Guest Post from Lauren Carr on Grammar


Now, every editor has a thing or two or three or dozen, in which they will not trust their knowledge, but will look it up in their style manual every single time. For me, the question of a proper name ending in “s” and used in possessive is one of those things. The Chicago Style Manual called for this possessive to be “s’”, not “s’s”.

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Well, the author said I was wrong and that it is supposed to be “s’s”.

So, I looked it up again, not just in the Chicago Style Manual, but several sites on the Internet. Not only did I discover that the answer varies in the Chicago Style Manual depending on which edition you use, but I also found a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States had gotten involved in this very argument while writing a decision on a case! Even the justices disagreed! Clarence Thomas (who should know since his name ends in an “s”) declared that it is “s’”.

I let the author have the last word and changed all of the possessive references for this character to “s’s”.

Then, upon proofing the book, the author brought in his daughter, a technical writer, who declared that it should be “s’”, without the extra “s”.

So I had to change it back.

Many people who are not in the business of writing, editing, or publishing fiction fail to realize that many of the grammar and punctuation rules that we were taught as being carved in stone really are not—especially when it comes to fiction.

Since working with new writers on their first books, I have been amazed by how many have friends who are grammar teachers, or professional technical writers, who suddenly come out of the woodwork when it comes to proofing (not editing) their buddy’s first book. These friends are more than ready to criticize how the book has been edited. Unfortunately, these friends, who are well meaning and probably have the apostrophe rules down pat, are not experienced editors of fiction, which is as specialized, and different, as technical editing.

If you needed a heart transplant, would you ask your neighbor, who happens to be a brain surgeon, to perform the operation or to stand by in the operating room to second guess your heart surgeon?

My point in this post is not to gripe (maybe it is), but it is also to educate new writers, and readers and reviewers, that when proofing, or reading fiction, what we would call “basic grammar and punctuation” is not really so basic when it comes to editing fiction.

Example: Can you imagine Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn written in the Queen’s English? Well, it isn’t. If a high school language arts teacher had gotten her hands on that novel …

Editors of fiction have to take the author’s voice, the character’s point of view, the reading audience, and how the general population reads novels into consideration when it comes to editing a novel.  YA audiences read present day erotica differently than readers with a more educated palate will read a sweeping historical epic. As a result, the editing needs to be adjusted accordingly. 

Sometimes, due to the character’s point of view and the circumstance—like a climactic scene—the passage will call for fragmented sentences that would make your eighth grade language arts teacher’s hair curl.  Or maybe another passage will call for long run-on sentences.

Now, this is not to say that when it comes to writing that we should toss out our high school grammar books and let anything go. No, that is not my point.

When reading fiction, I have found that I have grown to become more forgiving of what previously I would have viewed as blatant grammatical errors, because maybe in some style manual somewhere this error is not incorrect. Unless it is a glaring misuse of the words there, they’re, and their. That I cannot forgive—or is the Supreme Court of the United States arguing about that, too?

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11 responses »

  1. Timely for me, especially in regard to the “s'” issue. I’ve currently got a POV character with a name that ends in s and I’ve been running into that one. I’ve decided to go with “s'” and not the extra “s”… but some days in editing, I’m tempted to change it. I probably won’t. Maybe.

  2. An interesting post. Personally I would say that if a word ends in s then the apostrophe should come directly after said s, without adding an extra s on. But I’m sure that varies across the globe.

    Not every reader seems to realise that writers may experiment with different style of dialogue/spelling/punctuation and general writing style in order to create more atmosphere or more authenticity within a story. Interesting points raised. I can relate to this! 😉

  3. I made the mistake of having a couple characters’ last names end with ‘S’ in my first book. I’m going to try to avoid that this time around, since I could never figure out which possessive form was correct!

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