Editor’s Note: Getting Started

This is the first of a series of occasional posts on grammar and copy editing.

When I first started my business, I was mostly typing student papers, and it was clear that my competitive edge was that I automatically edited the copy as I was typing. Eventually I became uncomfortable with the knowledge that I was undoubtedly helping my customers to get a better grade, which most teachers would probably regard as cheating. Fortunately, within a few years, my clientele shifted, and for the past 40+ years, I have primarily worked for authors and other non-students. Although I still have a few “legacy” clients who submit their copy handwritten, to be typed, most of my work nowadays is copy editing and formatting, so I now identify myself as a freelance copy editor. It is work that I enjoy, and I especially appreciated the depiction of a copy editor in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians. She quotes that character as saying, “Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their author,” which I think is a perfect description of the work I do, untangling a rat’s nest of clumsy grammar and syntax to bring out the writer’s actual meaning.

Copy editing seems to be an innate skill, though I have also developed it by reference to numerous style manuals. I unfortunately seem to zero in on the one error in a page of text, and this can make it uncomfortable to read anything, especially books that contain many errors. Any book I read will have marginal corrections (except the Kindle books, which are spotted with yellow highlights). There are certain types of errors that I see repeatedly, and I have been thinking for some time that I ought to complain about these in a more helpful way. There is no better time of year than the beginning to start such a series of lessons, so here goes!

Let’s start with a quotation from a work you may have thought of recently:

Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter
That I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

This is an example of the correct use of a past-tense subordinate clause beginning with “when.” Such a clause usually marks a specific event that occurs during an existing situation. That situation is described either with the past progressive tense (“I was reading when the phone rang”) or the past perfect tense indicating a state created by a previous event (“I had already started the dishwasher when he brought me another dirty cup”). In some cases, the “when” clause is causal, in which case the simple past may be used: “He jumped up when I called his name.”

So what is wrong with these examples, all of which involve getting started?

She started to run again when a shot rang out, then another. The girl stopped, and so did I.

In this case, it’s obvious from the context that she stopped when she heard the gunshot, so she didn’t start when “a shot rang out.” So she “had started to run again” when the shot rang out.

I started to ask who Anita was when we heard the sliding door open.

Hearing the sliding door open did not prompt the question. Here it is clear that the narrator was about to ask.

I started to check what had happened to the internet connection when I heard a car outside.

Again, the narrator was already engaged in the check when he heard the car, so “I had started…” or “I was starting…”

I started to turn toward her when I saw a Great Blue Heron land on the deck.

A good paraphrase here would be: “As I was turning toward her, I saw a Great Blue Heron land on the deck.”

I entered the outer room and started for my office when something hit me on the back of the head.

The narrator could say that he “was headed for” (or “heading for”) his office.

I started back toward Pete’s building when a red Mazda zipped by.

Perhaps just “I was walking back…”

I started down the walk toward the bank when the door suddenly flew open and Bill ran out.

This is a little more complex. A simple fix would be “I had started down the walk,” but little would be lost by simplifying to “As I walked toward the bank, the door suddenly flew open and Bill ran out.”

I could multiply examples here, but I think you get the idea. Whenever you start to write a sentence that includes both “started” and “when,” think again. Unless causation is implied, you should probably write “had started” or “was/were starting,” or perhaps you can substitute a participle, such as “was/were headed/heading,” or use “was/were about to,” or recast the sentence entirely to make the “when” clause the main clause, subordinating the “starting” action, as in the Great Blue Heron example above.

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In the July issue of The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International, circulated to over 500,000 English-speaking Rotarians worldwide, frequent contributor David Sarasohn, in an article titled “Wishful Thanking,” ranted about the use of “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome,” “I’m good” for “No, thank you,” and “My bad” for “I’m sorry.”

The October issue of the magazine published a letter to the editor in which I had written:

It seems to me that David Sarasohn’s objection to “No problem,” “I’m good,” and “My bad” (“Wishful thanking,” The Rotarian, July 2019) is based primarily on their novelty. He is thus striking a blow against progress and modernism and the natural development of the language. I confess that, as an old fogey myself (75 in September), I’m also not a fan of these phrases, but I think he did an injustice to “My bad.” In an era in which individuals and, more importantly, institutions (such as hospitals) are loath to express sympathy by saying “I’m sorry” lest their concern be construed as admitting culpability, we should be celebrating “My bad,” which, although it does not express sympathy, does assume responsibility, unequivocally acknowledging error (“My mistake” or “I was wrong”) or guilt (“My fault” or, in confessional terms, “Mea culpa”). There are still plenty of occasions for “I’m sorry,” but if “My bad” is merely equivalent to “Oops” or “Pardon me,” it seems to me unobjectionable. (I should add that the form in which I often hear it is “Sorry, my bad.”)

