Tag Archives: grammar

A Finer Point: Placing modifiers

What are modifiers, and where should they be placed in a sentence? Cathy Tingle investigates.

One of the best ways to get a learning point to stick in your memory, I’ve found, is for it to feature in feedback from someone you respect – a peer or a tutor. It’s something about the combination of ‘Oh no, this person I respect thinks I’m doing this wrong’, ‘Oh no, I’ve been doing this wrong for ages, which means everyone must have noticed it’ and, if it’s feedback from a course you’re taking, ‘Oh no, this thing that I’ve been doing wrong has caused me to almost fail this assignment’. Mortifying, and therefore memorable. Something that has never left me from the CIEP’s Copyediting 2: Headway course is my tutor’s suggestion that I ‘struggled’ with ‘the placement of modifiers’ and this had lost me marks. She was right; in fact, I had paid virtually no heed to the placement of modifiers. What could have caused them to fall off my radar?

What is a modifier? Ask the kids.

In Making Sense, David Crystal introduces the principles of grammar through his observations of Susie, his young daughter, as she learned to talk. At the point at which Susie starts to apply adjectives to nouns (‘a silly hat’), Crystal remarks that she’s learned ‘that some words can be subordinate to other words, sharpening their meaning – making it more particular. Grammarians talk about one word modifying another or qualifying another’.

I find ‘modifier’ a useful term because you don’t need to specify if it’s an adjective, an adverb or anything else, like a participle. It can be a word, or, like most dangling modifiers, it can be a phrase. The important thing is that a modifier modifies: it ‘gives information about’ something else in a sentence.

My theory is that as we use modifiers in new ways, on social media and in other informal settings, or when chatting, we can become less strict about them. ‘What even is that?’ is a sentence my son has used since he was small. The adverb, ‘even’, applied to the ‘is’, is meant to express incredulity or surprise, it isn’t misplaced, and it adds an emphasis the speaker obviously feels is necessary. But it’s not the way I would have spoken as a child.

What can go wrong with modifiers?

So, when are modifiers wrongly placed? When either of the following happens.

  1. It’s unclear what they’re modifying.
  2. They appear to be modifying the wrong thing.

‘Coming out of the house, the street was festooned with bunting’ is a dangling modifier – the modifier (‘Coming out of the house’) dangles in the absence of a subject, and this allows misinterpretation. In this sentence it could read as if the street is coming out of the house. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty suggests a funnier example, ‘Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly’, which sounds as if the birds were hiking. To fix it, you’d need to include the subject of the sentence – the person or people hiking – as near as possible to the modifier.

Modifiers that have been variously termed ‘squint’, ‘two-way’ and ‘shifty’ appear between two elements, either of which they might modify. In ‘my dog who growls often chases cats’ it’s unclear whether the dog growls often or chases cats often. To make the meaning clear, it’s simply a matter of moving the modifier away from the danger zone and closer to the element being modified, so it either reads ‘my dog who often growls chases cats’ or ‘my dog who growls chases cats often’.

Only seeking clarity

As with much of the work we do, then, clarity is what counts. Which other modifiers should we look out for when editing or proofreading? I’d recommend taking notice of ‘all’, which I often misplace when writing. But the one that many grammar and language books mention is ‘only’. As Benjamin Dreyer puts it: ‘a loosely placed “only” can distort the meaning of a sentence entirely’. Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, advise that the rule is ‘to place the only directly before the noun, adjective, or verb it is to modify’ and they give a good example of the different meanings its placement can give:

Only CanDo Company works to serve the interests of its client.

CanDo Company works only to serve the interests of its client.

CanDo Company works to serve the interests of its only client.

These days, ‘only’ tends to be the modifier that sets off my copyeditor’s radar. But is this always necessary? Einsohn and Schwartz say that ‘language experts agree that the rule may yield to idiomatic expression’. Dreyer notes that ‘normal human beings front-load the word “only” at the beginning of a sentence’, as in ‘If you only see one movie this year …’. And Oliver Kamm cites musical cinema to suggest that ‘only’ should be placed according to the rhythm of the sentence: ‘The jazz song “I Only Have Eyes for You” … doesn’t imply that the other organs are uncaring.’ Merriam-Webster sums it up:

After 200 years of preachment the following observations may be made: the position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed, since ambiguity is avoided through sentence stress; in casual prose that keeps close to the rhythms of speech only is often placed where it would be in speech; and in edited and more formal prose only tends to be placed immediately before the word or words it modifies.

