An American Editor

January 15, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article

by Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article is usually romanized as al-, but the vowel is sometimes written as e (especially common in Egyptian names) or u. Although it is such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — it often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In this essay, I talk about these elements:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In Part 4, I will discuss these difficulties:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing the article
  • alphabetizing names and words with the article

Assimilating with the Following Letter

Years ago when I joined the staff of a large Islamic website, it did not have a style guide, so I set out to write one in consultation with the heads of several departments. It was not easy because the website had a broad range of intended audiences and levels of formality between departments, and for technical reasons we could not use diacritics (which I felt were inappropriate for most of the audiences anyway). The Arabic definite article was the source of many arguments, which I lost. The books I now work on use the style that I prefer, so I am not constantly cringing as I edit.

The arguments were about what to do with lam, the letter that is usually written as l in English. Half the letters in Arabic are shamsiya letters (“solar” letters) and half are qamariya (“lunar” letters). If lam comes before a solar letter, it is assimilated to the letter following and is known as lam shamsiya (“solar lam”). “The sun” in Arabic, al-shams, is actually pronounced ash-shams. If lam comes before a lunar letter, it is pronounced as usual and is known as lam qamariya (“lunar lam”). “The moon,” al-qamar, is pronounced as it is spelled.

Most scholarly books and trade books ignore the lam shamsiya and do not show assimilation. To my mind, this is best for the average reader, who will perhaps recognize al- as a morpheme but be confused by its variants. The assimilation should be shown when the correct pronunciation is important, such as in transcribing poetry, prayers, or Qur’an. Authors of Islamic books might insist on showing the assimilation in all cases. If you are an author, you should, of course, check the publisher’s guidelines and discuss them with your editor if you have any disagreement. If you are a copyeditor and your author has shown assimilation of lam and the managing editor is OK with it, be sure it is done consistently.

In romanization, the l of the definite article assimilates with the following letters, with or without diacritics: t or th, d or dh, s or sh, z, r, l, n.

Merging the Article

The article is usually romanized as al- in scholarly texts, but individuals may write the vowel differently in their names, and the article may merge with the preceding word. A common Arabic male name consists of Abd (or ʿAbd) [ʿ 02bf] (slave) plus one of the names of God: for example Abd al-Aziz (or ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) [ʿ 02bf, ī 012b] “slave of the Almighty.” An individual with such a name might spell it with Abdal or (more often) Abdul or Abdel as the first part, and the second part might be attached to the first with a hyphen or closed up. Thus, someone named Abd al-Aziz might spell his name Abdal-Aziz, Abdal Aziz, AbdalAziz, Abdalaziz, Abdul Aziz, Abdul-Aziz, AbdulAziz, Abdulaziz, Abd el-Aziz, Abdel Aziz, Abdel-Aziz, AbdelAziz, or Abdelaziz. The name Abdallah (or Abdullah) “slave of Allah” is often spelled as one name.

My experience has been that people with Arabic names who grow up in a country that uses the Latin alphabet are consistent in spelling their names, but people who grow up in a country that uses the Arabic alphabet are often inconsistent in romanizing their names. This can be a problem for researchers — those who publish under multiple spellings will not get all the credit they should, and those who are looking for a particular person have to search multiple spellings.

Your job as an editor is to check that the spelling of an individual’s name is consistent, even if two people with the same Arabic name spell their names differently. A carefully prepared style sheet is essential for this. As I mentioned in Part 1, your task is easier when editing scholarly works that use diacritics (where ʿAbd al-[name] is used for historical names), but, depending on the style guide, names of people from recent centuries may or may not be transcribed using those rules and thus may be variously romanized.

Elliding the Vowel of the Article

In Arabic script, some conjunctions and prepositions are inseparable from the following word, and in most transcription systems these are shown with a hyphen: bi-, wa-, li-, la-, etc. The vowel of the definite article is not pronounced. Whether and how this ellision is shown in transcription varies from one system to another, giving writers and editors one more thing to watch for.

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) gives the following examples in its guidelines: “fī al-ʿirāq wa-miṣr” (in Iraq and Egypt; is not an inseparable prefix in Arabic script) but “fī miṣr wa-l-ʿirāq” (in Egypt and Iraq). However, the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam 3 differentiates between prefixes that keep the alif or delete it in Arabic script, and gives these examples in its Instructions for Authors: “wa-l-kitāb, fī l-masjid, Muḥyī l-Dīn, bi-l-kitāb, but lil-masjid.” Yet another transcription system shows the ellision with an apostrophe: wa-’l-kitāb, fī ’l-masjid. In this case, the author and copyeditor must also ensure that the symbol for hamza (ʾ) is not used where an apostrophe should be.

