The Grammar Bitch is Only Human

Oh, the tough life of a copyeditor. So misunderstood. “A copyeditor, huh? You must, like, go around correcting people’s grammar all the time, right?” Actually, I don’t, because it would be obnoxious and rude. I correct things because it’s my job. I don’t correct people because giving unsolicited advice of any kind is just bad manners, whether it’s grammatical, romantic, or career-oriented. The other assumption I get a lot is that I speak and write perfectly at all times. Anyone who has known me for more than ten seconds knows this isn’t true. I’ll admit to having a freakish ability to spell things correctly, but some people can draw, and others can cook. We all have our innate talents.

Even someone who is immersed in words all the time still screws up. Some of us screw up a lot. So, in order to convince everyone that I’m not some sort of robot, oddly programmed with a creative cursing chip and fueled by French roast, I’m going to share with you some of the things about grammar and spelling that always trip me up.

-“Because.” I know how to spell “because.” I do. When I see it spelled incorrectly, my brain registers it as wrong. For some reason, though, every single time I type it, it comes out “becuase.” I spell it wrong so much that my phone now auto-corrects “because” to “becuase.” It’s embarrassing. (And yet, I can always remember which are the double letters in “embarrassing.”)

-British and American variations. “Traveled” and “canceled” look wrong to me. I want to double those letters. I’m American, though, and use American style guides, and therefore, I have to force myself to leave those final consonants before the suffixes alone. I feel a certain calm when editing a piece from a non-American writer talking about their travels. Well, until I’m stopped short by punctuation outside of quotation marks. Damn cultural inconsistencies.

-When I was younger (in college, and an English major to boot), a professor corrected me in front of the class about using “less” when I should have used “fewer.” So now I’m a complete freak about “fewer” and “less.” So much so, that my poor husband, any time he hears the word “less,” even in the correct context, automatically says “fewer.” A commercial talks about “less hassle,” and I hear “FEWER hassle!” from next to me on the couch. He’s mostly kidding, but I’ve created a monster.

-Lie/lay/laid. This combination of verb tenses is just beyond my comprehension. Seriously. I’m pretty sure I’m missing the part of my brain that’s able to remember the rules for this one.

-Further/farther. I know one is for physical distance, and one is metaphorical, but damned if I can ever remember which is which without a quick Google search. (“Farther” is the distance one. It has “far” in it. I’ll retain this information for approximately twelve more seconds.)

Which brings me to this: normal people (as in, people who are not me) don’t generally have the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style within arm’s reach at all times. Which is where the Internet comes in. (And I capitalize “Internet” because the AP tells me to. Aside from their incomprehensible views on the Oxford comma, I generally do what the AP tells me to.) The Internet is a wide, wonderful place. Use it. Google is my most reliable spell check. Can’t decide between two words? A quick search will show you fifty discussions on that very topic, usually with a pretty clear answer. Punctuation is not something that comes naturally to most people, but there are plenty of resources out there to teach you when to use a semicolon, or all about the wacky rules of quotation marks. There’s always room for improvement in your writing, whether you’re a student, a professional writer, a copyeditor, or a person who loves to read. The worst thing we can do is think we know it all, becuase that just leads to complacency.*

*Yes, that was on purpose.


34 replies on “The Grammar Bitch is Only Human”

There’s a word which is a synonym for “periodically” that I never, ever use because I can’t remember how to spell it. It’s a series of random double letters and vowel blends and I can never remember where all the c’s, a’s and i’s go.

English is a fucked up language. For every rule there are three exceptions and at least some of those just seem like cruel pranks. I respect your intimate knowledge of all things wordy and proper, and I really appreciate how much time you spend making all of us look fancy when we don’t know our semi-colons from our emdashes.

@Mona Se Queda: I’m personally a bit heavy-handed on the commas, and I’m never anything less than impressed with any of the Persephone writers. I feel so smart after I’m done editing! I have all sorts of knowledge on topics I’ve never really been exposed to, thanks to you guys. Trust me, I’m not judging anyone I edit. It takes a lot of confidence and skill to put together a piece and put it out there for our kazillion readers to read. I do have an extra appreciation for anyone whose first language isn’t English, because English is an absolute wretched bitch to learn, what with its inconsistencies and exceptions to every rule. I would never have the ability or self-confidence to write anything to publish in another language, and I’m in absolute awe of people who do.

(embarrassed)- English is my native language, so do I still have your respect? heehee

I totally understand what you are saying though, try teaching it! Even as a native speaker (or especially as a native speaker?) I don’t know/understand all the rules, especially spelling rules. (and comma rules for that matter).

And also, do you ever get super excited about an upcoming post after you copyedit it? Like you want to comment at THAT EXACT MOMENT?

“Actually, I don’t, because it would be obnoxious and rude.”

I really liked this. I come from a blue collar family. I am the only academic. It has taken me years to loose/control the colloquialisms and dialect which my colleagues made fun of. I actually left a PhD in literature because i couldn’t fit in class-wise. It took a Texan poet also from a poorer background to point out to me that a lot of times, what people are tracking isn’t intelligence, laziness, or a lack of moral fiber, it’s a dialect and a class-marker. Don’t get me wrong, I teach writing for a living, and I think it matters how we write and express ourselves, but I’m pretty glad to see the grammar-nazi fad fading.

