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.

Sturgis’s Law #5

This past spring 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. Here’s #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.

Policy making, policy-making, or policymaking? If “policy making” is the noun version, do you hyphenate “policy-making process”? How about “policymaker”? One word, two words, or hyphenated word? “Prodemocracy forces” or “pro-democracy forces”? “Back-seat driver” or “backseat driver”?

So you trot off to the dictionary. This is where the real fun starts. Dictionaries can be internally inconsistent: “policyholder” is one word, but “policy maker” is nowhere to be found, which generally means it’s two. The American Heritage Dictionary offers “policymaking or policy-making” but recommends “policymaker” for the person who makes the policy.

For even more fun, consult a second dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, aka MW, makes “backseat” one word, both as noun and adjective: “The dog sat in the backseat” and “He’s a terrible backseat driver.” American Heritage doesn’t list “backseat,” so it’s safe to assume that it considers it two words: “The dog sat in the back seat” and (probably) “He’s a terrible back-seat driver.”

My dog sits in the front seat.

My dog sits in the front seat. He is not a backseat driver.

Note that MW doesn’t list “frontseat” anywhere, so presumably it considers it two words. So what if you’ve got “front seat” and “back seat” in the same story, the same paragraph, even the same sentence? Do you follow the dictionary into an inconsistency that makes no sense? Not me.  In my own writing, it’s “The dog sat in the back seat” and “He’s a terrible backseat [or back-seat] driver.” (My dog sits in the front seat, by the way. It’s all I can do to keep him out of the driver’s seat.)

When you’ve sorted out “backseat” and “front seat,” you can move on to “backyard” and “front yard.” What’s sauce for the seat is sauce for the yard — or maybe not.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a handy-dandy several-page hyphenation chart. It’s extremely useful, it really is: you really don’t need to be deciding all this stuff from scratch. But if you use it a lot, as I do, pretty soon you’ll notice that it and your dictionary of choice don’t always agree. You’ll notice that different genres and different disciplines often have their own conventions, and these conventions are perfectly OK even if they don’t agree with Chicago or Merriam-Webster’s.

Here’s an example: Chicago often recommends hyphenating compound adjectives when they appear before a noun but leaving them open when they follow the verb. “A well-known proverb” but “The proverb is well known.” The catch here is that “well-known” appears in most English-language dictionaries. This makes it a word, and English words don’t generally change form according to their position in a sentence. So it depends on whether you think of “well-known” as a word or as a temporary compound — two or more words yoked together to serve a common purpose and that may be unyoked after that purpose is satisfied.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Here’s another one: Both Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s generally recommend dropping the hyphen after prefixes and before suffixes: multitask, flowerlike, and so on. (Yes, there are exceptions. No one recommends dropping the hyphen in “bell-like,” which would give you three l‘s in a row.) However, I’ve also noticed, both in my own writing and in what I edit, that the hyphen can call attention to the root word in a way that makes sense and may even aid understanding.

One of my current jobs refers several times to “pro-democracy activists.” Consider “prodemocracy” and “pro-democracy,” or “antichoice” and “anti-choice.” To me,  whether I’m reading or writing, the hyphenated version gives a little more weight to the root. This can be especially useful when the prefix is something like pro- or anti-, non-, or counter- and the compound is a temporary one, not an established word like “antifreeze.” Consciously or not, plenty of good writers seem to feel likewise. When I’m editing, I’m loath to delete hyphens where they’re consistently used and serve a purpose, even when Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s recommend against them.

American Heritage is more hyphen-friendly than Merriam-Webster’s, and British English is more hyphen-friendly than its American cousin. This is why I usually have American Heritage, MW, and Oxford open in my browser when I’m working. I’ve set my Oxford default to “British and World English,” which seems to be why I keep getting billed in pounds. No, I don’t live in the UK, but I do like the reality check when it comes to hyphens.

The short version: Hyphens are responsible for [insert large number of your choice] percent of our trips to the dictionary because we think there’s a right and a wrong way to do it and the dictionary has the answer. When it comes to hyphens, there may be more than one right answer, and different dictionaries may give different advice. Learn the guidelines, pay attention to what hyphens can do, and don’t get too hung up on it.

So I’m closing in on 1,000 words and have said almost nothing about commas. The comm part of Sturgis’s Law #5 can be found here.

Chicago Style

My library’s annual monster book sale was last weekend. Of course I went. Of course I came home with a stack of books, and all for $10.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale is a browser’s heaven: tables and tables of books sorted, and occasionally mis-sorted, into general categories, and many with more books in the boxes underneath. I rarely go with a particular book in mind. I always find books I didn’t know I was looking for.

