An American Editor

February 5, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part One — Establishing Parameters

Carolyn Haley

Managing independence is the biggest challenge of being an independent editor who works with independent authors. There’s no rule book, no boss to tell you what to do (aside from certain “musts” pertaining to conducting business legally and ethically).

I feel the absence of rules and bosses when editing dilemmas arise between technical correctness and creative license, as often occurs in fiction. Although numerous style guides and editorial forums exist to advise editors and writers, these resources don’t all agree on how to handle the complexities of language and context. In addition, publishing is an unregulated industry, so there is no official set of rules that all participants must comply with. Instead, publishers and independent editors are free to establish their own editorial criteria, with no one looking over their shoulders.

These editorial criteria — the “house style” — are built upon whichever dictionary and style guide a publishing house prefers, then are customized over time by staff preferences. For example, a house’s dictionary of choice might spell “e-mail” with the hyphen, but the company prefers it solid and adds “email” to its internal style sheet. Similar distinctions might be directed for capitalization (e.g., Internet vs. internet), one-word/two-word spellings (e.g., cellphone vs. cell phone), and when and how to use italics, ellipses, and en- and em-dashes.

Freelance editors working for publishers usually receive house style information and are required to adhere to it during the edit or be able to defend why an exception should be made. Independent editors working with indie authors, however, can choose which guidelines to follow for which kinds of jobs.

Building a House Style

After years of swaying in the opinion winds, I followed the publishing company lead and developed my own house style. Although I am not a publishing company, I am a business serving the publishing industry. Being an independent editor makes me the CEO, accounting and contracts departments, managing editor, and “chief cook and bottle washer” of my own enterprise, DocuMania. Why not create my own, official, DocuMania house style?

I was already halfway there, according to my style sheet template, which carries from job to job the conventions I’ve established for items that turn up routinely in client manuscripts. Despite the variability that characterizes fiction, some patterns have emerged that I now prepare for instead of waiting for them to surprise me. In these areas, I’ve decided to treat all manuscripts the same unless deviation is appropriate in an individual situation. More on this in Parts Two and Three of this essay.

In general, I set up macros and datasets where possible to help flag and fix terms and expressions that appear in the majority of client manuscripts. These relate mainly to Americanisms and personal preferences. More on this, too, in Parts Two and Three.

In some situations, it’s faster and easier for me to work with hard copy, so I have created a “cheat sheet” for items that refuse to stick in my memory. It lets me check certain items at a glance instead of wasting time looking them up again. For example, with light-headed or lighthearted — which one takes the hyphen? Same with V-8 or V8 — which one is the motor and which is the brand of vegetable juice? Is the word wracked in such expressions as wracked with pain spelled with or without the w? In which cases are awhile and a while one or two words?

My cheat sheet, style sheet template, and datasets, combined with my core reference works (discussed below), create a framework for operational and editorial consistency while leaving room for the flexibility my job demands. Flexibility is important because fiction is a freestyle form of expression. Like all writing, it has to be coherent, consistent, and credible, and the language essentially correct to connect with readers. Within those boundaries, however, the fiction author has total creative freedom.

Editing fiction can be like the proverbial herding of cats, or juggling plates and forks and beach balls at the same time. For indie editors like myself, each client presents a different writing style, voice, technical ability, education, and story type and subject; each has different publishing goals and opportunities, and understanding of the marketplace; and each has a different budget and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to editing client work, so it’s up to me to decide the rules of engagement. By establishing a house style, I can reduce the number of moving parts and focus on a work’s individualism.

Core References

Step one of establishing my house style was choosing my core reference sources. This amounted to deciding which editorial authorities I should I base my work on.

That was easy, because I’ve been following the same path since I took my copyediting certificate course way back when. In that course, I was taught that Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW) were the “industry standard” style and spelling guides in book publishing, with Words into Type as a supporting resource. I duly acquired and studied them, found them sensible and palatable, and willingly embraced them.

I swiftly learned through my early work, which was anything I could coax in the door, that different arms of the publishing industry favor other dictionaries and grammar/style/usage guides. Newspapers and magazine publishers, for instance, tend to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, whereas some textbook and journal publishers lean toward the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style. There are many more across and within each subject area.

For dictionaries, some publishing houses and independent editors like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Others prefer the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Oxford American Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English — or all of the above, or any other. Specialized fields have their own preferences, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for medical editing. A library’s worth of subject-specific reference works exists, and, like most editors, I keep adding to my collection.

Once the Internet arrived, many reference works expanded to offer their material online as well as in print, and new resources came into being. Editors and writers now add electronic bookmarks to their pool of resources, and make good use of Google and online versions of major style guides — as well as quickly and easily accessible Q&A services for those guides.

