Thursday, June 28, 2007

Too many thats?

I attended a Words for the Journey Meeting (Rocky Mountain Region) earlier this week. In a conversation I had with an author after the meeting, she asked a question about the copy editing she'd had done in preparation for her book coming out later this year. A good question about the use of the relative pronoun that. I’ve sometimes heard the overuse of that called "that attacks." Plus that is a word Angela Hunt calls a “weasel word,” meaning "take it out whenever possible." Following is my answer to this author:

The only place I found a good explanation of this issue is in The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference (by Gary Lutz & Diane Stevenson, Writers Digest Books, 2005, pp. 194/95 Chapter 16 “Two Special Problems with That”). Here are a few excerpts from that chapter (I’ve done the correct omissions in blue):
16A Omission of that from the Start of a Nominative Dependent Clause

Do not omit the indefinite relative pronoun that from the beginning of a nominative dependent clause if the subject of the clause is likely to be misread as the direct object of a transitive verb in the clause immediately preceding. Despite the widespread notion that that is a superfluous and discardable word, the inclusion of that often improves the readability of the sentence.

Consider this sentence: When a researcher discovers a new strain of flu could threaten a large segment of the population, the ethics panel determines whether the public should be notified immediately. Readers can initially misconstrue strain as the direct object of discovers. Only when they read the helping verb could will they realize that they have misread the sentence. The inclusion of that between discovers and a will ensure that readers can traverse the sentence without stumbling. . . .

Corrective additions to the following sentences have been boldfaced and bracketed.
  • Mr. Green noticed [that] the kids he continued to bring to practice with him improved greatly.
  • But on board his flight to Los Angeles, he found [that] the promised seat-back TVs were missing, and the bottled water ran out halfway there.
  • I think it [the movie] should be required viewing for every American, but as usual, I fear [that] the people who could learn the most from the issues it raises will avoid it like a fund-raiser for free abortions.

The indefinite relative pronoun that can usually be omitted following verbs such as say, think, and hope, because there is no possibility of misreading: She said the food was overcooked. I thought the girl looked pale. He hopes the incumbent wins the election.

If two or more nominative dependent clauses follow a transitive verb, be sure to phrase the clauses in parallel form. . . .
Faulty: I realized I was going to be late for the meeting and that there was nothing I could do.
Correct: I realized that I was going to be late for the meeting and that there was nothing I could do.
Correct: I realized that I was going to be late for the meeting and there was nothing I could do.
In this revision, the first that is implicitly carried forward to the start of the second dependent clause, and the absence of a comma before and signals to the reader that what follows is another dependent clause and not a second independent clause.

16B Erroneous Doubled that

Writers sometimes mistakenly insert that at both ends of a dependent clause: He knows that if he oversleeps again that he might lose his job. The second that is superfluous and ungrammatical. A comma should be inserted in its place.

In each of the two following sentences, the second, bracketed that should be replaced by a comma.
  • The PA Department of Revenue knows that no matter how careful a taxpayer is about reporting their income on the Personal Income Tax return [that] mistakes and oversights can happen.
  • Many think that when they enter a highway from an on ramp [that] the approaching right lane traffic is required to move to the left lane in order to allow them to enter the traffic flow without interruption.

In the second sentence of the following excerpt, the third, bracketed that must be deleted, and it would be advisable to insert then in its place.
  • Valentine’s Day is this weekend; if you are alone, it is your fault. So embrace your responsibility, feel that pain, and consider that if you are without a companion at 35—when you still have a fairly decent body—[that] when you die at 80, there will certainly be no one at your beside.

In researching this topic, I learned some new concepts, which will help me be more aware of this issue. I hope this helps you, too.

Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Confusing Comma

I’ve decided to start my editing tips with punctuation, the comma specifically. And if you think I can cover everything you need to know about the comma in one post. . .think again! J When it comes to punctuation, the rules and the ever-present exceptions for the comma seem to be the most confusing.