Part 1 of this series discusses the reasons for various spellings of Arabic names and terms, and Part 2 discusses some other challenges that authors and copyeditors might have. Part 4 will provide more discussion of the definite article.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

December 18, 2017

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 2: Other Challenges for Editors

By Ælfwine Mischler

I have edited many articles and books with Arabic names and terms. Because of my language skills, I can often answer questions about romanized Arabic that colleagues ask in e-groups or to me directly. For example, a copyeditor once complained about the variant spellings her author was using, such as Kamal and Kamel, and asked which way she should fix them. Editor, beware! There are a lot of pairs or triplets of Arabic names that you might think are the author’s careless spelling when in fact they are different names. Don’t be too quick to correct, but do query.

Kamal and Kamel (or Kamil) are different names, Kamāl and Kāmil, respectively. Another common pair is Salah and Saleh (or Salih), which are Ṣalāḥ and Ṣāliḥ, respectively. There are several names romanized with a-m-r in English, but not all are from the same root: Amr or ʿAmr; Ammar or ʿAmmar; Amir or Ameer; Aamir or Amir (see image below). The last is rare but I came upon it while doing a quality control edit: there was a caliph known as al-Aamir. That one is hard to spell without diacritics; the double a is ugly, but Aamir and Amir have different meanings and should be distinguished.

Arabic names

And be aware that in addition to there being multiple ways to spell Muhammad, there is another name that you might think is a typo but is not: Muhannad.

What Does All This Mean for a Copyeditor?

If the text is academic English, romanization with diacritics will eliminate the ambiguities between similar names and terms. However, you do have to keep a careful watch for mistaken variants, such as an author forgetting a macron or a dot under a letter. In my experience, software to catch inconsistencies does not catch them if they involve special characters with diacritics.

Whether or not the author uses diacritics, keep a detailed style sheet — which you should do in any case. Record the first instance of every romanized name or term, and check every subsequent instance of it against your record. If there is any variation, correct it if you know enough Arabic to check it and do so, or else just flag it for the author to check and put the variant spelling on the style sheet. There is always the possibility that there are in fact two different but similar names or terms.

Dealing with terms and with names from the classical era of Islam is easier in that there should not be variation within a text. A name such as Yūsuf might be spelled Yusuf without diacritics, but if there are multiple people with the same name in the text, the name should be spelled the same way for all of them.

However, the same name from the current or recent centuries might have various spellings for the reasons I gave in Part 1. Without diacritics, Yūsuf could be spelled, for example, Yusef, Youssef, Yousef, or Yousuf. Of course, if there is a common or preferred spelling of a particular person’s name — especially if that person wrote his or her name in the Latin alphabet — that is the spelling that should be used.

When you are editing, if the variant spellings of a name are clearly referring to the same person but you do not know which spelling is correct or preferred, keep a record of them and query the author. If they are not referring to the same person, the “variants” might in fact be two different names, as I noted above. If you are editing a memoir, history, or other material where there are several people with the same name but different spellings, make a note in your style sheet to identify each person (“sister of the author,” “financial minister,” etc.).

Names with Abu

Another source of apparent inconsistency is names that in Arabic change the final vowel in the genitive. Many names are formed with Abu (Abū) plus another name, for example Abu Bakr (Abū Bakr) and Abu Taleb (Abū Ṭālib). In Arabic, the nominative Abū changes to Abī in the genitive, but in English the nominative ending u/ū should be retained. Untrained translators often keep the Arabic genitive ending i/ī when the name follows a preposition — for example, “She gave the money to Abi Bakr” rather than “to Abu Bakr” — but I correct Abi to Abu.

In most transcriptions an exception is made when Abu is preceded by ibn (“son”) or bint (“daughter”). Then the genitive is kept because the full name in Arabic will always have the genitive: Asma’ bint Abi Bakr, Ali ibn Abi Taleb. If you see bint Abi [something] or ibn Abi [something], you can keep Abi. If your author has consistently kept Abu after ibn or bint, query it. Some publishers might prefer to keep the nominative form of the name in all cases.

Virgules in Transcriptions

Another colleague asked about the use of a virgule in a transcription. Her author had followed the translation of a term with the romanized Arabic term followed by a virgule and more romanized Arabic. What did it mean and what should she do with it? For example, the author had written “companion (ṣāḥib/aṣḥāb)” and “word (kalimah/-āt).”

Fortunately for the editor, she did not have to do anything. The author was presenting the singular and plural forms of the words. Arabic has more than ten plural forms, so this is often necessary. In the first case the word has a broken plural in which letters are inserted, and in the second case the word has a regular feminine plural and only the ending is shown. This would be understood by the book’s intended audience. If you see a similar use of virgules when you are editing, it should not worry you.