It amounts to an embarrassment of riches that I find, simultaneously, a boon and a burden. The boon should be obvious: Whatever information one needs for making editorial decisions is almost always available at one’s fingertips. The burden comes from having too much information available, and no lodestar to follow when navigating a path through it. In the absence of some authority dictating a dictionary/style guide pairing specifically for fiction, I decided to stick with the ones I’m most familiar with, that is, MW and CMoS. No publisher I’ve edited novels for has directed me to use anything else, nor has any independent author asked me to comply with a particular dictionary or style guide. Consequently, the MW/CMoS pairing provides a solid foundation for me to build upon.

To round them out with grammar and usage guides, I floundered until a colleague informed me about Garner’s Modern American Usage. (Since then, a new edition has come out, with the name slightly changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage). That has proven to be a boon in itself. If I can’t find guidance for a conundrum in CMoS, or need expansion on that guidance to reach a decision, I almost always find it in Garner’s. This resources dovetails with CMoS through its author, Bryan Garner, who not only is a contributor to CMoS but also wrote The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

In a manner similar to how Garner’s and CMoS reflect each other, Merriam-Webster offers multiple dictionaries and associated resources. Their online unabridged dictionary includes condensed access to medical terminology, French and Spanish, and citations, plus a thesaurus and a style guide. On my bookshelf I keep MW’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary for people and place names. Between the MW and CMoS families of reference works for spelling, grammar, and usage, I find most of what I need to look up during fiction editing.

These resources don’t cover everything, of course, which is why I and other editors need the broadest library we can compile, along with Internet access. But using MW and CMoS as core resources gives me a frame of reference to support my editorial actions and authority, and minimizes the time I must put into addressing variables.

The Deviation Factor

My house style comes into play most often on points where, as Garner’s often says, “authorities are divided.”

For instance, when it comes to capitalizing the first word of a sentence following a colon, CMoS advises, “When a colon is used within a sentence . . . the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name.” This general guideline is followed by advice on how to treat other, specific instances. The Associated Press Style Stylebook, conversely, says, “Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.”

Garner’s, meanwhile, gives many examples of when to cap or not after a colon, and the rationale behind them, plus an overview statement: “Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized.”

Garner goes on to exemplify how experts might come to choose their own preferences, concluding, “The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view — urging for a lowercase word following the colon — is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the two clauses together. That’s the style used throughout this book. It’s also the house style for The New Yorker . . .”

After studying all that, and comparing it to the seemingly endless ways that novelists can construct sentences, I decided that the DocuMania house style would take the simplest route: “Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon” (except when an individual situation calls for a different practice). That gives me approximately nine occasions out of ten when I don’t have to stop and review exceptions, ponder their relevance, compare different authorities’ opinions, and decide who’s right. In fiction, whether a colon is followed by a cap rarely disrupts a reader’s attention or changes a sentence’s meaning. The colon’s purpose in narrative is to signal that the following thought closely aligns with the first (or, as Garner puts it, “promises the completion of something just begun”).

What matters more than the cap is that the colon is used appropriately. Garner includes a helpful summary of when the colon is used inappropriately. That occurs more often in my clients’ material than situations where the fine shades of capitalizing after a colon influence reader comprehension.

With these core resources established, I have a framework in place to address the many variables that occur in fiction. Parts Two and Three explore some of those details.

The bottom line is that I now have a house style for my business that makes my editing fiction life easier.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

October 26, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Editors, What Hat Do You Wear?

by Carolyn Haley

This essay springs from a recent evaluation I did of my marketing and proposal materials. I noticed that my website, public profiles, and bio blurbs had become stale and mismatching, and my pitch letters varied widely. Going forward I want to make my presence and approach more consistent across all business channels — especially since I claim consistency as an editorial asset.

The tricky part is, I wear multiple hats and serve fiction, nonfiction, and corporate clients. I need to pin the right words on the right hats to best communicate with my clientele.

This led to careful examination of words I take for granted, such as editor. I’d never looked up the definition before, so I turned to my trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online edition) and found this entry: “a person whose job is to edit something.” As I scrolled down, it expanded to “someone who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Hmmm. That’s so unhelpful, I almost laughed. Then I checked American Heritage Dictionary, whose online version offers the equivalent: “one who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Double-hmmm. I sensed a trend, and confirmed it by checking the online versions of three other esteemed dictionaries:

Cambridge [American English]: “a person who corrects and make [sic] changes to texts or films before they are printed or shown, or a person who is in charge of a newspaper, magazine, etc., and is responsible for all of its reports”

Oxford [U.S. English]: “1. A person who is in charge of and determines the final content of a text, particularly a newspaper or magazine; 2. a person who works for a publishing company, commissioning or preparing material for publication”

Macmillan: “1. someone whose job is to be in charge of a newspaper or magazine…[or] a particular section of a newspaper, magazine, or news organization…2. someone whose job is to edit books, documents, or movies…2.a. someone who produces a book by choosing, arranging, and explaining things that other people have written…2.b. someone whose job is to produce books for a publisher by finding writers and working with them”

From this sampling I deduced that most people don’t share the same definition of editor. That’s quite the paradox, given that an editor’s job is to improve the clarity and consistency of other people’s work!

