An American Editor

January 9, 2017

Wise Counsel: Garner’s Modern English Usage – The App

by Daniel Sosnoski

All editors need a robust reference shelf. Depending on your interests, your selections will be tailored to your personal needs, but it’s likely you have a copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and perhaps Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And on your shelf, consider adding Garner’s Modern English Usage (a retitling of Garner’s Modern American Usage [GMAU] as released in the fourth edition). This is now available as an app for iPhone; the Android version will be out close to the time you read this. The app version is available at Apple’s App Store for $24.99

The hardcover version of Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) weighs in at 1,120 pages and 5 lbs., making it impractical to carry about with you, so having an app for phone and tablet is a convenience if you edit on the go. I work at home and at my office. Normally, my hardcopy of GMAU is at my office desk (I’ll update to the current version anon). It’s not a book I want to lug back and forth. If you like to work at coffee shops or travel frequently, there’s a good case to get the app. If you work in one setting, maybe not.

With the app, the digital index allows for rapid searching, displaying the results as you would find them in the paper text. This is a case where a digital reference book competes well with its physical version.

This type of app is also useful when you need to check a usage question but don’t have internet access. There are a number of usage guides available as apps from the iTunes store, such as the Oxford A-Z of English Usage and Practical English Usage (also available for Android at the Google Play Store), but they tend to skew toward British English.

A voice of reason

Whether you work solo as a freelancer or in-house with a team, you’ll find yourself in situations where you want the advice of a wise colleague. Perhaps you’re unsure if an expression is in the correct register, or if a word is a proper synonym of another. You can often obtain the answers you want with an online check. When you can’t, you turn to a usage guide for that voice over your shoulder.

The internet is excellent for rapid spellcheck. As a medical editor, I’m constantly looking up anatomical terms, the names of diseases, and the names of persons. The typical usage guide won’t be much help there. But for grammar and usage questions like, “different from” versus “different than,” a usage guide will walk you through the matter in detail.

If you’re familiar with the online sources that are authoritative in answering such questions, a rapid online check will resolve your question. The Chicago Manual of Style, and Grammar Girl, and The Grammarist are generally reliable for quick queries. For more problematic questions you’ll turn to your reference shelf and the books you’ve chosen will give you consistent guidance.

Laypersons — but not professional editors — can get by with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or Nevile Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar, as these are prescriptivist in tone, offering the reader a sharp-tongued schoolmarm who will champion (questionable) rules and exhort you to “do X, not Y.” I wouldn’t advise those texts to anyone, personally, but they’ve found a ready market. Garner, on the other hand, is a voice of reason who eschews petty prescriptivism, while offering more guidance on usage and style than the free-wheeling descriptivism of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

A nudge in the right direction

It’d be nice if there were black-and-white answers to usage questions, but more often than not a measure of judgment is required. Garner’s notable innovation is his “Language Change Index,” which addresses the judgment issue. When looking at a term (especially a disputed one), he often flags it with one of the following:

1 Rejected: People normally consider innovations at this stage to be outright mistakes.

2 Widely shunned. Has spread to a significant portion of the language community, but is unacceptable in standard usage.

3 Widespread. Becoming common but still avoided in careful usage.

4 Ubiquitous. Virtually universal but still opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.

5 Fully accepted. Universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.

This is an abbreviation of how his approach allows for degrees of nuance. In the “Preface to the First Edition,” Garner mentions some of his influences, one of whom is Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, among other books. Bernstein had an intimate familiarity with false rules, zombie rules, and the like, combatting them in his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.

Whether you accept Garner’s judgment regarding the status of a term is up to you. His classifications are based on a number of sources. The exemplars he presents are taken from his personal reading and those submitted to him by his network of colleagues, friends, and persons who work in linguistics. I find that his assessments are generally in accord with my own sense of the language and are trustworthy.

For example: Under “Octopus,” he notes that for the plural, “octopuses” is overwhelmingly approved in American and British English, whereas the false Latinate “octopi” is largely considered a fault, and so he relegates it to Stage 3. He likely is drawing from a corpus of citations and rendering his opinion from instances in print or using his own judgment; in no cases have I found his assessments to veer from my own observations.

