Grammar

An Agent’s Curmudgeonly Rant

Sometimes I just have to rant. You understand, don’t you?

Maybe it comes with age, and you’re not yet old enough to understand. Or grumpy enough. Or OCD enough.

Nevertheless, I hope you’ll allow me to vent for today’s post. And I should say that I’m not asking you to agree with me, though my regard will certainly increase if you do. It’s just that there are some things that get on my nerves as I read things—not only proposals submitted to me, but all kinds of stuff. Here’s a short list:

1. “One of the only.” I know that it’s accepted usage to say something such as, “he’s one of the only people who still do that.” But every single time I see or hear it, I cringe, and wish the writer or speaker had used “one of the few” instead. I may be the only one, but “only” to me connotes “singular,” rather than “a small number.” Or maybe I’m one of the few.  

2. The Oxford comma. Yes, I’m one of the few who recognizes the clarifying power of the Oxford comma. But you know who agrees with me? My siblings, William Zinsser and God.

3. Psalm/Psalms. It’s not incorrect to reference a Bible quote as coming from “Psalms 23:1.” It is “The Book of Psalms,” after all. But it’s always a “bump” for me. I always use “Psalm 23:1.” Because I’m referencing one among many psalms. I know, it’s a trivial matter; but it does get “all my bones … out of joint” (Psalm 22:14 NIV).

4. “Beg the question.” I see this phrase used incorrectly by otherwise erudite and articulate people. But to beg the question is a phrase from Aristotelian logic that means to assume as true the thing that is being argued. So please, take my word for it, that when you’re tempted to say “begs the question,” you almost certainly mean “prompts the question,” not “begs the question.”

5. The placement of the words only and almost. Where you place the word only (or almost) in a sentence can change the meaning of the sentence. For example, a recent news story reported, “Almost found exclusively in people who were born female, this condition affects about 11 percent of women worldwide.” Unless the condition wasn’t found, which would make no sense, the writer intended us to understand that the condition is “found almost exclusively …” See what I mean? Or to say, “I only want a sandwich” (which is a common construction) technically means I don’t demand a sandwich; I only want it. Usually, however, what the speaker or writer means is, “I want only a sandwich.” Which is also different from “Only I want a sandwich.” Yeah, I know: only a small difference. But I’m allowed to have my quibbles.

6. “I could care less.” I know there are those who insist this phrase means the opposite of what it says, but I couldn’t care less. If you could care less, you care some, right? But most people who say, “I could care less” use it to mean “I couldn’t care less.” Which I admit I care way too much about.

I thought I would feel better after my rant. But doggone it, I fear I’m only one of the only ones who only feels worse after expressing myself. If only.

Leave a Comment

21st-Century Writing

I’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. Just look at me: a lonnnnng time. During those many years of experience, I’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe three. And among the things I’ve learned about writing for publication is that writers in the twenty-first century must do things …

Read More

A Literary Agent’s Wish List

People often ask me, “What are you looking for?” It’s a natural question to ask a literary agent, even when the questioner knows that the agent has offered a detailed answer on the agency website (here, for example). After all, something could’ve changed. I may, since updating my interests, have …

Read More

Five Easy Fixes for Frequent Faux Pas

We all make mistakes. My wife reminds me often … with a strange sidelong glance that makes me wonder if—well, never mind. But some mistakes are more costly than others. A few can even hinder a writer’s chances for publication. But fear not, writer friend; there’s hope. Because a few …

Read More

Is It Ready to Submit?

You’ve poured out your soul. You’ve written your heart out. You’ve struggled and sweated over how to say what you want to say. You’ve paced the floor, clicked your heels, and now you think maybe it’s ready to submit. But how do you know? Good question. “Good question” usually means …

Read More

Our Favorite Typos

Writers aren’t perfect. This may not be news to you. But occasionally we read or create typos that stay with us. Some become favorites, prompting smiles and giggles (and maybe embarrassment) for years to come. I asked writers, editors, and agents to share some from their experiences. Here are their …

Read More

Stop. Just Stop (Doing These Things)

All editors and agents have a few pet peeves. Some of us have more than a few. In my case, it’s a virtual menagerie. So, while you may want to keep my OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), and OCC (overly cantankerous condition) in mind as you read, please …

Read More

15 Grammar Rules That Can be Broken

With trepidation I step into the gladiator arena of grammar. Below is a marvelous infographic from ExpertEditor.com, an Australian professional editing and proofreading company. Do you agree or disagree with these choices? Grammar rules are there for a reason. Clarity, consistency, and communication. A sloppy manuscript is a terrible thing …

Read More

Break the Rules…On Purpose

As a rule, writers should have a good grasp of the rules. Rules of grammar. Style. Usage. And the fundamental rule that you never walk the out man. Oh, wait, that’s baseball. It’s a good rule, though. As a writer and an editor, I like the rules. Most of the …

Read More

A Plea for Preciser Language

Not everyone is a grammar nazi and spelling tyrant as I am. And some people write so brilliantly that spelling and grammar mistakes are more easily overlooked. I don’t know any of those people, but I’m told they exist. The vast majority of writers will do themselves a huge favor …

Read More