V Is for Verb

This one’s going to be short because I’ve got a job due today. It isn’t an especially long or complicated job, and I’ve had plenty of time to get it done, but as usual it was contending with other jobs that had earlier deadlines.

So — verbs. Verbs are indispensable. You pretty much can’t have a sentence without a verb, but a verb can be a sentence with no help from any other parts of speech: Stop! Go! Read!

They’re also versatile. From verbs grow gerunds, which function as nouns and can actually turn into nouns: Reading is fundamental. I haven’t finished the reading.

From verbs grow participles, past and present, which can function as adjectives: After the baked loaves came out of the oven, she put her baking utensils away.

Dangling participles are something editors and writers have to watch out for, but I hope they never go away because some of them are very funny. Here’s one from the Oxford Dictionaries online: “If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company $12 billion.” The default subject for “found” is “the lawsuit,” but lawsuits are generally not tried in court. If it’s the company on trial, then make it “If the company is found guilty, the lawsuit could cost it $12 billion” — but without more context we don’t know that for sure. It might be one of the company’s higher-ups.

Infinitives can dangle too — to submit your manuscript, it must have one-inch margins on all sides — but what makes many people nervous about infinitives is the splitting, not the dangling. This worry arose because in other languages, notably Latin, infinitives are one word and can’t be split. In English the infinitive includes to: “to submit,” It’s definitely possible to slip another word or two between “to” and its verb, and often it’s a good idea. Placement of an adverb, say, can affect the cadence or emphasis of a sentence or line of poetry.

Infinitives are versatile little buggers. Don’t be afraid of them.

What turns some ordinarily mild-mannered editors and teachers into wild-eyed partisans these days is the verbing of nouns. “Verbing weirds language,” says Calvin in a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip from January 25, 1993.

My editorial mentor, ca. 1980, couldn’t abide the verbing of “target.” Some while later I took up the cudgel against “impact.” Some while even later than that, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a big step from “to aim at a target” to “to target,” or from “to have an impact” to “to impact.” Sure, “affect” means pretty much the same thing, but “impact” makes a bigger boom.

Where I do draw the line is when a verb spawns a noun that is then unnecessarily verbed: administer -> administration -> administrate. No no no no.

The manuscript that’s due back at the publisher’s today isn’t a cookbook, but it does contain some recipes. One suggests that you “may brulee the marshmallows until golden brown” before putting them on top of your spiked hot chocolate.

I screeched to a halt. “Crème brûlée” I knew: a custard with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. I knew enough French to recognize “brûlée” as the feminine past participle of brûler, to burn. Since I don’t edit cookbooks but I do know that cookbookery has its own conventions, I wondered if “brulee” had been verbed in cookbook English, and if so, should the diacritics be included?

Off I trotted to the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, whose members include editors in myriad fields who speak a daunting array of languages. What I learned was that diacritics are customarily used in good cookbooks but that “brulee” didn’t seem to have been verbed in English.

At this point I realized that the big problem had nothing to do with verbing or diacritics. The big problem is that the author hadn’t made it clear what you were supposed to do with the marshmallows. Unlike crème brûlée, marshmallows aren’t sprinkled with a layer of sugar that can be caramelized with a torch. Around campfires or fireplaces marshmallows are generally toasted, but how about in the kitchen?

Clearly it was time to go back to Q for query, so that’s what I’ve done.

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S Is for Spelling

semicolonAll week, as drew closer in my saunter through the alphabet, I assumed it was going to be “S Is for Semicolon.” I like semicolons; you already knew that, right? I blogged about why I like them (and how I don’t really understand why some people hate them so much) in “Praisesong for the Semicolon.” True, that was almost three years ago, but the post holds up pretty well.

Plus it includes a link to where you can buy semicolon swag on Cafepress. I’ve already got the T-shirt, but I could use some more stickers.

S offered several other possibilities, though not nearly as many as C or P — slash (aka solidus), symbol, signature, serif, sans serif (which I just learned can be spelled as one word), schedule, speech, sentence, style sheet . . .

Spelling! Aha, thought I, that’s a big one!

Almost too big, I think a few minutes later, staring at the screen and wondering where to start, where to start?

