. . . If you have a computer and can check out Editing 101 at Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog. Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing provides a host of FREE lessons on everything from “Removing Filter Words” (a must-read) to when to use “which” or “that.” I’ve found Susan’s posts to be accurate, clear, and friendly. Check them out!
Category Archives: grammar rules
This lively post by Aliette de Bodard at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog not only defends semicolons but also encourages us to learn to use them well. My take: I’m an enemy of rigid rules, period. That said, there are some conventions writers really need to know, such as how to punctuate dialogue so it’s clear when it begins and ends. Readers get used to some of these conventions, and get jerked out of the story when their expectations are not met.
So whether to break a rule can really be a judgment call. Definitely: you best serve your prose if you know the rule, and the consequences of breaking it.
And by the way, I’ve been reading an awful lot of wonderful books that are unself-consciously replete with adverbs. I think I’m going to go back to some of my stripped-down paragraphs and slip those adverbs back in. Judiciously, of course. And in the dark of night.
This column is near and dear to my heart. I’ve posted on dangling modifiers before, and I see them all the time in my critique groups.
A couple of thoughts:
First, the aversion to “splitting infinitives” comes from an 18th-century spurt of wishfulness that English could be elevated to the status of Latin—in which infinitives are one word and can’t be “split.” Note that in Romance languages like French and Spanish, this still holds true; how can you “split” an infinitive like “hablar”? But English is not a Romance language, despite having picked up many words from French, Spanish, and Italian, in particular. So those “rules” never rightly applied.
Second, note that “to boldly go” is in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s meter, and a natural meter in English. That’s why “to go boldly” just doesn’t have the same ring.
Dangling modifiers, on the other hand, cause problems for me because there’s a brief mental hiccup when the modifier has to hunt for its appropriate noun or pronoun. Sure, I can figure out who or what is doing the action of the modifier, but do writers really want readers stopping, even for a second, to puzzle?
Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.
Courtesy of Adirondack Editing
Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles
Editors frequently correct both of these, but one is actually ok to use, while the other is not. Care to make a wager on which one is which before I get started?
What is a split infinitive, after all? It’s a sentence where a word, usually an adverb, interrupts a full verb (or full infinitive). A full infinitive is the verb with the word “to” in front of it—to run, to walk, to spit. The most famous split infinitive is “to boldly go.” Editors and teachers used to mark this as incorrect, but it’s all right to split an infinitive. Some examples are:
Lyn continued to quickly run toward the burning building.
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Reading this piece from Nicholas C. Rossis, I couldn’t help giving a mental high-five. Starting sentences with gerunds (and various other odd bits of language) is absolutely okay! I would caution that starting sentences with -ing forms of verbs can all too easily lead to “dangling modifiers,” for example, “Reading this, it was a really good discussion of an issue we all face.” If you’re not sure why that sentence DOES contain a sentence-structure error, look up “dangling modifiers.” Returning, however, to the question of prescriptive versus descriptive language mavens, I ask only—well, mainly—that the parts of sentences hook up logically so that I can tell what modifies what and who’s doing what.
I have a feeling this is sliding into a rant. Check my series on “How Much Grammar Do You Need,” and here and here, for my largely descriptivist views.
When I published The Power of Six, my first collection of short stories, a reviewer said that the book had grammatical errors, albeit small ones. This shocked me, as the book had been professionally edited and proof-read. So, I reached out and asked her for an example. “You start a sentence with a gerund,” she said. “So?” I asked. “So, that’s wrong.”
I was baffled by this. Surely, that’s a matter of style, right?
This seemingly innocent question actually led me into a minefield. As The Economist points out, for half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps. Most lexicographers and academic linguists stand on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. The question that defines the to camps is deceivingly simple: should language experts describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common…
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Fortunately for me, the members of both of the writing groups I belong to don’t traffic in most of these pointless prescriptions and proscriptions. I do, however, agree that too many people have a basic fear of the word “was.” As Allen points out, there’s a big difference between “I was reading when she came in” and “I read when she came in.” Also “had.” Sometimes the past perfect is just necessary. Do you have any “stupid rules” to add, or do you take exception to Allen’s judgment on these?
I love Anne R. Allen’s blog. I learn something new every time I visit. This is an excellent piece about bad writing advice. Check it out. Just click on the highlighted link below. ❤
Stupid Writing Rules: 12 dumb things new writers tell each other. Ignore this bad advice from misinformed people in critique groups.
