The Unstoppable Corruption of the English Language

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” linguist David Crystal writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second is that punctuation is absolutely critical, not only for clarity but also to show other people that you’re educated.

In her New Yorker article A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age, Adrienne Raphel discusses Crystal’s take on punctuation and the internet. Like many linguists, Crystal is pretty laid back about the unstoppable “corruption” of the English language. Linguists don’t even see it as corruption; it’s just the inevitable morphing that’s innate to language.

In fact, in linguistics the word grammar doesn’t mean those pesky rules you have to learn to speak and write English correctly. Grammar, to a linguist, refers to the innate rules users of a language follow without even knowing they’re following them. This kind of grammar is not about right and wrong, but about occurring or not occurring. Thus, to a linguist, the sentence “I ain’t readin’ no frickin’ books ‘bout punctuation” is not an incorrect utterance if that’s the way English is spoken in the speaker’s dialect or group.

All that said . . . I am still a book editor.

Although I do love our ever-changing language and celebrate the style and ingenuity of individual speakers and writers, I also have a thing for the rules of English grammar (and I don’t mean the “grammar” linguists refer to). Misunderstand me correctly (as my Swedish friend likes to say): I’m not saying you should never break the rules. Heck, I broke a rule a couple of sentences back when I ended the sentence with a preposition. But, when it comes to writing in a publishable or cyber-publishable form, know the rules before you break them. That way you can break them well.

That’s when art happens.

~      ~      ~

Interested in reading more musings on grammar? Check out Grammar Matters and Confessions of a Perfectionist.

 

 

 

Editing Symbols

Just in case you have an editor who still works on hard copy (I do occasionally so I can take a break from my computer), the chart below may help you decipher some of the symbols your editor scrawls in the margins.

This came my way via cyberspace, origin unknown. If you know who the creator is, please let me know so I can add a byline.

This came my way via cyberspace, origin unknown. If you know who the creator is, please let me know.

Grammar Matters: Lie, Lay, Lain, Oh My!

The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard has never bothered me. However, when someone says, “I was laying around,” I cringe from my toenails to the tips of my hair. The worst part of it is this: Because the incorrect form is uttered so much more frequently than the correct form, it’s probably just a matter of time before the wrong verb pops out of my own mouth. The over-exposure effect.

But I have a plan of action to avert, or at least delay, the onset of incorrect verb reiteration. It’s my secret mantra. My concealed weapon against the decrepitude of the English language. It goes like this: Someone unwittingly uses the verb “lay” when it should be the verb “lie” (as in, “I’m going to lay down”), and I focus my special powers and conjure up my mantra: “lie down, lie down, lie down.” . . . That’s it. Kind of like the New Age pronouncement of “Cancel, cancel, cancel” when someone has a negative thought. Of course, I don’t generally say my “mantra” aloud. My goal is not to be obnoxious; I just want to reinforce the correct usage in my own head. I am, after all, a writing coach and book editor. It’s my job to keep this stuff straight.

So, I’m going to do my job and lay it all out for you. (“Wait,” you may be saying, “she said lay!”  Yes, lay is a verb too. It’s just a different verb from lie.)

Here’s the rule:

  • If the verb does not take a direct object, use lie

Examples:

I lie down.

Please lie on your right side.

This verb does not act upon a direct object (noun).

  • If the verb does take a direct object, use lay

Examples:

I lay the book down.

Lay your body down.

In these examples, the book and your body are direct objects. The verb acts upon these nouns. In my own sentence above, “I’m going to lay it all out for you,” it is the direct object.

But it gets a little tricky when we move into the past tense. Now that I’ve drawn a line neatly between lie and lay, I’m going to confuse you by telling you that the past tense form of lie is lay. Oy!

Here’s a table you can refer to, to help you keep this all straight:

—————————————————————————————–

lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle)

     Examples:

Let’s lie down in the grass.

When he lay on the bed, it creaked under his weight.

He had lain in bed for an hour before falling asleep.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle)

Examples:

Lay the gun on the table where I can see it,” the cop said.

She laid the book on top of the dresser.

They have laid the issue to rest.

—————————————————————————————–

If you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not alone. (As I said, many people use the wrong form much of the time.) But if you want to use the right form, just remember that the first verb, lie, is the much more common verb—especially in spoken English. (People today usually put things down—or occasionally set things down—rather than lay them down.)

After I put the book back on the shelf, I will lie down on the floor.

In other words, for present tense you’re mostly going to say lie, and for past tense you’re mostly going to say lay.

You might be asking yourself: “Why does any of this matter? People know what I’m trying to say whether I say ‘lie down’ or ‘lay down.’” . . . It’s true, people will know what you’re trying to say . . . but there will be those among us who hear fingernails on a chalkboard.

Is My Manuscript Publishable?

“Will you review my manuscript and tell me whether it’s publishable?”

This is a common request I get from prospective clients.

My short answer is: Every manuscript, no matter how good it is, needs a critique (also known as “constructive feedback”) to become publishable.

In response to the critique, the author then does rewrites. Fewer rewrites if the manuscript is close; more rewrites if the writing needs more help. The final step, when you’ve done your last rewrite and addressed all the bigger-picture stuff, is to have your manuscript copyedited (also called “line editing”).

In light of that, it may not make sense to pay for a review to see if your manuscript is publishable, because unless you’ve already received a critique, done your rewrites, and had the manuscript edited, the answer is: it’s not publishable (yet).

