October 28th, 2010

Grammar ranting (no, not again!)

Note 1: This post has been edited because, ironically, part of it wasn’t very clear the first time out.
Note 2: I’m not really that obnoxious in restaurants.

I could be accused of ranting about spelling and grammar in this space–I have no choice but to hang my head in shame. I’ve been making resolutions to stop it, to accept that language is fluid and evolving (well, I’m trying, AMT>) but every time I read certain things, I want to get back into the grammar ranting game.

On the weekend, I was thinking about about what sort of post I could write that would, a) help people care to some grammar rules and b) not come off as pretentious and bitchy. And then last night I had this magical dream (did you just stop reading this post? probably). I was eating a nice Italian restaurant called Lemon House (not real, but should be!) and having a really hard time deciding on what to eat. The waiter came over and we spent a long time discussing what I might like. For some reason, once I decided, I asked him, “What is a waiter’s job?” And he responded, “A waiter is your advocate in the kitchen.” (for the record, I got some fancy pizza that was excellent).

When I woke up, I knew the dream was about editors. Editors are readers’ advocate with the writers–they try to get good stories for readers the same way waiters try to get good food for hungry people. Really good editors take what the writer *wants* to say, and tries to help the reader understand–by removing excess words, replacing ambiguous phrases, tightening structure, and correcting errors. Editors also word towards “felicity”–work that sounds good and pleasing to the ear. But the definition of “felicity” is best left to the debate between the writers and eds themselves.

My point is, most editorial work is not about telling writers they are “wrong,” but helping writers get their ideas to readers in a way that will be understood and appreciated by the most people possible.

Which is why certain language “mistakes” can probably allowed to stand–though it kills me, spelling “all right” as “alright” probably confuses no one. Other sorts of error, though, I’m going to keep right on ranting about, because no matter how common they get, they still impede meaning.

Like what, Rebecca? is what I know you are asking.

Like using the posessive pronoun to modify a singular noun when a plural is meant. I don’t even know why people do this–typing that “s” is not that exhausting. It’s sadly common, and the results can be really baffling. Like this:

“I can’t stand that hipster couple. They both always park their car right over the sidewalk.”

So–was that hipster couple sharing a car, and whoever is driving it consistently parked over the sidewalk? Then the sentence above is correct. However, if a very common error has been made, there were two cars–each individually parked over the sidewalk by one person each (I think this is where the erroneous idea takes hold) but definitely plural in the sentence above.

In this particular case, you could eventually say “who cares? People are so mean to hipsters” unless you are a bi-law officer, in which case you could go look at the sidewalk and count the cars. But my point (eh?) is that if 10 pages later, the two hipsters have a head-on collision with each other, the reader has been prevented from making a clear picture in her head, and worse, drawn out of whatever the writer wants her to think about (evil hipsters) to wonder, “I thought they had only one car?” which in fact the number of cars shouldn’t matter at all.

This is a very small issue, but it’s only small when you make yourself perfectly clear, so the reader doesn’t think of herself as reading grammar, just a story.

Thank you, magic dream waiter.

2 Responses to “Grammar ranting (no, not again!)”

  • Amy Jones says:

    Rebecca, I think you are missing the real problem here. Hipsters don’t drive cars!


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