Sunday, November 29, 2009

Posting-It Notes

Congratulations! You have a blog! You have an outlet for all the thoughts in your head and experiences in your life, a way to communicate with the entire world one on-line reader at a time.

Perhaps you use it as a journal for personal reminiscences and ponderings. Perhaps you have chosen a very specific topic, no doubt your own obsession, be it baseball or Star Trek or puppets. (Mine, of course, is language.) Perhaps you see it as your version of Oprah’s O magazine, presenting a variety of material all centered around your world view. Or perhaps you intend it as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, an ongoing version of the e-mailed Christmas letter detailing everyone’s busy doings.

The act of posting material to a blog, no matter its intended purpose, is equivalent to publishing it, i.e., making it public. You may choose to restrict the size of that public, or the quality of your writing may restrict it for you. I can envision several basic scenarios for composing and posting a blog entry. Each will produce a very different caliber of material, which will greatly influence whether others might want to read that blog or return to it. These scenarios apply to blogs that are primarily essays; those that provide a service or database or carry far more images and videos than words have other means to attract followers. However, a visitor is more likely to view an image or video if there are words to lure him in…

Slapdash and Sloppy
You’ve just been out on an exhilarating mountain hike and can’t wait to share the experience. Seconds after walking in the door, your hiking boots are off and you’re at the keyboard, logging into your blog. First you upload and arrange half a dozen photos and caption them minimally (e.g., “Me and Joey at the top”). Then, with the cursor settled into the composing window, you start to write. Your thoughts spill out one after the other as they occur, with no attempt to order or arrange them for a sense of progression or continuity, never mind paragraphs. You’re typing too fast to worry about typos. You aren’t concerned about and might not recognize misplaced commas, sentence fragments, or subject-verb disagreements. Clichés abound because originality takes time and thought. You fall easily into texting and chat room habits, abbreviating all sorts of things into technoglyphs (for example, l8r). When your thoughts have been exhausted or dinner beckons, you hit Post, wait impatiently for confirmation, and log out.

Prognosis: Poor. Only friends and relatives will have any reason to slog through this stream-of-consciousness lack of style, replete with misspellings, random punctuation, grammatical hash, and other aggravations that hinder comprehension and enjoyment. The writer himself isn’t interested in reading it, hasn’t bothered to go back to correct errors or organize. Even if the experience was extraordinary, the attempt to capture it in words was haphazard and lazy at best and a failure at worst. The account serves mainly as a record of events, and the purpose does not encompass either poetry or philosophy. This is the writing equivalent of a crayoned drawing, appropriate for family viewing on the refrigerator door, not good enough for a frame or display in the living room.

It is my impression and my fear that this is the method employed by a great many bloggers. If I am correct in this impression, there is a whole lot of unreadable crap floating around in cyberspace. That’s okay, provided nobody expects me to read any of it. (Unless, of course, we share genes, in which case I will find it charming, just as I would find the artwork on the fridge charming.)

Considered and Careful
You’ve had a great idea for your blog on wallpaper. Before logging in, you spend some time thinking not only about what you want to say but what order you should say it in. Perhaps you even jot down a few notes to refer to as you compose. You take your time while writing, think about structure and flow as you go. As a prose stylist, you reach for metaphor and simile, enjoy alliteration and humor. You choose the best images and arrange them to work with the text, caption them pithily. You then read over what you’ve written, correcting typos and punctuation, consulting a dictionary for suspect spellings, perhaps even reaching for a thesaurus to avoid using the same descriptors again and again. You discover and correct a sentence fragment, a discordant subject and verb, a dangling participle, an unclear antecedent. One more quick read satisfies you that your piece is presentable, and you post it. If you’re the skeptical type or just enamored of your own writing, you go immediately to the blog to view it and perhaps read it one more time. Once it’s been posted, you probably won’t change it and may never read it again.

