An American Editor

April 17, 2013

On Language: Is It a Study or a Story?

I was reading a history book, Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste (ISBN 9780804772341), a few months ago (I highly recommend the book as an insight into Henry Ford, America in the 1920s, and how much our legal landscape has changed) when I wondered whether the book was a study, or a story, or perhaps both.

Readers rarely consciously distinguish between a study and a story, and those of us who edit science-oriented material often read of studies and, I suspect, do not give much thought as to what calling something a study really means. I suppose the place to begin is with definitions.

A study answers a carefully framed and defined, specific question; for example, How did Lincoln’s delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg affect the Union soldier’s prosecution of the Civil War? Everything about the study is focused on answering the question. Consequently, events preceding the delivery of the Proclamation, such as the firing on Fort Sumter that was the starting action of the Civil War, are interesting facts, but of little consequence to answering the question.

In contrast, a story is like a river — it provides a narrative flow that takes us from point A to point B, or even to points B, C, and D. It may include information that is relevant to a study, but it is not intended to answer a single, specific question. Instead, the story gives us an overview and perhaps answers cursorily a multitude of questions. For example, a book titled The History of the American Civil War, 1861-1865 should be a story, a survey, but not a study. It has no single focus question it intends to answer; instead, it intends to give us a panoramic view of an era. Thus, a story is a river of knowledge that is constantly on the move.

I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads and wondering why this distinction is important. The answer really lies in how we validate an author’s work. If we expect or are given a study to read, knowing what a study is supposed to do enables us to determine whether the author has accomplished the task. As an editor, if a manuscript begins, “This book answers the question of how life began,” then I expect a study focused on answering that question, and not a story that takes me through history and repeats to me what philosophers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell have said about the origins of life.

The “conflict” between study and story forms a frame for the content. As an author, it acts to focus my thinking — do I paint with narrow, well-defined strokes or broadly — and as an editor it helps me determine whether the author has fulfilled her quest or needs assistance focusing or repurposing the text.

More importantly, the conflict acts as a guide for the reader’s expectations. As a reader, if I pick up a biography that by its title or by the goals divulged in the front matter tells me that its focus is to answer the question of whether Ronald Reagan knew about the Iran-Contra Affair, then I can reasonably expect to find a study of Regan’s knowledge and not a broad survey (story) of the Reagan presidency. If the author fails to deliver the study and, instead, delivers the survey (story), it makes suspect the value of the book and the quality of the research. I would expect an author to understand her goals and strive to achieve them.

Consciously distinguishing between study and story also helps me as editor when I read, “The results of the XYZ Study demonstrated that….” Based on the surrounding content, knowing that a study is intended to answer a specific, narrow, and carefully defined question, I may query the author as to what was the study question. This distinction is not often made in the political arena, and too often voters are simply told that some government study drew certain conclusions, but are never told what the question was and thus cannot know if what are being put forward as the study’s conclusions drawn are, in fact, the study’s conclusions.

A story is painted in broad strokes. A story surveys acres of ground; it does not focus on any two square inches. The story also has a function, as we all know, but we do not expect it to answer well-defined questions. We expect the panoramic view: “Tell me what was happening in American culture in the 1960s.”

The professional editor approaches every manuscript, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about whether the author achieves the author’s stated objective in a clear, concise manner. By asking whether the author is providing a study or a story, the editor is able to focus with greater precision on the resolution of that thought. This is important to authors because it is a defining feature of developmental editing. Copyediting doesn’t worry very much about whether the author is providing a study or a story because the overall structure and focus are not of prime importance to the copyediting process. But the converse is true for the developmental editor who is worried about overall structure and whether the author has stated her objective and attains it.

Although I have been directing the conversation toward nonfiction writing, the truth is that the difference between a study and a story is also important in fiction. For example, those who have read George Simenon’s books will recognize that many of his books are studies of the psychology of a principal character. True, they are also stories in that as fiction they tell us more than is needed were they only studies, but the point is that they are studies, and if I were to edit them today, knowing that they were studies would greatly influence how I would edit.

Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are often studies. Holmes invariably frames and addresses the how, what, why, and who questions with precision.

