Written by Carl Rosenberg; copy edited by Katie Beaton
On Saturday, February 29, Editors BC will present a full-day seminar by Frances Peck on usage woes and myths. For anyone intent on preventing (not avoiding) word errors and avoiding (not preventing) usage myths, this seminar will be of great help. People attending will get an up-to-date look at some of the most misunderstood and contentious points of English usage, and identify helpful guides and other resources.
Frances Peck is a Certified Professional Editor (Hon.) and writer who has worked with words for nearly 30 years. She has taught at the University of Ottawa, Douglas College, SFU, UBC, and dozens of organizations across Canada. She prepared the Canadian edition of The St. Martin’s Workbook, a university 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. Frances lives in North Vancouver and is a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates.
Carl Rosenberg, a volunteer on Editors BC’s communications and social media committee, spoke to Frances about her work and forthcoming presentation.
Hello, Frances! Thank you for taking the time to chat with our readers. How did you come to your career as a writer, editor, teacher, and grammarian?
I to some extent fell into it, as many of us do. Soon after I finished my master’s in English literature, I rebelled against years of academia by becoming a real estate agent. A couple of years after that, once it became clear that I’d never be able to separate my personal life from my work life, I gave up my licence. After some casting around, I ended up teaching a grammar and composition course at the University of Ottawa. Next came a couple of writing projects, and then, some editing work. Before I knew it, I was piecing together enough contracts to keep the rent paid.
Why are usage difficulties so tricky, even for experienced writers and editors?
I think it’s because usage preferences change way faster than matters of editorial style or grammar. New words crop up as soon as there are new concepts and things that need naming; old words start morphing into different parts of speech or even take on new meanings; and we language people are always bringing up the rear, wondering whether it’s time to accept the new usages or whether we should keep shunning them. To complicate matters, for those of us who work with different levels of language—different registers, as translators would put it—we have to be even more bendy about what we accept. A new or disputed usage might work perfectly well in marketing material, say, or a chatty blog, but be totally unsuited to more formal writing.
Apart from confusion, are there disagreements—even among grammarians and editors—over correct usage in specific cases? Do national usage differences, if any (e.g., U.S. vs. U.K.), play a part in this?
There are loads of disagreements. What it usually boils down to is that some grammarians and editors are quick to change with the times, while others hold fast to their preferences, sometimes (in my view) far longer than they ought to. I’m not suggesting that those in the holding-on camp are being stubborn, although there are times when that’s the case. It’s more that those individuals simply aren’t aware that usage X has inched closer and closer to acceptability. As I said before, it’s tough to keep up with changes in usage, especially for busy professionals who don’t have time to read all the blogs or follow all the good Twitter accounts or come out to all the seminars.
As for national differences, they’re certainly out there. There’s still different treatment of the that/which distinction, for example: U.K. English doesn’t reserve which for non-restrictive clauses the way we North Americans usually do. And the Brits are fond of treating collective nouns as plurals: the team are, the ministry have decided, and so on, whereas we North Americans like them singular.
On a lighter note, what are a few of your favourite books and publications, language-related or otherwise?
I’ve been travelling a lot these past months and have been reading hand-me-down New Yorker magazines. They’re so easy to pack and so packed with content. I loved Five Wives by Joan Thomas, which picked up the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2019. As for language books, Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer, which I just reviewed for this blog, was equal parts educational and entertaining.
Frances, thank you very much for sharing your experience and expertise. We look forward to your seminar on February 29.
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 is a volunteer with the communications and social media committee of Editors BC.
Katie Beaton recently discovered her love of editing and decided to enrol in the Editing Certificate program at SFU. A year and a half later, having completed the program, she knew she wanted to work as a professional editor. To achieve that goal, she plans on gaining as much experience as possible in order to take the Editors Canada’s professional certification test. Until then, she continues to pursue her other love: travel. When she’s not exploring the world, she can be found teaching yoga, writing, and enjoying every brunch spot Vancouver has to offer.
Image provided by Frances Peck