Prognosis: Fair. Because the writer’s subject is near to her heart and she presumably has some expertise, the blog has a good chance of being interesting. Because she has taken the time and trouble to edit the original composition, it also has a chance of being both readable and comprehensible. A blog that is interesting and comprehensible will attract followers, if only among those who share her obsession. This is the writing equivalent of an artwork created for a gallery show, worthy of being framed for viewing by the people who visit the gallery, some of whom will appreciate it more than others. Forethought and afterthought have both been used to narrow the focus and streamline the progression; editing has been applied to root out distracting errors and points of possible confusion. A few errors will no doubt slip through, but not enough to be annoying.

This, in my opinion, is the minimum level of effort required to turn out a readable blog. Juicy content will only balance bad writing up to a point. Dry content will have even less weight. Regardless of content, better writing will always mean more readers. I would be willing to read a piece written to this standard, depending somewhat on the topic and the style, but the chances that I would go back for more are only 50-50, again dependent on the topic and style.

Prepared and Perfected
It’s time to work up a new piece for your blog about politics, a subject about which your opinions have the weight of knowledge and experience. From a handy list of ten to twenty topics, you pick one and begin turning it over in your head, figuring out not only what you have to say but how to organize your presentation into a coherent whole. You want to create a suck-’em-in beginning, an opinionated, informative, entertaining center, and a satisfying conclusion. You love to find a title that’s clever or punny and will resonate with multiple meanings as the reader moves through the piece. The perfect opening sentence can take several days to construct, but once you have it the rest of the piece falls into place behind it in your head. You then compose your first draft, whether on paper or directly on the computer with Word (or whatever). As you write, you stop constantly to go back and make changes and check how the argument is developing. Once the draft is complete, you edit ruthlessly. Any mistakes missed while composing, including uncertainties of fact as well as spelling, are found and corrected now. Dictionary, thesaurus, and other references are in reach or standing by. You transpose words, sentences, even blocks of text to improve the flow, add things you forgot or thought of later and delete things that are irrelevant or interrupt the argument, no matter how interesting they may be. You agonize over word choice, not just for meaning but for meter and music, and delight in wordplay and truly original use of words. Irony, hyperbole, synecdoche, and all those other curiously named literary tricks are part of your writing toolkit. Finally, after going through the thing ten or twenty or thirty times, you have a piece that is perfect grammatically and polished stylistically. When you go to your blog and hit New Post to open the composition window, instead of typing, you simply paste in a copy of the file created with all the tools available in Word. You then go through it to restore lost formatting and format it further with the blog tools. After one final readthrough to ensure there are no errors, you post the piece and immediately go to view it. You can’t help but read through it one more time because you’re always tickled when you see your work “published.” It’s entirely possible you’ll find one or more small errors despite all the earlier editing and proofreading, and you make the effort to edit and repost the piece. Over the next few weeks you may actually go back and tweak the piece a bit as you think of ways to make it even better.

Prognosis: Excellent. This is the level of effort, talent, and sheer fussiness required to turn out a piece of writing that will delight as well as inform. Even if readers don’t share his obsession, his passion and persuasiveness will capture their interest. That interest will not be diverted by errors or infelicities of language but deepened by appreciation of his wit and his heart. This is the writing equivalent of a masterpiece, evidence of qualification for the rank of master, worthy of display, if not in a museum, then at least in a highly frequented public space. This is his best, created with every tool and skill at his command. There are no errors of composition or of fact (well, maybe a little one now and then; nobody’s perfect). The reader can simply enjoy the story or argument as it unfolds, be edified by reliable information and entertained by cleverness.

A blog written to this standard will attract numerous readers once word gets out, because it can be enjoyed by those who don’t share the writer’s genes or passion for the topic but can appreciate his skillful expression of it. This is the standard I strive for in my own writing. I would dearly love to discover blogs of this caliber on any number of subjects. Suggestions are welcome.

Whether you think my blog isn’t as good as all that or you think I’m meeting my goals splendidly, your comments are also welcome.