Having said that fiction, too, benefits from the distinction between story and study, it is important to note that the terms do have less rigid meanings and parameters when applied to fiction than to nonfiction. But the process remains the same and is equally valuable from an editor’s, an author’s, and a reader’s perspective, but especially from the author’s perspective. Knowing that you intend to write a study helps focus the fictional events you create and the characters’ reactions to those events. (It is probably accurate to say that, for example, mysteries tend to be more study and less story and romance novels tend to be more story and less study.)

Next time you pick up a book to read, try to ascertain before you start the main text whether the book, if nonfiction, is a study or a story, and if fiction, whether it tends more toward story than study, and see if that determination affects how you read and understand the book.

Finally, the idea that a book can be a blend of both story and study is particularly apt for fiction. Much fiction is a blend but an unequal blend. Even so, the fiction book can be successful in achieving the author’s goals. In the case of nonfiction, however, I think the distinction is significantly more important and that a book that blends is unlikely to be successful (in terms of meeting the author’s goals and the reader’s expectations); I think such a book will leave the reader unsatisfied.

What do you think?


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?

January 14, 2013

The Dictionary Conundrum: Thoughts About Meaning

I just finished reading The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, a book about the creation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the “Third”), which the author calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published.” He may be right because the dictionary was the first major American dictionary to become descriptive rather than prescriptive. (I am pleased to say that I received a hardcover version of the book as a holiday gift — as I had requested! The book is well worth buying and reading.)

(A tidbit of history: American Heritage Company [AH] wanted to buy the G&C Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries and the Third, and tried to use the controversy surrounding the Third to induce the Merriam shareholders to sell to American Heritage. When the shareholders continued to refuse to sell, AH decided to create its own dictionary from scratch. Thus, it would be fair to say that the Third was the progenitor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Also worth noting is that the Third is the progenitor of the usage notes that are a hallmark of the AH dictionaries, beginning with the first edition. The usage notes were devised as a response to what critics considered as a major failing of the Third.)

Reading the book and the controversy over what direction the Third should take in light of the overwhelming success of the encyclopedic Webster’s Second, brought me to pondering what a word means. I know that I and other editors rely on dictionaries for more than spelling. It is important to also know that a word with which we are not fully familiar is not only spelled correctly but used correctly — and that is the problem. How do we know it is used correctly?

A significant signpost of correct usage is a word’s meaning. Does the word really mean what the author implies it means via use and location within a sentence? Which leads to perhaps a more fundamental question: How many times have we looked up a word’s definition only to discover that we do not understand the definition any better than we understand the word we are checking on?

The problem is that to understand a word’s definition we must also agree as to the meaning of the words used to define the definition. Consider this definition in Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate (MW11) for tautology:

1 a. needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word; b. an instance of tautology; 2. a tautologous statement

What does that mean? How does repeating the word in the definition define the word? (I also love entries that simply say “see ____.”)

To understand what an apple is, we must have some common experience background and universal agreement that the word apple is a symbol for a particular object. If I call a round, red object a glyzzle, it is unlikely that you will know whether I mean a ball or an apple or something else because we have no universal understanding of glyzzle.

The same holds true of dictionary definitions. To say that a tautology is a tautologous statement is the same as saying the aliens are invading; that is, the definition is as foreign to an understanding as aliens invading are to our reality — unless we already understand what is meant by tautologus. But if we already understand what is meant by tautologous, why are we looking up tautology? The latter is incorporated in the former.

My point is that dictionaries can be helpful but are often unhelpful because they make a leap that is unsupported by the very reason for the dictionary’s existence: The dictionary assumes that the user already has an understanding of the terms being looked up and so the definitions can be circuitous. I grant that this is not true of all words and their definitions, but it is true of too many words and their definitions.

Why does this bother me? Because I can’t figure out how to explain a word’s meaning to someone who hasn’t had the same language experience as I have had. How do I define apple to someone who only knows glyzzle when I do not know if glyzzle and apple are synonymous? The immediate response is that we are talking two different languages — but are we?

