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

July 27, 2016

On Language: Doing More Than Spell Check

by Daniel Sosnoski

You’ve probably had a family member or friend say something to you along the lines of “Oh, you’re an editor? Well then, I’d better watch my grammar around you!” And no doubt you’ve seen T-shirts and coffee mugs with the phrase “I am silently correcting your grammar” on them. The general public seems to believe that editing is largely concerned with finding and correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. And it is.

Editing has been likened to milling, with each pass grinding finer, so that pebbles become gravel, and gravel becomes sand. You might consider spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues to be something you catch during one of these stages, but there are other fish to fry as well.

Speed bumps

The editor strives to stand in for all imaginable readers. Most guides, like the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style, have sections and commentary about the avoidance of sexist language. Dialing your focus wider, you want to avoid racist, ageist, and ablest language, too. Be on guard for such faults because they can potentially obstruct the flow of the narrative by needlessly offending the reader.

Anything in the text that pulls the reader away from the reverie of following the author’s train of thought is a speed bump in the text and needs to be removed. These are straightforward matters. But some are less obvious. The following will address a range of factual errors that can be corrected in text, although not all editing assignments allow this. Consider this discussion more applicable to developmental and line editing duties.

For example, in two bestselling novels — Stephen King’s Black House and Lee Child’s Make Me — there are references to 9 mm firearms that are revolvers, and rifles that have “clips” — small details that startle the knowledgeable reader because they are factually incorrect. An audiobook discussing findings in psychology is marred by the narrator mispronouncing “affect” as “uff-ect” when it should be “aff-ect” (The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo). These things interrupt the flow of narrative.

An editor I know said that his author wrote that a billion dollars, in a stack of $100 bills, would be as high as “a 60-story building.” The editor did the math and determined the actual height would be between 285 and 320 feet high. As the average building story is 13 feet, the correct analogy would be “a 25-story building.” You can overlook an error of this type and constrain your focus to matters that directly impact plot and intended meaning; the point here is that any general assertion an author makes can often be easily Googled.

And in an article titled, “Is Copy Editing A Dying Art?,” Lev Raphael notes about a book: “I found missing words and ‘phenomena’ used as the singular, a mistake unworthy of the author and his publishing house.” Furthermore: “They’re evidence of systemic carelessness. And though they’re minor, they’re irritating and can momentarily throw readers out of the book.”

Quote, unquote

For whatever reason, quotations tend to be a minefield of trouble. Particularly, the tendency to misattribute quotations from famous persons. For example, in discussions regarding ending a sentence with a preposition, you are likely to read that Winston Churchill said some version of the following:

  • That is a rule up with which I will not put.
  • This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put
  • This is insubordination, up with which I will not put!
  • This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.
  • This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.
  • Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put.

Linguist Benjamin Zimmer finds that the first citation was actually, “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put,” and is marginalia scribed by an unknown government copy writer in 1942. Any time you see a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or any other notable personage, more often than not the quote will be slightly or completely incorrect. A check with Google is mandatory unless you know the quote to be accurate as given.

Some quotes, like Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” also come in several flavors. Being translated from French, there are a few variations you’ll find in print, but the larger issue is that these are the words of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, as recorded by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

In cases where you have multiple renderings of a quote from a foreign language, you can search a bit online or check Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to determine whether there is a preferred or standard translation.

You do the math

Anything involving calculations, units of measurement, math you can check — you should try to check it. Nine times out of 10 it will be right, but occasionally you’ll find a miss. A key area for editors is the expression of numbers with graphics. Is the data best presented as a pie chart or a bar graph? A histogram or line chart? Are the words “percentage” and “percentile” being used correctly?

Also look for consistent treatment among numbers. Are there mixed types of fractions, are decimal points treated uniformly? Can numbers be rounded for clarity? When you start asking these questions, you’ll often find problems that require correction. Here, too, we see that editing is more than checking spelling and grammar.