Hopefully keeping your reader happy

‘Hopefully’ is one of those words that some people very much dislike being placed at the beginning of a sentence (although I put it there all the time, I don’t know about you). Bill Bryson explains the problem:

Most of those who object to hopefully in its looser sense do so on the argument that it is a misused modal auxiliary – that is to say, that it fails to modify the elements it should. Take the sentence ‘Hopefully the sun will come out soon’. As constructed that sentence suggests (at least to a literal-minded person) that it is the sun whose manner is hopeful, not yours or mine.

So it’s a form of, what, dangling modifier, missing a subject? To be more precise, according to Dreyer it is a ‘disjunct adverb’ as it modifies ‘not any particular action in the sentence … but the overall mood of the speaker of the sentence’. ‘Hopefully’ is not the only disjunct adverb: ‘thankfully’ and ‘admittedly’ are examples of others. But, as Fowler’s puts it: ‘It is hard to think of another word which has provoked such revulsion and condemnation.’ Dreyer adds: ‘I’m not sure how “hopefully”, among all other disjunct usages, got singled out for abuse, but it’s unfair and ought not to be borne.’

In the end, it comes down to the reader, as it pretty much always does. Fowler’s concludes its introduction to the various uses of ‘hopefully’ with:

Among whatever audience you are writing for, there are bound to be people who detest this word, as opposed to the majority, who will probably pass over it without comment. You might therefore wish to consider how important the opinion of the detesters is.

Hopefully we ourselves are nearing a conclusion. If the placing of the modifier in a sentence isn’t causing any sort of ambiguity, consider your reader. If they are traditionalists (or tutors) be sure to place your modifier directly before the element it is modifying, and don’t use ‘hopefully’ in the sense of ‘it is hoped that’. But if not, you could perhaps leave things as they are. Just don’t let modifiers fall off your radar completely.

Resources

Bill Bryson (2016). Troublesome Words. Penguin.

David Crystal (2017). Making Sense. Profile.

Benjamin Dreyer (2019). Dreyer’s English. Random House.

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019). The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications, 4th edition. University of California Press.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.

Grammar Girl. Misplaced Modifiers. quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/misplaced-modifiers

Oliver Kamm (2015). Accidence Will Happen. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Merriam-Webster. Placement of Only in a Sentence: Usage guide. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/only#usage-2

Walden University. Modifier Basics. https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/modifiers

About Cathy Tingle

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

 

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: hat by Artem Beliaikin, kitten by Francesco Ungaro, sunshine by Lukas, all on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Compound issues

The hyphen – its inclusion or omission – is a useful marker of the evolution of language. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle tries to get a sense of the fast-moving hyphen landscape.

If you ask an editor or proofreader to reveal the punctuation mark they most agonise over on a daily basis, commas would no doubt feature. But I’d wager that deciding whether or not to include a hyphen in a compound phrase or word causes at least equal amounts of brainache. (Or should that be brain ache? Or brain-ache?)

The sorts of words and phrases that are under, or have at some point been under, what we might call the ‘hyphen radar’ of editors could be put into two main categories. The first the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls permanent compounds. These are in the dictionary (well, hopefully – see below), and can be open (‘ice cream’), closed (‘email’) or hyphenated (‘tear-jerker’). The second category of compounds is temporary. These are words joined for the communication of meaning at that moment. We are familiar with the hyphenated versions, usually used as modifiers – such as in ‘worst-dressed grammarian’ – but less familiar with open ones. The current CMOS (published in 2017) gives ‘impeachment hound’ (who can think why, recalling current affairs in America at the time?) as an example of the latter.

All these permutations are a lot to consider. Since I only have 1,000 words, I’m going to plump for looking at the hyphenation of permanent compounds.

Searching for answers

One of the most helpful, and entertaining, accounts of hyphens I’ve found is in David Crystal’s Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to their history and usage. But even here our introduction to these marks is somewhat daunting:

If I were to cover all variations in the use of the hyphen, I would have to write an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story. It is the most unpredictable of marks. Henry Fowler sums it up well in the opening sentence of his entry on hyphens in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage: ‘chaos’.

Oh, right. But maybe we could actually consult a dictionary to find out which words and phrases to hyphenate? Well, not so fast. Continuing with Crystal:

Changes in fashion are the main reason why the obvious solution to any question about hyphenation – look it up in a dictionary! – won’t always help.