The challenge for the writer, however, is that nearly everyone is raised learning the same rules, but relatively few later in life learn which can be safely discarded. Ergo, Bernstein took the approach of offering his advice in terms of, “Yes, you could get away with that, but the careful writer will hew toward safer ground.”

For example, in his entry for “data,” Garner labels it a skunked term—a word with such contention regarding whether it should be considered singular or plural that a writer is likely to miff readers on both sides of the debate. (He considers the singular mass-noun sense to be at the “ubiquitous” level 4 in his index.)

Another case would be the expression “madding crowd,” which occasionally is corrupted to “maddening crowd.” In frequency, he finds this error isn’t widespread, appearing in a 6:1 ratio in edited text, and so he positions it at index level 2: “widely shunned.”

And as Garner explains the approach he’s taking with GMEU, he clarifies that it’s directed for the general and professional writers who want to be as correct as possible, and elegant and powerful in their prose. What is often sought by those consulting a usage manual isn’t permission, but learned opinion; “Tell me what the best writers do,” the reader is asking. The usage examples Garner presents in GMEU are always taken from actual citations, so you can examine how other writers approach grammatical problems as they appear in the real world.

The good stuff

GMEU contains much more than a list of words commonly misused. Its essays are informative and include “Back-Formations,” “Clichés,” “Etymology,” and so on. These appear throughout the text where logically warranted, and can be accessed directly from a separate index. In addition to usage, there’s considerable advice about document design and layout.

For editors, he includes a list of 100 editorial comments, which you can select by entry number and in page markup indicate, for example, “See Garner GMEU, ‘Editorial Guide’ entry 15.” If you know your author has a copy of this text, this could be a timesaver. The idea being that if you have GMEU and your author has GMEU, this could work as a shorthand. I’m not sure how likely this is, but it’s offered in that regard.

Also of note is a quiz section – natural for an app-based work, with 300 questions to test your understanding of common editorial problems (warning: they’re hard). The scores reset when you close the app so you can retake the quiz.

You don’t have to work with this text long before you realize the impressive amount of research and thought that’s gone into it. Garner doesn’t make proclamations by fiat but rather offers support and citations for his opinion. And while the classics by Fowler, Bernstein, and Copperud deserve a spot on any language maven’s reference shelf, those authors are long deceased, albeit Fowler has been updated by Butterfield in Fowler’s 2015 4th edition and remains current.

Target user

If you have an interest in knowing where the battle lines in English have been drawn, a hardcopy of GMEU is a good purchase. If you work in multiple settings travel frequently and work away from your desk, the app might prove useful. Freelancers working in multiple settings, editors on assignment abroad, and people who want to access this work on the move may find this app to be the right choice whether or not they own it in hardcover.

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.

September 19, 2016

On Language: The Art and the Science

by Daniel Sosnoski

The science of editing is mainly concerned with technical rules and procedures, things you can apply with recourse to established rules and style dictates, the rules of formal grammar, and orderly checks that bring documents into consistency with themselves. The art comes into play when you need to apply judgment or opt to break the rules when doing so results in a better read.

The theme of this essay comes from a class I took in teaching English as a second language, in which the instructor asked, “Do you think teaching English is an art or a science?” The answer of course was, “A bit of both.” I’ve found this to be true in the craft of editing as well.

How much of each quality one brings to the task is an individual matter, but there are instances where you see each play out. For example, if you are concerned about which preposition to use with “different” (from, than, to), that is a widely commented subject addressed by virtually every style guide — you can look it up. Any question about style and usage that can be addressed this way lies on the “science” side of the equation.

About That Science

Editing by pure instinct is conceivable, but the job ultimately requires both talent and study. You might work with a mentor, research grammar and style problems online, and read books about editing. If you want formal training, there are certificate programs like the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, and offers courses and webinars on editing. If you’re an editor or want to become one, it’s a given that you have more curiosity about English and writing than most. It’s virtually guaranteed that when you encounter a word you don’t know, you look it up and add it to your vocabulary.