Out of time

Given sufficient resources, you could try to verify every fact presented in a text. In practice, unless the work is short this won’t be feasible. A sound procedure is to focus the bulk of your attention on checking the kinds of details that, if wrong, would do the greatest disservice to the author and reader. What those items are will in part reflect the type of text you’re handling.

For example: If you’re editing a travel guide, place names and directions will be of paramount importance. In my work with medical material, anatomy, references, and footnotes are critical because they reflect upon the credibility and professionalism of the author. Grammar or spelling mistakes would be unfortunate, but a technical error is awkward because it can call the authority of the entire work into question.

In histories and works of historical fiction, dates are going to be in the “must-check” category, but in the latter, especially, anachronisms can fall into two categories; namely, things in the text that could not have existed at the time in question, and words or expressions that are of the wrong period. For example, Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene i), has the following:

Brutus: Peace! Count the clock.
Cassius: The clock hath stricken three.

Yet mechanical clocks did not exist at this time. Also common in historical fiction are anachronisms involving clothing and foods that appear prior to their invention. And with language, here’s a critic noting an error in Downton Abbey, season five:

“[T]he massive anachronism ‘steep learning curve’ in this week’s episode, a phrase from the 1970s that should have no place in Downton Abbey.”

A certain amount of artistic license can be granted in the service of good storytelling, but when the reader hits on significant errors of fact, he or she is likely to wonder how well the work was edited (or if it was edited at all). This is from an Amazon review by a frustrated customer:

“This impression is not aided by the careless errors that pepper the book (e.g., referring to Microsoft as a cable giant). Didn’t anybody edit this thing before it hit the shelves?”

The sixth sense

If you work regularly with an author and find that his or her work tends to be well-researched, you can reduce the amount of checking you do. Conversely, if you start to encounter frequent mistakes of the type discussed above, you’ll want to look closer. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a phrase or statement that makes you wonder, “Is this really so?” That’s usually a sign you should investigate further.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

May 11, 2016

On Words: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

Last month, Oxford University Press published Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016). This month it’s Chicago University Press’s turn with the publication of Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). I was hesitant to preorder the book for fear that it would not be much more than the grammar section of The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010 — is it getting time for a 17th edition?), but I preordered it anyway, thinking that I couldn’t go too far wrong with only a $30 investment.

I received my copy of the Chicago Guide a few days ago. I have not had time (or inclination) to spend my weekend devouring it from cover to cover, but after looking at the table of contents and at some random selections, this may well be a book that I will spend 30 minutes a day reading until I have gone from cover to cover. The Chicago Guide is not what I expected, but it is what I had hoped for.

There are a lot of grammar books available and a lot of sharply focused books on specific items (one of my favorites is June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. [2014, Ten Speed Press]), but there aren’t many, if any, that are comprehensive and accessible. The Chicago Guide certainly is accessible and comprehensive.

The book is divided into five major parts and within each major part, numerous subparts. For example:

I. The Traditional Parts of Speech
Traditional Classifications
6 Nouns generally

13 Mass nouns
Properties of Nouns
14 Generally

18 Person

The last numbered subsubsubsection is 558, which should give you an idea of just how much the Chicago Guide covers. Additional major parts are as follows:

II. Syntax
III. Word Formation
IV. Word Usage
V. Punctuation

Because of the way the book is designed, if you have a question about a specific item — for example, how to use a colon — you can go directly to the table of contents, find part “V. Punctuation,” locate the subtopic “The Colon,” and select from among several topics the appropriate topic for your inquiry, such as “Using Colons: 486 Without capitalizing the following matter needlessly.”

Do you remember sentence diagramming? It has been many years since I last diagrammed a sentence, but I certainly remember spending hours learning to diagram in high school English. You can refresh your knowledge and skills using the Chicago Guide, which has a subsection dedicated to diagramming.

