Tag Archive | grammar

Why I’ll never be a great copy editor — or, the beauty of ambiguity

Why English is difficult to learn. (click to embiggen)

I often comment upon how people don’t understand grammar. But I don’t usually mean that they have poor grammar, or that I think they are undereducated, or that they aren’t smart. No, most of my examples of people misunderstanding grammar comes from my 31+ years working in the telecommunications and software industries surrounded by extremely bright engineers, technologists, and the like—people who are used to looking for patterns that can be turned into algorithms, or used to identify anomalies. Therefore, they either slightly misunderstand grammar rules, or think that all grammar rules work like algorithms. So I will get asked, “Settle an argument about grammar for me…” and then they will outline something that isn’t actually about any rule of grammar at all, but is more a matter of style.

They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.

They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.

Which of the following do you think is correct:

  1. A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
  2. An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police

I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”

It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.

If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”

The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.

This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.

One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.

There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.

“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
—Jeannette Ng


This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.

Singular They Isn’t New — more adventures in dictionaries

“Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.
Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”

This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.) The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.” My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

I included the above quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent book on writing in my tribute to Le Guin last week. It’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use in a blog post about fake grammar rules for a while, and now seems like a good time.

There are rules of grammar and learning them is important. However, it is also important to recognize that not everything someone tells you is a rule actually is. There are a number of so-called grammar rules that people have been passing down from generation to generation in schools, writers’ groups, and so on that simply are wrong. Some of them are due to a misunderstanding that has become common enough that people adopt it as a rule. Others have been the result of a small group of Latin scholars attempting to force a convention from the Latin language on to English out of a belief that Latin is somehow a purer language.

Others are a bit more complicated.

English pronouns are such a case. It wasn’t that many centuries ago that people had to keep track of more pronouns. The King James Version of the Bible was translated during a time when English speakers used thee, thou, you, ye, they, thine, their, and so forth. There were circumstances where it was incorrect to address someone as you rather than thou, and it generally came down to your social relationship. You use thou when addressing someone who was socially inferior, and you the other way around. This wasn’t just about class. Parents would use thou when talking to their children, for example, and children would use you when addressing parents and so forth. One also used thou for people with whom you were intimate—and I’m not talking about sex, this would be with close friends and so forth (though also one’s fiance or spouse would be appropriate, obviously).

Thee was the objective form of thou—this is parallel to the distinction between me and I which still exists in the language today. Ye was the plural form of you.

So what happened to all of those extra pronouns? We slowly stopped using them. Thou starting going away in the 17th and 18th Century in London as changing socio-economical norms started making it harder to tell which social class people were in. You didn’t want to offend someone who ought to be addressed as you by saying thou! I mention London specifically because etymologists have tracked where and when thou fell out of usage. There are regional dialects in England today where thou is still used, and they all occur in corners of the nation furthest from London.

Now let’s look at they. Lots of people object to using the singular they. It comes up frequently now because as transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary people embrace their identities some ask us to use different pronouns. A transgender person who was assigned male at birth may ask their friends, family, and acquaintances to stop using he/him/his and start using she/her/hers, for instance. And some people aren’t comfortable with either of those and ask us to they/them/their. This makes some other people uncomfortable.

It makes some people so uncomfortable that they post rants about it on their academic blogs, railing against the singular they in one paragraph, and hilariously using a singular they in another.

The truth is, they has been both singular and plural for at least 675 years. That’s how long ago dictionaries have found samples of they being used in both the singular and the plural. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer (14th Century), Shakespeare (17th Century), Jane Austen (18th Century), Lord Byron (18th and 19th Century), and the King James Bible (17th Century) of the singular they.

So the first answer to people citing this rule is to inform them it isn’t a rule of English grammar and never has been.

The second is to point to that history of the decline of thou in favor of you. An entire language shifted because people didn’t want to accidentally offend each other. In other words, there is a precedent for adapting English usage to accommodate our mutual sensibilities.

And finally, the third answer is that after being informed of the above two facts, anyone who continues to raise a fuss about using the singular they to refer to someone after being asked to use it is doing so out of a feeling of discomfort due to bigotry. And none of the rest of us are under any obligation to put up with bigoted jerks.

