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Standard or not, it’s still English

August 30, 2011

It’s been nearly seven months since I started my Lust For Language blog. I’ve shared a few tricks to help writers avoid common mistakes—which was why I started it in the first place—but over the months, I’ve realised that, ultimately, the person my blog has helped the most is, well, me.

As a subeditor and a writer, I’ve always been clear about how different the roles can be, and I know I’ve mentioned in past posts about how easy it is to see the mistakes in others’ work only to make the very same ones in your own. True, it’s rare for me to mix up ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ or ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, but I can if I’m rushed, and I make many other mistakes. Just recently, for example, I used the word ‘motto’ when I meant ‘moral’: and the ‘motto’ of the story is … oops! And I recently wrote ‘there’ when it should’ve been ‘they’re’, which is of course terribly embarrassing, since I’m trying to establish myself as an authority on language.

Oh, the humility!

I’ve come to a place now where I think that nothing is actually wrong in language. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to learn about language as a writer; it’s simply a recognition that everyone has the right to express themselves in any way they choose. Even those Facebook friends with atrocious grammar and spelling skills. Is it their fault they weren’t taught correct grammar at school? In Australia, it’s been years since grammar was taught formally—in public schools, at least.

Admittedly, it is frustrating as a subeditor to have to fix up the work of someone who’s been given the title of writer, but clearly hasn’t a clue nor the passion to write well. And I wonder how many people who tell me, “Oh, I want to write a book one day”, even know what that requires. Perhaps what they really mean to say is, “I have a story I’d like to share with the world one day”. Okay, I’m listening.

But as a writer, I feel it’s essential for me to keep my mind open to every person’s way of expression, as it opens me up to the different ways language can be used. For example, I love discovering how the younger generations use language. My seven-year-old son has a tendency to say “freak!” in the same way I would have said “yikes!” in the olden days.

Also, unless I’m paid to do so or someone asks me, I find pointing out other people’s grammar mistakes elitist and arrogant. And a waste of time. (Not that I haven’t done it. I have. Bad me!) It’s passion that drives someone to learn something and that’s what drove me to learn grammar. I wanted to understand how to use the building blocks of language. Many others couldn’t care less, and so they speak and write the way they do and then, before long, language has been re-moulded. Non-standard English—an informal, colloquial English—suddenly becomes standard—a more formal and neutral style. And the distinction between the two can be very blurry, as Sue Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, points out.

You see, when you put too many rules and regulations on language, you suffocate it. It can’t breathe. Imagine if James Joyce had never experimented with language? We’d never have groups of highly educated, clever people trying to decipher Finnegans Wake. Then what would they do with their time?



August 22, 2011

It was one of my lecturers back in my uni days who first inspired me to better understand grammar, after she told me my tenses were wrong. And last week’s blog post has inspired me to revisit my tenses yet again, specifically in relation to the irregular verb ‘to stand’. It is known as an irregular verb because it doesn’t follow the standard ‘-ed’ verb form. In other words, we say ‘stood’ not ‘standed’.

Present tense: I stand/she stands/we stand/they stand.
Present progressive: I am standing/she is standing/we are standing/they are standing.

Past tense: I stood/she stood/we stood/they stood.
Past progressive: I was standing/she was standing/we were standing/they were standing.

Present perfect: I have stood/she has stood/we have stood/they have stood.
Present perfect progressive: I have been standing/she has been standing/we have been standing/they have been standing.

Past perfect: I had stood/she had stood/we had stood/they had stood.
Past perfect progressive: I had been standing/she had been standing/we had been standing/they had been standing.

Future: I will stand/she will stand/we will stand/they will stand.
Future progressive: I will be standing/she will be standing/we will be standing/they will be standing.

A quick run through of the simple and progressive tenses (present, past, future) illustrates more clearly that ‘was stood’ is non-standard English usage, which has inspired me to write an upcoming blog post that explores the subject of non-standard usage in more detail. Stay tuned.

Make a stand

August 15, 2011

For Sandra

Sandra sent me a question I hadn’t come across in my 15 years as a subeditor, which is always a bit exciting. She asked whether the use of the word ‘stood’ was wrong in these instances:

“she’d only taken half a dozen steps when she realised that all the men – the husbands – were stood around the really big one which had pride of place on the end wall …”

“the low rack of books where he’d been stood”

In the first example, my immediate thoughts were that ‘stood’ should be ‘standing’, unless of course Sandra meant that someone had ‘stood’ the husbands ‘around the really big one’, like you would ‘stand’ a vase on a bookshelf.

Henry stood the vase on the bookshelf next to the photo of his grandfather.

But I doubt that this was what was meant. To clear up any ambiguity, ‘standing’ can be used instead of ‘stood’ or the sentence can be written like this:

“she’d only taken half a dozen steps when she realised that all the men – the husbands – HAD stood around the really big one which had pride of place on the end wall …”

(It’s a great question because it also raises the issue of tense, which I shall write about in more detail in next week’s post.)