Think about regionalisms. Words have different connotations, and thus different meanings, even though the same language is being used, when used by persons from different geographic regions of a country. To a New Englander, apple may well mean the Macintosh variety whereas to a Pacific Northwester apple may immediately conjure a red delicious apple. Yes, they are both apples, being varieties thereof, but the meaning of apple is significantly different — the shapes and taste of Macintosh and red delicious apples are significantly different, so much so that one cannot be readily substituted for the other. (In contrast, the Empire and Macintosh varieties are similar enough to be confused each with the other until bitten.)

Dictionaries are supposed to be revealers of meaning. The idea of a dictionary is not just spelling — because if that were its only function, it could be just a list of correctly spelled words — but also to arbitrate meaning so that every speaker of a language can look up a word and instantly know what the user of the word truly meant because both user and reader face the same definition and have the same understanding of meaning.

Yet as each book I edit goes by, I become increasingly concerned that dictionaries are not fulfilling this primary role (regardless of whether the dictionary’s focus is descriptive or prescriptive) because the definitions provided assume the same cultural foundation has been had by all users. In other words, the definitions are themselves so poorly worded that even two people who grew up in the same town and went to the same schools may not have the same understanding of a word’s meaning.

It is not that conformity is the goal or should be the goal; rather, it is that in the absence of conformity, communication suffers. And the goal of the editor-author-reader relationship is clear communication. Which brings me to the need for an editor to have multiple dictionaries. I have found that the quality of definitions differs on a word basis between dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) (AHD), for example, gives a much better definition of tautology than does MW11. Consequently, I make it a practice to look up a word in more than one dictionary, whether the dictionary be a general dictionary like MW11 and AHD or specialty dictionaries. (It is probably worth pointing out that the greatest offenders of circuitous definitions are specialty dictionaries. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd ed, and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 28th ed., are prime examples of dictionaries that define a word with another form of the word.) Like all professional editors, I like to be sure that I understand what a word means before deciding whether or not the author has used it correctly. I also want to be sure that it communicates correctly to the reader.

January 9, 2013

On Words: Politics and Alice-in-Wonderland Speak

I have repeatedly written that word choice and grammar are important because words chosen and how they are used (i.e., the grammar rules applied to the words) communicate a message, and both an author and an editor want that message to be communicated without misunderstanding by the reader. No matter how many times I have written that mantra, no one has come forward to tell me I am wrong; ergo, I must be right.

For months I have been pondering what word choices put in sentence form could prove me wrong. I thought about statements that protest gays and non-Christians because they will rot in hell for not having been saved. Afterall, how many of us have experienced and survived hell so that we can know with certainty (as opposed to with belief)  that hell exists and that the unsaved will rot there forever. (I have also wondered how anyone knows that one rots in hell as opposed to having endless, wonderful 24-hour parties that fulfill every fantasy we ever had before we went to hell. Alas, it is just a matter of belief rather than knowledge. But I digress.)

The answer to my pondering came from the mouth of Congressperson Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) who said, in justification of her vote against House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B, which would have made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers earning less than $1 million, “I am here to represent my constituents.” If this isn’t the biggest falsehood of the century, it certainly has to be the biggest falsehood of the year.

I don’t mean for Congressperson Blackburn to be singled out; rather, this statement, perhaps not so succinctly put by other politicians, when made by any politician to justify a vote that shoves us over the “fiscal cliff” is the biggest lie. The reason is that words, although they carry the firmness of a religious sermon demonizing sin, simply can mean neither what they are intended to mean nor the message they are intended to convey. If words could be sins, these words would rank near the top of sins and those who spoke them at the top of the sinners’ honor roll.

If nothing else, these words raise at least this matter of implausibility:

To be true, at least 50.1% of Representative Blackburn’s congressional district must be persons earning $1 million a year or more and against having their taxes raised.

Fewer than 1% of Americans have an annual income of $1 million or more. I suppose it is possible that most of America’s millionaires live in Tennessee in Representative Blackburn’s district, but if that is true, then how can any other Republican congressperson justify voting against making permanent the lower tax rates for the 99%-plus of Americans who do not earn $1 million a year? Someone (or many someones) are simply spreading the big lie!