I was not the only respondent. One wrote, “As a 30-year-old Rotarian, I do not appreciate it when the well-meaning language of my generation is dismissed as insincere and rude.” Another wrote, “As a millennial Rotarian who has spent many tedious years working in customer service, I was quite disappointed with the negative attitude toward service staff in ‘Wishful Thanking.'” Both suggested that the magazine would do better to emphasize Rotary’s good works rather than alienate the younger members Rotary is trying so desperately to attract. [This problem extends to the magazine’s advertising as well; no matter how hard the editorial content boasts of how up-to-date Rotary has become, with smartphone apps and other high-tech improvements, younger members can’t help but be turned off by ads for walk-in tubs and ED drugs.]

I have been giving the matter further thought. I have no defense of “no problem,” which Sarasohn accuses of creating a putative problem where there should be none. He admits it is the equivalent of Spanish and French phrases with similar usage but dismisses this excuse, and I tend to agree that, until “No problem” becomes as invisible as “You’re welcome,” it will cause problems.

But I’m not so sure about “I’m good.” I’m coming to believe that a naked “No, thank you” has come to be regarded as a rejection almost as unacceptable as “I’ll pass” or “I’ll take a pass” or “I’ll give that a miss” (the subject of a Miss Manners column and follow-up). Naturally, if, when offered a second helping, you reply, “No, thank you. I couldn’t eat another bite,” your intent will be understood. But “I’m good” (with perhaps a pat on your stomach) conveys the same meaning. And I have rarely heard “I’m good” used in response to other sorts of offers and invitations (the sort that might elicit “I’ll pass”). I say, “I’m good!” with vigor in response to the drive-through bank teller’s inquiry after my health, but this is a different situation.

Bottom line, though, we should be grateful that anyone uses any of these phrases intended to grease the wheels of social interaction.

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Fairhope Scavenger Hunt: Part 2

Over a year ago, I posted the “Birdwatcher Edition” of the Fairhope Scavenger Hunt. I fully intended to return the next day or the next week to post a follow-up. Then life happened. May and June are always busy for me, but things really fell apart in August: the next few months seemed to be one protracted “technical difficulty.” I replaced, not always as deliberately as I would have liked, my computer (after a hard drive crash), my keyboard (the E key stopped working), and my mouse (twice—the second time, the left button stopped working after less than six months) and purchased a new all-in-one to replace both a balky inkjet printer and a recalcitrant fax machine. Between November and February, I also had physical/medical difficulties. And I was learning how to use a smartphone (my first). The bottom line was that I didn’t feel much up to blogging.

Today, however, having some free time, I thought I should post some more photos. Last time was all birds; this edition has “beasts” and “fish” (marine animals in general). The first example is hard to miss: the public sculpture of dolphins in the Bayfront park along Mobile Street. The rest I challenge you to identify. Again, they are all found within one block of the bay.

Also, to answer the extra-credit question in the previous post: The last two photos were of the columbarium at Trinity Presbyterian Church. This provides space for the ashes of cremated loved ones. “Columbarium” is a Latin word meaning “dovecote” (from columba, ‘dove’).

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What a Waist!

The current (February/March 2019) issue of AARP The Magazine (which arrived in mid-March, but that is a discussion for another time) has an article on “7 Numbers That Reveal Your Heart Disease Risk.” One of these is “waist circumference.” The number to shoot for is 35″ or less for women (40″ for men). The article provides the following instructions:

To measure your natural waist, grab an old-fashioned tape measure and stand without pushing out or sucking in your belly. Wrap the tape measure around your torso just above your hip bones. (If you lean to one side, a crease forms at the point of your natural waist.) Exhale, then measure.

This is exactly how I would define my natural waist. That is where I want the waistband of my pants and skirts to sit. It is the point at which I am narrowest, so it is a secure place for garments to rest.

Although it is my narrowest point, it is, of course, not as narrow as it once was. I never had an 18″ waist à la Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t think I could have managed that even with a corset (or the Merry Widow that was popular in my salad days), but I think I once boasted 24″. It’s more than that now but still well under 35″.

But you wouldn’t know that from my medical record. The last time I went in for my annual Medicare wellness visit, the nurse wanted to measure my waist. I cleared the area of covering garments and started to put the tape measure at my waist. No, she instructed me, put the end of the tape measure on my navel and then twirl around so that the tape circles me at that point.

This is insane! My navel is 3″ below my natural waist, and the measurement there is some 8″ greater than my actual waist measurement. Because I have a tummy. I have always had a tummy—apparently from birth. Pictures of me from childhood show me with stick-thin arms and legs and round little belly. Even when I had no hips and buttocks to speak of, I always had a protuberant abdomen. So measuring my “waist” this way is disastrous.

