ESL smackdown

I just finished my first full pass through copy edits, which is the second-to-last stage of cleaning up a manuscript for publication.  It is at this time that I must fall upon the heretofor unnoticed rusty sword of my grammar suckiness.

I admit, I’ve never been a fan of grammar.  I like The Transitive Vampire and Eats Shoots And Leaves more for their titles than their content.  But I thought I had a handshaking familiarity with grammar.  Not so, my friend.

And by friend, I mean Jane Steele, who not only has a kick-ass romance heroine’s name but rocks the red pen — or more modernly — the red markup text in MS Word.

Jane has left me writhing in shame on a few points.  I’ll recount them here — not with hopes of expiating my guilt, never that — but perhaps some other long-suffering copy editor will be spared her fate.

I’ve consulted Grammar Girl to refresh my understanding; if you need help, go to her.  (And, hey, they do grammar podcasts.  If you’re into that sort of thing.  Erk.)


I swear the Girl Scout oath that I know the difference between these two.  But, clearly, I am not a Girl Scout.

It took Grammar Girl to finally explain why I’m having trouble with this one; it’s because lay is the past tense of lie.   So even though I had the correct usage of lay and lie in my head, I was only right in the present tense, and since I write in the past tense…  Ugly. 

To help remember the difference in the present tense where lay requires an object but lie does not, one wag suggested this mnemonic: “The only way you personally can ‘lay down’ is to have carnal relations with a duck.”

If that visual just doesn’t do it for you, Grammar Girl posted this handy chart which she suggests tattooing to someone’s forehead.  Not your own, since then it would be backwards.

Speaking of backwards…
American CEs apparently prefer backward and toward and forward as opposed to backwards, towards and forwards.  I habitually use backwards, never use forwards, and use towards about half the time.  So at least I’m wildly inconsistent.

I only misplaced only
Unlike grammar, I’m a huge fan of misplaced modifiers.  Modifiers are parts of sentences that add detail and, if placed incorrectly within the sentence, can create unintentionally hilarious results.  For example (Shout out to my CP Shirley):

“It was hard to chase a horse in skirts.”

Well, yes.  And just think of the drycleaning bill.

So after years of using Shirley as my example, imagine my horror to discover that I am constantly misplacing only

Again, from Grammar Girl:

I ate only vegetables

I only ate vegetables.

The first sentence (I ate only vegetables) means that I ate nothing but vegetables—no fruit, no meat, just vegetables.

The second sentence (I only ate vegetables) means that all I did with vegetables was eat them. I didn’t plant, harvest, wash, or cook them. I only ate them.

I tend to sprinkle onlys liberally, especially for beats.  That is, to make my sentence cadence fall where I want it.  Personally, when I read the second sentence above, the only (see? see? there it is again) way I can make it sound in my head to match the second extended explanation is to say “I only ate vegetables” with the accent and emphasis on ate.  But we often don’t have the opportunity to speak our books aloud.  So I’m watching out for only.

Damn it, this is as bad as lay/lie.  I totally know this one.  Not.

Grammar Girl’s quick and dirty trick:  When you’re trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. That’s the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, then use whom, and it’s easy to remember because they both end with m. For example, if you’re trying to ask, “Who (or whom) do you love?” The answer would be “I love him.” Him ends with an m, so you know to use whom.

In self-defense and to give Jane full credit, sometime the correct use of who/whom is complicated by colloquialism.  Whom just sounds weird from the mouth of a rough-and-tumble hero.  When possible, I rewrote to avoid the issue.  Who is the Queen of Denial?  Not whom, that’s for sure.

I have never considered myself a comma minimalist, but somewhere along the line, I learned that in a list of three, you didn’t need to put a comma after the second item before the and.  So, “I have pink, blue and yellow Robins Eggs candies in my mouth.”  Jane says uh-uh, comma after the second item.  Okay, I can learn.

Each other/one another:
I vaguely remember learning this one.  And then promptly forgotting it.  Each other is when there are two individuals.  One another is when there are more than two.

Okay, this one wasn’t my fault.  Grammar Girl said like has been used in place of as for at least 100 years.  I’ve been writing only (ha, I used only in the right place) that long, so I should get a pass. 

But back before then, like was traditionally a preposition and as a conjunction.  Meaning, if the comparison included a verb in the second part of the sentence, the conjunction — as — was used. 

My writing sounds like monkey-doo. (No verb.)

My writing sounds as if it were typed (verb) by monkeys.

Once again, common vernacular and colloquialism can play havoc with CE wisdom, whether you write like me, or write as if trained by ninja grammar monks (not monkeys).

I ❤ …
Where I can’t end with a –, I like to end with a …  But if you end with a …, it should actually be ….  Mid-sentence ellipses are three dots; ellipses that end a sentence are four dots (and ellipses plus a period).

All in all, with only three (on average) corrections per page in a 368-page manuscript, that’s only 1000+ corrections.  Not so bad, right?

Tune in next week when we review my weaknesses in math.


3 thoughts on “ESL smackdown

  1. I think 3 per page is awesome! I hope I have so few the first time I get combed through in nit-picking detail. We all gotta learn and now these are some you won’t make in the future. 🙂

  2. Oh please, Terri, of course we’re going to make the same mistakes again on who(m) and lay/lie. (Jess, you really should know better on like/as if… 🙂 Gotta keep those CEs employed — we wouldn’t want to add to any corporate downsizing, would we?

    Carnal relations with a duck. ::snort:: Okay, maybe we won’t make that mistake again with lay/lie. But I confess I too am a big fan of rewriting a sentence to make the question moot.

  3. Hello, in this old article of yours you used the term “pass through copy”. I am interested in the meaning of this term. I wonder if you can tell me the “definition”? Thanks!


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