An American Editor

August 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves II

I guess editors never really run out of pet peeves when it comes to language use and misuse, but I have been editing a manuscript the past few weeks that repeatedly raises my ire when it comes to misuse of language. Don’t misunderstand; the manuscript is not a horror. Rather, it is an example of today’s lazy authors who choose imprecision when precision is really needed.

One thing that some editors and authors fail to do is to distinguish between the rules that govern fiction writing and those that govern nonfiction writing, especially academic-type nonfiction, such as medical texts. Grammatically, fiction is more informal, lazy, laid back, reflective of the times and the way people speak to each other — and rightfully so. There is nothing worse than being told a story for entertainment (even for education) that is so stiff as to be incomprehensible or boring. I do not expect the action hero to speak as if he or she is a grammarian trying to educate future scholars; I expect the hero to have all the grammatical flaws of everyday speech, and I expect a story to be told in a way that captivates me, not pushes me away.

But my expectations for nonfiction are different. I want to know precisely what the author means or intends. I do not want to have to guess, to have to substitute my words for the author’s words. Yet, increasingly, nonfiction authors are taking the path of least resistance, which is the path that treats nonfiction grammar as if it were fiction grammar. Which brings me to today’s pet peeve: due to.

When I receive a nonfiction manuscript that is riddled with due tos, I just know that the editing is going to be time-consuming and problematic. Laziness in one area is often a signal that other “shortcuts” and language liberties also have been taken. (I don’t want to get into the other indicator of a problem manuscript, inconsistent references, in this post. Manuscript evaluation is worthy of its own article.) I can expect imprecise terms like about, over, and since are also liberally sprinkled throughout the manuscript.

Due to, however, is in a class by itself. What exactly is meant? Does the author mean as a result of, as a consequence of, because of, caused by, on grounds of, owing to, something else? Why is it my job, as the reader, to figure out what the cause-and-effect relationship is that due to is trying to convey? And what if I guess wrong?

If the author’s meaning can be as amorphous as which meaning of due to is applicable, then how much credence should I give to the author’s conclusions? What effect does such lack of precision have on the author’s credibility? Nonfiction requires both author credibility and precision language.

There are at least three views regarding the use of due to. One view is that it is okay to use due to when its use is restricted to adjectival uses in the sense of attributable to, and following the verb to be (implied or express). A second view is that the phrase should be avoided altogether because of its imprecise meaning. A third view is that it is acceptable when used as an adjective and not as a preposition modifying a noun.

I am an adherent of the second view: Due to is always objectionable because it is never eminently clear as to which of its possible meanings is meant. In my view, due to is always objectionable in nonfiction writing because nonfiction writing requires precision writing; it is perhaps okay to use in fiction writing, depending on where and how, but certainly in dialog that is intended to reflect how people speak to each other.

The first and third views, especially, work on the assumption that the meaning of due to is limited to owing to and because of. Essentially, they take the view that due to is a term of limited meaning and is an acceptable substitute, even if in limited circumstances, for those very few phrases. The Achilles’ heel of that assumption is that authors use due to as a substitute for myriad phrases, not just for two, so that to determine what is meant requires the reader to pause and begin a rotation of substituting possible meanings for due to and then selecting one, not necessarily the correct one (What if the reader’s rotation is missing the author-intended meaning?), as expressing what the author really means.

It is this game of roulette with meaning that makes due to a pet peeve. It is especially bothersome when a single sentence has more than one instance of due to, which is not uncommon. And when a paragraph has several sentences riddled with due tos, I wonder what the author was thinking. Why wasn’t the author more precise?

Alas, although the initial blame lies with the author, too many editors accept due to and do not question its use. Nor do they attempt to determine what the author intended and substitute a more precise phrase. It seems to me that a professional editor needs to take phrases that are imprecise, like due to, and replace them with precise phrases, or at least get the author to make the change. The editor’s role is to make an author’s manuscript both accessible and understandable. It is the latter that suffers when the editor simply turns a blind eye to imprecise phraseology. Ultimately, it is the author whose credibility is lessened and the reader who walks away with a less-than-full understanding of what the author means.

2 Comments »

  1. […] I have noted in previous posts, most recently in The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves II, different rules apply to fiction and to nonfiction, particularly in regard to use of precise […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Evaluating a Manuscript « An American Editor — August 29, 2012 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  2. A great post and I agree, writers never run out of having pet peeves. I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! I don’t know much about non-fiction but with fiction, switching between points of view gets really irritating for me. I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves, it includes some additional ones that you may not have talked about but I hope you will read and tell me what you think🙂 http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fiction-pet-peeves/

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    Comment by NyNy — March 7, 2013 @ 7:48 am | Reply


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