With a trip to the dictionary, of course. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) has to say about spelling:

1. a. The forming of words with letters in an accepted order; orthography.
b. The art or study of orthography.
2. The way in which a word is spelled.
3. A person’s ability to spell words: a writer plagued by bad spelling.

English-language spelling is a bear, but I’ve always been good at it, probably because (at least as a kid) I had a good eye and memory for detail. In fifth grade my nickname was Walking Encyclopedia. A few years later I was a killer at Trivial Pursuit, especially when partnered with someone who knew TV and sports a lot better than I did.

Since everyone’s the hero of their own story, including me, I early on assumed that anyone who couldn’t spell well either wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t too bright.

After I learned about dyslexia, I got a lot more tolerant. I also learned that many smart people and some very good writers are “plagued by bad spelling.” You probably won’t meet any copyeditors or proofreaders who are similarly impaired, but I know a few very capable developmental or substantive editors whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is somewhat shaky. They deal with the big picture. Copyeditor and proofreader come in their wake to tend to the details.

AHD refers to “letters in an accepted order.” Right. Even when we spell words wrong, we generally agree on how they should be spelled. If necessary, we consult a dictionary. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spell quite a few words differently, but in nearly all cases an AmE spelling is intelligible to a BrE speaker and vice versa: traveler/traveller, check/cheque, defense/defence, curb/kerb.

So why is spelling important? Is spelling important? Memes circulate on Facebook with the most atrocious spelling, intentionally atrocious spelling, like these:

 

 

 

 

And my favorite of all, this:

And we can read them. It’s true that the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, unless it’s proofreading, of course, but would you want to raed page after page of any of the above? Probably not. It’s exhausting. You put so much effort into deciphering the text that you’re barely taking in what it’s trying to tell you. The texts above are mainly trying to tell you that you can understand short passages of atrociously spelled words.

When words are spelled in “an accepted order,” we can devote more attention to how they’re strung together in sentences and paragraphs and what they’re trying to say. Sentence structure and punctuation serve the same purpose, by the way. They’re not trying to flummox you or make you feel stupid. If you’re trying to tell a story or get an idea across to readers, they’re on your side.

Spelling errors and typos don’t mean you’re stupid, but when you’re trying to make a good impression on, say, an agent or editor who has to wade through dozens of query letters in a week (or even a day), they don’t inspire confidence. They may even create the impression that you’re careless or clueless or less than competent. Take excruciating care with any document on which much depends.

And yes, digital spell checkers can be helpful. I use mine when I’m in a hurry, and when I’m typing on a virtual keyboard. But a proofreader, copyeditor, or careful reader can usually tell within a paragraph or two or three when a document has been spell-checked but not proofread. The spell checker knows that “reed” is spelled correctly, but it doesn’t know that you don’t reed books.

M Is for Manuscript

“Manuscript” literally means “written by hand.” Sounds like “handwriting,” doesn’t it? Not all that long ago most manuscripts (“mss.” for short; the singular is “ms.”) were handwritten. Some of us still do a fair amount of first-drafting in longhand.

These days, however, when we talk about manuscripts, we’re usually referring to the finished (at least for the time being) product that we circulate to our writer friends, hand over to an editor, or submit to a publisher. That manuscript had better not be handwritten. Go back to “H Is for Handwriting” (or take a close look at the photo at the top of this page) and you’ll see why.

Some manuscripts are handwritten, of course. They are generally found in archives and libraries, where they are pored over by scholars, not read by the general public.

Though often hard to read, handwritten manuscripts are undeniably full of personality. Standard manuscript format isn’t. That’s part of its point. It says little about the writer’s personality, but what it does say is important. It tells the agent or editor who reads it “This writer knows what she’s doing. She’s prepared a manuscript that makes it possible for you to focus on the writing.”

So what is “standard manuscript format”? Most how-to-get-published books and websites will tell you, but here are the basics:

  • Double-spaced
  • One-inch margins all around
  • Serif font (sometimes a particular font is specified, like Times New Roman)
  • 12 point type
  • A header that includes the author’s surname, a word or two from the title, and the page number

My writers’ group members bring paper pages to our weekly meetings. Here’s one of mine. It illustrates all of the above points, plus the convention that the first page of a new chapter begins some ways down the page, usually between a third and a half. Note also that the header includes “draft 3.” Version control — keeping track of revisions and rewrites — deserves a post of its own. Maybe when we get to V?

manuscript page

Manuscripts submitted electronically can of course be reformatted by the recipient, but you want to create a good first impression. Freelance editors often wind up tweaking (at least) the mss. submitted by our less experienced clients, but we’re generally charging for the time we spend doing this. Unless you already have a big name or a hot topic, agents and publishers are doing you a favor by reading your work. Make it easy for them.