The diagramming section is followed by a subsection on “Transformational Grammar,” which Garner defines in this way:

“…a descriptive approach that does not provide normative rules but instead seeks to derive and explain the rules of a language by showing how native speakers generate sentences. It is based on a theory first proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957.” (¶365, Chicago Guide)

Garner goes on to explain how to use the approach, which I find fascinating, as this is not something I learned in school.

One of the annoying things about many grammar books comes down to this: when the books discuss a part of speech such as adverbs and give sentences as examples, the sentences have little to do with the discussion going on and rarely identify the part of speech under discussion; instead, they often list the appropriate words separately. I have never considered it a good instructional method, and now, with the Chicago Guide in hand, I am certain it is not a good method. The Chicago Guide’s method is wholly different and much more welcome to me. Instead of discussing adverbs and then listing a few sentence examples, the Chicago Guide highlights the adverbs as they appear in the discussion (see figure below), which is, I think, a more intuitive way to learn to identify adverbs — or any other part of speech.

Illustration of Identifying Part of Speech Under Discussion

Part of Speech Under Discussion

The Chicago Guide also has another excellent feature — two indexes: a word index and a general index. The word index is handy if you have a question about a specific word (e.g., “afflict, 284, 330”). The general index appears to be comprehensive, but I am not certain how much use it will get, considering the detail of the table of contents.

From the little amount of time I have spent with the Chicago Guide, it is clear to me that this is a great companion to Garner’s usage guide. Even though I do not always agree with Garner’s advice, I do think that if you edit American English, both Garner’s Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation should be within reach.

Will you be adding one or both of these books to your editorial library?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 20, 2014

The History of English + A Surprise

I found the following video “educational” and thus worth repeating here. In 10 minutes, one can learn the “history” of English.

Now that you have fulfilled your job requirements for the day, let’s move on to some entertainment. The following videos star the ultimate winner of Italy’s version of “The Voice.” Although there are a lot of videos, they are worth watching (although I would just watch while they are singing, not the after remarks, which reduces the time needed to get through them).

If the videos are blocked in your country, but you can access YouTube, try searching for “suor cristina the voice.”

This first video was the original blind audition. Be sure to watch the expressions of the judges when they turn around and see the performance.

Bon Jovi gets the treatment in this song:

This is the first “battle” between contestants, the winner of which moves on to the next round:

These show a great range of talent:

This was the winning performance:

And when she was interviewed about her future after winning “The Voice,” her response was that she hoped to return to working with the children. Sometimes the most impressive people are found in unexpected places.


Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 11, 2013

Four Questions & Jargon

Every editor has to deal with jargon, because every form of writing has jargon designed to speak to the author’s audience. The question that editors need to resolve is this: Should I delete jargon? Today’s guest essayist, Erin Brenner, tackles the question by asking four questions about the jargon and its use.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.


Before Deleting Jargon, Ask These Four Questions

by Erin Brenner

Copyeditors are trained to spot jargon. We’re taught to see it as obscuring meaning, as something designed to keep readers out, so delete it we must. Yet jargon can be helpful as well. For those familiar with it, jargon can provide a concise way to say something.

Instead of automatically deleting jargon, we should be considering whether it’s helpful to the reader.

How do you do that? Let me show you.

Ask Four Simple Questions

While editing the newsletter recently, I came across three jargon terms in an article about email discussion lists by Katharine O’Moore-Klopf: listmate, onlist, and offlist. I’ve been participating in such discussion lists for a long time, so I didn’t even blink at the terms.

But one of my copyeditors, Andy Johnson, did. Given that the article is aimed at folks who don’t currently participate in discussion lists or boards, would those readers understand the terms?

Johnson knows that jargon must be helpful to readers or be removed—just like every other word in a manuscript. To determine whether the terms are helpful, I apply a list of questions I wrote for deciding whether to use a neologism in a manuscript:

  • Does the word in question mean what the author intends it to mean?
  • Does the word fit the style and tone of the text?
  • Will any connotations of the word inhibit the author’s intended message?
  • Will the audience understand what the author means by this word?

