Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘grammar’

Like Herding Cats

From elementary school through most of high school, I believed the rules of grammar were fixed–immutable, inexorable. Apart from creative writing, the conventions of grammar were stable and set; I liked how definitive they were. Illogical and idiosyncratic though they were, the rules of grammar made sense to me–I used to diagram sentences in my head when I spoke or read. I no longer diagram in my head, but I’ll freely admit my nerdiness unabashedly and unashamedly. Grammar came easily to me, perhaps because I read so often and internalized syntax and usage. The more you read, the more you can tell when something “sounds” wrong (as a grammarian, your reason for something being incorrect should never be that it “sounds” wrong, but I catch the error because it sounds weird and then identify the technical issue). Spelling is similar but more visual: the more you see words and the patterns of spelling, the better your spelling will be. Lesson here kids: read and read often.

Le Francais, c’est plus qu’une langue

That was the motto of my high school French club: French is more than a language. When I began taking French in high school, I took to its grammar almost effortlessly. Part of the reason is that while English is not a Romance language, many of its words have Latin roots, and some of the word order is similar. Because I felt so grounded with English, French wasn’t too much of a stretch. Plus, a mind for grammar will ostensibly do well with any language. Many people find  the French language maddening because of its odd pronunciation, its ridiculous subjunctive, its ludicrous number of verb tenses. But I liked it. I liked conjugation tables, and I liked learning new patterns of spelling, and I liked putting together the pieces of a sentence. For me, English and French grammar and spelling exercises were like candy in homework form. Once I was about to vomit from a plateful of trigonometry, I sat back, relaxed, and worked with future and conditional. It was relaxing (if you’re still with me at this point, I applaud you). I’ve basically been waxing nostalgic about my love for grammar because of what I’m about to say next: English grammar is contradictory, antiquated, and nonsensical. And there’s no such thing as “standard” English.

It All Comes Back to the Nazis

For those of you who don’t waste time on the Internet, Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies states that the longer an online discussion continues, the probability of a comparison to Nazis approaches 1. Basically, the longer an online forum goes on, the more likely someone is going to call someone else Hitler or the Nazis. So, I’m going to go ahead and fulfill Godwin’s Law and start talking about grammar Nazis.

Part of the reason I’ve been so absent from posting is that my life has been in a state of massive change. I found a job in New York, NY, and I moved at the end of January. I’ve been settling into my new job and recovering from culture shock (my Southern/Midwestern sensibilities sometimes clash with the New York ethos), and my daily exhaustion has prevented me from posting. My job is in client support, so most of my job is speaking with clients and helping them use our product. Although I was grateful for the job and liked the work environment, part of me began to worry that I wouldn’t use my training as a writer and editor. I took my first chance to prove my skills when an internal memo came around with an FAQ about the company (we just launched, so we are still familiarizing ourselves with how to address issues in the system and answer questions). Although it was internal, I marked it up and copyedited it, sent it to my boss, who passed it on to our Chief Marketing Officer. He was impressed enough to start sending me stuff to edit and write. I got to choose the style guide for our client support team as well as media relations–I chose Chicago, because the Oxford comma needs a defender from the evil AP. Speaking of which, I once took a course that included peer editing. One of my peers was a journalism major, and she kept crossing out all my commas. I kept adding in commas to hers. Both of our papers were technically correct, but we merely had different philosophies on punctuation.

Which brings me to the fact that now I am the resident grammar nazi of my department, I get questions about grammar, and it’s so hard not to qualify my responses with, “Well in this case it would be this, but sometimes if you want it could be this.” I also have to dispel a lot of what gets incorrectly taught in schools: you can’t begin a sentence with a conjunction; you can’t end a sentence with a preposition; etc. If you ever need help definitively addressing these issues, I recommend Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein or The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.

I digress. When I’m feeling particularly feisty, I go on long rants about prescriptivist versus descriptivist grammar; open versus closed punctuation; the punctuation and spelling variations between UK and US usage (I’m looking at you, realise). I have a nice, sturdy set of reference books to dispel ambiguity when questions of grammar arise, and these books only add fuel to the flames of my grammatical passion: Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Webster’s Usage Dictionary, Chicago Manual of Style, and The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. For anyone who wants a full and spirited debate on all things grammatical, Einsohn is your gal. She discusses various grammar schools of thoughts, words that cause the most heated debate, and the tiny nuances of language that dictate how we edit and write.