Oh yeah, dialects are a HUGE class marker. There is definitely a gigantic difference in how people perceive you depending on how you speak, and it’s easy to feel it if you move to a new part of the country and acquire a new accent. I am from California and have what people think of as the non-accent of Californians, but now live in the South. When I talk with the southern accent I have acquired, people treat me as if my IQ has dropped 20 points. It’s amazing how completely clear and obvious it is.

@bichu ruim: I always say that I only correct people’s grammar when they ask me to. Grammar, dialect, and accents are all too frequently used as class markers, and that’s an unfair standard and a really elitist and classist stance to take, so I try never to impose that on other people. It’s so rude, and I hate when I hear people do it.

I usually use the Google drop-down auto-complete window as my guide. I especially like it for weather/whether because one drops down suggestions for The Weather Channel and the other suggests “whether or not.”

The other thing I always have a problem with is quoting a question inside a sentence. I honestly don’t know if you are allowed to have a question mark inside the quote marks if the sentence goes on after the quote ends. It looks weird both ways. (Example – I heard her ask “Is this the right way?” as she left. Should it be a question mark or a comma? I don’t know)

Every time I have to end a sentence with a quotation mark, I trip up. Quotation mark-period looks wrong but is more logical, period-quotation mark isn’t logical but looks correct. It’s enough to send me into an existential crisis every time I write an essay for a lit class.

I type ‘becuase,’ as well. Every. single. time. It drives me crazy because (hey, I got that one right) I need that word a lot in my dissertation. I gather it has more to do with muscle memory than with anything else; it’s not like the ‘u’ and the ‘a’ are anywhere near each other on the keyboard. That said, I had to really try to spell it wrong at the beginning of this post. Maybe you cured me.

UK/American variations: I am putting together an article now for submission to a journal uses UK standards. It is so hard to edit my writing to the different standard because I have to find everything that is already correct and make it “wrong.” Argh.

I always get hung up on adverbs and adjectives that get used basically interchangeably – burned vs. burnt, learned vs. learnt, etc. I tend to end up reciting a quick sentence to myself – “I burned the toast, the toast is burnt” before settling on which one to use.

Also, as a displaced Commonwealth citizen living in the US, I have managed to navigate the first set of common spelling/grammar hurdles – the aforementioned colour vs. color, prioritise vs. prioritize, centre vs. center, etc – only to discover the more subtle and complex differences underneath, like artefact vs. artifact, the doubling of the final consonant, ‘tabling’ a motion meaning the exact opposite, and so forth.

I am so glad I’m not the only copyeditor who cannot remember the rules about “lay” and “lie.” Those words–they just confound me. I have a mental block about them. But “fewer” versus “less”?* Yes, please correct them! Using them incorrectly makes me insane.
My other pet peeve: “Why don’t use just use spell-check?”

*Does the question mark go outside the quote mark? I can never remember. It looks right to me, but then the period in the earlier sentence should also be outside, which looks totally wrong. I don’t care if it’s inconsistent: I’m leaving it.

Seemingly random question: where you aware that your user name means ‘no problem’ in Arabic? For some reason I keep thinking, “It must be intentional. But what if it’s not? But what if it IS!”.

But on actual topic: POM is my hero. For serious. And you make my writing immeasurably better than it has any right to be. Regardless of the further/farther conundrum. I still think you are made of magic.

Haha, it absolutely IS intentional.

My S.O. is Tunisian. When we go out with Arab friends discussions will often get heated (especially, as you can imagine, as of late because of the numerous unfolding events in that part of the world). It’s my catch phrase that I break out with an intentionally thick American accent to break the ice and ease tensions!

On another unrelated note, my username on the other lady blog is bouhaliya (because my hubby thinks I am one!)

Don’t worry about it, I’m a language nerd too! [tip: if you reeeeally want to get in a discussion about language evolution and quasi-dialects, try going to the remote rural regions in Quebec! Hoo, boy!]

I find it fascinating how many dialects there are in Arabic. I honestly used to think that the difference between the various ‘kinds’ of Arabic was as simple as the difference between the Queen’s English and an American southern drawl at its most extreme!

I’m in my early learning stages for Arabic, and my husband is really trying to push me to learn modern standard Arabic. But seeing as we have a lot of North African (and specifically, Tunisian) friends, I’m picking up Tunisian Arabic more and more. Unfortunately for me, I’m not familiar enough with the language to tell the difference, so I’ll often use veeeery Tunisian words when shopping or ordering things!

If you don’t mind my asking, where is “your” Arabic from?

@Olivia: Aw, I think I just cried a little! Honestly, though, I absolutely love our writers. I love being able to edit a variety of “voices,” and it’s been an education for me to balance keeping each writer’s style and aiming for consistency and clarity. I’m lucky that we really have the best writers, though, and that’s not the several glasses of wine talking.

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