Category Archives: A Finer Point

A Finer Point: The vocative comma

Cathy Tingle updates a column of Christmas past for a festive reminder of what one kind of comma can teach us.

As I am an editor, my favourite Christmas carol – obviously – is ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ because of the vocative comma (the one before ‘Gentlemen’). This type of comma is particularly important in creative works, as I discovered a few years ago when I cast my eye over a friend’s unedited novel and encountered characters being addressed directly without this comma: ‘I really don’t know Marion’, ‘Did you see Marion?’ (Marion was the addressee in both) and ‘Trying to sober up Richard?’ (as Richard was asked at the end of a party). The meaning conveyed in each case is quite different from what the writer was intending, as in the old classic ‘Let’s eat Grandma’.

A multitude of angels – sorry, angles

Commas cause most people who work with words to pause for thought now and then, and they can’t possibly be covered in one short column. Why? Because there is just so much to say. Larry Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, divides the comma population firmly into four types: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas. In his recent CIEP guide on punctuation Gerard M-F Hill takes on the brave task of simplifying Trask’s model, and consequently gives the comma ‘with minor exceptions … two functions in prose’: isolating and listing. But it takes an action-packed 22-page chapter to elaborate fully on these functions and their exceptions.

Elsewhere, John Seely, in the Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, identifies seven roles for commas if we omit their use in numbers. And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) devotes sections 6.16–6.55 – that’s 40 sections – to them.

Even if we could square up these various ideas about how many uses commas have (and it’s tough: Fowler’s deals with this by following New Hart’s Rules), comma use is, according to David Crystal in Making a Point, sometimes simply a matter of taste, because it’s linked to psycholinguistics. ‘One person says, “I need a comma to make the meaning of this sentence clear”; another finds the same sentence perfectly understandable without a comma. It’s because they have different processing abilities.’

So, because things are hectic enough at this time of year, how about we look at just one type of comma, the vocative, which many experts including Seely and Trask don’t even cover directly? Who knows, it might tell us a small thing about commas in general.

Merry gentlemen, or not so much?

Back we go, then, to ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. This is interesting because, of course, it’s often rendered as ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen’, and indeed I spent my childhood picturing a group of jolly old chaps. (My friend Judith spent her childhood thinking that the lyrics included the words ‘to save us all from Santa’s power’ – it’s ‘Satan’s power’ – but that’s another story.)

In fact, ‘rest you merry’ used to be a recognised phrase, meaning ‘rest well, be happy’. Dickens, in A Christmas Carol (1843), actually changed the title to ‘God Bless You Merry Gentleman’, in the words of a boy singing outside Scrooge’s door. There’s no comma at all in my 1946 edition, which isn’t to say Dickens didn’t put one in the original, but the point is that he made ‘God Bless You’ the unbreakable phrase in this line (and those who punctuate before ‘Merry’ are making ‘God Rest You’ the unbreakable phrase), whereas ‘God Rest You Merry’ is the title’s original unbreakable phrase and so the comma should follow that. As we wrote about this carol’s title in last year’s festive CIEP quiz, ‘if you’re interested in the impact of punctuation, it’s an interesting exercise to omit the vocative comma, then move it slowly up the sentence from the end, displaying its power to change meaning’. There you are – something to do once the presents are opened on Christmas Day.

‘“No punctuation” is the ultimate marker of semantic tightness’, as David Crystal says in Making a Point. Commas create breaks between words, to put it simply, and if there’s no comma we tend to read the words as one block. There’s something about the special confusion experienced in response to the lack of a vocative comma that makes you appreciate this fully.

If you’d like to further explore the comma nuances in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’, complete with a cappella musical accompaniment, may I recommend to you a short video, new for the 2021 festive season, by RamsesThePigeon. It really is a gift.

No comma, no confusion

But what if the lack of a comma before a name doesn’t cause confusion? One thing the vocative comma has been suffering from is a sense that it has become non-essential in phrases like ‘Hi John’. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl), in The Grammar Devotional, valiantly tries to explain why it’s necessary in such cases:

In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of direct address apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking?

Yet the comma after ‘Hi’ is used less and less. In November 2019, Ellen Jovin of @grammartable lamented on Twitter: ‘If people I communicated with still used vocative commas after “hi,” I would have continued to use them. But they look at me as though I have three dangling participles if I even bring up such a thing.’ Are we losing the vocative comma in this formulation because there is very little scope for misunderstanding without it, as with 2019’s giddy pre-Covid inter-generational put-down ‘OK Boomer’? Whatever else you thought of it, and however you capitalise it, this phrase is certainly not punctuated. So perhaps we’re slowly discarding all punctuation except what’s absolutely necessary for comprehension.

A simple lesson

I still keep in touch with my high-school English teacher, now in his mid-80s, and as you might expect, along with the chat about how my kids and his grandkids are doing, occasionally punctuation comes up. In a letter in 2019, he said, ‘I used to try to teach various classes that punctuation was in many instances more important than spelling: I could make out that “ejog” (as I had to once) was meant to be “hedgehog” from the material round about, but if the punctuation was misplaced or non-existent the sense was lost.’ He continued by revealing his tried-and-tested example: ‘I tended to use “Stop Toby” (our dog) v. “Stop, Toby”.’ Well, then: perhaps the vocative comma can teach where no other comma types can reach. With my own vocative comma firmly in place, it only remains for me to wish you a lovely festive season, everyone.


An earlier version of this column was published in Editing Matters, Jan/Feb 2020. CIEP members can access all issues of Editing Matters in the archive.