Or they find me.

Browsers cheerfully recommend books to total strangers, and sometimes get into spirited conversations about books they liked or books they thought were overrated. I was poring over one of the history-related tables, head cocked sideways so I could read the spines, when the fellow to my right handed a book to the fellow on my left. The book passing in front of me was The Chicago Manual of Style.

“Are you interested in this?” asked the fellow on the right, who I guessed (correctly) was the father of the fellow on the left.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I’ve been on first-name terms with Chicago since 1979, when it was still called A Manual of Style. Could I remain silent while my old buddy and sometime nemesis changed hands right before my eyes? I could not. “That’s the current edition,” I said. “I’ve got it at home. I’m an editor by trade.”

Dad let on that Son was an aspiring writer. Son seemed a little uneasy with the description. “If you have any interest in mainstream publishing,” I said, “that’s a very  good book to have.”

I don’t know whether they bought it or not, or what they paid for it. It was half-price day at the book sale, so probably not more than a buck or two. But if you have any interest in mainstream publishing, especially in the U.S., it is a very good book to have. Or you can subscribe to the online edition for $35 a year.

In U.S. trade and academic publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style is something of a bible. It contains almost everything writers and editors need to know about book publishing, along with extensive recommendations for further reading in various areas. It includes chapters on grammar, usage, and punctuation. At least half of its 1,026 pages are devoted — as its title might suggest — to style. 

What is “style”? Think of all the myriad choices you make when you’re writing and especially when you’re editing your own work, about capitalization and hyphenation, about the use of quotation marks, boldface, and italics. How to treat titles of movies or titles of songs, and words from other languages, and the English translations of those words. And on and on and on. Style comprises all the decisions made about how to handle these things. “Chicago style” is a collection of particular recommendations. If you italicize book titles and put song titles in quotes, you’re following Chicago style, maybe without knowing it.

Much of the nit-pickery that goes into copyediting is about style. Confronted with the plethora of details that go into Chicago style, or Associated Press (AP) style (widely used by newspapers and periodicals), or American Psychological Association (APA) style (widely used in academic writing, especially the social sciences), the novice writer or editor may find it hard to believe that applying a particular style makes things easier — but it does. Every time I embark on editing a long bibliography, I am profoundly grateful to Chicago for its documentation style and to the authors who apply it consistently. I would hate to have to learn or invent a new documentation style for every bibliography I work on.

That goes for other aspects of style too. Following a style guide in effect automates the minute details and frees your mind to deal with the more interesting stuff like word choice and sentence structure and transitions between paragraphs.

The Chicago Manual of Style came into existence early in the 20th century as the style guide for the University of Chicago Press. Then as now, the press specialized in scholarly works, and the early editions of its style guide reflected that. Now it’s widely used by trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers as well as academic presses.

What this means in practice is that not all of its recommendations are well suited to every type of book, and the further one gets from scholarly nonfiction — say, into the realms of fiction and memoir — the more cause one is likely to have for ignoring some recommendations and improvising on others. This is fine with Chicago‘s compilers but not so fine with some copyeditors, who treat the book’s style recommendations as Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

I think of them as Conventions That Should Be Respected, and Generally Followed in the Absence of a Sensible Alternative. I also advise serious writers to introduce themselves to Chicago style and even get to know it. Automate the petty details and you can focus your attention on the big stuff. You’re also more likely to win an argument with a stubborn copyeditor.

Editing Workshop, 3

This one’s about sentences.

I just finished copyediting a long nonfiction book on a tight schedule. The author has many years of high-pressure writing experience, but this is his first book. The manuscript felt like it was a couple of drafts short of final — not uncommon when a rush to deadline is involved. A glaring symptom of this was sloppy sentences. If sentences come out sloppy in early drafts, it’s no big deal. You’ll clean them up when you start revising — right? right??

In this particular manuscript, the author probably didn’t have the time to make them clearer or more effective. So yours truly the copyeditor did it, pruning some elements, rearranging others, and querying whatever I couldn’t figure out either from context or from a quick Google search.

There are plenty of books out there on how to construct a sentence. You know the basics: subjects, verbs, and objects, phrases and clauses. The tricky thing is that sentences can be grammatically impeccable and at the same time unclear, ambiguous, or downright misleading.