The words “I am here to represent my constituents” raise other plausibility issues. It hasn’t been asked and answered, but I wonder who Representative Blackburn (and the other naysaying Republicans) really represents. Are the “people” who she claims to represent real or imaginary? I recognize that one of the things Americans are really great at is voting against their own interests and/or letting peripheral, minor issues sway them for or against a candidate, but the one thing no American I know has voted against is giving him-/herself a tax cut. So explain to me how the Republican naysayers’ vote against permanent tax cuts for 99% of Americans is something that “my constituents” want.

Perhaps the problem with the House of Representatives is that it has become a wealthy-person club. Many, if not most, of the “representatives of the people” would themselves — or their family — see their taxes rise and so are really representing themselves, not their constituents.

I’m one of those foolish Americans who thinks the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (starring Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic new senator) is what Congress should be about. Such idealism today on the part of a politician would simply be fodder for the lobby gristmill that is Washington politics.

Anyway, the point is that the words “I am here to represent my constituents” fail to fulfill the concept of words and grammar that I have been advocating for 30 years: they are closer to Humpty Dumpty’s view of words —

     “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

As the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse put it:

     The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Hmmm, perhaps being in Congress is like being at a Mad Hatter tea party. Certainly it is hard to differentiate a congressperson saying “I am here to represent my constituents” from an Alice-in-Wonderland conversation. I know that what I understand the words to mean clearly has no resemblance to what the speaker of the words intends the words to mean, as evidenced by the use of those words to justify voting against extending the tax cuts to 99% of Americans. It is evident that words spoken by Representative Blackburn — and mimicked by other congresspersons on a regular basis in multiple legislative areas — fail the test by which authors and editors live:

The words chosen clearly and precisely convey the author’s intended meaning so that there is no miscommunication between the author and the reader.

How refreshing it would be if that was the litmus test for political speech and failure of the test were grounds for recall.

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

I am a subscriber to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), as I have mentioned a number of times in previous posts. Recently, I was reading in the NYRB, an article titled “Can Romney Get a Majority?” (September 27, 2012) in which the author threw me a curveball by using ultramontane to describe Paul Ryan’s social views.

This was the first instance when I wished I had been reading the NYRB on my Nook or Sony reader, which would have given me instant access to a dictionary. Alas, I didn’t have a print dictionary handy when reading the article and I didn’t recall ever having encountered the word previously.

Eventually, I did get to a dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) and discovered that ultramontane has two meanings: first, “of or relating to countries or people beyond the mountains,” and second, “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church,” which was the meaning in the article. Or was it?

Actually, the article intended a variation of the second meaning: “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national (state) authority” without the limitation of “in the Roman Catholic Church.” (It is worth noting that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th ed. includes this “sense” as a usage; it is questionable whether it is a definition. I have multiple dictionaries because of my work; how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?)

I understand that the demographics of NYRB subscribers and readers are a cut above the usual in terms of education and literacy (at least that is what their demographics information portrays), but not only did ultramontane cause me to pause, it made me wonder whether its use was good or bad. Unlike many unfamiliar words that I come across, I didn’t come close to deciphering this one via context. I didn’t miss the gist of the sentence, but I also didn’t get the true meaning.

When choosing words to be written in a communication there are at least two major considerations; first, that the word precisely communicate, and second, that it in fact communicate. In this instance, ultramontane was the wrong word choice on both counts: neither dictionary definition was appropriate as is and it is such a rarely used word that I suspect the vast majority of readers would stumble on it and not derive the correct meaning.

With modification of the meaning, ultramontane presents a compact way to get a message across within the context in which it was used in the NYRB. But that is one step too many to meet the singular, ultimate goal of the craft of writing: to communicate. In the absence of this step, the word is clearly the wrong word to use, because the author was not trying to communicate that Paul Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over the Catholic Church; rather, the author was trying to communicate that Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over American government authority and the authority of all religions and moral views, Catholic or other.

We have discussed the question of word choice before (see, e.g., Choosing Words — Carefully), but the context was different even though the result was the same. Here the question is more than choosing that which expresses precisely what you mean; it is choosing that which both expresses what you mean and also is likely to be understood by your readers. This latter means that words also need to be chosen for the broadness of their use among the reading public. Sometimes the precise word needed will require the reader to use a dictionary, but the goal of careful writing should be not to encourage dictionary use but to be understandable as read. It is to that end that correct word choice also means choosing a word whose definition fits the intended meaning as is, without further interpretation.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what should an editor do when faced with a word like ultramontane?

