Written by Carl Rosenberg; copy edited by Meagan Kus
On Saturday, April 22, Editors BC will present Frances Peck, who will give a full-day seminar called “The Secrets of Syntax.” In this seminar, participants will look at syntax from various angles and explore how to shape it for different kinds of texts, styles, and readers.
Frances is a Certified Professional Editor (Hon.) and writer who has worked with words for over 25 years. She prepared the Canadian edition of The St. Martin’s Workbook, a grammar exercise book; co-authored the popular HyperGrammar website; and wrote Peck’s English Pointers, a collection of articles and quizzes available on the Language Portal of Canada. A partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, Frances teaches at Douglas College and UBC and gives workshops across Canada. She is also a sometime blogger and a fiction writer.
Carl Rosenberg, a volunteer on Editors BC’s communications and social media committee, spoke to Frances about her work on language and syntax.
Hello, Frances! Thank you for taking the time to chat with our readers. Tell us how you came to your career as a writer, editor, and grammarian.
It was an accident—well, except for the writing. I’d always been a writer. From grade three on, I wrote everything I could think of: stories, poems, plays, magazines (including the ads), chapters, cartoons, even a school newspaper. But editing and grammar kind of fell on me.
About a week before I started my MA in English at the University of Ottawa, someone bailed out of teaching a 100-level English course, Grammar and Composition. All the PhD students must have said no, because the department asked me to take over the course. I was young, green, and poor enough to say yes. I learned on the fly but came to really enjoy grammar. Then I thought, why not fix other people’s for money?
Why is it important for writers and editors to understand syntax?
For so many of us, what we do with language is instinctive. Instincts are great. If we didn’t have them, we’d be, I don’t know, lab technicians or structural engineers or something. But when you layer an awareness of syntax over good instincts, you can take language in some really fascinating directions.
Joan Didion said it best: “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.” Like photographers, we language people need to understand our sentence frames and lenses.
How does knowledge of syntax complement other aspects of writing and editing?
Syntax directly affects clarity. Writers and editors of informational material can do a better job of getting the message across if they know which sentence structures are easy to read and which are challenging. Syntax also determines emphasis and rhythm. Speech writers, copywriters, journalists, and of course creative writers—and the editors of all these writers—can shape and reshape their material in all kinds of ways so that their key messages ring true and their words stick in people’s minds.
On a lighter note, what are a few of your favourite books and publications, business-related or otherwise?
Oh, that’s a hard question for any bookworm!
I read a lot of CanLit. I just finished Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined. Before that was Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster. I’ll never forget reading Robinson’s Monkey Beach years ago. I was on summer vacation, visiting my mom back in Cape Breton, and the whole world disappeared; there was only that book. My first time reading David Adams Richards (Blood Ties) was like that, and Alistair MacLeod (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood). Both are masters of syntax, by the way. I’ll read anything by Ann Patchett. Actually, I kind of love Ann Patchett, in a writer’s crush sort of way. Geist magazine is always full of treats. And I look forward to Quill & Quire every month, though the dangling modifiers make me crazy.
Frances, thank you very much for sharing your experience and expertise. We look forward to your seminar on April 22.
Carl Rosenberg edited “Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine” from 1998 to 2016. He has a diploma in Latin American studies from Vancouver Community College and a bachelor of arts in Spanish language and literature from UBC. He has recently begun volunteering with the communications and social media and committee of Editors BC.
Meagan Kus is a freelance copy editor and proofreader with an 18-year background in arts administration.
Photo provided by Frances Peck