In this situation, O’Moore-Klopf was using the terms correctly. They fit well within the piece, and there were no connotations of the terms to inhibit meaning. The problem was whether the audience would understand the terms. The article was targeting readers who don’t currently participate in discussion lists, remember.

We could determine whether there would be readers who wouldn’t understand the jargon by determining how well known the jargon was outside of discussion lists. I started my search for these words:

  1. In several dictionaries. No results.
  2. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Zip.
  3. On Google. Now I had a few results:

a. listmate: There is some list management software called ListMate that grabs most of the first few results pages; about four pages in, I found one result that was in the subject line of a Yahoo Group message.

b. onlist: Results included social media handles and program commands. They also included some descriptions of activity on a list (as opposed to off it).

c. offlist: This term had the best results. It appears in Wiktionary, a Minecraft forum, and discussion comments. It’s also as a tag on Instagram and Pinterest.

By this point, I had a fair idea that these terms weren’t used much, if at all, outside of discussion lists. Still, I checked one more place, Google Books, and came up with a few accurate results. Most were books about discussion lists or marketing; one was on relationships in the digital world. Another was a book about language usage in a specific culture, while another was a fiction book set in the modern day.

Given that the terms were not often found in the mainstream, I hesitated to use them. Listmate seemed self-explanatory once the idea of discussion list had been introduced. Onlist and offlist were less clear; although our readers are intelligent and could parse out the meaning, we’d be making them work for it. Could we say the same thing without those terms?

We could. In most places where onlist was on its own, we could just drop it; the context was clear already:

If you have a funny work-related anecdote that you can share [deleted: onlist] without violating anyone’s privacy or embarrassing anyone, do so.

Offlist didn’t appear on its own, but when paired with onlist, we rewrote the phrasing:

Avoid complaining, either on the list or in private e-mail conversations [was: onlist or offlist], about colleagues, listmates, and clients.

In addition to the places I noted above, consider checking industry publications similar to yours and a news database, such as Google News. The first will tell you if the jargon is common in your industry, and the second will tell you if the jargon has become familiar to a wider audience. If the jargon appears in either place, you can feel comfortable keeping it in your manuscript.

Copyeditors don’t have to spend a great deal of time trying to determine how mainstream a piece of jargon is. It took me about 10 minutes or so to research all three terms in a light way and decide that the issue my copyeditor had raised was valid. I saw enough evidence for me to advise the author and seek her preferences.


Do you  have “rules” that you apply to determine whether jargon should be deleted? Are they the same as Erin’s four questions or something different? Some professional editors work in niche subject areas, for example, medical books written by doctors for doctors or computer programming books written by programmers for advanced-level programmers. Are the rules about jargon and the questions to be asked about jargon outlined by Erin applicable?

Perhaps most important: Does eliminating jargon really matter in today’s Internet and Twitter age?

What do you think?

October 21, 2013

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

Recently, in editing my essays for my forthcoming book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7; Waking Lion Press; 2014), Ruth Thaler-Carter raised this question:

“Shouldn’t custom built locally be custom-built locally?”

There are three editors on this project — Ruth, myself, and Jack Lyon — which has meant there have been some lively language discussions and this was another such discussion. The opinion was split 2-1 in favor of hyphenation. I was the dissenting opinion and so won the battle as the author and final decider, but that doesn’t mean my decision was the grammatically right decision; it just means that as the named author I had final decision-making power and exercised it.

If you lookup “custom built” in the dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [5th ed] and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed]), you find the entry hyphenated followed by “adj.” It is those three letters that cause the problem.

I agree that custom built needs to be hyphenated in an adjectival phrase, such as custom-built computer. But when not used in an adjectival phrase, as in “custom built locally,” I see no reason to hyphenate. What does hyphenation accomplish? Is a reader misled in the absence of the hyphenation? Is “custom built locally” more understandable when hyphenated and, conversely, less understandable when not hyphenated?