Resources

The Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edition. University of Chicago Press.
David Crystal (2016). Making a Point. Profile, 2016.
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol (1946); reprint Penguin 1984.
Mignon Fogarty (2009). The Grammar Devotional. St. Martin’s Press.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.
Gerard M-F Hill (2021). ‘Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders.’ CIEP guide. ciep.uk/resources/guides/#PEP
New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press.
RamsesThePigeon. ‘Where Is the Comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Supposed to Go?’ YouTube video. youtube.com/watch?v=sxfxy-3dGz0
John Seely (2020). Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation. Oxford University Press.
RL Trask (1997). Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Penguin.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is a copyeditor, tutor and member of the CIEP’s information team.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – sentence case

Applying sentence case to titles is as straightforward as applying capital letters to sentences: more complicated than it first appears. Cathy Tingle considers proper nouns, identity and emphasis to investigate why we might add capitals in sentence case.

In some areas of editing and proofreading several tricky issues converge. You have two options with these: try wherever possible to avoid them, or tackle them head-on. Other brave, sparky, go-ahead souls will do the latter without question. I invariably start with the former and then slide into the latter when I’m well and truly cornered and I have to write a column or something.

I find capitalising titles and headings tricky. For a long time I preferred the idea of nice simple sentence case over horrid complicated title case where you have to consider nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions and capitalise accordingly. All that grammar packed into one style! No thanks. But the more I’ve edited the more I’ve realised that capitalising every type of word except conjunctions and articles, and sometimes prepositions, is often a more straightforward prospect than working with sentence case. Why?

What is sentence case?

Sentence case is also called essential caps, minimum caps and uclc (upper case lower case). In this style you capitalise as you would in a sentence – apply a capital letter to the first letter of the first word, and then add caps as you would to a sentence in text.

Sounds lovely and simple. So what’s the problem? The problem, my friends, is that sentences in text aren’t all that easy to capitalise, because of proper nouns and words you might cap for other reasons such as to emphasise something or convey a particular meaning. Let’s look at why we might capitalise in a sentence.

Proper nouns

Sometimes it helps to think of a capital as, literally, a cap. Perhaps with a feather. A fancy cap that we put on a proper noun to distinguish it from a general one. We use capitals to make it clear that we mean:

  • Turkey the country, not turkey the bird
  • the Next shop, the branch of a well-known UK brand, not the next shop, the one we’re just going to
  • a Guide, a member of the Guide Association, not a guide, another person or thing that might accompany you somewhere.

Capitals are also really useful to distinguish the many names that, uncapped, are English words: first names such as Amber, Bill, Cliff, Jasmine, Lance, Pinky or Pat, and myriad surnames including Smith, Gill, Bond and, er, Tingle.

Recently I saw a reference in the news to ‘Labour and co-operative politician Tracy Brabin’, which needed a capital C for ‘Co-operative’ to make it clear it wasn’t describing her manner but naming the political party (Co-operative Party) she was affiliated with. So, yes, for the most part we capitalise proper nouns, and for good reasons.

Cool, cool. But what about words and terms like ‘government’ and ‘marketing manager’? The convention is to keep these lower case in a general sense (‘the government believes’, ‘the marketing manager presents’) and capitalise them only as part of an official title: ‘Government of the United Kingdom’ or ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ and ‘Jay Patterson, Marketing Manager’.

However, bear in mind this point in New Hart’s Rules: ‘Capitals are sometimes used for a short-form mention of a title of a specified person, organization, or institution previously referred to in full.’ Examples are then given including ‘the Ministry’, ‘the Centre’s policy’ or ‘the University statute’. Note the ‘sometimes’. NODWE hedges similarly when talking about terms like ‘king’ and ‘queen’: ‘king cap. in titles (King Henry) and often the King, but king of the Visi-goths’; ‘queen cap. in titles (Queen Jane) and often the Queen, but queen of Castile’. So what is meant by ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’ in these mysterious entries? Style, that’s what. From here, your style sheet is your guide (not Guide, which, as we’ve discovered, is quite different). Your next requirement is consistency. (Had it been your Next requirement, it might have been a nice top.)

Honouring identity

Capitals also acknowledge identity. That’s why the Associated Press (AP) changed its style last summer ‘to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa’, adding, ‘We also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.’ Many publications, organisations and individuals worldwide have followed AP’s lead. The Guardian’s style guide, at the time of writing, capitalises ‘Indigenous’ when referring to ‘Indigenous Australians’ and ‘Indigenous people in Canada’ but does not yet capitalise ‘black’, with the following vital qualification: ‘If a subject, writer or editor of a story prefers to use Black then that choice should be respected.’

The choices of other communities need to be respected, too. Should you apply a capital to the word ‘deaf’, for example? The charity SignHealth explains the distinction it makes in its own communications between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’:

The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too. We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk … It is an important distinction, because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language … There is a very strong and close Deaf community with its own culture and sense of identity, based on a shared language.

As an editor or proofreader, it’s more than likely the decision to capitalise words that acknowledge identity will not in fact be yours to make, but the decision of the subject, author or style guide. Your job is to help ensure that the right people are being approached for these decisions. If you don’t think they are, that’s when you raise your hand.

