08 October 2009

Unfashionable writing

Just amused by the state of the world today, as you'll soon see...

What set me off?

A comment on a list that stated editors and agents expect you to have a complete and working knowledge of grammar before you submit to them.

Why is that amusing to me?

Grammar is changeable. I mean...some things are pretty much wrong...dead wrong...always. But I find it somewhere between amusing and annoying that you learn the "rules" of grammar, and every time the powers that be that write the Chicago Manual of Style make a new edition, they change it, just to change it, seemingly.

As if that's not bad enough, then they make things optional, so the individual house styles can choose one or the other. For instance, the use of commas, in certain situations, is completely optional, depending on whether not using them would cause confusion for the reader. It's no wonder some people find grammar daunting.

Same thing with spelling. I'm sorry. I learned to spell with traditional spellings, so when the new M-W comes out and says that the "new way" to spell a word (dumbed down for the idiots who don't want to pick up a dictionary and spell things correctly) is now the preferred way to spell it, I find it galling that some publishers will choose to make the preferred spelling the default for their house, across the board, which dumbs down my books, IMO.

I make a habit of telling the middle and high school kids I teach about writing that you should absolutely learn grammar, punctuation, and spelling...but don't expect them to be stagnant. Don't expect them to be "correct," when submitting to a publisher who has gone through three versions of the CMS and M-W since their textbooks and teachers have been updated. I have nothing against a living, breathing language. I do have something against being told that the old ways are wrong, just because someone wants to sell a new edition of a book. They aren't wrong. They are just being made unfashionable, thanks to CMS and M-W.

Just remember the old saying.

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Oscar Wilde


"The fashion wears out more clothing than the man." Shakespeare


Chloe Waits said...

I had one publisher send me back a manuscript as though it was inherently flawed because it was not written with House rules, which was not accepted or knowable by the rest of the world. I have encountered house styles of course but that the first time I was told to do it and re-sub it.
hmm...if they were that attached to it, they should post under submission rules methinks!

James C. Wallace II said...

I published my manuscript and got hammered by several folks regarding my unique grammar style. What they fail to realize is that I chose a grammatical style that is somewhat offbeat and best represents what I refer to as a "Hoosier" dialect.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't!

Jude Mason said...

Brenna, I could kiss you.

I'll try to restrain myself here. I've struggled with punctuation for years. Grammar, I'm pretty good with; but you hand me a bag of commas, and I'll go into screaming fits of anguish. (How's that for a pretty picture?)

The issues with spelling, and the 'new spelling' that's become the bane of any author's existence, and I'll be screaming bloody murder.

Now, if you, the English teacher, are having fits, then how on this lovely green Earth is someone like me every going to master any of it?


Great post!


BrennaLyons said...

Chloe, I know exactly what you mean. If they want you to conform to the style sheet, it should be listed with the guidelines. I had a publisher do something similar to me. She signed the book, but she got really snitty about her style sheet. Seems it was on the site but buried under something I never would have looked at...about us or something...nowhere near the guideline page.


BrennaLyons said...

James, I suspect you are writing the narrative in the dialect? Writing in vernacular is a tough sell sometimes. A lot of editors will allow it, as long as it's readable, but some just don't like the variation from house style. Sometimes, sprinkling in some flavor works better than an all-out attack of ambiance. Good luck with that.


BrennaLyons said...


Technically speaking, I'm not an English teacher. I'm a sub, and I sometimes end up teaching English, among other things.

But that nifty little quote I use comes from the writing enrichment classes I offer at the schools. I like to open this part of the discussion by putting the following sentence up on the board:

"He wracked his brains for a suitable answer then started to speak."

I invite the kids to tell me what's wrong with the sentence. The fact is, NOTHING is wrong with it, depending on house style, but if you go with the newest version of CMS and M-W (which several of my six publishers do), you would either have to change it to:

"He racked his brains for a suitable answer and then started to speak."


"He racked his brains for a suitable answer, then started to speak."

In the newest version of M-W, racked is preferred over wracked. In the newest version of CMS, the 'and' before 'then' is no longer a given, and you either have to use the 'and' or replace it with a comma.

Nobilis Reed said...

I think for many publishers, the request that submissions show a knowledge of grammar and punctuation is because so few of the manuscripts they receive display the results of such knowledge.

M.Flagg said...

Very interesting post and very true. I love when grammar books themselves contradict one another. Me? I've been called 'the comma queen'. Quotations get some editors crazy as well. Luckily, my editor is an understanding one.

