Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Common Sense, New Rules, and Grammar Divas

An author friend complained recently about an editor who suggested changes which went against what the author considered common sense and good grammar. I suggested taking a look at the publisher's house style and which reference resources they used before he dug in his heels.

What is house style? It's what the publisher and editors agree is best for their authors to use. It also includes specific dictionaries as the end-all be-all. Loose Id (my current publisher) uses the newest version of Merriam Webster (MW), and Chicago House of Style (CHS). Other publishers may use online programs. Asking your editor for those sources is a good idea. You'll be able to answer many of your own questions.

For example, if the editor is taking out semi-colons (or adding them), is he/she following the latest rules? Semi-colons and colons can be reduced by making separate sentences. My 2010 EPIC winning Surrender Love had 46 semi-colons, and 17 colons. Using them is not a no no. Using them incorrectly is.

One thing I learned with my last book was that it's no longer considered necessary to use a comma when a sentence ends in "too." Like: "She took Mary, John, Linda, and me too." I would have used a comma after me. Not done any more per CHS. There are also places where we can now omit a formerly required comma unless we intend a pause. My editor and line editors quote the source: "per MW (or CHS) this should be..."

The biggest surprise to me was that foreign phrases needed to be italicized only the first time they were used. If my alien tzesar (meaning chief warrior) is mentioned once, then every time after that it's written as tzesar. To be honest, that still bothers me, but I can deal with it. It's simply a personal preference, and certainly not a hill I'm willing to die on.

Again, house style determines that by which edition of which reference is preferred. If your publisher wants that final comma, by all means use it, even if another says take it out of your other book. A writer's life is filled with such inconsistencies. Relax, go with the flow. No reason to stress out over words. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, have something refreshing to drink (or eat) and then consider the options again.

There are some changes suggested by editors that you simply can't accept because they might change the story. One of my favorite examples in this category was an editor who suggested a character's name sounded too contemporary and thought I should make it more alien. Problem was, the character had already appeared in other books. Couldn't very well accept that suggestion! Another was to make a young person younger, because she seemed too immature for her age. I had to insist on keeping the age as it was, and pointed out that her species matured more slowly than humans. Plus, since she was planned as a heroine for someone in a later book, I needed her to be at least eighteen by the time their story came along.

Readers and reviewers may not be aware of changes in grammar. If they don't hear about these, do you suppose they figure we use improper English? I've often wondered about that. What do you think?


Savanna Kougar said...

Kayelle, excellent blog on the current state of grammar usage. For me, it's been somewhat of a minefield. Comma usage has become the bane of my writing existence to some degree. I never know what's wanted because different editors expect different usage.

And, it kinda takes some of the joy out of writing because the 'comma thing' is always lurking in the back of my writerly brain.

What gets me, too... or too... whatever!!! Is that if I want to be innovative in my style, ogosh! watch out! However, if 'they' want to change the grammar rules, well hell, that's just ducky keen.

For the most part, everything works out in the end with my editors... but, sheesh! Why all this trial and effort over something that should be second nature by now?

And, honestly, grammar should change, be innovative with the times. But, of course, there's always a balance point.

Vivien Jackson said...

Is Chicago House of Style something different from Chicago Manual of Style (often abbreviated CMS)? I've heard of the latter but not the former.

I think that style is mostly a way for publishers to distinguish themselves. For instance, I worked for a publisher once who preferred the term copyeditor (all one word), as opposed to copy editor, because it looked better in sentences that also included the word proofreader, and their catalogue included quite a few instances of those terms appearing together. Probably not a whole bunch of other publishers contend with that issue, so that spelling preference is probably not something you'd see elsewhere. And while it might seem arbitrary and noodle-bakingly silly to a writer, it makes a lot of sense in terms of their catalogue overall.

Having written house styles before, I can say that folks don't develop them mjust to muck with writers' heads, though that seems to be one of the more obvious results. :)

Cara Bristol said...

Funny (not) that although everyone agrees there are grammar rules, no one agrees what the rules are.

Kayelle Allen said...

Savanna - so true. Always changing, and so fast that when a book is first being edited a phrase is fine, but by the end, it's not. >_<

Vivien - D'oh! *facepalm* My current publisher actually writes it as CMOS. I forgot that.

Cara - you said it. It's like porn. Everyone knows it when they see it but can't define it. LOL

Vivien Jackson said...

It's like porn. Everyone knows it when they see it but can't define it.