Here are some hints on how to make sentences more effective, whether you’re writing, revising your own work, or editing someone else’s.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Sentences are like clotheslines: they tend to droop in the middle. In the middle of a long sentence, the reader’s attention starts to wander. So if you’re trying to get across an important point or detail, don’t bury it in the middle. Placed at the beginning and the end, it’s more likely to catch the reader’s attention, and to connect with the sentences before and after.

This is also true of paragraphs, by the way. Paragraphs that take up a whole page of text are daunting. KEEP OUT! they say. Or maybe WELCOME TO THE LABYRINTH.

What poets do with line and stanza breaks, prose writers can do with sentences and paragraphs.

I love long loopy sentences, but when one long loopy sentence follows another and another and another, nothing stands out. It’s also easier for subjects and verbs, or nouns and pronouns, to come adrift from each other. Confusion often results.

The closer together words are in a sentence, the stronger — and clearer — the relationship between them. The opposite is also true: the further apart they are, the more tenuous the connection. Here’s an example adapted from the book I just edited:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

I skidded to a halt at the end of the first sentence: who? what? when?

It took me a few moments to sort it out: It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and what happened in 2005 wasn’t the publishing but the requesting and receiving of permission. (It was made clear elsewhere that the work was published in 2008.) In the second sentence, the parenthetical “in an interview” unnecessarily separates subject from verb.

Here is my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

Be especially careful with pronouns. “Antecedent unclear” and “unclear referent” are among the most common editorial queries, in both fiction and nonfiction. They mean we can’t figure out for sure whom a he, she, it, or they is referring to. In the job I just finished, the vast majority of the players were men — as is often the case in books about politics and international affairs, which this one was.  Often a he, his, or him could have referred to either of the two fellows mentioned in the preceding clause or sentence.

Authors often miss these unclear antecedents because the antecedents aren’t unclear to them. They know exactly who’s being referred to. Readers, however, aren’t in the same loop. We need a little help. Better to repeat a name than leave it ambiguous. This is one reason second readers can be so important: they come to the manuscript without knowing what you mean. They just read what’s there.

Have you got an unruly sentence that could use some untangling, or one that you’ve successfully untangled yourself? Send it along! The best way to develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t is to pay close attention to how sentences work. We can do this in our reading, in our writing, and in our revising.

To Enfilade or Not to Enfilade

From the biography I’m copyediting: In an assassination attempt, “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, enfilading the car with shrapnel.”

Well, I had a pretty good idea what the car looked like, but “enfilading”? I had to look it up.

“Enfilade” is both a noun and a verb. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (online), the first definition of the noun is “an interconnected group of rooms arranged usually in a row with each room opening into the next.”

Um, no.

The second? “Gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Enfilade” the verb: “to rake or be in a position to rake with gunfire in a lengthwise direction.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (online) gets right to the point: “to rake with gunfire.”

The AHD entry includes an image of the architectural “enfilade,” along with this definition: “A linear arrangement of a series of interior doors, as to a suite of rooms, so as to provide an unobstructed view when the doors are open.”

By this point I’d totally forgotten the assassination attempt and the bullet-riddled Mercedes. I barely noticed that though the target of the attempt survived, his driver was decapitated.

“Enfilading,” I decided, meant precisely what the author intended, but it was not the best word for the sentence in question.

What’s wrong with it? you may be asking. If it means what the author meant, why change it? Readers can always look it up if they don’t know the word. This is what “dumbing down” is about: pandering to people who are too lazy to look things up.

Good question, and one I devoted some thought to. I’ve got a pretty big and flexible vocabulary. It’s probably my single most valuable tool — more valuable than dictionaries, more valuable even than my laptop. If I didn’t recognize “enfilading,” I had to assume that many intelligent, well-read readers won’t either. Most of them will guess — correctly — at the meaning and move on. As a casual reader, I might do likewise.

But when I’m editing, I’m not a casual reader. I’m paying close attention to the construction of sentences, the choice of words in those sentences, and the spelling of those words. When a word or a phrase stops me in my tracks, I take a second look.

“Enfilading” stopped me in my tracks. It threw me out of the text I was reading and sent me to the dictionary. Nothing wrong with that, of course — and sometimes you want a word or phrase to call attention to itself, to make readers screech to a halt and ponder or marvel at what they’ve just read.

But this is a biography, not a poem or a short story or a memoir. It contains nearly 600 pages of text, followed by almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography. More than 200,000 words altogether. The narrative is more important than the words used to create it. The words are means to that end, not ends in themselves.

