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.


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).

“Word Grenades” (via Plotnik)

I’ve said over on G+ that I’m exploring the requirements of developmental editing.

To that end, I’m also reading about the craft of writing. I know the fundamentals,so now–at least according to John Gardner–I am ready to learn the craft. If I’m going to be any kind of dev editor, I need to know how to write.

Write things other than blog posts about grammar, that is. I need to explore one of my personal bugaboos: creative writing.

Any desire I had (which was little enough in the first place) to write fiction or poetry was quashed quite thoroughly by a high-school teacher back in, oh, 1973 or so. Her critique of my work was savage and offered nothing constructive in exchange. Tear down, don’t build up. I stopped and didn’t look back. As long as it’s not fiction, I can write it. I can write the hell out of a research paper, an essay, a blog post . . .

Anyway. One of the books I’m reading is Plotnik’s The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words. And I’m loving it. This is all stuff I’ve known to a point anyway, but I’m seeing it in his words, and finding more behind them. It makes me think that perhaps I can do this writing thing after all. Perhaps.

When I’m doing substantive editing, one of my focuses is on word choice. Is this the best word for the intention? For the audience? For the meaning? For the SOUND? Plotnik’s chapter “Elements of Force” talks about word choice. About onomatopoeia. About rhythm and music and sincerity. About strong verbs. Powerful verbs. In-your-face verbs. And wonder of wonders, about adjectives and adverbs too. He’s for using the best ones (yep, even the adverbs). The ones that pack the biggest wallop. The ones that he calls “Grade-A.” He’s for creating one-time compounds if there’s nothing extant that will do the job. I’m particularly fond of this phrase:

weapons-grade stupid

Now THAT, friends and readers, is stupid. Not your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill stupid. It’s world-changing in its stupidity. Damaging. KILLER stupid.

“Elements of Force” discusses far more than verbs and intensifiers, but I’m not about to go into those other things. Get the book. Read it yourself.

It’ll help fend off the weapons-grade stupid we encounter every day.

The notion of “notional concord”

I know, I know. You haven’t a clue what I’m on about. Take a deep breath, get a drink, and have a seat. It will all be clear in due time.

Why, when we’re talking, do we say “Eight hours of driving is more than enough for one day” when grammar would seem to dictate we’d say “are more than enough” instead? (And if you say “are,” well . . . I don’t. You’re not wrong, but neither am I. It’s cool.)

My mom would use the word “notion” to mean “idea or inkling,” as in “If you get a notion to wash the cat, don’t.” (As if I ever would have. I know better than to attempt to wash a cat.) Webster’s says it means “an idea or concept.” Perhaps you’re seeing where I’m going with this.

When we’re talking about “eight hours of driving,” we have a notion (a concept) that that phrase indicates one concept, a single idea. Because we have that notion, we automatically and unthinkingly use a singular verb with it. That, folks, is “notional concord.” The grammatical number of the subject (five hours of driving) and the verb (is, for this argument’s sake) are in agreement, or concord, because we have the notion that the subject is a single concept.

If you’re like me, you had subject-verb agreement pounded into your skull from about fifth grade on. Miss Thistlebottom made sure we knew our singular and plural forms and how to make sure they always matched.

That old biddy. I got along with her all right, but in the back of my mind I always wondered: “If that’s so, why does everyone I know say it differently?”

Because everyone I know knows about notional concord, without knowing it’s A Thing. (Frankly, I bet Miss T. knew it too but was afraid to say so.)

Lie, Lady, Lie

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? We all know Dylan’s song — it’s “Lay Lady Lay,” with no commas (although there should be, rightfully), and the verb form is incorrect, but hey. Dylan.

Because who needs grammar when you're Bob Dylan?
Because who needs grammar when you’re Bob Dylan?

By request (you know who you are!), I’m revisiting lie/lay. I’ve written at least two usage tips about this at G+, but now my explanation will be immortalized here at the blog. (Until someone nukes the site, anyway.) So, without further ado . . .

Lie is an intransitive verb. That means there’s no direct object acted upon by the subject of the verb. In other words, you don’t lie a book on a table. (That sounds ridiculous, too, doesn’t it?) The forms of lie are lie, lay, and lain. I lie down when I’m tired. I lay down for a while yesterday afternoon. I have lain down on many occasions. (I won’t go into the discussion of the propriety of “down” in this construction. Clearly, one can’t lie up, but there is the phrase “laid up,” which is an idiomatic expression meaning “unable to function due to an injury or illness,” often equating to “lying down because standing up is painful.” Gotta love it, don’t we?)

Lay is a transitive verb. That means it takes a direct object, the thing being acted on by the subject of the verb. The action is being transferred (transitive, transfer — see?) to the object. The forms of lay are lay, laid, and laid. I lay the shirt on a towel on the table, because I don’t have an ironing board. (I’m acting on that shirt by laying it on the table.) I laid a book on that table yesterday, and now I can’t find it. I have laid things all over this house, for that matter. Some dialects use “lay” for “lie” and add a reflexive pronoun, like this: “I lay myself down.” It’s even in a very common bedtime prayer, in a slightly different form: “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

I lie, you lie, she/he/it lies, they lie, we lie are the present-tense (root) forms for “lie.”

I lay, you lay, she/he/it lay, they lay, we lay are the simple past forms for “lie.” “The dog lay motionless in the middle of the street.” Note there is no -s on the end of this form. She lay, he lay, it lay.

I have lain, you have lain, she/he/it has lain, they have lain, we have lain are the past participle forms for “lie.” (Note that only the third-person singular takes “has” as the auxiliary verb; all others take “have.”)

I lay, you lay, she/he/it lays, they lay, we lay are the present-tense (root) forms for “lay.” Note the s on the end of the third-person form: She lays, he lays, it lays. “The dog lays a bone at its master’s feet.” It’s easy to confuse this with “lay” (the past tense of “lie”) if you’re not paying attention to the meaning.

I laid, you laid, she/he/it laid, they laid, we laid are the simple past forms for “lay.”

I have laid, you have laid, she/he/it has laid, they have laid, we have laid are the past participle forms for “lay.” The same as with “lain,” only the third-person singular form takes “has.”

Now that I’ve laid that all out for you, I might lie down for a bit.