An American Editor

November 6, 2013

On Language: Are There Rules?

A colleague wrote on another forum: “Yet these [rules of grammar] are elements of correct use of language (and key in quality editing/writing).”

What is correct use of language is arbitrary. “You and I” can be as correct as “you and me” — it just depends on the dominant grammar trend at the time of usage. Grammar “rules” are simply conventions that some self-appointed group of “authorities” has determined reflect current values in expression, which values many current writers and editors accept and agree with. If that were not true, then the rules today would be identical to the rules of 500 years ago and would be immutable, yet we know that grammar rules are always in a state of flux.

I am of the opinion that there is only one true grammar rule: The manner in which something is spoken or written must be such that the listener or reader can make no mistake about the speaker/writer’s intent and meaning. Aside from that, all so-called rules of grammar are here-today-gone-tomorrow rules of consensus.

Consider style manuals and usage manuals. If rules were universal and permanent, there would be no need for more than a single style manual, usage guide, or even dictionary, as there could be no difference and no room for interpretation. Yet we have many of each, and each has differences from the others.

Consider this example: “early rising people” versus “early-rising people.” Which is grammatically correct depends on which style manual, grammar book, and usage manual one looks at and applies. Or, better yet, consider the serial comma — now abandoned in British and Canadian English, except for when it would enhance clarity, and under assault in American English. Yet for decades, using the serial comma was the rule (and one that I think should be kept because its use improves clarity).

Correct use of language is neither a black-and-white proposition nor written in stone. Rather, it is more like silly putty.

The sibling proposition is that “to break the rules [of grammar], you must first know the rules.” In a sense, that proposition is true. But with the rules being in a state of  flux, it is difficult to nail them down so that one can know what rule one is breaking. I think that perhaps the rules being broken are less rules of grammar than they are rules of current consensus and spelling.

In discussions with colleagues, I have noted that when the talk gets to grammar, the discussion really becomes one of word choice. Grammar is the structure of sentence, word choice (and its companion spelling) is using the correct word spelled correctly (e.g., taught vs. taut). Yet sentence structure isn’t rigidly defined even though some grammarians would have us believe otherwise.

Sentence structure, like most things in editing, really revolves around understanding, communication, and clarity: Is the sentence written so that a reader can understand it? Does the sentence communicate the message the author wants to communicate or is it communicating a different message, even if only to a few readers? Is the sentence so clear that there is no possibility that a reader will misinterpret the sentence and what is being communicated by the author?

Rules of grammar are intended to promote those three principles without becoming so inflexible that either the meaning or the drama of the sentence is lost. How sterile is “to go boldly” compared to “to boldly go”? Ultimately, the rules of grammar boil down to this question: What is in charge?

If rules are in charge, then there is no room for flexibility; either the rule is met and satisfied or it is ignored and broken (consider, e.g., the “rule” against splitting infinitives). If the rule is ignored and broken, and there is no effective mechanism for enforcing compliance with it, then it is not a rule; at most, it is a suggestion based on past experience that has been created by a self-selected group. When was the last time you nominated and voted for someone to be part of the grammar rule-making board?

Today, we know that the rule against splitting infinitives was a misguided attempt to squeeze American English into a mold into which it could not fit. Yet the attempt lasted for decades. I remember losing points on essays in high school for not adhering to that rule. Not one English teacher questioned the rule or its soundness; every one enforced it by lowering a paper’s grade. Yet, inexorably, the rule met its death because it could not be enforced outside the classroom. Consequently, one must question whether it ever was really a rule with willy-nilly enforcement or just a suggestion.

Today’s rule in opposition to the serial comma is similar to the split-infinitive rule. Is it more deceptive to the reader to have the extra comma than to forgo it? What harm does the inclusion of the comma cause? Even in an economic sense, the cost of the serial comma probably doesn’t amount to even pennies on a print run.

The movement is afoot to minimize punctuation. The trend began in British English, which is where the trend to do away with the apostrophe seems to have also been born and taken root, and has spread. But the rule is not much of rule because it has the clarity exception: If clarity is improved, keep the serial comma.

The importance of this recently surfaced in a discussion I had with a client. My client complained that in a book that was to follow Canadian English, we used the serial comma, and Canadian English does not use the serial comma. As I noted to the client, such a broad statement is wrong. Canadian English would prefer not to use the serial comma, but accepts it where it enhances clarity. So, I asked my client, who decides the issue of clarity? The answer is the editor initially and the reader thereafter. Consequently, if the editor decides to include the serial comma, it is not wrong. “Which,” I asked, “is clearer: eats shoots and leaves or eats, shoots and leaves or eats, shoots, and leaves?”, making reference to Lynne Truss’ excellent book. “The answer,” I wrote, “depends on which is meant and that between the second and third option, the addition of the final comma makes a world of difference in clarity.”

My client, as is the right of clients, was unimpressed and instructed that Canadian English does not approve of the serial comma and, therefore, we were not to use the serial comma. To the client, this was a rule of grammar, and as a rule, not to be violated.