In the second example, is the ‘he’ referring to someone/thing that had been ‘stood’ on ‘the low rack of books’, or to someone/thing that was ‘standing’ on ‘the low rack of books’?

When I was researching the question, I discovered this, which probably helps to explain the confusion.

Essentially, ‘were stood’ or ‘was stood’ can be seen as non-standard (British) English; that is, a conversational English not accepted in the written form.

Grammar rules—or matters of style?

August 8, 2011

No wonder people have such trouble with grammar, or (shock, horror) couldn’t care less about it—it forever changes and just when you feel you’re on top of it, you read somewhere else about how someone else does it differently.

Plural apostrophe
In my post on apostrophes, I wrote about never, ever using an apostrophe with plurals. I still stand by that post and would never use an apostrophe for 1970s, CDs, DVDs, and so on. However, earlier in the year I came upon this article that refers to ‘The plurals apostrophe’ and states that The New York Times uses it in instances such as the 1970’s. So while I can appreciate and have a laugh at this pedant’s crusade, it may be a fight in the name of style rather than grammar.

When I was at journo high, a few years back now, my lecturer, an old style newspaper man of the Sir Frank Packer era, recommended The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White. It was my grammar bible for a while, until I discovered that its advice on the use of ‘which’ and ‘that’ was not necessarily correct. According to Strunk and White, “That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive.” In other words:

Michelle ate the chocolate that Cheryl bought last night. (Defines which chocolate, suggesting that there is more than one stash of chocolate.)

Michelle ate the chocolate, which was Cheryl’s, last night. (Explains something about the chocolate, suggesting that there is only one stash of chocolate.)

Strunk and White advise writers to go on a ‘which-hunt’, which I did do for a while. But then I realised that no one in Australia gives two hoots about the rule; they have probably never even heard of it. Unlike these editors, who insist on the distinction. In Australia, ‘which’ and ‘that’ are used interchangeably, and most (all) subeditors wouldn’t blink twice if they saw:

Michelle ate the chocolate which Cheryl bought last night.

And nor do I, unless I have to copy fit text to a page—the smaller  ‘that’ can sometimes give me the space I need.

Collective nouns
I’m a stickler for the singular with collective nouns (the committee/group/company is, not the committee/group/company are), but some think it’s okay to use the plural—and quite readily justify it.

People who/people that
I’m with Grammar Girl when it comes to the use of ‘who’ with people and ‘that’ with things, but even linguists think it’s a non-issue that needn’t be ‘corrected’.

I love to show off my knowledge of language by correctly using ‘who’ and ‘whom’, but only because it took me so damn long to understand the rule. However, according to editor John McIntyre, “whom is well on the way out”, as is the distinction between lie/lay.

Italics with book/film/TV titles
I have never worked on a publication that didn’t insist on the use of italics to highlight the titles of books, films, TV shows, even CDs. I therefore had to read twice the advice from George Bernard Shaw in The Guardian Style Guide (see under ‘italics’), where he suggests that I “write nothing but advertisements for lost dogs or ironmongers’ catalogues …”. Indeed!

Commas II

August 1, 2011

I wrote an extensive post on commas a few months ago, but I feel I need to review one essential point from that post because I’ve noticed that though there are grey areas when it comes to the use of commas, some writers have no idea about the correct use of parenthetical commas.

Parenthetical commas enclose sentence fragments, or word/s, that if removed would not disrupt the flow of the sentence.

Fred’s dog, a German shepherd, liked to chew cushions.

If you removed the sentence fragment ‘a German shepherd’, the sentence would still make sense. In other words, the fragment or word/s within the commas add something to the sentence but are not essential to the sentence.

I’ve often noticed, however, that some writers omit the second comma.

Fred’s dog, a German shepherd liked to chew cushions.

There is no grey there; that is simply wrong.

It’s the same principle for words such as however.

I’ve often noticed, however that some writers omit the second comma.

Yep, wrong. And yet the following sentence is correct because ‘however’ is essential to the sentence; it makes no sense without it.

She was determined to see it through, however difficult it became.

The other important point to remember is that word/s contained within commas can indicate singularity. I took the following sentence from

 Her first Honour was born in 2008.

Huh?! Honour, I presume, is the name of Jessica Alba’s first child and not a poetic description of a first child.

Commas, therefore, are necessary to indicate singularity.

Her first, Honour, was born in 2008. 

Again, the name adds something to the sentence but is not essential to the sentence.

And that is the trick to remember.

Oh, and it’s important not to use parenthetical commas in some instances if you don’t want to indicate singularity.

Manager, Howard Kent, invited the staff to lunch.

It’s unlikely that any organisation has only one manager, and if you remove the name from the sentence, it no longer makes any sense.

In a perfect world …

July 25, 2011

I hope I made one thing clear in my last blog post: my role as a subeditor has turned me into a cynic.