This is a difficult question. If you are of my view, then you would substitute for the word and include an explanation for the author as to why you substituted, giving the author the opportunity to undo the change. The alternative views are (a) to simply leave the word as is or (b) to leave it as is but query the author, explaining why it may be the wrong word choice.

I think a more active approach is best because the one thing that is true about all of us is that we are protective of our creations. In the case of our writing, we are protective because we know what we meant and expect others to know it as well. Who among us is ready to admit that perhaps our writing lacks the clarity it could have? Additionally, a word like ultramontane makes us feel linguistically accomplished and allows us to demonstrate to others our skills. But if we are faced with a change that makes it better and given the opportunity to revert to the original, we are more likely to think about what we have written and what the editor suggests. We are required to react, something that the other two approaches do not require. (As most, if not all, editors have experienced, simply querying doesn’t always get a response from an author. It is not unusual for a query to be ignored. I have yet to find, however, an author who will ignore my query when I have actively changed wording and then queried my change.)

Which approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?

October 3, 2012

On Language: Drop Your Foreign Accent

The following poem was brought to my attention by Tony Cole of eBookAnoid. It was originally published in 1929 in Drop Your Foreign Accent — Engelse Uitspraakoefeningen (5th revised edition, H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1929), which was written by Gerald Nolst Trenite, who was also known as Charivarius. The poem illustrates some of the peculiarities of English. Enjoy.

The Chaos
Gerald Nolst Trenite

Dearest creature in creation,
studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse;
sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear,
so shall I!! Oh, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare, heart, beard and heard,
dies, diet, lord and word,
sword and sward, retain and Britain,
(Mind the letter, how it’s written)
Made has not the sound of bade.
Say‑said, pay‑paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
with such words as vague and ague,
but be careful how you speak,
say break, steak, but bleak and streak,
previous, precious, fuchsia, via;
Pipe, snipe, recipe and chair,
cloven, oven, how and low,
script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation — think of Psyche!
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!

September 5, 2012

The Business of Editing: Whom or Who?

Sometimes language usage can be very difficult. This is especially true when we rely on our ears. If a construction doesn’t sound right when spoken, we often assume it cannot be right when written. This is the problem of whom and whowhom often sounds incorrect when it is correct.

Because the growth and modernization of language rarely follows the written-oral (aural) trajectory and nearly always follows the oral (aural)-written trajectory, word usage comes and goes based on the latter trajectory. This has been recognized for years, as evidenced by Grant White’s, an 18th century grammarian, pronouncement in 1870 predicting the death of whom. In his great treatise on the American language , The American Language (1936), H.L. Mencken wrote that “Whom is fast vanishing from Standard American.” The predictions of death have been ongoing, yet whom remains a part of the lexicon.

One problem with whom is that it sounds stilted. A more fundamental problem is that so many people do not understand when to use whom and when to use who.

Who is the subject of a verb (“It was Jon who put out the fire”) and the complement of a linking verb (“They know who started the fire”), whereas whom is the object of a verb (“Whom did you speak with?”) or a preposition (“She is the person with whom we need to speak”).

Yet when I look at the foregoing description, I do not find that my understanding of when to use who and when to use whom is any easier to implement. The subject versus object distinction is helpful but not always clear.

Perhaps a better method for determining which is correct when is what I call the substitution principle, which is found in The Gregg Reference Manual (10th ed., 2005 by William Sabin). According to Gregg (¶1061 c and d),

Use who whenever he, she, they, I, or we could be substituted in the who clause.

Use whom whenever him, her, them, me, or us could be substituted as the object of the verb or as the object of a preposition in the whom clause.

The substitution principle makes the choice easier. Using examples from Gregg, here is how it works, beginning with who:

Who booked our conference?
Who shall I say is calling?
Who did they say was chosen?

The substitutes for the foregoing who examples are, respectively:

He booked our conference.
I shall say he is calling.
They did say she was chosen.

Now let’s look at whom:

Whom did you see today?
To whom were you talking?
Whom did you say you wanted to see?

The substitutes for the foregoing whom examples are, respectively:

You did see her today.
You were talking to him.
You did say you wanted to see her.