He testifies how both ‘flower-pot’ and ‘flowerpot’ appear in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and describes the carnage of ‘hyphengate’, when 16,000 items in the OED had their hyphens removed in 2007 to make open or closed compounds: ‘Reactions ranged from the hysterical to the bemused.’

So, what’s to be done? If a dictionary search yields nothing but confusion, Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006) has sensible advice:

Some subjects have a conventional usage, and some authors have strong views, so ask before imposing your own system. Introduce hyphens only to avoid ambiguity … and do not feel that similar words must be treated ‘consistently’, e.g. lifebelt, life-jacket.

The mark of progress

Before it became a solid compound in Oxford dictionaries, one word was seized on in 1997 by RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, as proof that some dictionaries (Oxford, Chambers) are more stuffy than others (Collins, Longman):

What about electro-magnetic versus electromagnetic? Collins and Longman confirm that only the second is in use among those who use the term regularly, but Oxford clings stubbornly to the antiquated and pointless hyphen.

Trask’s view illustrates the oft-noted evolution of compounds. CMOS devotes a numbered point to the phenomenon (7.83): ‘With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online).’ Or as Benjamin Dreyer puts it in Dreyer’s English (US version, Random House, 2019): ‘compounds have a tendency, over time, to spit out unnecessary hyphens and close themselves up’. We at the CIEP know the truth of this: in 2019 (as the SfEP) we decided to allow the spitting-out of the hyphen in ‘copy-editor’ and related words. Many other editing organisations and, indeed, editors, still use it, perhaps because it’s still Oxford style, but it will be interesting to see how long it is before the last ‘copy-editor’ is closed up.

Oh dear. With all that closing up and spitting out we’ve managed to make the evolution of language sound both mournful and faintly disgusting. Let’s move on by looking at how this evolution sometimes works to open up compounds. Butcher’s states: ‘Note that African American has no hyphen even when used as an adjective’ – an approach backed in the UK by the Oxford stable (eg the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) and in the US by CMOS. However, as late as 2018 it was necessary to issue a plea for the hyphen in such descriptors of racial heritage to be universally dispensed with. In ‘Drop the hyphen in Asian American’, Henry Fuhrmann commented:

Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.

Finally, in 2019, as reported by the Conscious Style Guide in an updated introduction to Fuhrmann’s article, and to mutterings of ‘about time’, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook dropped the hyphen in these terms and in 2021 the New York Times followed suit.

The risk of clinging on

We all have compound terms that look ‘right’ to us open, closed or hyphenated. Benjamin Dreyer laments the loss of the hyphen in email:

Doesn’t ‘e-mail’ look better and, more important, look like what it sounds like? But ‘email’ was happening whether I liked it or not, and, as in so many things, one can be either on the bus or under the bus.

It’s no coincidence that the evolution of language is accelerated with terms like ‘email’ and ‘online’. They’re tech terms, and many a dictionary has fallen foul of these. The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (published in 2014) still advises a capital ‘I’ for internet. Any organisation following this guidance in 2022 would be seen as either painfully out of touch or intentionally cultivating a charmingly olde-worlde identity. So in these cases organisations and their editors must strike out beyond the dictionaries, and this is just as well. Merriam-Webster in its usage note ‘Should that word have a hyphen?’ cites another example where dictionaries have found themselves under the bus:

One dictionary that shall not be named was a bit notorious for showing the headword Web site long after most of the civilized world was using website. They wised up, eventually.

The speed of change in language that describes tech, an area of our lives that already moves eye-wateringly fast, is necessarily brisk. So it’s up to working writers and editors to reflect this, as well as the evolution of language in other areas. The dictionaries will follow. After all, as Dreyer says, ‘the dictionary takes its cue from us: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things’. He adds: ‘I hope that makes you feel powerful. It should.’


Resources

Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach. Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Conscious Style Guide. https://consciousstyleguide.com/.

David Crystal. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015).

Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English (Random House, 2019).

Henry Fuhrmann. Drop the hyphen in Asian American. https://consciousstyleguide.com/drop-hyphen-asian-american/.

Merriam-Webster. Should that word have a hyphen? https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/hyphen-rules-open-closed-compound-words.

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

RL Trask. Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin, 1997).

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.

 

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: ice cream by Candy Zimmermann, flowerpots by Scott Webb, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

The CIEP’s proofreading exercises: a preview

Annie Deakins leapt at the opportunity to review and proofread the exercises in the CIEP’s new Exercise Bank. In this post, she explains what she reviewed and how she did it.

