By Elaine Viets
“He knelt in church.”
The Penguin copy editor had changed that sentence in my manuscript to “He kneeled in church.”
That couldn’t be right. Copy editors have saved my bacon many times. Like the book where my character drove to an apartment, then walked home. I was grateful to the copy editor who mentioned I’d abandoned a car.
But this was different. In high school, Sister Grace Edmund had taught me that the past tense of “kneel” was “knelt.” If anyone knew about kneeling in church it was a nun.
Publishers adopt odd style quirks, like spelling out 911. And they were good at catching my mistakes. But kneeled was plain wrong.
I needed to appeal to a higher power.
I found it in my big red Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Yes, I know there are online dictionaries. When I find Mr. Webster too stodgy, I’ve flirted with the Urban Dictionary. But I still find solid comfort in the 1,626 pages of Webster.
Words should have weight as well as purpose. To me, a fat dictionary is reassuring.
On page 1624, it says, “Merriam-Webster’s Language Research Service offers owners of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary the opportunity to take advantage of the editorial resources of America’s foremost dictionary publisher – at no cost. If you have a question about a particular word, such as who first used it or why it has not been entered in the dictionary, an inquiry to the Language Research Service will bring an accurate and concise reply from a Merriam-Webster editor – a member of the largest permanent staff of lexicographers in America.”
The dictionary said I could either e-mail or send a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was on deadline. The manuscript was due. I send this e-mail, confessing my problem:
“I am a mystery writer for the Penguin Group in New York. My publisher’s style for the past tense of kneel is ‘kneeled’, as in, ‘He kneeled in church’.
I prefer ‘knelt’ and find ‘kneeled’ irritating. Am I old-fashioned and out of date? If ‘kneeled’ is the preferred style now, then I will learn to live with it.”
Four days later, I got this response from Paul Wood, an assistant editor at Merriam-Webster. He said,
“Knelt is the more common variant for the past tense and past participle forms of kneel. You are not old-fashioned or out-of-date in your preference for knelt. In fact, knelt is a relatively new addition to the English language. While kneel has been a part of the language since before the late 12th century, the past tense and past participle knelt does not appear to have been used until the late 19th century.”
Mr. Wood’s words were comforting. I’ve bowed to my publisher’s old-fashioned ways. I even kneeled.