Category Archives: Grammar

The Nation Speaks … in a Manner of Speaking

I worry sometimes that I wrote myself into a corner when I told you about robo-editing. Most of the problems I will discuss here twice monthly are caused by the robotic enforcement of rules that demand human judgment.  

One of the hallmarks of robo-editing is the inability to read language figuratively. Robo-editors cannot appreciate that not everything you put on the page is meant to be read literally. As a consequence, they will alter or delete perfectly decent figurative language with notes like, “The nation doesn’t actually speak.” Many of my colleagues have received marks like this from critique partners. I’ve received marks like this. I imagine some of you have, too.

There is an unspoken rule between critiquers and the critiqued that one can’t say such marks are unhelpful. I will now break that rule for you. This is unhelpful.

During the happiest time of my life, the four years I spent at the University of Virginia, one of my professors passed out a drawing depicting what someone would look like if the figurative descriptions used in classic poetry were read as literal truth. This portrait, barely recognizable as a human female, had pearls instead of teeth, globes for eyes, rose petals for lips and cheeks, and a couple of melons protruding from the bodice of her dress.

She was hideous. I wish I could find it to show you, but we all got a good laugh out of it.

The point of this drawing is that the woman described in this way is not offended because she understands that her lips are not actually rose petals (fragile, easily crushed, and prone to wilting). Instead, the writer has taken the wonder of nature that is the single rose petal and put her lips on the same pedestal. Most of us get that.

Juliet isn’t actually the blazing ball of gas at the center of our solar system. No one’s spirit, to the extent such a thing is tangible, has ever actually soared anywhere. The nation does not actually mourn or rejoice. The reader is presumed to be sharp enough to figure that out, as well as what you really meant, with a minimum of hand-holding. Your readers are that sharp. Trust me.

Even if they’re not that sharp – and I assure you that they are – isn’t it better to behave as if they are, instead of leaning in the opposite direction?

The robo-editor, however, seems to honestly believe that your reader is incapable of determining that you are using figurative language when you say that the nation speaks (and you are, it’s called synecdoche). Alternately, the robo-editor hasn’t made that leap itself. Neither situation is good.

Eliminating all figurative language essentially forces you to tell instead of showing. Robo-editors are great at telling. Good luck eliminating figurative language if you write something with high emotional content. I dare you to try writing romance that way.

This component of robo-editing, like so many others, is based on some misinformation about the language. Many robo-editors believe that they are removing clichés. Let us be clear: figurative language is not per se clichéd. Things become clichéd with overuse. Don’t delete the fire in someone’s eyes because there isn’t actually a fire (ouchie!). Delete it because it’s been done to death.

The last time I was robo-edited in this way, I had written about something – probably bedsprings – protesting under a character’s weight. I got back a note that read something like, “Protesting is an emotional act, which springs are not capable of performing. J” I think the whole sentence had been deleted, but hey, nice of them to leave me a smiley face, right?

I resolved to take the robo-editor’s advice with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it took quite a few grains of salt, arranged around the rim of a glass.

My guess here is that the robot editor is the only one who thinks I carefully placed several grains of salt around the rim of a glass in order to cope with its advice. I suspect that most of my readers would think I had a drink. I cannot stop the robot from thinking whatever it wants, but the truth of the matter is that I am not writing for the robot. I’m writing for people who read the preceding paragraph and saw a margarita.

And now it’s time for me to see a margarita. Literally.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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So Shall It Be Written: Using the Passive Voice

Call them resolutions, goals, or life lists. The names may vary, but the intentions don’t. People like to start a new year by making plans and taking action. I’m pretty sure no one is making the promise to sit around more, although there is value in a vow to be more accepting of life as it comes by.

I’m taking action myself in the new year. In my first editorial post of the year, I’m taking on the passive voice.

First, let’s be clear about what the passive voice is.

In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is receiving the action described by the verb. In the active voice, the subject is performing the action. Neither of the preceding two sentences is written in the passive voice (but this one is).

For example, the sentence “Lexi wrote this blog post” is in the active voice; I, the subject, am doing the writing. If I said, “This blog post is written by Lexi,” the subject, which is now the blog post, is receiving the action, which is my having written it.

Lots of misinformation surrounds the passive voice, and that misinformation can lead to robo-editing. The worst of it is the misconception that inclusion of the verb “to be” (or any of its forms) places your sentence in the passive voice. That’s just not true. If I write that “I am slapping a robo-editor,” I am definitely performing the action.

