Category Archives: A Finer Point

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.

A Finer Point: Zombies Rule Grammar. OK? Alright?

By Riffat Yusuf

Part 1 of The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity – a trilogy no less spellbinding for having been authored anonymously – explores the short-lived collaboration between the protagonist, an aspiring writer, and their editor. The novel’s self-published author, who remains unidentified since taking their first Zoom call with CIEP in a Boris mask (or was it?), granted permission for us to reproduce excerpts of an early, edited draft.

Chapter 2

And then, after the deathly knock at my front door – tintinnabulum operatus est, as the plaque very clearly states, but bear with since this is a macabre Halloween tale – arose a mewl. An eerie whine, all the more unsettling for the inclusion of an adult voice, ‘Trick or treat?’

AQ1 Please don’t use and or any other coordinating conjunction at the start of a sentence. Since is a time adverb; use because instead.

There they stood, a pillowcase, net curtain and dustbin liner arrayed between them: a ghoul, a ghost and their undead parent.

AQ2 There are three characters here, among rather than between.

‘I’d like a treat, please,’ said I – for quipping is my plume de forte – ‘and then you’re welcome to move on.’

‘None of us,’ said the muffled voice of Number 54’s youngest resident, adjusting his plastic mask, ‘are going nowhere.’

AQ3 Double negative for authenticity is fine, but none is followed by is.

‘None of us,’ insisted the mask, ‘ain’t going nowhere until you pass a message on.’

AQ4 A preposition such as on at the end of a sentence is not a usage up with which English grammar should put.

‘On,’ entombed the voice, ‘to your copyeditor. Tell them to not impose rules predicated on the say-so of dead people who tried, over centuries past, to squish English grammar into a Latin-shaped syntax.’

AQ5. Abrupt character development here – see Chapter 1: ‘the gormless snivel, progeny of the Drydens next door’. Also: entombed or intoned?

I was beginning to wonder if sweet little Johnnie wasn’t, in fact, a descendant of England’s very first Poet Laureate. He, whose mission to save English grammar from decimation, has stood firm for over 300 years.

AQ6 What a spooky coincidence: I am a huge fan! To channel the spirit of John Dryden, use decimation if you mean reduce by one-tenth. Also, don’t use over with quantities; more than is correct here.

Hopefully, the sudden chill that was creeping vampirically through my veins was little more than the want of a cardigan.

AQ7 Only use hopefully as a sentence adverb if you wish to say that the chill was operating in a hopeful manner.

There was something untoward at hand.

To say the least.

A pus-oozing, gnarled hand.

A prop. Courtesy of Johnnie’s mum – she often lends a hand (!) at school plays.

Thrusting a bucket towards me.

A bucket bearing the label ‘read me’.

AQ8 Regarding sentence fragments: you haven’t replied to my email from last week, so I cannot rule out that ‘The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity’ isn’t earmarked for academic submission. I would, therefore, ask you to redraft to include any missing subjects or verbs.

Therein, among the five-pence pieces and donations of Poundland confectionery – too many spendthrifts and nary a dentist living on this street – I found a book. A 64-page booklet, to be more precise, entitled Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

Chapter 3

[Our narrator has finished reading John E McIntyre’s delightful take on prissy pedantry.]

I chuckled at ‘peevers gotta peeve’, intending to fully pass off McIntyre’s observation as my own in my next communiqué with my editor. Suddenly, I shuddered a morbid shiver of dreaded realisation. No, it wasn’t the guilty swell of imminent plagiarism. Was it …? Could it …? Surely not.

Surely my editor wasn’t one of those unquestioning souls cursed to forever observe what Arnold Zwicky called zombie rules?

I read over all the amendments my editor had suggested. And then it hit me like a Bloomsbury rejection letter: not a single one of the rules my editor had prescribed was a cast-iron canon of copyediting.

AQ9 In my defence, Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ says that split infinitives are …

I spurned my editor’s advice and googled like a banshee for editorial guidance that would drive a garlic-laced spike into the style and grammar cobweb enmeshing me. Where were the editors ready to pour distilled daylight on the corpus of zombie rules?

AQ10: Hyperbole?

A minute later, I found James Gallagher, a slayer of ‘rules that refuse to die’. His three reasons for our reluctance to let go of groundless grammar are unnerving. He says, ‘People’s use of grammar is also tied up in their self-perception and it’s used to broadcast their level of education. It’s also used as a barricade to prevent others from accessing their realm.’

