Q&A with Lisa McLendon, author ‘The Perfect English Grammar Workbook’

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Lisa McLendon is the coordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas. She is the author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English.” In this interview, conducted by email, McLendon discusses the book and her views on “grammar police” and the singular they.

Q. What prompted you to write this workbook, and how did it come together?

A. This was a great example of the power of networking: Someone I’m connected with on Twitter and through the American Copy Editors Society is a freelance copy editor for publisher Callisto Media and edited Grant Barrett’s “Perfect English Grammar.” When Callisto decided to do a workbook, too, she couldn’t take it on so she recommended me.

The publisher uses data to figure out what audiences are looking for and what needs are unmet, so the turnaround was quick. I wrote the book in about six weeks. Then it went through two rounds of editing, design, marketing and then release.

Q. You’re an editor. As an author, how did it feel to be edited?

A. EVERYONE needs an editor, and that includes editors who are writing. It gave me a lot of confidence in the publisher that editing was still an important part of the process.

I was pleased to have a thorough content edit and then a thorough copy edit on top of that. Both editors were excellent, and the process was relatively painless. But still, there were a couple of places where I thought, “yikes, did I write that?” That’s why we all need editors!

Q. What are some areas of grammar that cause people headaches?

A. Agreement, both subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent. Subjunctives. Subject and object pronoun use. Punctuation, apostrophes in particular.

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?

I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing.

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.

But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

A. Oxford comma: Honestly, I wish people would quit arguing about this. There are so many more important issues in language. Follow the designated style guide and be done with it. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2013/07/31/dont-sweat-it-serial-comma/)

Singular they: We have been using “they” for centuries to refer to unspecified or unknown people, and English has not crumbled into dust as a result. (In fact, this exact grammatical phenomenon has occurred before, when plural “you” expanded into the singular, displacing “thou” and “thee.”) It’s here to stay, and it’s rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream publications. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2015/08/12/singularthey/)

Labels and legislation

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Public bathrooms have been the focus of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, but there’s more to the law than that provision.

In North Carolina, two pieces of legislation have been in the news a great deal this year. News organizations commonly call one a “bathroom bill,” and they refer to the other as “a voter ID law.”

These labels are inadequate. Each law has numerous components:

  • House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in March 2016, requires that transgender people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. But it also forbids local governments from enacting laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in any form, including in housing and employment. HB2 also prevents those governments from raising the minimum wage in their communities. (It also stopped people from bringing any sort of discrimination claim in state courts. That piece was reversed this summer.)
  • The “voter ID” law, passed in 2013 and recently struck down by a federal appeals court, requires people to show certain types of photo identification at the polls. But among other provisions, it also reduced the number of days for early voting. The law also stopped same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes from being counted. It ended a program that allowed teenagers to “pre-register” and vote when they turned 18.

These are complex pieces of legislation that present challenges to journalists who are writing about them. Including all of these elements in a headline or tweet is, of course, impractical.

But they could be included in story text or, better yet, as separate textboxes accompanying stories about these topics. That would better serve readers who want to get a full understanding of these laws.

Old style from New York

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On a recent trip to New York City, I visited The Strand bookstore. The store is a treasure trove of new, used and rare books.

One of my finds was a New York Times stylebook published in 1962. The author is Lewis Jordan; he was the first editor at the Times to compile various style guidelines into one volume. He wrote in the foreword:

If style rules do more than call attention to the need for precision in writing, they must inevitably improve it and thus open the way to clear communication. A piece of writing that is properly spelled and properly punctuated is off to a good start.

This stylebook undoubtedly helped editors at the time. But how does it look 54 years later? Here are some its musty recommendations:

  • It mentions companies (Mohawk Airlines, the DuMont television network and Gimbles department store, among others) that no longer exist.
  • It mentions technology that’s obsolete: Have you used an Addressograph or a Dictaphone lately?
  • It lists obscure royal titles such as Dowager Marchioness.
  • It advises that split infinitives “should generally be avoided.”
  • It discourages “boost” as a verb and condemns “hike” when used as a synonym for “raise.”
  • It suggests spellings and word choices that are peculiar now. For example, this statement would follow its guidelines: “I like catchup on my french-fried potatoes. Good-by.”

Other guidelines, however, hold up well. Entries on “gauntlet” and “proved,” for example, are similar to what you would see in stylebooks today.

I enjoyed reading this stylebook. It’s a time capsule of recommendations on spelling, abbreviations, capitalization, word choices and other matters. It’s also a good reminder that style isn’t stagnant.

Style, like language itself, evolves over generations. What made sense in 1962 may not make sense in 2016. And what we write and edit today may seem odd to readers in 2070.

 

 

A challenging word

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This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Obama is not a lame duck — yet

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia surprised many Americans. Perhaps not surprisingly, the political debate over his successor started immediately.

