An American Editor

April 24, 2013

On Words: Thinking About About

I have been editing book and journal manuscripts for nearly 30 years and over the course of those years, I have noticed that certain word uses were and remain popular among authors. For example, authors usually write “over 30 years of age” rather than “older than 30 years of age.”

But the use (misuse) of about bothers me more than the use (misuse) of any other word.

It isn’t so bad in fiction. Fiction doesn’t require the precision that nonfiction requires. We expect as readers flights of fancy from fiction writers, but with nonfiction, we expect a precise, clearly communicated, and accurate message. Which is why about in nonfiction bothers me.

Consider this example: “About 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” First, why approximate when it is just as easy to write, “John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963”? If a reader reads the original sentence in 2017, 50 years ago would place the assassination in 1967, clearly wrong.

Second, what does about really mean? Nearly? Around? Approximately? On the verge of? Regardless of how you define about, it lacks precision because it leaves a reader to define what is meant, which is just the opposite of what should be true of writing with the intent to communicate. If the sentence is “About the sides of the square,” then the meaning of about is precise if around all sides is meant. But what if that is not what is meant? If the sentence is, “I am about to go for a walk,” again, about is precise if what is meant is that I am on the verge of going for a walk.

Clearly, context can often provide an accurate meaning, but generally there is no accurate, laser-like precise meaning that can be supplied by a reader when about is associated with a number. Which also raises the question: If you know enough to write “about 50 years ago” or “about 100 miles,” why do you not know enough to write “51 years ago” or “103 miles”?

The imprecision of about cannot be sloughed off as acceptable colloquial English because when precision should be provided, there is no acceptable alternative to being precise. There are lots of reasons for being precise. Few writings expire after 30 days; an author who has taken the time and made the effort to write a book expects it to be read for years to come. Consequently, the author should expect that what about means today it will not mean next year, which means that today’s semicorrect information will be next year’s incorrect information.

And when it comes to measures, there is no excuse for not being precise, except, perhaps, in the case of pi, when 3.14 is acceptable imprecision. If we say a study had “about 314 participants,” why can’t we say the study had “314 participants” or whatever number of participants actually participated? Would we want our doctor to tell us to “take about 2 tablets” or would we want to know precisely how many tablets of the medicine we should take?

I find it interesting that the leading word maven, Bryan Garner, ignores the imprecision of about. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has a different view than Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009). MW notes that about can be redundant when used with numbers (e.g., the estimate is about $150). More importantly, MW notes that “the use of about with round numbers is extremely common, and is for the obvious purpose of indicating that the number is not exact.” (p. 4) Which is precisely the problem.

To write in a novel, “he walked about 50 feet before coming to a halt,” cannot cause harm; to write in a how-to book, “cut each board about 25 inches,” could cause a significant problem when it is important that each board be 24.5 inches. On the other hand, if the length that the character walked is an important clue in a mystery, then about could be the difference between solving and not solving the mystery.

Because I generally consider the use of about as “lazy” writing, I usually query an author’s use of about. I ask if a precise number is available and suggest that if one is available, that it be used in place of the approximation that about implies. I point out to the author how meaning can change with the passage of time (in the instance when about is paired with time measures), and that it should be the author’s expectation that his book will be referenced years from now. If about is paired with a quantity measure, such as number of pills to take or the length of an object, I try to give an example of how a reader could draw the wrong conclusion or, using the author’s words, cause some harm.

In the end, the question comes down to why the author chose imprecision over precision. There are times when imprecision is a necessary element of the story being told, but I think an author has to be able to justify that imprecision. The balance should always be tilting toward precision of communication until there is justification for tilting that balance toward imprecision.

The matter, as always, boils down to communication of message. If the role of the editor is to help the author communicate a clear and precise message to the reader, a message that cannot be misunderstood by the reader, then the editor is obligated to query the use of about when the context clearly indicates that about is being used to indicate an approximation.

I know that it may appear as if this is just an editor being nit-picky, but the choice of words has implications. It is the editor’s job to help the author understand what the implications are of the word choices made and provide an opportunity for the author to make alternative choices that may better express the message that the author wants the reader to receive. It is diplomacy on the local level. I want my authors to avoid the mishaps that seem to befall politicians regularly.

As an editor, do you query about when used as an approximation? Is this an instance of nit-picking? As an author, do you think about the message being sent when you write about? Do you want your editor to ask about your word choices?

12 Comments »

  1. Great article, and indeed the imprecise ‘about’ should be queried whenever clarity is lacking. From the laziness point of view, I dislike ‘got’ and ‘done’, which are overused in the scientific texts I work on. Word choice is an important part of anything we write and read, and I think it is an editor’s job to share alternatives. As in all things editorial, communication is the key. As strange as it may seems, authors may have another focus.