I’ve also observed a lively debate about whether a sentence like “I am confused” is in the passive voice. One school of thought maintains that this sentence is in the passive voice. The subject is being confused by something not present in the sentence. Personally, I think that “confused” is an adjective here. That would place this in the active voice; the subject is performing the action, to the extent that the state of being is an action.

I do not purport to resolve this debate here, but I want to make two points. My reading of the sentence leaves the writer with another problem, in that the only verb in the sentence is a form of “to be.” That’s limp writing, and we can do better. I also want to note that if I’m editing, I charge by the hour, and it will take me less time to call the word “confused” an adjective, suggest using a better verb, and keep moving, rather than engage in the debate about voice. Your mileage may vary.

Most of us have at some point been told not to use the passive voice. At all. But is that good advice? In my so-called real life, as a lawyer and a journalist, I often find I have to use the passive voice. I’m willing to bet you face many of the same situations.

Passive voice is a good idea – if not required – when it doesn’t matter who performed the action, when it’s unclear who performed the action, when it’s important to obscure blame for the action, and when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor. It’s okay to say someone was killed if we do not know (or cannot prove) who committed the murder. It’s okay to say your car was vandalized if your concern lies more with your car than with the perpetrator. To say that something could have been handled better avoids pointing the finger without necessarily minimizing the mistake. Lots of people apologize exclusively in the passive voice (I think it takes guts to apologize in the active, but that’s another column).

Don’t write off the passive voice altogether. You’ll find it’s a powerful ally. Just don’t let it run off with your writing. Readers love people of action.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

Some of you might know that I write commercial fiction under a pseudonym. As a grammar snob, I pride myself on generally clean manuscripts. Not that I don’t need editing — believe me, I do — but the edits usually aren’t for grammar or punctuation, at least not on a large scale. So when I pass my precious baby (manuscript) out to my group of loyal beta readers, I ask them to let me know of any glaring inconsistencies in the story (like my hero’s eyes are brown in the first chapter and blue in the second). These are the types of errors that are so easy for authors to miss because we’ve lived in the story for so long, and probably had multiple drafts where we’ve changed details like that, we tend to gloss over inconsistencies when we’re proofing.

A couple weeks ago I sent my newest story out to my group, and asked one person to share with her friend. I knew the woman to be an avid reader, and I figured it never hurt to have an additional set of eyes. It was probably two or three days later that that my friend sent me an e-mail asking, “Was the story edited yet?”

Immediately my writer’s “hackles” went up. “Yes,” I responded. “The edits are done.” I didn’t ask why, partly because I was rushed, and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, or not until I had a chance to brace myself! (I do have a fragile ego at times.)

Another few days passed before I heard from my friend again. She said, “Susie (name changed to protect us all) wants to know, isn’t it incorrect to start the sentence with the word and?”

Ah…there it was, the reason for her earlier question: Susie was misinterpreting my request for a beta read as a request for proofreading. Of course I want my beta readers to let me know of errors and typos, but I don’t expect them (or want them) to turn into line and/or content editors. I need them to read the story as they’d read any story and let me know if anything makes them stop and do a mental head-shake.

I responded that in terms of academic or business writing, that’s the general rule, but fiction writers have leeway to play with sentence structure and rules. It’s called literary/poetic license. Authors use literary devices to emphasize or clarify. Like using clauses in place of a full sentence (when the meaning is clear). Like ignoring the rules of paragraph construction and sticking a sentence (or a clause) in a separate paragraph to draw attention to or highlight the point.

And, yes, even like starting a sentence with the word and.

When writing for academia or business, (I believe) you have to follow the rules of grammar because it gives your argument, your purpose for writing the piece, credence and authority.

When writing fiction, we’re telling a story, not writing a doctoral dissertation, or an editorial. In fiction, the writer’s job is to draw the reader into the make-believe world and keep him or her there, and the judicious use of those literary devices helps writers to do that. At the same time, we trust our readers to know the difference between those elements and grammar errors.

So after having this discussion with my friend, I passed on Susie’s kind offer to borrow her grammar book and vowed that when it comes to beta readers, to be careful who I’m asking, and to be clear about what I’m asking for. Not only had I probably wasted that woman’s time and energy, but she probably got little enjoyment from proofreading a story as a term paper.

