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.

#SpellcheckCannotSaveYou: a bit of explanation

This has gotten a little attention in the last month or so, mostly thanks to June Casagrande (a fantastic editor-person who’s written a number of highly accessible grammar and style books, most of which I own). One thing that some folks don’t quite understand is why it’s “cannot” and not “won’t” or “will not.”

Simple. And it’s got NOTHING to do with the fucking apostrophe (which kills a hashtag every time, y’know).

I don’t care whose software it is; the fact is, no spellcheck program is able to save you from yourself. It is incapable. It is unable. It CANNOT save you. It can ensure you won’t have any egregious misspellings, but when it comes to homonyms, it cannot save you. If the word’s spelled correctly, but still the wrong word, spellcheck is unable, incapable, powerless to save you.

It’s not a case of it being unwilling to perform, or uninterested in doing the job.

It cannot perform that duty. Only a human brain in conjunction with human eyes and reasoning abilities can parse the difference between cleaver and clever. No spellchecker will flag either of those words, unless for some reason you have manually told it to. (You did know you have that kind of control, right? Like, telling the program to always flag the word “pubic” to save you from mortification?)

Spellcheck cannot save you from errors stemming from correctly spelled words used incorrectly. Not that it will not (although technically, that’s true — it won’t save you, but there’s more to the sense behind the phrasing), but that it cannot. It is not capable. It is unable. It cannot perform that action.

Spellcheck cannot save you.

The eleventh link of Christmas: Editing tools

This is the smallest of my collections, because honestly I don’t use many tools aside from PerfectIt3 that aren’t already built in to my software.

Here you’ll find my less-than-glowing review of “Ginger,” a tip on how to respond to a comment in MS Word, and a few other tidbits.

It’s been 11 days of posts. I figure folks are getting a little bit full, so today and tomorrow are lighter fare vis a vis the post count.

She left him at the alter

Well, no. She left him at the altar.

This particular pair of homophones is one of the most troublesome, based on what I see come across my desk. Perhaps I can provide some helpful hints for telling them apart, so you’ll know which one you should be using in a given situation. We’ll see . . .

An altar is a raised surface, first of all. It could be a simple table, or a flat rock, or perhaps an elaborately constructed piece of furniture with storage space underneath, hidden behind doors or curtains. But I digress. An altar is a surface on which one puts ritual items, for the purpose of then enacting said ritual. I’ll wager most of you readers are familiar with the altar at the front of a church (Catholic, Protestant, doesn’t matter — churches have altars). I’ll also wager that a number of you are equally familiar with the pagan analog, usually set at the center of the ritual space. (Not that I’d know about that or anything . . . ::cough::) If you’re writing about a ritual, you’ll likely need to use the word altar.

Altar can be used figuratively, as well. They worship at the altar of freedom.

Alter is foremost a verb, meaning to change something. I say “foremost,” because there’s also the psychiatric usage meaning “a distinct and separate personality” when talking about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder [MPD]). She has fifty-four alters. However, unless you’re writing a piece on DID, you’ll probably be using the verb form and talking about something being altered. Think of “alterations” made to clothes by a tailor or a seamstress. They alter the clothing.

Alter is also the verb used to mean “to spay or neuter an animal.” The procedure changes the animal, so that it can no longer reproduce.

Alter is also the word in “alter ego,” meaning a different side of a personality or even a close friend who holds the same views as one’s own. It’s important to note, I think, that this is the common usage; we can all have alter egos, but not be diagnosed with DID. It literally means “second I.” Drinking brings out his alter ego; he’s quite the Jekyll and Hyde.

It will probably help to remember that “alter” is part of “alternative” and “alternate.” If you need a word that denotes change, something different from the expected, you want alter.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to alter my altar setup for the upcoming feast day.

It ain't fancy, but it's a mighty fine stone altar.
It ain’t fancy, but it’s a mighty fine stone altar.

It’s not even a homophone, dude.

