phrasing questions correctly

I’ve never been strict about using correct grammar in speech, especially when it’s in informal settings like in everyday conversation. It’s a bit of that ‘it’s okay as long as it’s understandable’ attitude that quite a few of us have, since we’re throwing so many languages into the mix and it’s impossible to set any standard of correctness anyway. However, it shouldn’t carry over into formal writing. Even if you’re writing a short story or a novel, it should only make an appearance in dialogue.

This is understandable to almost anyone, especially when said with the right intonation:

Why Susan didn’t go with her family?  ❌

Or the slightly worse offender: 

Why Susan not go with her family?  ❌

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all creatures great and small

The discussion about favourite authors (the ones we read, not the ones we worked with) came up in a conversation once, while we were driving back from lunch. It was the radio’s fault, probably; it was talking about the Big Bad Wolf book sale. 

‘I like James Herriot,’ said Jenna, when Mei asked who hers was. 

I drew a complete blank at the name. ‘I don’t think I know him, sorry.’

Disbelief radiated from both the passenger side and the back seat. I wasn’t sure whether it was because he was a very popular author, or it was because I was disabusing their notion that I was very well-read. I concentrated on the road instead. 

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‘discuss’ and ‘have a discussion about’

Here’s a pretty common mistake I see in Malaysian English:

We are here to discuss about the long-term effects of social isolation. ❌

It doesn’t sound wrong, does it? But here’s the thing: it’s either you ‘discuss’ something or ‘have a discussion about’ something. 

We are here to discuss the long-term effects of social isolation. ✔️
We are here to have a discussion about the long-term effects of social isolation. ✔️

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fifty shades of ridiculous, more like

Despite all the years I worked in publishing, I didn’t really meet that many readers. Sure, we talked about things we were working on, often in exhaustive technical detail, but there wasn’t really much discussion about books and reading in general. Once in a while, though, something really ridiculous would come up.

It was a team lunch, and there were the usual complaints about authors and schedulers and typesetters and marketing people and what-have-yous. Somehow, EL James got dragged into it. ‘It’s not like you have to be good to be published,’ scoffed Prema as I tried to flag down a waiter. ‘Just look at that Fifty Shades book.’

‘Has anyone actually read that book?’ I wondered, looking around the crowded restaurant. Too many people and too much noise; you could barely hear what the person across the table was saying. ‘Why do we keep bashing it?’

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‘extend’ and ‘extent’

A report I’m editing keeps using the phrase ‘to a certain extend …’. It is slowly driving me up the wall. You need a noun there. To a certain extent. To a large degree. In some measure.

When you say both parties agree with each other to a certain extent, it means they agree up to some limit. There are still things they don’t agree on. If something is true to a certain extent, then not all of it is true.

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November reading wrap-up

Four books finished in November:

  • Caliban’s War by James S A Corey
  • The Next Together by Lauren James
  • The Masnavi, Book One by Rumi (translated by Jawid Mojaddedi)
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Caliban’s War by James S A Corey

The second book in The Expanse series. I enjoyed this very much, but it won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first book, Leviathan Wakes. Basically: humanity has colonised the solar system, and tensions between Earth, Mars and the outer planets are high. A lot of things are going on! The technology is believable, the cultural and physical shifts that happened as humans spread out into space are intriguing, and the characters are mostly likeable. And that’s just the first book.

I like the new characters that were introduced here (Avasarala! Bobbie! Prax! Okay, so I like all the POV characters) and the story is still fast-paced and exciting, building on what happened in Leviathan Wakes

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checks and balances

The phrase ‘checks and balances’ is always treated as a plural noun. The mistake that I usually see is that it’s used as if both of the elements in the phrase are singular: 

There must always be a check and balance. ❌

I tend to reword the sentence and ask the authors to see if they actually mean something like this:

There must always be a system of checks and balances. ✅

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be a responsible writer

It often amazes me that people (who sometimes call themselves ‘authors’) don’t think anyone would catch them when they plagiarise stuff. (Yes, this is a direct response to this issue here.) It’s something I’ve come across pretty often as an editor, though nothing quite as egregious as in the book in the link.

Usually it’s a paragraph or two or three, sneakily inserted in the middle of a chapter. Sometimes writers get away with it, sure. Most of the time the editors notice. There’s always a change in tone, or the style of writing, or even in vocabulary and word choice when you copy something directly instead of rewriting it in your own words. There were times I got suspicious simply because the word order and emphasis were a little off. Other times it was because the language suddenly became perfectly correct when earlier there were always some grammar mistakes here and there. 

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classics: not my cup of tea

‘I was trying to get through this book my sister had, something by Henry James, but it had so many long-winded sentences,’ said Mei while we were waiting for take-out. Pizza, this time, for someone’s farewell party. We could have had them delivered, but there were extra discounts for self-pickups. ‘What was it called … I’ve forgotten.’

The Domino’s outlet we went to was cold and mostly empty. It didn’t have WiFi. One wall had quotes written all over it and one of the more rambling quotes had reminded Mei of the book. ‘The Wings of the Dove?’ I suggested, keying in James’s name into Goodreads on my phone to see what I could find. Mei didn’t even have a smartphone. I usually held back from using mine when I was out with her.

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