Tuesday 12 November 2013

Velcro Doesn't Go


Um, okay.
I mean, I know what you mean, okay? I just don’t like it. At all.
            The good news: It's a sentence. So it deserves that period. Which is rare enough in advertising that we can spend a microsecond celebrating. But I don’t even know where to begin to make it stop hurting.
            Simply switching the words around (sometimes the easiest fix) doesn’t help:


            Um, no.
            A core problem is that Velcro is actually a company, not a thing that “goes together.” I’ll grant you that many people call hook-and-loop fasteners by the trademark name “Velcro,” but that doesn’t make it right. Nor does it change what I suspect is the fundamental problem: that the item in question is rarely perceived as being composed of constituent pieces. Which I suppose is what the “Milk Every Moment” people had in mind.
But it doesn’t work! To the innocent reader, Velcro—or, rather, a hook-and-loop fastener—really doesn’t suggest a two-halves-make-a-whole unit. Case in point: just by rendering its generic name singular rather than plural, I fear that I have put a kink into that last sentence.
So to make this ad make sense (from a language usage point of view), you almost have to do:


            And by that time, you might as well fortify yourself with that milk-and-grilled-cheese snack, because you’ve lost your ad. And let's not even address the condition of the billboard.
            But this makes me happy, anyway, and not because I have now introduced you to the option of calling this wonderful invention by its generic name. That is pleasing in its own right—even more so because it gives you all the opportunity to practice the proper deployment of your hyphens. No, it makes me happy because I did not know that “Velcro” is a portmanteau of two French words (both of which exist in English with slightly different meanings): velours (“velvet”) and crochet (“hook”). Thank you, Wikipedia. Thank you, George de Mestral. Thank you, English.

Monday 4 November 2013

Distance-lights and second-travels . . . What?

An alert reader submitted this question via Facebook:

“[W]hat the heck is up with: ‘One light year, is the distance light, moving at 299,792 kilometres per second travels in a year, or about 10 trillion kilometres.’?” 

A most excellent question.  <bowing head>  Let us parse.
Using the inexplicably outmoded but still useful technique of sentence diagramming (which I have always itched to investigate but never before had opportunity), we find that the simple subject is "light year" (sometimes written as “light-year," which I would advocate here, for reasons you will shortly understand), and that it has been modified by the adjective "One.” So far, so good.
The simple predicate is also easy-peasy--it's "is." Hooray!
No, don’t argue, children. There is no other choice. In this sentence "travels" is obviously a noun, although more specifically it is the second half of the compound noun “second-travels” and (who was the copyeditor???) therefore in dire need of a hyphen. I don't pretend to know what "second-travels" are, but would venture to guess that this compound noun designates the trip one makes to a specific spot after having visited it once (and only once) before.
Similarly, although the word “moving” appears here in classic verb form, it is unquestionably being employed as an adjective (i.e., “causing strong emotion”). Unfortunately, a little interference seems to have inserted itself between this adjective and the noun that it modifies. This may be random noise, probably interstellar. (If you listen to a sample here, you can see how easily this might happen.)
I suspect that the noun being modified by “moving” is the aforementioned “second-travels” (don’t they sound like fun?), although one might argue that it is, instead, the adjective grouped within this phrase (“kilometres per”)—modified in turn by the quantifier “299,792” (which strikes me as rather a long way to go for a second-travel, or even for a first!)—which would mean that it is functioning here more as a noun. But for the sake of argument (’cause we love that stuff), we’ll diagram it as an adjective.
Oh, the diagram! Let’s get back to it.
Our next discovery is a delightful one: We have a subject complement! (I love when that happens.) Here, it is “the distance light.” (We may have to start docking that copyeditor’s pay, as this would have been more immediately graspable had this additional compound noun also been hyphenated: “distance-light.”) Yet again, I am not clear on the meaning. Fortunately, my purpose is to decode the grammar, not to divine the sense. I’m an editor, not an astrophysicist. But I rather imagine a "distance-light" is a kind of sidereal lighthouse. Quite poetic!
What we have next is a somewhat unfortunate pile-up of appositive phrases. I am not sure how “distance-light” (sing.) can be equated with “second-travels” (pl.), but the structure of this sentence demonstrates very clearly that these terms correspond. “Second-travels” is modified quite spectacularly, first (as mentioned earlier) by “moving at,” then by “kilometres per” (which are in turn quantified by “299,972”) and finally by the prepositional phrase “in a year.”
At this stage, we are offered an alternative. Instead of equating “distance-light” with “second-travels,” we are given the option (such is the function of the “or”) of drawing a parallel with “kilometres” (modified by “trillion,” quantified by “10,” in turn qualified by “about").
How very mysterious! I have no clue how 299,972 kilometres can be equated with 10 trillion kilometres. We may need to consult a science person—preferably someone who’s good with this deep-space stuff.
Judging by the grammar alone, we find that the secret may lie in the sneaky insertion—heavens, a third (or is it fourth?) unhyphenated compound, this time an adjective! (Time to fire that copyeditor!)—of “per.” And that gives us all the information we need. Indubitably, in the world of astrophysics, “kilometre [n.]” does not equal “kilometre-per [adj.]”.
Lastly, we discover that . . . Well, we discover, rather shockingly and anticlimactically, not only that this sentence makes no sense at all, but that it fails to conclude! It’s true. Just look at the diagram, above.
On the whole this is a rather good thing, as not only have we run out of patience, but our diagram has run off the page.
But wait. It has struck us like a lightning bolt (or a meteorite) that there is an easier solution. What happens if we commit a simple comma shift? How much confusion (and silliness) might have been avoided!