Other parts of the science are the specific skills and habits you acquire through experience. You probably have a long list of words that you know you should always spot check because they give you trouble (for me, hemorrhage, Mediterranean, and ophthalmology are cases in point). You make style sheets as you go along. You develop checklists. These are all learnable skills.

Art Class

If you spend time on social media and watch the conversations writers, editors, and language learners have among one another, you’ll see cases where questions arise that do not have clear-cut answers. These can be matters of comma placement, position of the word “only,” epicene “they,” informal intensifiers, and types of redundancies. Here’s where matters of taste and judgment come to the fore.

Is this fragment allowable? Is a semicolon in this position too fussy for the text? Does this “whom” sound pedantic? No text will solve these problems — your feel for the language and the context will be your guide.

Some people opine that you don’t have to be a good writer to be an editor. Enough respectable editors say this that I can’t dismiss it out of hand, but it is surely an “art” question. In polling some of my colleagues the consensus is that for straight copyediting and proofreading, it may be possible to do the work without strong writing skills. But for developmental, structural, and line editing, the editor will need to know what good writing looks like, be able to spot clunky wording, and smooth over rough passages. Reading widely and often is the ticket.

Meaningful Things

To be sure, some of your best catches come from editorial intuition — something has jumped out at you and you don’t know why. And that is a signal to look closer. As a case in point, I recently had one of those moments. The sentence in question was: “Average HDL was 50–59 mg/dL in men, 40–49 mg/dL in women.” What was wrong here? I knew that “mg/dL” was correct — the usual error you see is “mg/dl.” I looked it up; the figures for men and women had been reversed.

This falls under the practice of asking yourself “what does this mean?” When I supervise junior editors, I often see them correcting mechanical problems in text but they are missing errors in meaning. As a case in point, consider this discussion from a Facebook group about the following:

“On 9 September 2001, two planes full of passengers…”

The commenters who focused on the styling of the date checked the publisher, determined that it was indeed a UK-produced text and were pleased to report back that in British English, this ordering of the date was preferred style and there was thus no error as presented. Focusing too tightly on the mechanics can lead to misses like that.

Because there are so many things to check in a typical manuscript, relying on memory alone is likely to fail you at some point, so style sheets and checklists are helpful tools. With the kind of material I handle, after the general read and line editing, I’ll run through a document several times more looking for specific problems, such as errors in names and publication titles (which are common). Your style or working environment may not allow for this technique, but I’ve found it useful if time and resources allow.

Method, Not Madness

The science of editing requires that you understand grammar at a deep level and can explain clearly and persuasively why you’ve made your edits. If challenged, you should be able to defend your actions with something better than, “It just looked better to me this way.”

One of my colleagues has a visceral dislike of the word “that” and dutifully excises it from sentences like

  1. Be aware of the specific skill-sets that each duty will require.
  2. Recognize that it is very common that these two positions may be filled by one person at a time.

In A, it’s possible to remove the bolded “that.” But the bolded “that” in B follows a verb and seems to have a stronger hold on life. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage calls this problem “wrongly suppressed that” (3rd ed., pg. 808). He notes that when clauses follow certain verbs or nouns, “that” can be an effective signal to the reader preventing a miscue or ambiguity.

For example: “The belief you are unable to recognize your own voice is common,” is a miscue because a conjunctive “that” before “you” would clarify that a relative clause is following, as opposed to “a belief you are following…” And “The officer acknowledges being too fast on the draw is a common mistake” is ambiguous because without a “that” before “being” we can’t be certain if he is referring to himself or others.

But Know the Routine

The use of style sheets and checklists is one way editors obtain consistency and maintain quality in publications. You might have a house style sheet, which applies to all documents, and a project style sheet, developed during the edit of a specific work. Checklists are similar, and they encourage the practice of making multiple passes through a text, each time focusing on one or two particular issues.