This is similar to the questions raised by short term and long term. A look at the dictionaries indicates that these are also adjectives and hyphenated. But there is no mention of when they are not adjectives. For example, “When the short term expires, payment will be due.”

Editors rely on dictionaries and other usage tomes for guidance — and so editors should. But the emphasis has to be on guidance. Editors are supposed to consider, evaluate, and exercise judgment with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the reader understands the author.

So the question arises: Do phrases that are hyphenated when used as adjectives continue to be hyphenated when not used in adjectival form? (Yes, I recognize that there are other forms in which the hyphenated version is needed or required, including in certain noun situations; let’s ignore those situations and look toward a more general rule.)

(Let me make clear that editors have and should have differences of opinion about such matters of grammar as hyphenation. Regardless as to how we ultimately “resolve” today’s question, there is no absolute right or wrong. Rather, we seek a guiding rule. Ultimately, it is my belief that a professional editor can and should make decisions, such as whether to hyphenate or not, based on whether the editor can support the decision.)

Perhaps a good phrase to evaluate is decision making. I raise it because it does not appear in the dictionary yet whatever rule we generate would be as applicable to decision making as to short term and custom built. I suspect that we would all agree that in this instance, decision making should be hyphenated: “In the decision-making process, …” But should it be hyphenated in this usage: “It is clear that the decision making was faulty.” In this latter sentence, the absent but implied word is “process.” Is implication sufficient to warrant hyphenation?

Or what about these pairs: “Betty was the decision maker” versus “the decision-maker Betty”? In the former, the modifier precedes the phrase; in the latter it follows on its heels. The latter is clear that hyphenation is warranted; not so in the former.

In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that what governs is clarity. If hyphenation will make the meaning clearer, then hyphenate; if it neither enhances nor decreases clarity, then don’t hyphenate. I do not stand alone in this view. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., §7.85 for those who require “authority”) says:

“In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.”

The problem with Chicago‘s guidance is that it still leaves us in the dark whether to hyphenate short term, long term, decision making, and custom built — unless we latch onto the final clause, “hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability,” which is what I use to make my decision. In the case of decision making, I can also latch on to the noun + gerund examples Chicago provides in the table that accompanies §7.85, where Chicago specifically says “decision making” and “decision-making group.”

On the one hand, it strikes me that short term, long term, and custom built should be no different than decision making. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the case of these three phrases, the fact that the dictionaries hyphenate them is sufficient fallback justification to hyphenate them (even though they classify the hyphenated form as adjectival). I prefer, however, to base my decision on what counts most: readability.

Do you hyphenate? What is your justification for doing/not doing so?

September 9, 2013

The Pluraling of Plurals

Before there is a mad rush to point out that pluraling is not a word, rest assured I know it — I created the word just for this article. I do realize that pluralizing might have been a better choice, but pluraling just struck me as appropriate.

I recently edited some medical material in which the term activities of daily living was used. The authors, after giving the expanded version of the term, used the initialism ADL, which is correct. ADL appears in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate 11e, American Heritage 5e, and Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 32e; it does not appear in Stedman’s Medical Dictionary 28e — at least not as ADL; in Stedman’s it is ADLs. In the AMA Manual of Style 10e, it appears as ADL with a parenthetical “(but: 1 ADL, 6 ADLs).” The Scientific Style and Format (CSE Manual) 7e doesn’t specifically say anything about ADL, but it does say, “If the abbreviated term is itself a plural, do not add the ‘s’.”

Alas, the usage bible, Garner’s Modern American Usage, says nothing about ADL, but does say this about the baseball initialism RBI (runs batted in): “three RBIs” is correct and “three RBI” is incorrect based on long-time use.

