Orthography Is Not Speech

First of all, I’ve got my logo up; not too bad for an amatueur, I think. Now, on to actual content!

Let me just say that I read a lot of amateur fiction. I know, the whole world is laughing at me now, but just hear me out. A lot of it is really good, and some of it I wish could get published professionally. Now, a lot of it can’t be because it’s fanfiction (copyright laws and all, although I think some people who write in collective universes like the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which is essentially professional fanfiction, should be able to get some of their ideas out there), or because the medium precludes such considerations (Stefan Gagne’s Sailor Nothing is one example: most of it might work if the publisher were willing to spend enough on formatting, but chapter 7 wouldn’t work at all). However, I’ve noticed some things that people are doing that have become pet peeves for me.

  • What the hell happened to “percent?”

    First of all, people seem to be dropping the word “percent” lately. I see things like “100 of women are crazy,” or “Playing janken against a computer is pure luck; you always win 33 of the time.” Without the word “percent,” that makes absolutely no sense. Oh, sure, I can figure out what they mean because I know what word is missing. However, such omission errors are usually due to spoken and written language colliding. There are lots of words that get left out of normal speech that it looks awkward to write without, and I forgive people for writing like that most of the time, since they are amateur writers. Writing is, as my linguistics professors keep expounding, parasitic upon spoken language, so people without training (or at least without training since they began writing, since most people forget what they learned in grade school as unimportant) tend to write like they speak (including the unfortunate inclusion of commas wherever speech has a natural break because that is the rule of thumb most elementary school teachers (wrongly) suggest using).

    However, this error doesn’t come from speech. Have you ever heard anyone leave out the word “percent” in speech without them realizing it was wrong? Of course not. It sounds ridiculous, and it looks even worse due to the inherent formality of orthography.

  • Non-periphrastic passives?

    Unlike your English teacher, I have no problem with the passive voice. In fact, as a Clacissist, I am a big fan, and I have been known (see, right there!) to write lengthy sentences full of passives, participles and appositions. However, like all linguistic constructions, the passive has a certain construction without which it cannot be parsed. In English, as in most modern IE languages, this is a periphrastic construction, meaning that, rather than being a single verb form (like Latin (amo->amor) or ancient Greek (ἔρω->ἔρομαι)), it requires a participle and a helping verb, in this case the passive participle (usually, but not always, identical to the past form in English) preceeded by the verb “to be.” For instance, if I eat an apple, the apple is eaten by me. If you read a book, the book is read by you.

    Lately, however, I’ve been seeing stories chock-full of passives without the verb “to be.” This usually occurs in subordinate clauses or other places wherein “to be” would be an infinitive. For example, “The apple is about to be eaten,” would come out as “The apple is about eaten.” Perhaps not the best example, as that has an ambiguous meaning (the latter could be equivalent to “the apple is nearly completely eaten”), whereas most of the examples I’ve seen are not so ambiguous, but it’s still a problem. It seems to come up most often in erotic fiction, where some authors entirely replace “to be fucked” with just “fucked.” Seriously, I know that some suspension of quality expectation is needed when reading amateur erotica, but it’s hard to keep it up when someone says “I need fucked,” and my only possible response is “Um… you need what?”

  • Commas are not your friends

    I mentioned this above in the percent section, but it’s something that particularly annoys me even though (as mentioned above) I know where it comes from. Commas, in spite of the rule of thumb you learned in elementary school, do not go everywhere there is a natural pause in speech. Most pauses are prosodic, meaning that they are part of the natural rhythms of language, and a native speaker of the language will be able to insert them without your pointing out where they belong. A comma has three purposes:

    1. To set off appositions: a word or phrase that is equivalent to another word or phrase that is part of the main sentence, but said differently in order to expand your knowledge of that word or phrase; for example, “I met your friend, John, today.” Here, “John” is in apposition to “your friend.”
    2. To set off subordinate clauses:

      any phrase which has a subject and a predicate, but (due to a variety of reasons such as the verb being infinitive or there being a subordinating complementizer like “if”) cannot stand on its own must be separated from its parent clause by a comma (and I bet a lot of you thought there should be a comma between “own” and “must”). “If you understand this, you should know how to use commas.” You won’t see commas used this way when a subordinate clause is actually the direct object of a verb (“I saw you were being a jackass.”), but you will if the clause is moved to the beginning of the sentence (“You were being a jackass, I saw.”) A special case is quotation which is subordinate only because it is the direct object of a verb of speaking or thinking. This should always have a comma before the quotation marks if no other punctuation present (John said, “Clean up your act,” to me.)

