Things have been crazy busy at my end of the world, but I wanted to take some time to give a well-deserved shout-out to a fellow blogger whose meticulous proofreading/editing services I’ve recently had the chance to experience.
I’ve been following the blog of Thomas Weaver for quite some time now (well, just about since I started blogging myself), and have consistently enjoyed his Grammar Rants, amongst other posts. I’d like to believe that we’re similar in some respects (perfectionists, sticklers for detail, and grammar na… er, ninjas), but I can’t claim to have any seriously honed editing skills (though I did rant myself about things an editor should’ve picked up in a book written by my favourite author that I just couldn’t overlook). So, since I remembered from first browsing his site a long time ago that he was also an editor who offered a free sample of his proofreading/editing skills for up to 5000 words – and because I knew I would soon be submitting my first chapter, which therefore had to be extra polished – I thought I’d see whether he’d be able to find any little errors I may have overlooked in my own writing. I was pretty convinced that there wouldn’t be more than a few, and that those would have been ones that crept in with recent edits to said first chapter.
Boy, was I naïve.
Thomas not only found a few errors that had crept in, he also managed to remind me of how inconsistent I’d become with my commas and semicolons (in more places than I’d like to admit publicly), and of my bad habit with adding a fourth dot to an ellipsis when it’s at the end of a sentence, which isn’t correct.
I did have the audacity to disagree with some of his suggested edits, and, in our interesting email conversation about several aspects of editing and grammar, rather than being a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, he was happy to agree with some of my reasoning and answer my questions about some of the finer points of… stuff.
Oh, and, as a bonus, he came up with this gem regarding ellipses that cracked me up:
Then thou must write three dots upon the page. Three shall be the number of the dots, and the number of the dots shall be three. Four dots shall thou not write, neither shall thou write two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the three dots, three being the number of the dots, be written…
It helps to know the Monty Python original to appreciate it:
So, clearly, if you’re in need of professional proofreading and/or editing, I can whole-heartedly recommend Thomas’ services. Not only will you get first-class service, you’ll also be communicating with a guy who is very approachable, who knows way more than just his commas and semicolons, and who has a great sense of humour.
You can even try out his free sample offer so you have an idea of what you’ll get for hiring him. And if you do, please tell him Amos sent you – maybe I’ll get a discount when I need more of his excellent editing skills. 😉
Apologies up front, this post will of necessity be somewhat politically tinged; if that’s not your thing and me having a go at bad grammar isn’t enough to make you continue reading, feel free to skip this one. The next one will be vastly different, promise. 😉
Reading the online news during lunch today at work, I came across this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Quite a serious topic, and currently very much in the forefront of what Australian media are reporting. Two very different sides – the political and the grammatical one – of this story managed to really annoy me.
The political side
Few seem to be willing to say out loud what (I think) seems obvious to most: that Russia’s President Putin is an egotistical bully who needs to be taken down a notch. So many politicians are so worried about how much saying something negative about Putin or Russia might affect their international relationship that they’re willing to overlook all the bullying and the posturing and instead engage in brown-nosing that would make the most sycophantic teacher’s pet jealous.
Several European countries like Germany are treading carefully with Putin because of their reliance on Russian oil, and yet are daring to tighten their sanctions – good on them. The Amercians are economically more isolated and speak more freely while still having to keep in mind that Putin is a loose cannon, crazy and brazen enough to escalate a conflict that will make half the world bleed. I recently read some honest-sounding words from John Kerry about Putin, and the US is on board with increased sanctions.
Here in Australia, we’re even more isolated from Russia (as far as I know, I’m not claiming expertise on the subject), but what do our leaders do? The ones who got themselves into office mostly by bullying many Australians into actually believing those ridiculous three-word-slogans are now doing what most bullies do when faced with a stronger bully: they’re sucking up to him while it’s in their best interest.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia already had some sanctions against Russia and flagged the possibility of the government expanding those “further”, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission.
We’re trying to get the bodies of many who were on flight MH17 home, and, fair enough, if we upset Putin and that turns out to be the reason we fail to identify and retrieve our dead, then, well, that would really suck. But, come on, he’s had the chance to intervene on the side of sanity and has done nothing to help. He’s proven that his ambitions far outstrip his compassion and has made his priorities clear by not acting when he could (and should) have.
Why are we still holding on to the belief that he’ll use his influence with the separatists if we’re openly saying that we’ll consider expanding sanctions after he’s helped us? Do Abbot and Bishop really think Putin won’t hear that they’re only waiting with the sanctions for now? Or that it comes across as a “gesture of goodwill”? Bullies of that calibre don’t think very highly of gestures of goodwill. But our own, smaller, bullies are too busy brown-nosing to notice, I think.
The grammatical side
The subject matter of the article aside, the other thing that ticked me off while reading this article from what I thought of as a respectable newspaper was that it had several errors that any editor should have spotted. Are all these cuts to education having an effect already? No, wait, people can’t write properly because of previous cuts to education spending.