Here’s a great piece from Sue Vincent that echoes what I’ve often thought about those mechanical editing programs that try to lure us into their World of Rules.
I will add to this: The darn programs are all too often just plain wrong! Can’t tell you how many sentences Word’s editor labeled fragments, and how many actual fragments it missed! And any time a mechanical “editor” gives you a piece of advice about punctuation, check the editor’s rule against at least a couple of standard handbooks before kowtowing to some dictator’s orders.
I can’t say enough for real readers. Okay, so they, too, are sometimes “wrong.” Or wrong-headed. But a) they can and usually do explain why they reacted a certain way to something you wrote, and b) they respond to the very things the robots and aliens discussed in this article glide right past—the emotion, the rhythm, the energy, the joy.
Don’t pore over some grammar or editing site. Join a writers’ group!
From the archives – May 2015:
I was curious. Being a writer, I keep seeing articles about the editing software available online to help writers and, over coffee, I thought I would have a quick look. I browsed a number of them, duly pasting a chunk of text into their little blank boxes to see what they had to offer.
After five minutes, my blood was boiling.
Writers, it seems, are being encouraged to use these programmes. Not, as I mistakenly supposed, in order to check their grammar, spelling and punctuation… say, as an extension to spellcheck or as a different perspective on work we are too fond of, and too involved with, to see clearly. No. We are being encouraged to use them in order to erase our personal voice.
Okay, I know… that probably isn’t entirely fair.
There are those who swear by their usefulness, though these, I…
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Who/Whom is kind of an odd choice. I call it a conundrum because you’ll do better, much of the time, to go ahead and get it wrong.
That’s because most people won’t even notice if you get it wrong—most of the time. But they probably will notice when you try extra hard to get it right and THEN get it wrong.
Simply speaking, only a rabid grammar termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.
After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?”
The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.
Our rabid termagant will sputter that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but that’s another argument. People DO end sentences with prepositions, and the principle stands: the incorrect “who” sounds more natural than the correct “whom,” so most people won’t even blink at this “mistake.”
The only time most people will want “whom” is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered:
- To whom did you give it?
- With whom were you going?
- I don’t remember for whom I bought this hat.
But do you have to write these particular sentences?
I suppose you may if you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction. But in my view, don’t bother unless you have one of those hyperactive grammar consciences that wake you up in the middle of the night to go fix that comma you misplaced.
But ordinary people will be perfectly okay with
- Who did you give it to?
- Who were you going with?
- I don’t remember who I bought this hat for.
The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, one MUST use it whenever one wants to sound formal. One word for making choices like this is “hypercorrectness”: going so gaga trying to get it right that we actually get it wrong. For example:
- Whom is going with us?
Ouch, that really grates. Subjects of verbs are always in the “subjective case”: I, you, he, she, it, we, and they. And “who.”
- Who is going with us?
The messier—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.
- Did you say who is going with us?
(Correct: “who is going with us” is a noun clause acting as the direct object of “say,” but “who” is the subject of its own verb, “Is going.”)
- Did you say whom the hat is for?
(Again correct: Again, “whom the hat is for” is a noun phrase acting as the direct object of “say.” “Whom” is the object of the preposition “for.“).
But the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge to wreak havoc on your writing when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say regardless of the role “who/whom” is playing in its own clause. Then we end up with
- Did you say whom is going with us?
(Incorrect: yes, once again, “whom is going with us” is the direct object of “say.” BUT “whom” is holding the place of subject of the verb “is going” IN ITS OWN CLAUSE and should be in the subjective case—that is, “who.”)
- Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.
(Again, incorrect. Yes, “whomever asks for it” is the object of the preposition “to.” BUT IN ITS OWN CLAUSE, “whomever” is trying to be the subject of “asks” and therefore should be in the subjective case—that is, “whoever.”)
Brain reeling? Too hard to sort all this out?
And to repeat the point of this post, THERE IS NO REASON ON EARTH not to go ahead and use the perfectly natural-sounding”who,” and quit worrying about whether it is technically a mistake. Then you will say
- Did you say who is going with us?
- Don’t give money to whoever asks for it.
And you’ll not only be right, you’ll sound right. and the bonus is, you’ll sound right even if you say
- Did you say who you bought the hat for?
So just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).