The substitution principle seems to work fairly well. Yet it does not avoid the problem of whom sounding stilted and wrong. And because it sounds stilted and wrong, it is likely that it will not be properly used. Perhaps it shouldn’t be used at all.

Perhaps we should rewrite sentences that demand a whom or at least those that make us wonder if it should be whom rather than who. How many of us react positively to “Whom are you going to endorse in the next election?” Whether read or spoken, it comes across as stilted. We are more likely to write and say, “Who is your candidate in the next election?” or even “Who are you going to endorse in the next election?” because it reads and sounds more natural to our aural sense.

The question neither asked nor addressed so far is this: Does it matter if we use who in place of whom? My thinking is that it does not matter because we will write and speak the who sentence in a form that aurally sounds natural and correct, and thus no one will question the use of who and wonder if it should have been whom. Having said that, the reality is that, as with most things in the English language, everything depends on context.

The failure to get who and whom correct in fiction is of less concern than in nonfiction. Yet even in nonfiction, unlike other words, the misuse of who and whom is rarely, if ever, misleading or a cause of miscommunication. To my way of thinking, that is the key to language usage: If there is no miscommunication, then the ultimate goal has been met; if there is a chance of miscommunication, then correction is necessary.

For most of us, it will be the rare sentence that will cause us to pause and remark, “I wonder if this should have been whom and not who.” Should such a case arise (i.e., one where we pause and wonder), we should rewrite the sentence or apply the substitution test and make the correction. In the absence of that  “aha” moment, I think we should simply let the matter go because it is not causing any miscommunication or stumbling.

Yes, there is a grammatically correct usage for who and whom; but the purpose of grammar is to ensure understanding. Automatic application of grammar rules for the sake of applying them does not further grammar’s goal in this case. Flexibility has been the cornerstone of English grammar over the course of time.

What do you think?

August 20, 2012

The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves

I don’t know many editors who are so laid back that they don’t have a pet peeve or two when it comes to language usage. Perhaps that is the sign of an editorial bent. I know I certainly have pet peeves (note: these are American English oriented and I am aware that different rules and perspectives apply outside American English usage). A couple of my peeves revolve around who/that and whether a corporation or company is singular/plural and an it/they.

I guess of all my pet peeves, the most aggravating one is the misuse of who and that. When I read a book and see a sentence like “Shirley was a sorceress that possessed a magic wand,” I just know that whoever edited the book (assuming anyone did) wasn’t a professional editor — or maybe it was a professional editor as I occasionally have seen the misuse in professionally edited manuscripts. What bothers me is that I see this error in manuscripts from people of all educational levels and walks of life. This isn’t something that is restricted to free indie novels.

Who is a nominative pronoun; it refers, in nongrammar parlance, to humans. It is used as the subject of a verb (“It was Felicity who scored highest in the exam”) and as a predicate nominative (“Beware the folk who know where you live”). The point is, that in its simplest application, who refers to humans and, sometimes, to their humanoid substitutes. How difficult is that!

That is a reference to an object, to something inanimate, something that has no human qualities — yes, like a corporation (regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s assertion that corporations are persons), or perhaps a demon (but give a demon some human qualities and who might be more appropriate).

The point is that use of who and that is generally not difficult. It is simply a matter of not writing as informally as one speaks. Because it is assumed that language users recognize when to use who, the usage guides focus on the difference between who and whom, not who and that. Unfortunately, it appears that too little attention is being paid by schools to language fundamentals, because the misuse of who and that seems to be increasing, but then so are other misuses and abuses of language.

A similar problem occurs when addressing a corporation. Many authors speak of a single corporation as if it were multiple corporations (corporations here is universally used to represent businesses and other inanimate [nonhuman] objects) and so choose to use the plural form of verbs and adjectives. In American English, one is still one, so a single corporation still requires a singular verb and adjective. Yet, you can pick up many books — fiction and nonfiction, academic and nonacademic — and find that the author and editor have adopted a non-American perspective and interpreted the singular corporation as plural.

Whether it is singular or plural matters because it sets the stage for the grammar of the rest of the sentence and the following sentences in the same paragraph. For example, singular requires this and was; plural requires these and were. Yet it is not unusual to read a sentence whose subject is a corporation in which there is a mismatch between plural and singular.