In the book I was editing, the authors sometimes used ADL and sometimes ADLs, presumably to distinguish between the singular activity and the plural activities. I changed every instance of ADLs to ADL. After all, one doesn’t have activities of daily livings, activities is already plural, and, most importantly, the authors correctly defined (expanded) ADL as activities, not activity. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the in-house editor insisted that where the authors used ADLs it was to be left as ADLs, although the in-house editor did ask for my justification for making the change.

The Dorland’s, Collegiate, and American Heritage dictionaries offer only ADL, not ADLs, and define ADL as activities, not activity; Stedman’s also uses activities in the definition, but does so for ADLs — Stedman’s doesn’t offer ADL as an option. The AMA Manual is the only source that offers both ADL and ADLs. The in-house editor cited AMA Manual as the authority for having both usages.

And this is the problem: When is pluraling of a plural OK?

When you read an initialism, you read the letters of the initialism individually. Some believe that reading each letter individually (i.e., A-D-L) is the proper way to deal with an initialism. For example, when we see MRI, we read it as M-R-I, not as magnetic resonance imaging, even though that is the expanded form of MRI. Others think that with initialisms, the proper thing to do is to read it as magnetic resonance imaging, not M-R-I. In other words, the conflict is between reading an abbreviation as letters versus reading it in its expanded form or as a word.

That difference is what determines whether ADLs is acceptable. We already know that ADL is a plural by its very definition. Even the AMA Manual defines it as a plural. But the AMA Manual, in this one exception, advocates pluraling a plural. Interestingly the AMA Manual is somewhat contradictory. In the same list of terms where it plurals the already plural ADL, it defines the initialism ACS as acute coronary syndromes. Should it not be ACSs by the same logic as ADLs? What if there is only one syndrome? What would its initialism be?

The AMA Manual adds no special note to the initialism YLD (years living with disability) or YPLL (years of potential life lost) as it did with ADL. Presumably, in the case of YLD, it is because the subject of the phrase is not years but disability, which is singular, and so YLDs‘ expanded form would be years living with disabilities. Similarly, with YPLL the subject is not years but life, so, conceivably, it could be made plural as YPLLs, or years of potential lives lost.

The pluraling of YLD and YPLL makes sense because the subjects are not already plural. But in activities of daily living, the subject — activities — is already plural. The AMA Manual asks that we plural a plural.

The radical, but logical, solution is to redefine ADL as the singular activity of daily living. Just as the AMA Manual has arbitrarily determined that ADLs is correct, it could arbitrarily redefine ADL.

With all of this arguing over ADL versus ADLs and whether we are pluraling a plural, we have not gotten to any kind of rule to govern when (or if) a plural should be pluraled. I suspect that is because the rule already is that — except in the case of ADL — plurals should not be pluraled. The justification for ADL is that readers read this initialism as A-D-L when they come to it rather than expand it mentally to activities of daily living.

Alright, the argument is a bit obtuse, scattered, trying to put a square peg in a round hole, etc., but the one question that the in-house editor and the AMA Manual have so far failed to answer is this:

If ADL is universally defined as activities [plural] of daily living, what is the universally agreed upon definition of ADLs [pluraled plural]?

This is important because when editing, we need to define acronyms/initialisms at first use and I can’t come up with a definition that I can point to that separates ADL from ADLs — unless I use the outlier, Stedman’s. Stedman’s doesn’t recognize ADL, only ADLs, and it defines ADLs as activities [plural] of daily living, which leaves ADL to mean activity [singular] of daily living.

I view the pluraling of ADL much like pluraling of common units of measure — we don’t do it and it shouldn’t be done. The abbreviation oz is used for both ounce and ounces. The same is true of other measures, like L (liter/liters), mL (milliliter/milliliters), in (inch/inches), etc. In the case of ADL (and other similar plurals), I find little logic to pluraling a plural.

What do you think? How would you defend the in-house editor’s decision?

August 28, 2013

What is Editing?

Have you ever wondered what editing really is? Or about what course of study is best for preparing for an editing career?