Nevertheless, if “enfilade” was the only English verb that could describe what was done to that car, I’d leave it alone. But it’s not. Over the years I’ve read many, many accounts of vehicles shot up by gunfire, and every single one of them managed to get the idea across without “enfilade.” Another, less unusual word could be pressed into service without diminishing the narrative.

When I contemplate changing something that isn’t wrong grammatically or according to the dictionary, I ask myself a question: Did the author consciously settle on this word, or phrase, or way of constructing the sentence? 

Some writers are more careful stylists than others. Some of us sweat blood over almost every word. Others of us just want to tell the story. Most of us probably rework some passages a dozen or more times and let others flow by without a second glance.

Editors can’t know for sure what was in an author’s head, but within a dozen or so pages of starting a job, a capable editor generally has a pretty good idea how careful a stylist its author is. By the time I got to “enfilading,” I was 99 percent sure that my author’s focus was on marshalling facts and opinions into a coherent narrative, not on the particular words used to do it.

I also suspected that he was overusing a thesaurus to fill in gaps in his vocabulary. Not infrequently he’d employ a word that had the right dictionary definition but whose connotations or associations that didn’t suit the particular context. I had a very strong hunch that “enfilade” had come from a thesaurus, not from the author’s working vocabulary.

To enfilade or not to enfilade?

I made my decision: not. After some thought, and with a strong assist from the American Heritage Dictionary, I settled on “rake”: “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, raking the car with shrapnel.”

The author can stet his original if he wants, but I don’t think he will.

My Voice! Where’s My Voice?

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “the writer’s voice,” also known as “the author’s voice.” Writers worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

Agents and acquisitions editors often claim that it’s the writer’s voice that lifts a manuscript from the slush pile and into the elite ranks of the Traditionally Published. What exactly do they mean by that?

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: "His Master's Voice."

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: “His Master’s Voice,” the voice coming out of the record player. Where the hell did my voice go? Who’s talking?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

Travvy

My malamute, Travvy, has a flexible voice. Here he is trying to persuade a tractor to move.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. I know a bit about this because over the years I’ve written reviews, essays, poems, news stories, op-eds, newspaper features, short stories, one-act plays, and a novel, not to mention something like 500 blog posts. Some forms I’m more comfortable with than others, some I’m better at than others, but they’re all coming out of the same well of words, opinions, and experiences that is contained in my brain.

Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

The writers of memoir and travelogue often have occasion to quote actual people. This requires first the ability to listen attentively and then the ability to translate the other person’s voice onto the printed page. Sometimes this means putting words in the other person’s mouth that the other person never said. If the other person is dead or fictitious, he or she won’t sue for libel — but astute readers often know when a character steps out of character. When the lapse is obvious enough, the reader may lose confidence in the character, the story, and the author.

My editorial diet is similarly varied. Most of it is nonfiction, but it ranges from scholarly books and dissertations to memoirs, essay collections to book-length works by journalists. Most of the novels I edit are stand-alones: they aren’t part of a series, and they don’t belong to a recognizable genre. Each genre and kind of writing has its own conventions and its own objectives, and in most cases some flexibility is allowed — even encouraged.

In the early pages and chapters — I work primarily on book-length works — I listen for the author’s voice. Sometimes it’s distinctive; often it’s fairly subtle. I notice the words and constructions that the author is particularly fond of. These are perfectly OK in themselves, but used to excess they can become cloying. Some authors (like me) like long sentences and write them well, but that doesn’t mean that the occasional long sentence doesn’t get tangled enough to trip even a careful reader up.

I do this pretty much without thinking. If you asked me at the end of a job to describe the author’s voice, I’d have a hard time doing it — until I went back with a more analytical eye and identified the various components that make up the author’s style. As a result, I can be a little suspicious when agents, acquisitions editors, and writing teachers go on and on about the importance of that mystical, mystifying entity, “the writer’s voice.”

A few weeks back, though, I was reminded of just how important a writer’s voice can be. A writer I didn’t know asked me to critique his just-completed novel. Like many another editor upon receiving a similar request, I was wary. Most such manuscripts turn out to need serious work before they become publishable, or even readable. “Serious work” translates into serious time, which means serious money. The writer doesn’t have it, or doesn’t want to spend it, and I can’t afford to work for nothing.

So I asked to see a chapter or two. I was already bracing myself for frustration.

Then I started reading. Sure, the punctuation needed work and some of the word choices were a little off, but it was clear almost immediately that the author was one hell of a storyteller and that he had one hell of a story to tell.