Thanks for visiting with me this week. Hopefully sharing my goof will help others avoid this pitfall.

Wishing all a blessed Thanksgiving, filled with the laughter and love of family and friends. And maybe even a few spare hours to read a good book!

_______________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing.

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Help! I’ve misplaced my modifier and I don’t know what to do!

My target for this week’s rant is the misplaced modifier and its close cousin, the dangling participle. I can think of no other grammar no-no that can create as much confusion as these woefully common (and often hilarious) errors. Why? Because they cause a reader to stop mid-sentence and force the reader to reconstruct the sentence until it makes sense, which could be a matter of nanoseconds, or minutes. Either way, it’s not the goal that we, as professional writers, strive for, so we need to learn to recognize these errors and understand how to correct them.

Simply put, a modifier is a word or phrase intended to enhance or clarify another word or phrase. For most clarity, it should appear as close as possible to the word/phrase it’s modifying. When the modifier is misplaced or is left dangling, it confuses.  (Let’s face it, there aren’t many things that do well when improperly placed or left “dangling,” are there?) And it’s easy, so easy, to weave these gems, quite accidentally, into your writing, if you’re not paying attention. Your mind starts off one way, then takes a detour, and voila’! Your modifier is wandering off, enhancing some other word or phrase that you didn’t intend. In fact, in the case of a dangling modifier, the thing you’re trying to modify might have escaped the sentence altogether!

Here’s a (hopefully) obvious example of incorrect usage using “as,” which I find one of the worst of the misplacing culprits:

As a long-time employee, the CEO presented me with a silver watch at our annual awards ceremony.

The modifier in this sentence is: As a long-time employee. But what is it trying to modify? Who’s the long-time employee? As the sentence reads, it’s the CEO.  But that’s not what we mean, is it? The long-time employee is meant to be me.

To correct, we need to switch the point of view of the sentence from the CEO to me.

Here’s a corrected version:

As a long-time employee, I was honored to accept a silver watch from the CEO at our annual awards ceremony.

See the difference?

Another common mis-usage often happens when using the word “with.” Writers, pay attention when using “with”!

Excited, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid, and dug inside the depths of the box with hands itching to be filled.

This one isn’t quite so obvious, and it probably wouldn’t cause too many lifted eyebrows, but it’s there: with hands itching to be filled. Exactly who or what has itching hands — the box, or Sally? Sally, of course. The problem occurred because I didn’t place the modifying phrase close enough to the word it’s supposed to modify (Sally).

A better construction would have been something like:

Excited, her hands itching to be filled, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid and dug inside the depths of the box.

(Hey, sometimes it’s hard sometimes to come up with these examples! Anyway, let’s move on.)

Dangling participles/modifiers happen when the writer attempts to modify something that isn’t really there. Example:

Jogging down the path, a stone got lodged in my sneaker, making me wince.

Wow…I think I’d pay to see that stone jogging, wouldn’t you? Of course, I left the poor modifier (jogging down the path) dangling there all by its lonesome because I didn’t include “me” in the object of the modifier. I have my sneaker in there, but that’s not jogging either. I’m the one who’s jogging. (Not in real life, trust me. Although that’s a topic for another day.)

Correctly written, the sentence would read:

Jogging down the path, I winced when a stone got lodged in my sneaker.

Again, the sentence is not exactly worthy of a Pulitzer, but at least the right thing is jogging in this one.

If you find yourself misplacing or dangling your modifiers, take heart! You’re not alone! In fact, these offenses can be found daily in publications and advertisements, and many of them are quite funny. The next time you’re reading something and have to stop and think about what the sentence means, check for the modifiers and see if they’re where they’re supposed to be. After some practice, you’ll be more skilled at spotting them in your own writing. You might even have a few laughs along the way!

Words matter.

________________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing.

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Spelling schmelling?

I’ve been ranting this past month or so about how important it is for professional communicators to use proper language and grammar, and how vital it is for story-tellers especially to be wary of falling into the trap of pop culture fads in our written language. Why? Because anything that forces the reader to do a mental calculation, or mental rewording, forces that reader from your wonderful story. That includes spelling, and as you might know, school districts across the country have at least toyed with the idea of removing the instruction and testing of spelling from their curriculum. The theory, I believe, is that the spell-check function that’s available on virtually every software application has come to replace the need for knowledge.