Capitalising for emphasis

Now we come to Pooh Caps (there’s a phrase better written than said), the practice of capitalising Particularly Important Words. Here are Pooh Caps in action in The House at Pooh Corner: ‘When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.’ The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls such capitalisation ‘pomposity’, but I’m not so sure. In social media in particular, it’s a thing (or a Thing) when it’s used with a particular intention. Sure, our work as editors and proofreaders is usually to uncapitalise words and terms such as ‘physics’, ‘school’ and ‘psalm’ – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that most common nouns assigned caps incorrectly by authors are those that are capitalised in other circumstances (‘Department of Physics’; ‘Snodsbury School’, ‘Book of Psalms’), and of course, just to keep things interesting, we have the proper-noun short-form consideration in Hart’s mentioned a couple of sections above. But sometimes the capital is being used for emphasis, and occasionally this is valid. Pooh uses caps for his own title ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’, and for the words that are important to him – thinking of a thing is a major event, and thinking of a thingish thing particularly so. Let’s pay attention to Pooh’s voice. Again, I’m glad I’ve written that sentence, not spoken it.

Pooh Caps are mentioned in Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet as an earlier version of ironic capitals, which she describes in an article about sarcasm on the internet: ‘Capitalizing Unimportant Words imposes a certain level of ironic detachment. Adding (TM) or periods between each word is optional but extra effective.’ In Because Internet, McCulloch asserts that even at Pooh Corner caps were used for irony: ‘“You’re a real friend,” said he. “Not like Some,” he said.’

However, people on Twitter aren’t displaying ironic detachment when they present their dogs as, for example, a Very Good Girl. They’re assigning a title to their pets, and a well-deserved one, no doubt. As ever, context, format and meaning have to be taken into account in this 3D chess we call editing.

Bring on title case

So, where does this leave us? Running headlong towards title case, that’s where. I’ll cover this style in a later Finer Point column.

Resources

AP (2020). Explaining AP style on Black and white. apnews.com/article/archive-race-and-ethnicity-9105661462.

Gretchen McCulloch (2019). Because Internet. Riverhead.

AA Milne (1928). The House at Pooh Corner. Methuen & Co.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; chapter 5, Capitalization.

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2014). Oxford University Press.

SignHealth. What is the difference between deaf and Deaf? signhealth.org.uk/resources/learn-about-deafness/deaf-or-deaf.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member who wears three (non-feathered) hats: copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: Postage stamp showing Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet by Andy Lidstone / Shutterstock.com.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: On the list

They’re lurking in most documents and they can contain pitfalls. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle looks at common problems with lists in body text, from punctuation to miscounting. The article covers:

  • Why pay attention to in-text lists?
  • Insufficient punctuation
  • ‘And’
  • ‘As well as’
  • ‘Both’
  • First … secondly … fourth
  • Mistakes in counting

In editing any document, you will usually come across an attempt to present more than one piece of information in a serial fashion – in other words, to create a list. You can easily detect a bulleted or numbered list trotting towards you, like a reliable but sometimes unkempt pony, so you can be ready to battle (or perhaps groom) it with your own checklist: is there consistency with other lists? Is there consistency in capitalisation and punctuation? What about agreement of lead-in text with all points, particularly those at the end? And so on. New Hart’s Rules and Butcher’s Copy-editing can help you build a checklist for grooming your ponies – I mean, for improving your vertical lists.

But lists in body text can sneak up on you, like a silent flock of sheep. Why does this matter? Because if you recognise an in-text list, you can look for its likely problems. Here are five issues I frequently come across.

1. Insufficient punctuation

If the author is underusing punctuation, here is where your most effective (yet subtle) work as an editor can be done. This text is based on a past project:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

An urgent question is whether Aristotle was the farrier and Derek the castle steward (sure, there could have been an ‘a’ before ‘castle’ if so, but …). Adding a comma after Aristotle, which the author confirmed was correct, starts to make things clearer:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle, and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

However, this is still not an easy sentence to understand. Is it obvious who has which role? Time to bring in the semicolons:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’); the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle; and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

2. ‘And’

It helps to make sure that there are enough ‘and’s, so that many ‘and’s make light work of comprehension (*snigger*). Also, keep your eye on phrasing:

The pony groom had a wooden brush, colourful ribbons and displayed her certificate on the wall.

This is not one list. There are two phrases in the sentence, so the first needs an ‘and’ and a comma at the end for clarity:

The pony groom had a wooden brush and colourful ribbons, and displayed her certificate on the wall.

3. ‘As well as’

These days on national radio it’s quite common to hear constructions such as ‘England, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as Wales’. But ‘as well as’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. It heralds an addition to a list rather than its final item, so you need ‘and’ as well as ‘as well as’, as in this sentence, which conveys that although Wales has lovely beaches, so do England, Northern Ireland and Scotland:

England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as Wales have lovely beaches.

 And if you simply want to list the four nations, replace ‘as well as’ with ‘and’:

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

4. ‘Both’

‘Both’ should be employed when it makes ‘and’ stronger (‘she was both accurate and fast’). However, as one of our Advanced Professional Members remarked in a 2018 CIEP (then SfEP) forum post, some less experienced writers use it ‘whenever they mention two things’.

As this member also pointed out, you need to make sure that ‘both’ refers to two items, not three or four. I’ve seen ‘both’ combined with another word that should only precede two things, to list three: a professional ‘doubled as both actor, artist and musician’.

5. ‘First … secondly … fourth’

If you see ‘first’, immediately locate ‘second’ (remember, don’t allow ‘secondly’ unless you have ‘firstly’), and make sure all subsequent flagging words proceed in the right order with no absences. If this threatens to get out of control (more than five points can be unwieldy), suggest a numbered list.

