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

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

On another forum it was asked whether authors should “push the grammar envelope” and embrace the singular plural. I think the wrong question is being asked when you ask whether authors should push the grammar envelope for two reasons: First, because it ignores the purpose of grammar, which is to ensure that there is communication between author and reader. Second, because to push the grammar envelope assumes that there are firm rules to be pushed. The first reason far outweighs the second, but neither is ignorable.

Regarding the singular plural, it is neither pushing the envelope to use it nor a violation of a firm rule nor a distraction from communication (in most cases; there are cases in which it is clearly wrong because its use is confusing). In other words, I think that editors, writers, grammarians, usage gurus, etc., make the proverbial mountain out of the molehill when they oppose the singular plural.

Consider what makes a great editor. A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author; that is, ensures that the reader does not leave the book thinking the author is in favor of, for example, genocide, when the author intends the contrary. An average editor can cite chapter and verse of why x is not to be done, but cannot explain why doing x makes the author’s point unintelligible. The amateur editor either blindly accepts the singular plural or remembers having been taught that the singular plural is incorrect and thus blindly changes it.

However, if the singular plural is incorrect, it is incorrect because it makes the author’s point unintelligible, not because a group of self-appointed grammarians have written that it is wrong.

English is difficult enough without making it impossible. Editors constantly twist and turn to apply “rules” of grammar in the mistaken belief that there are rules of grammar. What are too often called rules are really current conventions.

Be clear that I am not referring to spelling and whether the correct choice in context is “rain,” “reign,” or “rein.” Equating spelling with grammar is another common mistake; spelling and grammar are companions, not a single entity.

English lacks the singular plural pronoun. In my schooldays, it was easy to lose points on an otherwise brilliant essay by using the plural pronoun as a singular pronoun. The convention (i.e., “rule”) was that the singular plural was forbidden. Instead, you were expected to rewrite the sentence to avoid the singular plural, even if it meant twisting and turning an otherwise coherent statement into a convoluted mess. Style was more important than substance.

Today’s argument between propluralists and antipluralists amounts to both a faux argument and making style more important than substance. This is not to say that the singular plural is always correct or that a particular sentence could not be made better by avoiding the singular plural. Rather, it is to say that when arguing over the singular plural, we lose sight of what really is important: How well does the sentence communicate to the reader?

The difference between editors, especially between the professional editor and the nonprofessional editor, is the emphasis each places on evaluating each word and sentence on their ability to communicate the point accurately to the reader. Because we use the singular plural in common speech and understand it in context, there should not be a problem in using it in writing when its use eases communication.

I suppose this controversy is just another in the grammar wars between traditionalists and modernists. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage 3rd ed.) falls into the traditionalist camp. He sees the rise of the singular plural as an attempt to avoid sexism (which it is). As he writes, “It is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language — the generic masculine [also, I would say, feminine] pronoun” (p. 179). His answer is to avoid it whenever possible.

Modernists tend to think in unisexual terms; that is, if it can be applied to both males and females, we need to avoid picking one as the example. Thus the use of the singular plural. Over the past 50 years, as a result of the cultural war on sexism, English speakers have become so accustomed to the singular plural as a “normal” part of speech, it seems foolish to make all possible effort to avoid the construction.

In many ways, this faux controversy reminds me of the split infinitive “rule” and the twisting and turning we had to put language through to avoid splitting the infinitive. Had we instead focused on the communication aspects, we would have recognized that rigid application of the splitting rule was wasteful and illogical. That same recognition should be extended to the singular plural. We should recognize the limitations of English as a language and compensate for those limitations in the most logical manner, as long as clear communication is not jeopardized.

Which brings us back to what I consider the fundamental rule, the fundamental arbiter of grammar: Does use of the singular plural detract from clear communication to the reader? If it doesn’t detract from clear communication, then leave it be as long as it is otherwise properly used.