More problematic to me, however, is how many authors and editors treat the inanimate corporation as if it were human. They, she, and other human-nuanced words are used when speaking of a single corporation. Yet a singular inanimate subject requires it as the personal pronoun, not they or she, when speaking of the singular subject. (The plural subject, e.g., “these corporations,” can use they and other plurals.) Questions: When and how did an inanimate object gain gender? Why is the language used to refer to a corporation often feminine (why not masculine?)?

It is true that these types of errors do not cause the average reader to stop and wonder what the author means. Such errors are so commonplace that most readers ignore them and probably do not even recognize that they are errors. The real question is whether authors and editors have any responsibility to correctly use words and thus subtly educate readers as regards proper language usage.

I think authors and editors do have such a responsibility, especially the person who proclaims himself or herself to be a professional editor. When we reinforce poor communication and language skills, we help to speed the decline of our society. Imagine a future world where “u r gr8” is the standard written communication. How pleasing would you find reading a 300-page book that is replete with twit sentences?

The proper use of language is something that an author should be cognizant of because it can help in locating a professional editor. But an author who doesn’t understand, for example, the difference between who and that (or between which and that), won’t recognize whether an editor is a professional or an amateur, and thus won’t get the best return for his or her money.

Again, I need to emphasize that an error-free book is almost impossible to create. Perfection is an elusive goal. But there are certain fundamentals that can and should be expected from a professional editor, two of which are knowing when to use who or that and when to use it rather than she. It just isn’t that difficult!

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

A client asked me to look at some excerpts of material that had been offshore outsourced for editing and to give my opinion whether something struck me as wrong or incorrect. In the past 6 months, I have had several requests from clients asking me to clarify style rules and whether material comports with those rules. The clients have recognized that their expertise is different from mine and that the combination of our skills can result in a better product.

A frequent query involves American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style 10th edition §19.1 “Use of Numerals.” Most non-editorial clients find the AMA’s instructions confusing, especially as it contravenes the instructions given in other style guides, notably the Chicago Manual of Style.

But this client request fell into another category: not was a style guide convention contravened, but did the editing make sense.

The subject had to do with legislation and one sentence in one of the text portions I was asked to review read as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry women to obtain birth control…

Certainly, from a grammatical perspective and taken in isolation, there is nothing wrong with that sentence fragment. But was it culturally correct?

Editing cannot be done in isolation of the world around us. Form (grammatically correct in isolation) cannot control over function (communication and understanding). Instead, there needs to be a meeting of form and function because only with that meeting can we be certain that what is intended is what is expressed.

It immediately struck me that something was wrong with the sentence. A good test is what I call the substitution test, in which I substitute a synonym for a key word to ask does it still make sense. In this case, my immediate notion was that no substitution was necessary but I applied the test anyway, substituting homosexual for gay. Why was this important? Gay in America increasingly means male homosexual exclusively; homosexual means both male and female, that is, gays and lesbians. Other cultures may use other terms for genderizing homosexuality, but since this was a book for American audiences, American culture rules.

With the term gay, the sentence makes sense every which way but sexually; with the term homosexuality, it makes no sense either politically or sexually. In America, lesbians currently are generally not free to marry women for any reason. In a culture that does permit homosexual marriage or civil unions, the sentence would pass the substitution test, but not in the United States, where the overwhelming legal position is that homosexuals cannot marry or even have legally recognized civil unions.

The point is that because of my familiarity with the culture of the audience for whom the book is intended, it is clear to me that there is something wrong with the sentence. The cure is simple, however. All that is needed is a well-placed comma, so that the sentence reads as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry, women to obtain birth control…

Yet there is another problem with the sentence. Logically, why would a gay marry a woman to obtain birth control? That alone, under normal circumstances, should have raised red flags. But, again, I think it may be a cultural thing. I suspect that in more repressive cultures or in cultures in which the homosexuality is more underground than in America, gays may well marry women for a variety of reasons, even as a means of birth control.

