Tag Archives: grammar

Do English spelling and grammar even matter any more?

Does that seem like a strange question coming from an editor? It shouldn’t–nor should one leap to conclusions regarding the answer.

I submit that the answer is a qualified yes. It has to be qualified due to these observable realities:

  • Not all communication is formal and professional. If we’re texting or PMing on FacePalm, do we really need to stress over mistakes? Not sure about your phone, but on mine it’s enough of a pain in the ass just texting understandably. There are many contexts in which I care about upper case, avoiding loose spaces, and so on. This one tends not to be such a context.
  • Language does evolve, however powerfully language conservatives rage against ‘deterioration.’ That there has been deterioration I think few can deny, but at any given point in time language differs from previous points of time, and its future will differ in turn. Look at the styles of 1800s and 1700s writing and you can see how it happened. There is never a time at which the orthodoxy is static, meaning that “perfectly correct” is a moving target.
  • As if that weren’t enough, many other countries have their own versions of English. There are more English speakers in India than in the United States. Australian and New Zealand English have marked differences, and I don’t recommend going there to try telling them they’re doing it wrong. Same for South Africa. Irish English and British English also differ from ours, with the added fillip that “The King’s English” is supposedly the mother tongue. Canadian English is akin to US English but with noteworthy British influence. If we’re going to talk about “correct English,” whose correct English do we mean? That of the largest numeric grouping, which would be Indian English?
  • Writers can be very effective yet be doing it “wrong.” When I get a ms that is written in some bizarre-looking form of English, I ask myself whether it’s effective. Some time back I did a line edit on a vanity book about of an elderly Alabama gentleman’s country music career. It sounded like what it was: a book written by a rural Alabamian nonagenarian. To edit it into some semblance of English perfection would have meant destroying the author’s basic tone. As it was, parts were a little repetitive and sometimes unclear, but his tone was familiar and regionally correct. His audience would understand every word of it, even find it warm and comforting; what was more, who would want to excise the author from his own autobiography? It’d have been lunacy.
  • At the opposite pole, I read a book by an L.A. gangster who converted to some variation of Islam and reformed. as i recall, it did not use upper case. It sounded like it was written by a moderately educated gangster. It was raw, real, personal, and effective. If he’d come to me as an editor, I doubt I would have tried to regularize his language. The way he wrote made it feel like the reader was getting to look at an otherwise inaccessible world. That I couldn’t think of a compelling benefit that would make it worth losing that feeling testified to the effectiveness of his style.

Qualifiers noted, I have indeed seen the quality of US English education and composition decline over my lifetime (don’t blame me). That gives it something in common with the rest of education during my adult life. With a dead battery, most people now are without their arithmetic. I was watching a frightful display of ignorance on Big Brother where someone thought London was in Paris, or Paris was in London. Most every day I read at least one adult female person refer to herself as “a women.” People not only don’t learn physics and geometry; they don’t even learn to adult. (There’s a verbing you might expect me to hate and reject. Nah; that word arose in reply to a genuine need, right around the time it became de-stigmatized to live with your parents once you grew up.)

All the more reason, some might say, to give no willing ground in the erosion of language standards. I understand the outlook on an emotional level. From a practical standpoint it feels like a King Canute activity. I’d rather fight for the differences that make differences, such as the abuse of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” We need that word. Without it we have no way to clarify whether a statement is hyperbolic or, well, literal.

In the end, my editorial outlook is that everything comes down to judgment and context. Does it work? If it does, any change requires a compelling case. If however its language causes it to fail, we need to rethink and adapt. There is no editorial Scripture, just some textbooks and style guides; they should be consulted but not worshipped or thumped at anyone. In the end we must apply our best understanding.

If it were as easy as just pointing to the arcana of the Chicago Manual and interpreting its holy words, this job would require far less experience and discernment. (I might start terming that crowd the “Chicago judiciary.”)


Becoming a better writer

When I talk to people about improving their writing, I sometimes wonder if some flaws are simply hard-coded, or if anyone can improve those through effort. As Pepper Martin said to his manager Frank Frisch, after the latter’s rant during a time when the team was just bad, “You know, Frankie-boy, I got a jackass back home on my ranch, and you can run him from sunup to sundown, and he still ain’t never gonna win the Kentucky Derby.” That’s not a putdown without including myself; it may be true in some areas for all of us. I am pretty sure I’m tone-impaired, for example, because much music that some consider stunningly wondrous just sounds horrible to me, and I can’t make any decent music at all myself. I am not sure I have the physical wherewithal to improve. Likewise, I could have tried for a degree in math instead of history, but could I have comprehended even calculus? It’s doubtful, considering my struggles with pre-calculus. So some of what I suggest, I believe, might simply be outside some folks’ ken. But I can suggest it, and if people are trying to work on it, they can decide for themselves whether a flaw is innate or badly learned.

Homophones. These are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. A long list is here. Until you make time to differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ from ‘they’re,’ you will look bad. I don’t care if you mess them up in chat, but if you’re writing something people should want to read, you must get these right. A new grocery store opened just down the hill from me. It looked fairly downscale, and then I looked up to its opening day marquee: YOUR TO GOOD LOOKING TO SHOP ANYWHERE ELSE. The combination of slack-jawed, vapid flattery with such obvious lack of attention to accuracy grossed me out. I’ve still never spent a dime there. If they can’t muster a better public intro than most people’s standard chat and e-mail errors, that’s just sad.

