Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book Deal!

I'm excited to announce that this week my agent and I struck a deal with Ten Speed Press for a new book, tentatively titled "The One-Sentence Solution" (though I now think I have some better ideas for the title) and coming out spring 2010.

Ten Speed is best known for "What Color Is Your Parachute?" "Why Cats Paint" and "Write Right." I'm very excited about working with them.

The new book is a bit of a departure from "Grammar Snobs" and "Mortal Syntax" in that it's more about the craft of writing than about grammar, and it doesn't rely on humor essays and anecdotes to get its point across (though, for sure, my let's-talk-about-me impulse can't be squelched completely). I'm really excited about it because I think it contains great information that a lot of people will find really helpful and accessible.

I'm not sure how appropriate it is to go into much more detail right now. But just wanted to let you all know.

Hurray and such!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You Don't Know Me, You Judgmental Computery Thing! Wait. Maybe You Do.

By reading Language Log, I learned of a site called Typealyzer. There, you type in the URL of a blog (presumably your own) and the program analyzes your language to identify your "type."

I typed in the URL of this blog, and in less than a second Typealyzer produced the following assessment of Li'l Ol' Me.

The analysis indicates that the author of is of the type: ESTP - The Doers

The Doers: The active and play-ful type. They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities. The Doers are happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time.

Now, here's that same assessment with my comments.

The active and play-ful type. (Playful, yes. Active? Hmm. Well, let's see, since ass-scratching is not yet an Olympic event, I'm going to have to disagree with this word choice. I get very energetic about issues and problems and projects that excite me. But those moments come in short bursts between long periods of sedentariness that would make a woolly sloth look like a coked-up Andy Dick in comparison.)

They are especially attuned to people (Attuned and attentive are two different things, right? I mean, I'm very attuned to people who are focused on me. Everyone else can go pick beans.) and things around them and often full of energy (See "ass-scratching" above.), talking (Perhaps.), joking (Hey, it beats talking.) and engaging in physical out-door activities (No one who grew up in Central Florida engages in physical outdoor activities — unless you consider it great sport to walk to your car through air so soupy you feel like Michael Phelps doing the breast-stroke through a vat of Campell's potato leek. True, I live in a more activity-friendly climate now. But I don't know if I'll ever erase the messages of my upbringing, which taught that there are only three active pursuits worth doing: eating gelatin dishes, distance-flicking cigarette butts, and turning up the air conditioner.).

The Doers are happiest with action-filled (To quote our outgoing president, that's a "mis-adjective.") work which craves their full attention and focus (This is actually true — further evidenced by the fact that it's driving me nuts I can't change that "which" to "that.").

They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. (Okay, so some computer figured out how to hack into my hard drive and see all my unfinished novels, screenplays, essays, manifestos, and grant proposals for foundations to save the planet. That doesn't mean this is true. Does it? [Please say it doesn't.]).

They might have a problem with sitting still (True.) or remaining inactive for any period of time (True only if "inactive" is in sharp enough contrast to the death sport I call "extreme 'Simpsons' watching.").

Typealyzer assessed someone we might call Blog June, who is just part of my personality — the part that makes it through the "Who do you want me to be me?" colander. I'm here to talk about language and to make grammar fun and interesting. Not to tell you what I really think about the doomed human race or the doomed planet or my doomed hopes of being America's next top model or why I hate myself for the way I feel about Sawyer on "Lost."

So, Typealzyer, on a scale of "First date" to "Leaving the bathroom door open," I rate your knowing me as "Comfortable with saying, 'You have have spinach in your teeth.'"

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Writing 'Wrongs'

Here's an excerpt from a post today at

"I've recently been told it's wrong to start a sentence with numerals; i.e. "5235 Western Road was a big blue house..."

Who are these schmucks running around playing fast and loose with the W word — "wrong" —and thereby messing with the heads of writers seeking simple, useful guidelines? Why is it that, in a culture that is so profoundly immune to facts (Bill O'Reilly could say the stock market hit 13,000 today but the liberal media is lying about it and many would believe him; the Washington Post could run a cover story saying Obama is funneling money to a funnel manufacturer and some would simply dismiss it as a lie), people take language/grammar hearsay as gospel?

These things are not a matter of right and wrong. They're a matter of style. AP says to write out numbers at the beginnings of sentences, except when they're years.

"Twenty-three children will graduate JoJo's dance class in 2021"
"2021 should be an interesting year."