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    Comment by Irene Pizzie — April 24, 2013 @ 4:40 am | Reply

  2. People use “over” because that’s what we use in everyday speech. Anyone who said, “Never trust anyone older than 30 years of age” would be laughed out of the room. The “of age’ is redundant with “older/younger.” What else would it be? “Older than 30 years of experience”?

    I think people use the “50 years ago” to emphasize for the subtraction-impaired how long ago that was. For those of us who remember the event, it’s mind-boggling to realize how much time has passed. Such usage would be OK for a newspaper article, assuming you’re reading it now. But for a book, which might be read 10 years from now, I always query. One solution would be “. . . assassinated in 1963, more than 50 years ago,” assuming that by the time the book got to the stores, the “more than” would be accurate and would still be accurate after 60 years.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 24, 2013 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  3. The example of referring back to JFK’s assassination is a straw man. The actual date is known; there’s no reason to be vague. Better examples would be the use of about when:
    – A range is given: “Bake until golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.” In such cases, about is redundant and can be deleted with to harm to the meaning.
    – A range is implied: “In humans, the normal resting heart rate is about 70 beats per minute.” Here it would be more useful to delete about and give the range: “…the normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute.”
    – Facts are presumed, not known with certainty: “The suspect is a white male, about 6 feet tall and 30 years old.” Here the use of about serves well to indicate that the “facts” are nothing more than estimates, guesses most likely supplied by a witness and passed along by authorities.
    – What is being measured is not static: “The moon orbits about 240,000 miles from the Earth.” In this case, about means “on average.” Here, about would be fine for anything but scientific writing.

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    Comment by Will Harmon — April 24, 2013 @ 10:30 am | Reply

    • P.S. I’ll add that precision itself is not always the foremost concern of good writing. Sometimes it’s enough to simply be clear and direct. I’m reminded of a sign near a lake in Central Park: “Peligro! Hielo fino.” “Danger! Thin ice.” But this is imprecise and raises questions. Just how thin is the ice? Doesn’t it vary depending on temperature and other conditions? Why is thin ice dangerous? A more precise wording would be: “Danger! This ice is too weak to support the weight of a person. Do not enter.”

      I’d argue that the less precise warning sign is better in this case because the meaning remains clear, and the economy of words gives the message more immediacy. The warning is more likely to be read and heeded.

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      Comment by Will Harmon — April 24, 2013 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  4. If someone uses about in referring to anything factual, such as your JFK example, I either query or – if I know enough to do so – fix it. One of my peeves is seeing “on” when “about” seems to be more appropriate: He will give a presentation on such-and-such.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 24, 2013 @ 10:35 am | Reply

    • Ruth, the use of on to indicate the subject of a presentation or course of study is old and well accepted. See the entry in Webster’s. In your example, “on” is not incorrect.

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      Comment by Will Harmon — April 24, 2013 @ 10:54 am | Reply

  5. “A range is given: “Bake until golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.” In such cases, about is redundant and can be deleted with to harm to the meaning.”

    I don’t agree with this. The actual range might be 10 to 45 minutes for stoves with peculiar thermostats. The 25 to 30 is the range for the average oven.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 24, 2013 @ 11:10 am | Reply

    • When writing a cookbook, that’s all anyone can do–give the appropriate range for the average, properly functioning oven. Giving a range of “10 to 45 minutes” would help no one. The owner of a malfunctioning oven won’t know which end of the range they fall on until they bake something (and then, armed with their new understanding, they wouldn’t need the unduly wide time range), and the owner of a properly functioning oven won’t know what the actual baking time is supposed to be. This is why most cookbooks state up front that cooking times are approximate and may vary depending on the oven and altitude. They then give the reasonable cooking time for a functioning oven at some stated altitude–typically sea level or 3,000 feet and above. In such cases, using “about” with a time range is redundant.

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      Comment by Will Harmon — April 24, 2013 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

      • I agree a huge range would be useless. But for the reason I mentioned, I wouldn’t object to “about 25 to 30 minutes.” That indicates the expected range but also allows for other times.

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        Comment by Gretchen — April 24, 2013 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

        • Sure, and I’ve let it stand in more conversational cookbooks. But for finely tuned cookbooks, I delete “about” and give the range. The range itself implies that other times are possible.

          Which shows just how dependent on context our editing choices should be. Precision is certainly called for in the medical texts Rich edits, but in many other genres (sticking with non-fiction) and intended audiences, other factors may take precedence. Voice, flow, immediacy, etc., may be more important than sheer precision.

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          Comment by Will Harmon — April 24, 2013 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  6. I agree with Will: in some texts precision is necessary; in others, precision may not be top priority. As with every other word in a manuscript, we should consider the reason to use “about” based on the manuscript, its goals, and its audience.

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    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — April 26, 2013 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  7. I enjoyed the article, it is something I had never thought about (pun intended)

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    Comment by Peter — November 19, 2013 @ 6:51 pm | Reply


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