An American Editor

August 20, 2012

The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2010

Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility

I recently complained about production problems in two new novels I purchased in ebook form — Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and David Weber’s Out of the Dark — both from TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is that review-before-release rights either didn’t exist in the authors’ contracts or if the rights did exist, they weren’t exercised.

With all the problems consumers are seeing in ebooks, regardless of whether the problem lies in the conversion process or in the file preparation, authors who sign contracts with traditional publishers fail their audience if they do not negotiate review-before-release rights. Too many ebooks are being released that are poorly formatted and rife with errors that could easily be corrected just by proofreading the converted version before releasing the ebook on the unsuspecting public. And this should be of primary importance to authors, perhaps even more so than royalty issues (after all, if consumers get fed up with poor quality production, there won’t be any royalty to collect!).

The clear wave of the future is the ebook. The tsunami is about to hit and authors need to be prepared for it. Just as authors have been attuned to the problems that exist in “normal” pbook production, they need to become attuned to the problems that seem to occur with regularity in production of ebooks. It is one thing to pay $1.99 for an ebook that is riddled with errors, but quite another to pay $12.99 or higher. More important than price, at least to me, although not to many ebookers, is that if important information to the story is to be reproduced in illustrations/tables/figures, the illustrations/tables/figures need to be readable on common-size ereading devices, which means on 6-inch screens. Similarly important is that dropped words not be dropped, that uppercase letters that should be lowercase be lowercase (it is annoying to read “…they came across A cave…”), that suddenly left justified text becomes centered text, and so on.

Is it asking too much to be able to enjoy a read without being confronted with obvious, distracting errors? If you (i.e., authors and publishers) are going to permit (or simply accept) errors, can you at least make them subtle, such as using “a” when it should be “an” and “which” when it should be “that” — the types of errors that most readers won’t give a second thought to.

With the boom in ebook sales, authors owe a duty to their customers — their readers — to make the reading experience as undistracting as possible; readers should be permitted to focus on the story and not need to comment on or note formatting, spelling, and grammar errors. Authors go to great pains to ensure the quality of the pbook version; now they need to go to those same lengths to ensure the quality of each ebook format. Failure to do so jeopardizes their relationship with their readers and thus jeopardizes their future income and popularity. It is much too easy in the Internet Age to become a yesterday has-been through self-destruction.

Authors already are responsible for their choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is important). This is the result of too much author reliance on spell checkers and too little education and emphasis on correct word choice.

So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

With all the restrictions imposed on ebooks that are enforced by DRM, authors in the first instance, and publishers in the second, should at least actively strive to produce a first-class ebook and when they don’t, stand before the bar of public criticism, admit failure, make corrections, and provide free replacement copies to those who already have purchased the book.

This goes back to the publisher’s warranty of quality that I proposed nearly a year ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty), a warranty that continues to be ignored by publishers and by authors. Authors need to insist as part of their contract that a warranty be given the consumer and that the author get review-before-release rights and undertake to review the ebook form of their work before it is made available to the buying public. Doing so would be good for the author and for the consumer, and, ultimately, for ebooks. Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.

This is certainly something to think about, if not to act upon. But in any case, we readers need to expand our net or responsibility to include the author, not just the publisher, when we receive a poorly constructed ebook, especially at the prices some authors and the Agency 5 are demanding.

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