Practice and experience will inform your style, which raises the question of how long, exactly, this might take. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours of study is the baseline metric for achieving mastery in most advanced skills (although later he clarified that his meaning is that extensive practice is needed, but not necessarily sufficient, to master a skill). But because the editor is attempting to master English to the greatest extent possible, I would argue that one never “masters” this particular craft. You can only improve your ability over time.

Most editors I know possess a range of reference books, style guides, and books about grammar and usage. If you encounter a problem or find yourself wanting to make a change and you don’t know why, it’s good to have tools on hand that explain the matter. Know where the battle lines are in debates that remain unsettled (such as the epicene “they”). And it’s good to have a mentor or belong to a mastermind group where you can exchange ideas with colleagues in the field.

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.

July 27, 2016

On Language: Doing More Than Spell Check

by Daniel Sosnoski

You’ve probably had a family member or friend say something to you along the lines of “Oh, you’re an editor? Well then, I’d better watch my grammar around you!” And no doubt you’ve seen T-shirts and coffee mugs with the phrase “I am silently correcting your grammar” on them. The general public seems to believe that editing is largely concerned with finding and correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. And it is.

Editing has been likened to milling, with each pass grinding finer, so that pebbles become gravel, and gravel becomes sand. You might consider spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues to be something you catch during one of these stages, but there are other fish to fry as well.

Speed bumps

The editor strives to stand in for all imaginable readers. Most guides, like the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style, have sections and commentary about the avoidance of sexist language. Dialing your focus wider, you want to avoid racist, ageist, and ablest language, too. Be on guard for such faults because they can potentially obstruct the flow of the narrative by needlessly offending the reader.

Anything in the text that pulls the reader away from the reverie of following the author’s train of thought is a speed bump in the text and needs to be removed. These are straightforward matters. But some are less obvious. The following will address a range of factual errors that can be corrected in text, although not all editing assignments allow this. Consider this discussion more applicable to developmental and line editing duties.

For example, in two bestselling novels — Stephen King’s Black House and Lee Child’s Make Me — there are references to 9 mm firearms that are revolvers, and rifles that have “clips” — small details that startle the knowledgeable reader because they are factually incorrect. An audiobook discussing findings in psychology is marred by the narrator mispronouncing “affect” as “uff-ect” when it should be “aff-ect” (The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo). These things interrupt the flow of narrative.

An editor I know said that his author wrote that a billion dollars, in a stack of $100 bills, would be as high as “a 60-story building.” The editor did the math and determined the actual height would be between 285 and 320 feet high. As the average building story is 13 feet, the correct analogy would be “a 25-story building.” You can overlook an error of this type and constrain your focus to matters that directly impact plot and intended meaning; the point here is that any general assertion an author makes can often be easily Googled.

And in an article titled, “Is Copy Editing A Dying Art?,” Lev Raphael notes about a book: “I found missing words and ‘phenomena’ used as the singular, a mistake unworthy of the author and his publishing house.” Furthermore: “They’re evidence of systemic carelessness. And though they’re minor, they’re irritating and can momentarily throw readers out of the book.”

Quote, unquote

For whatever reason, quotations tend to be a minefield of trouble. Particularly, the tendency to misattribute quotations from famous persons. For example, in discussions regarding ending a sentence with a preposition, you are likely to read that Winston Churchill said some version of the following:

  • That is a rule up with which I will not put.
  • This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put
  • This is insubordination, up with which I will not put!
  • This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.
  • This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.
  • Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put.

Linguist Benjamin Zimmer finds that the first citation was actually, “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put,” and is marginalia scribed by an unknown government copy writer in 1942. Any time you see a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or any other notable personage, more often than not the quote will be slightly or completely incorrect. A check with Google is mandatory unless you know the quote to be accurate as given.

Some quotes, like Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” also come in several flavors. Being translated from French, there are a few variations you’ll find in print, but the larger issue is that these are the words of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, as recorded by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

In cases where you have multiple renderings of a quote from a foreign language, you can search a bit online or check Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to determine whether there is a preferred or standard translation.

You do the math

Anything involving calculations, units of measurement, math you can check — you should try to check it. Nine times out of 10 it will be right, but occasionally you’ll find a miss. A key area for editors is the expression of numbers with graphics. Is the data best presented as a pie chart or a bar graph? A histogram or line chart? Are the words “percentage” and “percentile” being used correctly?