Isn’t it?

Well, that depends on what kind of editor you are.

An editor is an editor is an editor…

Some editorial jobs are mainly business positions, such as editor-in-chief of a newspaper or managing editor of a publishing imprint. Other editorial jobs involve handling the content of manuscripts prior to publication. I belong to that cadre; specifically, the self-employed subset, with fiction my primary realm.

So I looked up specific titles that fiction editors use to describe themselves: copy editor, line editor, developmental editor. None of these were listed in the dictionaries and general publishing-vocabulary websites I checked. Of the few editing titles that did appear, most were associated with periodicals (e.g., night editor, sports editor, fashion editor).

When I focused on book-publishing websites, however, familiar titles emerged: acquisitions editor, production editor, project editor, content editor, developmental editor, substantive editor, line editor, and copy editor. Still, none shared the same definition; and in the real world, some titles are used interchangeably, such as copy/line editor, line/substantive editor, substantive/developmental editor, developmental/content editor.

Compounding the confusion, editor is used in multiple industries: publishing, journalism, film, computer technology. On top of that, professional editorial organizations in publishing name themselves ambiguously. For example, the American Copy Editors Society’s website claims membership is open to “editors from all backgrounds and skill levels,” but what in their name would move a developmental editor to consider joining?

The Editorial Freelancers Association is named clearly — “any full- or part-time freelancer may join” — but it excludes the staff editors freelancers often work with, even though when filling out the form to join, they must choose from check boxes covering their experience, which may include salaried positions. Does their membership expire if they go back to an in-house job?

The Editors’ Association of Canada, meanwhile, welcomes all (“salaried and freelance, work with individuals and organizations in the corporate, technical, government, not-for-profit, academic and publishing sectors across the country and around the world in English and French”), though their name invites the assumption it’s for Canadians only.

Based on the above, I no longer wonder why people don’t understand our profession, or why editorial pay rates differ wildly, or why writers seeking editorial help struggle to connect with us.

Labeling one’s hats

In the absence of universal editorial definitions and job titles, it’s up to editors and publishers to communicate who we are and what we do. For me, as an independent contractor, the first step is simple and obvious: When contacted by publishers to edit manuscripts, I must ask exactly what they mean so our expectations are mutually understood. The second step takes more initiative: When presenting my services to the world in general (via website, public profiles, bio blurbs) and potential clients (via proposals to independent authors), I must provide precise definitions of each task.

I’ve been working on that for a while, and have settled on boilerplate service definitions to submit to prospective clients and post on my websites. The definitions show editing as a three-stage process — macro, middle, micro — with my preferred labels for each task. But because these tasks build on each other in complexity and cost, and my indie clients are often concerned with simplicity and inexpensiveness, I stack them in micro-to-macro order in my presentations:

Copyediting (Polishing)

A nuts-and-bolts exercise done when the work is complete and ready for submission or production. Copyediting involves minimal touching of text by the editor, and focuses on clarity, consistency, and comprehension while preserving author voice. It includes checking spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation, also light fact checking and sometimes formatting. Queries may flag the author’s pet words or patterns, or phrasing that creates unintentional effects or reader distraction. The editor generally performs the edit in one round then returns the manuscript to the author, who accepts/rejects the changes and moves on.

Substantive/line editing (Refining)

Line-by-line attention to language and flow of a manuscript that is essentially complete but still in process. Substantive editing includes the basic t-crossing and i-dotting of copyediting but expands to embrace content, analyzing and revising text at the sentence and paragraph levels while still preserving author voice. Queries may address narrative arc, viewpoint, pacing, theme, genre conventions, scene logistics, and character development. No editorial rewriting is done beyond minor cutting or consolidating, transition smoothing, or paragraph resequencing for clarity. The editor generally performs the edit in one round and returns the manuscript to the author, who either accepts/rejects the changes and moves on, or further revises based on the editorial feedback. Follow-up revision checking or copyediting are separate transactions.