Splitting Headaches

When you are proofreading, keep an eye out for Arabic names and terms that are split and hyphenated at the end of a line. It is best to not divide them except after the definite article al- or ibn. The letter pairs dh, gh, kh, sh, and th can represent the end of one syllable and the beginning of another, or they can be digraphs (two letters representing one sound), in which case they must not be split. If either letter of the above pairs has a dot or other diacritic, the word can be divided between the letters if necessary, according to New Hart’s Style, but The Chicago Manual of Style says the word can be divided only if both letters have a dot. Vowel digraphs (ou, oo, ee, aa) and diphthongs (ai, ay, aw, au) must never be split, and words must not be split before or after hamza, which is represented by an apostrophe or ʾ.

In Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article and Part 4: More on the Definite Article, I discuss some of the editing questions raised by al-, the Arabic definite article.

(For the first essay in this series, see: Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 1: Sources of Variations.)

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

November 20, 2017

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 1: Sources of Variations

by Ælfwine Mischler

As a native English speaker and editor in Cairo, I am often asked how to spell a name or Arabic word “in English,” meaning with the Latin alphabet and for an English-speaking audience. A child’s name on a birth certificate, a name and address on a visa application, Islamic terms in a web article or book. English-speaking copyeditors frequently joke or complain about the multiple spellings of Arabic names (“twelve ways to spell Muhammad”), and other difficulties might appear in a manuscript.

In this and subsequent essays, I explain why these differences occur, what you as an author or editor need to know, and how to use special characters if you (or your publisher) choose to include them.

Romanize, Spell, Transcribe, and Transliterate

Transcribe and transliterate are often used interchangeably, but if Wikipedia rather than Merriam-Webster is to be believed, transliterate is to represent a word letter by letter from one alphabet to another, whereas transcribe is to represent the sounds of a language. Arabic does not write short vowels, so (according to Wikipedia) the Arabic كتب (“to write”) should be transliterated as ktb, which does not give enough information to pronounce it. A transcription would show the vowels: kataba. Some transcriptions, especially for linguistic studies, use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show the precise pronunciation. I do not have expertise in such transcriptions and do not discuss them.

For these essays I avoid using transliterate. I usually use transcribe for romanizing Arabic in more-precise ways using diacritics, such as in an academic text, and spell for romanizing without diacritics, such as in documents, newspapers, and trade books.

My focus is on Arabic represented by Latin letters in an English text, as that is my area of expertise. Speakers of other languages that use the Latin alphabet, such as German and French, will have their own ways of romanizing Arabic.

Why So Many Spellings?

As noted earlier, there are often multiple Latinized spellings of the same Arabic word. The four primary reasons for this are as follows:

  1. Several Arabic phonemes don’t exist in English. Among these are pairs that when spoken sound very similar to non-Arabic speakers. In less-precise English spelling, these pairs are usually represented by the same letter, but in more-precise transcription the emphatic consonant is shown with a dot or other diacritic underneath (e.g., ḥ or ḩ versus h). Some other phonemes may be romanized with a digraph or diacritics (e.g. kh or ḫ).
  2. The short vowels are not written in Arabic. Their pronunciation and romanization can vary across dialects.
  3. Arabic names and terms are used by Muslims in many countries, and the spelling of phonemes varies across languages. For example, the Arabic letter shīn (ش) is written by English speakers as sh. French speakers render the same letter as ch, and Malaysians as sy. The letter jīm (ج) is written as j in English if it is pronounced as “soft g” (see below), but it will be spelled as dj where French influences the spelling. The Arabic ḍāḍ (ض), an emphatic letter, is often spelled dh by South and Southeast Asians, so they spell the month of fasting as Ramadhan.
    A doubled consonant in Arabic changes the meaning of a word, but sometimes names are romanized with doubled consonants to prevent a mispronunciation in English. The name Yāsir (ياسر) does not have a double consonant in Arabic, but a common spelling in English is Yasser because with a single s the name would likely be pronounced “Yazer.”
  4. Another source of variation is that a few Arabic letters are pronounced differently in different dialects. The letter jīm (ج) is pronounced as English “hard g” in Cairo and northern Egypt. (Gamal Abdul Nasser’s first name begins with jīm.) Meanwhile, the letter qāf (ق) — an emphatic consonant pronounced in classical Arabic something like a k but with the tongue touching the palate farther back than for k — is pronounced as English “hard g” in some dialects. In the more popular academic transcription systems it is written as q, but many people use k in spelling their names (therefore not distinguishing qāf [ق] and kāf [ك]). In Cairo, qāf is usually pronounced as a glottal stop, but in romanized place names it is written as k, leading uninitiated tourists and expats to pronounce the neighborhood Dokki in a way that might confuse taxi drivers. The letter qāf is also one reason the world had such trouble spelling al-Gaddafi (al-Qaddafi, al-Qadhdhafi) (القذافي), the ousted Libyan leader. The Libyan dialect pronounces qāf as “hard g.”

So How Do You Spell…?