I was asked by Jane Moody, the CIEP’s training director, if I was interested in reviewing a bank of resources being drafted for CIEP members to practise proofreading. I absolutely was interested! I would act as a guinea pig by reviewing the proofreading exercises in the Exercise Bank, and then proofreading the material as part of the job. So, what did the review involve, and what’s in the bank?

In this article, I’ll cover:

  • My role in the review
  • An overview of the exercise bank
  • How to proofread an exercise
  • Tips and support
  • Benefits

My role in the review

This was the sequence of the tasks I carried out:

  1. Do an exercise (as a practice proofread).
  2. Compare my answer to the model answer and note any differences.
  3. Read the commentary explaining the model answer.
  4. Compare the model answer with the final published version (if appropriate).
  5. Record how long it took to do the exercise.
  6. Repeat steps 1–5.
  7. Proofread all the materials – instruction/brief, exercise, model answer, and commentary – by finding typos and inconsistencies. Note down any queries for the training director to review.
  8. Provide feedback on each exercise: suitability, appropriateness of level, how easy/hard I found them, time taken and suggest changes for improvements.

An overview of the exercise bank

There are nine proofreading exercises in the bank. Permission was obtained from the authors and/or publishers to introduce errors for the purpose of proofreading practice. The exercises vary in difficulty from level 1 (reasonably straightforward, no complex elements) increasing to level 3 (complex, detailed exercises; may include complex figures/graphs/illustrations and/or references or other elements). The exercises are a variety of lengths, so I could pick and choose to fit them around my schedule.

The Exercise Bank covers a variety of topics including fiction and non-fiction, published through traditional channels, or by businesses and self-publishers. Examples include: a chapter from a business book that was traditionally published; an extract from a self-published novel by a first-time author; the programme for a conference by a medical organisation; a story from a traditionally published children’s magazine; and a market report for a technical industry (print finishing).

Each exercise includes background information and a brief which explains the task. Sometimes a house style is provided. If a house style is not provided, you are asked to compile a style sheet.

How to proofread an exercise

Open the file and check all the components are present. In the case of this bank of exercises there will be a brief or cover letter, exercise, model answer (or two), commentary, and final clean copy (if applicable).

Brief

Read what the brief requires. There might be a particular emphasis on layout, or a need for amendments to be kept to a minimum because of a tight publishing schedule. There may be a need to respect the author’s voice, particularly in fiction.

Errors

Examples of errors to be found range from a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph to erroneous capitalisation or the wrong word or term. Others include layout issues and tables that are incorrectly formatted, or wrongly entered numbers.

When something amiss jumps out at you, it’s okay to brag inwardly about the error caught (oh yes, that was sneaky). Add any errors missed (oh no, that was sneaky!) to your personal list of areas for improvement.

Queries

The model answers include examples of author queries to indicate where confusion is present in the text. Indeed, tips accompany the exercises on how to differentiate mark-up between instructions to the typesetter and queries to the client. So valuable. Model queries show how to be fair, polite and respectful.

Explanations

Checking the exercise against the model answer was the best part for me – I managed to resist the temptation to peek before finishing the task … When reading the explanations in the commentary, there were always learning points for the reasons behind the mark-up in the model answer.

Tips and support

  1. If the text is too distracting with, say, small font or too much colour in a leaflet, enlarging content by zooming in on the PDF can help identify errors.
  2. Prior knowledge of BSI symbols is useful. Guidance is given if you have not used proofreading stamps before. I recommend doing the CIEP’s Proofreading 1: Introduction course before proceeding with the level 1 bank of exercises.
  3. A range of model answers are given to show the variety of mark-up methods used and how the marks should appear.
  4. Support is given with resources, e.g. links are provided for the Adobe Acrobat DC video tutorials and help pages for assistance with marking up PDFs, whether that’s using commenting tools, sticky notes, or BSI symbols.

Benefits

The exercises are self-paced with no need for a tutor. They work in the same way as Margaret Aherne’s Proofreading Practice book which can be bought through the CIEP (with a discount for members).

Proofreading speed and accuracy increase with practice and confidence. Once you can calculate how many words you can proofread in an hour, it makes it easier to quote for work from prospective clients.

I had already completed CIEP’s suite of proofreading courses, but reviewing these exercises helped me further improve my proofreading skills and gave me confidence in my ability to spot errors and catch inconsistencies. Tackling the proofreading exercises also gave me the confidence to book my place on the CIEP proofreading mentoring scheme. I highly recommend them.