6. Mistakes in counting

It almost seems too obvious, but if an author says there are five items in their list, make sure that five there are. Things get added, things get cut, and the author forgets that they have mentioned, a few paragraphs up, that they will present five items … wait, I think I may have done this myself …

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: pony by Tim Riesner; wooden brush and horse by Chris Bair, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: The dos and don’ts of dos and don’ts

Some very simple expressions can cause a quandary out of proportion to their size and frequency of use. In this article from the Finer Point archives, Luke Finley looks at one such phrase that often tests us. His article covers:

    • Discussions about dos and don’ts
    • Dos and don’ts
    • Do’s and don’ts
    • ‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s
    • Rules

This column is usually about the dos and don’ts of grammar – or, more accurately, the dos, don’ts, maybes and maybe-nots. This time round, it’s about the phrase dos and don’ts itself. It might seem a rather narrow concern, but it can cause confusion: I counted at least seven discussions on it in Facebook editors’ groups in the last couple of years. So, what are the options?

Dos and don’ts

The least-punctuated version is my preference. If you have more than one do, it seems natural to call them dos. The Oxford English Dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Guardian style guide and Bill Bryson are all happy with this. That’s authoritative enough for me.

But, admittedly, the drawback is that dos looks more like it should rhyme with boss than with booze, which may bring the reader up short. Hence the other options …

Do’s and don’ts

Some people who would turn the colour of beetroot at a sign reading ‘beetroot’s £2/kg’ nevertheless favour an apostrophe here. But while it seems to go against a basic rule of English, there are some comparable examples where this is accepted (by some!). Grammar Girl points to the phrase Mind your p’s and q’s, and the two a’s, not as, in aardvark. And some style guides agree: the widely used Associated Press guide, for example, prefers do’s and don’ts.

You might be thinking that if you’re going to apostrophise do’s, the other word should be treated the same way: don’t’s. If so, Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves) agrees with you. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s an argument in favour of it or not.

‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s

There’s a logic to this version. It overcomes the pronunciation issue without resorting to greengrocers’s apostrophe’s. It also arguably makes semantic sense: these ‘do’s are instances of someone saying ‘do X, Y and Z’, hence the quotation marks. On the other hand, you may feel, as I do, that it looks like someone’s gone wild with a salt-shaker full of punctuation marks. And just imagine it with double quote marks …

Rules

So there’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but as usual that doesn’t mean people don’t have some strong opinions about what looks and sounds right. As US editor Jake Poinier commented in a Facebook discussion on the usage, ‘50% of readers are going to think it’s wrong, no matter which you choose’.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Read more from the Finer Point archives

Read my ellipsis by Riffat Yusuf

Commas: the chameleon conundrum by Luke Finley

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns by Cathy Tingle

About Luke Finley

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: beetroots by Nick Collins on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Passive aggressive

By Riffat Yusuf

Dear Readability,

Regarding your recent suggestion that my blog post might be improved by incorporating more active-voice sentences, your anti-passive bias is noted. Your call to action is uncalled for and, furthermore, I take issue with issue is taken by me with the contention that the pace of your reading is hampered by passive sentences.

PS Plain-English guidelines are exempt from all assertions and absurdities expressed above and below this line.

PPS I’m actively glaring at you, WordPress.

When the internet eventually ditches keywords for ranking purposes (I mean, keep them but don’t make content writers sweat over their optimal placement), can somebody please tweak readability formulas? That anti-verbosity algorithm which says wordiness in a sentence starts at 20 words: it needs sorting. And as for the gizmo screening for long words (two or more syllables), does a word as long as the longest word in this sentence really encumber readability? But where my gripe is majorly piqued is when WordPress sequesters my passive voice.

Voices and verbs

In grammar, ‘voice’ tells us about the relationship between the subject and the verb in a clause. If a subject is doing, carrying out or expressing a verb, the voice of that clause is active (I play football).

When the object of an erstwhile active clause takes on the role of the subject, we say the voice is passive (football is played by me). In a passive clause, we can also remove the preposition (by) and the agent (me).

The passive voice is not a tense; it can happen in the past and the present. The passive may be described as a construction or a clause, but not a verb, as June Casagrande explains in The Joy of Syntax.

There’s no denying that some verbs are less action-oriented than others. But passive and active voice in grammar have nothing to do with kinetics. Instead, voice has to do with the structure of the sentence.

Active and passive are the two official voices of English sentence structure. A third is expleted when Flesch metrics deem that of the sentences I write (in an article about passive sentences) only 10 per cent may be expressed passively. A fourth is muttered when writing experts tell me that in almost every genre, it’s easier to read a sentence where a subject actively verbs an object.

An active voice, it is said, lends itself well to informality, spontaneity, fluidity, immediacy, intimacy and, basically, whatever fusty isn’t. Listen, active voicers, you hog most of the writing space online and, if amplification for your writing style were needed, you have an ally in George Orwell’s oft-echoed one-liner in Politics and the English Language (an essay that fails readability checks with its 20 per cent passive clause saturation). What say we hear it for the passive voice?

Passive resistance

We can identify a passive clause by its form: subject + auxiliary (be or get) + past participle. That said, perhaps this accepted structure needs rethinking. (Geoffrey Pullum, I did that just for you.)

If you’ve read Fear and Loathing of the English Passive, you’ll know that a bare passive (‘that said’) doesn’t take an auxiliary verb, and a concealed passive (‘needs rethinking’) uses a gerund-participle; these phrases don’t align with the conventional structure, do they? So if the form of the passive voice isn’t as rigid as we have been taught, perhaps our understanding of what happens in a passive clause also needs revisiting.