Also look for consistent treatment among numbers. Are there mixed types of fractions, are decimal points treated uniformly? Can numbers be rounded for clarity? When you start asking these questions, you’ll often find problems that require correction. Here, too, we see that editing is more than checking spelling and grammar.

Out of time

Given sufficient resources, you could try to verify every fact presented in a text. In practice, unless the work is short this won’t be feasible. A sound procedure is to focus the bulk of your attention on checking the kinds of details that, if wrong, would do the greatest disservice to the author and reader. What those items are will in part reflect the type of text you’re handling.

For example: If you’re editing a travel guide, place names and directions will be of paramount importance. In my work with medical material, anatomy, references, and footnotes are critical because they reflect upon the credibility and professionalism of the author. Grammar or spelling mistakes would be unfortunate, but a technical error is awkward because it can call the authority of the entire work into question.

In histories and works of historical fiction, dates are going to be in the “must-check” category, but in the latter, especially, anachronisms can fall into two categories; namely, things in the text that could not have existed at the time in question, and words or expressions that are of the wrong period. For example, Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene i), has the following:

Brutus: Peace! Count the clock.
Cassius: The clock hath stricken three.

Yet mechanical clocks did not exist at this time. Also common in historical fiction are anachronisms involving clothing and foods that appear prior to their invention. And with language, here’s a critic noting an error in Downton Abbey, season five:

“[T]he massive anachronism ‘steep learning curve’ in this week’s episode, a phrase from the 1970s that should have no place in Downton Abbey.”

A certain amount of artistic license can be granted in the service of good storytelling, but when the reader hits on significant errors of fact, he or she is likely to wonder how well the work was edited (or if it was edited at all). This is from an Amazon review by a frustrated customer:

“This impression is not aided by the careless errors that pepper the book (e.g., referring to Microsoft as a cable giant). Didn’t anybody edit this thing before it hit the shelves?”

The sixth sense

If you work regularly with an author and find that his or her work tends to be well-researched, you can reduce the amount of checking you do. Conversely, if you start to encounter frequent mistakes of the type discussed above, you’ll want to look closer. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a phrase or statement that makes you wonder, “Is this really so?” That’s usually a sign you should investigate further.

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.

June 27, 2016

On Language: It’s Dead, Jim

by Daniel Sosnoski

A major portion of the editor’s job, when line editing, is to cull extraneous words and tighten up the text. This may be less relevant in the editing of fiction or poetry, but even in those cases, careful pruning is essential to facilitate the emergence of the writer’s voice and intent.

In practice, typically, 15 to 20 percent of the textual content you’re working will be deletable. Accordingly, if I want a 1,000-word story, I’ll assign the writer to give me around 1,200, as after the edit the text will be the right size.

The problem here isn’t that most authors are too chatty, but rather it’s the result of the writing process itself. To get into a good flow and rhythm, writers usually write the way they think and speak. It’s the advice I give to new authors: “Avoid trying to sound like a writer.” But spoken English contains a great number of words, phrases, and linguistic strategies that are performative discourse markers.

If you’re interested in the philosophy of language, Speech Acts by J.R. Searle (1969, Cambridge University Press) built on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas of language and game theory and J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (1975, Harvard University Press; 2nd Revised ed.), and makes the argument that language isn’t merely used to talk about things, but it is largely used by speakers to do things.

A good portion of general speech guides the listener to understand the intent of a phrase or sentence. Thus, a speaker might say, “And then I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and she was like, ‘Get out, shut up,” or might employ rhetorical tag questions such as, “You know what I’m saying?” Standard discourse is rife with “filler words,” such as:

  • “You see…,”
  • “The important thing is…,”
  • “At the end of the day…”
  • “Basically…”

These terms give the speaker time to consider what should follow, and the listener time to prepare for it. Such language can usually be cut to good effect.