As editors, we fail our clients and public by referring to rules of grammar rather than to grammar suggestions. Today’s “rules” of grammar are simply reflections of today’s language fads. Tomorrow, different rules will come about that abrogate the former rules. Although I have yet to succeed, I continue to try to educate clients that there are no immutable rules of grammar except for the three principles of understanding, communication, and clarity. If those three principles are met, then the rules of grammar have been satisfied and how we structure the text to meet those three principles using grammar suggestions makes the text more conform or less conform to current grammar suggestions.

April 24, 2013

On Words: Thinking About About

I have been editing book and journal manuscripts for nearly 30 years and over the course of those years, I have noticed that certain word uses were and remain popular among authors. For example, authors usually write “over 30 years of age” rather than “older than 30 years of age.”

But the use (misuse) of about bothers me more than the use (misuse) of any other word.

It isn’t so bad in fiction. Fiction doesn’t require the precision that nonfiction requires. We expect as readers flights of fancy from fiction writers, but with nonfiction, we expect a precise, clearly communicated, and accurate message. Which is why about in nonfiction bothers me.

Consider this example: “About 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” First, why approximate when it is just as easy to write, “John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963”? If a reader reads the original sentence in 2017, 50 years ago would place the assassination in 1967, clearly wrong.

Second, what does about really mean? Nearly? Around? Approximately? On the verge of? Regardless of how you define about, it lacks precision because it leaves a reader to define what is meant, which is just the opposite of what should be true of writing with the intent to communicate. If the sentence is “About the sides of the square,” then the meaning of about is precise if around all sides is meant. But what if that is not what is meant? If the sentence is, “I am about to go for a walk,” again, about is precise if what is meant is that I am on the verge of going for a walk.

Clearly, context can often provide an accurate meaning, but generally there is no accurate, laser-like precise meaning that can be supplied by a reader when about is associated with a number. Which also raises the question: If you know enough to write “about 50 years ago” or “about 100 miles,” why do you not know enough to write “51 years ago” or “103 miles”?

The imprecision of about cannot be sloughed off as acceptable colloquial English because when precision should be provided, there is no acceptable alternative to being precise. There are lots of reasons for being precise. Few writings expire after 30 days; an author who has taken the time and made the effort to write a book expects it to be read for years to come. Consequently, the author should expect that what about means today it will not mean next year, which means that today’s semicorrect information will be next year’s incorrect information.

And when it comes to measures, there is no excuse for not being precise, except, perhaps, in the case of pi, when 3.14 is acceptable imprecision. If we say a study had “about 314 participants,” why can’t we say the study had “314 participants” or whatever number of participants actually participated? Would we want our doctor to tell us to “take about 2 tablets” or would we want to know precisely how many tablets of the medicine we should take?

I find it interesting that the leading word maven, Bryan Garner, ignores the imprecision of about. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has a different view than Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009). MW notes that about can be redundant when used with numbers (e.g., the estimate is about $150). More importantly, MW notes that “the use of about with round numbers is extremely common, and is for the obvious purpose of indicating that the number is not exact.” (p. 4) Which is precisely the problem.

To write in a novel, “he walked about 50 feet before coming to a halt,” cannot cause harm; to write in a how-to book, “cut each board about 25 inches,” could cause a significant problem when it is important that each board be 24.5 inches. On the other hand, if the length that the character walked is an important clue in a mystery, then about could be the difference between solving and not solving the mystery.

Because I generally consider the use of about as “lazy” writing, I usually query an author’s use of about. I ask if a precise number is available and suggest that if one is available, that it be used in place of the approximation that about implies. I point out to the author how meaning can change with the passage of time (in the instance when about is paired with time measures), and that it should be the author’s expectation that his book will be referenced years from now. If about is paired with a quantity measure, such as number of pills to take or the length of an object, I try to give an example of how a reader could draw the wrong conclusion or, using the author’s words, cause some harm.

In the end, the question comes down to why the author chose imprecision over precision. There are times when imprecision is a necessary element of the story being told, but I think an author has to be able to justify that imprecision. The balance should always be tilting toward precision of communication until there is justification for tilting that balance toward imprecision.

The matter, as always, boils down to communication of message. If the role of the editor is to help the author communicate a clear and precise message to the reader, a message that cannot be misunderstood by the reader, then the editor is obligated to query the use of about when the context clearly indicates that about is being used to indicate an approximation.

I know that it may appear as if this is just an editor being nit-picky, but the choice of words has implications. It is the editor’s job to help the author understand what the implications are of the word choices made and provide an opportunity for the author to make alternative choices that may better express the message that the author wants the reader to receive. It is diplomacy on the local level. I want my authors to avoid the mishaps that seem to befall politicians regularly.

As an editor, do you query about when used as an approximation? Is this an instance of nit-picking? As an author, do you think about the message being sent when you write about? Do you want your editor to ask about your word choices?

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