In addition to the proofreading exercises described here, there are seven copyediting exercises and three on grammar.

Visit the Exercise Bank

If you would like to add an exercise to the bank, please get in touch with the training director: training@ciep.uk.


About Annie Deakins

Annie Deakins taught in Essex (via Paisley) for 30 years. She started CIEP proofreading training in 2016 and is an Intermediate Member. She proofreads non-fiction, education, and children’s books. She is a Partner Member of ALLi. Her job portfolio includes tutoring, and she blogs as #TallTartanTalks.

 

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: colourful shelves by Maarten van den Heuvel; Practice/Practise by Brett Jordan, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Forum matters: Editorial terminology: Grammar, inclusivity and meaning

In this article one CIEP forum moderator looks at discussions of terminology in the CIEP forums:

  • What is terminology?
  • Grammar terminology
  • Look it up!
  • Hold on – what is copyediting?
  • Being inclusive
  • Niche knowledge
  • Just ask!

What is terminology?

Terminology. Definitions. Vocabulary. Jargon. The meaning of things. The official definition is ‘the body of terms used with a particular technical application in a subject of study, profession, etc.’ (Lexico). This term can definitely be applied to editing, which has a marvellous lexicon of editing terms, such as widows, orphans, ligatures, en dash, justify, leading and kerning, which new editors may puzzle over.

Grammar terminology

It’s very common to know instinctively that something ‘looks wrong’ when you’re editing, but you may not have the knowledge of grammar terminology to be able to confidently say what is wrong, and why*. Perhaps you weren’t taught formal grammar at school, or perhaps you learned about grammar a long time ago and your skills are rusty. The new CIEP Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation course is designed to give students the skills, terminology and confidence to be a better editor.

This confusion is not helped by the fact that many grammatical terms are known by more than one name: is it a gapping comma or an elided comma? An adverbial or adjectival phrase? A dangling participle or a dangling modifier? And what’s it called when you start a sentence with ‘so’ – and why is it so common today?

And for the last word in terminology? The CIEP proofreading and copyediting courses include access to a Resource centre which contains – among many other useful documents – a glossary of all the publishing and editorial terms you will ever need, from ‘abbreviation’ to ‘Word template’. There’s also a glossary in the back of New Hart’s Rules – my go-to style guide. For fiction editors, MH Abrams’ and Geoffrey Harpham’s A Glossary of Literary Terms will come in useful.

*You’ll need to be registered for the fiction forum to see this post.

Look it up!

One of the skills that it’s essential for an editor or proofreader to master is knowing when to look something up, knowing where to look it up, then actually looking it up and applying the answer to the text they’re working on. The forums can be super useful for this too.

Not sure whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? See ‘who/whom – going cross-eyed’.

Do verb tenses make you tense? Then see ‘Please help with some technical jargon’.

Hold on – what is copyediting?

One of the questions editors and proofreaders are asked most often is: what is copyediting? What is line editing? What’s the difference between them? Unfortunately, there is no one universally accepted definition of these terms. Some people think that they are very different beasts, while some people think they are the same thing. And what about proof-editing? What does that involve – and where do you draw the line?

The most important thing is that editors and proofreaders tell clients clearly what service their project needs, and list the tasks they will carry out on a job. That way, there’s no confusion. For more guidance on this, see What is proofreading? and What is copyediting?

Being inclusive

It’s not just editing terminology we need to consider. We also need to think about the words we use around disability, age, ethnicity, culture and sexuality. These are always changing, and editors and proofreaders must keep up with these changes.

Threads on these topics come up a lot on the forums – here’s a selection you may like to read. I guarantee that you will learn something!

A thread on ‘What is a female-headed household?’ led to a passionate discussion on terminology, as did threads on ‘Is “pro-poor” the best term to use?’, ‘Is the phrase “Black, indigenous and people of colour” acceptable?’, ‘People of colour’ and one on the best wording to use around mental health.

I especially enjoyed the thoughtful discussion on these threads on sexist terms and whether or not we should refer to master copies, which referenced a session on sensitivity issues in a recent Cloud Club meeting.

Finally, one thread contains some helpful suggestions for resources around inclusive language.

Whichever words you choose to use, remember this: ‘Your words have power. Speak words that are kind, loving, positive, uplifting, encouraging, and life-giving’ (unknown author).