Editors need to remember that language is fluid. They also need to remember that there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied. Garner says to use the singular plural cautiously “because some people may doubt your literacy” (p. 179), but I think use of the singular plural is so common today that very few would raise the question. As long as the material is clear, I see little strength to the argument to studiously avoid the singular plural. If the material can be made clearer by avoiding the singular plural, then it is the obligation of the editor to do so. Otherwise, relax and flow with its use.

September 11, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

In the land of word resources, one stands above them all: The Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Because once in the OED, always in the OED.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the dictionaries and usage manuals most editors rely upon. Each edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary runs about the same page length and uses about the same size typeface, and is about the same thickness as previous editions. The only way this could occur is if some words got dropped as new words were added.

In olden days, I kept all my “outdated” dictionaries, largely because I liked books and couldn’t bear to part with a book. But after getting estimates to move books across country (several times), I realized that the heavyweights that I no longer ever opened needed to go. And so they did — a move that I regretted once I settled down and knew that any further moves would be local.

“Outdated” dictionaries and word usage books do have a place in the editor’s arsenal. If you are editing a novel that takes place in the 1950s, slang from the 2000s won’t be very helpful. You want to be able to check meaning and usage that is relevant to the period in which the action takes place.

Authors are products of their times. Authors write with the words with which they are familiar, the words they grew up with, that they learned in their schooldays — words that may have been removed from the dictionary to make room for more current words. And just as authors are products of their time, so are editors. We tend to use words the way we were taught to use them, and occasionally learn from an astute editor that the way we used the word is no longer acceptable. (Someone very near and dear to me drives me crazy by constantly saying “cool”. But I do recognize the lexicon era from my much younger days :).)

What brought this to mind was an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “When Good Words Go Bad” by Jen Doll (with a different title online: “How to Edit a Dictionary”). I remember some of the now-gone words, like “ostmark” and “tattletale gray.” Another word/phrase the article mentions is “complement-fixation test,” which I still come across in material I edit.

I have also noted changes in hyphenation of compound words/phrases.

An editor has to be word knowledgeable, but what does an editor do when a word needs to be checked but it isn’t in the dictionary? Today, the easiest path is to search the Internet. I’ve done that, but never have felt comfortable relying on such a search. I’m from the days when the value of a source was measured by the source’s (national or international) reputation. I don’t know an English language editor who wouldn’t agree that the OED is a reliable source or, for American editors, that Bryan Garner’s opinion as to word usage is more valuable than general Internet search results.

Consequently, I find that I am not only saving and using older versions of what I consider to be reputable sources, but that I am buying them when I come across them in bookstores. My path backward in time is a split road — some paths go back decades, some only an edition or two.

One of the most interesting resources I have is H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., revised). I have the original fourth edition along with its several supplements, a multivolume discourse on and exposé of the American language. You can find these books and the supplements at places like AbeBooks.com (e.g., at this link) and other antiquarian book shops. They are not popular and thus are often inexpensive. I recommend buying them if you want to learn about the American language from a person who was a recognized language authority.

Although I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked, the point I’m trying to make is that my outlook about resource books has changed. In my youth, I would never have considered having and using prior editions of dictionaries or usage books. After all, I live today and my language should be of today, or so I thought.

Now that I am an older, wiser, and more experienced editor, I recognize that in the absence of those older resources, not only is language forgotten, but writings can become less meaningful. What bohemian meant in 1930 was not the same as it meant in 1950 or in 1970, and certainly not what it means today, but what it meant in 1930 might make the difference between understanding and not understanding the allusion Sinclair Lewis was making when he used the term in 1931.

I know I have written before about the resources a professional editor has (should have) on hand (see, e.g., Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources and The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf), but what I failed to discuss — perhaps even consciously recognize — is the value of prior editions of major resources in my day-to-day work.

Another interesting aspect is to see how respected resources have changed — “grown” or “matured” — over time, which is visible by comparing editions. When I have time, I’ll pick up the three editions of Bryan Garner’s American usage books and compare an entry. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes they are more obvious, but what they always are is informative.

When I am uncertain about how an author has used a word — my recollection of its meaning being different than the author’s use would indicate — I’ll open a couple of editions of a dictionary and see what changes, if any, have occurred over the years.

