Editors. We love ’em, right? They chide us, they prod us, they nitpick us to death, but in the end we’re grateful because the text not only looks better, it reads better. A far greater writer than me, Somerset Maugham, had one motto when it came to writing: “Lucidity, simplicity, euphony.” Words to live by, IMHO, and the mantra that I keep in mind both as a writer and an editor.
(Yes, I’m trumpeting my own profession here. What can I say? We’re a dying breed. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?)
Given the warp-speed at which language is changing in this cyber age, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what’s correct and what’s misused so often it becomes accepted. Just the sheer amount of acronyms coined every day is enough to make a thirty-year-old feel like a cave dweller. Not to mention job/social group/fandom-related slang and abbreviations, a by-product of the corporate and advertizing double-speak meant to build up those worthy and shun those hopelessly out of the loop. Any editor worth their salt can’t just be satisfied with keeping up with the Joneses, they also have to keep up with the Apples, the Googles, the hipsters, the glamazons, the Destiel obsessives, and the #Ichabbie shippers (depending on their area of expertise). Every winter, the OED comes out with its quaint little list of Words of the Year, and the media does a pity story about the addition of ‘selfie’ to the dictionary, but the truth is, by the time a word gets the OED stamp of approval, it’s already collecting a pension in cultural relevancy terms. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try subtitling a Tyler Perry film, and let me know how that goes.
Also, let’s face it, a style guide is little more than a dress code. It’s primary purpose isn’t accuracy, but efficacy. Style, by definition, is “a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/style). In theory, there’s no right or wrong; it’s just the way it’s being done by the stylish person or thing.
Before you start thinking that this is some “Down with the Oxford comma!”, anti-grammar screed, I would argue that literary style, like fashion, is important, but it should never keep you from having fun. Not everybody needs to be bedecked in haute couture, but there are a few basic essentials that cannot be done without. The rules of grammar and syntax, for instance, aren’t arbitrary. Believe me, feuds have been fought over less. The Hatfields and the McCoys have nothing on the members of the Editing Canadian English editorial board, I’m sure. We word geeks love our turf wars, and we all have our favorite battles, siege tactics, and secret weapons. So while a comma splice or misused hyphen on a blog post might make us cringe, it’s hardly a case for the literary equivalent of the Hague. (And how I wish there was a place you could be prosecuted for crimes against syntax. Just because it would be awesome!)
Anything released by a publishing house, however, should be beyond reproach. The text should be Alexander McQueen-level flawless, and so often that just isn’t the case. Romance novels, like Karl Lagerfeld, whose publishers often don’t employ professional editors and who pay a pittance for what is extremely challenging work, are some of the worst offenders. Though I am still learning the tricks of my trade and am by no means an authority on all things grammar (that’s Frances Peck, http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/pep/index-eng.html?lang=eng&page=../toc), I’ll periodically point out a few common mistakes that really itch my snout.
I call these Miss Kray’s Editing Tips (for the Grammar Geek in all of us). Here are two that caught my eagle eye today:
1. Hastily-avoided mishap. Barely-legal jailbait. Overly-coiffed meringue. Wrong! No hyphen when the adverb ends in ‘-ly’, peeps. Why? Because adverbs are movable or switchable. For example: a mishap avoided hastily. A blue-green wheelbarrow can’t become a wheelbarrow blued greenly.
2. Hang onto, tune into, hold onto. Nyet, comrades. Think about these logically. ‘Onto’ means ‘on top of’. Can’t hang on top of something. Well, you can, but then you wouldn’t be hanging on to it, you’d be hanging over it. Same with tune in to. You’re not inside the TV show – no matter how much you might want to be. These, friends, are some fine grammatical terms called collocations, i.e. two or more words that often go together. They even have their own dictionary! (https://elt.oup.com/catalogue/items/global/dictionaries/9780194325387?cc=global&selLanguage=en) Yes, it’s often just a question of usage, which two words go together. Brits will say, “Knock at the door,” while Americans are more likely to say, “Knock on.” But that doesn’t mean you can defy logic.
Collocations come in all shapes and sizes. Some you might recognize are ‘come with’, ‘stand at’, ‘drive by’, etc. The problem here is that the second word in these fine collocations has been combined with the ‘to’ that naturally comes after it in the sentence. Of course, you will find ‘into’ and ‘onto’ in the dictionary of collocations, but usually after verbs like ‘climb’.
If you’re an editor, collocations need to become your BFFs. I know I sleep with the dictionary under my pillow. 😉
Until the next time some syntactical faux pas gets my blood boiling, TTFN, fellow grammar geeks!
***TTFN = Ta-ta for now