Tuesday, November 5, 2013

C is for Commas n' Shit

I have a real problem, you guys.  My social circle has now expanded to the point that I live in constant, immediate danger of losing track of all the awesome stuff my posse is doing.  I am beginning to fear that there are more kickass people in the world than I can handle knowing.


I would be hugely remiss not to notice or showcase the awesome A-to-Z NaNo series that my agency, Red Sofa Literary, is putting on this month.  Here is one post that sticks out at me in particular:  C is for Copyedit.

It's written by the newest member of Team Sofa, Laura Zats (whose Twitter feed is kind of like a Bridget Jones' Diary take on Trainspotting - highly recommended!)

This is her auspicious opening:
There are entire books written about why your book was rejected by an agent or editor, just as there are entire books about how to ensure that they don’t reject you. 

But I didn’t write any of those, so I’m going to tell you one of the main reasons whyreject books: the grammar sucks.
Not news, right?  There aren't too many dream jobs that will accommodate the do-what-feels-good school of spelling and punctuation, and Future Novelist is an especially unforgiving position.  Here's the part that got me thinking, though:
But the above things I mentioned are conventions. They should have been drilled into you in 18+ years of school. NOT using these things says just one thing to me: you don’t quite care enough about your future colleagues’ time to do the work right the first time.
This is also not news, but here's what I'm wondering about: what do you do if you missed the boat?  Like, what if your school sucked?  Or you didn't go to school?  Or you did, but you only learned English three years ago - or you did, but that was thirty years ago and your career as an Arctic deep-sea fisherman hasn't kept you fresh on the finer points of prepositional phrases?  Basically, what is your recourse if you don't already know how to write good conventional English?

When I first ventured out of my cave two years ago, I assumed that every writer's story was like mine.  "What," I said incredulously, "like, didn't you guys just read a million billion books and osmotically engulf the entire standard-English ruleset?"

As it turns out, the answer is often "no"!  

And you can still get yourself back up on this wagon, of course.  Obviously we don't lose our capacity for learning the second they plop mortarboards on our heads and bid us a fond "don't let the door hit you."

But here's the thing.  Writing overwhelmingly requires a real, live human being - traditionally in the form of an English teacher - to read your stuff, correct it, hand it back, and make you do it again.  Indeed, the essay is the ONLY part of the SAT (and pretty much any other standardized US exam) that isn't machine-scored, cuz it truly does require the judgment of a fellow carbon-based life-form to evaluate its merit.  And while I know that we have these things called 'critique partners' and 'beta readers' for a reason, I am perpetually surprised and dismayed by the number of writers I meet who think they can't learn this stuff - who feel that they are hopelessly ignorant, and expect that they will always have to pay freelance editors to clean up everything they ever produce, because they are not one of the Beautiful People Who Already Know This Shit.

I would absolutely love to blow that myth to pieces, and use said pieces to fertilize the budding self-esteem of aspiring writers everywhere.  But while I'm okay with not speaking from experience, I don't want to be speaking from my hindparts either.

So this is my long, roundabout way of asking all you guys:  for those of you who didn't acquire this knowledge in your larval stage, how did you master English grammar as an adult? 

In this sentence, your victory against the bear does not need to be connected to the plague rat, so a period is used.


  1. Incestuously commenting, because this thread is too good to lose in the wilds of Twitter:

    LZats: First of all, you just gave me ALL THE FEELS!

    LZats: Second, https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/01/ is the best down-n-dirty resource for CHICAGO grammar/formatting.

    LZats: There are also some AMAZING quizzes online to test yourself on how words/punctuation are used + grammar girl is my fave for basics

    bensen_m: I use Purdue Owl for my ESL classes, so it must be good.

    LZats: I would also recommend the online CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) over the book version. More expensive, but wayyy easier to use.

    LZats: It's what got me through college.

    bensen_m: Huh, I didn't know Purdue Owl also sold energy drinks.

    1. Thanks for the incest!
      I'm sorry I haven't commented on your grammar writing before, since I spend so much time beating my head against the English language (or as the case may be smashing my students' heads against the English language). Here's a fun one that came up recently: English sentence inversion in questions is hard enough, so why do we not use it in questions like "who loves him"? Why not "who does love him"?

    2. Because there's no need to ask -- everyone loves him. I mean, who doesn't love him?

    3. Haha, Nobody *I* want to know.

      But seriously, I hear you. English is this magnificent bastard language with ten thousand bizarre idiosyncrasies and exceptions, and whatever confluence of forces made it the international language of business must have caused untold millions of hours of rage and despair as people around the world beat their heads against the wall trying to learn it. (Or have their heads beaten by your benevolent initiative, Dan. God bless you, sir!)

  2. I've got 50+ years of readin', writin', listenizing, and conversificating under my belt, but I'd never say I've "mastered" English yet. It's still a process. ;)

    I just care enough to make my writing the best it can be. Simply because I want nothing in my writing that detracts from the story. The goal is to make the writing as seamless and transparent as possible, so that the only thing the reader sees is the story.

