WHOA, NOW Or, About Balance the Force Is, Padawan
Grammar and related subjects can be a surprisingly touchy topic, and that touchiness comes in many flavors. For instance, I’m in a discussion group entirely for professional copyeditors (names withheld to protect the innocent, guilty or whatever you want to call them). There was a thread on a fairly common error, unintentionally substituting one homophone for another, and I’d made the point that the “wrong” one actually had some legitimate ground, albeit within a small, narrow, sharply defined and limited set of parameters, so it would behoove the wise copyeditor to check not only the immediate context but also what the author’s intent might be, then query if not absolutely certain. Reasonable, right? Standard practice?
Ohhhhhhhhhh, hell, no, apparently. While a number of responses saw the point and agreed to varying extents (mainly agreeing with the principles but not necessarily with the potential interpretations/applications of the two homophones in question), there were a few that put their metaphorical foot down and said variants on “Wrong! Never the twain shall meet!” There was such a strong reflex in response to the superficial error that some people simply wouldn’t accept the possibility of nuance. Well…okay, if you’re in a hurry, under a soon-to-implode deadline or trying to make the text as simple and non-nuanced as possible. All more or less legitimate factors (although I have a world-class horror of not giving something a full, 360-degree treatment because of purely mercenary/simplistic reasons, I do get the all-too-understandable powerful urge to sweep troubling little issues under the rug and move on). Be that as it may, I thought the principle of “think before knee-jerk application of the rule” was more or less accepted.
But that’s not the Big Problem here. There was one participant in the conversation who not only disagreed but also declared any nonadherence to the rules exactly as written to be (and this is a quote, not a paraphrase) to be “ignorant,” among other pejorative descriptions that confirmed that his use of “ignorant” not to be simply “unaware” but the sub-definition that carries intentionally negative connotation. Furthermore, said participant lashed out at “mistakes” that I had made in my attempt at thoughtful, deeper analysis of the reasons for the homophone mis-usage, apparently in an attempt to undermine the credibility of those arguments. (For the record, his main accusation of “mistake” hinged on my use of asterisks around a word for emphasis—which I had used in full awareness of widespread internet practice in forums where italics are not available—and he disparagingly referred to them as “weird quotation marks.” I noted in response that they were asterisks and referred to the aforementioned online usage of them for emphasis; his dismissive response was “I’ve never seen that, so it can’t be in widespread use, and anyway, what’s wrong with all caps?” in obvious unawareness that widely accepted “netiquette” holds that all caps is equivalent to shouting.)
It devolved from there, with a level of vitriol that I, perhaps naively, had absolutely not expected in a professional forum. Trying to understand where he was coming from, I did a bit of research…and found that he has a long-running newspaper column on grammar and language usage in general. I read a random selection of his columns and found them to be—if I may be absolutely honest—condescending, dismissive, denigrating, belittling regular lists of typos and usage errors. And that is what I just don’t get: he pointed and tittered and sneered in each and every column that I saw at the errors, but never bothered to try to explain why they were errors. There was zero effort to help but a constant stream of unsubtle jeering and put-downs.
This. Does. Not. Help. There’s already a strong undercurrent of “fight the rules because they don’t get me” out there, and smarming at people that they’re “uncivilized” and “ignorant” and “boneheads” (again, direct quotes) is in no way ever going to motivate them to learn the rules. If his intent were to, as he put it, “stamp out ignorance,” his absolute lack of concern for what does motivate people to learn a thing scuttles that intent at every step. In truth, it seems overwhelmingly more likely that his column is nothing more than an excuse to hurl insults at people every week.
Cui bono? Whom does that benefit? It’s especially inexcusable in light of the fact that the rules are not now and can never be absolute. The rules are there to provide a base, a framework, a starting point upon which to build real, living writing. Not only are there exceptions, but it happens all too often that following the rules can actually be counter to the author’s intent. There is a balance that MUST be struck between the rules and the reality.
Yes, most of the time, the rules do apply and work. And they work very well, for the most part, or they would never have reached the status of “rule.” But, as any linguist can tell you, the rules’ only true validity is as a description of the most broadly accepted usage, not as some tablets-from-on-high list of fundamental “truths” of the language. He dismissed that concept with a reductio ad absurdum of “We can’t give in to usage shift, or we’ll face the utter chaos of having to change the rules daily to match what morons are doing” (that may not be an exact quote; I have a policy of blocking toxic posters, so I’m not absolutely certain that’s precisely what he wrote). Er…if language didn’t shift in spite of purists’ pleadings, we’d still be speaking Chaucerian English. And it’s a fact that attempts to reduce writing to absolute adherence to the rules removes the language’s life. The only perfectly quantifiable, definable, unchanging languages are dead languages.
