An American Editor

March 22, 2011

What’s Wrong with this Sentence? The Editor’s Eye

I was reading some fiction recently, when I came across this sentence (and it is the complete sentence as it appeared in the story):

“As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial.”

The sentence brought me to a halt. What is wrong with the sentence? Nothing? Something? I’ll wait for your editorial eye to tell me the answer, and how foolish I was to be stopped by a perfectly good sentence.

(Waiting for time to pass and your editorial eye to grapple with the question and come to a resolution.)

Okay, enough time has passed. Either you are ready to tell me how foolish I am or how magnificent an editor I must be. Which is it?

Grammatically, the sentence is fine. It has everything one could hope for in a succinct bit of prose. The problem, if there is one, lies with Beelzebub and Belial. Beelzebub is a name for the Devil, as is Belial. To the average reader, the sentence reads, “As well ask [the Devil] to rein in [the Devil].” To distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial requires a sophistication that the average reader of the type of fiction in which the sentence is found is unlikely to have. To make the distinction requires some familiarity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work few of us have mastery of, and perhaps knowledge of Late Latin translations of Biblical Hebrew.

A confused reader is likely to turn to a handy dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in which the primary definition of Beelzebub is “The Devil; Satan” and that of Belial is “A personification of wickedness and ungodliness alluded to in the Bible.” It seems to me that the former includes the latter and the latter includes the former; that is, they are one and the same.

But when we get to Paradise Lost, we learn that although both Beelzebub and Belial are evil incarnate, each is a different fallen angel. Milton uses Beelzebub as the name for the fallen angel who is the Devil and Belial as the name of the fallen angel who represents impurity. With Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence becomes clear (or at least clearer); without Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence is muddy. How many of us have Paradise Lost in our hip pocket?

I ask the question because it raises an editorial question. If the book I was reading had been a book about etymology or language or Paradise Lost or any number of nonfiction topics, the sentence should pass without hesitation, assuming there was explanatory context for it or a reader would be expected to know the allusion. But the book was fiction, which means it was addressed to a different audience with a different expected level of literary sophistication. Consequently, the editorial question becomes: Should the editor have flagged this sentence, questioning whether it would be understood by the expected readership?

I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

I grant that with some of the new electronic reading devices learning the difference between Beelzebub and Belial is pretty easy. On my Sony 950, for example, I can double-tap on the names and the Oxford American Dictionary pops up with definitions/explanations. But as quick and easy as that is, doing so interrupts the flow of the story. Alternatively, I can just ignore the sentence and assume it has some deep meaning that is of little relevance to me or the story, but isn’t that accusing the author of wasting my time with irrelevancies? Is that the reputation an author wants to develop? Being a time-waster?

Presumably an author has chosen words carefully to convey a particular meaning. In fiction, an author wants that meaning conveyed immediately, with as little fuss on the reader’s part as is possible. A good author includes in his or her story only those words and phrases that are relevant for conveying the tale the author wants to tell. Consequently, in the fiction I was reading, the sentence, “As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial,” had great importance — it was important to convey in a compact way the difficulty of getting a character to do/not do something. Which means, does it not, that the sentence needs to be understandable so that the meaning is conveyed?

Which brings me back to my original question: What is wrong with this sentence in light of who the expected reader is? Is this the best way to convey the information to be conveyed to the reader? Will using two names that are often identified with the same “thing” be helpful or confusing? What should the professional editor do when faced with this type of sentence?

Although there is no definitive answer to any of the questions, how an editor answers them and what the editor does can speak volumes.

12 Comments »

  1. This is a good example to use for presenting a common editorial conundrum: to query or not to query? The answer almost always is, Query anything the intended audience might not understand. That helps both editor and author improve their grasp on a work’s purpose, which improves the editing process as well as author/editor and author/reader communication.

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    Comment by Carolyn — March 22, 2011 @ 6:29 am | Reply

  2. Do you think we should dumb down to make sure readers understand?

    I don’t think we should ever dumb down. I edit credit research; if I think a reader needs more information about something, I make sure to add it, either in text or in a footnote, depending on what’s appropriate.

    But your example is from fiction, which is quite different (although some might disagree!). I would leave it as is, probably because, as a reader, I would rather be challenged.

    All too often we pander to what we think are people’s limitations, rather than simply trying to engage them or challenge them.

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    Comment by alexis alvarez — March 22, 2011 @ 6:31 am | Reply

    • Alexis, the question is not really whether it should be changed (which I happen to think it should because very few people today have read Paradise Lost or, if they have read it, are likely to remember the subtle distinction) but whether an editor should query it, asking the author what he/she thinks is the expected audience’s level of literary sophistication. Although some readers like a challenge, most readers, especially of fiction, I think do not. They want entertainment and are more likely to simply pass over the allusion than try to decipher it. I think obscure allusions, such as this one, disengage readers more than engage them. But that is just one reader’s opinion🙂.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 22, 2011 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  3. Absolutely, you should query the phrase.