I decided to register at for some unknown reason, and I started perusing the articles. A little bit of politics, a couple of book reviews, an article about the lota (it’s an Islamic ritual instrument I’ll refer to as a portable bidet), and then . . .

I found it. The error that would give me reason to post here today. I wasn’t overly happy to find it, I’ll be honest. I was almost hoping I’d fail in my search. Ah, Salon, you didn’t let me down. At least this one wasn’t a headline.

If the word misused were really a homophone for the word the writer intended, I’d be happier, I think. As it is, the evil spellchecker wouldn’t have stopped to even contemplate the possibility of the word being incorrect. It’s spelled just fine. It’s just the wrong freakin’ word.

“This is the part–the explanation–where I’m supposed to demure and look a bit embarrassed, as I downplay it, and pretend that it’s really not even worth talking about.”

No. You’re not supposed to “demure.” You’re supposed to demur. 

My kingdom for a copy editor on the staff at!

Why authors need editors, not just checkers

This rant’s been yammering at me from my forebrain for a few days now, so I might as well get it overwith.

I’ve been reading quite a few ebooks from self-published authors of late, most of them gotten for nothing from Amazon. (Twitter has been very, very good to me.) Having paid nothing for them, I’m at least not ticked off at having spent the rent on ebooks; however, having paid nothing for them doesn’t equate to “expect poor editing.” I’ve been consistently annoyed, and sometimes even appalled, at the lack of what I would consider basic editorial attention displayed by the final products on my Kindle. I’m not even talking about formatting weirdness; that, I can overlook. Seriously. I’m not that annoyed by oddball kerning, or strange page breaks. I am annoyed by things like the following.

  1. Having your character speak a single word in a foreign language does not by any stretch of my imagination demonstrate to me that your character is fluent in that language. Not even a little bit. I can order from a menu in Spanish, but I can’t speak it. I know “tostada,” “torta,” “burrito,” “carnitas,” and “cerveza.” I’m not fluent in Spanish. I could probably fake my way through one in German (four years of it in high school means I can still sing “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht”), and perhaps even in French. I am not fluent in either one. So—if your character is fluent in a foreign language, I strongly suggest you show me by having him speak a full sentence or two, preferably with some vernacular forms thrown in, so it’s not right out of a phrase book I could check down at my local library or here on teh intarwebz. Just having him say “Yes” is insufficient for my needs.
  2. In the same vein, if your character has been living in such and such a foreign city for a decade or more, when you’re describing the contents of his market basket, I expect to see terms consistent with the language of the city—not those of another one in a different country, with a different language. A long, crusty loaf of bread is called a baguette in Paris, but not (as far as I’m aware, anyway) in Rome. Similarly, within the US I expect to see regional variations reflected in descriptions and dialog. A hoagie is a sub is a grinder (sorta, I know, I hear the screaming and wailing from here), but each of those terms has a “home territory.” And if you know what a gagger is, we should talk. I have a recipe you might want.
  3. Please, for the love of Robert Louis Stevenson (in this instance), get your literary references straight. (And if you the author can’t, make sure your editor—you DO have one, don’t you?—can.) Saying that such and such an occurrence “would bring out the Jekyll in anyone” does not mean what you think it means, I don’t think. At least, not if you want us to think that the worst side of a person will emerge if this thing happens. Jekyll was the good one.

These are not things your grammar checkers and spellcheckers will catch for you, folks. You need a real live editor-type to find these. (I wager you could find them yourselves, but I also know that once you’ve finished writing, the last thing you want to do is read the whole thing again.) I am not a developmental editor, despite what this rant might lead you to think. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader, and a damned good one, too. I do know what annoys me as a reader, and I do know what skills any decent editor should possess. The kinds of things I’ve enumerated above should never occur in the final product—not if the editor’s earned their keep.

(Watch this space for an entry about “they” and “you” and why folks who rant and rave about the former as a singular epicene pronoun often haven’t a clue that they should also be ranting about the latter—and why, if they only rant about the former, they’re right good hypocrites.)