This is article 15 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Comma-cal Anarchy

The idea that commas represent oral or mental pauses is a touchy-feely excuse for punctuation anarchy. My mother, bless her, would say to me, “Wherever I would pause in speaking, I put in a comma.” I would explain patiently that there were real rules for commas based on actual grammatical structures. She would listen, not arguing, for me to finish, and after a moment of silence, she would say, “Well, I use a comma wherever I would pause in speaking.” We had this exact conversation at least three or four times. One literally could not tell my mother anything she didn’t want to hear. How’s your ear-brain connection functioning?

Myself, I have no memory at all of being taught the correct use of commas in school, elementary or high. I placed out of Freshman Composition, so I have no idea what’s taught at the college level, but I’m betting they don’t spend much time on commas either. I learned most of my grammar in Latin class, and I learned about commas by reading a style manual called Words Into Type when I was twelve, with a graduate course during my training to be a copy editor.

I believe many people use commas more or less at random, the “pause = comma” dictum their only guideline. Even in the classroom, mistakes often go uncorrected, and when a change is made, the mere deletion or insertion of a comma teaches nothing if there is no explanation. Indeed, the change itself may be wrong, as ignorance, misinformation, and idiosyncrasy are widespread, even among those we might account experts, such as English teachers. The bewildered student may well wonder why this comma was added or that one was taken away; few are interested or persistent enough to actually plumb the mystery on a case-by-case basis. Chances are the person who made the change can’t explain it logically anyway.

Years ago, as part of a class on writing for publication, I wrote several magazine-style articles, all of which used commas according to the rules. The instructor routinely added commas between subjects, between verbs, or between objects when there was more than one in a given sentence. Not one of them was grammatically defensible. His argument was that the reader “needed a break” within a long sentence. Hemingway I am not, and thus he was adding an extraneous comma or two to nearly every sentence. (I have since taught myself to construct shorter sentences, which is the correct fix.) He was a trained writer, a published author, and he was just plain wrong.

The rules for basic comma use in the construction of English sentences are actually very simple, very straightforward, and very logical. Summed up very briefly, commas are used between independent clauses, after introductory elements (some leeway here), between the items in a list, and to set off parenthetical elements. Believe it or not, that pretty much covers ninety percent of all licit commas. The rules can be bent for stylistic reasons, but you should know them before you start bending them.

Failure to use commas where they are required is one thing. Sticking them in pointlessly occurs just as often. Again summed up very briefly, do not use a comma (unless it is part of a list or parenthetical element) between a subject and verb or verb and object, between an adjective and its noun, after a conjunction, or to set off restrictive material. Again, believe it or not, that’s pretty much it.

Unfortunately, to use these rules, you have to be able to identify a subject, verb, and object, a clause, a conjunction, and both restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. Perhaps that’s where everything gets fuzzy and mysterious. So much easier to just stick in a comma at every pause…

These grammar-based rules are the standard in any well-edited publication, such as the New York Times, should you care to verify this assertion with a piece of writing other than my own. Notice that following these rules gives readers very clear traffic signals as they move along. Here’s a comma followed by a conjunction, so a new clause is coming up, a new subject, a new thought. A comma placed within a clause (for instance, between dual predicates: “I slapped him, and listened to him cry”) violates that expectation, and the reader has to back up and regroup to grasp the meaning. Syntactically, it’s like a stop sign in the middle of the block instead of at an intersection, and we all know how annoying those are. Profligate use of commas can make it necessary to read every sentence two or three times to determine structure and sense.

Because the rules are so clear cut, if you give the same piece of writing to two trained editors, they will make exactly the same comma changes, both insertions and deletions. Moreover, they will be able to explain the reason for every change, and I guarantee the word pause will not come up.

This is article 14 in a continuing series. Formerly posted as Comma Chameleon. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Edless and Be-Eded

Let’s talk about participles!

