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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