An American Editor

April 3, 2013

On Words: Why Sense Matters

We have had discussions before about word choice. In general, we agree that making the proper word choice is important and is a key role played by a professional editor. Yet, we have disagreements about the finer distinctions between words. For example, many editors accept the use of since to mean because or overlook the use of due to.

Consider the following:

    1     the molestation of     2     by the priest, the church established a fund.

Insert into 1, one of the following: Since, Because of, Due to. Insert into 2, one or more of the following: male, female, children, adults. Depending on your choice, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Here are three options:

  1. Since the molestation of the children by the priest, the church established a fund.
  2. Because of the molestation of the females by the priest, the church established a fund.
  3. Due to the molestation of the female children by the priest, the church established a fund.

The sense — and thus the meaning — of each differs from the others.

In option 1, the use of Since gives the sense that time has passed; the molestation occurred some length of time ago and with the passage of that time, the fund was established but that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the time that has passed and the establishment of the fund. In fact, by using Since, it is possible for a reader to miss the key relationship, which is the relationship between the molestations and the establishment of the fund. It is true, however, that if Since is interpreted here as being synonymous with because of, a cause-and-effect relationship is established (as discussed in the next paragraph). The problem is that there are two possible interpretations, one causal and one noncausal; which is intended is a matter of conjecture.

In contrast, option 2’s use of Because of gives the sense that the fund was established as an effect of the causal molestations; that is, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the molestations and the fund establishment. With this option, the question of time passage does not surface; it is not the thrust of the sentence and it is not implied by word choice. In contemporary use, because is not fully synonymous with since, whereas since can be fully synonymous with because. With because of, the reader is not left to wonder what the author means.

Option 3 is the most problematic. What does due to mean in this context? Due to is a chameleon phrase. It has multiple possible meanings. For example, an author may mean, among other possibilities, a consequence of, as a consequence of, a result of, as a result of, because of, caused by, or from. Granted a result of and as a result of are, meaning-wise, fully synonymous, and it can be argued that each of the possible meanings I listed are really just another way of saying the same thing, but sense matters and the sense conveyed by each — at least to my ear — differs.

My problem with these types of choices is that too often sense is ignored because the meaning fits. Yet sense is equally as important. It is like having only a right shoe and expecting both your right foot and left foot to be able to wear it comfortably.

I think this matter of sense is emphasized when we look at the possibilities for filling blank 2: male, female, children, adults. If we fill-in 2 with children, for example, we are including both males and females and excluding adults regardless of gender. Similarly, if we choose males, we are excluding females, but including both children and adults. Our sense is that a certain type of molestation occurred based on the gender and age of the person molested. The words include certain implications, including implications regarding credulity — credulity of the victims and credulity regarding the types of molestation acts performed and whether the victim really was a victim.

Some editors point to the dictionary in support of their emphasizing the correctness of their word choice while discounting sense. The problem with relying on dictionary definitions is that most dictionaries today, certainly the ones we consider authoritative, are descriptive rather than prescriptive. As David Skinner noted in The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012), until the publication of Webster’s Third under the direction of Phillip Gove in the 1960s, dictionaries tended to be prescriptive and thus distinguished between word usage based not only on definition but on sense. The era ushered in by Webster’s Third was, for Americans, the era of the descriptive — how people actually used words, not whether they were used correctly. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary was born as a counterweight to that shift and the first edition, which came out after Webster’s Third, was a hybrid — occasionally prescriptive and occasionally descriptive, which is how it remains today.

The result is that dictionary support is insufficient support. Editors still need to consider the combination of meaning and sense when determining whether a particular word conveys to the reader, clearly and unequivocally, the precise message that the author intends to convey. Suppose the dictionary included the entry h8. Your author writes, “The h8 was tremendous.” Should the reader understand it to mean hate or height? Not only are the words different, but the sense each conveys differs, and the sense that h8 conveys differs even more.