Chicago doesn't share AP's view that there should be an exception for years. At the beginning of a sentence, you still spell out the year, per Chicago.

"Twenty-three children will graduate JoJo's dance class in 2021," BUT
"Twenty twenty-one should be an interesting year."

For anyone looking for a simple guideline: Yes. It's probably best to avoid numerals at the beginnings of sentences. But that's just because two major style guides prefer it. Not because of issues of "right" and "wrong."

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Friday, November 21, 2008

On Copy Editors

Copy editors and proofreaders are detail-oriented, meticulous, sometimes fussy people prone to neatness and precision in all things, right? I mean, everyone knows that, right?

Then how to explain me?

I'm a copy editor and proofreader not because of my true nature but in spite of it. I'm a mess. For example, I've never once opened a document containing some old resume or cover letter sent long ago without then discovering some glaring typo I had failed to catch before sending it out to prospective employers. I've lost more keys and even driver licenses than you can shake a bottle of Ritalin at (yes, this got a lot better when I stopped drinking, but not as much better as you'd think). I once went on a job interview not realizing I was wearing one white shoe and one black shoe. (Really. And, yes, I got the job — a waitress gig at a rather gritty oyster bar and pub.)

Then there was yesterday. Yesterday I arrived at the office where I do freelance proofreading and copy editing, walked into the cafeteria (where just a few weeks before I had somehow managed to lose my little insulated lunch bag thingy), opened my already half-opened purse to pay for my coffee, and realized my wallet was gone.

Actually, that's not quite true. The process of definitively "realizing" that something is not in my purse is not something that can be accomplished in a single 10-minute bout of spilling lipsticks and feminine hygiene products all around a cafeteria cash register. To ascertain with any degree of certainty whether something is or is not in my purse is actually five-step process that includes two more frantic rummagings-through, one full dumping-out and one use of a "lifeline," usually in the form of Ted saying, "For the last time, June, I'm looking at the whole pile of junk you poured out of your purse and I don't see your damn (laptop/hoagie/puppy/Toyota Corolla)!"

Still, since my panicked purse-rummaging at the front of a line of hungry co-workers almost counted as a full dumping-out, I was worried. I headed upstairs to alert my editors that I was going to have to drive home to look for it. I got in the elevator. Pressed the button for "5." Rode to about 3 when I heard a clunk, felt a jolt, and realized the elevator had chosen that moment to go on strike.

I pushed "5" and "door open" buttons frantically for a few moments, then I pushed emergency phone button. I heard a little voice.

"Security. Lt. Morgan speaking."
"I'm stuck in the elevator."
"Yes, hello. I'm stuck in the elevator."
"I can hardly hear you. You're stuck in the elevator?"
"Yes, I'm stuck in the elevator!"
"Which elevator?"
"South entrance."
"South entrance?"
"Okay, we'll ..."

Clunk. The elevator moved up the final floor or two, then opened the door to the fifth floor smooth as you please.

"Nevermind. It opened."
"It opened?"
(sound of my footsteps walking away)

I arrived at my workspace and quickly surveyed the editors and designers who were counting on my help that day.

"I know you have pages for me to proof, but I lost my wallet, so I have to go home and look for it. BUT, my writer's group meets for lunch today. So I'll be gone about an hour then I'll be back for about an hour, then I'll be gone for about two and a half hours, then I'll be back for as long as you need me. Will that work with your deadlines?"

The designer, Joy, was the one I was worried about. She was on the tightest deadline and needed me to proofread some pages she was working on. But she said we had a little time. She wished me luck finding my wallet and blessed my mission.

In the parking lot, I checked my car. No luck. I checked around my car. No luck. I drove home (not very well, I might add), checked the place where I park at home. No luck. Checked nearby trash cans, figuring that if someone found it in the street they might take the cash and chuck the wallet. No luck. I went in the house, checked the kitchen and the bathroom and the dining room and the living room and everywhere my wallet might be. No luck.

Then I looked at the time. I had to cancel two credit cards and two debit cards then make an appointment at the DMV. No way was I going to make it back to the office before I had to leave for lunch.

So I e-mailed Joy to make sure it was okay if I came back even later than I had promised. In my e-mail, I almost — almost — asked her take a peek on and under my desk, just to make sure my wallet wasn't there. But I decided not to bother her with that.

I called the four banks, scheduled the DMV appointment, grabbed my passport for I.D. then went to my lunch meeting. These writers' lunches are usually a two-hour affair, but, with extreme apologies, I split after just 40 minutes, explaining that I had shot a whole morning's work driving across town to find my lost wallet.

