Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the category “grammar”

Mixed Reviews, e-Publishing, and Other Amusements

I was recently assigned a short story to review and post about. I did what was required, but did so with a really heavy heart. You see, the book was an e-book, and had many of the faults that keep people from whole-heartedly adopting the technology.

The story idea was mildly interesting. However, the characters were flat and wooden — nothing there for a kid to really relate to. The editing was horrendous – spelling errors and bad grammar to the point where I wanted to write the author and tell him to get a good copy editor and pull this from Amazon until it was fixed. Worst of all, the story was entirely too heavy-handed and preachy; the nicest thing I could say about the way it was handled was that the author’s points could not be missed.

Why do I discuss this here, especially since I did the required review elsewhere, then? I note it to point out what I, and many others, see as some of the problems with e-publishing, especially of the vanity variety. As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, self-publishing e-books is incredibly easy compared to getting published the “old-fashioned” way. Unfortunately, this means that pretty much anyone can publish stuff — good or bad. Amazon abounds with poorly edited e-books; my favorite mistyped title is The Three Tenants of Prosperity. Gratuitous spelling errors, plots with holes you could have Andre the Giant walk through were he still alive, grammar errors that would be looked at askance in a second-grader’s work…and don’t forget to toss in characters that could be cut from recycled printer paper; sometimes it feels like people are just into parading their ignorance.

Please note that I am not talking here about using various street or regional dialects; those can add real flavor to a story. However, characters whose speech does not reflect who they are just make me want to throw the book at the nearest wall. Part of making fiction good is having the characters put an accurate picture of who they are in the readers’ minds.

However, I digress a bit. It’s not that all e-publishers are bad. Lawrence Block has been e-publishing his books for a while now, and the e-books are just as meticulously edited as his hard copy books are.There are reputable e-publishing houses. What I object to about e-publishing is largely that anyone can put anything out these days. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to – just that all the garbage out there makes it much harder to find the good books by new authors who are exclusively e-publishing for whatever reason. Yes, I know that even paper publishing has small vanity houses where these issues are regular visitors. This is why my reading remains a mix of both e-books and paper books.

I have been working a bit more, as I get healthier. It’s interesting to see all the different styles clients want. There are at least two guides for each of the writing teams I’m on. One is from the client, the second is from the project manager. Often, there are additional guides, cheat sheets, etc.  the most amusing part of this kind of work is making sure your work is not plagiarized – not even accidentally. This is usually done by using a program such as Copyscape, which searches the Web for words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that match your work. Unfortunately, there are things Copyscape flags that cannot be changed, such as your product’s name. Get enough “hits” and you can be let go by your project. Add in to this that most clients provide you with keywords and/or links they want you to use, and turning out 100% original copy becomes, shall we say, interesting. It’s not too terrible for me. Often I find the biggest challenge is writing to an approximate tenth-grade level.

Part of the problem is that the world has changed since I was taught to write. When I was growing up and in school, complex sentences were the sign of an educated person. Not that you used extra words, mind; such sentences had several clauses, but were – optimally – not strings of adjectives and adverbs. Passive voice was often part of formal writing; it served to distance you from your writing – to make the writing sound neutral. The current style is short sentences (I have been told that 25 words is optimal), with few clauses and fairly limited vocabulary. It’s not a style I learned easily, and I use a few programs to check for things like that (my favorite is Hemingway Editor). Anyway, I am finding writing in the new style something of a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. Language evolves, and we should evolve with it, even if it moves us out of our comfort zones.

That said, I still am happier when books I read are written with proper grammar and spelling – except when changed for reasons of dialect.

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Semicolons are Sexy

A friend on LiveJournal pointed me to this wonderful little blog post by Oliver Miller.  Since I’ve always been rather fond of semicolons, I figured that I should pass this one on to you guys.  After all, we grammarians are among the last people standing who don’t want to retire the semicolon.

I do really lament the fact that people no longer seem to understand how to use semicolons. Then again, I lament that people no longer understand how to use commas, and ellipses.  That’s just h0w I am.  I actually like the grammar I grew up with.

When I grew up, we had to diagram sentences. For those of you who are young, that means taking a sentence and sorting it into parts. It was like sorting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into the proper order, and I considered it fun and a challenge.

Diagramming a Sentence Courtesy of Wikihow.

Diagramming a Sentence
Courtesy of Wikihow.

These days, they don’t teach that anymore, and I am not thrilled about it.  Yes, it could be tedious; yes, it took time to master.  However, it also left me with a much better understanding of the language. It helped me understand the complex sentences that the writers we studied used.  It gave me an entry point for my love of language and the written word.  I don’t know what it is that has replaced it in today’s educational faddism, but I mourn its passing.  It made language much richer for me, because it taught me something about the part each word in a sentence played.