My BMI doesn’t need any further insults. I’ve always been short, but now I’m even shorter. Historically, I was 5′3″. Not too long ago I was measured at 5′2½″. I could live with that. But at my most recent medical visit, a nurse reported my height as 5′½″! I commented that this made me even more overweight than I thought (my BMI is still well under 25, but my belly makes me too “fat” to wear clothes well).

Apparently my doctor’s office is not alone in defining “waist” in this bizarre way. WebMD offers these instructions for measuring the waist: “Start at the top of your hip bone, then bring the tape measure all the way around your body, level with your belly button.” The website verywellfit says, “Waist circumference is a measurement taken around the abdomen at the level of the umbilicus (belly button)” and instructs you to “wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your stomach, across your belly button.” But most definitions and illustrations online describe or show “waist” as I understand it.

I plan to take this matter up with my primary care physician at my next wellness visit. If they are required to measure around my navel level, then that’s what they will have to do, but they should not call it a “waist” measurement because, at least to my mind, that is not what a waist is.

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Buying Toilet Paper

A few days ago I brought the last package of toilet paper upstairs to our bathroom and accordingly put “TP” on my grocery list, so when I go to Walmart this afternoon, I’ll be hitting the toilet paper aisle. This usually doesn’t require much thought or effort. I long ago settled on my “favorite” brand (though the reasons for that selection are lost in the mists of time), so I head right to it. I usually buy the Giant Economy Size of 24 or even 36 rolls, avoiding looking at the shelf price since I don’t even want to know how much I’m paying for something that will just be thrown away.

I recently said to my husband that I was thinking of changing brands. He strenuously objected, saying that he liked what we have, but the problem is that it is very linty: I am constantly having to sweep or vacuum up paper dust from under the TP dispenser. If I did decide to switch, Walmart offers several brands to choose among: Cottonelle, Charmin, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, and its own Great Value brand. Cottonelle, my “favorite,” comes in Clean Care (single-ply), Comfort Care (two-ply), and Gentle Care (with aloe). So I am spoiled for choice. This was not the case for my mother 70 years ago.

As time permits, I’ve been reading the letters my mother wrote to her mother throughout her married life. During the war years, when rationing was in effect, mention of unavailable items was frequent. Even after the war, in the 1945 and 1946 letters, it was not uncommon to find allusions to hard-to-find or expensive meats or canned foods. And my parents had been trying for many months to get a new car to replace the extremely unreliable 1937 Ford my father had bought from his mother before he was married. But toilet paper?

The first reference I noticed was in a letter dated December 1, 1947. My father’s parents had come to visit us in New Orleans for the week of Thanksgiving, returning home on Sunday, November 30. The next day, Mother summarized the activities of the past few days. On Friday, she wrote, “…while Suzanne was taking her nap, Mama and I went in search of toilet paper. Found some at our Maison’s…”

“Our Maison’s” was the Gentilly branch of Maison Blanche, which had recently opened in a shopping center on Gentilly Boulevard at Frenchman Street, within walking distance of our house (the photo below shows its interior in 1948; the location is now an AutoZone). I can’t imagine having to buy toilet paper in a department store!

Six weeks later, Mother was searching again, writing to her mother on January 16:

While I think of it, how is the toilet paper situation in Tennessee? We are really desperate—have been using face tissues at 26¢ and 31¢ a box. If Daddy could get us some good brand, we’d certainly appreciate it. Even Tom’s wholesale grocery customers can’t get it. I’d rather use Kleenex than the sandpaper brands the drugstores have.

Those prices for Kleenex would be $2.70 and $3.22 in 2018 dollars. A box of Kleenex today costs less than $1.50 but would still be expensive to use as toilet paper.

That the shortage continued is evidenced by a March 13, 1948, letter. My father had had to travel to Biloxi-Gulfport on business (he was an IBM salesman), and Mother writes: “Tom got home from Biloxi last night about 8:45—much earlier than I expected him. He brought me a box of candy and 12 rolls of toilet paper!”

This is certainly something to think about when I find myself dissatisfied because I have to get two-ply instead of single-ply or settle for a bundle that has packages of four or nine rolls instead of my preferred six!

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Fairhope Scavenger Hunt: Birdwatcher Edition

When we moved to Fairhope in 1980, there was a sign on Section Street as we turned off the “four-lane” (Highway 98) proclaiming Fairhope a bird sanctuary. Perhaps it is still there.

In the intervening years, birds have been both encouraged and protected in Fairhope. A string of bluebird houses was put up along the bayfront. Feral cats were trapped and removed to prevent them from preying on waterfowl at the Duck Pond. Then ducks and geese were “relocated” in an attempt to reduce the fecal coliform count of the Bay, affected by runoff from the Duck Pond. But birds of all sorts still abound, and many homeowners welcome them, some of them extravagantly:

Any Fairhopian can see seagulls at the Municipal Pier and waterfowl at the Duck Pond, but can you locate these Fairhope birds? Each one was spotted within a block of the Bay and can be easily seen from the street, including this welcoming pair of hummingbirds:

Pelicans are popular:


But there are many other varieties as well:

Even peacocks!