I got back to the office ... I looked under the desk ...

... and that's where I saw plain as day my wallet, which contained $32 in cash, two utterly useless canceled credit cards and two equally useless canceled debit cards.

Then I proofread eight laid-out pages, catching typos that three editors before me had missed, and copy edited two stories with equal success and attention.

Copy editing, for me, is not a skill or strength in any traditional sense. It's more like a savant ability. I can't remember whether I brushed my teeth on any given morning, but I can catch "lead" in place of "led" in a story the way Rain Man counts toothpicks on the floor. It's weird.

Weirder yet: Remember that I said that I had been in line to pay for a cup of coffee when I noticed my wallet was gone? Well, I got the coffee. That's because, besides some money I knew I had in my wallet, I also had a $20 in my jeans pocket.

I often have random bills and change crammed into pants pockets from workdays gone by. But that's not why I had backup cash yesterday. That morning, as I was about to walk out the door, I knew I had plenty of money to pay for the lunch. I had had perhaps $30 or $40 in my purse when I bought lunch the day before, so I knew I'd have enough left over. Still, I hesitated. I turned to Ted. "Do you have any extra cash? Like $20?"

I felt a little guilty asking and then cramming his $20 into my pocket. I knew perfectly well I had enough to cover me. But some subconscious impulse had inspired the rare request.

And that's why any requests from the scientific community to study me in a clinical environment — be they from neurologists or psychologists or even parapsychologists — will be enthusiastically granted.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wily News Writing

When I was a community news reporter, I found that one of the hardest things about the job was that, no matter how much reporting you did, you never had enough information. For example, imagine you’re reporting that a well-known chocolatier, whose store burned down the year before, is about to reopen. You sit down to begin writing and you come up with a lede like, “After a bitter setback and year of rebuilding, Shay’s Candies on Tuesday will begin making chocolates once more.”

But then you stop. Yes, the store will reopen on Tuesday. But no one you interviewed actually said they were going to start making chocolates on that day. Perhaps manufacturing started days prior. Perhaps they’ll reopen selling just jellies until their chocolate vat is back from the shop. You just can’t be sure. What’s more, is it really accurate to refer to “a year of rebuilding”? Perhaps the owners took a sabbatical before they started picking up the pieces. Perhaps they had to spend months wrangling with insurance companies before they could start.

So you do what I always did. You “write around” the holes in your information.

“A year after a fire destroyed the Shay’s Candies factory and store in Torrance, on Tuesday the beloved chocolatier will reopen / resume serving up the sweet stuff / start selling its famous candies once again / etc.”

This happens all the time in news writing. Your words try to make a liar out of you. And it takes constant vigilance to make sure you don’t accidentally stray into an inadvertent untruth.

It’s hard, it’s challenging, and it can make you feel downright wily at times. And it’s why I found the first few sentences of a Los Angeles Times cover story today so impressively slipperylicious:

Former Justice Department official Eric H. Holder Jr. emerged Tuesday as Barack
Obama’s leading candidate for attorney general, and the president-elect’s
transition team was trying to gauge whether there was sufficient bipartisan
support for him in the Senate, sources close to the transition confirmed. Those
sources said that the internal vetting process for Holder was still being
completed and that top transition team members and Democratic allies of Obama
were working to make sure that Holder would not face any significant obstacles
during the confirmation process.

Notice how the writer handled issues of factuality and verification. Holder “emerged.” That could mean a number of things, but it leaves wide open the possibility that it refers to nothing more than rumors. One or more members of Obama’s “transition team,” were wondering what kind of support Holder might get, “sources close to the transition confirmed.” Then comes a clever passive: The internal vetting process “was still being completed.” By whom? We don’t know. The article doesn’t say.

Usually, when you see wily writing like this, it leaves open the possibility of somewhat sleazy motives – a publication wants to milk a rumor for some ink, even though they have nothing to go on. However, it’s my opinion that the publication’s motives are usually much more responsible. The writer and editors believe there’s real substance to the rumor. They believe they’d be remiss in NOT reporting it. But they don’t have any facts to go on yet. So they “write around” their lack of information to focus on possibilities of interest to their readers.

Of course, all information attributed to unidentified “sources” should be weighed with caution. In fact, I believe that responsible news consumers should demand that sources be identified except under the most extenuating circumstances. But since this Holder rumor had already spread like wildfire, one could argue that this story justified it.