I try to express to the authors with whom I work that words are living things; they expand and contract in both meaning and sense, depending on what surrounds them. Like a puppy in desperate need of training and taming, so words need to be trained and tamed to convey with precision. They cannot be allowed to flounder and cause the reader to either wonder what the message is or to draw the wrong message. That words have been used for centuries without precision matters not to the task of the editor. Much of the looseness of words over the course of time has been because for much of that time words were conveyed by speech, not writing, and speech provides numerous clues to meaning and sense that are absent from writing (do we need a better example than e-mail?). Let us not forget the continuing interpretive problems as regards statements made in the Bible. Because of the lack of precision in word choice, fundamental philosophical disputes have arisen and continue to demand attention. Need we go any further than to ask what was a “day” at the time of creation?

Perhaps over the course of time there was little difference between words like because, since, and due to; perhaps any distinctions are modern-day inventions. But I think there is a distinction of sense that should not be ignored.

What do you think? Is sense as important as definition? Does sense play a larger or smaller role than definition in meaning and word choice?

3 Comments »

  1. From having lived most of my adult life, and especially the last 15 years, with people from different subcultures than the one I come from, I’ve learned that both sense and definition are required in order to communicate successfully — even half successfully. Spouse and I, for instance, grew up within ten miles of each other, in “middle class” families, but we couldn’t have more different frames of reference and thus different understanding of what many words mean and how they are used. We can get all crossed up over the simplest things, and more than once have settled arguments with a dictionary (that nice prescriptive MW11).

    The phenomenon continued in school, workplace, and editorial environments. That George Bernard Shaw quote — “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” — is soooooo true! In English, at least, there are many meanings, or shades of meaning, to so many words. In art, interpretation is similarly all over the map. This is why, as an editor, I take the copy editor’s chant seriously (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book…”) and accept whatever I come across unless it truly interferes with my comprehension. Then I query, and explain why I don’t understand.

    Now that I’m old enough to feel a big generation gap, I see even more cause for crosstalk. Each generation has its slang, which gives meaning to words different or opposite from how the other generation understands and uses those words. For folks like me who have little contact with young people and even less with popular media, the gap becomes huge and misunderstanding rife. I often get flummoxed when editing fiction because of references to modern/urban culture that are as mysterious to me as ancient Egypt but common parlance among others. In such cases, the fine points of distinction between “due to” and “because of” may be irrelevant, because the intended audience shares context with the author and fully grasps what might leave me in the dust. When I try to impose “proper” usage, I can get into trouble with the project editor, or tick off the author (who stets everything), because I reveal myself as somebody who doesn’t understand.

    One of our editorial colleagues has described copyediting as playing the part of a “professional idiot” — and that’s often how I feel. IMO, a manuscript’s job is to explain itself to me, and if I stub my toe on phrasing or punctuation, or simply don’t get what the author means, then it’s time to dip in. This, I believe, allows the author to do his/her thing and successfully connect with people who share contextual understanding while enabling those of us who don’t to have a chance. Therefore, when it comes to phrases like (such as?) “due to,” maybe I’ll correct it and maybe I won’t.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — April 3, 2013 @ 6:16 am | Reply

  2. One thing I like about the net is the constant practice in choosing the right words. Certainly helped in my days of moderating FIDO echoes. It’s amazing the things other people can misinterpret, absent any cues but the words themselves, and a few emoticons.

    Like

    Comment by anansii — April 4, 2013 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  3. Carolyn is right, of course, in that both are needed. In that sense, it is analogous to the nature/nurture dichotomy, which it tracks in some ways, with definitions reflecting the nature of the word and connotation how it has been nurtured by the culture. Not infrequently his reflects the common evolution from literal to metaphysical meanings of words. Our discussion of your cogent query reflects the vacuous nature of the prescriptionist/descriptionist canard. As usual, there is more that could be said — regarding reference works, in particular, but as I am a disciple of Strunk & White, however backsliding, I have said too much already.

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    Comment by Earl Appleby (@Conde_Maca) — April 10, 2013 @ 2:47 pm | Reply


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