Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Picking Nits


I have recently re-entered the world of editing. I have an actual client. It's very exciting — I like it better than freelance writing — but it also has made me hyper-aware of everyone's mistakes. Which, when one receives a lot of texts from an eleven-year-old, is kind of a drag. I already have a reputation as being a bit of a bun-haired grammarian. This will not help.

However, there is one group of people I will judge far more harshly than the general population (and my eleven-year-old), and they are ... writers. There is simply no excuse for someone who calls themselves "a writer" to be lazy or sloppy with her grammar and spelling. Microsoft Word has spelling and grammar checks, which do help — certainly everyone should run their work through this auto-nitpicker before sending it off — but also enable poor habits. If you rely on a program to fix your errors, you may not bother to develop the inherent writing skills. Word will not catch homonyms, for one thing, and its grammar check is iffy at catching mistakes. It catches too many things that aren't really mistakes (like sentence fragments) and misses true mistakes, like confusingly-structures sentences.

Luckily, we have a few grammar guides now that are infinitely more readable than Strunk & White or The Chicago Manual of Style. I mean, you can sit down and actually read these guides. Like a book. Two of my favorites:

Woe is I, by Patricia T. O'Connor, is a genuinely funny overview of common grammar pitfalls, such as possessives (when to use that tricky apostrophe?) and pronouns. O'Connor also kills off some bad rules we all learned in high school, such as "never split an infinitive." Readers will either find this refreshing or maddening, depending on how deeply ingrained the defunct rules are.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, focuses on punctuation, which is only one facet of grammar — but such an oft-mangled one that if you master this alone, you'll make your editors weep with happiness.

Matthew Inman
My favorite go-to place for common grammar mistakes, however, is the online comic website The Oatmeal. Creator-writer-artist Matthew Inman isn't just hilarious (and cute — the boy is a babe), he's a good writer. He knows his usage. Check these two out:

How to Use A Semicolon: Anything with high-fiving dinosaurs gets my vote.

Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling: Most of these misspellings (loose vs. lose) will not be caught by Word. If you want to look like a non-moron, and avoid making your editor sob, you have to learn the usages; you can't rely on an algorithm. "Effect" vs. "affect" is so easy to confuse I have actually written the definitions on the whiteboard next to my desk. It would be even cooler to have these as posters next to my desk, and what do you know! Inman sells them. Perfect gift for the teen in your life, who very likely is abusing these words on Facebook as we speak.

Finally, as a real treat, I give you Inman's friend Allie Brosh, another webcomic creator who shares his impatience with poor grammar and spelling. (She is also a babe: what is up with these people?) Here, she tackles the most annoying spelling mistake in all creation, THE ALOT.


10 comments:

  1. You may have noticed, on my site, comments made by Willie, who is my friend certainly, but he was my HS English teacher in 1965 when we became friends. Since then, I have retained him as my grammarian. What you call your "bun-haired grammarian" he channels as his "Miss Thistlebottom" and sends emails correcting my usage. Problem is, even after a half-century, he does this in person when we go places. In short, your excellent post struck a chord!

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    1. Agh, Geo! Does Thistlebottom (I love that) send these corrections solicited, or un? Because unsolicited corrections of grammar ... that is a quick road to being unfriended, don't you think? I am a professional nitpicker (people will *actually* *pay* *me* for this, which still boggles my mind), but I do try to rein it in. I only correct grammar and spelling upon request, or if I don't like someone. :D Or if the mistake-maker is one of my beleaguered children. My son has started adding "I know I spelled that wrong" after his texts, just to cover his bases. Poor lad.

      Ironic postscript: I misspelled "rein" as "reign" when I began this response. Luckily caught it before I hit "publish." It also took me three tries to get "beleaguered" right. I bet Miss Thistlebottom can do it first try ...

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    2. Thistlebottom would be disappointed if anybody got "beleaguered" first try. But you must understand, Willie and I are both pensioners now and get paid whether or not he corrects my spelling and I still suffer dyslexia. We do it because without it we would not recognize ourselves or each other, and in the distractions of this brash new century we can't allow that to happen, now can we?

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  2. How cool!! Congratulations, Sister!

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    1. Thank you, Lorena! I sent my invoice in for this work, hope I can accrue some more clients now. Feel free to send people my way. :)

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  3. I shall henceforth endeavor to tread lightly upon your grammarian sensibilities. I've been accused of being rather pedantic myself. I think high standards along these lines are important.

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    1. There's definitely a continuum of pedantic-ness. I'm probably at an 8 out of 10; I can think of a few people who've cranked it up to 11 (Spinal-Tap style). :) Dangling participles I don't mind so much, but "a lot" as one word? Makes my teeth itch.

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  4. ---- RANT COMMENCEMENT ----

    I had someone criticize a review I posted to Amazon once, admonishing me to simplify my vocabulary. I've never forgotten him. (I told Shawn about the incident and he called him a blowhard.) He couldn't have gone after someone misusing affect/effect or loose/lose. It's like those cops that pull you over for going 34 in a 25. I wanna tell those hangliding sons of a motherless goat that swoop down on soccer moms taking their kids to school by the country lanes, 'Go catch a criminal!'


    TERMINUS.

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    1. "...sons of a motherless goat..." See, you're getting the hang of it! :D

      Those darned cops. I guess someone has to be assigned the "lie in wait for hurried soccer moms" beat, but sheesh.

      Can you imagine having so much time on your hands that you troll Amazon, criticizing reviewers for having TOO BIG a vocabulary? As my kids would say, wow. Just wow.

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    2. The guys in my tenth-grade class used to call each other sons of motherless goats co I can't take sole credit. Very lyrical, though. They did often impress with the robust color of their insulting powers.

      You'd have matched their wits well, though, Steph. What with the imprecatory fleas of a thousand camels in the armpits.

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