I reflected on my own language snobbery and insecurities, searching for an editor who might release me from ‘an unnecessary and awkward straitjacket’. Why, Erin Brenner, of course! The clarity she dispatches in her adroitly reasoned blog posts would disperse all lingering zombie doubts. From hopefully to however and from since to split infinitives, Erin exposes the conflations of grammar and style that allow zombie rules to take root in the first place. But way less wordily than anything I have written. (And a CIEP fact sheet on zombie rules is now available too…)

Chapter 63

I leave you, dear reader, with a penny of wisdom gleaned from my cautionary tale. Half is for the apostrophe I very confidently leave out of Halloween. And the remaining ha’penny is for people like you (yes 100% like, not such as: thank you, McIntyre p18) without whose patience and solicited nomination for the Booker Prize, The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity might never have been written. Perish the thought.

 

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: Beware of Zombies by Chris Hall; Hands by Daniel Jensen; Person behind fog glass by Stefano Pollio, all on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: Read my ellipsis

By Riffat Yusuf

There are some words I should think about before saying them. Instead, I mispronounce with confidence and blasé out people’s corrections: ‘If-eat? Are you sure? All my French friends rhyme effete with tête.’ (The friends I have yet to make.) There are other words that I rehearse before sharing aloud, such as conscious and conscience. But present me with a dot dot dot and I dither between ellipsis and ellipses. It makes me sound like I don’t really know what it is or they are.

Elliptically challenged

A quick round of etymology won’t stop my flapping, though it should stand me in good stead if University Challenge ever comes scouting. Ask me about elleipein and elleipsis. One of them is an ancient Greek noun of action meaning to fall short or leave out, then it got Latinised. The other one might be, too. Ask me when the first recorded use of ellipsis/ellipses in English was. Sixteen something. Do not, Bamber Gascoigne, ask me if I denote the omission of letters or words with an ellipsis or with ellipses.

I’ve just realised why nobody else is confused. You all interpret an ellipsis as you would other punctuation: a comma, a dash, an apostrophe. I count the dots and see plural; you don’t. Let’s call a single set of three equidistant points ‘an ellipsis’ and ask why three and not four? Because we’re not in 1890s Oxford or 1948 Chicago – by the start of the 20th century Oxford University Press had clipped to three, with the Chicago Manual of Style dropping a point in 1948.

We all know what an ellipsis is for

We do? Omission from what, then? Quoted speech and text, and also? Incomplete thoughts and trailing off … Anything else?

Don’t buzz in too quickly: pausing for dramatic effect while reading is not the answer I have in front of me. I’ll accept gapping, stripping and sluicing. When you type a gapping comma, you’re showing that a verb has been left out. You’re omitting part of a sentence without typing in a …

Spaced out

Should there be a space before, during or after an ellipsis? Imagine a world where the answer was ‘it’s entirely up to you; nobody’s going to wince if you do this…or this. . .or this … or this . . . ’. But life says start by asking your client if they prefer normal word spaces between the points of an ellipsis (. . .), or none (…), or if they’d like you to insert a single glyph.

CIEPer, when you’ve made a note of your client’s shoulder shrug, I say reach for New Hart’s Rules for style and punctuation guidance; it’s a lot less headachy than CMOS: 13.50–infinity.

In general, NHR favours a space on either side of an unspaced ellipsis – unless the ellipted text ends in a question or exclamation mark: here, the punctuation is closed up to the ellipsis it follows. What I’ve just written I would have to read several times to visualise. I need to see examples. I could really do with a table showing how NHR ellipts the following strongly held opinion in a variety of settings.

I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.

Ellipsis when ...

There is an omitted wordI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also … rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
There is an incomplete thought followed by a new sentenceI like fluffy, crazy cats … I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The sentence before the ellipsis ends with a full pointI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. …
There is a comma or other punctuation before or after the ellipsis (if the meaning isn’t affected). (Retain the comma if it follows the last item of a sequence after which the ellipsis shows inferred continuation.)I like … crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is preceded by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! … I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is followed by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats ...! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The original text has an ellipsis after fluffy … but you want to add an ellipsis of your ownI like fluffy … cats, not dogs! […] I don’t like anything else.
Incomplete sentence in an embedded quoteI said, ‘I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like …’.
No ellipsis needed at the start or end of a (non-embedded) quoteRiffat’s reference to ‘cats, not dogs … rabbits … anything else’ isn’t styled the same way as an embedded quote. She didn’t place an ellipsis at the start or end of her quotation even though she missed a word at the start, and one at the end.
Displayed verse omits the end of a lineI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like …
No ellipses needed when displayed verse omits the start of the first line (align right with the next line)    not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like anything else.