Either way, I think it’s good practice for news consumers to read between the lines, always asking, “What, exactly, is this news story claiming to ‘report’?”

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Shameless Plug for a Friend: 'The Art of the Video Game'

Perhaps it started with Andy Warhol: the idea that the popular and even the lowbrow can, in time, rise to the cultural status of art. Either way, it makes my friend Josh’s new book all the more interesting.

The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenisch is the first serious look at the artistic merits and cultural value of the stuff heretofore referred to only as “awesome graphics, dude.”

From Pong to Call of Duty, Josh's book examines the evolution of video game visuals to prove conclusively that this stuff is art.

The book’s written for 18- to 35-year-olds who grew up gaming, but it seems to me it’s a great gift idea for parents who want their game-obsessed kids to have more scholarly mindset toward their brain-numbing hobby.

And since, as I write this, Josh is sitting next to me at my freelance job, I’ll ask him for a Conjugate Visits exclusive quotation about the book:

“It got three out of four Hooties in Hooters Magazine!”

Need we say more?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

It's in the dictionary = 23,800 hits

It's in a dictionary
= 88 hits

In September, in a Mediabistro class I sometimes teach, I mentioned some disagreements between dictionaries. Students were shocked. They hadn't known that dictionaries disagreed with each other. They especially hadn't known that two dictionaries containing the name "Webster" — such as "Merriam-Webster" and "Webster's New World" — could disagree.

Like so many other people I've encountered, they thought a dictionary is a dictionary is a dictionary — it's all "THE dictionary."

I think that, in our brave new marketing-obsessed world, this is becoming a problem. It creates an incentive for attention-seeking lexicographers to make bad choices. Take, for example, yesterday's Comcast news headline: 'Meh': Apathetic expression enters dictionary.

I learned about this news story on an Internet message board on which a user announced that the word was now in "the dictionary." But it's not. It's in A dictionary — Collins English Dictionary — whose publishers, I bet, sent out a press release announcing the sassy new addition.

If more people realized just how different dictionaries are, dictionary makers would not be awarded the instant clout they now have. Fewer people would accept any one dictionary's word as gospel. And there would be less incentive to eschew serious lexicography in favor of press-release-driven, headline-seeking dictionary additions.

I'm not saying "meh" is a bad word to include in a dictionary. Personally, I like it. As I've discusssed before, I just worry that Collins is part of a trend in which ethical and scholarly lexicography is being undermined by PR whoring.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

New Yorker Comma Curiosities

I noticed recently some rather curious comma choices in the New Yorker. Specifically, its editors seem to prefer to set off with commas prepositional phrases of "in" + a year. They don't do it all the time, but they seem to do it a lot lately. Some examples:

When he died, in 1984, he was remembered mostly for his popular study of multiple-personality disorder, written with Corbett Thigpen, “The Three Faces of Eve.”

After receiving his doctorate, in 1963, and returning to Vancouver, he set about what would be his life’s work.

Few experts understand counterinsurgency and counterterrorism better than this former Australian army officer and anthropology Ph.D, who has advised the American, British, and Australian governments, was one of General Petraeus’s strategic whizzes at the start of the surge, in early 2007, and writes so well that you’d never imagine he’s spent his whole career in government, the military, and academia.

His good looks, charm, and verbal skills—qualities that made him such an effective predator—convinced many in the Tacoma community that he was innocent, up until the time he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, in 1979.

Most editors whose work I see would make those:

"When he died in 1984, he was ..."

"After receiving his doctorate in 1963 and returning to ..."

"... was one of General Patraeus's strategic whizzes at the start of the surge in early 2007 and writes so well ..."

"... he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1979.

Theirs are all valid choices. The writer or editor has a lot of freedom to decide which bits of information are "parenthetical" and thus should be set off with commas. But personally, I suspect this is just another example of the New Yorker thumbing its nose at conventional editing/writing wisdom.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Spellcheck 'Stick-It-to-You' Du Jour

A story I'm proofing about home electronics contains the sentence*:

"Blanasonic's ENQ Blu-ray player featuring CR-Live technology boasts true-to-life colors and lifelike surround effects in one of the slimiest models available—just 49 mm."'
I assume the writer had typed "slimest" in place of "slimmest," and spellcheck, being the true friend that it is, figured "slimiest" was the best alternative.

And, once again, I prove that I can't be replaced with a machine (yet).

* As always, I changed some details to disguise the passage.
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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Going Dark for a Few Days, but First ...