I suppose that would be fine if our society weren’t continually inundated with examples of “alternate” spellings. They’re everywhere, from texts and tweets to television ads.  I understand the necessity for brevity in tweeting, and even texting – although I generally refuse to use abbreviations in my own text messages. It’s true! Ask my kids! I also understand an advertiser’s need to draw attention to its products, so it changes “light” to “lite,” for example. Not only will that word visually “pop” to the viewer or reader, but maybe lightening the word itself sends a subliminal message.  And let’s face it, there are no grammar or punctuation rules in advertising!

Just last night I saw a PSA commercial featuring a popular singer. It delivers an important message about breast cancer awareness, and the final shot shows the singer with the slogan: ROCK UR PINK. While I applaud the intent, I wonder, was it really necessary to use the text version of “your” in the slogan? Would the message have been diluted by using the real word? I don’t know.  Obviously it’s directed at the younger viewer, but I’m beginning to worry that soon kids aren’t going to know that “your” is a word!

Spelling is hard enough in the English language. Just look at the light/lite above example. You can’t phonetically pronounce “light,” so you must be taught that the “gh” is silent. And even with today’s  super-duper software and apps, you need to at least have an inkling of the correct spelling of a word to make the technology work.

Combine the inherent difficulties of our language with the current fad toward made-up spellings, and you have a recipe for disaster! I mean, these spell-checkers are going to have to become translators before long.  I dare you to pop “ur” into a Word doc (like I just did) and have it correctly changed to “your.”  For the record, my choices of correction are: or, urn, up, us and our. A user can add “ur” to the dictionary, of course, but why?

This is an extreme example, I know. My point is that we can’t force-feed the world with gobbledygook and rely on technology to always fix it. There are some basic rules and facts we need to  know. We at least need to know what pitfalls to watch for.

So, dear writers, I urge you to stay vigilant against this invasion, to eradicate these nouveau “words” from your everyday usage. You want to write a scene where one person is texting another? That’s fine, use “ur”; “your” wouldn’t be believable in that case, would it – unless you’re writing a scene where your mother , who refuses to use abbreviations, is texting… but you know what I mean.

Stay strong!

Words matter.

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by | October 23, 2012 · 6:26 am

Typo-rage: Get a grip, people! It’s a typo!

If there’s one thing that gets grammar snobs going, aside from serial commas and apostrophe abuse, it’s sloppy proofreading or errors, especially in publications that are supposed to have been professionally copy edited. When I see a typo, though, unless the piece is riddled with errors, I try to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s not sloppiness. Maybe it’s just being human.

When I was in my twenties, I worked for a federal agency in a unit that responded to correspondence from the public on behalf of the director of the agency. I won’t say what agency it was, but suffice it to say that its mission was (and is) to catch bad guys.

As a pool typist (yes, we had typing pools back in the dark ages of office technology), I would pull the original correspondence from a box, then hook up to a remote transcription system where I’d grab the response dictated by one of the staff letter writers. I’d type away, print out the response, clip it to the original correspondence, and return it to the letter writer for proofing.

Now, most of those letters were signed by a machine. I know, I know…disappointing, but true. (It was cool to watch the machine, though, I must say.)  Some of them, however, actually went all the way up to the director’s office for his real, live signature. In those cases, the letter would get extra layers of proofreading. Yes, layers.

Those letters would go from me, to the letter writer, to his or her supervisor, and so on up the chain until they arrived at the desk of the director’s executive secretary, a terrifyingly efficient woman in her mid-fifties whose mere name still makes me quake in fear.  I’ll call her Miss Jones for purposes of this story. (For the record, Miss Jones was not married but was not a fan of the whole “Ms.” salutation.) She was never nasty or unprofessional to me in any way, but I was young and stupid, and my guess is that most of my fear was self-manufactured. Still, it was real. So every time one of my letters had to make that journey up to her desk, I would fret and worry until I knew it passed muster and founds it way back down to our little unit, all signed and ready for the mail.

And that’s what usually happened. Usually.

I’ll never forget the one day, though, that it didn’t. It was a short letter, taking up probably about half to two-thirds of the sheet of letterhead. Because it was so short, compared to some of the tomes we shipped out of that office, I didn’t worry too much about mistakes. I mean, I had read and re-read that sucker, using a piece of cardboard under each line to train my eyes on that row (a system I still use), probably ten times before passing it off to the letter writer. I was fairly confident it was error-free. So when the call came, from none other than Miss Jones herself, it was like I’d been smacked in the gut with one of Babe Ruth’s home runs. I think I almost blacked out with panic.