Cranky editor

For both fiction and nonfiction writers, the Chicago Manual of Style‘s section “Manuscript Preparation for Authors” is  a good place to start. Different genres, journals, and academic disciplines often have their own requirements, some of which are very specific and should be followed to the letter.

Learn the conventions and expectations that prevail in whatever field you’re in. This is especially true if your ms. includes citations — footnotes and/or endnotes, bibliography or reference list. As I noted in “B Is for Backmatter,” messily formatted citations make editors very cranky. Writers are well advised to avoid this whenever possible.

G Is for Grammar

We’re so quick to say that someone “doesn’t know their grammar” that it might be surprising how many of us aren’t entirely sure just what “grammar” is. This would include me. I just had to look it up (again). Here is what Bryan A. Garner, author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style, has to say:

Grammar defined. Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences. These rules, which native speakers of a language learn largely by osmosis, govern most constructions in a given language. The small minority of constructions that lie outside these rules fall mostly into the category of idiom and usage.

In the very next paragraph he notes that “there are many schools of grammatical thought,” that “grammatical theories have been in great flux in recent years,” and that “the more we learn the less we seem to know.”

button: grammar police enforce the syntaxNot to worry about all this flux and multiplicity, at least not too much. A couple of things to keep in mind, however, when someone accuses you or not knowing your grammar or when, gods forbid, you are tempted to accuse someone else: (1) spelling and punctuation are not grammar, and (2) some of the rules you know are bogus.

If you’re not sure which of the rules you know are bogus — well, I just Googled bogus grammar rules (without quote marks) and got 338,000 hits. Bogus rules are the ones we generally don’t learn by osmosis. They are stuffed down our throats by those in authority, often teachers or parents.

At the top of almost everybody’s list are the injunctions against splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition. They’ve both been roundly debunked, but I still get asked about one or the other from time to time so I’m pretty sure they’re not dead yet. Plenty of writers and even editors still get anxious when a “to” is split from its verb or a preposition bumps up against a period/full stop.

The general purpose of bogus rules is not to help one write more clearly; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t. As literacy spread and anyone could learn to read and write, the excruciatingly well educated upper classes confronted a dilemma: how in heaven’s name can we tell US from THEM? Hence the rules — about language, etiquette, and various other things.

Note, however, that the uppermost class can generally get away with anything, so the ones who follow and strive to enforce the bogus rules are often those a notch or two below in the pecking order. That’s how they demonstrate their loyalty to those at the top. Watch out for them.

E Is for Ellipsis

An ellipsis is three dots.

An ellipsis comprises three dots. (See, I have to show that I know how to use “comprise” in what used to be considered the correct manner.)

An ellipsis consists of three dots with spaces between them.

. . .

not

I don’t get feisty about the things some editors get feisty about. I mean, I’m behind the serial comma, but I don’t believe those who don’t use it are trying to destroy the English language, western civilization, or some other cosmic entity. Ellipses, on the other hand . . .

Aside: That wasn’t an ellipsis. Those were suspension points. Read on for clarification.

I get feisty about ellipses. In my mind, for instance, there is no such thing as a “four-dot ellipsis.” An ellipsis comprises three dots. The fourth dot is a period — “full stop” if you’re working in British English (BrE).

Let me back up a bit. When you’re quoting from someone else’s work and you decide to skip some of the original writer’s words, you use an ellipsis to indicate the omission. Say I wanted to quote from the previous paragraph, but I wanted to drop “for instance.” I might write this: “In my mind . . . there is no such thing as a ‘four-dot ellipsis.'”

When would you use a four-dot ellipsisperiod followed by an ellipsis? When what you decide to drop follows a complete sentence. The complete sentence ends with a period, you add the ellipsis, then you carry on with your quotation.

Here I part company with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), so if you’re a dedicated follower of Chicago you better clap your hands over your ears. I want my readers to figure out as much as possible about the source of my abridged quote, so I don’t insert a period where there wasn’t one in the original, even if the remnant is a complete sentence. A capital letter signifies where the next complete sentence begins, and that’s enough.

