Would the folks here at Tildes appreciate occasional guides on how to write better?
Folks who are familiar with my username have likely encountered one of my many semi-humorous attempts at educating people on the nuances associated with the written word. There was a poem about homophones that went viral some time ago, for instance, and I'll frequently be spotted offering polite (if poorly received, at least some of the time) tips and corrections on Reddit.
While I would like to think that similar corrections would be appreciated here, I also think that the community's stated goals and structure combine to create an interesting opportunity. To that end, I was wondering if people here would be at all interested in brief, hopefully entertaining guides on how to improve their writing skills. (For those who are interested in writing professionally, I can also offer some insights on how to get your work read, how to find opportunities, and how to actually make money from the things that you offer.)
I think ~creative wants to hear from you. If you want to tell people how to be better writers, go there.
However, based on the very first example I found while browsing your Reddit history, I'm not sure I'd want you teaching writing classes. You seem to have an overly prescriptive and dogmatic approach. And you seem to be wrong occasionally.
Maybe you shouldn't be setting yourself up as the self-appointed guru of writing for Tildes. Maybe you should only give people writing tips if they directly ask you - and, even then, you should use some disclaimers like "in my opinion" or "I believe" or "in my experience", rather than simplistic assertions like "that's right" and "that's wrong".
When it comes to written English (particularly with regard to structure-based rules and homophones), there's no such thing as being "overly prescriptive." The argument between prescriptivism and descriptivism almost never applies to anything other than verbal communication (although there are some important exceptions, which we can discuss later), given the intrinsic nature of rules regarding text. I'm also not proposing adherence to one style guide or another; I'm proposing lessons on set-in-stone mandates. These are things which can be researched by anyone with an Internet connection. I'm simply suggesting a distillation into easy-to-understand guides.
As for the example you called out, I'm curious what you thought was wrong with it. Commas should not follow conjunctions, save for in the rare case that was already discussed in that very thread. Even then – and as I said – there are often better ways to write things.
Still, you're right, I can only attest to what my experience and research have taught me. If I mention that one element of my job includes serving as an editor (and for a fairly large publication), does that help with credibility?
There ain't no such thing. English grammar - including punctuation - is not, and can not be, set in stone. We don't have an English equivalent of L'Académie française, and it wouldn't work even if it existed.
We all know the adage that a great writer not only knows how to follow the rules, but when to break them. English is a fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing language, your attempts to lock it into set-in-stone mandates notwithstanding.
Wouldn't that be redundant? There are already, as you rightly point out, countless guides to good writing, grammar, and punctuation. Why should you add to that number? Why not simply link someone to an appropriate existing guide if you feel they need education?
Credibility, yes. Relevance, no. For example, do you know how to write proper Australian English? Or has your experience been limited to editing American manuscripts?
This is a popular misconception, but it isn't actually true. (Well, not completely true, anyway.) Folks frequently cite linguistic evolution as an excuse for mistakes, but those same people seem to miss the fact that the process also imbued written English with intrinsic mandates. That's (part of) why English doesn't require a governing body, and also why there's virtually universal agreement about how the language functions. Certain exceptions do apply – in the United States, for example, commas and periods go inside of quotation marks, whereas that would be a mistake in other parts of the world – but those are both rare and fairly minor.
One thing that is true is the fact that English shifts in a content-based sense. Words like "twerk" being added to the dictionary are an example of this, as is "text" becoming a verb. In fact, if you look through my Tildes profile, you'll see that one of my very first contributions here was a discussion about whether "invite" could become an acceptable noun. I'll copy and paste the relevant part here:
At any rate, there very much are set-in-stone mandates for written English, and with very few exceptions (like those having to do with scientific terminology) they have to do with its structure. The only structure-based shift we've seen in our lifetime has been the advent of "proper verbs," like when you Google something to Photoshop so that you can Instagram it. Even your own inclusion of "ain't" in your comment is an example of this: The word's acceptance was a content-based change, and it was made possible because it adhered to existing structure-based rules. The spelling certainly leaves something to be desired, but we could make the same statement about "hiccough."
Despite their availability, there's clearly still a need for education. Furthermore, and as I've hopefully shown, I have some practice in offering that information in a way that's easily approachable and (hopefully) entertaining.
Much of the language's evolution has been driven by so-called mistakes. I'm reminded of the word "napron" becoming "apron" because people mistook "a napron" for "an apron". Yesterday's mistake is today's slang is tomorrow's mandate.
Actually, the word becoming unacceptable was due to some snooty prescriptivists back in the 1850s disliking reading this formerly very common and acceptable word in the dialogue of some very common characters in Charles Dickens' novels. These snooty folks decided that they wouldn't be associated with such common people, so the word "ain't" simply fell out of fashion. However, with grammar, "fashion" equates to "mandate" for some people, so "ain't" became a taboo word.