Now that I’ve just lost half of my potential audience, let me assume that the readers who remain know that grammar is not just for geeks. It is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used well or badly. People who disdain grammar or any formal study of how words are put together think they can just set their thoughts down on paper as they occur and they’re done. However, this is like assuming that anything created with crayons is art. What’s good enough for the refrigerator door (think memo or chat room) probably isn’t good enough for a gallery (think magazine or blog), never mind a museum (think hardback or website). Just so for words. Forethought, structure, and judicious editing are all essential to good writing. If it’s a memo to yourself, be as slipshod and sloppy as you like. If it’s something you expect other people to read, you’ve got to follow the rules. An architect can scribble away on the drawing board designing castles in the air, but if he expects other people to live in them, he’d better bring them down to earth and make them structurally sound. Writing is no different. Sentences and paragraphs are constructed, and if they are badly constructed, they will collapse as surely as an unsupported roof and stun the reader with nonsense or aggravation. To avoid that calamity, you have to follow the rules.

Now, let’s talk about participles. (I promise the word dangling isn’t going to come up even once.) Participles are adjectives that are formed from verbs (sometimes from nouns; more on that later) and act as modifiers with verbal force. They describe an action in progress (present participles) or one that has been completed (perfect or past participles).

Present participles end in -ing: a swimming dog, a horrifying accident. They are used to form the progressive tenses: I am walking, he was talking, we will be falling down. Do not confuse present participles with gerunds, which also end in -ing but are verbal nouns: swimming is good exercise, I like painting. Gerunds are lots of fun and often misused and will be the subject of a future article.

Past participles used to be called perfect participles because they are used to form the perfect tenses, but I guess grammarians got tired of all that perfection. For regular verbs, the past participle, like the past tense, ends in -ed; irregular forms must be learned on an individual basis. Memorization involves the infinitive (to be, to go, to do, to teach, to drive, to walk); the present tense (I am, I go, I do, I teach, I drive, I walk); the past tense (I was, I went, I did, I taught, I drove, I walked); and the perfect tenses (I have [had, will have] been, I have gone, I have done, I have taught, I have driven, I have walked). Only the last of these exemplars, walk, is a regular verb.

There is another kind of past participle. It is an adjective formed from a noun that has verbal force. Some of my readers have just gone cross-eyed trying to figure this out, so I will point out that eyed is an example of such a participle. It is formed from a noun (eye) and functions as an adjective (“eyed like an old potato”). This sort of participle causes more problems than the other sorts because of its complexity, not to mention its close association with hyphens as a unit modifier, or temporary compound.

Why should nouns be turned into adjectives, and how can they imply action? That’s just the way English works, and it’s one of the things that make English so fantastically versatile. You can’t say “fair-haired boy” in French, any more than you can say “Diana’s dress”; in French you must employ prepositional phrases and say “the boy with fair hair” (le garçon aux cheveux blonds) and “the dress of Diana” (la robe de Diana).

One very common error with participles is omission of the -ed ending. Sometimes the error is so commonplace it becomes accepted. One example is ice cream. Because it means cream that has been transformed with ice, it is properly called iced cream, but the error has become ingrained in the language. The same thing is happening to iced tea, a participle modifying a noun, which is more commonly seen as ice tea, which is two nouns side by side. We know what it means, but grammatically it is uncoordinated.

Things get even more complex with modifiers created by combining an adjective with a participle formed from a noun, as in cross-eyed. Here too, the common error is to leave the participial -ed ending off the noun portion. An old-fashion candy is like a blue-eye boy, grammatically uncoordinated; these modifiers should be old-fashioned and blue-eyed. Logically, an old-fashion candy might be candy that prefers old fashions; we need the verbal force of the participle to give the sense that the candy has been fashioned in a time-honored way. Similarly, a blue-eye boy might collect them, not have them; here the verbal undertone implies that he has been endowed with eyes of blue. To quote one grammar manual,* “With past participles…the noun being modified is the object of the verb underlying the participle.” Thus, in blue-eyed boy, boy is grammatically the object of eyed, which is not the case with the noun in blue-eye; blue modifies eye, but eye does not refer to boy in the way eyed does.