But CMOS .  .  .

Here’s a link, enjoy! We’re off to play with Word’s unspaced points where the real fun is. If you increase the font size to 80 and type in three full stops, you get to see them being nudged into a single character once you type the following space. For the same result and a non-breaking ellipsis without the jiggle, press Alt+Ctrl+.[stop] or insert Unicode (U+2026). It’s Alt + semicolon on a Mac.

Rich pickings

There’s one ellipsis question I’ve omitted to mention. NHR 14.6.2 tells me it’s maths – where a horizontal, vertical or diagonal ellipsis is used to represent missing terms, followed by an unspaced comma before the final term – but that’s not what I had in mind. I’ve left out typesetting needs. Does experienced typesetter Rich Cutler prefer the proper typographical character over dot dot dotting? In his own writing, yes. But professionally? Not especially. So that’s good, maybe you don’t need to worry about an ellipsis perched at the end of a line and how it’s typed. Yeah, you do: Rich says editors can help with typesetting by being clear about marking up ellipses and/or giving instructions on how they should be set.

Please make sure you know your client’s preferences: the ellipsis character or three points (with spaces between, or not), and when to close up or include surrounding spaces. And do pay attention to surrounding punctuation and be sure to check each ellipsis for nonbreaking spaces.

Meanwhile, in downtown Ithaca …

Inspired by David Nagy, whose Ellipsis in Homeric Poetry makes me wish I’d studied Classics.

Odysseus: Why are you wearing glasses?

Homer: According to historians, I had problems with my eyesight.

Odysseus: But why are you wearing them over your mouth?

Homer: Because ellipses.

Odysseus: …

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.

 


Want to refresh your punctuation knowledge? Check out the new CIEP course Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation.


Photo credits: three – Mike Szczepanski; cat – Corina Rainer, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Lynne Baybut, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: The sic of ‘sick’

Riffat Yusuf explores our editorial role in styling informal youth language.

I was 18 years old the first time I heard wicked used as a compliment. (Why, thank you, homie.) I did a double take, but it had more to do with the pronunciation than the application – brown kids in West London trying to sound, well, browner. The second-generation aspiration of better Englishness than our parents was thrown into question by that mid-eighties neologism, and it rattled. We might not have looked the part, but the English we wrote or spoke didn’t need to be ‘exotically’ accented, did it?

If ever there was a boomer

I actively snob-distanced from ‘youth language’. When I wasn’t being Brideshead Revisited, I was grimacing in sympathy with older people at all the yo-ing and sick-ing hurled about in public. Now I see that the volume would have been more objectionable than the vocabulary – notable exceptions being anything ending in ‘claat’ (which won’t appear in this article’s selected glossary – you’ll have to look that up yourself).

Neither I nor probably any of the people on whose behalf I tutted were aware, or cared, that ‘proper’ English was already awash with old words for new, contracted phrases and repurposed expressions. As long as it sounded English, it was acceptable. The wotcha, bagsy and faynights of the seventies were perfectly cushty, but not the sick, innit or wappnin’ of my peers in the eighties.

(Little did I know that a different set of peers had been gnashing their gums at wholly English-sounding neologisms. Where better than the House of Lords to shake a stick at ‘hopefully’?)

Life went on without my absurd loftiness. The Queen kept her English, my friends kept theirs, and I piped down. In the nineties, I came to admire a new generation of teens who refused to anglicise their conversations: why not answer your mum in the language she taught you and so what if people on the bus stared? Young people from minority communities went on to share language with friends from outside their ascribed ethnicities and were unfazed by the mutterings of well-intended purists, or worse, older imitators. Big up Gen Z!

Using words to make connections, rather than to mark differences, is an approach exemplified by linguist Rob Drummond. His research finds that the modern language usage of young people isn’t defined by or limited to a specific ethnicity. I’ve seen how this translates in real life and I’m intrigued. Young children (English, Eastern European, Korean, it makes no difference) can be heard insisting that their friends say ‘wallahi’. That’s an Arabic phrase, introduced to playgrounds by Somali children, and uttered by any child holding another to account. In my day, it was ‘swear on your mum’s life’.