So — suspension points. What are they? Suspension points indicate a trailing off, a suspension. Whatever was going to be said is suspended — it hangs in the air. I like the common convention in American English (AmE) that three dots indicate a trailing off, but a dash indicates an interruption. A while back I wrote about this in “Of Dots and Dashes.” Do note that at that time I either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction between ellipses and suspension points. 🙂

Proofreading Poetry

Me and my IWD sign, which says “The common woman is as common as the best of bread / and will rise.” I am, you may have guessed, a regular bread baker. Photo by Albert Fischer.

I’ve been thinking about this because, you guessed it, I recently proofread a book-length collection of poems.

Prompted by the poster I made for an International Women’s Day rally on March 8, featuring a quote from one of Judy Grahn’s Common Woman poems, I’ve also been rereading Grahn’s early work, collected in The Work of a Common Woman (St. Martin’s, 1977). So I’ve got poetry on my mind.

A 250-page book of poetry contains many fewer words than a 250-page work of fiction or nonfiction, but this does not mean that you’ll get through it faster.  Not if you’re reading for pleasure, and certainly not if you’re proofreading. With poetry, the rules and conventions generally applied to prose  may apply — or they may not. It depends on the poems, and on the poet.

Poetry also offers some tools that prose does not, among them line breaks, stanza breaks, rhyme, and meter. (These techniques and variations thereof can come in very handy for prose writers and editors, by the way.) The work I was proofreading also includes several “concrete poems,” in which the very shape of the poem on the page reflects and/or influences its meaning. “Sneakers” was shaped like, you guessed it, a sneaker; “Monarchs” like a butterfly; “Kite” like a kite.

Errors are still errors, of course. When the name Tammy Faye Baker appeared in one poem, I added the absent k to “Baker” — checking the spelling online, of course, even though I was 99 percent sure I was right. Sometimes a word seemed to be missing or a verb didn’t agree with its subject. In a few cases, the title given in the table of contents differed somewhat from the title given in the text.

Often the matter was less clear-cut. English allows a tremendous amount of leeway in certain areas, notably hyphenation and punctuation, and that’s without even getting into the differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). Dictionaries and style guides try to impose some order on the unruliness, but style guides and dictionaries differ and sometimes even contradict each other.

If you’ve been following Write Through It for a while, you know that I’ve got a running argument going with copyeditors, teachers, and everyone else who mistakes guidelines for “rules” and applies any of  them too rigidly. See Sturgis’s Law #9, “Guidelines are not godlines,” for details, or type “rules” into this blog’s search bar.

Imposing consistency makes good sense up to a point. For serial publications like newspapers or journals, consistency of style and design helps transform the work of multiple writers and editors into a coherent whole. But each poem is entitled to its own style and voice, depending on its content and the poet’s intent. Short poems and long poems, sonnets, villanelles, and poems in free verse, can happily coexist in the same collection.

What does this mean for the proofreader? For me it means second-guessing everything, especially matters of hyphenation and punctuation. Remember Sturgis’s Law #5? “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

But dictionaries and style guides shouldn’t automatically override the preferences of a poet or careful prose writer. The styling of a word may affect how it’s heard, seen, or understood. When  I came upon “cast iron pot,” my first impulse was to insert a hyphen in “cast-iron,” and my second was No — wait. Omitting the hyphen does subtly call attention to the casting process; my hunch, though, based on context, was that this was not the poet’s intent. I flagged it for the poet’s attention when she reads the proofs.

Another one was “ground hog.” I can’t recall ever seeing “groundhog” spelled as two words, though it may well have been decades or centuries ago. However, in the first instance “ground hog” broke over a line, with “ground” at the end of one line and “hog” at the beginning of the next. In prose such an end-of-line break would be indicated with a hyphen, but this poet generally avoided using punctuation at the ends of lines, instead letting the line break itself do the work, except for sentence-ending periods. “Ground hog” recurred several times in the poem, so consistency within the poem was an issue. It was the poet’s call, so again I flagged this for her attention.