Let’s start with the title. Wouldn’t some alternative to “cool” have been preferable? I’m imagining most Gen-Y readers (well, the ones that read the news) would skim the headline and think, “Oh good, we’re cool with that.”
“Australia is unlikely to immediately follow the US and EU’s lead…”, the article begins. That possessive should apply to the US as well as the EU, i.e. “the US’s and EU’s lead” for the sentence to make sense. The same sentence then uses the phrase “… help in aiding the unarmed police mission’s safe passage to the MH17 crash site”. Who needs safe passage – the police, the police’s mission, or the “police mission”? The former would make sense, yet the latter is implied.
Later, in the typical one-sentence-per-paragraph style too many journalists use because then they don’t have to think about which sentences belong together: “… the possibility of the government expanding those ‘further’, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission”. (Ah, so the police and the team do have a mission, the abstract kind, not the missionary kind. I hope they get their safe passage.) Why is “further” in quotes? If someone were reading this out loud, would they have to do the “finger quote” thing? Is the article quoting just that one word and has paraphrased the rest, or are they trying to make fun of what the PM said in some manner I don’t get?
Next, they quote Abbott as follows: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again – that’s the approach that the Australian government and our international partners, particularly the Dutch have got to this.” We all know that Abbott is not the “suppository of all wisdom” (one try too many, Tony), but you don’t have to butcher his quotes even more by ignoring the rules of grammar. In the quoted sentence, the dependent clause “particularly the Dutch” should be separated from the main sentence (“…the approach the government and our partners have got to this”) by commas. The first comma is there, the second is missing.
The next quote (“if it doesn’t happen today…”) needs a semi-colon instead of a comma before the second if.
The conjunction but in the next sentence joins two independent clauses (“he said the situation remained fluid” and “they would not be taking sides”), hence it should have a comma to separate them.
Want to distill Abbott’s foreign policy down to one short phrase? He’ll do it for you:
I know that various things are happening in Europe and elsewhere, that’s a matter for the Europeans and others.
Douglas Adams defined those things as SEPs (someone else’s problem). Yeah, Tony, if all countries just worried about their own problems like you do, we wouldn’t get all those boats you want to stop, right? Do I even need to point out the fact that the comma in that quote shouldn’t be a comma? The same thing goes for the Hockey quote, “I made no such claim, that’s just dead wrong.” Does anyone even know what commas are used for any longer?
At least there’s a comma after “Wednesday”, but the rest of the sentence (“Moscow’s support for the unarmed mission was vital for the team’s support”) reminds me of Austin Powers’ wonderfully awkward “Please allow myself to introduce… myself.”
I won’t even mention the last sentence, but I will repeat this: it’s a newspaper article. Not just some scribbling in a blog no one reads. Journalists! You should hold yourselves to a higher standard. Especially on a topic of this gravity.
Recently, I’ve been really lazy when it comes to blogging – school holidays, kids at home having more time than they can handle, and so on. (I’m not trying to make excuses, and yes, I’ll get back to blogging and catching up on everyone else’s blog… sorry!)
One of the upsides of that, though, is that my kids find funny things on youtube and show them to me. A couple of days ago, they told me to watch a video, “FOIL”, by Weird Al Yankovic, which makes fun of the song “Royals”. I didn’t know he was still around, let alone still making parodies. I liked it, and told my kids that he was funny way back when I was their age (I remember his “Just Eat It” parody of “Just Beat It”). I still had the youtube tab open in my browser this morning, saw this one that caught my attention, and absolutely loved it.
It’s not only hilarious, it also hits the nail on the head. A must-watch for anyone who’s ever advocated grammar or corrected anyone’s atrocious spelling, or laments that “the days of good English have went”.
“Word Crimes” by Weird Al:
I couldn’t have said it
gooder weller better myself. 😀
As writers, I think it’s our duty to lead by example as much as possible. Even if you’re not serious about ever being published and just blog for fun, consider that every time you make a common error, the chances of someone reading your error and subconsciously registering that that’s the way to do it increase, and you’ve helped the error to spread. If you write, consider yourself one of the guardians of good language. Thomas’ succinct post hits the head on the nail.
It’s not that difficult a concept: If you have a sentence that could be divided into two sentences by removing a conjunction (a compound sentence), there must be a comma before that conjunction. This isn’t optional. This isn’t a matter of personal taste.
It is also a good idea not to use a comma after a conjunction-type word at the beginning of a sentence. If you’re going to start a sentence with but (usually fine in informal writing, which is what fiction is), don’t use a comma after it. The same thing goes for and. After all, if you use but or and in the middle of the sentence, the comma goes before it.
Inept punctuation in a novel makes the author look bad; inept punctuation in an indie-published novel makes every other indie author look bad, too, because a lot of readers still think indie equals unprofessional. Perpetuating this misconception is
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Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter
In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.
To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:
- Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
- Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
- Using “alot” a lot
- I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?
The five that were slightly trickier:
- Careful with your tenses
- Singular “is” vs plural “are”
- Who thinks of whom
- The postfix -ward vs -wards
- Using “if” vs “whether”
Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.
Five (arguably) easy ones
Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.