How in the hell did we get here? 

How, you might ask, did we end up with so many conflicting grammar rules and pet peeves among individuals? To summarize briefly, blame Latin. A lot of our ridiculous grammar rules come from British elites several centuries ago who wished to “perfect” English by making it imitate Latin, the language of the great Roman empire. An immediate issue becomes obvious: Latin is the basis of the Romance languages, but English is a Germanic language. The two are both Proto-Indo European language, but they come from different families. The biggest example of this issue is the old-school rule that you cannot split infinitives. The basis for this rule is that in Latin, you literally cannot split an infinitive because an infinitive is one word. The other is the old standby that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Neither one of these rules is particularly enforced, depending on whom you ask. I am sure that my grandfather will insist that you cannot split an infinitive until the day he dies.

My grandfather is an example of a prescriptivist, a person who wants to preserve standard written English, and his less obsessed grammar counterpart would be a descriptivist, someone who is more concerned with actually employing language as it is really used. If a writer were to follow every bizarre rule in the prescriptivist handbook, he or she would be reduced to ridiculous and ambiguous wording that would obscure meaning. In all honesty, placing a preposition at the end of the sentence to communicate meaning is much more effective than obsessively preventing an ending preposition with odd or wordy phrasing.

One of the best birthday cards I ever received had two girls sitting at a restaurant. One girl said to the other, “Where’s your birthday party at?” The other girl responded, “You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.” When you opened the card, the first girl said, “Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?” We should not always write like we speak, of course, but there is something to be said for writing in a style that is easily understandable.

Please don’t misunderstand me; certain grammar rules exist for a damn good reason. You may not confuse there, their, and they’re; you may not mix up its and it’s; you may not create a plural with an apostrophe. These rules exist because if you make those mistakes, you obscure the meaning of the sentence; however, a sentence that does not follow the screwball rules of English but is perfectly understandable is preferable to the alternative.

Some people might want to scream that I am promoting the corruption of the language and wish to do away with all standards of grammar. Not at all. I will still stand by that the active voice is better than the passive, that vague pronoun references are confusing, that incorrect comma usage is maddening, and so on. I’m merely promoting that we let go of some of the ridiculous grammar rules that have sprouted over the years and have stuck, like bits of urban myth and folklore. They no longer serve any real purpose apart from making some writers feel superior to others (even if those writers’ writing is nigh incomprehensible).

Retreat to Move Forward

I work in an office, so I often hear “corporate speak,” which most often includes incorrect word usage to the extreme. For example, I’m currently preparing for battle on the fact that you cannot use “clean” to describe accurate information or data. 30 Rock often mocks this corporate speak and the overuse of acronyms within the corporate environment–watch “Retreat to Move Forward” for some of the best examples or the 4th season Christmas episode. I admire the corporate world’s creativity with language, but please, please, please, let’s avoid the overuse of acronyms and the obsession with catchy phrases. It’s not helping anybody. We already have words for that–we don’t need to use a new word whose denotation nor connotation is remotely close to what you mean.

So as I move forward in the corporate world, I will do battle for those rules of English that help create clarity and meaning, but I might let a few fall by the wayside, those that are outdated, confusing, and impractical. They’ve long outworn their welcome in the grammar books.


Details, Details

They say that when you start copyediting, you can’t turn off the editing. You notice mistakes everywhere: on billboards, on advertisements, in your favorite books, in brochures. Everywhere you turn, there’s an error. Although I have read a  linguist who argues against the idea of a “standard” written English because of its prescriptive and often nonsensical rules, the writing world insists on proper grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling. Why? Because these elements create credibility. Typos, grammar mistakes, and malapropisms make a reader think that the writer, editor, or publisher doesn’t know what’s going on and subsequently is not a reliable or credible source.