Today I want to talk about the comma that that is used to separate two independent clauses when combined with a coordinating conjunction. A simple definition of an independent clause is a subject and verb combination that expresses a complete thought. In other words, it doesn’t make you want to ask a question in order to complete the thought. For example, She ran away is a complete thought as opposed to Though she ran away. . . . A coordinating conjunction joins similar sentence components. An easy way to remember which words are coordinating conjunctions is to remember fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (For those of you who are grammar “freaks” like me, fanboys is known as a mnemonic device J.)

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (the publishing industry’s style standard for books), a comma usually precedes the conjunction when two independent clauses are joined with one of the fanboys. The exception to the rule (and, yes, there are usually exceptions—that’s what makes English so interesting!): If the two independent sentences are short and closely related, you may omit the comma.

Mike will work the first shift, but Lucy will have to work the second shift.
Joe munched on a hamburger, and I indulged in a hot-fudge sundae.
The exception:
Timothy played the guitar and Betty sang.

The problem I see often is the use of the comma before any coordinating conjunction. For example: He was at least sixty years old, with lively blue eyes, and a leathery complexion that proved he’d spent many of his years outdoors. In this case the comma after eyes is incorrect as it is separating a compound object of the preposition with. This sentence should read: He was at least sixty years old, with lively blue eyes and a leathery complexion that proved he’d spent many of his years outdoors. Another example: The race car spun out, and hit the wall. In this case the comma is separating a simple compound verb: spun out and hit. Only two verbs. It doesn’t need the comma. This sentence should read: The race car spun out and hit the wall.

Okay, that’s enough on the comma for today. Please leave a comment, especially if you have a question. Next time we’ll talk about the “serial comma.” (And, no, it has nothing to do with serial killers—for those of us who read and write mystery, suspense, or thrillers.)

Thursday, June 21, 2007


This is a new adventure in my life. Blog? Me? “I don’t have anything to say” has been my excuse for several years now. But after sitting in a workshop taught by my good writing friend Paula Moldenhauer, I realized that this is the next step in the journey the Lord has directed me to. So with the help of another good friend, Heather Tipton, I’m now blogging.

I’m a freelance editor, proofreader, and writer. And yes, each of those things interconnect. Seven years ago my daughter graduated high school, and we searched for ways to help her pay for her college bill. That same year I went from teaching English and Spanish part-time to full-time, but since it was a Christian high school, the pay wasn’t quite enough to cover all the bills. Then Marlene Bagnull, the director of the Colorado and Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conferences, gave my name to an editor at Barbour Publishing as a potential proofreader. I took their test, passed, and began proofreading part-time. Two years ago, at God’s nudging, I “retired” from teaching and entered the freelance world full-time. At that time I took the proofreading test for Thomas Nelson Fiction, and they added me to their proofreading corp. That summer I also started reviewing fiction manuscripts for a local agent. That led to several individual clients, some established authors, some new. And I discovered, much to my amazement, that the Lord has gifted me with the ability to help authors get their work to the next level. I especially enjoy working with new authors, helping them learn the craft of writing, and I rejoice when they get their first publishing contracts . . . almost as much as if it were my own contract. This year two of the authors I’ve worked with are on the Christy Awards finalist list: MaryLu Tyndall and Maureen Lang. Wow, God is so good!

The Writer’s Tool will focus on self-editing helps for writers. As a person who loves order, I find grammar easy to understand . . . even with all the exceptions in the English language. So to start with, I plan to post twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays), and at least once a week I’ll post on grammar. And we’ll start with the comma . . . the one form of punctuation that is poorly understood J. Other times I’ll post book reviews and interviews with authors, other editors, and those who work within the book-publishing world. I may even blog a little on my own writing journey, which has definitely seen some major ups and downs in the last twenty plus years I’ve been learning and working at the craft.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Please leave your comments and questions—I love questions! And no question is “silly” or “foolish” when you are seeking to learn. So please ask away. My readers are the ones who will determine the subject matter of my posts. I look forward to hearing from each of you. And thank you for joining me on this new adventure.