That's all that many of these so-called mandates are - the latest fashion. One has only to read the various newspapers' style guides to see this.
"Ain't" has been the accepted spelling for "am not" for centuries (replacing "amn't), just like "won't" for "will not".
"Hiccough" was the original version; "hiccup" replaced it as the more phonetic spelling. It's a mistake that became the new normal.
Your examples are approachable. They also have limited application, in that they often apply only to American English (and you never point that out).
EDIT: prescriptionists => prescriptivists
In most cases, it isn't necessary... and again, that isn't true. Take the exchange we had in another thread: "Anymore" might be limited to the United States, but there won't ever be a place on Earth where using it instead of "any more" (in the context of "some more") is correct.
"Hang out" will always be a verb and "hangout" will always be a noun, regardless of region. Commas (other than the example I already covered) are universal in their application. Subjects, predicates, verbs, nouns, conjunctions, and all of those other fun elements enjoy similar treatment. I'm obviously not going to champion one spelling of "colour" over another, but I also don't need to. As I've mentioned, the rules I intend to help people understand are ubiquitous across countries. A British editor and I could debate for days about whether or not commas should go inside or outside of punctuation marks, but we'll both immediately agree that "everyday" and "every day" are not interchangeable... and the Australian and Canadian editors will agree, too.
I'll make you this offer, though: If you ever see me teaching something that seems limited in its application, I would welcome your input and assistance in offering clarification.
Try and stop me! :)
This is completely off-topic, but I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this back-and-forth between you two :)
What? That's complete bullshit.
The consequence of having no governing body to dictate prescriptive norms is that you need a style guide to write English professionally. And guess what? There's a shitload of them and they all contradict one another on key points. Not only that, but modern English is comprised of at least four broad regional variants with differences as important as the spelling of the word "color."
Moreover, you'd do well to educate yourself about context-appropriate levels of discourse. Prescriptive grammar is only appropriate when you're trying to communicate in a formal context. There are contexts in which perfect grammar will make you a pariah or the subject of ridicule, and there's no scientific standpoint that justifies attributing a lower value to these contexts when the purpose of language is to communicate.
Look. I'm all for writing proper English. I'm a professional writer myself, so my livelihood depends on it. But you should know your vision of English is absolutely off base and in contradiction with modern linguistic theory.
I encounter these arguments a lot, and addressing them (even with sources) always leads to a lot of debate. Rather than responding to each of them directly, I’ll just ask a question:
Can, you find a single, instance wherein it would be grammatically correct to put, commas like these?
There also is scientific evidence that typos and misspellings cause comprehension issues, even when a reader doesn’t consciously notice the errors. If a person is intent on communicating, they should do it to the best of their ability. Anything else is just an instance of wanting to hear oneself talk.
It does because you're wrong.
I absolutely can.
In a post lampooning William Shatner's speech patterns.
I asked for an instance in which it would be grammatically correct. While the effect might be what you described, that wouldn't suddenly change the structure of the language.
It is grammatically correct in the sense that it communicates an idea (Shatner's halting speech) in a manner that the target audience understands.
Don't believe me? Here's the Linguistic Society of America on the subject:
That doesn't make it grammatically correct.
Your article also has nothing to do with comma placement. The word "comma" doesn't even appear in it. Its main thrust was just a definition of the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, offered by way of highlighting differences between acceptable usages across dialects. That would certainly be an interesting topic if we were discussing speech, but we're focused on the written word here. William Shatner might speak in a recognizable way, but transcribing it as you proposed will always require the inclusion of errors.
You have suggested a couple times now that written word and speech are entirely separate. I think that is a massive misunderstanding of the way that the written word is used in the modern world. We use written speech to communicate about pretty much everything these days. We live in a time when more humans are reading and writing than at any other point in history. And in the age of the internet and cell phones, the vast majority of this writing is taking the place of spoken communication. Applying the style guide intended for academic and professional publication to the conversational writings found on ~, reddit, facebook, and other websites is inappropriate. It's like listening to Hendrix play The Star-spangled Banner and going "That was awful. He has no idea how to play guitar does he?". Now I'm not saying that a misspelling or any ambiguity created by the lack of a comma is the same as an artistic rendition of a song, but I am saying that to apply a rigged standard to all written word is about as silly as applying a rigged standard of uniformity to all performances of a song.
The problem with your suggestion to be the grammar cop of ~ is that you will be trying to enforce your style guide to SAE as the lingua franca of ~. This is exclusionary to non-native speakers and hostile to speakers of minority dialects. ~ wants to be a place where we can come and discuss different points of view, but forcing a linguistic standard can feel exclusionary not because the writer isn't capable of meeting your standards, but because dismissing what they say because of their dialect can feel a lot like dismissing them because of their identity. If you want to better understand why writing in ones native dialect can feel so important (and thus a grammar cop correcting them can feel so hostile) read Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan by June Jordan(PDF link).