“One light year is the distance light, moving at 299,792 kilometres per second, travels in a year, or about 10 trillion kilometres.”

 Given my druthers, I might have rewritten this sentence (actually, there's no “might” about that), but now, all of a sudden, it makes sense.
See how important it is to keep track of your commas?
Thank you, alert reader!

Friday 26 April 2013

The Next Big Thing?

It’s early in this blog to take a side trip, but I have been invited to participate in a global blog tour called “The Next Big Thing?” Tee-hee! I gave myself just enough latitude when I defined this blog’s purpose in a way that allows me to consider the use of language as well as its misuse.
            So not to toot my own horn (or, rather, to stand on a rooftop and give it a great big blast), the language used in this case is my own, and for me it is a VERY big “next big thing.”
            After being tagged by a fellow author or illustrator, each participant in the tour posts the answers to ten questions about their new (or next) book, and then tags two to five people in turn.
            Before I answered the questions, though, I wanted to know more about when and how this game of tag began. Finding the answer took a while (and led me briefly down a false trail), but the very first “The Next Big Thing” post seems to have originated in the blog of Hawaiian writer Toby Neal in June of 2012.
            A few entries later, this little green banner began to float alongside the posts before it disappeared again. An earlier participant suggests that writer Sheila Deeth created it, although she didn't use it in her own blog post. Let’s see how long it hangs on, this time!

            Big thank-yous to Toby Neal for starting the tour (brilliant idea!), and to my friend and colleague Lizann Flatt for tagging me last week. Go read her books!

            And now I’ll answer the ten questions, and tag more authors at the end.

            Happy reading!

(1) What is the working title of your book?
             The Pocket Mommy

(2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
             It was inspired by something my younger son Samuel said. He had a very hard time letting me go when I dropped him off at kindergarten. One day, he said (though a little more elaborately): “Mommy, I hate it when you leave me at school. I wish you were the tiniest mommy in the world, so I could keep you in my pocket all day.”
             In that very instant, I knew there was a book that would begin right there.

(3) In what genre does your book fall?
            It’s a children’s picture book. Is there a fantasy sub-genre within picture-book fiction?

(4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
            I’d love to cast a young Lily Tomlin as the Mommy/Pocket Mommy character. (Thanks to my taggee Kate Jaimet for the suggestion!) Maybe even better: Claire Danes, with a dash of Robin Williams. Or Sandra Oh. It requires an actor who can project warmth and comfort, but also zip and a certain nutty edge.
            For the character of Samuel, we’ll need an open casting call. We’ll be seeking a child who looks sweet and trusting (big blue eyes are a plus), but who can also put his foot down when necessary.
            The real conundrum will be how to cast the guinea pig.

(5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
             Perhaps it’s best summed up by the two sentences that will appear inside the book jacket:
            Samuel wishes for a tiny mommy who can fit into his pocket and spend the day with him at school. When he gets his wish, things don’t go as planned. . . .

(6) Who is publishing your book?
             Tundra Books, Canada’s oldest publisher of children’s books (now a division of Random House)

(7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
            That depends on how one defines “first draft”! Some day, I will give a talk in which I compare what I first got down onto paper with what is actually being published.
             I started sketching out the story in 1996. If you put all the days in which I found time to work on it end to end, it might not span more than a year or two. But there’s no question it’s been a long road. The manuscript was accepted in 2009. I signed the contract in 2011—and emailed my colleagues on the SCBWI Canada listserv to tell them that the weekend after driving my son off to his first year as a university undergraduate, I signed a contract to publish a book inspired by something he said in kindergarten. 
             The book will be released this fall (2013).
             To say that this business moves glacially is to assign it inordinate speed!

(8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
            This is a really tough question, because there are books in other children’s genres that it resembles more closely than the picture books I can think of.
            It shares a little genetic material with any picture book that weaves a fantastical element into an otherwise realistically portrayed child’s world. So maybe something like Jan Brett’s The Mitten would be a distant cousin. Or Amy Schwartz’s Bea and Mr. Jones, with which it shares a kindergarten setting. Another real-world-with-a-twist sort of tale is Perfect the Pig by Susan Jeschke. Or Eloise by Kay Thompson.
            There are a lot of books that focus matter-of-factly on the interaction between the child and a fantasy element, like Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, Robert Munch’s A Promise is a Promise, or (dare I say so?) Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
            My hope is it will offer comfort similar to what can be found in Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, or Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger, or Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.
             And a couple of turns of phrase crept in that I came to think of as secret tributes to A.A. Milne.
             But it differs from any of these books by at least as much as it resembles them!