MUBE it

Youth language, argot, ghetto grammar, Jafakin, call it what you will for now, has been documented, translated and commented on by enough (never young) people that we editors and proofreaders should have material aplenty to do what we do best: reserve non-editorial judgement and style-guide it to consistency.

But before we strike out in red and blue, what do we even call Multicultural Urban British English? (Great, that’ll do – thank you, Rob Drummond.) Be conscious, however, of ‘the responsibilities that come with naming varieties, especially as the terms are picked up by non-professionals and used in ways that might not correspond to their original denotation’. That’s also from Drummond, the boss of non-standard. Ponder, though, for the time it takes to say no, whether anybody young enough to speak Multicultural Urban British English calls it that.

Word up

MUBE is more than a lexicon. (Strictly speaking, it’s the initialism of a bank employees’ union in Malta …) It’s not news to us that language isn’t just about words and definitions, yet we flit like outsiders to Urban Dictionary, seldom looking past the written meaning. Perhaps it’s understandable that we treat youth language as we would any other jargon we come across when editing. I have spent more time thinking about the verb/pronoun choice and stress exercised by young people than I have about the significance, for those same people, of identity markers drawn from cultures I just don’t get: cf. ‘allow it’ (put a stop to it) and ‘allow that’ (don’t do it in the first place).

Having children old enough to use youth language doesn’t qualify me to speak authoritatively about the social or cultural influences behind their bantsing. (See? And I tried really hard not to mis-gerund.) It’s a good job we have Rob Drummond to make sense for us. His ‘(Mis)interpreting urban youth language: white kids sounding black?’ looks closely at how young people use ethnolects (language and dialect associated with specific ethnicities) in ways that are overlooked, parodied or misinterpreted by most mainstream media.

Drummond’s research introduces us to contemporary insights on MUBE. By contemporary, I mean also the voices of young people themselves – it’s the first time I’ve read what young people have to say about their own language usage.

But we are time-pressed (I’m hoping you read this after the worst of coronavirus has passed and you are inundated with deadlines), so let’s start with something more breezy. Andrew Osmond’s blog is a light-hearted explanation of multicultural London English. And there’s a style-over-spellcheck treat, too – more of this to come.

Standard bearing

If I’m going to attempt a broader representation of what is said or written about MUBE, I have to slide way over to David Starkey in 2011. While I disagree with his stance on acceptable sociolects and question his take on linguistics, I will defend his right to being favourably edited even if the Guardian rendered his views verbatim: ‘This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense of literally of a foreign country.’

Marginally more instructive are online articles about urban language workshops for the police. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the ‘jolly japes’ tone of such reporting, but I feel it plays to a mindset that reifies youth language as a gang-related acquisition. It leaves Disgruntled of Middlesex indifferent to the code-shifting (adjusting language to suit an audience) that their own children are doing like a pro. You might not be able to tell grunge idioms from grime and it’s safe (hint: safe) to assume you’re not sure which adjectives also serve as affirmatives, but your children fluently navigate languages they weren’t taught at school. Oh, go on then, google ‘police beef ting’.

Once you’ve bare embarrassed yourself saying peng and wagwan out loud, and done that Westside hand gesture, please read anything by language expert David Shariatmadari to reassure yourself that the linguistic habits and word choices favoured by young people (aks instead of ask, and like with everything) are examples of processes native to standard English. Actually, his work deserves more than a passing reference; please buy Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language.

Word count

Of course we understand how language works – we’re editors and proofreaders – can we just get on with attending to the words? So where, if its usage is so prolific, is all the MUBE content?

What are young people reading these days? That’s where all the editing contracts should be. My convoluted internet searches suggest publications like Nylon. But I couldn’t find any youthy words in the issues I looked at. Ditto for Accent and LADbible. I found a mandem and a few droppings elsewhere, but so far, so sparse. And then I asked a young person.

Write, right, rite

Young people are their own authors. I think they might even be curators. The provenance of their language isn’t up to them, but they own the rendering of their words in a way we mostly do not (I dare you to defy punctuation). And they don’t care or ask for our intervention. The content that they upload, even if the bulk of it seems to be captured on a phone in front of a mirror, is written up, or at the very least captioned. And boy is there some idiolect happening!

Even I’ve heard of Instagram, but rinsta and finsta? Do you know which one is interchangeable with sinsta? I’m quite impressed with the audacious exclusivity of young people’s usage. If you need a word spelled out, if you’re querying camel hump compounds, you’re not the target audience. The most recent article I could find on sta-breviation uses initial caps but is almost a year old; maybe it’s no longer a thingsta.