What follows is a sampling of ed-less constructions culled from random sources. These samples are presented as they appeared, with or without hyphens, because the proper use of hyphens is a subject so involved it could well carry three or four articles.

From an ad for Kendall-Jackson wines, we have “Red Tail Hawk”; this should be red-tailed hawk, hyphenated, not capitalized. This beautiful raptor has an entry in the dictionary as well as in any field guide to birds, and one wonders why they didn’t bother to look it up before featuring it prominently in their ad. Because participles are so often used in temporary compounds, the dictionary won’t always be able to resolve problems, but in this case laziness was at fault. A catalog page of four shoe styles, all with fringe, weirdly gets it wrong and right in the same space: the incorrect “fringe bootie” occurs three times, right next to the single correct “fringed clog.” Another catalog offers “one dozen long-stem roses,” but it should be offering long-stemmed ones. Yet another catalog says its “long-sleeve, mock-neck top is semi-fit,” thus making the ed-less error twice; I’d rather have a top that is long-sleeved and semi-fitted. (Don’t get me started on mock-neck; it isn’t really a turtleneck, but I guarantee you the neck is real.) The editing at Martha Stewart Living magazine is usually faultless, but a recent issue had both “fan-shape leaves” and “balloon-shape calyxes”; both of these noun-noun combos need to be shaped up. A grocery store circular offered savings on “select sodas,” but I am certain the sodas are neither superior nor distinguished, just selected to go on sale. A clothing catalog described a sweater as having “full-fashion sleeves,” using an adjective-noun combo when what’s needed is an adverb and participle. Full-fashion sleeves might appeal to a trendy fashionista; fully fashioned sleeves are a hallmark of good construction in a knitted garment (not a knit garment). Finally, trout that have been split apart and laid open to resemble a butterfly are butterflied trout; the genetic engineers haven't got around to breeding butterfly trout yet.

Now we turn from the edless to the be-eded, where people get confused and put -ed on the wrong word. The J. Jill catalog offered a “capped-sleeve cardigan sweater.” Cardigan sweater is redundant, and the sleeves are not capped with anything; they are cap sleeves, and the cardigan is cap-sleeved. The Talbots catalog wants us to consider a “mix-stitched cardigan,” but there is no mix stitch in knitting that I know of. The cardigan instead has a mix of stitches and is mixed-stitch. The West Elm catalog has for sale a “blocked paisley print duvet cover,” but I’m sure the print has not been blocked in any way. The action here is not blocking but printing. The use of a carved block of wood to stamp a fabric with a repeating design is known as block printing, and this item should have been described as a block-printed paisley duvet cover. The final example has no specific source but is an error I have seen again and again, involving confusion between advance (adjective) and advanced (participle). Advanced ticket sales must involve some new technology for selling tickets; advance ticket sales offer tickets in advance of the event.

Please don’t get down on me for taking examples from catalogs, advertisements, and magazines. These publications are less likely to be subjected to a trained editorial eye (some magazines excepted) and thus more closely represent the language as it is used by the average person, educated to some extent in its use but not dedicated to its study. Through chat rooms and blogs and e-zines, writings by such people are being “published” more widely than ever, and they are one of the groups Crotchets is intended to reach.

My point is that communication is not automatic. You have to work for it; you have to enable it; you have to construct it. For that you need to have the right tools and know how to wield them. Those tools include dictionaries and style manuals. Anyone who writes something intended to be read by another, even if it’s just a blog or a catalog description, owes it to her readers to use those tools to get it right. As with ice tea, we may understand it even if it isn’t exactly right, but we’ll have a better chance of understanding if it is right.