    So that means following proper grammar -- not because I'm on some sort of grammar-nazi mission, but because the mistakes are like speed-bumps that interrupt the flow and take my reader out of the story.

    But the way we use grammar can also add a subtext to whatever we write -- it's not a burden. It's another tool for the writer to wield. The use (or misuse) of grammar adds another level to the message we're trying to convey. For example, would you have thought differently about my comment if I'd said:

    Lulz! rly??? ur 2 old. hoo carez about grammer?

    1. Oh, dude, totally - I am 100% sold on the utility of it. Being able to write in more than one style makes you a freakin' *shapeshifter*, if you ask me. What I'm trying to get my head around are people who not only can't do that, but don't think they can learn.

      It's like you're going up to them saying "did you know you can fly?" and they're like "get outta here with that noise". And you're like, "no, but you actually can - let me show you!" and they roll their eyes and are like, "that's great for you, but I am 47 years old - I think I would know by now if I could fly."

      Like, if you told them that they could learn to run or swim or bake a souffle or play the euphonium, that would be a matter of "oh sure, I guess I could if I worked at it long enough." But this one thing, more than anything else, seems to be a matter of bedrock "I can't do that" faith unrivalled by anything except the prospect of doing math. That is MINDblowing to me.

  3. I learned all my grammar not through lessons and classes, but by reading the English word. I understand that not everybody can pick it up that way, but ... I kinda don't know why. I see the patterns and study them. I know where you can use a comma and where a semi-colon is needed and where it's ambiguous. I learned my grammar by reading and paying attention. I hope I'm not a grammar snob, but I think if you make the effort to focus on it, you can learn it.

    1. Me too! I'm in the same boat: when you read a bunch and have a sticky brain, it just sort of naturally rolls over the page and picks up the patterns. Like some kind of freaky neuro-Silly Putty.

      I just worry that those of us who are fortunate enough to A) have sticky brains, B) have had access to a million-bajillion books (and other sources of good conventional English), and C) naturally enjoy reading and see the value in it, don't come off as a closed club. I would hate for this thing that has so enriched our lives to become a source of shame and despair for the people who want to get here but don't know how, you know?

  4. HEY TEX! I hate to say when I was in high school, my fav class was creative writing...not English. Only because I couldn't remember terms and sometimes even what they meant. I just knew I could write them, creaing a story. When I doubt my punctuations, I go look in a book. I won't just ask someone to do it for me, I research how it is done in a published, popular book. Every so often you will find me whipping one out going ohhhhhh.... okay, got it!

    1. YES, MA'AM. THAT'S what I'm talking about! That's what we need more of around here! You don't have to just magically know everything - but you are absolutely fearless in hunting it down and looking it up! That's a recipe for success if I ever heard one, and I am SO glad to hear that it requires no special superpowers except the will and the want-to.

  5. "Easy Grammar" by Wanda Phillips, recommended to me by a brilliant friend during the homeschooling years. It's a kid's workbook, and here's the fabulous concept behind it: "Know your enemies." (That's my three-word synopsis of the entire program.) We memorized the 72 most common prepositions, so when you diagram a sentence, you can pick off all the prepositional phrases like clay pigeons. And yes ... we diagrammed sentences, and it was fun, dammit.

    1. Haha, and you are NOT SORRY, and I love it. That is so cool! Would it be useful for adults as well, then? (I have a unicellular notion of doing the grammar equivalent of a "beginner swimming for terrified adults" class, and it'd be so cool to start building up a good list of resources - that sounds like a first-rate example right there.)

    2. I have half a garage full of homeschooling stuff that I'm looking to unload, but the "Easy Grammar" goes nowhere. It's EXTREMELY prosaic—no artwork, no flashy drawings and nothing on style. Just nuts and bolts English grammar. I just checked Amazon, and it looks exactly the way it did in the '90s. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/Easy-Grammar-Plus-Wanda-Phillips/dp/093698113X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383765579&sr=8-1&keywords=easy+grammar+plus

  6. Bless you, bless you, bless you, Tex! Thanks for stating the reality that writers must know something about proper grammar and language usage. The writers who don't pay attention to learning this risk their stories not getting into the hands of readers or being enjoyed by readers. I received my grammar knowledge in three ways: (1) like you -- osmosis by reading a lot; (2) my father, who drilled into me good grammar habits; and (3) my natural curiosity, which makes me look up stuff I wonder about or don't know.

    1. Hi Julie! And thank you - that is so helpful! I think #3 is especially essential - that by itself could probably help a person compensate for any other missing part.

      And needless to say, I agree that this stuff is important. What bums me out is that usually when it's talked about, it's with this attitude of "I can't BELIEVE people are so LAZY that they don't KNOW this stuff!" That's the part I want to help change - I think that kind of 'comma-shaming' contributes to the prevailing attitude of "I'm not smart enough to learn this" that holds people back. It's so cool that you have approached it with such love and enthusiasm - that is what we need more of!