An American Editor

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 16, 2012

The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter!

Within the past few weeks, Americans learned that words do matter. Allegedly, editors and authors have been aware of this since forever, but on occasion I am reminded that ingrained habit can be more important than what a word really means.

Within the past several weeks, Americans learned that Obamacare is constitutional because the individual mandate penalty is a tax, and not a penalty. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed), a penalty is “A punishment imposed for a violation of law” and a tax is “A contribution for the support of a government of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.” Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed) defines penalty as “An elastic term with many different shades of meaning; it involves the idea of punishment, corporeal or pecuniary,…, although its meaning is generally confined to pecuniary punishment” and tax as “A charge by the government on the income of an individual….The objective in assessing the tax is to generate revenue to be used for the needs of the public.”

For the average citizen, the difference is meaningless. Most of us who have to pay taxes consider ourselves as being penalized (thus tax = penalty) and don’t worry about the fine distinction made by lawyers and judges. But the difference does matter and choosing the right word equally matters: Obamacare would have failed if the mandate was a penalty, and succeeded because the mandate is a tax. (The importance of using the right word is reinforced by efforts to call copyediting proofreading and pay less for the service, as discussed in The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting.)

Yet the pundits have it wrong when they conclude that the government cannot force us to buy broccoli. The effect of the Roberts’ opinion is that if the government imposes a tax on persons who do not buy broccoli, such a tax is constitutional and if it is constitutional, then all that needs to be done is to make the tax onerous enough that it is fiscally more prudent to buy the broccoli than pay the tax. But I stray.…

In the world of editing, we have been exposed to possessive diseases and the demise of the serial comma. When we speak of Lou Gehrig’s disease, what exactly is meant? It is true that Lou Gehrig had the disease and if the writer means to discuss the agony that Lou Gehrig faced, then the possessive Lou Gehrig’s disease seems appropriate. However, if the writer wishes to convey the agony my grandmother underwent when she was struck by the disease, the nonpossessive Lou Gehrig disease strikes me as significantly more correct. The latter requires no interpretation as to meaning — it is clearly not referring to Lou Gehrig’s bout with the disease named after him — whereas the former does require interpretation and a best guess.

That is the problem with not choosing the correct word: the reader is left to make a best guess. The choice between penalty and tax involves also a set of consumer/taxpayer rights that arise depending on which term is used. For example, there are certain procedures that have to be followed by the government in order to collect a tax that differ from those that arise when collecting a penalty. In addition, the defenses that can be raised and when they can be raised by the consumer/taxpayer differ.

Similarly, the conclusion that a reader can draw from a group of words differs based on the words chosen. Consider how cleverly, for example, the words chosen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lead readers to one conclusion but Sherlock Holmes to another; or what would have happened had Charles Dickens chosen different opening words to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,  it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of  incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was  the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Literary immortality came to Dickens via this opening and readers were given a scene setting that compelled further reading.

Editors need to be aware of the words used and ensure that the author is communicating precisely, as well as capturing a reader’s interest. The primary role for an editor is to help the author avoid miscommunication. Whether an author’s work will rise or fall on word choice is increasingly reflected by the importance grammar, spelling, and word choice are given in reviews of books.

Two decades ago, grammar, spelling, and word choice were rarely mentioned in book reviews. The editorial quality of a book was not suspect and was taken for granted. Since then, especially as cost control has come to be the number one goal of the publishing industry — especially with the consolidation of publishers into international conglomerates, the globalization of editorial services as a cost-control measure, and the rise of ebooks and the self-publishing phenomenon — the triad of grammar, spelling, and word choice has become a mainstay of book reviews.

This need to ensure that the correct word is chosen validates the need for the services of a professional editor — a person who is removed from the rigor and stress of the creative process of writing a captivating tale, yet who has command of the essentials of language and language usage.

Although by itself, choosing the right word will not turn stinkweed into a rose, choosing the wrong word can, by itself, turn a rose into stinkweed. This is something authors need to remember when deciding whether to hire a professional editor and something the professional editor needs to keep in mind during the editing process.

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