One of my year-end tasks is going through a fat desktop folder labeled “GRIST.” It contains writing examples, some sent by Quill readers, that I saved during the year and now must sort, read, write about or toss.
Within my GRIST folder is another folder, labeled “SNARK.” In that folder are passages from professional wordsmiths who seem to know less about words than people who aren’t wordsmiths.
My SNARK folder contains perennial peeves — the eye-rollers, teeth-gritters and head-bangers that make you cringe and that won’t go away no matter what you do. It contains maddeningly basic errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage — errors so elementary they should never be a problem for professional wordsmiths.
Errors such as “between you and I.” Or “alot” instead of a lot. “Peak” instead of pique. Misused and overused quotation marks and apostrophes. “An historic” instead of a historic. Problems with to/too/two. Or their/they’re/there. Develop spelled “develope.” Definitely spelled “definately.” Lose spelled “loose.”
In other words, kid stuff.
Also in my GRIST folder is yet another, slimmer folder labeled “CHARLATANRY.” What’s here? Sometimes weird stuff — illogic in form or content or oddities for which there’s no ready explanation or category:
• “Kate Bosworth has defected eyes … One is blue and one is hazel.” Neither “defected” nor “defective” will do here. Defectedis not an adjective in any case; it’s a verb. And it means to reject your homeland or to abandon allegiance. The adjective defective is inaccurate as well, since neither eye is defective; it’s just that the pigment of each is different.
• “That’s why you see this public confliction over ISIS.” That’s right. Don’t know the word? Just make it up. The word is conflict.
• “Witnesses described him as a dark-complected man.” Ahem. Dark-complexioned.
• “Lady Bird Johnson was gracious to her rude critics and refused to rise to their level.” This writer means descend to their level.
• “O’Brien, a physician, admits that he loves cats and has had a few himself.” Why is this an “admission”? To admit means to accept responsibility for some wrong-doing. There’s nothing wrong with loving or owning cats. The neutral word we need here is acknowledges.
• “The terrorists claimed creditfor the killings.” The terrorists may indeed have “claimed credit,” but among the sane, we’d write took the blame.
• “As far as the murder charges, the judge said Pistorius’s account could reasonably be true.” “As far as” structure must be completed: “as far as something is concerned,” or “as far as something goes.” (“As far as the murder charges are concerned, the judge said …) Another easy fix, though, is to change “as far as” to “as for”: As for the murder charges, the judge said …
My “CHARLATANRY” folder also contains the work of people who advance themselves as writing experts but whose own writing suggests otherwise.
Consider this promotional copy from a ghostwriter with “35 years of experience”:
“When a writer brings the passion they have for their work and combines it with … [the ghostwriter’s] passion to see the finished project in print, books are published and the writer’s legacy is passed forward.”
This passage violates pronoun/antecedent agreement twice (a writer/they/their) and finishes with a pair of awkward passive voice structures (books “are published” and the writer’s legacy is “passed forward”).
“The ‘house’ author found himself dealing with three different editors … each with their own ‘read’ of how the book should be ‘strengthened.’ He often felt as if he was defending himself and the way he had created his characters and storyline.”
He had three different editors? Of course they were different (that is, separate from each other). Each with their own read? He felt as if he was? (This is subjunctive — therefore, if he were.) Why are house and strengthened in quotation marks? They’re not coinages or irony or figures of speech.
So, what do you think? Am I merely being snarky? Not merely. When people hire a professional ghostwriter, they do so assuming the ghostwriter has the writing skills they lack. Yet, here’s a ghostwriter who can’t write polished copy even for a brief best-foot-forward promotional blurb. What might she do to a 300-page manuscript?
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line,” among other works. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com