Category Archives: Editing

Grammar for Kids

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wants to introduce a grammar test for 10-year-olds, a proposal that has annoyed many academics. I’m in favour of anything that helps people understand each other more and grammar can certainly be important in this – but only up to a point. The most important thing is to convey what you want to say accurately and unambiguously. This generally comes naturally for the most part and it’s often not really significant how or why a sentence or phrase fulfils this function.

Neville Gwynne
Nevile Gwynne

Mr Gove praises the book Gwynne’s Grammar, described as “The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English”. The book’s author, Nevile Gwynne, has devised a grammar test for the Daily Telegraph – try it and see how you do:

The majority of questions are about parts of speech, which is fair enough, but I wonder how much knowing whether a word is an “adverb qualifying an adverb” or an “adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase” really helps you write “good English”. Two questions I found irrelevant for different reasons. One asked whether either or both of the names “Amanda” and “Miranda” were examples of the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported into English directly from Latin. This is etymology and about Latin grammar, not English grammar. The other concerned this sentence:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”

You’re probably thinking: “Ha! The nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported directly into English from Latin!”, but please concentrate. The question actually concerns whether or not you can tell from the sentence the sex of Evelyn. Apparently you can because no comma exists after “my brother”, meaning that Mark is the brother who doesn’t live in New York, and consequently that Evelyn is the brother who does. But who on earth would ever ask a convoluted question like this? It has the same quality as a lateral thinking teaser that is fun to work out if you’re in the mood but certainly not the kind of thing that people say in the normal course of conversation. As I said earlier, accuracy and avoiding ambiguity are the most important things in communication between people.

In a letter to the Independent newspaper in March a group of 100 academics criticized Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum. Nevile Gwynne later analysed this letter and singled out one particular paragraph to highlight the academics’ own grammar failure. This is the paragraph concerned:

“Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.”

Gwynne didn’t like the first sentence because it doesn’t follow strict grammar rules, and that’s true. But it’s well-known colloquial usage and I can see nothing wrong with it here.

He also pointed out the incorrect structure of the last sentence. I’m more in agreement on this: it sounds clumsy and if you take out the end of the first clause, you end up with “Little account is taken that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.” It doesn’t sound right and I wouldn’t be happy with it in a piece of written work – not even a letter to a newspaper, especially a letter concerning educational standards!

The points the academics were trying to make were, unfortunately, somewhat undermined by their failure to write “good English”. So it’s clear that correct grammar is important sometimes!


The Reluctant Apostrophe

Apostrophe mistakes What do you think of apostrophes? Earlier this year, a local council in the UK decided that  all street signs should in future be rendered without apostrophes, even if they would be grammatically correct. The official reason for this was that it would avoid “confusion”. But possibly it was to prevent the misuse of apostrophes, which for proofreaders like me is often worse than leaving them out! I was in my local gym a few years ago and noticed an advertisement on the wall from a local supplier of “Conservatory’s”. Luckily I had a pen in my pocket and helpfully crossed out the offensive ending of this word and replaced it with the correct plural “-ies”. You’ll probably say, “Oh, get a life!”, and you would be right that there are more important things to worry about. Nevertheless, punctuation can be very important and it is very likely that incorrect punctuation will cause confusion.

The author and journalist Lynne Truss scored an unexpected hit a few years ago with her book entitled using the old joke about a panda in a bar: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. The one comma after the word “Eats” makes all the difference to the meaning of the phrase, turning the nouns “Shoots” and “Leaves” into verbs and making the panda into a vicious gangster-type figure rather than a gentle animal that sits all day eating the shoots and leaves of bamboo. Lynne Truss’s book was an attempt to defend the correct use of punctuation and show how necessary it is for clarity. Another notorious example of an unfortunate misconception caused by missing out a comma is in the phrase: “Let’s eat Grandma”. If you speak the words, the comma is understood by a pause after “eat” – you’re talking to Grandma, and saying “Let’s eat”. If Grandma were used to texting and saw “Let’s eat Grandma” come through on her phone, she might be rather worried.

Getting back to the apostrophe, it may be that the council is trying to avoid mistakes like those in the American sign shown above and it’s true that removing apostrophes from street signs is hardly going to cause major misunderstanding. It’s probably best for proofreaders just to relax a little and accept that this doesn’t signal a general, catastrophic breakdown in the use of English. Let’s hope so, anyway!

The Power Of Words

Antonio Litterio: Power of Words
Antonio Litterio: Power of Words

I once read an article by a former Cabinet Minister and now a prolific writer in which he criticized editors as frustrated writers, apparently forever determined to alter his prose to satisfy their own limited creative urges. If those are the sort of editors he’s experienced, he’s right to be annoyed. An editor should never do anything to interfere with the writer’s creativity and the sense of what is written.

I’m in the fortunate position of having been a writer, a re-writer, an editor, a copy-editor and a proofreader, as well as self-publishing my own book, so I can appreciate all points of view on the matter – and I’m also familiar with the boundaries of each role.

I remember reading the editor’s comments when he worked on my book Cancan!, which was originally published in 1998. As an author, you’re very proud of your work and it does seem a little intrusive to have someone picking at it and pointing out errors or ambiguities. But I swallowed my pride and had to admit he’d done a very good job. Acting on his suggestions, I re-wrote a few passages and the resulting text was in far better shape.

When I edit someone else’s text myself, I aim to keep the sense of a sentence or paragraph, and I’ll never alter something just for the sake of it. The writer is the expert and the argument or description must still feel like theirs. I only change the wording if it needs to be clearer – and sometimes I’ll ask the author if I’m unsure what they meant to say.

Most text for publication is written in a formal way but occasionally the writer or publisher prefers the informal style, with contractions and even slang terms. This informal blog is an example, although I still find it hard to use slang! If you want me to edit your work, I can fit in with whatever style suits you.

It’s always better when you write something – whether business letter or legal document, novel or scientific thesis, newspaper article or celebrity biography – to get somebody else to read it as well (my wife has read this!). The “second pair of eyes” approach is so important: what seems to be in clear and plain English to a writer, can be ambiguous or even incomprehensible to other people. Readers don’t like mistakes.  As a 14 year old, my daughter spotted a glaring error in a very well-known novel that has sold millions – some spoken dialogue was attributed to the wrong character. Somehow the editor had missed that – well, none of us is perfect!

Oh, by the way, if you spot a mistake in this website, it will of course have been put there deliberately.