Developmental editing (Building)

The roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in process that embraces a work’s overall concept, flow, and structure early in the writing (or midway if it’s stuck). Developmental editing is the most hands-on work by the editor, and the most interactive collaboration between editor and author; it takes the most time, costs the most money, and has the most profound impact on an author’s work. Developmental editing generally requires at least two rounds of backing and forthing, with the author expected to rewrite sections, sometimes even recast the whole work. Subsequent refinement and polish editing are separate transactions, usually done by different people.

For very-low-budget folks, I also offer a nonediting manuscript evaluation in lieu of developmental editing. This gives authors some professional guidance in revising their work without a heavy outlay, and gives me a nice analytical project without heavy labor. Usually I get the improved manuscript back months later for a substantive or copy edit. Clients who skip the evaluation usually choose substantive editing.

Moving forward

Once these definitions were sorted out, several good things happened. I not only improved the balance between my fees and services (formerly charging too much for copyediting, not enough for substantive editing, and all over the map for developmental editing), which makes me more competitive, but also gave prospects better information to work with. The combination eliminated time-wasting inquiries for them and fruitless pitches for me; thus, my landing rate for new projects doubled for half the investment of time. And these new projects have been free of the mismatched expectations that can befoul a job. So far, all have come to happy conclusions.

It’s funny how the most basic editorial resource — the dictionary — with its inconsistency of editorial definitions helped resolve my personal business inconsistencies. Can that simple exercise work on a broader scale? In this new era of publishing, editors come toward authors from a bewildering variety of directions, using different vocabularies and offering different expectations. Would standardizing our job titles and services change the perception of editing as a profession? Could this lay the groundwork for the much-discussed idea of creating a U.S. certification program? Is it possible to label our hats uniformly, or is the profession too broad to ever share a common definition in the public eye?

For now, we’re all mavericks. Leading me to wonder: What editorial hat(s) do you wear?

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

June 22, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Fiction Editors’ Resource Kit (Part I)

by Carolyn Haley

Folks like me, who are copy and line editors, spend much of their billable time checking manuscript details for accuracy and consistency. The tasks are the same whether editing fiction or nonfiction; however, novels present a colorful and sometimes bizarre mix of language and subject irregularities that require an editor to have a big library.

But if I owned all the books needed, my house would collapse under the library’s weight! So I take advantage of the Internet to augment my print references. It lets me keep them to a manageable number while eliminating the travel to city and university libraries that once was vital. Although it takes time to determine which websites are accurate and reliable, I’ve been able to build a suite of online bookmarks for regular consultation and search for items unique to a story.

The two combined make a powerful toolkit. Here are the resources I have compiled for working on novels. The list is a work in process, illustrating the scope and specifics that equip an editor to operate in this field.

Books

Many core reference books now come in both print and electronic form. I acquired several of mine before a nonpaper option came along, so I stick with them. But I’ve learned that using the electronic form can be faster, such as when looking up words in the dictionary — which I might do several hundred times for a given project. The difference between manual and electronic lookup may only be seconds, but seconds add up to minutes then hours, which can influence whether one breaks even, makes a profit, or takes a loss on a job.

Dictionaries

The American English dictionary used by most traditional fiction publishers is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW), followed by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD). I keep The Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage as launch points when working with British English, along with lesser-known texts such as British/American Language Dictionary and British English A to Zed. Canada and Australia have their own version of the language, so I’ve acquired the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and Editing Canadian English. I’ve not yet had to work with Australian English, but toward that eventuality I’ve bookmarked the online Australian English Glossary from A to Zed.

I work mainly with American English, so I stick with MW for consistency’s sake. And I’ll adhere to first spelling with any words that have variants, unless the author shows a strong preference (leapt vs. leaped seems to be popular). The majority of authors I work with are willing to have their spelling corrected without query; thus I only deviate from MW when I need to crosscheck something. Then I’ll sample the online AHD and/or Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary, and the Urban Dictionary. This last is particularly helpful with contemporary novels. For vintage terms, I’ll check vintage MW and do a Google search for other sources.

When it comes to foreign words, I rely mostly on the Internet, because no language has appeared often enough in my clients’ novels to justify overloading my bookshelves. But being monolingual, I must check every non-English word, if only to know whether to italicize it or if accent marks are used correctly. Many foreign words and phrases have been absorbed into American English and are listed in MW. If not, I’ll check a dictionary of the language in question if I own it, or go online, or both. While at it, I confirm the word’s definition, because I add all foreign terms and their meanings to my style sheet. I need to skip around between online translators; they vary in thoroughness and reliability and I’ve not yet settled on one as a standard (suggestions welcome).