Yet, my ability to hope is unwavering.

This week, I signed the petition for an inquiry into Australian media. An inquiry might help us to re-establish trust in our media; it could review our ethics, standards and practices, and perhaps inspire us to do better than what we do now. Okay, it’s hard to believe our journalists would sink to the criminal lows of the reporters in the UK*, but an inquiry could put our minds at rest and perhaps inspire a new faith in our media. We could certainly benefit from a review of media concentration in Australia.

And fairy folk live at the bottom of my garden.

Given the state of politics in Australia right now, it’s quite clear that an intelligent inquiry into our media would be impossible—it would simply degenerate into a political shit-fight, with little support from a dumbed-down mainstream media concentrated in the hands of the one.

Still, I can dream on. And I shall. I shall wriggle my way into a cosy corner of my idealistic bubble and imagine I worked in a world where …

1. … press releases are NOT treated as gospel. Since when did it become okay for journalists to supply articles that have simply been cut and pasted from press releases (spin)? Press releases should be a guide to information, not the information itself. For small grabs, it’s acceptable, but for articles of more than 200 words, do some further research, interview someone. Make the copy original. And you may also want to question (or check) the facts in the press release. Just a thought.

2. … I only communed with good writers. What a pleasure it is to read a piece of work that only needs a quick nip and tuck to reflect house style, and a few simple facts checked (the sources provided for easy reference). What a drag it is to work with a ‘writer’ who has no idea how to write—I’m sure some of them don’t even read—or any passion for the craft. It happens more than you think, because magazine ‘writers’ are sometimes hired because they are experts on a certain subject—not because they are good writers. Some are well aware of their lack of ability and gracious for the assistance. Others, not so much. It’s particularly awkward when what an expert thinks they have written differs substantially from what in fact has been written. Those ‘singers’ who try out for shows such as Idol and are laughed off the stage? Yeah, that. But how do you tell a writer who has a job as a writer that they are not a writer?

3. … the distinction between advertorial and editorial was clear—perfectly clear. I don’t have a problem with ads or advertorial—a publication has to make money—but I hate it when advertising encroaches on editorial. When an article needs to include copy to keep an advertiser happy—ugh! And double ugh! if we have to write a product name with weird uppercase/lowercase letters and awkward punctuation because we don’t want to damage “the brand”. Are we that blinded by monetary gain that we are willing to compromise editorial integrity? Okay, no need to answer that.

I’d hate my bubble to burst.

* There was that misdemeanour in 2005 when a bugging device was found near Nicole Kidman’s home, though I don’t think it was ever established who planted it: a paparazzo or a misguided fan?

The cornerstone of quality journalism

July 13, 2011

So the News of the World newspaper has been reduced to a Twitter hashtag. Actually ‘reduced’ is probably the wrong word to use. Should rather be ‘raised’, because when you read through the tweets and links at #NoTW you find news with journalistic integrity. The same can’t be said for the paper that arrogantly refers to itself as The World’s Greatest Newspaper 1843-2011. (And shouldn’t there be a comma after ‘Newspaper’?)

I’m not so much surprised by the revelations—tabloid journalists have long had a spurious reputation, just think Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter books—but rather excited by them. It’s about time the spotlight was shone on journalistic practices; about time we reflected on our ethics and standards.

The Guardian, it seems, has lived up to its namesake as the paper that broke the news two years ago, in July 2009. Which brings me to the point of my blog post.

I have great respect for The Guardian and love, love, LOVE that @guardianstyle is on Twitter. I follow a few style guides on Twitter, and I love ’em all, yet it saddens me deeply that none are from Australia. In Australia, 1) not many people even know what subeditors are (yes, we’re the guardians of language and factual information), and 2) even within the newsroom itself, a subeditor’s skill-set is undervalued and viewed as an unnecessary expense that can be farmed out.

I am lucky that I work in magazines, for a subeditor’s role is still seen as crucial to the publication’s integrity—and it is. Today, for example, a writer submitted an article that mentioned a recent study on people’s attitudes towards beauty, yet in her haste to submit her story had copied and pasted information that wasn’t related to that study itself, but previous research.

It happens ALL THE TIME.

Facts are slippery and you can’t trust anyone, particularly PR people. Recently, a PR person was convinced that Elizabeth Arden was the first woman on the cover of Time magazine in 1946, yet a quick search through the Time‘s archive’s online quickly revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt was on the cover in 1933.

To do our job properly, a subeditor needs to be able to communicate easily with the writer, to ensure nothing has been misinterpreted. It’s that relationship that ensures a quality publication, and it’s what I look for in every piece of news I read. And how do you know it’s there? The publication’s subeditors/copy editors/fact checkers are not invisible—or seen as unnecessary (@guardian and @motherjones come to mind). I’m particularly impressed when I read articles that credit the editor.

And if they are invisible—or seen as unnecessary? Then may I suggest you view everything you read/see/hear in the media with scepticism.