselves.

The Apostrolypse is upon us!

My friend Ray and I have been joking back and forth for a few months (or longer) now about how we really want to be “free-range editors,” roaming the streets and highways, rooting out poor grammar, spelling, and style wherever it lurks, and correcting it with a flourish of our (hopefully inexhaustible supply of) red pens.

Clearly, at least to us, we are living in the End Times. The perceptible decline of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style is such that we draw ever closer to the Apostrolypse, and the final battle: Grammargeddon. (I’m sure you readers can decipher my coinage, and comprehend its origins. I have a warped and some would say sophisticated sense of humor–at least when I’m not laughing so hard that tea comes out my nose because of looking at LOLcats.)

The plan here, such as it is, is for us to share this blog for posting offenses to the language from wherever they might spring. Shortly, we will each have a personal page here as well, for shil–I mean, for self-promotion. Both Ray and I are professional editors, and we would love more work. Do I, Karen, write as perfectly here as I could? Probably not. I am using a very conversational style here, because–well, I’m chatting with you, in a way. I do, however, attempt to use decent grammar and spelling even when I’m being informal. (I really don’t want to be Miss Thistlebottom. Extra credit for those of you who get that reference.)

So–here we are. This is the first post, and I hope many more will follow. Please be patient. We’re new at this stuff. Thanks for understanding.