An American Editor

June 26, 2013

On Language: Infer or State?

In a recent opinion column, the columnist wrote: The “annual rate fell 58 percent, from 5 [sexual assault] victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older to 2.1….” The editorial question is this: Should “age 12 or older” be edited to read “age 12 years or older”?

We, meaning readers as well as editors, “understand” that the writer means “age 12 years or older” — or at least we infer the years — but should we infer or should the author state clearly that years is the measure?

This is not as nit-picky as it appears. Sixty years ago, I do not think there was ever any mention of a sexual assault made on an infant; today, such crimes are reported regularly by the media. Consequently, how do we know that “age 12 or older” means years and not months or weeks? In fact, how do we know that a reader will infer years rather than days, weeks, or months? If I had just read a story about the assault of a 12-week-old baby, I might well decide that “age 12 or older” means “age 12 weeks or older.”

This is the fundamental problem with inferred or assumed matters. What the author intends to be inferred or assumed may not be what the reader infers or assumes, which can change the message entirely. (Not only was the article not clear about the measure, it similarly referred to incidents of “sexual assault” but never defined what that meant.)

What was an otherwise well-written op-ed piece, became a not-so-well-written-message-lost op-ed piece because both the author and the editor forgot the basic requirement of written communication: clarity. The acceptance of inferred/assumed terms in written material is too commonplace. Granted at times it has little consequence in a novel, because fiction often wants readers to draw their own conclusions — sometimes as in a good mystery to let the reader lead herself astray, sometimes because it doesn’t matter to the story — yet there are many times in fiction writing when the failure to be precise makes a story difficult to follow.

In contrast, however, allowing the reader to infer or assume in nonfiction is always problematic. This is one indication of poor authorship, and it is poor editing that allows it to stand unchallenged. Nonfiction is intended to be fact-based and to relate facts about the topic to the reader. When a reader has to supply some of those facts himself, the reader may choose erroneous facts — suddenly what was a demonstration of the existence of humankind’s impact on global warming becomes proof that humankind has no impact at all. To try to go back afterward and supply the missing information that had to be assumed/inferred by the reader subjects the author to charges of manipulation of the data after the fact and, more importantly, greatly weakens the author’s argument.

The difficulty that authors face is that they already know what they mean and so read “age 12 or older” correctly. The omission is not obvious; it does not stand out like a sword waiting to prick the bubble of the author’s argument.

The difficulty that editors face is that they are like authors in that they, too, see what they expect (see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud). Yet, this is one hallmark of the professional editor (in contrast to the nonprofessional editor) — the ability to set aside expectations and to see what assumptions readers are being asked to make and the implications of making those assumptions. It is not that the editor can decide whether “age 12 or older” should be, for example, “age 12 years or older” or “age 12 months or older,” although that may be possible from the context of the surrounding material, but rather that the editor can see the problem of letting the reader draw her own conclusion and can note the problem to the author who should provide the fix.

Ultimately the question becomes this: Is there a time when, in nonfiction, the editor should allow the reader to infer or assume or does the professional editor always query instances that require the reader to supply missing facts? Here opinions vary among editors. I am of the opinion that there is never a time when the reader should be allowed to infer or assume facts in nonfiction. I am also of the opinion that the times when it is permissible in fiction are very limited.

I think it is important to not permit a reader to infer or assume facts because to do so means that the author hasn’t provided the complete message that she is trying to communicate to the reader. If there is no complete message, what is the purpose of the writing? Why has the author invested time and effort in writing if the author does not intend to say something? Alongside the intent to send a message to the reader is the need to do so precisely and concisely and in a manner that does not leave the reader wondering whether the author means a or b or even anything at all.

I have repeatedly said that the one cardinal rule of editing, the one rule that supersedes all other rules, including those of grammar and spelling, is that the author’s writing must communicate the author’s message to the reader without any confusion on the part of the reader as to what the message is. The failure to meet that rule is an authorial and an editorial failure. The sole purpose of writing is communication. (Yes, writing is also intended to, for example, entertain, but this and purposes other than communication are secondary to the primary purpose of communication.)

In the example of “age 12 or older,” it is the editor’s responsibility to, at minimum, query the author to supply the measure. Because an author’s response is likely to be, “You’ve got to be kidding me. It is obviously years,” the editor needs to explain, at least the first time such a query is made, why precision is important and illustrate how easy it would be for a reader to make the wrong inference.

Do you query in these instances or let the author’s wording stand?

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