(9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
            See question number two. ;)
            Lots of kids have a hard time with being dropped off—including my older son, for whom I made a “mommy doll” out of a sock, with blue button eyes and red yarn hair. Knowing what a universal tug this is for both parent and child certainly inspired me to write the story.

(10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
            The wonderful art by Tom Goldsmith, of course. Go check out the energy, the humour, and the sheer virtuosity of his drawings. It was really exciting to watch him bring my story to life.
            Finally, there is the sentence that closes Tundra’s description of the book, which was contributed by my brilliant editor, Samantha Swenson. If this doesn’t make you want to read the book (and buy it for every small child you know), I don’t know what will.
            An energetic romp with a sweet core, The Pocket Mommy follows one little boy as he navigates the age-old conflict between the comfort of the familiar and the joy of letting go.

            And now (at 11:50 p.m., or one minute before my deadline) I tag

Kate Jaimet                                                and                                               Terri Farley.

Friday 4 May 2012

In Case of Fire . . .

I’m learning! Blogs are most lively with pictures. So here’s an  image to contemplate as we discuss what will be an overarching question of this blog: Does clear English matter?

In case you can’t see the photo, it's a fancy sign that I encountered beside the elevators in a retirement home. The relevant lines proclaim (erroneous capitalization and all):

In Case Of Fire
Elevators Are Out Of Service.

The establishment’s intended meaning is clear: If fire breaks out, don’t wait for an elevator, because it won’t come. There is no reason to doubt that they mean what they say.

But sap that I am, I expect signs--and sentences--to say what they mean, and this wording caused me to do some mental translation (a professional hazard). While most folks would immediately grasp that they’ll need to take the stairs in the event of fire, this wording actually suggests that the elevators have already been turned off.

Don't believe me? I'll prove it. English is flexible when it comes to word order. Nuance may change when you shift a sentence’s components around, but meaning is rarely affected. Possibly even never. (Challenge! Find me an English sentence that shifts meaning when its word order is changed.)

Take the second sentence of this post, for example: “Blogs are most lively with pictures.” You can say “blogs with pictures are most lively” or “with pictures, blogs are most lively” or even (but clumsily) “blogs are with pictures most lively” without changing the meaning. See?

But look what happens when we flip our elevator sign around. “Elevators are out of service in case of fire.” Yikes! Why didn’t you say so? It is suddenly clear that the establishment is so worried by the eventuality of fire that they have turned off the elevators as a preventive measure! Let’s get out of here! "Use exit!"

Clear English matters.

P.S. Could it be that someone was made uneasy by the ambiguity?This sign is posted nearby:

Thursday 8 March 2012

Who you gonna call?

Discussions about grammar and language are often characterized as face-offs between prescriptivists (underwear-ironing purists who can’t die out quickly enough) and descriptionists (lusty progressives who choose to break the rules to connect with the masses).
            These particular images come from a guest post at the Essay Expert by Steven Sawyer. You can guess to which camp he swears allegiance.*
            It’s descriptionists who tend to frame the discussion in black and white. Prescriptivists are too busy enjoying the ebb and flow of living language, weighing riveting usage dilemmas, and helping friends ford ticklish linguistic waters to be fussed about being called prissy prudes by those who think the mere fact that people do it makes it right.
            I am indeed a prescriptivist, athough it would never occur to me to iron my underwear. (My attitude to most housekeeping is: “Who has time?”) What is missing from this scenario—and too often from the way English is taught—is nuance. Fine editing, like good writing, is as much art as science. Within the arena of what’s considered acceptable, there is abundant choice. Serial comma or not? Absolutely, say I, but I defend your right to choose otherwise—if you understand that it’s not as simple as choosing whether or not to include a comma before “and.” Meter or metre? It may depend on where you are, who you are, or what you’re trying to say. In most cases, what’s important is being consistent, not which option you select.
            Most reasonable prescriptivists understand that language continually evolves. Many enjoy watching the progression that new usages follow on their way to becoming accepted. Thus, I enjoy hearing my sons (who use English beautifully) refer to a seedy area as sketchy, describe themselves as rocking a particular look, or use google or friend as verbs. It’s okay. English didn’t get where it is today (i.e., pretty much everywhere) by being inflexible.
            There are times when you will want to know the difference between its and it’s, when to deploy whom, and that if you emitted saliva yesterday you did not spit but spat. You may wish to use the written word to sway your sweetie, impress your boss, sail your manuscript into the acceptance pile, or confound your enemies. You’ll need to use clear, energetic language that does not distract with errors or ambiguities.
           When that day comes, who you gonna call?** The guy who says, “It’s fine, honey. Putting it into words makes it legitimate!”? Or the expert who delights in helping you express yourself in the best English you can possibly muster?
            I’m only a query away.

*Note to descriptionists: Yes, it would have been equally acceptable to write: “You can guess which camp he swears allegiance to.” Didn’t wanna.
**Note to Sony Pictures: Don’t sue me! Not only do I know this is not a proper sentence, I know it’s yours. But asking “Whom will you phone?” would take all the guts out of my first-ever blog post and sacrifice a priceless cultural reference. Don’t worry!  99.9% of my readers will know this comes from Ghostbusters. That’s the point!