I have read 23 explanations of the role played by each element in a passive clause. All the grammar bloggers concur that a passive subject is the recipient of the action of a verb. Pullum, who has unpacked considerably more of ‘the thousands of mutually plagiarizing bad descriptions of the passive construction’, finds that talking about a verb in terms of receipt and delivery isn’t always accurate. Not all passive subjects receive action in the way we might think.

If I were to say: ‘it is alleged by writers that passive sentences are clunky’, Pullum would point out that there isn’t actually any action being received by the dummy pronoun in my sentence. And again, in a passive construction such as ‘not much is known about …’, can we really say that the determiner (not much) receives the action of the verb?

When rules are excepted

There is a difference between the passive and the past simple: the phrase ‘there is’ isn’t it. No such distinction is made in this BBC style advice.

The active voice will help to give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact. Compare these examples. The first is in the passive; the second active:

There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.

Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

The subject of an active clause doesn’t always make a good agent. The active-to-passive process requires a little more input than switching places. If you want to flip from active voice to passive, watch out for semantic inequivalence in sentences using a negative verb.

Many people don’t speak English.

English is not spoken by many people.

That ‘rule’ about intransitive verbs not forming the passive … To a point, fair enough: ‘Jane laughs’ doesn’t invert well (‘is laughed Jane’). But as soon as she is supplied with a suitable preposition and indirect object, everybody can be laughed at by Jane. However, very few grammar blogs warn that not all transitive verbs can be passivised. They rarely highlight glitchy verbs like ‘concern’ and ‘have’.

The report concerns people I know.

People I know are concerned by the report.

You have a lovely garden.

A lovely garden is had by you.

It’s not you

Readability, I have to come clean. My passive apologia is a temporary affectation; I was beguiled by the silver-tongued deliberations of eminent linguists. Can you blame me for wanting in on Pullum’s ‘transformational generative syntactic discussions’? If you must know, the thing I like most about the passive is the word itself – the etymologically unsound lovechild of pacifist and passionate. Culpa mostly mea for this transgression, but if you’d only met me halfway I might have parsed less (ugh, those phrase markers!) and written better.

What you really need, Readability, is to collaborate with writers. Take the time to ask what the purpose and audience of our work is. Very few of us have anything original to say online – or anywhere. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write, but that you could help us by delving into our motives a bit more and scoring us accordingly. Instead of marking us down with your amber and red bullets, perhaps give the reader a little pop-up: ‘This entire article is premised on a note about the passive form in Middle English that the writer chanced upon in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.’

I think I’m onto something. What if we had dilly-dally software to flag up waffle? Imagine a prompt for word accountability: an onscreen comment or query for every instance where you didn’t write what you said you would in your intro. And let’s also develop a plugin for specious content: your research is commendable, but five non-recoupable hours yield neither space nor soul for ‘inchoative and ergative aspects’ in the body of this text. Let’s see if we can’t hatch a David Crystal-shaped macro for every time anybody writes anything.

Leave it with me for now, Readability. I can really see a future in developing a ream of text-enhancement features that AI fails to deliver. I’m not sure if I should pitch to Dragon’s Den or JSTOR, but I do know that everything will make a lot more sense after it’s been checked, clarified, modified, rephrased, refined and approved by my editor.

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


Photo credits: pencil on paper by Jan Kahánek; laughter by Hannah Gullixson, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

It’s easy to get confused about reflexive pronouns. Cathy Tingle gets a sense of ‘self’ as she reviews how we refer to ourselves.

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce … myself.’ In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a #NoPainerExplainer tweet, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics):

Use ‘myself’ when you’re the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you’re the object, use ‘me’: ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don’t use ‘myself’ to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this -self or -selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Majesty’ to the Queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself’.

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car …’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if …’ and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If the reader went back and reviewed the context, they would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden, this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a perfectly cromulent word’ (at Conscious Style Guide), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP Advanced Professional Member Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being,’ Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book that depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, is a member of the CIEP’s information team and a tutor for Publishing Scotland. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction copyediting.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: two kinds by Michał Parzuchowski; wrong way by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

That which we call a relative clause

Riffat Yusuf is an editor that or who (or possibly which) advocates for what to head ALL relative clauses.

Editing would be simpler if we replaced which, that and who/m with what. No more asking why it was the boy who and not that cried wolf. No more whiching and thating Jack’s house. No more consulting BBC Bitesize Fowlers for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. For people what need precedents, I refer you to hwæt, used extensively as a relative pronoun in the 13th century. I refer you also to more recent usage (albeit the aspirated interrogative form, inconveniently not functioning as a relative pronoun, but go with it), viz. Meg Mortimer from Crossroads: ‘Hwhat are you doing, Sandy?’

To be clear, I’m not grammar averse; I’m grammar resentful. Why was I never taught that there were words to describe other words? Pupils at my school had to study French or German to relearn English. Even then, we made do with barely-there word classes – ‘je’, ‘tu’, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ were the ‘things’ before ‘doing words’. Still, over time I upskilled enough to teach English grammar and sentence structure to other adults, so you’d think I’d be familiar with relative pronouns. And with Hart’s at hand, I surely would have plugged any restrictive and non-restrictive clause-shaped holes. You’d think.

Relative newcomer

My true, actual, concerted, write-it-down learning started when I joined a grammar practice group that SfEP Professional Member Liz Zachary very kindly set up on the online discussion platform Slack. The sentence we were looking at was almost prescient: ‘What was a mystery twenty years ago now seems entirely straightforward.’ (If only!) Fellow Slackers commented on the use of that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive clauses – parenthetical clauses, if you will. Whaaat????

