Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Murder via the computer.(Words ... Tools of Our Trade).

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They say that cats have nine lives. I think grammar must have a billion lives because daily it is murdered over and over by countless writers,

both professional and amateur, in books, magazines, newspapers, on the Internet, and in personal letters.

Just this past summer, as I booted up my computer, I was confronted with an ad by a high--type writers' literary service. Glaring at me from the middle of the page was this sentence: "Let Us Poofread You're Manuscript B4 You Sumbit."

Immediately I shot off an e-mail asking why I should trust their proofreading when they didn't catch the two errors they made in one sentence (I hadn't even seen the "sumbit" yet!). Then I saw the "sumbit," and all too late I realized their errors had been committed on purpose. With a red face, I quickly followed up with a second e-mail, admitting my density in not immediately seeing their tongue--in--cheek method of advertising their editing service. I blamed the summer's heat wave for melting my sense of humor.

However, in my reading I come across countless examples of grammar mayhem that were not committed deliberately. Some of them were perpetrated in the articles or contest stories in WRITERS' Journal and some from other sources. I've picked a few choice samples to illustrate my point.

1) "There were less people this time." Most people are confused, I find, about when to use less and when to use fewer. The simplest rule to follow is use fewer with countable nouns, such as people or things: fewer people; fewer chairs; fewer dollar bills (but less money).

Use less when referring to objects or quantities that cannot be counted individually. "The committee experienced less controversy at the second meeting."

By the way, in my example, not only is less wrong, but the sentence itself, while not necessarily wrong, is not the most well worded. Never is it good to begin a sentence with it is, it was, there is, there are. The sentence could have been worded: "Fewer people came (or attended) this time."

2) "It has taken on a new faze." Faze is a verb, meaning to disconcert or upset the composure of someone. What the writer meant was phase, a noun, meaning one distinct segment or condition in an ongoing progression or development. (It can also mean a temporary condition, as when we say our child is going through a phase, implying that it won't last.) I might add that the sentence itself is a bit awkward. Really good writing is never awkward. The sentence would have been more smooth had it read: "The situation has entered (or is going through) a new phase."

3) "Polling over the most hot bed issues." I think this appeared in one of the WJ contest stories. Hotbed is the name given to a gardening process whereby seeds are started in either a cold frame or a hotbed, which is essentially a little greenhouse, warmed, to give seedlings an early start. The word has come to be applied to situations that are emotionally hot. But it is a noun: "The meeting was a hotbed of conflicting viewpoints." The author in the above example should have written hot--button, meaning emotional or highly volatile or causing strong reactions. This phrase was coined somewhere between 1985 and 1990 and has become something of a cliche. When a writer misquotes even a cliche, that's getting pretty bad!

4) "To cater to a possible political voters bloc who he can buy ..." Two errors here. The word voters should have an apostrophe: voters'--with the apostrophe following the s, because the word is plural. The word who should be whom, because it is the object of can buy. When wondering whether to use who or whom, find the subject of the sentence and read it in that order; in this case, he is the subject: he can buy whom.

5) "He called we who oppose illegal immigration racists." Whereas the preceding example uses the objective case instead of the subjective, this one is just the opposite: The author used the subjective case (we) instead of the objective (us). To see this, read the sentence leaving out the subordinate clause beginning with who: He called--racists. Obviously, he called us racists.

If you are serious about being a published author, the absolute bedrock prerequisite is a sound knowledge of the tools of your trade--your profession--your art. Every editor has become skilled at glancing over a manuscript and forming an almost instantaneous impression of its quality. This is not just an arbitrary whim on the editor's part. It's partly instinct, partly the result of years, sometimes decades, of reading countless manuscripts to the point that the editorial eyes automatically are drawn to every error, from punctuation to grammar to awkwardly constructed sentences and, yes, even to poor transitions and sloppy presentation on the pages. It would take an unusually remarkable storytelling ability or some other outstanding writing skill to make an editor consider taking a manuscript that is faulty in several categories of flaws. And you're probably not that good!

Betty Garton Ulrich lives as a widow in a log cabin in the backwoods of Wisconsin. Her credits include three commercially published books and numerous articles, short stories, and poems published in both secular and religious magazines and newspapers. She is rounding out twentyone years as a columnist for a northwest Wisconsin newspaper, as well as being a cofounder and now a contributing editor to WRITERS' Journal.

Source Citation
Ulrich, Betty Garton. "Murder via the computer." Writers' Journal Nov.-Dec. 2010: 59+. General OneFile. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
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