2. Space before punctuation
I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.
3. Couple OF
Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?
I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)
4. Then vs than
This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.
5. Have isn’t of
When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.
Five more, slightly trickier
Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.
6. Is “alright” all right?
Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.
7. Further vs farther
You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.
It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).
8. Capitalisation of formal titles
Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).
Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.
If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.
9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations
When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?
In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.
In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.
10. Ellipses at the end of sentences
The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.
This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….
Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.
There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.
Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!
I know posts and articles like this are all too common, and many people are probably sick of them. Maybe, but too many people still make these mistakes for me not to at least have a go at
ranting correcting them. (Any mistakes in any of my posts? Please let me know in the comments. Really.)
Five (arguably) easy ones
I’ll start with five I find all over, though I assume serious writers would know them, from online newspaper articles where “journalists” should really know better to informal scribblings where they’re not as bad, but anyone who writes anything on the ‘net should really know these first ones.
So many variations of how this word is misspelled, yet it’s so simple when you remember that the word “finite” is in there.
2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
I see this on shop signs and the like so often it’s embarrassing. To make a word plural, you generally just add an “s“, not an “‘s” (i.e. without the apostrophe). You may have to make adjustments like changing “y” to “ie“, but otherwise there are very few exceptions. (For instance, there are different opinions on what to do with numerals, but that’s another story.)
3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
Just know your possessives and it’s a whole lot easier.
Generally, possessives are where you add apostrophes to words: Fred’s head, Amos’ blog (note the apostrophe at the end there since it already ends with “s”, though some would argue that another “s” won’t hurt).
However, possessive pronouns are an exception: mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, yours, theirs… no apostrophe. (Same goes for “whose”, an interrogative possessive pronoun.) The examples in the above heading that do have an apostrophe are all contractions: it’s (it is, or it has), they’re (they are), you’re (you are).
Everyone should be clear on when to use “there” (though some apparently don’t bother to think about it).
4. Using “alot” a lot
They are two words. Just like “a little”.
5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?
This is the golden rule when you don’t know whether it’s “ie” or “ei”. Long “ee” sounds almost always conform to it: “believe”, “relieve”, “thief”, “piece”, but “receive”, “ceiling”, “conceit”, “transceiver”.
Actually, this one isn’t as easy as the others, as it has quite a few more exceptions. But I’d argue it’s better to follow the rule and be wrong on the occasional exception than to not follow it and be wrong on, well, many more words. Don’t let the weird exceptions seize you and scare you off.
Five more, slightly trickier
Knew all of the above already? The next batch aren’t quite as obvious and some can catch out even seasoned writers.
6. Careful with your tenses
Writers should really be comfortable with these, but occasionally I still spot mistakes of this kind even in printed books that should have been proof-read by professionals. I’ll leave it at one example I saw just last night in an otherwise very well-written story, where a character “knew he overreacted”. The story is told in the past tense, so it should be either “knew he’d overreacted” (if the overreaction was over by the time he knew it), or “knew he was overreacting” (if the overreaction was still occurring).
7. Singular “is” vs plural “are”
This one seems to be sneaking its way into formal English from everyday use. People no longer just (mis)use it when speaking informally, it can now be found on radio/TV as well as written online or in print. It may seem innocent when people say something like “There’s two things that tick me off”, but beware of using “is” with a plural. “Things are“, not “things is“.
8. Who thinks of whom?
Some may argue I’m flogging a dead horse here, but I don’t think we should give up on the word “whom” just yet, at least in formal writing. The rule of when to use which is not as tricky as most would think. Just remember that who replaces the subject of the sentence while whom replaces the object.
(Edit: while writing this, I googled the subject and found a great “comic” on this describing both when and why to use whom in a sentence. It explains the subject/object rule better than I could as well as pointing out a simple he/him test that’s easy to remember. “Do it for the steeds!”)
9. The postfix -ward vs -wards
Did he go toward her or towards her?
Short version? If unsure, leave out the “s”.
Long(er) version? Historically and more formally, the form with the “s” is an adverb, while the form without the “s” can be an adjective, a noun, or an adverb (a variant of the “s” form). From what I’ve been able to read from various sources (please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that this distinction has become less relevant in recent years, and that the form with the “s” (towards, downwards, backwards) is used more in UK/AUS/NZ while the shorter form (toward, downward, backward) is chiefly used in the US. Personally, I’d still say something along the lines of “He moved backwards in a backward world.”
10. Using “if” vs “whether”
“I don’t know if I should tell you this.” Correct or incorrect? We all use it in informal language, but, at least formally, “whether” should replace “if” in this example. Formally, “if” indicates a conditional phrase, but “If I should tell you this, then I don’t know” doesn’t make sense. In cases with two distinct possibilities, use “whether”. Mixing these two up can drive students of logic up the wall (which, admittedly, can be fun).
Whether or not you use “if”, especially if you’re your own boss’ boss, and they’re not in their right mind over there while it’s obvious that saying “definitely” is its own reward a lot of the time, remember whom to thank for these great rules and continue to believe in the gloriously weird language that is English.