Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In which I prove I'm not dead by blogging again

Here goes a few belated recaps from the ACES conference sessions. I'll start with Merrill Perlman's great "If I Knew Only" presentation. It was the perfect way to get the conference going, focusing on nuts-and-bolts editing and some bugaboos writers and editors often miss.

Merill had the perfect example about how the placement of "only" can change the meaning of a sentence. Start with "I hit him in the eye yesterday." Add the world only in different places and watch how the emphasis changes:
Only I hit him in the eye yesterday. (No one else hit him.)
I only hit him in the eye yesterday. (I also considered slapping and poking.)
I hit only him in the eye yesterday. (I could have hit plenty of others.)
I hit him only in the eye yesterday. (Not in the nose or the mouth.)
I hit him in the eye only yesterday. (Ah, what a day that was.)
I hit him in the eye yesterday only. (Had it been two days in a row, then you could be mad.)

One thing I love about Merrill's explanations is that she's not afraid to explain rules in terms we can all understand. We don't need to spout off about "pronoun-antecedent agreement errors" in order to know that a company shares its (not their) earnings report.

Bottom line: She won't make you feel like an idiot for using tricks to remember.

Some of the other staples she covered:
  • That vs. which
  • Who vs. whom: "If you can switch the sentence around and replace "who" with "he," the "who" is correct. If "him" fits, you want "whom." For example: "Bob, whom they described as snarky..." would switch to "They described him as snarky." "Whom" is right." Another example: "Bob, who they said was snarky..." would switch to "They said he was snarky." "Who" is right.
  • Due to vs. because of: A "due to" must point to a noun, not a long noun phrase or ve. For example: "Due to snow, school was cancelled." What is due to the snow? Your answer must be a noun: A cancellation, not a cancelled. So "due to" is wrong in that instance.
  • Danglers: You don't want to mislead the reader for even a nanosecond. So even if readers could eventually figure out what the writer meant, that's no reason to lead them down the wrong path. For example: "Fat and sassy, Marlon Brando loves his corgi." Who is fat and sassy -- Brando or his dog? Don't make the reader guess. Another example: "Jennifer said that after picking Brad up for the concert, they went out for ice cream." Who picked Brad up? It wasn't "they." A third example: "The party was called off after running out of food." Who ran out of food? There's no noun here to tell.
  • Ellipses in quotes: They are dishonest to the reader, Merrill says. She's against these more than most editors, I'd say, but it's hard to go wrong if you follow her rule. Remember, she reminded us, not all quotes are good quotes. You can -- and should -- paraphrase.
That last point, about quotes, is probably the most important in this post. You can let a few fine grammatical points through a story without disturbing much. But mess with quotes -- or make a reader start wondering what you left out and why -- and you're messing with readers' trust.

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