    3. As or with conjunctions:

      Conjunctions are words like “or,” “and,” “but,” “either” and “nor” which combine two similar elements such as nouns, noun phrases, verbs, clauses, prepositions, prepositional phrases or really anything else. If you could have a conjunction but it’s alright to leave it out, like in a list, (apposition!) you use a comma. (There is some argument about having a comma accompanying the conjunction at the end of a list; as far as I can tell, either way is okay.) Commas also set off subordinating conjunctions like “however” and “indeed” (yes, those are conjunctions, albeit not as strong as coordinating conjunctions) and accompany coordinating conjunctions that connect entire clauses except “because.” No, I don’t know why; just deal with it.

    I didn’t include every case because there are actually a lot of minor details about comma use that are not worth going into here, and errors in which I can tolerate because they are relatively obscure rules. Besides, almost all of those are essentially derivatives of the rules I’ve already mentioned.

  • Apostrophes don’t like you either:

    Do I really need to get into this? Okay, apostrophes do three things in English: They serve as quotation marks within quotation marks (I don’t mind that one not being followed usually), they attach to the genitive determiner “s” to show possession, and they get inserted into elisons (words that are missing bits). Some of these elisons are conventional (Did you know that “o’clock” is actually an elison of “of the clock?” Well, now you do!), and some are there for an obvious reason (“it is”–> “it’s”). It’s not that hard; if you know that a phrase can be said a long way and a short way, and the short way is just missing a few sounds rathter than a whole word or phrase, use an apostrophe! As for possession, here’s three simple rules:

    1. Pronouns do not use apostrophes. Technically, they become possessive pronouns rather than adding -s to the end, so there’s no place for the apostrophe to go. Hence, “The dog ate its bone,” not “it’s bone,” and “The book was hers,” not (::shudder::) “her’s.”
    2. Nouns use ‘s to show possession. John’s dog. Mary’s cat. The cat’s food. Any questions?
    3. Plural nouns ending in -s only add the apostrophe. Plural nouns that do not end in -s (like “people”) get the full ‘s (The people’s court). Single nouns that end in “s” get the full ‘s (The goose’s egg). This doesn’t work if the plural is of a noun that ended in -s to begin with and doesn’t add an additional -s (The geese’s eggs).

    For some reason, this is a particularly prevalent problem with decades and family names. I grew up in the 90s. The first family is the Obamas. I did not grow up in the 90’s (although I suppose I did grow up with the 90’s). The first family… Well, they are the Obama’s, but meaning that they belong to the Obamas, which is true only because anyone who is not a slave can be said to own themselves. I’m not entirely certain why, but this one really pisses me off.

  • Homophones are similar but not congruent:

    Do I really have to say anything? Two, to, too. Your, you’re. Their, there, they’re. How many times have you heard those? When you’re speaking, pronunciation counts. Okay, so these are all pronounced the same (within their sets), but you’re not speaking anymore; you’re writing. That means that, oh my gosh, it’s not pronunciation that matters anymore, but spelling! Remember, it’s eating its bone. The two brothers are going to New York, too. They’re certain that their home is there. You might break your car if you don’t brake your car. I accept all immigrants except the illegal ones. (Thepreceedingsentencesareusedsolelytodemonstrategrammaticalconceptsanddonotnecessarily

Wow, that wound up being a little longer than I originally expected. Well, that’s because I’m getting more pissed off at this stuff than I originally thought, I guess. Remember, I’m a linguist; that means that I’m more into descriptive than prescriptive grammar (and I particularly love making fun of that if the first person pronoun is in a list it has to come last rule that formal English has). However, I’m also a clacissist and a writer, and that means that I know that orthography is not the same thing as speech. Speech is for immediate communication with those who speak the same or similar languages. Writing is meant to be diseminated within a larger context, among people who might have vastly divergent dialects, accents and pronunciations. Therefore, the rules of writing are more rigid, in order to ensure that it remains a common medium for the largest possible group. In other words, by contributing to the degeneration of the solidity of orthographic rules, you are actually helping to shrink the potential audience for your work! So stop doing it! It’s not that hard to learn to write properly; you learned to write in the first place, didn’t you?


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