Within the past few weeks, Americans learned that words do matter. Allegedly, editors and authors have been aware of this since forever, but on occasion I am reminded that ingrained habit can be more important than what a word really means.
Within the past several weeks, Americans learned that Obamacare is constitutional because the individual mandate penalty is a tax, and not a penalty. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed), a penalty is “A punishment imposed for a violation of law” and a tax is “A contribution for the support of a government of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.” Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed) defines penalty as “An elastic term with many different shades of meaning; it involves the idea of punishment, corporeal or pecuniary,…, although its meaning is generally confined to pecuniary punishment” and tax as “A charge by the government on the income of an individual….The objective in assessing the tax is to generate revenue to be used for the needs of the public.”
For the average citizen, the difference is meaningless. Most of us who have to pay taxes consider ourselves as being penalized (thus tax = penalty) and don’t worry about the fine distinction made by lawyers and judges. But the difference does matter and choosing the right word equally matters: Obamacare would have failed if the mandate was a penalty, and succeeded because the mandate is a tax. (The importance of using the right word is reinforced by efforts to call copyediting proofreading and pay less for the service, as discussed in The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting.)
Yet the pundits have it wrong when they conclude that the government cannot force us to buy broccoli. The effect of the Roberts’ opinion is that if the government imposes a tax on persons who do not buy broccoli, such a tax is constitutional and if it is constitutional, then all that needs to be done is to make the tax onerous enough that it is fiscally more prudent to buy the broccoli than pay the tax. But I stray.…
In the world of editing, we have been exposed to possessive diseases and the demise of the serial comma. When we speak of Lou Gehrig’s disease, what exactly is meant? It is true that Lou Gehrig had the disease and if the writer means to discuss the agony that Lou Gehrig faced, then the possessive Lou Gehrig’s disease seems appropriate. However, if the writer wishes to convey the agony my grandmother underwent when she was struck by the disease, the nonpossessive Lou Gehrig disease strikes me as significantly more correct. The latter requires no interpretation as to meaning — it is clearly not referring to Lou Gehrig’s bout with the disease named after him — whereas the former does require interpretation and a best guess.
That is the problem with not choosing the correct word: the reader is left to make a best guess. The choice between penalty and tax involves also a set of consumer/taxpayer rights that arise depending on which term is used. For example, there are certain procedures that have to be followed by the government in order to collect a tax that differ from those that arise when collecting a penalty. In addition, the defenses that can be raised and when they can be raised by the consumer/taxpayer differ.
Similarly, the conclusion that a reader can draw from a group of words differs based on the words chosen. Consider how cleverly, for example, the words chosen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lead readers to one conclusion but Sherlock Holmes to another; or what would have happened had Charles Dickens chosen different opening words to A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Literary immortality came to Dickens via this opening and readers were given a scene setting that compelled further reading.
Editors need to be aware of the words used and ensure that the author is communicating precisely, as well as capturing a reader’s interest. The primary role for an editor is to help the author avoid miscommunication. Whether an author’s work will rise or fall on word choice is increasingly reflected by the importance grammar, spelling, and word choice are given in reviews of books.
Two decades ago, grammar, spelling, and word choice were rarely mentioned in book reviews. The editorial quality of a book was not suspect and was taken for granted. Since then, especially as cost control has come to be the number one goal of the publishing industry — especially with the consolidation of publishers into international conglomerates, the globalization of editorial services as a cost-control measure, and the rise of ebooks and the self-publishing phenomenon — the triad of grammar, spelling, and word choice has become a mainstay of book reviews.
This need to ensure that the correct word is chosen validates the need for the services of a professional editor — a person who is removed from the rigor and stress of the creative process of writing a captivating tale, yet who has command of the essentials of language and language usage.
Although by itself, choosing the right word will not turn stinkweed into a rose, choosing the wrong word can, by itself, turn a rose into stinkweed. This is something authors need to remember when deciding whether to hire a professional editor and something the professional editor needs to keep in mind during the editing process.