But how did it all go #?

Writing, says linguist Gretchen McCulloch, ‘has become a vital, conversational part of our ordinary lives’. Online writing is still edited but, as she observes in Because Internet, we are now reading words that were once only spoken.

McCulloch sees patterns in ‘beautifully mundane’ online language that can tell us more about language in general and how new words enter usage. From how we punctuate emails and texts differently (yes, I know you don’t) to keysmash (try it, I got: ajndasj.lbndf.as) to the melodic evolution of ‘mm-hm-mm’ for ‘I dunno’, this book will take you closer to understanding internet linguistics and its designated drivers: young people.

But still …

We seek order. The lens through which we look at non-standard text is held by a standard-steadied hand. For every new project, we sift through for common usage, consistency and clarity, don’t we?

Granted, when young people write for other young people, they don’t need our editorial expertise, but what about when we, #genfogey, write about young people? For each writer I’ve mentioned, I’ve triple-checked their youth language styling and I still can’t find agreed usage: is the film called Adulthood or AdULTHOOD; is galdem/gyaldem/gyal dem a nuance thing? How many ‘r’s and ‘p’s in brrupp? D’you get me, blud or blad?

Resourcelessness

Browser beware: Urban Dictionary takes you to definitions you didn’t think could exist while Oxford English Dictionary is as useful as consulting your grandmother. Wiktionary contributors may supply you with interesting but unhelpful tangents which you then have to chase up on the British Library’s website, whose advanced search options are set up for people who have the time to go to an actual library. Thankfully, we have the estimable Jonathan Green who is hundo p the authority on rude/youth words. His website, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, is a regularly updated trove of expressions with timelines and etymologies that go back centuries.

There is some guidance for editors of the future; they will benefit from OED’s appeal, which should provide an authoritative spellcheck of ‘distinctive words that shape the language’. If you are interested in how new words are added to the dictionary, this article explains.

For now and the foreseeable future, we are left with the chicken-and-eggness of New Hart’s Rules’ advice on lexical variants (youth language per se is not included in 21.7, but …): ‘it is essential to have specific guidance in the form of a dictionary and a style document to ensure consistency’. That, as the young people probably no longer say, is peak.

Glossary

bagsy    a verb, often used by children, to declare a right to something before somebody else makes the same claim
bants    short for ‘banter’
blad/blud    from ‘blood’, a noun used to address a male – often a friend
braap/brrupp/brup    an exclamation to show agreement or approval by imitating the sound of gunfire
dropping    making something available (to buy, watch or listen to), usually on the internet
faynights    an exclamation called out during a game to assert exclusion from the rules, or protection from disqualification
finsta    a ‘fake’ Instagram account, where people often upload more private posts
galdem/gyaldem/gyal dem    girls
homie/homey    from ‘homeboy’ – a good friend
hundo p     hundred per cent, in complete agreement
innit    an elision of ‘isn’t it’, an often meaningless rhetorical marker
mandem    men, or people in general
peak    bad luck, unfortunate
peng    attractive (used for people), nice (used for things)
rinsta    a ‘real’ (public) Instagram account
safe    good or cool, also signifies agreement
sick    cool, awfully good
sinsta    a secondary Instagram account, see also finsta
wagwan    a greeting, an elision of ‘what’s going on?’
wappnin’    a greeting, an elision of ‘what’s happening?’
wicked    attractive, excellent, wonderful
wotcha/wotcher    a greeting, an elision of ‘what cheer’
yo    a greeting, agreement (yes) and a way of addressing somebody

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.

 


‘A Finer Point’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.


Photo credits: silhouttes by Papaioannou Kostas; selfie by Djamal Akhmad Fahmi, both on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: Style counsel

Is our dropping of hyphens and dangling of modifiers de trop? Riffat Yusuf gets coached in punctuation style by previous writers of A Finer Point.

I always thought punctuation was about correctness. The function of dots and dashes was structural: to hold grammatical constructions in place. The idea of using punctuation for style was an afterthought – if a dash had panache / if an oblique was on fleek, it was down to ‘feel-right’ and whimsy rather than considered strokes on my part. And then I read what Val Rice had to say on using semicolons to avoid style errors.