Yet there is one other, at least questionable, problem with the sentence, with or without the comma cure, even though it is illogical for gays to marry women to obtain birth control: the use of gays. As I noted above, in America, gays increasingly is gender-specific, referring to male homosexuals and excluding lesbians. So the sentence, even as cured, means that it would be easier for males to marry but still impossible for females to marry. If nothing else were true about legislation affecting homosexual marriage, this would be true: In the United States, legislators would not grant marriage rights to one sex but not the other when granting homosexuals the right to marry.

Although the cured sentence would be better if homosexuals were substituted for gays, and much less prone to possible misunderstanding, there is another cultural reality in America. As noted above, gay has traditionally meant both male and female homosexuals, but it is increasingly being used as the word for male homosexuals to the exclusion of lesbians. As Bryan Garner writes:

Gay and lesbian. Though common, this phrasing is peculiarly redundant since lesbians are gay women.…What is actually happening, no doubt, is that gay is undergoing what linguists call specialization — that is, in some of its senses the word is becoming sex-specific. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 387)

Consequently, in this instance, aside from adding the comma, I think a professional editor would query the author, explain the historical uses of the words, and suggest that homosexuals be substituted for gays. I also think that the professional editor would query the author to make sure that the addition of the comma is correct, that with the comma the sentence now reads as the author intended. Although I cannot think of a valid reason to omit the comma, perhaps the author has one

Alas, in this instance, neither the comma was added nor the queries made. Alas, also, there were several similar sentences in the samples I was asked to comment on, that had very questionable phraseology but passed the editor without query. Several needed no query, just punctuation.

I think this is less a matter of the editor’s skill, although it could well be that the original editor was not a professional editor, but more of a culture-related problem. It is not easy for out-of-culture editors to catch the cultural nuances of material intended for an audience that lives in another world culturally. For publishers, the question is solely one of containing costs. Instead, it should be one of making sure that the published product doesn’t miscommunicate; unfortunately, that is not the trend in today’s publishing. Just as publishers see a worldwide market for their books, they see a worldwide market for service providers. In some instances, that broad sight is appropriate, but not when it comes to editing for a specific cultural market.

January 23, 2012

On Words: The Conundrum of Half

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Words — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

I thought I’d veer off into esoterica today. I don’t know why it came to mind a couple of weeks ago, but since it came to mind, I have found myself pondering the matter. Now I’ll share it with you and get your input.

The matter at issue is the numeral designator for half. If we write 2 days, there is no question what is meant. Similarly, if we write 2.5 days, readers correctly translate that to two-and-a-half days. But is it really correct?

I suppose that it is because it has been accepted and understood as correct for decades, if not for centuries. But shouldn’t time be more accurately represented? If a day has 24 hours, then a half day has 12 hours, which means that 2.5 really means two days plus 5 hours. Yet if we were to write 2.12 days, no one would understand that means 2 days plus 12 hours or two-and-a-half days.

Time has always been treated differently from other yardsticks. Probably because time is so important in our daily lives. We have coalesced around certain conventions, correct or not, that are now the accepted methods for portraying time, especially decimally.

Consider the matter of years. we all know and accept that 6 months equals one-half year. Yet we do not write 1.6 years to represent one-and-one-half years; as with days, we write 1.5 years and we all know what is meant.

I work on nonfiction books, which has led me to occasionally wonder if an error will occur when measure shorthands aren’t correlated with the written out version; that is, how likely is it that some reader will mistake 1.5 days for 1 day 5 hours, so I should write one-and-one-half days rather than 1.5 days?

Of course, I only wonder and do not spell it out because I understand that we have accommodated our use of language so that there is no likelihood of misinterpretation. But that doesn’t move me away from wondering how this came about and why such imprecision is accepted by communities that require precision elsewhere.

Not only have we accommodated our use of language to .5 representing one-half, but this accommodation appears to be fairly universal among languages. Writing 1.5 days will not mislead a French, Italian, Slovakian, Chinese, or Malayan speaker any more than it misleads an English speaker. The convention has crossed linguistic borders (someone once said that math is a universal language, so perhaps the fault for this accommodation lies in math’s universality).

I’m not interested in trying to change the accommodation (some brick walls truly are meant to stand forever), but I am curious about how we came to universally accept and understand that 1.5 days means one-and-one-half days and not one day, five hours.

What is your theory?

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