Oftentimes, readers won’t catch these tiny mistakes. We either hear the mistake in spoken English, or our eyes gloss over the error, because we comprehend the meaning and care little about the minutiae of nitpicky grammatical rules. However, careful readers and those pesky copyeditors (hopefully) will notice, simply because they can’t stop and the urge to notice error is involuntary. These critical readers and those in the publishing business sometimes dislike the inability to turn off the editing. These readers want to enjoy a book without being annoyed by a confusion of subject-verb agreement or pronouns agreeing in number and gender to their antecedent, but oftentimes they simply cannot stop themselves. Readers who can’t turn off this mode are often seen as “grammar nazis” or uptight grammarians with no ability to make exception to the rule for writing purposes. Sometimes writers and editors need to take a descriptivist approach to grammar and let go of some of the rules for more informal writing or a more colloquial tone.

I get that. I’m a creative writer. I understand bending the rules for poetic license and creativity’s sake. I get being flexible so that the tone is more accessible to a general reader. Sometimes a writer needs to use a fragment to get a point across or mess around with diction to create interesting wordplay. Sometimes a writer needs to use the second person “you” to create a bond with the reader. Creative writing (particularly poetry) is given a wide latitude to break these rules–if they’re broken for a reason.

I’m one of those people who believes that the rules are made to be broken in creative writing and less formal writing. Thing is, you have to learn the rules first in order to effectively break them for rhetorical or creative purposes. Breaking the rules out of sheer error is a sign of an inexperienced writer. But breaking the rules intentionally with a specific literary goal in mind is a great feat–if pulled off correctly.

But creative writing aside, part of me expects a certain level of perfection once the genre turns away from the creative and experimental and toward the academic and nonfiction. I begin to see typos as careless mistakes and a copyeditor who just wasn’t looking closely enough on that second pass (I don’t judge–I miss things more often than I would like, but I’m not a professional copyeditor). I’m currently reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Massie is an amazing historian–I’ve already read The Romanovs: The Final Chapter and Nicholas and Alexandra. I had high hopes for the book on Catherine the Great. I expected Massie’s excellent historical accounts to live up to his earlier works. However, I soon became disappointed. Not only did I spot some obvious typos–“Catharine” instead of “Catherine” and “women” instead of “woman”–but the writing itself fell short of Massie’s earlier works. There was too much reliance on block quotes from primary sources. His overarching theme that Catherine’s active love life came from damaging past experiences is underdeveloped, usually because of the plethora of lengthy quotes. Occasional long quotations serve an excellent purpose to expand on idea best expressed in the original writer’s words. But using several block quotes on a single page is both overwhelming to the reader and signals the writer’s reluctance to interpret and explain.

As Massie is a historian–albeit for a commercial audience–I wondered if when he was reading the final product that he caught the errors. Writers I know who have published works say that when they catch a typo in the finished work, they cringe and can never stop. There’s something about knowing that anyone can catch the mistake and make a subsequent judgment on the writer’s ability. It’s a kind of horror that all writers hope to avoid.

Why did a professional publishing house not catch these mistakes? For one, it’s a long work–574 pages– and may have needed to be published on a specific schedule before the Christmas shopping season began or when the publisher needed to finish a line of books. Another reason may be the pressures put on copyeditors. The term “copyeditor” is slowly morphing into the role of “content editor.” Content editors not only do the work of a copyeditor but work on the quality of writing itself such as structure, organization, language, etc. Some content editors also have to step out of the comfortable realm of English grammar and literary quality into layout, typesetting, design, and so on. Suddenly one person has to do twice the work in the same amount of time in multiple fields without extra pay. The time that could have been spent on catching typos suddenly goes to communicating weaknesses in the writing to the author or perhaps having to check the notes at the end of the book or the accuracy of the quotes.

This change in the game is only part of the growing pains that publishing houses are experiencing from the technology revolution and advent of e-readers and self-publishing. There’s less money for greater needs, and some of that has to fall on the staff who have to do more with less time and less pay. For most of us, this loss of attention to detail is no big deal–after all, who’s going to notice if someone uses “they” instead of “he or she” except for a minority of type-A perfectionists out of touch with the evolution of spoken English? But at the same time, those tightly wound perfectionists are caretakers of the language, keepers of modern English. And although over time even prescriptive grammarians may let go of rules about splitting infinitives (the source of that rule I’ll discuss in a later post), the written word can’t be careless. It must persevere to preserve our language.

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