Read a lot–and read good quality. If I write well today, it is for two reasons. The first, the technical correctness, came from heavy reading between ages three and seventeen. Even when I can’t tell you why something is incorrect, I nearly always know when it is, because I have read a great deal of correct writing. The second, refinement, also comes from lots of reading, and began when I went to college. This is where we learn to examine our statements for clarity, wean ourselves away from adverb overdose, push aside passive voice, and otherwise break the standard bad habits. Don’t assume that endcap bestsellers exemplify good writing habits; more often, they exemplify lazy pandering to a public that doesn’t know the difference and doesn’t care.

Punctuation. Look up the purpose of each mark, from the apostrophe to the hyphen. Check your writing to see if you use these correctly. Find the basics here. And if you do not, then…

Stop with ‘well, that’s just my style.’ If your style is bad, then it’s not an asset, and should be changed. Styles evolve. Don’t hug your weaknesses dearly to your heart, as if questioning them questions your validity as a person. Lots of great thinkers and people can’t write well.

If you write like you talk, stop. It’s not an asset, because people don’t read like they listen.

Never ask for critique you don’t want. Most requests for critique are actually requests for validation. These are unfair to the critic, whom you place in an impossible position. Your writing might not be very good. If it isn’t good, and you came seeking validation, your critic can’t win. If she tells you the cold truth, she just broke your dolly and crushed your dream, heartless snob that she is. If she uses all her own writing talent to find a nice way to tell you that your writing is bad, she expended much more effort than you had the right to ask of her, all for nothing, because you probably heard only the kind parts you wanted to hear. And if she lies, she was worse than useless to you, actually harmful to your development. Don’t ask for critique unless you want it for the sake of improvement, even if caustic. No worthwhile critic is needlessly cruel, but sometimes the simple truth is cruel in nature. You don’t ask a dentist to tell you that your tooth enamel and nerve will grow back, do you? Do you ask an orthopedic surgeon to tell you that your achilles will really only take three painless months to rehab, when in fact it will take a year of significant suffering?

The worst, the very worst, is when someone asks me to critique their child’s writing. Critiquing a child’s writing is an exercise in compassionate lying. The writing may be quite good for the child’s age, but it’s almost surely deeply flawed–obviously, since the child is developing English skills. Is it good for his age? I am not equipped to know; that’s the province of an English teacher (whose job is to provide age-appropriate critique), which I am not and could not be. Think about it. I have to lie. I have no other humane choice. Can we just agree, outside the child’s hearing, that asking this of me constitutes a request that I lie and say something is better than it is, for the sake of not crushing a little soul? That’s all I ask: to be relieved of the duty of honest sincerity, and that we all agree that I’m here to lie, and that by lying here, I’m helping and being a good guy. Neither you, your child nor I desire that I dissect it for real. Okay? If you want age-appropriate non-lying critique, best ask a professional educator who knows what is good for each age. I’m not qualified to do anything but lie.

Learn consistency of article, number, person and gender reference. This governs so much and weaves together. If you do not even know what this means, I’ll explain. If the subject is plural, and you later refer back to it, you cannot use the singular unless you are singling out one member of the subject group. This is why ‘they’ is an unacceptable substitute for ‘he or she,’ the eternal gender neutrality problem inherent in English, and probably the cause of more recast sentences than even passive voice addiction. If you describe an event in the future perfect tense, you can’t contradict the timing in the next sentence. Learning the tenses in English would be a good step, so here is a reference to study. Use of the right verb tense is a combination of literal common sense and knowing what the tense means.

Remember that narrative and dialogue are different. Narrative represents the storyteller’s viewpoint, or the story as seen through a character’s eyes. Dialogue is what people say, their actual words. Internal monologue (unspoken thoughts) is a form of dialogue. In dialogue, nothing has to be perfect; it simply has to sound like the speaker (or his/her thoughts). Part of crafting good dialogue is knowing how well-spoken the speaker is. The English can and should be as lousy as the speaker’s; the thoughts may be disconnected and inconsistent. It could make a travesty of this whole blog post, and be great dialogue.

Never follow any rule off a cliff. This one comes from C.J. Cherryh, one of the finest writers in print. There are times to break every rule, provided you know it well enough to break it. Here is what I tell writers: every writer gets a certain number of cheats per piece, defined as deviations from everything he or she is told not to do. Teachers instruct us to use some devices sparingly, especially adverbs, em dashes, semicolons, ellipses, passive voice, split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions…you get the idea. When you hew blindly to a ‘don’t do this’ list, you do as badly as if you are addicted to overusage.

Cheat for a reason. Cheat for extra effect. Cheat because it will make a key phrase stand out. Any time you cheat, be sure the cheat pays its way. For example, I have used ellipses twice in this post. Under normal circumstances, I’d consider that slothful, but I believe both usages worked and paid their way. The second usage is questionable, if the definition of a cheat were ‘something I could eliminate through recasting.’ To me, that is not a definition, but a value test for most verbiage and literary devices. That is a tightening test more than it is a cheat’s value test.