Tuesday, 21 November 2017

They Were Not Mistakes - Grammar Time!


I love hearing back from readers. Often it is a thanks, or questions about my stories and writing. As you know I also do posts about grammar and punctuation, since I enjoy the nitty gritty of it (and edit books for other authors). Here are some clarifications on things people have asked me about particular phrases in Lost Solace.

“That’s a strange opening sentence: ‘long void sea’”

Yes, it is. I was trying to capture the idea of endlessness, and floating, but also add featureless emptiness to the expanse (to match the feeling of time during the experience of cryosleep). Plus images of sea were relevant because Opal uses metaphors of it a lot (after nearly drowning as a child), and the Lost Ship often resembles a submarine environment. If it was distracting to other readers I could look for a better phrase (feedback welcome!), but I liked this phrase, and it was strange and distinctive enough that readers might spot it again at the end of the novel and realise it ends how it began.

Here's the full opening:

Floating in the long void sea, icy, weightless. The thought processes can’t be called dreams. That would be too generous a description. More like fragments of memory stretched out across an echo chamber and punctured with stutters of sound chained to suggestive colours. This was the status quo for dark eternities. Then new sounds were stitched in. Cadences that coincided with infiltrating warmth.

Spin span spun

Here's an interesting and controversial one.

She span round, hoping to catch the hint of movement she’d felt, but the ship’s galley was empty.
One reader told me the correct word is "spun", not "span".

It's true that modern usage is generally to use spun as the simple past. However, I was using an older form. It is also a dialect issue - to my ear "span" sounds better, possibly a northern thing. I would say “She spins round / is spinning” [present], “She span round” [simple past], but “she had spun” [perfect tense]. It is similar to “She runs / is running” [present], “She ran” [simple past], and “she had run” [perfect tense].

There seems to be debate about the usage here. Some say they’ve never heard "span", others say is normal usage in certain constructions, such as "The car span out of control".

Apparently JK Rowling used "span", but it was changed by her publishers later:



How about you? Have you ever heard the word "span"?

Lots of data [is/are] [was/were]

My novel has this sentence in the dialogue:

Lots of data was uploaded to me.
It was pointed out (correctly) that "technically data is plural so would be data were, not data was."

Data is a tricky one because, despite its origins, it is often used as a collective singular. As such, “Lots of data were uploaded” actually sounds wrong to many people's ears. Here I refer to my Guardian Style book:

though strictly a plural, [data] takes a singular verb (like agenda): the data is clear, etc; no one ever uses agendum or datum.

"What did the word xxxxx mean?"

In keeping with the main character, some of the terms I used were slangy or obscure. These were a few of them.

Clarissa banked to evade and brought disruptive chaff cannons to bear, blatting out expanding clouds but too late.
"blatting out": I was trying to capture the sound of the cannons here (blat as a raucous and onomatopoeic sound).

Physical damage reconstructed by nanite drones to new templates.
Nanite drones are a sci-fi/science word for microscopic robots.

She dodged, but bullets spanged near her and against her, forcing her to fall into an alcove.
"bullets spanged near" is the lesser-used sense of “(intransitive, of a flying object such as a bullet) To strike or ricochet with a loud report”. Unfortunately spanged could be from spang or spange, two words with different meanings and pronunciations, so I accept that this might be misread. However it is one of Stephen King's favourite words, which is good enough for me - and probably also how I learnt it in my teenage years.

We’ve both waved our wangs in mutual appreciation. Get to business.
Wang as penis. It seemed funnier than her saying they’d both waved their willies (willy-waving is how some people refer to male boasts, which the conversation had become up to that point).

“Too tired for that,” said Opal. “I just want to coma out.”
By “coma out” Opal just meant she wanted to sleep deeply, like a coma (with the phrasing of flop out / crash out).

Being with a shotgun

One person had a problem with the following sentence.

It is inadvisable to knock if there’s a possibility of a being with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.
They thought it should say "possibility of being met with a shotgun and ..."

However, my sentence is correct: the confusion is possible because I use "being" as the noun form for a creature/person.

Even though it is technically correct doesn't mean the sentence can't be improved. What do you think? Would it make more sense if I re-wrote it as one of these?

“It is inadvisable to knock if there’s possibly a being with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.”

“It is inadvisable to knock if there could be a person with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.”

I think I favour the latter, but only if other people agree that it is a better sentence.

Gritted teeth

If I had teeth, I would grit them.
One reader thought I meant "grind them" rather than grit them, but grit is perfectly acceptable.

The doughnut cloud and the doughnut egg

One reader told me I used the phrase "doughnut cloud" in some places and "doughnut egg" in others.

The doughnut egg = just referring to the neutron star in the centre of the doughnut, as here:

As the ship accelerated towards the neighbouring neutron star – officially designated UG-324t6 Charybdis, but renamed Doughnut Egg by Opal, forcing Clarissa to refer to it that way – Opal took the chance to familiarise herself with the EVA equipment.
But the cloud itself is the doughnut:

"The cloud of dust and gas looked like a doughnut, or a nest with a tiny egg in it."
"The screen flickered to show a side view of the Doughnut."

"Movement in the one portraying the rear view towards the Doughnut Cloud. Eddying, swirls, a shape within was emerging ..."

In a few sections there are spaces to designate syllables within words. It appears to start and stop without reason.

It isn’t a typo – it’s the speech pattern for Blue Crystals (a form of alien intelligence). Each syllable is a pulse of the crystal. My stories have a number of aliens that speak differently, and the syllable break is just that single creature’s communication pattern (to distinguish it from the others, and from the protagonist). It helps to emphasise the alienness of their thought and translation systems, the problems in communication if (for example) a being misunderstands the difference between syllables and words. There are other things that might look like errors but aren’t (e.g. the chapters are numbered but one number is missing, as if the chapter was cut – relevant in terms of the plot).

Not grammar, just a continuity explanation - the suit AI's lost memories

“I am afraid I have no knowledge of detonating grenades, though I note we have run out of them. My first conscious knowledge is of waking with you inside me a few minutes ago. I then made your survival my priority.”

The suit AI says that to Opal after it switches on for the first time. The implication is that it has no knowledge of anything that occurs after it was stored, and up until the point of being woken.

However, in that case, when the ship AI Clarissa later gets rebooted and loses some memories, how could she know of all the threats since Opal boarded the Lost Ship? Surely she would only knew what the suit AI knew, so there would be large gaps in her knowledge?

I didn't want to get bogged down in detail within the story, but there's a simple explanation.

While Clarissa the AI ship was in communication with Opal, the suit recorded everything. When contact was lost and the suit shut down, that data was saved but locked as a safety precaution. When the suit AI awoke it did not have access to the locked memories. But when Clarissa the ship AI comes back online later, and connects with the suit, it unlocks the sealed memories. From then on the suit AI and Clarissa the ship AI both have access to all the recordings and memories, so both know everything. No information was lost.

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