RowenaBCherry said...

It is a shame and a disservice to literacy when fiction writing is dumbed down deliberately. First, do no harm!

Standards of literacy are definitely dropping. What is more, some copy editors lack a sense of humor.

I'm reading Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer (the version with an intro by Linda Howard... not that I mean to imply that Linda is in any way to blame for the editing!)

There's a witty exchange between Mary and Vidal concerning Mr Comyn.

"He seemed to be a gentleman of ordinary propriety, certainly," concurred Miss Challoner.

"I one the other hand am a gentleman of extraordinary impropriety, of course."

The wit ought to lie in the counterbalance of "propriety" versus "impropriety".

(The passage goes on to make a play of gentleman vs nobleman.)

The delicious "thusness" is wrecked when the repetition of "extraordinary" is edited out.

Moreover it is nonsense to describe Mr. Comyn as a gentleman of "ordinary" propriety, because he is remarkably upstanding.

It drives me crazy when copy editors make a nonsense out of a passage because they have some arbitrary rule of thumb about not repeating long words!

BrennaLyons said...


I know exactly what you mean! There is a line between a turn of phrase that depends on that perfect balance of words (and she was so good at that, don't you think?) and the overuse of the same word?

An example from my own writing? From Renegade's Run:

"Sarah let the spike build, let him get confident. When she sent it back, Baker was unprepared for the blow. Like Danny, his scream of pain and frustration was ear-splitting. Like Danny, Baker refused to back down, certain that he was powerful enough to crush her. Unlike Danny, Sarah wasn’t sure Baker was wrong in that assumption."

Without the counterpoint of like, like, unlike...it doesn't work as neatly. It makes the words hop.

That's much different than using a crutch word, which is what the rule about repeating words is meant to prevent. I try to avoid them when I can and keep a list of a dozen or two of them to minimize.

Now, if I can just convince my son to use the thesaurus more often... Grinning.


BrennaLyons said...


No argument.

But cases like Chloe's is what floors me. Some publishers have forgotten that house style is nothing more than house style. Just because someone is using an older version of the CMS doesn't mean what they are doing is horrible grammar. At one point in history, it was considered fashionable and correct, after all. But the reactions of some publishers make it seem you have no skill at grammar, because you aren't using their style sheet.


Jennifer said...

I had a book picked up by a British Publisher and a comment was made that the commas were lacking in places and others in places they didn't belong. My opinion is that the British use yet another set of comma rules.

BrennaLyons said...


Of course. The grammar, punctuation, and spelling rules aren't universal. One of the difficult things to teach some authors is to switch to the opposite of what they are used to.

But again, what is wrong in the US may be right elsewhere. That's actually easier to correct for than individual house styles.


Linda Swift said...

Brenna, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog. And I can relate to those frustrating "House rules." I had an editor require me to change internal speech from italics to direct quotes. No matter how much I gently resisted, it was a house rule and required. So, when in Rome.... but I was embarrassed to have readers assume that I didn't know any better.
And speaking of grammar, is anyone else out there tired of having "like" inserted into every sentence spoken (and celebrities seem to be the worst on this)?

Cassandra Gold said...

You're right, grammar is a fluid thing, as is spelling. As a huge grammar geek (I took semantics courses and Modern Grammar for FUN, lol), I am fascinated by how the language grows and changes, and by the connotations words develop over the years.

I get irritated with publishers who are so fixed on their house style that they take all the character and voice out of manuscripts. The most annoying thing is that different publishers have different house styles, and they all seem to think theirs is the only right one!

Of course, some things are just flat out wrong. I've seen a lot of cases of incorrect word usage lately that should have been caught by a good editor. I'm talking there/their and weather/whether kind of mistakes here...not cool.

BrennaLyons said...

So true, Cassandra. I have seen shoddy edits in both indie and NY. There are some editors that are always spot on. There are some companies (like LI and Mundania/Phaze) that have a great gauntlet of editors to catch just about everything. But, overall...there seems to be a lack of good editing.

craft brag said...

I am completely spelling, punctuation, and grammar challenged. I firmly believe thought that I can still be a published author - why? because I have great stories in me. yes I will try my best to learn these things but I also have a few great friends who are willing to edit and proofread for me.

I will continue to write even though my mechanics stink.

BrennaLyons said...

Absolutely, Jenna. Some of the best writers I know are hopeless with typos, homonym errors, grammar, punctuation... But, they have learned to have someone who is good at it proofread everything they send out. If you can't do, pay or trade with someone who can do.