I find the word ‘restrictive’ misleading. In the sentence ‘The house that Jack built is in a desirable neighbourhood’, the restrictive relative clause is ‘that Jack built’. What is being restricted here? Clearly, ‘that Jack built’ refers to the house, the antecedent; how is that restrictive, though? Calling it a defining relative clause is less perplexing because – at the risk of invoking the scorn of grammarians and children in Year 6 – I suppose it defines Jack, not Jill, as the builder.

Pause that clause

The reason why the restrictive relative clause is thus named is not to be found in the 1611 King James Bible. Pausing for digression, however, we observe the use of which where a noun is the antecedent (‘Our Father which art in Heaven’), and that where the antecedent is a pronoun (‘Blessed are they that mourn’). Aesop’s protagonist in the 17th century would have been the boy which cried wolf.

Moving along, we pay homage to Sheila Graves Geoghegan. Who was this scholar who in 1975 wrote, nay, hand-typed, authoritatively on the usage of relative clauses in Old, Middle and New English? Let’s not stalk her further lest we bump into an obituary, but, Ohio State University, what more does an erudite philologist need to do to be ranked among your notable alumni?

That which is restrictive

Would this be a good time to point out that British English restrictive clauses aren’t restricted to a single head? Whatever is built by Jack can take that or which as its relative pronoun. Or neither. To confound further, Jack can be the man who or that built the house. Either, not neither.

This would not be a good time to dwell upon whom, with its verb-or-preposition-as-object chicanery. The ‘he/she/his/her’ adjudicators for who or whom – straightforward enough for all but this petitioner – likely have their origins in the Pendle witch trials.

Why restrictive, then? For this, we consult Grammarly. To start with, if calling a restrictive clause a definitive clause doesn’t make things clearer, then we can call it an essential clause instead because the information it provides is, um, essential. So, ‘that Jack built’ is an essential part of the sentence that would otherwise read ‘The house is in a desirable neighbourhood.’

If, however, almost everybody except for Cambridge University insists on calling restrictive relative clauses just that, then Jack needs to up sticks for Grammarly’s more sound construction: ‘Children who eat vegetables are likely to be healthy.’ The relative clause-free sentence is ‘Children are likely to be healthy.’ Here, even I can see how the relative clause ‘who eat vegetables’ puts restrictions on the antecedent noun: it’s not children who exercise, or who are happy or who engage in any other health-giving pursuit that are being referred to.

And so to trample on non-restrictive relative clauses. This much I have learned: you can recognise a non-restrictive clause in British English because it always takes which as its relative pronoun. It must be offset by a pair of commas; in a sentence, a non-restrictive clause looks like this: ‘The house, which Jack built, is in a desirable neighbourhood.’ And if you swap the commas for brackets – ‘(which Jack built)’ – it’s easier to discern the clause’s aside-like, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-defining function.

I haven’t unearthed the grammar shortcuts or mnemonics I’d hoped to when I set out to learn more (anything) about relative pronouns and relative clauses. But if syntax acquisition is not beyond the ken of seven-year-olds, then there’s hope for late bloomers like me. Such as I? Here we go again …

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: houses by Lee Jeffs; tomatoes by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commas: the chameleon conundrum

Commas can be very useful little additions in our punctuation arsenal but they can also be intensely irritating. Luke Finley discusses using commas with conjunctions and independent clauses – an insertion that can raise questions and even arguments.

When I looked at commas in the July/August and September/October 2017 issues of Editing Matters, I warned that I was covering only a few of the uses of this chameleon of the punctuation world. Another that has come up on the member forums since then is their use when joining two independent clauses.

My thanks go to Shuna Meade for raising the question on the forum, and to the respondents on the thread for helping to clarify the point (and providing the chameleon metaphor!).

What’s the issue?

Some of us were taught (and some of us have ten-year-olds who are still being taught) never to use a comma before and or but when joining two independent clauses. In reality, there’s clearly no such rule.

I am a copy-editor and I work from home

I am a copy-editor, but I used to work for the council

You could insert a comma in the first example or delete the one in the second without making either of these sentences wrong. But if that’s true, why use a comma in one case and not the other? The choice of conjunction is different, clearly, but is that the decisive factor? Not necessarily; these sentences are also acceptable:

I am a copy-editor, and I have a ten-year-old son

Nick has a son too but he’s already a teenager

In the absence of a strict grammatical rule, then, how do we decide?

Close connection

The strength of the connection between the two clauses is probably the most useful consideration. In my first example I chose not to use a comma because the two clauses seemed inextricably linked: the fact that I work at home tells you something relevant about the kind of copy-editor I am.

In the second example there is a shift of focus between past and present: the comma marks this more distant connection.

In the third example, omitting the comma might misleadingly imply a connection (some illegal, nepotistic subcontracting arrangement?) between two clauses that aren’t very closely related.

The fourth is maybe the most ambiguous case: I felt that the shift here was between the previous sentence and this one, not within the sentence, so I didn’t need a comma. But this is a style choice and you’d be free to approach it differently.

However, it’s worth noting that, by definition, but is generally more likely to introduce a contrast or a change of emphasis than and, so the comma is more likely to be appropriate.

Consider also whether there’s a second subject in the second clause: if so, the relationship between the two clauses is likely to be less close – although this is certainly not always the case.

Removing ambiguity

The comma before a conjunction can help to prevent misreading:

Aristotle was an early empiricist and no great thinker …

Quite a bold claim! But the sentence continues:

… who followed could be taken seriously without having engaged with his works.