    In the end, the author doesn’t have to accept the editor’s advice. But that advise should be well heeded, because, as you always say americaneditor, you’re the door between the author and the audience.

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    Comment by Nick Jamilla — March 22, 2011 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  4. My standard for whether to query is if I, as a reader of the particular piece, have to research in order to understand the sentence. In this particular instance, I would have (at least) looked up the names in a dictionary, and probably on Wikipedia (I know, not reliable as a final source); I probably would not have looked them up in “Paradise Lost” unless my research to this point led me there. It’s not my job as editor to insist the author revise the sentence to make the nuance more understandable to the reader, but as the reader’s advocate, it is my job to let the author know that the potential is there for the nuance to be missed.

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    Comment by Leland F. Raymond — March 22, 2011 @ 10:07 am | Reply

    • Leland, my disagreement with your approach is this: Because I am a professional editor, I expect to be more familiar with these allusions, especially literary allusions, than the average reader who comprises the audience. Consequently, if I were to apply your test — did I have to look it up myself? — many things that I currently query would never be queried, because I am familiar with the allusion being made. That, I think, is unfair to both my client (the author) and my client’s client (the reader). I view my job as doing what I can to make sure my client connects with his/her client. I grant that the final decision has to rest with the author, but I have to at least alert the author that he/she needs to make a decision.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 22, 2011 @ 11:06 am | Reply

      • Apologies. I should have specified that my approach is based on a perspective as a member of the intended audience. Of course, I bring my own literary experiences to the table as an editor, but I edit to ensure the manuscript connects with the intended audience; thus, if I’m confused or slowed in my reading, I assume the ultimate reader will be also and let the author know.

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        Comment by Leland F. Raymond — March 22, 2011 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  5. To make the effort needed to check the information, see a possible problem, then fail to flag it, would be a mistake.
    To change it without checking with the author would be a worse mistake.

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    Comment by Wayne Countryman — March 22, 2011 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  6. Nice article, Rich.

    I think most readers would recognize “Beelzebub” but not “Belial.” I wouldn’t change “Belial,” but I would query the author about it. Knowing when to change and when to query is one of the marks of a competent editor.

    Note: The allusion may also be referencing Matthew 12:22-26:

    “Then was brought unto [Jesus] one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David? But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?”

    Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln used this passage as the basis for his famous “House Divided” speech:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln%27s_House_Divided_Speech

    Best wishes from your infidel friend,🙂
    Jack

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    Comment by EditorJack — March 23, 2011 @ 11:24 am | Reply

    • Jack, yes it could be the biblical allusion but unlikely. Much more likely to be an allusion to Paradise Lost because the Bible (or at least to my knowledge of the Bible) doesn’t really distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial, whereas Milton does. But no matter to what the allusion, the question really boils down to how many members of the expected audience would understand the allusion. I always enjoyed listening to and reading William F. Buckley, Jr., not because I agreed with him but because of his command of language. But he spoke above his audience and thus while impressing them with his skills, losing the argument because the masses couldn’t follow it. It is not that one should write or speak to the lowest common denominator, but that one should write and speak at the level needed to communicate one’s message to one’s intended audience. Thus, as you say, I would have queried.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 24, 2011 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  7. I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

    Gosh. When I read this paragraph, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. How low we’ve sunk … how far we’ve gone … The fact that the role of an editor needs to be defined or defended at all on this basic level is sad, just sad, sad, sad … is it too trite to write “sign of the times?”

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    Comment by irene jarosewich — March 26, 2011 @ 9:45 am | Reply

  8. Seems to me that the sentence could have different meanings, each potentially valid–or, at least, explainable.

    If the author did indeed mean to use “Beelzebub” and “Belial” to describe the same being, then the sentence could be interpreted as expecting one aspect of a being to restrain another aspect; somewhat like saying “expect the ego to restrain the id”, maybe, or “expect the fear to restrain the hunger”.

    On the other hand, many modern authors have no exposure to historical names like “Beelzebub” and “Belial” except through contemporary popular culture, which tends treat Christian mythology as though it were pantheonic; multiple ranks of angels and demons, identifiable characters and personalities who each have different spheres of influence, and a Big God (or Big Bad) who’s in charge of everything. So it’s entirely possible that the author of the sentence in question did indeed consider the two names to refer to entirely different entities.

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    Comment by DensityDuck — April 11, 2011 @ 1:22 pm | Reply


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