Some procedural language indicates how the listener (or reader) should interpret what follows; for example, “In order to…” “It is important that…” “Be sure to remember that…”

Editors routinely remove these, along with the words

  • really
  • very
  • simply
  • extremely
  • quite
  • awfully
  • utterly
  • totally
  • so

You remove all of these needless words, unless they are vital to the meaning of the text. Usually they aren’t, but the writer was talking to the reader and that’s likely how so many of these fillers slip in. Sometimes an entire paragraph or two will be a digression and you’ll mark it for wholesale deletion. The writer’s point was already made. No need to belabor it.

The death certificate

In some cases, however, the text must lose more than the expected 15 to 20 percent. Perhaps in the editing more than half has been deleted and you’re still cutting. Possible reasons are that the author didn’t have a good idea — or any idea — before sitting down to write. The result is a long meandering text that goes nowhere.

It might be that the text is inappropriate for the publication, or that it’s offensive in some fashion. I was once given a manuscript that concerned the journey of a band of elves and dwarves, led by a fair maiden and a wizard (sound familiar?). Each chapter consisted of a day in the journey, a tedious, slogging affair; characters were introduced with extensive laundry-list descriptions that began with the tops of their heads and proceeded vertically down their bodies.

There isn’t much to be done with a derivative, badly executed work. If you try to correct the structure, you still have a duplicative text. If you try to revise the plot from a structural standpoint, the mechanics are still so lacking that your only available move is to recommend that the author start over from scratch.

In any of these cases, in your judgment the work is unsalvageable and it isn’t worth your time and labor. Even if you need the money, you might deem it unethical to work on a text that you know has no chance whatsoever of being an acceptable read. In such cases, you’ll have to deliver the bad news.

I’ve found that rejecting a novel is difficult given the time and effort that went into it. So a cover letter explaining your rationale is a wise move. Try to point out anything that did work (if such exists), offer helpful comments, and guide the writer to your conclusion as gently as possible. Some might argue here for “tough love,” yet I’d counsel sensitivity to the author’s ego, which is going to take a major blow. There’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.

When you think the author of the item in question might succeed at a full or major rewrite, offer (if you can) some samples of a possible approach: “Instead of describing the character in detail, consider saying, ‘She was fair of face and of shapely form,’ and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. As the story progresses, you can add a detail or two at a time; for example, ‘She shook her golden hair as she refused.’”

With minor criticisms, the “hamburger strategy” is a standard approach; namely, you “sandwich” your suggestions for repair between two positive statements; for example, “The topic is timely and of interest, and you found a good angle. The material needs further research and support, however, as it’s purely conjectural at this stage. That said, ample sources exist to buttress your argument and the end result should be highly effective.”

But when the patient is dead on the table, you’ll have to deliver the bad news as best you can, knowing the usual approach is largely unavailable to you. Today, given the ease of indie publishing, we are awash in texts written by people who toy with the idea of writing a book, but are lacking the skills to actually accomplish the task.

In some cases, you may be able to save a work that is in severe distress, and in others what will be most needed is your professional advice that nothing helpful can be done with the work at hand:

Elliot, following the first read of this story, I was able to see where you are trying to go with it. I made notes on the text and also in a separate document, which is attached for your review. While at first I was planning to indicate the range of adjustments this story needs to work effectively, it became apparent that there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved that lie beyond the scope of a general edit….

As you get stronger at your craft, you may widen the scope of what is salvageable, but prepare yourself for those occasional times when your only possible recourse is to bury the body.

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 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.


  • 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.

April 18, 2016

What One Fool Can Do

by Daniel Sosnoski

In at item titled “Against Editors” at the website Gawker, Hamilton Nolan writes:

In the writing world, there is a hierarchy. The writers are on the bottom. Above them are editors, who tell the writers what to change. This is backwards. How many good writers has Big Edit destroyed?

Nolan’s view is not entirely exceptional. You can find similar sentiments elsewhere on the web, and you’ll sooner or later find yourself working with a writer who views their relationship with you as being purely adversarial.