When I am asked how to spell an Arabic name or term in English, I usually ask what is being written (e.g., an academic paper, a trade book, a letter, a journal article) and who is the audience. If you’re deciding the spelling of your child’s name or writing something for a general reader, my answer will be different than if you are writing an academic paper.

If you are writing an academic paper, several different systems for romanizing Arabic exist. If you are writing or editing a scholarly text, you will have to follow the publisher’s preferred method. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends ALA-LC Romanization Tables: Transliteration Schemes for Non-Roman Scripts and the IJMES system of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. There are others.

If you are completing a form or writing for a general reader, I usually recommend a simplified spelling without using diacritics. If you are writing Islamic materials for a general audience, you might prefer to use diacritics for Islamic terms. Editors have asked me about spellings when their non-Arabic-speaking authors apparently took materials from various sources that used different systems of romanizing. Whether you choose to use diacritics or not, be consistent in spelling or transcribing terms.

Place names and personal names are more difficult. Names of recent and living people will unlikely be transcribed following an academic system, but there are exceptions. I indexed a book on Arabic literature in which the names of authors who had only published in Arabic were transcribed with diacritics, even if their works were well known in translation. Thus Nobel Prize–winning Naguib Mahfouz was written as Najīb Maḥfūẓ.

If recent and living people have a preferred spelling for their name, use that. If a personal name or place name appears in the news or is otherwise well known, use that spelling. If there is variation between news sources, choose one and stick to it.

In Part 2: Other Challenges for Editors, I discuss some other features of Arabic that may cause problems for editors and writers who are unfamiliar with the language.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

February 13, 2017

Worth Noting: eSense & AAE

The Society of English-language Professionals in the Netherlands (SENSE) publishes eSense, a quarterly e-magazine that is available to both members and nonmembers. The newest issue (44/2017) is particularly interesting (:)), as the cover story is an AAE essay I wrote last August, “On Language: The Power of Words.” eSense 44 is available directly or through the this link at SENSE’s website. For those of you interested in what our colleagues are doing, I encourage you to visit SENSE’s website and read its magazine.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 9, 2017

Wise Counsel: Garner’s Modern English Usage – The App

by Daniel Sosnoski

All editors need a robust reference shelf. Depending on your interests, your selections will be tailored to your personal needs, but it’s likely you have a copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and perhaps Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And on your shelf, consider adding Garner’s Modern English Usage (a retitling of Garner’s Modern American Usage [GMAU] as released in the fourth edition). This is now available as an app for iPhone; the Android version will be out close to the time you read this. The app version is available at Apple’s App Store for $24.99

The hardcover version of Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) weighs in at 1,120 pages and 5 lbs., making it impractical to carry about with you, so having an app for phone and tablet is a convenience if you edit on the go. I work at home and at my office. Normally, my hardcopy of GMAU is at my office desk (I’ll update to the current version anon). It’s not a book I want to lug back and forth. If you like to work at coffee shops or travel frequently, there’s a good case to get the app. If you work in one setting, maybe not.

With the app, the digital index allows for rapid searching, displaying the results as you would find them in the paper text. This is a case where a digital reference book competes well with its physical version.

This type of app is also useful when you need to check a usage question but don’t have internet access. There are a number of usage guides available as apps from the iTunes store, such as the Oxford A-Z of English Usage and Practical English Usage (also available for Android at the Google Play Store), but they tend to skew toward British English.

A voice of reason

Whether you work solo as a freelancer or in-house with a team, you’ll find yourself in situations where you want the advice of a wise colleague. Perhaps you’re unsure if an expression is in the correct register, or if a word is a proper synonym of another. You can often obtain the answers you want with an online check. When you can’t, you turn to a usage guide for that voice over your shoulder.

The internet is excellent for rapid spellcheck. As a medical editor, I’m constantly looking up anatomical terms, the names of diseases, and the names of persons. The typical usage guide won’t be much help there. But for grammar and usage questions like, “different from” versus “different than,” a usage guide will walk you through the matter in detail.

If you’re familiar with the online sources that are authoritative in answering such questions, a rapid online check will resolve your question. The Chicago Manual of Style, and Grammar Girl, and The Grammarist are generally reliable for quick queries. For more problematic questions you’ll turn to your reference shelf and the books you’ve chosen will give you consistent guidance.

Laypersons — but not professional editors — can get by with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or Nevile Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar, as these are prescriptivist in tone, offering the reader a sharp-tongued schoolmarm who will champion (questionable) rules and exhort you to “do X, not Y.” I wouldn’t advise those texts to anyone, personally, but they’ve found a ready market. Garner, on the other hand, is a voice of reason who eschews petty prescriptivism, while offering more guidance on usage and style than the free-wheeling descriptivism of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

A nudge in the right direction

It’d be nice if there were black-and-white answers to usage questions, but more often than not a measure of judgment is required. Garner’s notable innovation is his “Language Change Index,” which addresses the judgment issue. When looking at a term (especially a disputed one), he often flags it with one of the following:

1 Rejected: People normally consider innovations at this stage to be outright mistakes.

2 Widely shunned. Has spread to a significant portion of the language community, but is unacceptable in standard usage.

3 Widespread. Becoming common but still avoided in careful usage.

4 Ubiquitous. Virtually universal but still opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.

5 Fully accepted. Universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.

This is an abbreviation of how his approach allows for degrees of nuance. In the “Preface to the First Edition,” Garner mentions some of his influences, one of whom is Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, among other books. Bernstein had an intimate familiarity with false rules, zombie rules, and the like, combatting them in his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.

Whether you accept Garner’s judgment regarding the status of a term is up to you. His classifications are based on a number of sources. The exemplars he presents are taken from his personal reading and those submitted to him by his network of colleagues, friends, and persons who work in linguistics. I find that his assessments are generally in accord with my own sense of the language and are trustworthy.

For example: Under “Octopus,” he notes that for the plural, “octopuses” is overwhelmingly approved in American and British English, whereas the false Latinate “octopi” is largely considered a fault, and so he relegates it to Stage 3. He likely is drawing from a corpus of citations and rendering his opinion from instances in print or using his own judgment; in no cases have I found his assessments to veer from my own observations.

The challenge for the writer, however, is that nearly everyone is raised learning the same rules, but relatively few later in life learn which can be safely discarded. Ergo, Bernstein took the approach of offering his advice in terms of, “Yes, you could get away with that, but the careful writer will hew toward safer ground.”

For example, in his entry for “data,” Garner labels it a skunked term—a word with such contention regarding whether it should be considered singular or plural that a writer is likely to miff readers on both sides of the debate. (He considers the singular mass-noun sense to be at the “ubiquitous” level 4 in his index.)

Another case would be the expression “madding crowd,” which occasionally is corrupted to “maddening crowd.” In frequency, he finds this error isn’t widespread, appearing in a 6:1 ratio in edited text, and so he positions it at index level 2: “widely shunned.”

And as Garner explains the approach he’s taking with GMEU, he clarifies that it’s directed for the general and professional writers who want to be as correct as possible, and elegant and powerful in their prose. What is often sought by those consulting a usage manual isn’t permission, but learned opinion; “Tell me what the best writers do,” the reader is asking. The usage examples Garner presents in GMEU are always taken from actual citations, so you can examine how other writers approach grammatical problems as they appear in the real world.

The good stuff

GMEU contains much more than a list of words commonly misused. Its essays are informative and include “Back-Formations,” “Clichés,” “Etymology,” and so on. These appear throughout the text where logically warranted, and can be accessed directly from a separate index. In addition to usage, there’s considerable advice about document design and layout.

For editors, he includes a list of 100 editorial comments, which you can select by entry number and in page markup indicate, for example, “See Garner GMEU, ‘Editorial Guide’ entry 15.” If you know your author has a copy of this text, this could be a timesaver. The idea being that if you have GMEU and your author has GMEU, this could work as a shorthand. I’m not sure how likely this is, but it’s offered in that regard.

Also of note is a quiz section – natural for an app-based work, with 300 questions to test your understanding of common editorial problems (warning: they’re hard). The scores reset when you close the app so you can retake the quiz.

You don’t have to work with this text long before you realize the impressive amount of research and thought that’s gone into it. Garner doesn’t make proclamations by fiat but rather offers support and citations for his opinion. And while the classics by Fowler, Bernstein, and Copperud deserve a spot on any language maven’s reference shelf, those authors are long deceased, albeit Fowler has been updated by Butterfield in Fowler’s 2015 4th edition and remains current.

Target user

If you have an interest in knowing where the battle lines in English have been drawn, a hardcopy of GMEU is a good purchase. If you work in multiple settings travel frequently and work away from your desk, the app might prove useful. Freelancers working in multiple settings, editors on assignment abroad, and people who want to access this work on the move may find this app to be the right choice whether or not they own it in hardcover.

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.

December 12, 2016

The Professional Editor & the Sacrificing of Contemplation Time

As I have noted many times on An American Editor, editing has changed greatly since I began my career nearly 33 years ago. Many of the changes are small and relatively inconsequential; others amount to sea changes. All have added to the burden of the job.

The most problematic changes for me are the triad of increased tasks to be performed in less time but for the same or less pay. This triad denotes a change in emphasis. Thirty-three years ago, budgets weren’t unlimited but priorities were different. The goal then was a better book (manuscript) even if the schedule had to be stretched, the budget increased, or some of the less-important tasks skipped. Today, it is the schedule and budget that reign supreme, especially the schedule.

The sacrifice being made today is that of time to contemplate. I used to have the time to puzzle over sentence construction. Consider, for example, this sentence fragment:

…after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll…

There really isn’t a great deal wrong with the fragment, especially in the Twitter age where people are increasingly thinking in 140-character fragments, except that given time to think about what we are reading should raise questions that are at war with an editor’s goals of making the language such that all readers receive exactly the same author message and of answering foreseeable questions before they are asked.

The questions that came to my mind when I read the sentence of which the fragment is a part are these:

  1. Was the crime report written by Kroll? or
  2. Was the subject of the report a crime that had been committed by Kroll?

(The complete sentence reads: “It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll, a security firm.” [“Moldova’s Economy Gutted,” The Economist, August 1, 2015.])

In context, my assumption would be that the first alternative (the crime report was written by Kroll) is the correct interpretation. After all, the complete sentence identifies Kroll as a security firm. But think about that interpretation. It is premised on the idea that a security firm (or a member of the firm) cannot (or would not) commit such a crime. Legitimately, the complete sentence could be written like one of these alternatives:

It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime committed by Kroll, a security firm.


It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime written by Kroll, a security firm.

Note the words in bold in each revision: committed and written. The addition of just the one word to the sentence enhances and clarifies the meaning. And because either word fits neatly within the confines of the sentence — with no other change to the sentence, just the insertion of the single word — it is clear that the sentence as originally written (i.e., with the omission of either committed or written) could mean either that the report was written by Kroll or the crime was committed by Kroll. All that context does is give some weight to the credibility of an unstated premise that many readers will unconsciously draw.

Thus, the importance of time to contemplate.

I know from my experiences as an editor and as a reader that the minimizing of an editor’s time to contemplate what the editor is reading in a manuscript has become a seismic change in publishing. Increasingly one cannot rely on, for example, a nonfiction book to be accurate, only that it approximates being accurate. Too many sentences appear in books of “fact” that rely on the reader drawing the correct premise from a well of premises.

It nearly goes without saying that the problem of lack of contemplation time, as brought about by the earlier-mentioned triad, is compounded by the increase in self-editing and in the expansion of the editor pool by the inclusion and use of un-/less-/underqualified or nonprofessional editors. Self-editors would not stumble over the sentence because they innately understand what their words mean; it is no different than writing their instead of there and not catching the mistake when you reread what you have written. Similarly, underqualified and nonprofessional editors would pass over the phrasing because of the subtlety involved in recognizing that there are not only two possible opposing meanings (committing a crime is opposite writing about a crime committed by someone else), but that interpretation of the sentence as written requires selecting the correct underlying premise — which itself may be a false premise — from the well of premises.

Consider this example:

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

The sentence has several problems, but the one I want to focus on is the phrasing “heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made.” Is the sentence intended to mean that previously the comparisons could not be made but they can now be made? Or that neither in the past nor now can such comparisons be made? The problem is the combination of “heretofore” with “cannot” — it should be either “heretofore” with “could not” or “cannot” without “heretofore,” that is:

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates could not readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

in which the notion that the comparisons can now be made is implied (which means it would be better to explicitly state that comparisons can now be made), or

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

Sentences like the above get passed over because of the pressure of schedule combined with low compensation and the increased number of tasks that a client expects an editor to complete within the allotted time for that low compensation. Something has to give, and what has given is the time needed to contemplate sentence structure and the order of words.

Professional editors do the best they can within the parameters forced on them by clients. But perhaps we — meaning both professional editors and clients — need to step back and rethink the sacrifices that are being made in order to meet the demands. Should we continue to sacrifice clarity upon the altar of schedule? Should we continue to sacrifice the author’s message to the triad?

These are the questions that editors and clients need to address before it becomes acceptable for every manuscript to look like it has been twitterized.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 19, 2016

On Language: The Art and the Science

by Daniel Sosnoski

The science of editing is mainly concerned with technical rules and procedures, things you can apply with recourse to established rules and style dictates, the rules of formal grammar, and orderly checks that bring documents into consistency with themselves. The art comes into play when you need to apply judgment or opt to break the rules when doing so results in a better read.

The theme of this essay comes from a class I took in teaching English as a second language, in which the instructor asked, “Do you think teaching English is an art or a science?” The answer of course was, “A bit of both.” I’ve found this to be true in the craft of editing as well.

How much of each quality one brings to the task is an individual matter, but there are instances where you see each play out. For example, if you are concerned about which preposition to use with “different” (from, than, to), that is a widely commented subject addressed by virtually every style guide — you can look it up. Any question about style and usage that can be addressed this way lies on the “science” side of the equation.

About That Science

Editing by pure instinct is conceivable, but the job ultimately requires both talent and study. You might work with a mentor, research grammar and style problems online, and read books about editing. If you want formal training, there are certificate programs like the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, and offers courses and webinars on editing. If you’re an editor or want to become one, it’s a given that you have more curiosity about English and writing than most. It’s virtually guaranteed that when you encounter a word you don’t know, you look it up and add it to your vocabulary.

Other parts of the science are the specific skills and habits you acquire through experience. You probably have a long list of words that you know you should always spot check because they give you trouble (for me, hemorrhage, Mediterranean, and ophthalmology are cases in point). You make style sheets as you go along. You develop checklists. These are all learnable skills.

Art Class

If you spend time on social media and watch the conversations writers, editors, and language learners have among one another, you’ll see cases where questions arise that do not have clear-cut answers. These can be matters of comma placement, position of the word “only,” epicene “they,” informal intensifiers, and types of redundancies. Here’s where matters of taste and judgment come to the fore.

Is this fragment allowable? Is a semicolon in this position too fussy for the text? Does this “whom” sound pedantic? No text will solve these problems — your feel for the language and the context will be your guide.

Some people opine that you don’t have to be a good writer to be an editor. Enough respectable editors say this that I can’t dismiss it out of hand, but it is surely an “art” question. In polling some of my colleagues the consensus is that for straight copyediting and proofreading, it may be possible to do the work without strong writing skills. But for developmental, structural, and line editing, the editor will need to know what good writing looks like, be able to spot clunky wording, and smooth over rough passages. Reading widely and often is the ticket.

Meaningful Things

To be sure, some of your best catches come from editorial intuition — something has jumped out at you and you don’t know why. And that is a signal to look closer. As a case in point, I recently had one of those moments. The sentence in question was: “Average HDL was 50–59 mg/dL in men, 40–49 mg/dL in women.” What was wrong here? I knew that “mg/dL” was correct — the usual error you see is “mg/dl.” I looked it up; the figures for men and women had been reversed.

This falls under the practice of asking yourself “what does this mean?” When I supervise junior editors, I often see them correcting mechanical problems in text but they are missing errors in meaning. As a case in point, consider this discussion from a Facebook group about the following:

“On 9 September 2001, two planes full of passengers…”

The commenters who focused on the styling of the date checked the publisher, determined that it was indeed a UK-produced text and were pleased to report back that in British English, this ordering of the date was preferred style and there was thus no error as presented. Focusing too tightly on the mechanics can lead to misses like that.

Because there are so many things to check in a typical manuscript, relying on memory alone is likely to fail you at some point, so style sheets and checklists are helpful tools. With the kind of material I handle, after the general read and line editing, I’ll run through a document several times more looking for specific problems, such as errors in names and publication titles (which are common). Your style or working environment may not allow for this technique, but I’ve found it useful if time and resources allow.

Method, Not Madness

The science of editing requires that you understand grammar at a deep level and can explain clearly and persuasively why you’ve made your edits. If challenged, you should be able to defend your actions with something better than, “It just looked better to me this way.”

One of my colleagues has a visceral dislike of the word “that” and dutifully excises it from sentences like

  1. Be aware of the specific skill-sets that each duty will require.
  2. Recognize that it is very common that these two positions may be filled by one person at a time.

In A, it’s possible to remove the bolded “that.” But the bolded “that” in B follows a verb and seems to have a stronger hold on life. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage calls this problem “wrongly suppressed that” (3rd ed., pg. 808). He notes that when clauses follow certain verbs or nouns, “that” can be an effective signal to the reader preventing a miscue or ambiguity.

For example: “The belief you are unable to recognize your own voice is common,” is a miscue because a conjunctive “that” before “you” would clarify that a relative clause is following, as opposed to “a belief you are following…” And “The officer acknowledges being too fast on the draw is a common mistake” is ambiguous because without a “that” before “being” we can’t be certain if he is referring to himself or others.

But Know the Routine

The use of style sheets and checklists is one way editors obtain consistency and maintain quality in publications. You might have a house style sheet, which applies to all documents, and a project style sheet, developed during the edit of a specific work. Checklists are similar, and they encourage the practice of making multiple passes through a text, each time focusing on one or two particular issues.

Practice and experience will inform your style, which raises the question of how long, exactly, this might take. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours of study is the baseline metric for achieving mastery in most advanced skills (although later he clarified that his meaning is that extensive practice is needed, but not necessarily sufficient, to master a skill). But because the editor is attempting to master English to the greatest extent possible, I would argue that one never “masters” this particular craft. You can only improve your ability over time.

Most editors I know possess a range of reference books, style guides, and books about grammar and usage. If you encounter a problem or find yourself wanting to make a change and you don’t know why, it’s good to have tools on hand that explain the matter. Know where the battle lines are in debates that remain unsettled (such as the epicene “they”). And it’s good to have a mentor or belong to a mastermind group where you can exchange ideas with colleagues in the field.

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.

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.

June 27, 2016

On Language: It’s Dead, Jim

by Daniel Sosnoski

A major portion of the editor’s job, when line editing, is to cull extraneous words and tighten up the text. This may be less relevant in the editing of fiction or poetry, but even in those cases, careful pruning is essential to facilitate the emergence of the writer’s voice and intent.