Same with slang and idiom, which appear frequently in novels. Google is really helpful here, as are the dictionaries mentioned above and others dedicated to idiom and slang. On the grand scale, there’s the Dictionary of American Regional English (aka “the DARE”) — five volumes in print plus an online version by subscription, all heftily priced. Investment in the DARE parallels that in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is available in book and print and sometimes through one’s local library.

Style Guides

As with dictionaries, there are multiple style guide options, and some publishers or authors will specify their preference. The generally accepted standard for fiction is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), now up to the 16th edition. Some editors supplement it with Words into Type (WIT), but that hasn’t been updated since 1974. CMS comes as a big, fat tome or CMS online by subscription. WIT exists in book form only, stopping at the 3rd edition, though there seems to be a phantom 4th floating around online whose existence I can’t verify.

Numerous other style guides are out there, but I have yet to need them for novels. Still, it’s good to have as many in your library as you can get ahold of, both to track down details not offered in CMS/WIT, or to resolve contradictory issues, or to be able to say “yes” to a job that requires something nonstandard.

Publishers hiring freelancers to copy/line edit usually state their style guide preference. They also tend to have a house style, which takes priority over any “official” industry style guide when they conflict. Independent authors often don’t know or care about style guides, leaving editors free to select their own. If an author specifies a preference, however, you of course accommodate it unless there’s a good reason not to.

Grammar/Usage Guides

A host of options here, too. I’ve recently added Garner’s Modern American Usage to expand upon the grammar/usage sections of CMS and WIT. For quick online lookups, I’ve done well with Grammar Girl and posting queries on editorial lists and forums.

Most often I need to check phrases that include prepositions, so I use CMS’s and WIT’s sections pertaining thereto plus a quick check of online preposition lists (e.g., The English Club) when I just need to confirm which prepositions to capitalize in chapter names or publication titles.

These books will get you through the language aspect of editing most novels. The rest of the job involves story structure and quality control. Part II of this essay discusses editorial software, writing-craft resources, and continuing education. For now, please share any reference books I’ve missed that you use to make editing fiction easier, more accurate, and thorough.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

Related An American Editor Essays:

October 21, 2013

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

Recently, in editing my essays for my forthcoming book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7; Waking Lion Press; 2014), Ruth Thaler-Carter raised this question:

“Shouldn’t custom built locally be custom-built locally?”

There are three editors on this project — Ruth, myself, and Jack Lyon — which has meant there have been some lively language discussions and this was another such discussion. The opinion was split 2-1 in favor of hyphenation. I was the dissenting opinion and so won the battle as the author and final decider, but that doesn’t mean my decision was the grammatically right decision; it just means that as the named author I had final decision-making power and exercised it.

If you lookup “custom built” in the dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [5th ed] and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed]), you find the entry hyphenated followed by “adj.” It is those three letters that cause the problem.

I agree that custom built needs to be hyphenated in an adjectival phrase, such as custom-built computer. But when not used in an adjectival phrase, as in “custom built locally,” I see no reason to hyphenate. What does hyphenation accomplish? Is a reader misled in the absence of the hyphenation? Is “custom built locally” more understandable when hyphenated and, conversely, less understandable when not hyphenated?

This is similar to the questions raised by short term and long term. A look at the dictionaries indicates that these are also adjectives and hyphenated. But there is no mention of when they are not adjectives. For example, “When the short term expires, payment will be due.”

Editors rely on dictionaries and other usage tomes for guidance — and so editors should. But the emphasis has to be on guidance. Editors are supposed to consider, evaluate, and exercise judgment with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the reader understands the author.

So the question arises: Do phrases that are hyphenated when used as adjectives continue to be hyphenated when not used in adjectival form? (Yes, I recognize that there are other forms in which the hyphenated version is needed or required, including in certain noun situations; let’s ignore those situations and look toward a more general rule.)

(Let me make clear that editors have and should have differences of opinion about such matters of grammar as hyphenation. Regardless as to how we ultimately “resolve” today’s question, there is no absolute right or wrong. Rather, we seek a guiding rule. Ultimately, it is my belief that a professional editor can and should make decisions, such as whether to hyphenate or not, based on whether the editor can support the decision.)

Perhaps a good phrase to evaluate is decision making. I raise it because it does not appear in the dictionary yet whatever rule we generate would be as applicable to decision making as to short term and custom built. I suspect that we would all agree that in this instance, decision making should be hyphenated: “In the decision-making process, …” But should it be hyphenated in this usage: “It is clear that the decision making was faulty.” In this latter sentence, the absent but implied word is “process.” Is implication sufficient to warrant hyphenation?

Or what about these pairs: “Betty was the decision maker” versus “the decision-maker Betty”? In the former, the modifier precedes the phrase; in the latter it follows on its heels. The latter is clear that hyphenation is warranted; not so in the former.