There seems to be a misconception about what I’m proposing. The rules and standards I aim to teach are dialect-agnostic and universal. I wouldn’t ever presume to police a person’s interpretation of a song, so to speak; I’d help them understand how to avoid having feedback coming through their speakers.
So to be clear, you are strictly proposing that you are going to police punctuation? You are planning on doing so unsolicited? And you would not "correct" any of the grammar that the students in the June Jordan essay used?
No, I am planning to write (and offer) brief guides. Said guides may include a focus on punctuation, homophones, or simply breaking into the industry.
And all of that would come unsolicited? Providing guidance or offering to provide it without being asked can be rather rude and come across as disrespectful.
I guess I just don't see how it would at all be useful to have a ~ style guide. Based off your discussions here I'm also finding it hard to see it simply being reminders of Oxford Comma's and 'then/than' corrections. Would you leave a double negative alone?
You seem very enthusiastic about your job as an editor which is great, but consider focusing your extra energy not on grammar policing in inappropriate places like ~ or reddit and instead find a way to help people who want it. I have a Turkish friend on facebook who is often asking for help from native English speakers to review and edit her CV and cover letters. Those are areas where a more prescriptivist approach is appropriate.
I'd recommend reading the article thoroughly instead of hitting Ctrl-F for "comma."
I did. Please see the edits to my comment.
Either way, the statement remains: The example sentence as I offered it was grammatically incorrect.
To add to this, there are also contexts where using perfect grammar will fundamentally change how something is read. Punctuation and capitalization in IM/SMS is a great example. Using lower case and forgoing punctuation can often make all the difference in how a message is read. "No. I'm busy." vs "no im busy", "What?" vs "what", or even "What."
This is a casual site, not a formal publication. What you're doing is certainly prescriptivist.
The "casual environment" argument gets thrown around a lot, and it might seem like a valid one on the surface... but it's tantamount to saying "This is a public park, not an office building. Stop telling people not to litter."
Typos, misspellings, and other such errors may seem harmless, but they're actually pretty rude to leave in place. It shouldn't be a reader's responsibility to figure out what someone meant to write, any more than it should be a listener's responsibility to figure out what a musician meant to play. Furthermore, a tone-deaf five-year-old can offer a recognizable melody – you'll know what they meant to sing – but their performance won't be nearly as enjoyable or evocative as one given by a skilled vocalist.
Even if we focus on the conveyance of information on its own, though, we're left with the same problem: Poor writing leads to poor comprehension, even if the data is more or less intact. Placing the onus of interpretation on the audience also calls the importance of the piece into question. If a person can't be bothered to present their thoughts in an approachable way, are those thoughts worth reading? I'm not suggesting that the aforementioned thoughts are without value, mind you, I'm only suggesting that presentation is just as important as content. A lukewarm plate of vitamin-enriched protein slop may have all of the nutrients that a person needs to survive, but most people would probably prefer a steak dinner that was prepared by a discerning chef.
To be completely honest, I think almost every other commentor in this thread has done a better job of presenting their ideas in an approachable, lucid, and succinct manner than you have. That doesn't mean I consider your ideas to have less value - because I consider the value of an idea in the abstract to be wholly disentangled from the quality of its presentation - but I think you should at least consider the clarity of your own communication before you go lambasting others.
I’d be very interested in examples of how you feel I could offer better clarity. As I’ve made pretty clear by now, I look at presentation as being just as important as content... so if my presentation is lacking, specific suggestions for how I could improve would be appreciated.
I appreciate the fair response.
To take one example, I personally found the structure and flow of ideas within this paragraph to be awkward and hard to follow:
Were I to re-write it, I would suggest something like this:
It's certainly less grammatically interesting than your paragraph. It doesn't showcase the ability of the writer to use unusual constructs or interesting logical structures. However, at least to my mind, it takes far less hard work for the reader to consume it - which is probably more important when you're writing for strangers on the internet.
While your offering definitely had a different tone – some would even say that it’s a better tone – it removed some of the specific nuances that I felt were necessary to include. Just as an example, “vitamin-enriched protein slop” is more visceral and evocative than “protein shake,” and also (hopefully) carries an undertone of humor to it... if slightly disgusting humor.
Verbal communication includes written communication. Did you mean oral communication?
No, I meant verbal:
"Consisting of or in the form of spoken words; oral rather than written."
Hey, you're the one calling for prescriptivisim.
The first description of verbal in any good dictionary is "relating to or consisting of words".
Those two statements are unrelated... but I suspect you knew as much.
