MET workshops

MET’s grammar pathway: minisessions on style and grammar conundrums

Developers and facilitators: Irwin Temkin and Mary Ellen Kerans, Barcelona nad Tom O’Boyle, Madrid

Overview of the minisessions

The minisessions in this grammar pathway deal economically and descriptively—not prescriptively—with a series of essential concepts that underlie phrasing problems translators and editors deal with. We use examples from professional translations or corpora. Such sentences differ from those used in grammar books for students because they offer the level of complexity we sometimes puzzle over.

We assume participants have good instincts about what sounds right in different types of text because they are either native speakers of English with wide reading experience or have very high English levels. Therefore, each minisession briefly presents concrete iconic sentence patterns (often conceived to reflect rules); after that, we set to work putting the concepts into practice. The purposes of each minisession are 1) to clarify a language pattern taking a descriptive approach, looking at examples of academic prose that flows well, is readable and well edited and that can therefore be emulated; 2) to provide the minimal amount of metalanguage we need to talk about the pattern to ourselves, our colleagues (translators or translation revisers), or our clients, 3) and to practice making editorial or revision choices based on what we’ve learned about the language pattern.

Minisession 1: Relative clauses and why style pundits argue about which

Style advisors and guidebooks sometimes tell us to do which hunts when editing our prose, implying that clauses introduced by which are somehow poor style, out of style, or perhaps even wrong. When revising translations from Spanish and Catalan, certainly we’ve see more wrongly constructed clauses with which than we usually find in prose written directly in English by fluent native speakers of the language. We suspect this pitfall for translators from Spanish and Catalan into English is also a problem for those working from other Romance languages.

Is there really something wrong with using which clauses? What do the style gurus mean by telling us to ferret out the whiches? To answer these questions confidently, to stop feeling sheepish about using which when we want to or when we must, we need only grasp 1) a few easy-to-remember concepts about the function of a few types of clauses, and 2) the few rules that govern the use of which in academic texts and other genres that require following ‘educated usage’. Once we know those rules, we can decide when we might feel free to break them.

Minisession 2: Tagging along: dangling participles, adverbial disjuncts and other hangers-on

For some, adverbial disjuncts, like interestingly or personally, are short cuts that may be acceptable in colloquial language but not in academic writing. Other writers are less categorical but will still avoid disjunctives like hopefully or importantly. Another category of disjuncts, the reduced adverbial clause, can also cause problems, giving rise to the dreaded dangling participle. Based on an examination of the use of adverbial disjuncts in various genres (oops! there’s another disjunct!), we will attempt in this session to explore this area of grammar/style so that we can use such disjuncts appropriately when we wish to or can recognize them easily if we wish to edit them out.

Minisession 3: Subject–verb agreement: overcoming the stumbling blocks

Whether to use a singular or plural verb in a range of structures is a dilemma English translators and editors often face. Are words like jury, government, and police singular or plural?  Should the verb following negative subject pronouns like no one or none be singular or plural? What about nouns combined with words like either and neither? The problem is complicated by the principles of grammatical agreement, notional agreement, and proximity.
This workshop addresses the area of subject–verb agreement and provides participants with a set of principles and procedures to make informed decisions when choosing between a singular and plural verb. We will examine the specific difficulties posed by complex sentences, collective nouns, coordinators, and measures of quantity.


About the facilitators

Irwin Temkin has been an EFL/ESL teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years and relatively recently has branched out into translating and authors’ editing. His interest in grammar came initially through his study of other languages; this, perhaps, has been responsible for his somewhat “relativist” attitude at odds with the “absolutist” dictates of some prescriptive grammarians, professional or otherwise.

Mary Ellen Kerans is a freelance translator, translation reviser, authors’ editor in Barcelona; she has also been an instructor of English, academic writing and English for specific purposes. Her interest in a descriptive approach to grammar began happily in the third grade when a public school teacher gave a reasoned, comprehensible explanation for why some books contained sentences starting with and even though teachers told us never to do that. Descriptive grammar attitudes were present throughout Mary Ellen’s schooling and given a sounder foundation during MA studies at Teachers College Columbia University.

Tom O’Boyle is a freelance translator, author’s editor, and language facilitator based in Valdemoro, near Madrid. He is particularly interested in finding practical solutions to those areas of grammar that pose problems for professionals working with the written word. A self-confessed unabashed grammar geek, Tom also teaches MET’s workshop Practical tools for improving text flow: Focus on punctuation.


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