And whatever this is:

Extra credit for identifying what this scene has to do with birds:

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The Copy Editor’s Apology

When I joined the Pensters Writing Group a couple of years ago, my primary motivation was to benefit the Fairhope Public Library’s Tuesday Book Review & Lecture Series, of which I have been program chairman since 1993. I hoped to encourage more of the Pensters to attend the book reviews and perhaps also find some of the members who would be willing to present book reviews. I have been slightly successful in the former, less successful in the latter. As a copy editor, I don’t consider myself a “writer” (that is, a creative writer), but I enjoy the company of writers, and there was also a remote chance of picking up some editing work.

The Pensters meet monthly from September through May, and at seven of the monthly meetings there is a featured speaker on some aspect of writing or publishing. There is also a monthly writing contest, described as followed in the Pensters yearbook:

From September through April, contests are held for dues-paying members. Contests include unpublished poetry and unpublished prose, fiction or nonfiction. Entries are judged by the month’s guest speaker.

Prizes are awarded for both poetry and prose, as follows: $10 for first place, $5 for second place, no cash prize for Honorable Mention, but all winners are asked to read their winning entry. Only one submission in each category is permitted per month.

Entries must relate to the monthly prompts. Prose is limited to 500 words, double-spaced; poetry is limited to two typed pages, single-spaced with double spacing between stanzas.

The “prompts” are evocative phrases that the entry must address in some way. This year they’ve included “In the heat of the afternoon,” “A justifiable sin,” “In the back seat of a taxi,” “A year after he died,” “The heart of the matter,” and “A strange branch on the family tree.” As I said, I don’t consider myself a writer, but I’ve always wanted to be one, and I figured it would be good practice to push myself to enter the contest each month. So far my entries have been pretty dismal, but I’ve used the opportunity to write snippets of memoir or autobiographical fiction. I’ve found the 500-word limit extremely constricting, and it had occurred to me that, with single spacing and rather long lines, one could actually get more words into two pages of poetry. Not to mention that there are always fewer poetry entries than prose. But I am even less a “poet” than a “writer.”

Still, what I turned in last month was a “poem.” The prompt was “Motive for the theft,” which wasn’t jogging any useful reminiscences, so I had pretty much resigned myself to skipping the contest when I had a flash of inspiration the day before the deadline. I started jotting down snatches of thought and eventually was able to combine them into the following:

The Copy Editor’s Apology

I never meant to steal your smile!
Don’t look so woeful: I was only helping.
You asked for judgment, and I judged,
My edits meant to make improvements.

I never meant to steal your words,
Only to offer different, better ones—
Not mandates but suggestions rather
That would create a smoother line.

I never meant to steal your thoughts,
Only to try to read your mind.
Your meaning’s muddy here; let’s clear it up—
Replace this comma with a semicolon?

Your writing’s good but could be better:
The past of drink is drank, not drunk,
And Mary whom you mention here—
Was she not Jane one page ago?

I never meant to make you weep.
Your plot is brilliant, characters rich.
It’s just the grammar that’s a little weak,
With careless punctuation.

We work together, you and I.
To make your work the best that it can be.
We should be friends, not adversaries.
You pay me for my skill, and I respect your talent.

I never meant to steal your smile.
You should be smiling gratefully.
If I cross out a word, suggest another,
I count it not as theft but value added.

When I went to pick up my (as usual) losing entry yesterday, I couldn’t find it. In fact, I couldn’t find any poetry entries at all; they all seemed to be prose, many of them unclaimed entries from previous contests. So I thought maybe I’d at least scored Honorable Mention.

To my surprise, the contest chair announced that there was no Honorable Mention. Then the second-place winner’s name was read, and she came up to read. It was a great poem. The next result seemed inevitable but also inconceivable: I’d taken first place! I was stunned but very pleased.

I had lucked out in two ways. In the first place, there was a substitute judge. Last month’s featured speaker, Sue Brannan Walker, is “a poet, author, and editor. She is a former Poet Laureate of Alabama and is currently the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. She is the author of five poetry collections and numerous other books and is or has been an advisory editor for several literary journals.” But she was also a no-show: her husband was ill, so she couldn’t make it. Our Pensters president, John Woods, and author Frank Coombs (who writes under the name of Frank Kelso) filled in with a very informative talk about self-publishing and promotion. John then judged the contest entries. I figured I would probably fare better with him than I would have with Sue.

But the bottom line was that apparently there were only two poetry entries!

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