Republican candidates for president such as Marco Rubio argue that President Obama shouldn’t make a nomination to the court because he is a “lame duck.” Some media organizations are using that term for Obama as well.

This use of “lame duck” warps its meaning. Bill Walsh of The Washington Post tweeted this tip:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists a similar definition as well as this one: “one whose position or term of office will soon end.”

What is “soon” is subjective, but Obama has 11 months left in office. That’s a significant amount of time.

Editors should be precise in their word choices. So let’s reserve “lame duck” as a label for Obama on Nov. 9, 2016.

Q&A with Tracy Duncan of Star Wars Stylebook

A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrive and warpdrive.
A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrives and warp drives.

Tracy Duncan is a blogger who runs the Star Wars Stylebook account on Twitter. In this interview, conducted by email, Duncan discusses the origins of @SWStylebook, common questions she receives and her outlook on the next movie in the series.

Q. Why a “Star Wars” stylebook?

A. I originally wrote a post for the blog I run, Club Jade, on common errors you see with certain “Star Wars” terms. This was December 2012, not long after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and the new movies were announced, so Star Wars was again a big part of the mainstream discussion and I was running across pretty simple errors like “Jedis” and “Lucasfilms” everywhere from Twitter to Associated Press stories. That post did pretty well, but it didn’t really find an audience outside of the fandom.

The stylebook concept really took off with Twitter. In June 2014, I saw @APStylebook do an #APStyleChat about religion, started thinking about how that would apply to the term “the Force” and that old post, and that led to @SWStylebook.

I expected it to maybe get a hundred or so followers in fan media, but it took off with standard journalists as well. I owe a lot of that to @tvjedi, who brought it up among Chicago-area media when the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was announced there not long after I started publicizing the account.

Q. How do you determine what to include in the stylebook, and what are some of the common questions people have about “Star Wars” terminology and names?

A. I try and keep it to the most basic terms, things your average person would recognize or know about. There’s so much additional material with “Star Wars,” I could probably spend weeks tweeting about various types of tanks or spaceships, but most people are only going to know or care about things that are prominent in the movies, like AT-ATs or the Millennium Falcon.

I get asked about “tauntaun” and “stormtrooper” fairly regularly. Stormtrooper can be confusing because the prequel versions, the clone troopers, have a space between the words, but stormtrooper doesn’t.

I also get a lot of pronunciation questions about things that aren’t really named on-screen, which is understandable, but also not really something I’m comfortable advising on because it’s not something I’ve particularly paid attention to. But if there’s something official out there that I’m aware of, I will try to link it. Last week, someone asked me about how to say AT-AT, and almost the next day, they were talking about it on a Youtube series produced by Lucasfilm.

Q. How do you deal with the different versions of the movies as well as “Star Wars” books, comic books, etc.?

A. I’m old enough that I grew up on the VHS versions of the films, but I can’t really get that worked up about the changes. I’d appreciate being able to buy pristine versions of the THX versions on Blu-ray, but it’s not a huge issue for me.

I do have a deep dislike of the CGI Jabba scene in “A New Hope,” partly because the digital Jabba isn’t that great, but mostly because the dialogue in the scene is redundant. Everything we learned there had already been told in the Greedo scene. (I can take or leave the whole shooting first thing, honestly.)

I was a big Expanded Universe (never Extended!) fan, mostly of the novels that have since been declared non-canon because of the new trilogy. If I hadn’t spent years reading them, I doubt I’d have absorbed enough about the series to be able to do something like Star Wars Stylebook, but I also think they’d been in a deep spiral of declining quality for a long time.

Licensed fiction is always a risk, but there were a lot of wasted opportunities and particularly by 2012, the audience that was still reading them was only a small fraction of fans. I can’t blame Lucasfilm at all for their decision — anyone who’d been paying attention knew it was inevitable the moment they announced new movies.

As for the stylebook, we actually had a big discussion at one point over whether Anakin’s nickname should be spelled “Ani” or “Annie.” Early things like “The Phantom Menace” novelization have it as “Annie” — and that’s what I went with originally — but captions from “The Clone Wars” cartoon had it as “Ani.” That was fan preference as well, so if someone asks, “Ani” seems the safer bet.

There’s also conflicting information about whether “dark side” should be capitalized or not, and if it’s Toshi Station or Tosche Station, but in those cases I also go with the more recent stuff — or I might ask someone at Lucasfilm, if it’s not on the StarWars.com Databank or something else I can check myself. They’ve been pretty consistent since the prequel days, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Q. ”Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” opens in December. We’ve seen the trailers. Any predictions on how good the movie will be?

A. My gut — and everything I’ve been reading — tells me it’ll be good, or at least super fun. I definitely think it has a good chance at pleasing a lot of fans. Here’s hoping!