Send me the whole thing, I said.

Since then that storyteller’s voice has conjured scenes I couldn’t imagine, taken me places I didn’t want to go, and made me laugh at the same time. This voice isn’t my voice, but it’s so strong and distinctive that I’ve had no trouble slipping inside it and hearing it while I meddle with the punctuation, rearrange the occasional sentence, and ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

Editing doesn’t get much better than this.

When this novel makes it into print, you will hear about it. I promise.

 

Editing Workshop, 2

Cherie O’Boyle asked: “When I am using a proper company name in my fiction, for example, when my character buys all her clothes mail order from Lands’ End, or spends Sunday morning reading the New York Times, should those names be italicized?”

Names of companies, like Lands’ End (note the placement of the apostrophe: they goofed when they registered the name, and it’s been their tradename ever since), aren’t italicized. They’re treated like the names of places and people. Names of newspapers are italicized. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends lowercasing the “the” before a newspaper’s name and setting it in roman (not italic), even when it’s part of the name. The Associated Press (AP) style manual wants the title styled exactly the way the newspaper does it. For most fiction and nonfiction, Chicago‘s style is fine: it saves you having to verify each newspaper’s “real” name.

Italics or roman? Quotes or no quotes? These questions come up often, but they don't have to drive you nuts.

Italics or roman? Quotes or no quotes? These questions come up often, but they don’t have to drive you nuts.

How to style these names? Italics or roman type? Quotation marks or no quotation marks? Like other copyeditors, I’ve got a truly terrifying number of such details stuffed into my brain. Ask the right question and out they come, almost as fast as the hits in a Google search.

But you don’t have to memorize a pesky plethora of picky details. (Sorry about that: I’m feeling alliterative this morning.) Learn the general principles for your kind of writing and you’ll get it right at least 95 percent of the time. Here are some common conventions for styling proper nouns and the titles of works in general fiction and nonfiction.

Names

The names of places, pets, brand-name products, businesses, organizations, government agencies, and the like are styled like the names of people: roman type, initial caps on each major word. My name is Susanna J. Sturgis, my dog’s name is Masasyu’s Fellow Traveller (his friends call him Trav or Travvy), I shop at Reliable Market, I buy clothes from Duluth Trading (and other places), etc.

When you’re using the name of a real place, person, or company, spell it right. Look it up even if you’re 100 percent sure you already know how to spell it. Some names of products and companies style their names in unconventional ways. WordPress is one word with a cap in the middle. (That’s popularly called a “camel cap.”) The other day I bought a fountain pen on eBay. I don’t have an iPad or an iPod but some of my friends do. I and most editors avoid putting such names at the beginning of a sentence, because both “EBay is an auction site” and “eBay is an auction site” look weird.

Companies often create distinctive logos from their names. You do not have to style a name in ALL CAPS just because the company’s logo is in ALL CAPS. You don’t need to use a backwards “R” in Toys R Us. You don’t need to use the ™ (trademark) or © (copyright) symbol just because the company does — unless you’re working for the company, in which case you follow company policy.

The names of ships, however, are generally italicized. Go figure.

Titles of Works

Style guides devote lots of space to the styling of names and titles. If you do a lot of your own editing, they'll teach you what styles are common for your kind of writing.

Style guides devote lots of space to the styling of names and titles. If you do a lot of your own editing, they’ll teach you what styles are common for your kind of writing.

As noted above, the names of newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and newsletters are italicized. So are the names of comparable online publications, like blogs. This blog is Write Through It. Writers and editors are still feeling our way toward a consistent way of styling online entities. At present, websites are often treated like places: initial caps, roman type. But blogs are treated like publications: initial caps, italics.

In general, books, full-length plays and musical works, record albums, and the like are italicized. Shorter works, like poems, songs, one-act plays, essays, and short stories, are styled in roman type and enclosed in double quotation marks (if you’re writing American English, that is; British English would use single quotes here). So are particular blog posts, like “Editing Workshop, 2.”

There’s plenty of gray area here. For instance, when a novella (which can be thought of as either a long short story or a short novel) is published by itself, its title is often italicized. Ebooks can be any length, from a few pages to several hundred. Classical music has its own naming conventions. If you write about classical music, they’re worth getting to know — and the chances are good that you’ve already picked them up from your reading.

That’s the key: Get to know the conventions in whatever field or genre or discipline you’re working in. And look stuff up even when you already know it.