Or, as someone else put it:

This modern world is full of quandaries and conundra, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have human people with human feelings, and on the other hand, you have an entirely insentient entity, the English language, which is wholly incapable of being hurt or offended in any way. Obviously you don’t want to upset either camp, but which do you prioritize? Living, breathing people — members of a systemically and institutionally marginalized minority — who have specifically identified the pronouns that people like you are to use for them so as to avoid causing the exact kind of offense that you profess to be concerned about committing? Or a theoretical concept that not only has no way of knowing whether you’ve used it incorrectly but in fact changes so rapidly that the notion of “correct” is functionally moot anyway, not to mention that being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication? You’re in a mighty fucking pickle, here!
—Bad Advice On Grammar-Policing Gender-Neutral Pronouns via The Establishment

Putting the perfect into the flashback

Because I have written (several times) and ranted (even more times) about badly used flashbacks, some people have concluded that I hate the flashback with the passion of a million burning suns.

Quite the opposite.

A flashback is the perfect tool for certain aspects of story telling. If it is done correctly.

In a recent online grumble about flashbacks, I described one good use of flashback. Open with an extremely (and I do mean extremely) brief scene of a character or characters in an strange predicament, and without giving anything away, cut to an earlier point and show how they got there. One of the most important aspects of doing this correctly: the scene you open with isn’t the ending of the story. The reader needs to carry past that scene, showing what happens after, as well as how the characters got there.

Another really good use of flashback is to provide context to a point in the “present” of your narrative. The character finds herself in dire straits, and is reminded of an event that got her here. Or perhaps a mistake she made that led to this, or even just a happier time with one of the characters here. This is most useful when referencing a piece of backstory: flashing back to a period before the beginning of your book, perhaps years before.

This is different than a technique used in film (and television, animation, et al) where a snippet of a scene from earlier within the film is shown (or sometimes only the voices from the scene) to indicate that a character is remembering something that should have been a clue or warning of what was to come. That isn’t really a full flashback. And in prose fiction, you do this usually with a single sentence or less. “I should have realized when I saw that broken latch” for instance.

That isn’t really a flashback, that’s a reference. But I do think that the way these sorts of references play in films encourages inexperienced writers to throw in more full-blown flashbacks than the story needs. You shouldn’t be repeating entire scenes of your story within your story. Just a quick reminder to the reader. I like them best in the dialog. “I did warn you not to trust any one…” or “Oh, that’s what he meant when he said…”

The Grammar Girl recently featured a post about the proper use of present tense, past tense, and past perfect tense while constructing a flashback. I don’t have any solid quibbles with it, but want to add a couple things:

First, if you want a more thorough explanation of past tense, past-perfect tense, and ways to use them in narratives particularly in relationship to flashbacks, check out Stephen Minot’s Three Genres. It is an excellent book on writing that I highly recommend.

Second, the Grammar Girl post cites Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates for the first example of how to do a flashback. The Anubis Gates won awards and is often considered a masterpiece, but it does some questionable things with flashback and other tricks of narrative structure.

I could go into detail, but will simply say that before you get to Chapter One and the example they use, you have to get through a lengthy prologue which happens to contain two flashbacks of its own. Which makes one wonder just what Tim Powers (or perhaps his editors) think the word “prologue” means.

The thing is, however, that although I am not one of the people who think the story is a masterpiece, I agree that it is a rip-roaring good yarn. Which brings me to a point I don’t remember to include in my postings about the craft of writing as often as I should:

I can’t tell you how to write.

I can tell you how I write. I can tell you things that work for me both as a writer and as a reader. I can tell you what doesn’t work for me, especially as a reader. And I can tell you why some things don’t work most of the time for most readers.

But the true test of whether something you are doing as a storyteller works is whether the audience goes along and enjoys the ride. You can create a story following strictly and to the letter all of the guidelines you find in a well-respected guidebook and still produce a lousy story. You can break some rules (as most writers do), and produce a story that makes readers write you to tell you how much they enjoyed it.

Which isn’t to say that you never listen to any advice or criticism. If the reader isn’t enjoying the story, you’re probably doing something wrong. But you have to decide what to fix and how to fix it. No one else can do that.

The value of advice from other writers isn’t as a prescription, but as a different perspective. Maybe someone will read the explanation I gave of how a certain kind of flashback makes the story boring because it tells the reader the ending a bit too literally, and even though their story doesn’t use a flashback, they realize that something else they have done in their tale gives away the ending too soon.

So, while any number of us can teach you how to write a sentence in past perfect tense, none of us can reliably write the perfect flashback. Fortunately, we can all point each other in the direction of good and better.

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