It’s more cost-effective for you to go straight into having a critique, since you will need one anyway. In a critique, I give you feedback on the bigger picture—the developmental issues (e.g., plot, character development, themes, dialogue, description, etc.).  I make comments directly in the manuscript, at the spots where something catches my attention. I also do a write-up summarizing the salient points.

What you end up with is a custom-made “user’s manual” for rewriting your book. A step-by-step guide created just for you.

So, start with a critique. It’s not as scary as it sounds!

Email me at Nomi.theWriteCoach(at)gmail.com or give me a call for a free 15-minute consultation.

 

Old Words, New Meanings

Language is a living thing. And just as living things shift and evolve, language transforms over time. We may resist the changes that just sound “wrong” (I cringe when I hear someone say, “I was laying in the sun.”), but some of those alterations become so commonplace they’re adopted officially into our speech and into our dictionaries.

My prediction is that they/their is on its way to becoming the official third person singular pronoun (“Every person has their preference.”) It may even show up in the dictionary as such during our lifetimes.

We could choose the tack of the Académie française and set rigid rules for what can and cannot be uttered on our turf (or at least within our earshot) . . . or we can relax and enjoy the ride as English careens into the future.

English certainly is not the same animal it was a hundred years ago, or a hundred years before that. It is a living, breathing, changing entity. And it will continue to expand and migrate for as long as there are people to speak it.

Check out the evolution of the words in the following link, and then come back and share your favorite new words or word usages (e.g., “the bomb”; “friend” used as a verb; twerk; and so on).

Some Everyday Words That Meant Really Different Things

Have a Question about Writing You’d Like Me to Answer?

If you have a question about writing, and you think the answer might benefit others as well, please send me an email at Nomi.theWriteCoach(at)gmail.com, and I’ll set to work on a blog post that answers your question. (It’ll be kind of like you’re giving me a writing prompt and benefiting from what I come up with!) If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to find you some resources where you can find the answer.

Then, keep your eyes open for my response (in the form of a blog entry)!

It gives me great joy to share what I’ve learned about the craft of writing over my 20 + years as a book editor, writer, and writing coach.

I look forward to hearing from you.

I’m all ears.

An Editor Tries to Text

“Send me a text.”

Those words send a shudder through my body. Not because I think texting creates two-dimensional human beings (though I am concerned about the next generation’s ability to connect face to face) and not because the posture assumed by a texter is harrowing for the neck (again, I worry about the cervical vertebrae of today’s young people), but because I’m an editor.

I know some people find texting to be a convenient and, as needed, surreptitious shortcut to communication. But when I text—and I try to make it a very rare event, indeed—there is nothing convenient, surreptitious, nor shortcut-ish about it.  I’m simply incapable of the very conventions that make texting speedy. I cannot, for the life of me, forgo capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. Nor am I able to leave out a called-for comma. And periods? Forget it. I will not write a sentence that has no period at the end. How will anyone ever know I’ve ended my thought?

To make matters worse, I don’t have a smart phone. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, and it did have a period at the end. It’s true; I do not have a smart phone. I have a dumb phone. And I like my dumb phone (which used to be considered very smart, running on satellite towers and all). Thus I do not have a smart keyboard on my phone. I have a dumb keyboard (which used to be considered quite clever, one key pad being able to handle both numbers and letters; brilliant!). But texting on this dumb key pad . . . Not fun. Some of you may not even remember how that’s done, all you smart phone owners. You press the 4 three times to get an “I,” the 7 four times to get an “s,” the 3 two times to get an “e” . . . You get the picture. An editor standing head lowered (neck bent in an achingly awkward position) for a full fifteen minutes right in the middle of a busy supermarket, inserting all the periods from “special mode,” to let my friend know I’m running late.

A phone call would have been faster. (I don’t mind dropping capital letters when I speak.)

[See my follow-up post, “An Editor Gets a Smart Phone“]

Writing Is Rewriting

 

Barbara DeSantis, a colleague of mine from the Los Angeles Editors and Writers Group (LAEWG), has just written an insightful article for our LAEWG web site about rewriting.  She includes a helpful, and humorous, list of writing Do’s and Don’ts. For a reality check on whether you really need to write that second (or third or ninth) draft, go check it out on our Write Angles page.

Confessions of a Perfectionist

 

“Wipe that grin off your face,” I said.  “I’m not working today.  I can talk however I want.”

I was responding to a friend who loved to catch me mid-sentence as I committed grammar faux-pas.  This time I had said who instead of whom . . . or maybe it was there’s when it should have been there are.  In any case, it was my day off and I wasn’t in the mood to have my grammar policed.

The problem with being an editor is that one loses the right to make mistakes.  People expect me to be perfect in my grammar, spelling, and punctuation . . . even when I’m not editing a book.

I can’t really take advantage of the relaxed cyber-atmosphere of all-lowercased letters and punctuation-free run-ons. Of course, I’ve been grammar-aware for so long, I don’t think I could let it all hang out if I tried. (You should see me trying to text . . . It takes me 15 minutes to send one message because I’m making sure all the periods and commas are in place.)

So . . . in light of this profession-appropriate perfectionism, you can imagine my dismay when I noticed yesterday that my second post, made on August 22, had an error not only in the first sentence . . . but in the first word! My perfectionism was slipping and I was only two posts into this new blogging enterprise. Grateful that my blushing couldn’t be seen across the cyber-waves, I quickly corrected the typo and hit “update.”

I suppose I had better get used to having “my slip show” if I’m going to play in this public sandbox. (Mixed metaphor, I know, but I’m practicing letting my hair down.)

Check back at a later date when I write more about perfectionism and the role it plays in Writer’s Block.