Writers and reading

Chicago Manual of Style, 2017 - 17th edn.This post is about, and for writers, for reporters and editors, for book authors and editors, magazine editors, feature writers, layout artists, copy editors and anyone who either fancies themselves one of these, or has the curious desire to become one (curious because, at least for freelancers, it often involves spending more money on books than you get in income…). If you aren’t in that company, you should probably read something else, maybe just watch TV, because it’s going to be boring and a little pedantic. It’s about the books writers and editors read – or should read – to stay at the forefront of their game.

But also we read these books because we derive a basic joy from them. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. Like any hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, we like to read about the subjects dear to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, style, language, vocabulary, etymology, style, writing… reading about them isn’t just a trek through known territory: in many of them we find new landscapes to explore, new arguments to debate, new words, new uses to test.

Yes, writers read, those worth the name, anyway. Just like doctors, mechanics, chefs, wine makers, musicians, astronomers, naturalists, electricians and every other profession reads. Even politicians read – aside, of course, from our own Block on Collingwood Council, who despise the activity. Reading is part of the ongoing self-education process everyone who gives even the slightest damn about their work continues to pursue. It’s part of the continued goal of competence.

Let me stop here and say that if you know of a so-called writer, editor, communications officer, PR specialist or reporter who doesn’t regularly read books on grammar, language, style or structure, or don’t regularly look things up in these guides, who don’t have them at hand in their work area, they don’t deserve the description. They are, to paraphrase Truman Capote, mere typists. They do not do justice to their profession and should look for more suitable employment. Walmart greeters are in demand, I hear.

And, no, age and experience don’t mean you can stop learning. In fact, both contribute to lifelong bad writing habits that only remedial study can correct. Since language is fluid, it requires attention to keep up with its fluctuations and changes, its mood swings in permissive and restrictive usage. Unless you keep up with it, you start to come across as ossified, archaic and fusty. That’s when writers need to retire.

A writer who doesn’t read books on language and grammar is like a sommelier who doesn’t drink, not even taste the wine. It’s like a pilot who refuses to board a plane. A hockey player who doesn’t skate. It’s an oxymoron.
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Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Another Archy Poem

Archy and MehitabelMost of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).

But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the  Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period

archy period

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