The two chief routes by which writers come to detest editors are either a misunderstanding of the two parties’ respective roles, or bad experiences at the hands of editors who are unprofessional or uncaring in their approach to the craft. To that end, I advise my colleagues to be kind to authors because all of us are, arguably, representing our profession and we ought to present our work in the best possible light.

If you’re dealing with the first type of writer, one who thinks you are “the enemy,” then you might have a chance to reset their perception of the relationship and get things back on an even keel. Inexperienced writers sometimes think fighting with the editor is a normal part of the job. The second type of writer, who’s had bad experiences being edited, will be bringing that history along and you might have to address it head on.

Getting back to “Against Editors,” a key passage in Nolan’s article is as follows:

Go find a story published a few years ago in The New Yorker, perhaps America’s most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it’s a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story — well-polished diamond that it presumably is — and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process… You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, “Looks fine. This story is perfect.”

The gauntlet is thrown

It is a point of pride in my office that we have a tag for documents that says, simply, “Clean.” The meaning is “I have read this document and have no changes.” Admittedly, it isn’t used often, but it is used, and it reassures me that we aren’t fiddling with text merely for the sake of imprinting our own voice on it.

Still, Nolan’s words nagged at me. Could he be right? How could his proposition be tested? Could I make an educational lesson from it? When we reached the end of the workweek, I called an editorial meeting and gathered five editors (in addition to myself) and passed out to everyone a page of raw, unedited copy — 12 point, triple spaced — and red pens.

Here is a sample of that text:

The smaller the office the larger the scope of your influence and the more you will see the direct correlation between your mood and theirs or your attitude toward a patient and how they treat that person. In this sense, leadership and the impact yours has, is all about you. But, isn’t it always?

For the next 20 minutes, we worked in silence. The instruction was to edit freely, but to make no edits that could not be fully justified — “it just looks better to me this way” was off the table.

Three of the editors were fairly new, and three were trained and seasoned. At the end of the time allotted I called halt and most had gotten through two to three pages of the text. We went around the table and each editor read the first sentence (as shown above) and indicated what they marked up and why. For example: “The smaller your office, the larger the influence of your mood and that of your staff upon patient care.” (My edit.)

As we went along, sentence by sentence, a pattern began to emerge: The junior editors were unpredictable. Some rewrote heavily, others lightly, none making the same changes. The experienced editors tended to seize upon the same faults and make similar — but not identical — edits in some cases, and in others the suggested fix was nearly identical.

For example: “I deleted ‘But, isn’t it always?’ as being extraneous to the flow of the text. It was a rhetorical question.”

Most made the same edit. There was disagreement about placing a comma after “office,” but in general you could see that the problem of “theirs” having an undefined referent in the original required a fix. Exactly how that problem should be corrected differed from editor to editor.

In this, I would say that Nolan had a point worth making. In text that is seriously flawed (but correctable), two editors might make different changes, but — and this is key — they will tend to repair the same problem. Much as two mechanics might approach the diagnosis and repair of a vehicle in slightly different ways, the end result will be functional transportation.

About that title

A phrase that Richard Dawkins likes to use in his writing is, “What one fool can do, so can another.” His meaning is that if someone can accomplish something, so can you. The task of editing, however, seems to be special in that, while any competent editor can spot and correct typos, punctuation errors, and adjust copy to meet house style, with text of the sort presented by the problem I assigned my colleagues, I see a clear divergence.

Junior editors see clumsy text but aren’t always sure how to fix it or why. They tend to make changes that could not be readily explained to the author (even if sensible). Experienced editors seem to agree on the same problems and find similar solutions to them. While in my exercise we didn’t all make identical corrections, the act of verbalizing our thoughts was a step toward harmonizing our approach to editing.

Repeating this exercise is definitely in my game plan for staff development. Listening to one another explain our approaches and rationale is valuable in that it gets us thinking the same way about editing. If you work with one or more other editors, I highly recommend trying this for yourself and gauging the results.

In the event you are presented with clean copy, by all means mark it “clean” and know that you did your job properly. Some might argue that not making any changes to a text could potentially raise problems regarding what is being paid for, but that’s a subject for another column.

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.

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