One last example: Reading aloud a poem whose every line rhymed with “to,” I was startled to encounter “slough,” a noun I’ve always pronounced to rhyme with “cow” (the verb rhymes with “huff”). When I looked it up, I learned that in most of the U.S. “slough” in the sense of “a deep place of mud or mire” (which was how it was being used here) is indeed generally pronounced like “slew.” The exception is New England, which is where I grew up and have lived most of my life. There, and in British English as well, “slough” often rhymes with “cow” in both its literal and figurative meanings. (For the latter, think “Slough of Despond.”)

All of the above probably makes proofreading poetry seem like a monumental pain in the butt, but for me it’s a valuable reminder that English is remarkably flexible and that many deviations from convention work just fine. At the same time, although I can usually suss out a writer’s preferences in a book-length work, I can’t know for sure whether an unconventional styling is intentional or not, so sometimes I’ll query rather than correct, knowing that the writer gets to review the edited manuscript or the proofs after I’m done with them.

The other thing is that while unconventional stylings may well add nuance to a word or phrase, they rarely interfere with comprehension. Copyeditors sometimes fall back on “Readers won’t understand . . .” to justify making a mechanical change. When it comes to style, this often isn’t true. My eye may startle at first at an unfamiliar styling or usage, but when the writer knows what she’s doing I get used to it pretty quickly.

The above examples come from Mary Hood’s All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, forthcoming this fall from Shade Mountain Press. It’s a wonderful collection, and I highly recommend it. Established in 2014, Shade Mountain Press is committed to publishing literature by women. Since it’s young, I can say that I’ve read and heartily recommend all of their titles, which so far include three novels, a short-fiction anthology, and a single-author collection of short stories. All the Spectral Fractures is their first poetry book. I rarely mention by title the books that I work on, but Rosalie said it was OK so here it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

Orthographic Musing

In the novel-in-progress excerpt I took to my writers’ group last night, one character (Glory’s mother, Felicia, for anyone who’s keeping track) spoke of a onetime band member who had ODed.

That’s the way I spelled it: ODed.

Several of my fellow writers thought it should be OD’d. That made sense too.

At my writers’ group meetings, we bring enough copies for everybody — at the moment we’re seven, with the eighth on sick leave — then the writer reads aloud while everyone else marks up the hardcopy. My Monday morning tasks include opening the active file (draft2.doc), going through the marked-up copies, and making revisions, corrections, or notes as needed or desired.

So I came to “ODed”, remembered what the others had said, and changed it to “OD’d”.

Being terminally curious, I then had to look it up. Being an editor, I had to look it up in three dictionaries, not one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online) gave both “OD’d” and “ODed”.

American Heritage said “OD’ed” — with both the -ed and the apostrophe.

Oxford, both the UK/World and the US editions, had “OD’d”.

This drives some writers and editors crazy. Not me. I love it. The variation reminds me that when it comes to orthography, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to spell a word, but other times it depends. It’s “sceptic” in British English (BrE), “skeptic” in American English (AmE), but neither one is wrong. Newspapers and magazines usually have a house style that, in the interest of consistency, specifies a preference in cases where several choices exist.

Publishers do too, but the better ones generally allow more variation than magazines and newspapers. Books don’t have to be consistent with each other. They should, however, be internally consistent. If “OD’d” comes up more than once, spell it the same way each time. Make your choice, enter it on your style sheet, then stick to it. (Style sheets are a copyeditor’s best friend and secret weapon. Wise writers use them too. For more about style sheets, check out my blog post “What’s a Style Sheet?”)

While writing the above, I took a break to look up “orthography”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition: “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. I see two loopholes I could drive my car through: “proper” and “standard usage”. And that’s OK (okay?). MW calls it an “art”, after all, and in art the right answer is often “it depends”.

So what am I going to do about ODed / OD’ed / OD’d? For now I’m going with “OD’d”, but that may change.

Proofreading English English

British flagGeorge Bernard Shaw oh-so-famously said that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Ha ha ha. Clever, but a bit overstated, don’t you think? True, this native speaker of American English (AmE) usually turns the captions on when watching British TV shows like Sally Wainwright’s (awesome) Happy Valley because, between the Yorkshire accent, the colloquialisms, and the speed of conversation, my unaccustomed American ear can miss as much as half of what the characters are saying.

Also true: Accents and colloquialisms can trip me up in AmE as well.