What I have discovered is that being able to research through prior editions of a language resource has made me a better editor. It certainly impresses authors when I can give a meaningful comment that traces language usage and explains why the current word may not be the best choice. The corollary, I have also discovered, is that impressed authors ask my clients to be sure to hire me to do the editing on their book.

Do you keep a library of older resources that you have replaced? Do you use them or are they just taking up shelf space? Or are you an editor who relies on the Internet?

April 10, 2013

On Language: Whether or Whether or Not

I was reading a political opinion piece by Kathleen Parker (“Time is Right for Hillary Clinton to Run for President”, March 31, 2013) in which she wrote: “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind.” This sentence got me thinking: Does whether require or not?

The roots of whether are as a substitute for which of two, which is likely what led to the construction whether or not. The ultimate question is can the bare whether stand on its own.

It is pretty clear that current authorities generally agree that or not is superfluous because it is implied but that there are instances when or not is required. In other words, as is true of so much else with English, the answer to the question, “Does whether require or not?”, is maybe, perhaps, depends, sometimes, or any other similar response that makes it clear there is no firm, immutable answer.

Consider this example from the “After Deadline” column Whether (or Not) by Philip B. Corbett (March 1, 2010, New York Times):

Whether [or not] they are professional writers, many people are confused about whether [or not] they should use the phrase “or not” after “whether.”

As the example suggests the answer differs within the same sentence. In the first instance, the or not is required, whereas it is not required in the second instance. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, pp. 857-858) makes the same “usually” argument.

The answer to when or not is necessary seems to depend on the meaning of whether. Garner asserts it is necessary when whether or not means regardless of whether, as in “the wedding will occur whether or not the best man is present.” But with the sentence, “Whether to allow Eastwood to speak makes little difference,” the or not is sufficiently implied that it need not be stated. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 299) adheres to Garner’s view.

The rationale that or not is implied seems to me to beg the unasked question: Is it wrong to include or not whenever whether is used? The rationale for omitting or not is economy of phrase; implication is sufficient. But which is more certain? The implied or the stated? And is economy of phrase the ultimate goal?

Great craftsmanship is often accomplished by an economy of effort. We often say that minimal editing is better than overediting, but that begs the question of just how much editing is really required. The real answer is not economy of effort but making the effort required to produce the masterpiece.

Similarly, because whether may be able to live without or not does not mean that it should or that it is wrong to let the couple live happily together. This is a conundrum that an editor faces: When is implication sufficient? When should explicitness dominate? Should an author leave it to a reader to imply (i.e., supply the reader’s conclusion) or should the author spell it out (i.e., supply the author’s conclusion)?

In the end, in the case of whether and or not, the coupling of the words may be more dependent on whether (or not) the reader could go astray in the absence of or not. Is there really an alternative that the reader can draw that leads away from the ultimate conclusion that the author wants drawn?

In Kathleen Parker’s sentence, “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I do not see where the addition of or not would avert a reader going astray. What alternative path could a reader go down? In this instance, or not is superfluous, yet had the sentence been written “Whether or not to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I would not have pounced and edited out the or not. The addition is superfluous and harmless. It could even be argued that it provides clarity.

Consider this sentence: “Whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The careful reader will read the sentence as “Whether or not I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The commentators who follow Garner’s arguments would say that the or not is required here because the sentence is really a regardless construct; that is, “Regardless of whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” Yet if the conclusion to be drawn does not alter regardless of the explicit presence of or not, why doesn’t the economy of phrase argument continue to hold sway?

In the end, I find that I am reluctant to change an author’s choice to use whether or not even if omitting the or not would be proper under the Garner-Chicago view. It is true that verbosity is not usually a virtue, but the difference between more verbose and less verbose in the case of whether versus whether or not is an insignificant difference. I am more inclined toward the view of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “It [whether or not] is, in short, perfectly good, idiomatic English” (1994, p. 956). If whether or not is “perfectly good, idiomatic English” and the author has chosen to use it, why should I change it?