Don’t mistake me; we need the rules. There must be some common ground where we can begin discussion. And it seems painfully obvious that you have to know and understand the rules intimately if you want to know best how and why it’s best to bend or break them…and the copyeditor needs to, if not understand, at least be open to the concept of all this in order to be able to do his or her JOB.
Being utterly closed to that concept, however, accomplishes nothing but division and resentment. Insisting on absolute adherence to the rules risks being counter to the fundamental reason for the copyeditor’s work: to improve as much as possible the clarity of the communication. And if clearing the path between writer and reader is less important to a person than is strict allegiance to the rules, I firmly believe that person is doing a disservice to both that writing and the profession in general.
In the end, we can sometimes only guess at what the “best” ways will be. We’re not privy to the writer’s most internal thoughts, and sometimes the existential gap can make that incomprehension maddeningly difficult in our work. But to assume that the rules are always exactly right for every single situation risks an arrogant undermining of our job. We have to find that balance point, and that’s not a fill-in-the-formula (or, in my physics days, “plug-and-chug”) process. At the risk of sounding self-important, I say that that process is ultimately an art, not a crystal-clear science.
We’re none of us smart enough to decide what’s always right, forever and ever, amen. A bit of humility helps our work. Let’s recognize the inarguable fact that we, simply put, do not know everything.
FIXING YOUR WORDS Or, The Care and Feeding of Your Copyeditor
There’s a lot of chatter in the writing world about the relationship between writer and editor; today, we’re specifically going to address the writer-copyeditor relationship. It’s one that’s fraught with worry, pride, self-image… as has been said by many, many others, the manuscript often feels like the writer’s baby.
Before we dive into this, let’s establish some baseline terminology so we’re all on the same page (heh, page). I’m going to make some broad-strokes definitions for our purposes here, definitions that vary throughout the industry according to the publishing house, the individual, etc. (there are plenty of resources out there online that give different people’s concept of what each is).
Editor: This is the person who takes what you write and tells you how to make it better on the macroscopic scale. Is this character too whiny? Is the pace in that scene too slow? Does a central concept need to be developed further or condensed? Will this aspect of the story appeal to your intended audience? Yeah, that sort of thing. They’re generally the big-picture folks, the ones who deal most directly with your ideas.
Copyeditor: This is the person who handles the fine details. Spelling. Grammar. Punctuation. Consistency/errors in all of the above. All the annoying stuff that makes you think of your high school English teacher (and, hey, lookit—they even use the same red pens) and wonder what kind of nitpicky nerd even bothers with this stuff. That would be us. We’re the ones who take the fine-grain sandpaper, remove those little microscopic burrs that would cause your “machine” to function a little less well, and put the final polish on your story.
Anyway, now that we’ve agreed on basic terms, on with the show.
Don’t be afraid. Your copyeditor is more afraid of you than you are of them. (Yeah, I used “them” as the non-gendered, general pronoun. I’m allowed.) Let’s be honest: the writer is what the pop-media field would likely call The Talent. They come in with the Big Ideas, the stories that attract people, and the editor is the one shepherding The Talent. Who’s the copyeditor in this? The assistant. The one who handles the little day-to-day details. The person behind the scenes who does all that little stuff. Yeah, that’s us. It’s definitely not a glamorous job, and it’s quite often one that inspires searing, white-hot anger (whether justified or not, there it is; after all, we are the ones with the task of pointing out warts on your baby [I stole that phrase from Jim Butcher, y’all! Woo!]). Our work depends on yours; without the writer and the editor, we got nothin’. And we KNOW this.
But like your other intestinal flora, you need us. You haven’t built a career around the picayune little junk; you’re aces at the aforementioned Big Idea (apologies to John Scalzi there; I’m using this differently, so please don’t hit me with your awesome Mallet of Loving Correction). You paint a picture with words, or you help with said painting. We’re the ones who get the cigar ashes off of your magnum opus, shoo the flies away so the reader doesn’t do the equivalent of “Oh, EW, is that a New Jersey Air Maggot right smack-dab in the middle of what I had THOUGHT was a nice piece of art?” We try to remove all those little details that can get between the reader and what you’re trying to say; as Elmore Leonard said, writing should be transparent, so our job is to make sure that window between you and the reader is as smudge-free and scratchless as possible. after all you wouldnt want the readr to get to sidetracked by Little mechancal details would you ? (See what I did there?)