Had I used the term "verbally" in the phrase "verbal communication," then I would have made a mistake (given that I would have used an adverb instead of an adjective). Had someone then pointed out my error, they would have been correct, and they would have been just as much a prescriptivist as I'm proposing to be.
Oh hey, I thought I recognized that username! I think writing guides would be very interesting and well received, although I'm not sure where they would go yet. ~talk to me seems more like a place for discussions then guides, and we don't have a tilde for writing yet. But I'd love to see some, and ideally I'd love to see a community for rhetoric and making a proper argument spring up too.
You're right, ~talk may not be the best community in which to offer the aforementioned guides, so I might wait until there's a writing-centric one. At the same time, I'd love to start contributing and helping as soon as possible, but I recognize how it can be... well, irritating... to have someone offer a correction or some insight apropos of nothing.
Since we're already on the topic, though, I hope you won't mind a small piece of advice:
The word "then" denotes progression, whereas "than" – with an A – is for comparison. The two words sound very similar when spoken, but convey very different meanings in text.
"A bunch of us are going to go bowling tonight. Would you like to come?"
"I'd rather hit myself in the no-no place with a hammer then go bowling."
"Hah, uh... I think... I think you meant 'than' in that last sentence, didn't you?"
"No, I was just talking about my pre-bowling ritual. It's better than yours."
... in some American dialects.
Odds are that we'll be seeing a ~creative.writing in the future when there's enough writing-based activity to necessitate it. I would definitely consider it as falling under the ~creative umbrella for now, though.
Oh duh! You're right, ~creative is a thing. I removed it from my subscriptions a while back and forgot the list only shows your subscriptions, not all tildes...
I think a big lesson people could stand to learn is waffle reduction.
I see many long rambling posts that say very little with very many words. A "high quality" post doesn't have to be a long post, but it does need to convey the writers point before the reader glazes over and stops reading.
I feel attacked! (But I agree.)
That's great to hear! It's always encouraging when people want to start offering their own creative works to the world, and even more so when they come from a background that may not have been originally focused on pursuits of that nature.
If I might offer a very small beginning of a guide here, I'd like to address a common mistake:
In that context, "any more" should be two words. "Anymore" has the rough meaning of "ever after." Think of it like asking for some additional food, if that helps:
"Hey, Dave, is there any more of that chili?"
"Oh, sure, there's a lot left! I guess people don't like the taste of dog food. Here, how much can I give you?"
"... I don't want it anymore."
Serious question, from an ocasional author. Oughtn't that be "beginning of a guide", as it's a part of the (imaginary) whole, not an addition to it?
Surely it is more correct to say that
...are the beginning of Catullus 16, rather than the beginning to it?
You're correct: it is the beginning of a guide, rather than the beginning to a guide.
Yep, good catch, thank you!
“Beginning to” would be used for progression, but as a present-tense verb. “I’m beginning to write a guide. This is the beginning of it.”
Only in North American English. "Anymore" is not (yet) a word in British English or Australian English.
In either case, I think we can both agree that using "anymore" to mean "any more" is an error.
As someone who's first language is not English, I would highly appreciate it! Most of my vocabulary is picked up from the Internet, I barely spoke English in the last couple of years. My last "serious" attempt to talk in English was on a voice chat. We read the entirety of Denko's creepypasta that night.
If you wouldn't mind a small correction now, then:
The possessive form of "who" is actually "whose." You can remember because determiners – words like his, hers, its, yours, mine, theirs, and so on – don't use apostrophes to denote possession. The quality is "baked in," so to speak.
"Okay, come on, guys! Whose unicycle is this?"
"Hm? Oh, that? That's Bertram's."
"My imaginary friend. I've been toting his unicycle around for him."
In short, if you'd use "his" or "hers," use "whose!"
Without a fucking doubt would I be interested! I don't aspire to write as my main source of income, but I, like many others, aspire to write. Any tips a professional writer could give in form, structure, and breaking into the industry would be well-appreciated. Thank you for offering!
I would very much appreciate that, I consider myself an adequate writer but I often think my work (scientific writing) would be improved if I could more clearly communicate my interpretation of the data. Your point regarding the availability of such guidance is right on the money as well, I certainly could seek out information to improve my writing, but in the past this has typically only happened when I have a very specific question I need answered (e.g., "he had had enough of _____"). Happening across such advice organically on ~s would almost certainly increase my exposure to such wisdom.
Yeah, me neither. ;)
Certainly, additional help with grammar and writing would be appreciated. What is unclear is if this service would be provided as posts in a ~writing.english or ~english.writing.grammar tilde or the like, or in situ at the comment where we have erred.
I was thinking the former, personally, but if folks wanted to ask me to provide an ongoing service, I’d be happy to do that for them.