In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that what governs is clarity. If hyphenation will make the meaning clearer, then hyphenate; if it neither enhances nor decreases clarity, then don’t hyphenate. I do not stand alone in this view. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., §7.85 for those who require “authority”) says:

“In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.”

The problem with Chicago‘s guidance is that it still leaves us in the dark whether to hyphenate short term, long term, decision making, and custom built — unless we latch onto the final clause, “hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability,” which is what I use to make my decision. In the case of decision making, I can also latch on to the noun + gerund examples Chicago provides in the table that accompanies §7.85, where Chicago specifically says “decision making” and “decision-making group.”

On the one hand, it strikes me that short term, long term, and custom built should be no different than decision making. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the case of these three phrases, the fact that the dictionaries hyphenate them is sufficient fallback justification to hyphenate them (even though they classify the hyphenated form as adjectival). I prefer, however, to base my decision on what counts most: readability.

Do you hyphenate? What is your justification for doing/not doing so?

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?

July 3, 2013

What Makes an Editor a Professional?

The world is filled with editors and wanna-be editors. I suspect not a day goes by when, on some forum on the Internet, someone declares their passion for books and how much (and how long) they desire to be an editor. They then go on to ask how to become an editor.

Nearly any college graduate can be an editor — or claim to be one. Editing (setting aside the business aspects of the profession) is more of a knack skill than a taught skill. Yet even with that ease of entry into the world of editing, there is a difference between a professional editor and an editor.

Consider this: Would you consider an editor to be professional who did not own a dictionary? I wouldn’t, because I think one of the differences between a professional editor and an editor is that the professional invests in the tools of her trade. How much more fundamental to editing can something be than a dictionary?

Does the editor have to own the hardcopy version of the dictionary? No, but she should then have a subscription to the unabridged online version of the dictionary. There are lots of dictionaries available, but in my experience, there are only a couple that are generally recognized as being authoritative and not one of them is called The Free Dictionary.

Would you consider a person who asks what the differences are between the unabridged and the free versions of a standard dictionary, other than that the unabridged has more words (which one would expect if it is unabridged), to be a professional editor? I wouldn’t, and I would wonder what other necessary things they skip or resources they lack. What shortcuts will they take with my manuscript?

The standard response is that anything can be found on the Internet. That’s true as far as it goes. Anything can be found, but nothing assures that what is found is correct or accurate. Consider the cheap, heavily discounted medicines that you can buy over the Internet. Sometimes you get lucky and the medicine is exactly what it is supposed to be; more often, you have been scammed. The same is true with information resources. Anyone can set up a dictionary on the Internet — it doesn’t mean either the spelling or the definition of a word is correct. Editing has “standardized” on certain resources because, over many years, those resources have earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy.

The professional editor recognizes that a resource’s reputation is important and that using such resources is also a reflection of the type and level of work a client can expect from the editor. How does that fit with the idea of using the free version of an accepted reference?

What does the editor do if what she is looking for doesn’t appear in the free version? After all, we know that it costs money to create and maintain accurate resources; even Wikipedia has to raise millions of dollars annually (have we forgotten so quickly when Wikipedia was on the verge of having to shut down for lack of money?). So we know that the free version of a standard resource is not as complete as the paid-for version. Thus, we know that the editor who relies solely on free versions is not making full use of available resources.

What about someone who won’t use the unabridged version of that dictionary because there is a small fee? If an editor skimps on basic, standard resources, what else do/will that editor skimp on to the client’s detriment?

The professional editor takes pride not only in her skills but in the quality of her work. Quality is affected by the kinds and extent of resources of which the editor makes use. It is one thing to claim to be an editor, which many people can and do claim, but it is quite another thing to be a professional editor with full access to the basic resources needed to give a quality edit.

When I hire an editor, one of the things I ask for is a list of the resources on which they rely and whether they are using the free or premium version. I want to know because it helps me to “rate” the applicant’s professionalism. For example, much of my work is in medical editing. I would expect a medical editor to be a subscriber to medical spell-checking software. I think a medical editor should have, and be using, the two leading medical dictionaries.

I learned to ask these questions the hard way. A client once asked me how it was that the editor of a chapter didn’t correct misspellings of a several important medical terms. When I asked the editor, I discovered that the editor didn’t own a medical dictionary and didn’t use spell-checking — either medical or nonmedical. He thought his background as a medical transcriptionist was sufficient and that spell-checking software was distracting. That was a costly lesson to me.