Communication is a two-way street. If you will do your best to be comprehensible, I’ll do my best to comprehend you. Write like you don’t give a damn, and neither will I; I’ll turn the page, close the window, surf away, and you will have wasted your time and mine. Do you want to reach people or repulse them? The choice is yours. (You might want to avoid mentioning participles in the opening sentence.)

*The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, which I generally find far too apologetic and accommodating.

This is article 13 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who's That? An Elegy

We are gathered today to mourn the passing of a beloved relative and close kin. Though the subject lingers, the kin are seen less and less often and will, I fear, fade from memory. I speak of a relative familiar to all. Who once was always there for people. Who could be independent or subordinate. Who coordinated the flow of information when called upon. Who could always make everything perfectly clear.

I am of course referring to the relative pronoun who and its kin whom and whose. English prefers the use of who to refer to humans: “He is a man who drinks good beer”; “I admire people who play an instrument.” Increasingly over the last 20 years, however, writers have been replacing who with that: “a man that drinks good beer”; “people that play an instrument.” This grates on my ear and my sensibilities. I think writers (and speakers) avoid who because they are uncertain when who should morph into whom. “She is someone whom I like” isn’t as easy a construction as “She is someone that I like.” Since either is technically correct, writers turn coward and choose the sure thing, demoting animated humans to the status of inanimate objects.

The who problem belongs in the general category of pronoun problems that involve case. Unlike Latin and Arabic, English no longer inflects nouns for case—for their grammatical function—except for pronouns. The pronouns change depending on whether they are used as subjects (I, she, we, they) or objects (me, her, us, them) or possessives (my, her, our, their as adjectives; mine, hers, ours, theirs as nouns). We learn to ring these changes as infants imbibing grammar along with vocabulary, and we make the changes easily—as long as we don’t have to think about them. No native English speaker is going to commit errors like “Them told we to go home” or “Us gave he a hard time,” but these examples involve simple subjects and objects in simple independent clauses. More sophisticated structures such as dependent clauses requiring relative pronouns are not so straightforward.

As a simple pronoun and subject, especially in questions, who retains its vigor and can never be replaced with that. No one is going to say “That goes there?” or “That am I?” On the other hand, who is often used incorrectly in place of whom: “Who am I speaking to?” should be “Whom am I speaking to?” or, more elegantly, “To whom am I speaking?” The more elegant formation tells us why whom is correct; it is the object of the preposition and must be in the objective case.

There are various ways to test whether who or whom is correct; among the simplest is to replace it with he or him. It also helps to turn a question, which inverts subject and verb, into a statement, which puts all the elements into their accustomed order. For the example above, these two operations produce “I am speaking to him,” and the need for the objective form becomes clear. In analyzing the sentence “She is the writer (who, whom) I admire the most,” it is again helpful to put the elements into a simpler grammatical form. It is the business of relative pronouns to coordinate two related thoughts. If we separate them, we get two independent structures, in this case “She is the writer” (independent but incomplete) and “I admire her the most.” The use of her as the object of the verb admire tells us to use whom: “She is the writer whom I admire the most.” A simpler test is that if the dependent clause has its own subject (in this case I), the objective case is most likely to be correct for the relative pronoun that introduces it. If the pronoun is followed directly by a verb, the pronoun is most likely the subject, and who will be correct: “I’m the one who knows what’s going on.”

An entirely different problem arises with whose. People generally use it correctly but confuse it with its homophone who’s when writing. Like your and you’re and its and it’s, one is a possessive pronoun (whose, your, its) and the other is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb (you areyou’re, it is or it hasit’s, who is or who haswho’s). The only way to write it correctly is to know what you mean. If you don’t know what you mean, you have no business expecting people to read what you write. ’Nuff said.

Don’t let cowardice and ignorance toll the death knell on our beloved relative who. Stick up for the difference between people and rocks! Be someone who gives humans the dignity of their special pronoun, and never let that dehumanize them again!

This is article 12 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson