An American Editor

June 10, 2016

Breaking News: Is the Period Going the Way of the Serial Comma?

Should we start getting prepared for the funeral of the full stop? It looks like its time as a vital part of grammar and language is coming to a close. Check out this front-page article in today’s New York Times bJune 9, 2016 , p. A1):

Period. Full Stop. Point.
Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style

If the full-stop period is no longer used, will it matter how obtuse or poorly constructed a sentence is? Will we even be able to identify a sentence? Will need for editors decline in tandem with the lack of use of the period?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 16, 2016

On Language: That Nagging Feeling

by Daniel Sosnoski

Most editors and proofreaders likely think of themselves as being top-notch grammarians. It’s certainly the case that working in this field requires more than a passing familiarity with the rules of English and, depending on your specialty, you may have a strong command of style and composition, too.

Over time, you’ll notice the same errors occurring frequently among writers, and these tend to catch your eye because you’ve learned to spot them. Here’s a case in point:

Which which is that?

There’s little question that the use of which and that is confusing for the majority of speakers and writers. Properly using these words — specifically as pronouns — requires an understanding of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

Briefly:

  • The mummy that we saw in the tomb had been disturbed. [restrictive]
  • The mummy, which we saw in the tomb, had been disturbed. [nonrestrictive]

The first example is termed restrictive because it’s describing one specific mummy, and there may be others but we’re just talking about this one. In the second case, the sense is more that the mummy had been molested, and parenthetically some additional information about its location is being added (and could be removed without significantly changing the meaning).

The problem you tend to see in text is:

  • The mummy which we saw in the tomb had been disturbed.

This pattern is so common, in fact, that some descriptivists argue that it isn’t really a fault at all. Roy Copperud, in American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980, Van Nostrand Reinhold, p. 376), surveyed a range of authorities and found that some would allow restrictive which as shown above without complaint. Up to about a century ago, this wasn’t such a contentious issue. A few experts argued for a rule, and H.W. Fowler codified it in the early 1900s (see The King’s English, 2nd ed., 1908). But what about the following case:

  • The mummy, that we saw in the tomb, had been disturbed.

While this was used more in the past, most today would call it a blunder. The idea here isn’t so much that the words which and that are sharply distinguishable in terms of their function in such sentences as these, but rather the punctuation is what’s semantically salient. The commas could be replaced with parentheses in nonrestrictive cases, and the contents of the clause being set off could be removed easily.

As an editor, you’re usually paid to bring text into alignment with Standard English and observe these sorts of distinctions. Some, however, get overzealous and go on “which hunts,” eliminating nonrestrictive clauses where they should be left alone. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, p. 807), observes that “British writers have utterly bollixed the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative pronouns.”

The plot thickens

A related type of case exists with the terms such as and including. A common error to look for with these two is redundancy. For example:

  • There were many ventriloquist dummies on the shelf, such as Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, Lamb Chop, etc.

Here the etc. is unnecessary because such as when set off with a comma is nonrestrictive. Unlike the sense invoked when not set off:

  • I could never love a puppet such as you.

For quite a long time, I tended to place the comma used in the ventriloquist example by ear. If the construction seemed to need it I added one. If there was one there I might have removed it, hewing mainly to euphony and cadence. Recently, though, this began to nag at me and I realized there was probably a rule here I needed to know.

One discussion of the matter by the editors at “The Chicago Manual of Style Online” explained it clearly as being a restrictive versus nonrestrictive question. Thus, the larger point raised here is the need to pay attention to that nagging feeling when you realize you’re winging something you probably need to research and nail down.

The known knowns

Another nagging feeling to watch for is the one that starts to warn you that a rule you’ve been enforcing for a long time may be unsupported. It might be a convention you’ve adopted from your general reading, it might be a mistaken suggestion in a style guide (rare, but it happens), or it might be a “zombie” bugbear remembered from high school English class (e.g., “avoid the passive voice”).

It was only a few years ago that the following usage rule that I’d been faithfully applying for years came to my attention as being largely bogus:

Reserve each other for paired items, and prefer one another for groups of three or more.

Here’s Copperud on that (ibid., p. 116):

Five critics and American Heritage agree that [these terms] are interchangeable, and that there is no point in the efforts to restrict the first to two and the second to three or more.

And Garner weighs in with a similar observation (ibid., p. 287):

Yet this 19th-century rule has often been undermined in the literature on usage…Careful writers will doubtless continue to observe the distinction, but no one else will notice.

It is virtually a given that there are a few such “rules” in your own toolkit. Attend to those nagging feelings when they bother you and confirm or correct your thinking with research. Guides like those mentioned above are good, as are online resources. Some of my favorites for this kind of inquiry are:

After all, enforcing false rules is just as bad as failing to apply true ones. In addition to improving your eye and learning to spot more types of errors, periodically check your understanding of the rules you’re applying and ensure you’ve not gone astray.

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

May 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Mass nouns
Properties of Nouns
14 Generally

18 Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of Identifying Part of Speech Under Discussion

Part of Speech Under Discussion

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 20, 2016

On Language: Garner’s Modern English Usage 4th Edition

Bryan Garner has published a new edition of his American English-focused usage, grammar, and style guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition. I received my copy two days ago. It follows the same format as the third edition but is approximately 200 pages longer.

I find it interesting that he calls it the “Fourth Edition” when the third edition was titled Garner’s Modern American Usage, and the first and second editions had titles that differed from any previous or subsequent edition. I’d be interested in Garner’s explanation.

I have on preorder Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. I was unable to preview it, so I am hoping it is significantly more than what appears in The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition. It is due to be published on April 5.

Regardless, if you edit documents in American English, Garner is considered the leading authority on questions of grammar, usage, and style. The new Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition is a must-have reference for questions regarding American English.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 7, 2015

Worth Reading: MIT Claims to Have Found a “Language Universal” that Ties All Languages Together

As manipulators of language, editors have an interest in the origins and connectedness of languages. Noam Chomsky has theorized that all languages are interconnected via an “universal connector.” Proving his theory has been challenging, but MIT thinks it has done so based on a study of 37 languages.

Alas, the original article, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science U.S.A., is behind a paywall ($10 buys access for 2 days). However, Ars Technica provides a summary and if you click the DOI at the end of the article, you can read the official abstract:

MIT claims to have found a “language universal” that ties all languages together: A language universal would bring evidence to Chomsky’s controversial theories.

Has MIT made the connection? Is there an “universal connector” as Chomsky theorized? What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 2, 2015

Worth Noting: Fowler’s 4th Is Here

I know that many of my colleagues swear by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Although I own it and occasionally use it, the number 1 usage book for American English is Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition.

But, as of this past June 1, Garner’s has some new competition — the updated fourth edition of Fowler: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage edited by Jeremy Butterfield, or Fowler’s 4th.

I received my copy yesterday, so I am not yet ready to give an opinion, but I plan to use it each time I use my Garner’s 3rd. One of the things I like about Garner’s, which is lacking in Fowler’s 4th, is the “Language-Change Index,” which gives me a clue as to how usage is trending.

Both books are published by Oxford, so I suspect a new edition of Garner’s may be in process.

For those of you who are like me and “collect” usage guides, it is interesting not only to compare entries in current versions of the guides, but also to look at past editions and see how usage has evolved.

In any event, it is important for professional editors to remember that these are guides. Their opinion should weigh in your decision-making process, but should not dictate your decision. See, for example, “Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance” and “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” for additional discussion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 20, 2014

The History of English + A Surprise

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

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

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

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

Bon Jovi gets the treatment in this song:

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

These show a great range of talent:

This was the winning performance:

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

Enjoy!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 21, 2014

A Video Interlude: To Serial or Not to Serial

Filed under: A Video Interlude,On Language,Professional Editors — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: ,

Thanks to The Digital Reader, a blog that I read daily, for bringing this video to my attention.

The following video sums up the argument for and against the serial (Oxford) comma and is worth watching:

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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