Ultimately, the point is that the professional editor will invest in her business and will have access to the premium versions — whether in print or online — of the basic, standard tools used in the type of editing she performs. The nonprofessional editor will rely on free versions and alternates-to-the-standard resources that are free. The nonprofessional does not run his business as a business; he does not invest in his business; cost governs everything.

To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.

January 14, 2013

The Dictionary Conundrum: Thoughts About Meaning

I just finished reading The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, a book about the creation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the “Third”), which the author calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published.” He may be right because the dictionary was the first major American dictionary to become descriptive rather than prescriptive. (I am pleased to say that I received a hardcover version of the book as a holiday gift — as I had requested! The book is well worth buying and reading.)

(A tidbit of history: American Heritage Company [AH] wanted to buy the G&C Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries and the Third, and tried to use the controversy surrounding the Third to induce the Merriam shareholders to sell to American Heritage. When the shareholders continued to refuse to sell, AH decided to create its own dictionary from scratch. Thus, it would be fair to say that the Third was the progenitor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Also worth noting is that the Third is the progenitor of the usage notes that are a hallmark of the AH dictionaries, beginning with the first edition. The usage notes were devised as a response to what critics considered as a major failing of the Third.)

Reading the book and the controversy over what direction the Third should take in light of the overwhelming success of the encyclopedic Webster’s Second, brought me to pondering what a word means. I know that I and other editors rely on dictionaries for more than spelling. It is important to also know that a word with which we are not fully familiar is not only spelled correctly but used correctly — and that is the problem. How do we know it is used correctly?

A significant signpost of correct usage is a word’s meaning. Does the word really mean what the author implies it means via use and location within a sentence? Which leads to perhaps a more fundamental question: How many times have we looked up a word’s definition only to discover that we do not understand the definition any better than we understand the word we are checking on?

The problem is that to understand a word’s definition we must also agree as to the meaning of the words used to define the definition. Consider this definition in Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate (MW11) for tautology:

1 a. needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word; b. an instance of tautology; 2. a tautologous statement

What does that mean? How does repeating the word in the definition define the word? (I also love entries that simply say “see ____.”)

To understand what an apple is, we must have some common experience background and universal agreement that the word apple is a symbol for a particular object. If I call a round, red object a glyzzle, it is unlikely that you will know whether I mean a ball or an apple or something else because we have no universal understanding of glyzzle.

The same holds true of dictionary definitions. To say that a tautology is a tautologous statement is the same as saying the aliens are invading; that is, the definition is as foreign to an understanding as aliens invading are to our reality — unless we already understand what is meant by tautologus. But if we already understand what is meant by tautologous, why are we looking up tautology? The latter is incorporated in the former.

My point is that dictionaries can be helpful but are often unhelpful because they make a leap that is unsupported by the very reason for the dictionary’s existence: The dictionary assumes that the user already has an understanding of the terms being looked up and so the definitions can be circuitous. I grant that this is not true of all words and their definitions, but it is true of too many words and their definitions.

Why does this bother me? Because I can’t figure out how to explain a word’s meaning to someone who hasn’t had the same language experience as I have had. How do I define apple to someone who only knows glyzzle when I do not know if glyzzle and apple are synonymous? The immediate response is that we are talking two different languages — but are we?

Think about regionalisms. Words have different connotations, and thus different meanings, even though the same language is being used, when used by persons from different geographic regions of a country. To a New Englander, apple may well mean the Macintosh variety whereas to a Pacific Northwester apple may immediately conjure a red delicious apple. Yes, they are both apples, being varieties thereof, but the meaning of apple is significantly different — the shapes and taste of Macintosh and red delicious apples are significantly different, so much so that one cannot be readily substituted for the other. (In contrast, the Empire and Macintosh varieties are similar enough to be confused each with the other until bitten.)

Dictionaries are supposed to be revealers of meaning. The idea of a dictionary is not just spelling — because if that were its only function, it could be just a list of correctly spelled words — but also to arbitrate meaning so that every speaker of a language can look up a word and instantly know what the user of the word truly meant because both user and reader face the same definition and have the same understanding of meaning.

Yet as each book I edit goes by, I become increasingly concerned that dictionaries are not fulfilling this primary role (regardless of whether the dictionary’s focus is descriptive or prescriptive) because the definitions provided assume the same cultural foundation has been had by all users. In other words, the definitions are themselves so poorly worded that even two people who grew up in the same town and went to the same schools may not have the same understanding of a word’s meaning.