Sigh. I know it’s old-fashioned, and that you all are more used to me looking t the way language evolves and noting that it does happen. I know that language evolves.  I just wish we, as a society, still cared as much about how our language works as we do about who a celebrity was dating.

Okay, a semicolon might not be as sexy as (insert your favorite celebrity here), but they still make complex sentences more comprehensible.

What are some of your favorite writing, reading, and language books?

Most of us who play with words, whether for a living or for fun, love books about words, about writing, and about language. From the grammar books we grew up with, to the histories of language tha pique our interests, we are, indeed, “people of the book,” although the “book” in question may vary.

When it comes to writing, my go-to book is The Chicago Manual of Style, followed closely by Lawrence Block’s books on writing, by the Writers’ Digest series of writing books, and by almost any book that explores how English developed.  I also love books about journal-keeping (whether online or on paper).

Since I have read most of the books *I* have found on the subject, I am asking my readers to let me know what some of their favorites are, so that I can hit the library (my favorite resource of all) and expand my knowledge base. I know that a lot of the books we lean on for our grammar depend on what was being taught as we were growing up, and I also know that grammar has changed since I was a young’un.  Therefore, I am primarily interested in seeing what books are being taken as grammar gospel by those whose schooling was after mine (I graduated high school in 1970).

What books are your touchstones when it comes to grammar, language, writing and reading? What books would you recommend to someone trying to learn more about English and how it developed? What is your favorite reference resource?

Usage Peeve Bingo

Stan Carey, in his blog Sentence First, has a wonderful post about “Usage Peeve Bingo,” including a wonderful bingo card.  Mind, as an American, I would change the square marked “Americanisms” to “Oxford Comma,” but otherwise I think it’s a wonderful idea!

One thing that would definitely be on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card I would create would be my personal favorite: “As per.” I cannot tell you how many times I have  run into that in business correspondence, and it makes my skin crawl every time. I know it’s common usage, but it’s a redundancy. (It really is.  Look it up.) The proper usage (in business communications, anyway, should be “Per your request…” and not “As per your request….” However, this is one of those errors that people continue to make. In fact, many business people insist that it is the correct usage, and that “Per your request…” is wrong.

As I have said before, I know that language evolves, and that usage changes. But, like many of us, I tend to remain loyal to what the usage was back when I learned to read and write. Then, again, even the way language is taught has changed. I remember parsing and diagramming sentences, which is – increasingly – a lost art. Come to think of it, I also remember that it used to be common practice to double a final consonant (see “diagramming” in the previous sentence) when adding a suffix such as “…ing” or “…ed” to a word, which also seems to have largely fallen by the wayside.

So, what would you change on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card? What would you include? Exclude? Accept as the evolution of formal, written language? Reject?

Tales of a Recovering Grammar Snob

by Susan Dennis

I was raised in the 50’s, in the southeastern part of the United States. Rules were everywhere, and those rules were king. According to my mother, breaking a grammar rule was a Class A felony. She never, ever let a grammar error go uncorrected.

“You will not sound ignorant while you are living in this house,” was her battle cry.

When I got to 7th grade and learned to diagram a sentence, I was fascinated to find out that she wasn’t just making stuff up. There really were rules! And they made sense and you could draw them out. I was a lousy student my whole school career except when I got to diagram sentences. If there had been a parsing Olympics, I would have been in the center on that stage every time. My ear and my eye were locked in then and have never recovered. They have not changed with the times, or even relaxed a little. And it’s driving me nuts.

Felonious assaults on language rules these days are everywhere. I’ve seen them in books published by major publishers. I hear at least one a night on the news programs of major networks. NPR stabs my ears with several every morning. I have friends who write and who consider themselves both good writers and knowledgeable about grammar rules, often ignore them. It turns out that people who are paid to write, no longer feel compelled to follow the rules of grammar at all.

The straw that broke this camel’s back turned out to be a blogger I’ve followed for years. I loved what she had to say. Her blog is not about writing, and she’s broken a rule or two over the years, but yesterday, in her first paragraph, I read “…a few cute pictures of Scott and I.” It was like stubbing my toe on furniture – a big ouch.

And I realized as soon as the pain ebbed that the problem is me. I am not the grammar police. I’ve seen and heard enough people make grammar mistakes to know for sure that not adhering to the rules is not a sign of ignorance any more than adhering to them is a sign of genius.

I need to get over myself. I am a grammar snob and I mean that in the most unattractive way. I need to focus on the message and not on the delivery system and quit judging those to whom grammar rules don’t matter.

It’s not going to be easy. I’ve spent a lifetime looking down my nose at people like my blogger friend, but I can do it. I know I can. And, I’m pretty sure the world will not end.

(Susan Dennis is a web producer, living in Seattle Washington. Her interests are knitting, computers, tv, and baseball. She is a web producer, and has an online journal at http://susandennis.livejournal.com/.)

Him or Her?

One of my commenters to another post remarked that her pet peeve was people who use “they” instead of “him” or “her” in writing.