Written English seems to cross the ocean more easily. Accents don’t interfere with the printed page, and print stands still so I can pore and puzzle over anything I don’t get the first time. If I don’t understand a word, I can look it up.

The biography I’m proofreading at the moment is being published simultaneously in the US and the UK. It was written and edited in British English (BrE), so that’s what I’m reading. I have no trouble understanding the text. The big challenge is that I’m so fascinated by the differences between AmE and BrE style, spelling, usage, and punctuation that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m proofreading. “They went to the the museum” is a goof on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s my job to catch it.

I’ve long been familiar with the general differences between BrE and AmE spelling. AmE generally drops the “u” from words like “favour” (but retains it in “glamour,” damned if I know why), spells “civilise” with a “z,” and doesn’t double the consonant in verbs like “travelled” unless the stress falls on the second syllable, as in “admitted.” In BrE it’s “tyre,” not “tire”; “kerb,” not “curb”; “sceptical,” not “skeptical”; and “manoeuvre,” not “maneuver.” (The “oe” in “amoeba” doesn’t bother me at all, but “manoeuvre” looks very, very strange.)

To my eye the most obvious difference between AmE and BrE is the quotation marks. A quick glance at a book or manuscript can usually tell me whether it was written and edited in AmE or BrE. In AmE, quoted material and dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks; quotes within the quote are enclosed in single. Like this: “Before long we came to a sign that said ‘Go no further,’ so we turned back.” BrE does the opposite: single quotes on the outside, double on the inside.

That part’s easy. What’s tricky is that in AmE, commas and periods invariably go inside the quote marks, but in BrE it depends on whether the quoted bit is a complete sentence or not. If it is, the comma or full stop goes inside the quotes; if it isn’t, the comma or full stop goes outside. What makes it even trickier is that British newspapers and fiction publishers often follow AmE style on this. My current proofread follows the traditional BrE style, and does so very consistently. Thank heavens.

BrE is more tolerant of hyphens than AmE, or at least AmE as codified by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style and enforced by the copyeditors who treat them as rulebooks. I like this tolerance. (For more about my take on hyphens, see  Sturgis’s Law #5.)

BrE also commonly uses “which” for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This also is fine with me, although as a novice editor I was so vigorously inculcated with the which/that distinction that it’s now second nature. Some AmE copyeditors insist that without the which/that distinction one can’t tell whether a clause is restrictive or not. This is a crock. Almost anything can be misunderstood if one tries hard enough to misunderstand it. Besides, non-restrictive clauses are generally preceded by a comma.

In my current proofread, however, I encountered a sentence like this: “She watched the arrival of the bulldozers, that were to transform the neighborhood.” “That” is seldom used for non-restrictive clauses, and a clause like this could go either way, restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on the author’s intent. Context gave me no clues about this, so I queried.

comma

A comma (willing to moonlight as an apostrophe)

Speaking of misunderstanding, remember “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”? Some copyeditors and armchair grammarians consider this proof that the serial or Oxford comma — the one that precedes the conjunction in a series of three or more — is necessary to avoid misunderstanding. As I blogged in “Serialissima,” I’m a fan of the serial comma, most of what I edit uses the serial comma, but the book I’m proofreading doesn’t use the serial comma and it didn’t me long to get used to its absence.

BrE uses capital letters more liberally than AmE, or at least AmE as represented by Chicago, which recommends a “down style” — that is, it uses caps sparingly. In my current proofread, it’s the King, the Queen, the young Princesses, the Prime Minister, and, often, the Gallery, even when gallery’s full name is not used. Chicago would lowercase the lot of them.

I knew that BrE punctuates certain abbreviations differently than AmE, but I was a little fuzzy on how it worked, so I consulted New Hart’s Rules, online access to which comes with my subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries. If Chicago has a BrE equivalent, New Hart’s Rules is it. In BrE, I learned, no full point (that’s BrE for “period”) is used for contractions, i.e., abbreviations that include the first and last letter of the complete word. Hence: Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited, St for Street, and so on. When the abbreviation consists of the first part of a word, the full point is used, hence Sun, for Sunday and Sept. for September.

Thus enlightened, I nevertheless skidded to a full stop at the sight of “B.Litt,” short for the old academic degree Bachelor of Letters. Surely it should have either two points or none, either BLitt or B.Litt.? I queried that too.