In practice, typically, 15 to 20 percent of the textual content you’re working will be deletable. Accordingly, if I want a 1,000-word story, I’ll assign the writer to give me around 1,200, as after the edit the text will be the right size.

The problem here isn’t that most authors are too chatty, but rather it’s the result of the writing process itself. To get into a good flow and rhythm, writers usually write the way they think and speak. It’s the advice I give to new authors: “Avoid trying to sound like a writer.” But spoken English contains a great number of words, phrases, and linguistic strategies that are performative discourse markers.

If you’re interested in the philosophy of language, Speech Acts by J.R. Searle (1969, Cambridge University Press) built on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas of language and game theory and J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (1975, Harvard University Press; 2nd Revised ed.), and makes the argument that language isn’t merely used to talk about things, but it is largely used by speakers to do things.

A good portion of general speech guides the listener to understand the intent of a phrase or sentence. Thus, a speaker might say, “And then I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and she was like, ‘Get out, shut up,” or might employ rhetorical tag questions such as, “You know what I’m saying?” Standard discourse is rife with “filler words,” such as:

  • “You see…,”
  • “The important thing is…,”
  • “At the end of the day…”
  • “Basically…”

These terms give the speaker time to consider what should follow, and the listener time to prepare for it. Such language can usually be cut to good effect.

Some procedural language indicates how the listener (or reader) should interpret what follows; for example, “In order to…” “It is important that…” “Be sure to remember that…”

Editors routinely remove these, along with the words

  • really
  • very
  • simply
  • extremely
  • quite
  • awfully
  • utterly
  • totally
  • so

You remove all of these needless words, unless they are vital to the meaning of the text. Usually they aren’t, but the writer was talking to the reader and that’s likely how so many of these fillers slip in. Sometimes an entire paragraph or two will be a digression and you’ll mark it for wholesale deletion. The writer’s point was already made. No need to belabor it.

The death certificate

In some cases, however, the text must lose more than the expected 15 to 20 percent. Perhaps in the editing more than half has been deleted and you’re still cutting. Possible reasons are that the author didn’t have a good idea — or any idea — before sitting down to write. The result is a long meandering text that goes nowhere.

It might be that the text is inappropriate for the publication, or that it’s offensive in some fashion. I was once given a manuscript that concerned the journey of a band of elves and dwarves, led by a fair maiden and a wizard (sound familiar?). Each chapter consisted of a day in the journey, a tedious, slogging affair; characters were introduced with extensive laundry-list descriptions that began with the tops of their heads and proceeded vertically down their bodies.

There isn’t much to be done with a derivative, badly executed work. If you try to correct the structure, you still have a duplicative text. If you try to revise the plot from a structural standpoint, the mechanics are still so lacking that your only available move is to recommend that the author start over from scratch.

In any of these cases, in your judgment the work is unsalvageable and it isn’t worth your time and labor. Even if you need the money, you might deem it unethical to work on a text that you know has no chance whatsoever of being an acceptable read. In such cases, you’ll have to deliver the bad news.

I’ve found that rejecting a novel is difficult given the time and effort that went into it. So a cover letter explaining your rationale is a wise move. Try to point out anything that did work (if such exists), offer helpful comments, and guide the writer to your conclusion as gently as possible. Some might argue here for “tough love,” yet I’d counsel sensitivity to the author’s ego, which is going to take a major blow. There’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.

When you think the author of the item in question might succeed at a full or major rewrite, offer (if you can) some samples of a possible approach: “Instead of describing the character in detail, consider saying, ‘She was fair of face and of shapely form,’ and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. As the story progresses, you can add a detail or two at a time; for example, ‘She shook her golden hair as she refused.’”

With minor criticisms, the “hamburger strategy” is a standard approach; namely, you “sandwich” your suggestions for repair between two positive statements; for example, “The topic is timely and of interest, and you found a good angle. The material needs further research and support, however, as it’s purely conjectural at this stage. That said, ample sources exist to buttress your argument and the end result should be highly effective.”

But when the patient is dead on the table, you’ll have to deliver the bad news as best you can, knowing the usual approach is largely unavailable to you. Today, given the ease of indie publishing, we are awash in texts written by people who toy with the idea of writing a book, but are lacking the skills to actually accomplish the task.

In some cases, you may be able to save a work that is in severe distress, and in others what will be most needed is your professional advice that nothing helpful can be done with the work at hand:

Elliot, following the first read of this story, I was able to see where you are trying to go with it. I made notes on the text and also in a separate document, which is attached for your review. While at first I was planning to indicate the range of adjustments this story needs to work effectively, it became apparent that there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved that lie beyond the scope of a general edit….

As you get stronger at your craft, you may widen the scope of what is salvageable, but prepare yourself for those occasional times when your only possible recourse is to bury the body.

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.

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