Serious misunderstanding may be unlikely here, but a comma before the conjunction would prevent an unintended jarring or comical effect that might bring the reader up short.

Prosody

Commas are sometimes described as marking natural pauses in a sentence. Steven Pinker (The Sense of Style, Penguin, 2014) points out that this was once their main function, citing Jane Austen’s famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice – its two commas would now both be regarded as incorrect. Dickens also peppers his long sentences with commas: some of them now seem unnecessary or wrong, but if you ever have to read his work aloud, you might be grateful for them.

The description of commas as marking a pause isn’t always helpful – it’s fairly subjective, and it doesn’t apply equally to all comma uses. It might be worth bearing in mind in relation to the usage discussed here, though: where there’s a shift of focus as already discussed, a pause is also more likely.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Chameleon by Cécile Brasseur; Pride and Prejudice by Elaine Howlin, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Gerunds: it’s all to do with behaviour

Gerunds can be tricky beasts. But Luke Finley has got the measure of them, and guides us through some of their uses.

The gerund is a verb in its -ing form that is functioning like or as a noun. Distinguishing between the gerund and the present participle – also the verb in its -ing form – is not always easy, but generally it can be regarded as a gerund if it’s behaving more like a noun, and as a present participle if it’s behaving more like an adjective. Recognising the ambiguities of this in practice, modern grammars tend not to categorise them separately: Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar talks about the ‘gerund-participle’.

Clear-cut uses

In some positions, it’s quite clear that the -ing form is functioning as a gerund. For example, where it’s used as the subject or object (or part of it):

Writing a sample sentence will clarify this

I’m trying to communicate this in writing

Sometimes a modifying adjective will make the noun function of the gerund clearer:

Poor-quality writing won’t help

The explanation won’t be clear if the writing is of poor quality

In other situations the gerund may be harder to identify:

My deftly explaining this aspect of grammar will help many thousands of people

The -ing word here is modified by an adverb: definitely verb-like rather than noun-like behaviour. But it’s still part of the noun phrase, so it’s a gerund.

Another common use of gerunds is in forming compound nouns:

In my free time I enjoy water-skiing, base-jumping and free-ironing*

*Some artistic licence has been employed in this sentence.

This process seems especially popular in the world of corporate jargon: brainstorming, streamlining, upscaling, and so on.

Because of the gerund’s dual properties of noun and verb, new verbs are often then back-formed from these compound nouns; to crowdsource might be the kind of neologism some people love to hate, but it’s a good demonstration of the elasticity of language.

Trickier uses

One trickier aspect of usage is deciding between the gerund and the to-infinitive to follow a verb. Sometimes only one or the other is possible. In other cases either is possible but the meaning may be subtly different. This can often trip up English learners, even those who are quite fluent. No doubt this is because there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: it depends on what the preceding verb is. If you speak English as a first language you tend to pick the right one by instinct, without even being aware that you’re making a decision; learners of English have to try to memorise lists of what goes with what. In the following examples only the gerund works:

I enjoy running by the sea

I can’t imagine swimming in it

With different verbs – even though the meanings are not that distant from the first versions – the gerund would not work and only the infinitival form will do:

I want to run by the sea

I don’t need to swim in it

The verb like can work either way, but with slight nuances of meaning. With the gerund, the enjoyment of the activity itself is emphasised. With the to-infinitive, there is greater emphasis on the regularity or repeated nature of it:

I like running on Sundays, but sometimes I have to do the ironing instead

I like to run on Sundays, but I only like to swim in the summer

This choice between the gerund and the infinitival form doesn’t occur only after verbs. And in some cases it’s a difficult call. You might see a formulation like the following sentence in a relatively formal text:

We conducted this survey with the aim to understand gender variations in …

Is this wrong? It sounds stilted, but it’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. In a proofread you might judge it just about acceptable and leave it, but in a copy-edit I think you’d be likely to change it to the more natural-sounding gerund: the aim of understanding.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Water-skiing by Tobia Sola, Running by the sea by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Rebel within a clause

By Riffat Yusuf

Here’s another question to keep you awake at night: what’s with the erratic commas in Riffat’s emails? So as not to discriminate between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions? More likely because she’s upstairs, New Hart’s Rules is downstairs and this pre-dawn missive isn’t work-related.

Here’s an easier one: is it incontrovertibly acceptable for professional editors not to pedantise their off-the-clock correspondence? Yes, say 87.5% of the CIEP members I polled, with a dissident John Espirian saying no, yes.*

Until the CIEP ratifies the unwritten rule about not having to ensure consistency in informal emails, text messages and social media, I shall quote Kathleen Lyle if ever my clarity and commas are queried: ‘my writing practices are shaped partly by the technology I’m using, and partly by my social situation’.

Dash it!

Em and en dashes are more easily ceded than any other punctuation mark by the off-duty editors I surveyed. Nick Taylor, who plucks out the commas between cumulative adjectives in a shopping list and wrote a blog post to help me weed them out, elides dates with a hyphen in informal contexts. He says it’s ‘simply too much of a hassle for something that isn’t particularly noticed’. Nevertheless, strimming a dash chafes his editing conscience: ‘I know, deep down, that I’m wrong. I wonder if the recipient will feel like I’ve cheated them out of a “proper” dash. Worse, what if they judge me – an editor – for it?’

