An American Editor

August 17, 2016

On Language: The Power of Words

We have all heard the maxim “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Although much older as an idea, the maxim comes from the 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which Richelieu says:

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

I am reminded of this maxim repeatedly as I read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (2016). I have not yet finished the book and I do not intend to review it here and now, other than to say that I think everyone should read Stamped from the Beginning to understand the origins and growth of racism in America, and that every editor should read the book to understand how powerful words can be and why it is important for editors to be masters of language and to use that mastery in their editing — because the wrong word can lead to unintended consequences.

Consider, for example, the word sacrifice. It’s used by Gold Star parents (i.e., parents of soldiers killed in combat) to mean the death of their child — “I sacrificed my child for the cause of liberty.” In contrast, sacrifice to a narcissist seems to mean “I sacrificed by giving people jobs,” in which sacrifice can be interpreted as equaling not making as much money as I could have. Are these both sacrifices? Perhaps as long as the money “sacrifice” is not used in rebuttal of the death sacrifice or claimed to be equivalent to it, as Donald Trump claimed in response to the challenge of the Khizr and Ghazala Khan family (see, e.g., “Hillary Clinton Crushes Donald Trump in Another National Poll as Khan Controversy Disgusts Voters” by Jason Silverstein, Daily News [New York], August 7, 2016). A master of language would have known not to try to equate money “sacrifice” with the Gold Star parents’ death sacrifice.

Words, spoken or written, can influence the course of history. Consider, for a contemporary example, U.S. presidential candidate Trump’s words about defending the Baltic States as required by the NATO treaty: “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes” (“Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack” by David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, July 20, 2016). With these words, Trump has changed an absolute obligation into a conditional obligation. More importantly, he has used words that are subject to differing interpretation, and an audience can never be certain exactly what “fulfill their obligations to us” means. How different the meaning would be had Trump instead said something like: “Yes, but I plan to make sure that they are fulfilling their obligations to us, too.” Problematically for the United States, the words he spoke reverberated around the world. Japan and Korea, for example, wondered whether a President Trump would honor America’s commitments to protect them; Europe has begun to panic — all from a few words.

One other example is Donald Trump’s recent statement: “By the way, and if she gets the pick — if she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno” (see the editorial “Trump Must Go: Hinting at Assassination Is Too Much, Even for Him,” Daily News [New York], August 9, 2016, and “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton” by Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, August 9, 2016). Many Trump supporters rushed to his defense and said he was joking; Trump said he wasn’t joking, then said he was joking. The problem is that Trump did not carefully choose his words; he forgot a fundamental principle by which editors must work: words have power!

For this reason, editors have a special obligation to be literate and knowledgeable about language. Even the simplest words can matter because words have power, and some words have more power in a particular context (such as sacrifice above) because they more accurately and forcefully express the message by not requiring the reader (or listener) to interpret them — they deliver a clear, unmistakable message.

Consider due to. I know in my editing work I see this phrase used frequently as a substitute for clearer, more powerful (and accurate) words and phrases. I have no idea how many words and phrases due to acts as a substitute for, but in my EditTools Toggle Word dataset I have 22 words and phrases that I choose among as replacements for due to. I understand that as a result of usage over time, once distinctly used words have become treated as roughly synonymous, at least in speech, good examples being the use of due to in place of, among many others, caused by or because of. It is easy to understand how this happened, and it is also easy to see the role of editors in abetting this transition.

The question is not whether due to and because of are viewed as being roughly synonymous in common parlance. The question is whether editors should treat them as synonymous rather than as nonsynonymous. The answer depends on several factors, not least of which is the editor’s command of language and understanding of the importance of precise language as a method of communication. The more skilled the editor, the greater the striving for word precision and the less tolerance for ambiguity.

The problem with due to is that when it is used as a substitute for more precise language, the reader (or listener) must guess at meaning. Due to is ambiguous when not used in the sense of “attributable to” — is it a substitute for because of or caused by or as a consequence of or as a result of or resulting from or based on or something else?

In the case of a president, the use of a vague word can lead to severe economic and military consequences. For an author, it means that a weak statement is being made, one that lacks punch. Although using due to is an excellent example of how to weaken a sentence, other words can have a similar effect.

Some might object that context will provide clarity, but that is not always the case. Consider Trump’s various statements. In horror movies blood pours from the ears, nose, mouth, so why was that interpretation of his blood comment —“…blood coming out of her wherever…” — rejected (see “Donald Trump’s ‘Blood’ Comment About Megyn Kelly Draws Outrage” by Holly Yan, CNN, August 8, 2015)? It is, in context, equally likely (if not more so) that he meant wherever in the horror movie sense, but that is not the interpretation assigned by others. Suppose, instead, Trump had said: “I have hated her since I have been treated unfairly.” Does he hate her since the first time he was treated unfairly — the passage-of-time sense — or because he was treated unfairly — the causal sense? Context might or might not clarify meaning. Or consider Trump’s recent Second Amendment statement, quoted above. Context didn’t provide meaning or understanding. More importantly, does a good editor say, “Because in context _____ must, in my interpretation, equal (i.e., mean) _____, I do not need to query it”? I think not; that there is any possibility of misinterpretation should be sufficient cause to query.

The purpose here is not to convince editors that we should be preserving these fine-line distinctions. The issue is broader — language skills and mastery. In the absence of mastery, how do you know whether, for example, since or due to is appropriately used (i.e., leads to clarity rather than ambiguity)? Editors need to have mastered their language so that they know these fine-line distinctions and can choose the appropriate words to enhance clarity of meaning. Most editors — and based on responses to the copyediting test I have given job applicants over many years, I would guess it is close to 95% — would simply pass over such usages and not ask themselves whether the sentences involved are communicating correctly, and thus not query the author.

Consider again Donald Trump’s statement regarding the Baltics and NATO. What if he had said, “Since they do not fulfill their obligations to us,” rather than “If they fulfill their obligations to us”? Would it have been a more forceful (or worrisome) statement if because had been used rather than since? Because, after all, is considered a more forceful conjunction than causal since (“inasmuch as,” “seeing as”).

Words are powerful weapons. They can be the source of peace or war, understanding or misunderstanding, depending on how they are used. When we speak, a significant part of what is meant by our words is determined by how we say them — tone and emphasis add meaning. With the written word, all aural and some visual clues are missing, making the choice of words even more important.

A difference that matters when seeking an editor is the editor’s knowledge of language. Too many consumers of editing services fail to focus on an editor’s mastery of language, yet knowing which is the “right” word is the difference between someone being just an editor and being a great editor, the difference between an editor who helps an author achieve mediocrity and an editor who helps an author achieve greatness. Although today’s editors often accept a word’s usage because it fits with the common usage (consider, e.g., about and around when conjoined with a quantity) and because the line separating the words is razor-edge thin, knowing that line may make the difference between good writing and great writing. Just as is true with due to, around, about, approximately, since, and because, so it is true with myriad other word combinations, such as who and whom, that and which, that and who, convince and persuade.

Choosing the right word adds power to a statement; choosing a lesser but “equivalent” word softens the power of the message and, more importantly, can make a sentence’s meaning so ambiguous that audiences may well miss — or reject — the intended point. The best editors are knowledgeable about the power of words and choose among them thoughtfully and carefully.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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