AmE is my home turf. I know Chicago cold and can recognize other styles when they’re in play. I know the rules and conventions of AmE spelling, usage, and style, and (probably more important) I know the difference between rules and conventions. In BrE I’m in territory familiar in some ways, unfamiliar in others. I pay closer attention. I look more things up. I’m reminded that, among other things, neither the serial comma nor the which/that distinction is essential for clarity. Proofreading in BrE throws me off-balance. This is a good thing. The editor who feels too sure of herself is an editor who’s losing her edge.

Serialissima

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians, you soon learn that the serial comma is a contested issue.

You will hear some defend to the death their right not to use it, while others insist that every time it’s omitted the English language teeters closer to the brink of collapse.

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians or count them among your Facebook friends, it’s best to keep Sturgis’s Law #16 in mind. In the annotation of Sturgis’s Laws I haven’t got there yet , but here’s a sneak preview:

The amount of discussion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to the issue’s importance and to the preparation required to say anything meaningful about it.

So what exactly is this little mite that inspires such passion?

comma

Commas in isolation are hard to distinguish from apostrophes.

The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma, but I prefer “serial,” and not just because I live on the left side of the Atlantic. The serial comma, after all, is about how one punctuates series of three or more items, specifically about whether one should use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last element.

This sentence is widely circulated by serial-comma fans to prove their point: “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” You’ve probably seen it, or one very like it.

Without the serial comma, “Ayn Rand and God” could be an appositive phrase. Is the writer really saying that Ayn Rand and God are his/her parents? Ha ha ha.

As an argument for the serial comma, however, this example is less than persuasive. Take any sentence out of context and myriad misreadings become possible. The Associated Press style guide, widely used by newspapers and businesses across the U.S., generally doesn’t recommend the serial comma unless confusion might result from its absence. The sky hasn’t fallen in yet, and besides, if one fears confusion might result from “my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” one is free to insert a comma after “Rand.”

That said, I’m a serial-comma fan. This has as much to do with habit as anything else. I don’t recall anyone making a big deal about serial commas when I was in school, but when I was an apprentice editor in the very late 1970s, “Chicago style” — currently codified in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition — was drummed into my head. Chicago recommends the serial comma, as do most U.S. publishers.

As a result, I’m used to it. I notice when it’s not there. Here’s a sentence chosen at random from my novel in progress. The speaker is referring to Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend.

“He caught whales one-handed, cooked them up here, and shared the meat with the resident Wampanoags.”

To my eye and ear, the comma after “here” makes clear that there are three elements here, not two. If that comma isn’t there, my eye slides to the end of the sentence without registering the slight break that separates the third element from the second. A reader who doesn’t expect a comma there probably isn’t going to miss it.

Sometimes, however, I want my eye to slide to the end of a phrase. The U.S. flag is often called “the Red, White and Blue.” We say it almost as if it’s one word: “the RedWhiteandBlue.” With a comma after “White” I visualize three distinct colors, not a single flag. If I wrote “The flag is red, white, and blue,” would I use the serial comma? Yes, I would. (I just did.)

The serial comma is rarely used, by the way, when the conjunction “and” is represented by an ampersand: “The flag is red, white & blue.” Ampersands are rarely used in formal or even informal writing, so this comes up more often in display type, like advertisements, posters, and headlines. Why is this? Damned if I know, but the big ampersand dwarfs the tiny comma so I don’t blame the comma for wanting outta there.

But it’s more than habit and long experience that makes me a serial-comma fan. Because I generally use it, I can use its omission to shape the meaning of a phrase. Here’s a simple example:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers, and editors she’d known for years.

“Colleagues, writers, and editors” are three distinct groups, right? Now remove the commas after “writers”:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers and editors she’d known for years.

“Writers and editors” is now in apposition to “colleagues.” In other words, the writers and editors are her colleagues.

To a non-serial-comma user the second sentence could go either way: two groups or three? The astute non-serial-comma user might insert a serial comma here if three groups were meant, realizing that this is an instance where the serial comma serves a purpose. With any luck the non-serial-comma-using copyeditor would realize as much and not delete it.

So I use the serial comma regularly because if I do, its omission becomes a tool in my toolkit. Even if I only use it a few times a month, I like knowing it’s there.