What do you think?

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 18, 2010

On Words: Alright and All Right

Dictionaries and usage guides are necessary tools for editors. Problems arise, however, when the guides and dictionaries disagree or when they say “yes, but.” Such is the case with alright and all right.

Authors, including such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce, have used alright, but the consensus seems to be that alright is not all right to use — it is nonstandard English.

That alright is considered substandard English is odd considering fusions of all ready to already and all together to altogether are accepted uncritically. But that is one of the mysteries and beauties of English — the lack of rhyme or reason for something to be okay or not. One theory, advanced by the The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, is that already and altogether became single words in the Middle Ages, thus before the arrival of the language critic, whereas alright has been around for little more than 100 years (since near the end of the 19th century-beginning of the 20th century), giving language critics an opportunity to cast aspersions on its use.

Even though the words are not always synonymous, some critics, such as Bryan Garner, ignore the differences. As the American Heritage Guide notes, “The sentence The figures are all right means that the figures are all accurate, that is, perfectly correct, while The figures are alright means that they are satisfactory.…”

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage asks “Is alright all right?” and answers with a qualified yes: First, all right is more commonly used in print. Second, the authors of most handbooks for writers think alright is wrong. And third, alright is more likely to be found in trade journals, magazines, and newspapers than in more literary sources. (Is word snobbery at play here?)

The earliest use of alright in modern usage is by Chaucer in 1385. But once we leave Chaucer, there are no examples of either alright or all right until the late 17th-early 18th centuries when there are examples of all right but with all used as a pronoun, as, for example, in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719): “desir’d him to…keep all right in the Ship.”

The first uses of all right as a fixed phrase appear in the early 19th century, as in Shelly’s (1822) Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (“That was all right, my friend.”) and in Dickens’ (1837) Pickwick Papers (“‘All right, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.”). The first recorded use of alright in modern times was in 1893 in the Durham University Journal.

The controversy over the correctness of alright seems to have begun in the early 20th century. Frank Vizetelly denounced the use of alright in his 1906 book, A Desk Book of Errors in English. In 1924, the Society for Pure English published a symposium on alright by H.W. Fowler of Fowler’s Modern English Usage fame. Fowler considered the word bad spelling and in his 1926 Modern English Usage, he repeated his earlier denunciation of the word. In Fowler’s third edition (R.W. Burchfield, Ed., 1996), the discussion opens with “The use of all right, or inability to see that there is anything wrong with alright, reveals one’s background, upbringing, education, etc., perhaps as much as any word in the language.” The entry concludes, “The sociological divide commands attention.” Basically, Fowler, a word and social snob preferred all right because the hoi polloi prefer alright, an attitude continued by Burchfield. Clearly, a well-reasoned and justifiable position.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Theodore Dreiser repeatedly used alright in his manuscript but H.L. Mencken, his editor, had him change it to all right. It seems to be a battle between writers (alright) and self-proclaimed language experts (all right). Merriam Webster goes on to say that “undoubtedly [alright] would be even more frequent in print than it is if copy editors were less hostile.” (Editors do have some influence!)

According to Bryan Garner, today’s usage guru, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009). Garner labels alright as a stage 2 word, that is, “widely shunned” on his Language-Change Index. Garner also calls alright an “invariably inferior” word, but without saying why it is “invariably inferior.”

I know that my opinion regarding usage isn’t at the level of esteemed, but this seems to me to be much ado about nothing. Using Garner’s own statement that “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” demonstrates the utility of distinguishing between all right and alright, with both being acceptable when appropriately used. If he had written instead, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially alright,” it would be clear what “colloquially alright” means. By using all right, it isn’t clear whether alright is colloquially inaccurate or simply unsatisfactory, although we can guess the former from the tenor of his comments. However, if we accept Garner’s statements that the function of language is to communicate clearly, it seems to me that it is perfectly alright to distinguish between all right and alright solely by intended meaning and not by whether some critic thinks one is a better spelling or form than another. It also seems to me that it is all right to always use alright.

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