In A Finer Point in the July/August 2009 edition of Editing Matters, Val outlined how semicolons are more than links between independent clauses connected by meaning; they are buffers against bad styling. They declutter comma overload, take the edge off short, sharp sentences and break up the monotony of repeated conjunctions. And crucially, they have their own role to play:

I started to think about the pros and cons of using dashes and semicolons, and spent an afternoon looking through all my punctuation and grammar reference books to see whether I could find anything, anywhere, to prove that semi-colons and dashes are interchangeable. You may be relieved to know that they aren’t!

Lesson 1: Semicolons are for composition and style. But be aware also of Sarah Price’s observation that technical documentation often avoids the semicolon (January/February 2014):

For some styles of writing, such as technical documentation, joining two clauses together with a semicolon is frowned upon (or it certainly was when I was a technical writer): writers are encouraged to keep sentences short and simple. However, in more prosaic styles of writing, semicolons can be used to improve the flow of the text and avoid the ‘staccato’ effect of short sentences.

Chagrin and bear it

You know how I said that semicolons link independent clauses that have a connected meaning? There’s a reason why I just repeated it: Cathy Tingle. In ‘Scared – and scarred – by semicolons’ (May/June 2019), she shared a snippet of her semicolon-indulgent dissertation where the connection was assumed (if she knew it, then so would her supervisor?) rather than actual.

Lesson 2: If you must revisit the seminal outpourings of your student self, allow enough room for a cringe dance.

Which comma?

I know what restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses look like. But I still need Luke Finley to make instant sense of the difference in meaning. And so, Lesson 3, adapted from Luke’s unpacking of that/which (September/October 2016): Learn these sentences off by heart.

Open the third door which is blue and enter the room. (Here, the restrictive clause tells me to ignore the first two blue doors I see – I could pass several doors before I get to the first blue one, let alone the third one …)

Open the third door, which is blue, and enter the room. (Here, the non-restrictive clause tells me to open the third door – it just happens to be blue.)

Commas with clout

The comma, not the relative pronoun which, is what conveyed the aside-ness of Luke’s non-restrictive clause. Commas lack heft. Or so I thought. Lesson 4 is from Luke’s column in July/August 2017 where he notes that the comma after an adverbial introductory phrase can drive meaning further than intended.

Luke gives an example: ‘Quickly, he finished the column and then made a cup of tea.’ He then explains:

In adverbial introductory phrases the use of a comma tends to suggest that the adverb modifies the whole sentence rather than only a part of it. In the last example it appears that both the column-finishing and the tea-making were done quickly: this may not have been the intention.

Sticking with unintentional application of meaning, here’s what I learned about dangling modifiers. Iffy sentence alert.

Heeding a point made by Sarah Price, modifiers dangle less offensively than I once thought.

A participle ‘dangles’ when it isn’t clear which text element it modifies … We only need to consider rewriting when there is ambiguity. If it’s clear from the context what is meant, there is no need to change it.

In my sentence, heeding is the modifying participle, and it looks like it’s dangling because the word after the comma (modifiers) isn’t really the intended heeder, is it? To truncate Sarah’s much clearer explanation, if you understand that the heeding pertains to me, then the dangle can stand. Lesson 5 (from July/August 2015) suggests that a bit of dangle is acceptable. Lesson 6: Maybe recast anyway …

Comma quickies

Who knew that commas enclosing parenthetical information, as gleaned from the January/February 2020 Editing Matters, imply a closer connection to the surrounding context than round brackets or en dashes? It makes sense though, visually. Commas place less distance between words than a pair of dashes, and they aren’t as marked a barrier as parentheses.

Can I slip in a vocative comma, CIEP member? Did it. Another one coming up. Newbies, we can be forgiven for not identifying a gapping comma; experienced editors, less so. (Like that last one.)

Compounded by hyphens

What strikes me in Cathy’s piece about hyphenated compounds (July/August 2019) is how disarming a character the hyphen can be – and not in a copy-editor vs copyeditor kind of way. In 2014 it was dropped from African American in both noun and adjective form. It took another five years for people (inclusivity-respectful editors?) to omit the othering hyphen from Asian American. That hyphen, uncontested for too long and providing clarity for nobody, snags even more when you view it against an editing cornerstone: introduce punctuation only to avoid ambiguity.

So, a round-up lesson for all of us is to be more confident in querying the ‘correctness’ of punctuation, not just when it challenges convention, but sometimes when it doesn’t.

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.

 


‘A Finer Point’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.


Photo credits: comma (butterfly) Michael Weidner; cups of tea Joanna Kosinska, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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