I share Nick’s misgivings and wish I shared the same shortcut in informal writing because, unlike my impulsive commas, his unconventional dashes are sanctioned by Kathleen Lyle and royalty. Kathleen isn’t fussed about using hyphens instead of dashes and she knows why: ‘Conventions about dashes were intended to regularise text that is being prepared for publication, not for private or semi-private correspondence.’ Kathleen doesn’t expect people to measure the width of en or em rules in handwritten letters (nor, she suspects, did Queen Victoria, whose dashes were disparate) so why would they be scrutinised in an email?

Technology gives Kathleen yet another reason to skip convention. Her email and browser software doesn’t play ball with the keyboard shortcuts she’s set up in Word. Unlike Kathleen, I can’t say that technology lets me down – after all, a comma doesn’t require a shortcut. If Kathleen inserts or leaves out commas in her emails, she is electing to do so; when I do it, it’s with the accuracy of a flipped coin.

I share one trait with Kathleen, though; we are both one-finger prodders. (In Kathleen’s case this applies only to phone and tablet touchscreens, and not soft fruit and bread rolls.) The downside to not having long, flexible, ballerina thumbs is that punctuating anything on my phone exacts the forbearance of a Bletchley Park coder. You would think that spyware would be evolved enough to key huffing and effing as ‘backspace and stick a comma where it should be’.

Smiley culture

There’s more than one way to style a chat. Or, as Ayesha Chari says, to ‘mould communication to fit the context in ways that we’re not always aware of’. Although Ayesha cares more about punctuation than other writing conventions such as ‘dangling whatevers’, she uses emojis in her informal text messages. Emojis instead of punctuation, that is.

Ayesha’s picture punctuation is, she tells me, ‘partly to fit protocol’; she sometimes types then deletes a standard mark and inserts an emoji instead. I could ask her whether, as Gretchen McCulloch suggests in Because Internet, she styles to convey gesture rather than structure the sentence, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

FYI friends, if you write to me, any emoji (even a misappropriated vegetable) is more instructive and more welcome than a lopsided emoticon. I crane my neck to read your semicolon winks and cannot decipher terminal punctuation – a grin is easily a double chin :)) or whatever person with a cold sore this is :). And, BTW, I’ve used up half of the abbreviations in my social media repository, so your multi-letter AF shortcut is my CBA to google.

What makes me smile(y!) about Ayesha’s styling is that it belies an ingrained editorial process. Not only does she, for example, replace a question mark with ‘Face with Monocle’ 🧐, she also uses emojis to edit other emojis. So when she mistakenly uses a 😄 for a 😊 (exclamation mark and full stop respectively) she will correct it with one of these: 😌.

Grok star

I think it’s a sign that you’ve truly arrived as an editor when you can let down your guard in informal correspondence as Lucy Ridout does: ‘Some days it’s all about acknowledgement of mid points being OK at 11 a.m.; on other days it’s more random.’ Whimsical by default, and not by actual fault, is how I would like fellow editors to intuit my inconsistencies. In breezier correspondence, when I’m not evoking Kathleen Lyle, I should imitate Lucy’s modelling: ‘The rule I break most flagrantly in my own writing is consistency … I don’t adhere to a personal style sheet in all things.’

I doubt, though, that I can carry off unpredictable shortcuts with Lucy’s flair, especially in exchanges with an editor whose attention to detail is unerringly consistent even in his most off-the-cuff emails. Robin Black’s compound modifiers are always on point and his e.g. is never without two of them. But even Robin breaks the rules, diving into ‘the fantastically deep pool of English words’ and coming up with, wait for it, a sentence containing etc. etc. Yikes!

Robin’s double et cetera, while not nearly as gauche as a single etc. (minus the point) ending a list introduced by ‘such as’, is nevertheless an infraction by his standards. Spoken English regularly employs a double et cetera in shared contexts, he explains, ‘to extend meaning without going into the details’ (imagine a client describing a project: ‘just a light proofread, maybe a quick look at the bibliography etc. etc.’ – who doesn’t recognise those et ceteras?). Robin uses the same shorthand in writing: ‘It’s a sort of alternative function provided by our Latin friend … while also lending a casual tone to the writing, which I will very much be after if “etc.” is making an appearance.’

Avanti!

Fine editors, your habits have spurred my own rebellion against conformity: henceforth (but only in a non-professional setting), to each (adjective) their own (comma)! Tonight, at unreasonable o’clock, I shall be launching an exclusive, somehow inclusive, flagship, unremitting, partisan, insomniac, coup de virgule in an email to friends … that I will never send because the hand controlling the mouse wants more than anything to be a stickler for chapter and verse. My fixation with conventional style and usage in all media – yes, on the back of an envelope! – is a repudiation of decades of not caring enough. I am a wannabe pedant in awe of CIEP members who are hardwired to self-edit even on a day off.

You can see that an editor might self-identify as ‘quite slavish to the rules of writing’ two words into an email from John Espirian. His salutation is punctuated twice. (Hi, Riffat.) But John’s punctiliousness is crafted on informed choice rather than dogged acceptance: ‘Most of the perceived rules are really just style choices, and in that case, who’s to say whether we’re doing anything wrong by following them or not?’

John has been editing long and successfully enough to arrive at that place where good editing is innate, and if it carries over to one’s unpublished work, then that’s a bonus, not an exertion. What he says gives some hope that I, too, might one day hover my pen over an editorial qualms vs editors who got over it version of Rob Drummond’s pedantry graph and rest it comfortably at point D.


*That survey

Data for this article is from responses extrapolated to suit the purposes of the pollster.


Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


Photo credits: writing devices by ConvertKit; thinking emoji by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.
A graph and explanation of linguistic knowledge vs linguistic pedantry by Rob Drummond.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.