I remember rushing up to the director’s suite, where decisions impacting the world were made, sweat pooling in my arm pits and running down my face, to face her and the consequences of what I’d done.

She didn’t speak when I entered her realm and approached her desk, just pointed with a surprisingly pretty pink-tipped finger to my horrific offense. Under the director’s name, I had typed his title: Direceor.

Did you see it???  You must have. How could you not? I mean, how could I, and all those layers of proofreading professionals, have missed that I replaced the letter “t” with the letter “e,” in THE MAN’S TITLE OF ALL PLACES!?

I suppose I could have comforted myself with the fact that I’d managed to type his name correctly, but I didn’t. I stammered a slew of apologies while she glared, then I crawled back to my desk, made the change with fingers that didn’t stop trembling for the rest of the day, and printed out the freshly corrected letter. I can’t remember if I walked the new version up to her, or if that was left to one of my managers, but I do remember that that letter got me a big, fat check mark in my list of errors come performance review time.

To be fair, I think I might be remembering this episode with a bit more drama than actually occurred, but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned that day:

(1) You never catch your own errors; and

(2) sometimes  other people don’t either.

So when I see a typo in a newspaper or article, or even a book, I don’t rant and throw my hands in the air and call the poor author a schmuck for not picking it up like some do.  I think back to Miss Jones, and the agency’s “direceor,” and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

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Apostrophe Abuse: It … must … stop!

This week we’re talking about the much-maligned apostrophe, a mark of punctuation that has been incorrectly used by so many in American pop culture over the past few years (maybe even the past decade) that even I have been known to fall victim to popular but incorrect usage from time to time. (And believe me, you couldn’t punish me more than I’ve punished myself for those offenses. I mean, this is how civilization declines, people—one misplaced apostrophe at a time!)

Briefly, an apostrophe is that curly thing that looks like an upside-down comma.

I know, you’ve probably seen it misused so often, you probably don’t know what I’m fussing about. It’s understandable, but we need to turn the current tide of incorrect usage. We need to learn what’s right and set a shining example for the rest of the country!

It’s not that hard, actually. There are only three uses for the apostrophe:

  1. To indicate ownership or possession (something belonging to something else).
    Example: My husband’s eyes are blue. 
    (Hopefully this needs no additional clarification.)
  2. To indicate that letters are missing from a word.
    Example: I dont see the ball.
    The apostrophe takes the place of the second “o” in “do not.”
    I do not see the ball.
    (I think everyone gets this one, too.)
  3. To indicate the plural…of a lower-case letter. That’s it.
    Example: Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

So, for example, when you see people add an apostrophe to indicate plural years, it’s wrong.

  • I went to school in the 1990’s. – WRONG
  • I went to school in the 1990s. – CORRECT
  • But…I went to school in the ‘90s. – CORRECT
    (In this case, the apostrophe takes the place of the omitted “19” in 1990.)

When you see people add an apostrophe to indicate simple plurals of proper nouns/names, it’s wrong.

  • We went to dinner with the Baker’s. – WRONG
  • We went to dinner with the Bakers. – CORRECT
  • But…We drove to dinner in the Bakers’ car. – CORRECT.
    In this case, the car belongs to the Bakers (plural), so the apostrophe is used to indicate possession.

And now for the double-whammy of apostrophe confusion: possessive pronouns (especially the ones with s’s):  its, his, hers, yours, theirs.

The first thing to understand is that the following are not words, period:

its’
his’
her’s
your’s
their’s

If you see any of these, a discussion of usage is meaningless and unnecessary because they aren’t real words. If you see any of these in a sentence and don’t know how to make the sentence right, reword it.

Examples of correct usage:

  • The dog chewed its bone.
  • Sam says the dog is  his.
  • Sally says the dog is hers.
  • I say the dog is yours, not theirs.

Caution: “it’sis a word. In this case, the apostrophe takes the place of the second “i” in “it is.”

It’s odd to see the dog chew its bone.

In conclusion, we know apostrophes can be confusing. We know you’re inundated on a daily basis with examples of incorrect usage. Just remember those three reasons to use an apostrophe, and you’ll be fine.

For more information about the apostrophe and its uses, you might want to check out what Purdue University’s OWL has to say on the subject.

Words (and apostrophes) matter!

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