We don’t ask much, just an occasional scritch under the chin and some kibble in our bowls. We don’t demand that the writer be a True Believer in the One Holy Book of Chicago/AP/MLA/WTFever. What does help us most is consistency: if you can figure out a basic rule for how you’re going to use commas (serial, independent clauses, etc.), for example, we’ll be better able to watch out for where that doesn’t mesh with house style (hey, don’t look at us; them’s the rules). Make sure a character always speaks in a certain register (e.g., Billy Joe Bob ain’t gonna use the subjunctive until he’s showin’ off his Harvard larnin’, so knowing when he’d use “If I was gonna do that” as opposed to “If I were to do that” is a simple thing but surprisingly easy to forget) unless they have a strong, consistent reason to do otherwise in specific situations. Use invented terms/names consistently (if everyone calls it the High Council of the Holy Snarkian Empire in the first four chapters, it’s probably best not to change to the High Holy Council of the Snarkish Empire in chapter five). Granted, yes, it is our job to catch such little bloopers, and we’re happy to do it, but every second we spend catching and fixing the itty-bitty little stuff like that is a second we might miss seeing the sudden appearance of the Snarklan Empire right in the middle of all those Snarkian Empires. Help us help you.
I’m just sayin’. There’s a reason that the industry standard is to use Track Changes or its equivalent: the comments/corrections we make in your manuscript are, in the end, suggestions, ones that you can accept or reject with the click of a single button. We’re not just saying, “I’m right and YOU’RE SO OMG WRONG.” We have a house style guide that we’re paid to follow. We know what seems a bit wonky comprehension-wise to us. There’s always the chance that we’re the ones pulling a herp-derp and just not gettin’ what you’re layin’ down. But when it comes down to it, it’s worth consideration, even if that consideration leads to your saying “Nope, nope, nope; I think it would suck that way.” What we do is a “You might want to take a look at this and see if it’s really the way you want it, ’cause I’m not entirely seeing it” thing, not a “CHANGE THIS, YOU ILLITERATE WORDBEAST” thing. In the end, we’re just human, grammar gods though we may be; sometimes, we just don’t get something… and sometimes, yes, we make or miss mistakes. So, yeah, you should certainly feel free to take what we’re saying with a grain of salt, but it might be a bit of an overreaction to tie us to concrete blocks and chuck us into the Great Salt Lake.
We’re here to help you. It’s our job. And it’s one that people of our ilk, as a rule, like to do. We’re not pointing and laughing. We really do want to help however we can to make your work just that little bit better.
THE SERIAL COMMA: FRIEND OR FOE?
In the world of people who write or deal with writing for a living, the serial comma is a sure thing: these folks are just about guaranteed to have a firm opinion about it at the very least. First, a practical definition: it’s a comma that some schools of thought believe must come before the final conjunction in a list (e.g., “I saw Ralph, Burt, and Earl before I passed out from the scotch”).
For the most part, the textual world divides itself into two camps. First is the THOU SHALT NOT OMIT THE SERIAL COMMA camp. They feel that its inclusion is necessary in order to stave off potential misunderstandings. Here are variants on some of the usual suspects presented as examples by this camp:
“They invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
“I would like to thank my parents, Buddha and Cap’n Malcolm Reynolds.”
The reasoning here is that the reader could misunderstand the meanings (respectively: “They invited the strippers as well as JFK and Stalin” vs. “They invited the strippers, who happened to be JFK and Stalin” and “My thanks go out to my mother and my father, as well as to Buddha and Cap’n Malcolm Reynolds” vs. “Buddha and Cap’n Tightpants somehow got busy and produced offspring, and I’m here to thank them for that”).
On to camp #2, being the GET THAT USELESS LINGUISTIC APPENDIX OUT OF MY EYE camp. They feel that the comma’s inclusion is not necessary to the reader’s comprehension (“Dude, if you can’t tell from context that the strippers aren’t two dead world leaders, you’ve got some serious drug problems” and “Seriously? Cap’n Mal has the hots only for Inara”); they also feel that it runs counter to consistency (i.e., if “I saw Burt and Earl” doesn’t have a comma, why then should “I saw Ralph, Burt and Earl” slap one in there?).
There’s a third, smaller camp, the CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? camp. They feel that you don’t have to use the serial comma, but it’s a good idea to use it in the fraction of cases where it would help avoid confusion. These campers are obviously insane and need to be shut away from right-thinking NORMAL people, or so the two big camps would have us believe.
Which is the right camp? Who has the strongest argument?
… wait for it…
… patience, padawan…
… The right camp is the one that signs your paycheck. If you’re writing something for which any approval you want (financial or otherwise) comes from someone who may choose whether or not to pay you based on your conformity to their preferred style, DO WHAT THEY WANT. Outside of that, you’re free to choose to serial-comma your brains out, or you may choose to frolic freely, totally naked of all extraneous commas—that’s your call.
NB: I can’t leave this without pointing to the wonderful Mignon Fogarty, the brilliant mind behind the “Grammar Girl” advice blog. She comes down somewhat in the camp of All Serial, All The Time for the simple reason of… well, it’s easier; you never have to figure out things in potentially ambiguous or vague wordings. But she also points out that even the serial comma is not the cure to all ills. In the end, she confirms that it’s a style choice; i.e., listen to the person who’s going to sign your paycheck. Read it for yourself: Quick and Dirty Tips ™