I'll be kinda ghosty until perhaps Friday. But before I go, here are some shamelessly pilfered language delights of dubious origin:

Actual Excerpts from Newspaper Classified Sections

Illiterate? Write today for free help.

Auto Repair Service. Free pick-up and delivery. Try us once; you'll never go anywhere again.

We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand.

Have several very old dresses from grandmother in beautiful condition.

3-year old teacher needed for pre-school. Experience preferred.

Tired of cleaning yourself? Let me do it.

Dog for sale: eats anything and is fond of children.

Used Cars: Why go elsewhere to be cheated. Come here first.

Christmas tag-sale. Handmade gifts for the hard-to-find person.

For sale: antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.

Wanted. Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.

Man wanted to work in dynamite factory. Must be willing to travel.

Now is your chance to have your ears pierced and get an extra pair to take home, too.

And now, the Superstore -- unequaled in size, unmatched in variety, unrivaled inconvenience.

We will oil your sewing machine and adjust tension in your home for $1.00.

Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.

(Pilfered from my e-friend Ericka over at

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Moments in Copy Editing

Came across this sentence today:
"Hanukkah, celebrated for eight nights, has traditionally meant one gift per night per child. You needn’t do the math to figure out the number of gifts and cost when a Jewish grandparent has more than one grandchild."

Good thing I wasn’t in my post-lunch sleepy head at the time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have noticed that I should change it to …

“You needn’t do the math to see how quickly the costs can add up for a Jewish grandparent with more than one grandchild.”
The more I look at the original sentence, the more I’m awed by how easily that delicious irony slipped in. “You needn’t do the math” to “figure out the number.” Um, yeah. That’s what math is.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Googlings and Marvelings

Man, have I been sick. Not sure if it's food poisoning or a stomach virus. When I did a news search for "food poisoning" (to see whether any outbreaks were in the news), I came across what may be the most jaw-dropping search result I've ever seen. The first hit from my Google search of U.S. news sources showed an excerpt from an organization called the InjuryBoard:
If you suffer from food poisoning, you need to get immediate medical care.
If it continues or there are long term affects you should contact an attorney

Contact an attorney. Preferably one whose biggest advocates don't know the difference between "affects" and "effects."

Anyway, I hope to be back to my charming, word-looking-up, sentence-editing self soon. But right now, I have to call this dude whose number I saw on the back of a bus.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up and a Word Against Our Sponsors

Until editing a story today, I never stopped to wonder whether the word "alumnus" referred only to graduates of a specific institution or whether it also applied to former students who did not graduate.

The answer is that, yes, it applies to former students who did not graduate. But that answer came with some additional info I hadn't anticipated: Some sources say that "alumnus" is exclusively for males.

I'll let American Heritage online explain:

Inflected forms: pl. a·lum·ni (-n)A male graduate or former
student of a school, college, or university.

Alumnus and alumna both come from Latin and preserve Latin
plurals. Alumnus is a masculine noun whose plural is alumni, and alumna is a
feminine noun whose plural is alumnae. Coeducational institutions usually use
alumni for graduates of both sexes. But those who object to masculine forms in
such cases may prefer the phrase alumni and alumnae or the form alumnae/i, which
is the choice of many women's colleges that have begun to admit men.'s definition contains no mention of gender. Webster's New World College Dictionary takes a middle position:

a person, especially a boy or man, who has attended or is a graduate of a
particular school, college, etc.

I know you Latin language buffs probably already knew that. I just found it interesting that the Americans adapting the term can't yet decide on this.

* * *

I try to refrain from political commentary here -- the reason being that, after far too many years on this planet, I finally realized nobody cares what I think and they're certainly not looking to me to help them change their minds about stuff they've already made up their minds about.

However, today there's a "Yes on Prop 8" Google ad on my blog. In light of that, I feel I should say that I oppose California's Proposition 8. And I wish to hell that people would stop treating our state constitution as a vehicle for accomplishing political ends not handled to their satisfaction at the legislative level.

I should, of course, contact Google and figure out how to edit ads. But I have a full work day, a trip and public appearance to prepare for in two days, more weird freelancy stuff on top of that, and a very sick husband at home who one minute craves orange Gatorade but can't keep down the red flavor and the next minute can't keep down the orange flavor but craves the red. So by the time I figure out how to get that ad off my blog, the election will be over. So it's easier just to say:

I'm voting NO on California's Proposition 8 and hope everyone else does, too.

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