The practical answer to the latter is that it doesn’t matter what you study because education is valuable and broadening; experience matters more. But when backed to the wall, my answer, unlike that of many of my colleagues, is that the best courses of study are philosophy and law.

The reason is because of what editing is. Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. I suppose a little context would be helpful.

The matter arose in a discussion on LinkedIn in which I suggested philosophy as the best course of study and another member suggested linguistics. Linguistics is a wonderful field and certainly of great interest to editors, but it is a structural field. True, it wonders about word origins as well as how words are used, but its focus is the structure and lineage of language.

Philosophy and law, on the other hand, focus not on structure but on how to think. Both are “argumentative” fields — Does a god exist? If I don’t see you, do you really exist? What is my place in society? — What role should/does X play in social affairs? — that require thinking about all sides of a question. The difference, I think, between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion. We all can learn to play chess and even to play it well; few of us, however, can master the advance thinking techniques required to be a grandmaster.

(Before I stray too far afield, let me reiterate that all education is good and all education can prepare a person for the intellectual challenges of editing. What we are discussing is the hierarchy.)

Much of editing is structure-oriented, such as grammar and spelling, and coding manuscript. Structure is mechanical and can be self-taught or picked up in a couple of courses on, for example, grammar. I grant that it is the rare person who develops that same depth and breadth of knowledge about the structural issues via self-learning or a couple of entry-level courses as would be obtained from the rigors of a university major in linguistics, but how much is really needed for editing, especially as editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application.

Over my 30 years as an editor, what I have most realized about some of my editor colleagues is that they are very capable of applying the “rules” of language. Where they are weak, and what I think often distinguishes the good, competent editor from the great editor, is that they are unable to “think” about what they are editing. They are unable to grasp a broader picture by, for example, putting themselves in the shoes of a variety of readers or by analyzing a text from multiple angles. To use another metaphor, most editors are like professional baseball players in that they are the better, more professional, more able players from the pool of would-be professional players, but are not the superstars who are an even more finite group. Baseball fans recall Willie Mays, for example, but how many of his teammates on the 1954 World Series team do we remember?

It is this “thinking” ability that I believe philosophy and law teach but that linguistics and other study disciplines do not. Linguistics will teach us how to ascertain the origins of all the variations of “god,” but not to think about what “god” means in the context of the manuscript and as being conveyed to the variety of hoped-for readers of the published manuscript. Linguistics doesn’t really teach the art of communication as much as it teaches the science of communication, but editing is (or should be, I think) more concerned with the art than the science.

I am not suggesting that the science of editing is unimportant. Knowing what punctuation to use where and when is very important in making sure that the author’s meaning is correctly understood (using Lynne Truss’s famous example, is it “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots, and leaves”?). Knowing whether the right word is being used to convey the intended meaning is equally important, as is choosing among the homophones (does the author mean to, too, or two?). And good editors do these tasks well and correctly. For the most part, I suspect, this is the job for which most editors are hired. And this is the job for which most education prepares us.

Yet there can be more to editing than just those tasks. And, for many of us, when we suggest rewriting a sentence or a paragraph or reordering paragraphs or chapters, we are embarking on that additional path. As we gain experience, we begin to think differently about language and its use. I know that the editing I did 30 years ago is not as good as the editing I do today; those intervening years have taught me many things and exposed me to many new ways of looking at language. The more I read and learn, the better editor I become.

But even 30 years ago I had the advantage of having been trained to think analytically. That is the legacy of a philosophy and law education: It is not what to think, but how to think. What I think about is of little importance to philosophy; the methodology of thinking about it is important.

Editing is a combination of structure and philosophy; it is not one without the other. The more accomplished one is as an editor, the more skilled one is at both prongs. Most of us begin our editing careers strong in one prong but not the other, and we build strength in both prongs as we gain experience. But if asked what is the best course of study for a wannabe editor, my answer is philosophy or law because it is learning how to think that is hardest to master.

Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.

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?

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