I agree that it would be lovely if English had a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.  It doesn’t, however; so people try to figure out ways to work around the issue.

Sometimes, especially if one knows the gender of the person referred to, one can use the gender-appropriate word.  However, there are times when using “his or her” is the only way to construct the sentence, and there are times when that is just too darned clunky.

When possible, I use that construction, but I am increasingly drawn — at least in casual writing, like a chat room, or in the fannish communities I hang out in — to using “heesh.”  I first encountered this term in the apa (amateur press association) communities that were the way people in sf fandom communicated before computers.  It’s a simple, fairly elegant work-around, and it’s a term understood by everyone in the community.

In formal communication, however, I still opt for the clunkier but correct construction.  It’s like everything else in life:  There are places where changes are appropriate, and places where they are not.  The art of living with a constantly evolving language is knowing which places are which.

If you are amenable to language changing, what fora do you consider appropriate for enacting those changes?  What fora would you *never* bring changes to?  What changes would you consider good and useful?  What changes do you despise?

A Few Thoughts on Writing

My ex and I were in Family Dollar buying some storage bins (I’m reorganizing my living space;  if you are interested you can read about it in my other blog, The Dangling Conversation), and after I swiped my credit card, the clerk said, “And now I just need your autograph.”  I replied that I was more used to signing books than plastic screens.  He asked if that meant I was a writer, and when I replied in the affirmative, he asked how he could improve his writing.  The ex and I asked what was wrong, and he mentioned run-on sentence and a few other things.  He mentioned that he had been told that he needed to read more to be a better writer.

We both agreed that reading was good, but pointed out that the thing to do was to keep writing, and to find someone who could show him how to correct his errors.  We also pointed out a few books he could look at to improve grammar and construction.

I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut, who said that if he were teaching writing, he would give each student a notebook and a pencil, and tell him or her to go and write until the end of the semester.

I agree that the way to improve one’s writing is, primarily to write.  In that regard, it’s like any other muscle or skill:  the more you exercise it, the more adept you will become at doing it.  And, yes, I agree that the more you read, the more your writing will reflect that.

However, I remain adamantly convinced that any person wanting to be a writer would do well to master the basics of the language he or she wishes to write in.

I know that stories can be compelling, even when they are not written in formal English.  When I was a school aide, the kids would recommend books that I never would have read on my own, and I read them (I I had a deal with them — I’d read what they recommended if they’d read what I recommended).  Invqariably, i found the stories compelling, even while wishing I had a red pencil in hand to correct the grammar (or lack thereof).  I’m not talking about the use of dialect or slang here, by the way.  I can live with those — they often make a character more vivid.  I am talking about plain old-fashioned misspellings and poor grammar.  The stories would have been even more compelling and would have appealed to a much wider audience (in my not-so-humble opinion) had the grammar been better.

This was pointed up to me nowhere more than reading Sistah Souljah’s excellent book, The Coldest Winter Ever.  The grammar was spot on, yet didn’t detract from the story at all; in fact, it made it much more readable.

So, yes, both reading and writing are essential for improving one’s own writing, but so is taking the time (and making the effort) to improve one’s grasp of the basics of grammar.

Grouchy Grammarians, or How I Learned to Love the Oxford Comma

Let me be right up front about it.  I am a devotee of the Oxford comma (aka penultimate comma).

For those who are too young to remember such things as parsing (diagramming) sentences, the Oxford comma is the comma that precedes and sets off the final term in a series (e.g., cars, boats, and planes).  Its primary purpose is to herald the end of the series but, like all commas, it is to give the reader or speaker a chance to pause and catch one’s breath.

I am aware that many people these days are dropping the use of the Oxford comma.  I do understand their reasoning, but I disagree with it.  Written English, as opposed to spoken English (which is much more colloquial) is formal for a reason:  to encourage clear, concise communication.  It also demands of its users a clarity of thought and expression that I find admirable.

Further, the Oxford comma is what I grew up with.  It’s that simple.  When I was in school, rules about written English were much stricter, and they were generally reinforced by our reading of quality literature (once the basics were mastered).  The rules we learned gave shape and rhythm to what we read.  It’s why I fell in love with language at an early age.

Can good books be written without the Oxford comma?  Certainly.  I’ve read stories that were compelling regardless of how grammatical (or not) they were.

Do I look down on those who don’t use it?  No.  Language changes and evolves, and I am well aware of it.  Heck, I use the occasional neologism myself.  However, the form of American English I am most comfortable with is the form I learned growing up:  Mid 1950s American Standard English, as taught in New York City public schools.

Is it the only acceptable form of English?  No, but it was designed to give the majority of people a common form of communication, thereby minimizing misunderstandings.

Therefore, I will continue to support the Oxford comma — as do many of my friends and acquaintances — even as I sadly acknowledge its passing from common usage.

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