Niche knowledge

Of course, discussion on the forums isn’t always serious. There are plenty of light-hearted threads too, such as these on betting, butterflies and bridges.

And if you want to tell someone you’re a copyeditor without telling them you’re a copyeditor, is there any better way than to enquire: Should liturgical Latin terms be set in italic?

Just ask!

As ever, the forums are wonderfully diverse resources of all kinds of knowledge. If you want to know the answer to something, and you’ve tried looking in your library of style guides, editing guides and reference books, then ask on the forums. Someone is bound to know.

This feature comes from the band of CIEP members who volunteer as forum moderators. You will only be able to access links to the posts if you’re a forum user and logged in. Find out how to register.

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: typesetting tools by Etienne Girardet; Welcome by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.

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: 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 copyediting 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 CIEP 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.

Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation

By Annie Jackson

Do you go cold when you hear the words ‘dangling participle’? Does the mere mention of a comma splice or a tautology make you anxious? Do you have a faint memory, perhaps from primary school, that people who write ‘proper’ English never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’? Perhaps you’ve been flummoxed by the terms used in the school materials that you’ve had to work with while homeschooling your children (you are not alone: see this article by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen).

Actually, you almost certainly know much more about grammar and punctuation than you realise. The ‘rules’ are often no more than old-fashioned preferences or prejudice, and may not be relevant anyway. It all depends on the text: a novel for young adults, an information leaflet for patients at a doctor’s surgery, or an annual report for a major company – each requires a very different approach. The tone in which the document is written, and the intended readership, will dictate how strictly grammar and punctuation rules should be applied.

If you work with words, in any capacity, and you feel that your knowledge could do with a brush-up, then the new online course from CIEP, Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation, could be just what you need.

Why both grammar and punctuation?

Let’s see how the Collins Dictionary defines grammar: ‘the ways that words can be put together in order to make sentences’. It defines punctuation as ‘the use of symbols such as full stops or periods, commas, or question marks to divide written words into sentences and clauses’.

This explains why these two subjects have to go hand in hand. Grammar is about putting words together; punctuation helps the reader to make sense of those words in the order in which they have been presented. Used well, the grammar and punctuation chosen should be almost imperceptible, so that nothing comes between the reader and the text. If they are used poorly, the reader will be confused, may have to go back over sentences as they puzzle out the meaning, and may eventually stop reading as it’s just too hard to figure out.

For the want of a comma …

Take this well-known example. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ is a friendly invitation for Granny to join the family meal. If you remove that tiny comma, the poor woman is at the mercy of her cannibal grandchildren.

More seriously, a misplaced comma can have huge legal and financial implications (see ‘The comma that cost a million dollars’ from the New York Times).

Poor grammar can have unintentional comic effects (dangling participles are particularly good for this, as you can see here). It could even affect your love life (see this Guardian article ‘Dating disasters: Why bad grammar could stop you finding love online’).

So it’s worth knowing the rules you must follow, and those that can sometimes be ignored.

Why this course?

Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation is for anyone who works with words. It aims to:

  • clarify the basic rules of English grammar
  • clarify the rules of English punctuation
  • discuss some finer points of usage and misusage
  • explain the contexts in which rules should or need not be applied.

This course alternates units on grammar and punctuation, with two basic units followed by two that go into more detail. Each unit has several sets of short, light-hearted exercises on which you can test yourself to see how well you have taken in the information. The penultimate unit discusses finer points of usage, and finally, there are three longer exercises on which to practise everything you’ve learned from the course. There is no final assessment for the course, but every student is assigned a tutor and is encouraged to ask for their help if any questions arise as they work through it.

There is an extensive glossary of grammatical terms as well as a list of resources, in print and online, for further study. This includes a number of entertaining and opinionated books on grammar which will prove, if nothing else, that even the pundits don’t always agree.

By the end of this course, you should have a clear idea of some of the finer points (and many of the pitfalls) of English grammar and punctuation. You should have developed some sensitivity to potential errors, acquired greater confidence, and learned strategies to make any written work you deal with clearer, more effective, more appropriate and even, perhaps, more elegant. And we hope that you will have found it interesting and entertaining at the same time.

Annie Jackson has been an editor for longer than she cares to admit. She tutors several CIEP courses and was one of the team who wrote the new grammar course. Despite many years wrestling with authors’ language, and before that a classics degree, she realises there’s always something new to learn about grammar.

With thanks to the other members of the course team who contributed to this post.


Photo credits: books by Clarissa Watson 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 CIEP 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.