It is not that conformity is the goal or should be the goal; rather, it is that in the absence of conformity, communication suffers. And the goal of the editor-author-reader relationship is clear communication. Which brings me to the need for an editor to have multiple dictionaries. I have found that the quality of definitions differs on a word basis between dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) (AHD), for example, gives a much better definition of tautology than does MW11. Consequently, I make it a practice to look up a word in more than one dictionary, whether the dictionary be a general dictionary like MW11 and AHD or specialty dictionaries. (It is probably worth pointing out that the greatest offenders of circuitous definitions are specialty dictionaries. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd ed, and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 28th ed., are prime examples of dictionaries that define a word with another form of the word.) Like all professional editors, I like to be sure that I understand what a word means before deciding whether or not the author has used it correctly. I also want to be sure that it communicates correctly to the reader.

October 22, 2012

The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf

One of the things that editors don’t often discuss is what’s on their editorial bookshelves. If someone asks for a recommendation, say for a grammar book, editors chime in with their favorites, but the overall bookshelf, the tomes they rely on in their daily work, are rarely discussed.

Knowing what’s on an editor’s bookshelf is like having a window into the editor’s “soul.” Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit.

I remember hiring a freelance editor years ago and when I received back some edited chapters for a medical project, I was concerned by the spelling errors that remained. I inquired whether the editor used medical spellcheck software as an initial screening tool, and was surprised to learn the editor did not. The editor was an experienced medical editor and had a related medical background before becoming a freelance editor. The editor told me that he/she did not use medical spellcheck software because he/she didn’t trust it and believed his/her background was sufficient and he/she could do much better without it. Alas, the fruits of the editor’s efforts didn’t support that belief.

I know I am limited in what I can require freelance editors I hire to use and own. It is a fine line between freelancer and employee, and it is a line that cannot be crossed without financial penalty. I can recommend but not require. However, I do inquire before hiring.

(Just as having the right resource materials handy is important, so is it important to have the right tools handy. Although I cannot require the freelance editor I hire to own and use EditTools or Editor’s Toolkit Plus, or PerfectIt, or any other piece of software — Microsoft Word being the sole exception — owning and using these tools, and others, would improve the editor’s accuracy, consistency, and efficiency, and increase their effective hourly rate. It seems to me that it is to the freelancer’s own benefit to buy and use these tools.)

Knowing what resources an editor uses other than the Internet gives an insight into the quality of the editing I am likely to receive. It is no guarantee, just an insight. Too many editors, I believe, rely too much on Internet sources, and do so to the exclusion of local resources. I know of editors who do not own a dictionary, for example, because they can use the Internet. I suspect that in another decade or so, online-only resources will be the accepted norm. My problem with it (well, I really have several problems with online-only resources, not least of which is reliability) is that when an editor tells me that they rely on online-only resources, I cannot get a feel for how competent an editor they may be. The Internet is so vast and the quality of the resources so variable, that it doesn’t give me confidence. Consequently, I want to know about local (as opposed to Internet) resources that the editor owns and uses.

It is not that the local resources need to be exhaustive; rather, they should reflect the editor’s sense of professionalism and be geared toward the focus of the editor’s work. For example, if a medical editor tells me that they use only Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, I wonder why they do not also have and use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which is the other leading medical dictionary in the United States. And I also wonder about them when they tell me that they are using Stedman’s 26th edition instead of the current 28th edition, or Dorland’s 31st edition when the current edition is 32. (In my library I have the current editions of both dictionaries as well as the past three — or more — editions. Sometimes it is important to check past usage as well as current usage. And sometimes words get dropped from dictionaries.)

Specialty dictionaries are important but are insufficient by themselves. We deal with languages that are ever-changing and no single dictionary or usage guide is always and forever sufficient. So, I also like to know what primary language resource books the editor uses. I find that I often have to go to more than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that fit the author’s usage but The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition did).

And as the fact of specialty dictionaries implies, the more general dictionaries, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, often lack field-specific terms, or, more importantly, do not accurately reflect what is the standard in a particular field. So additional supplemental dictionaries are important, such as the APA Dictionary of Psychology. And authors love to use popular phrases, which makes resources like the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase & Fable, and thesauruses valuable.

What do you do when faced with a word that you cannot locate? Authors love to “create” a word by combining forms. Do you immediately reject the combination? This is not an unusual occurrence in medical writing (which is why I prefer character count to word count for determing the manuscript page count). Resolution of the problem is not always easy, but I have found Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words, The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary to be invaluable. Also useful, albeit for a different purpose, is Bothamley’s Dictionary of Theories. It provides a capsule way to determine if the author’s use of, for example, “paradoxical cold” or “paralanguage” is appropriate.

Which brings us to the base issues of editing — usage and grammar. I like to know what usage sources an editor owns and uses. It is not enough to make a decision about grammar, an editor must be able to defend it and to be able to defend it, an editor must have some sources to consult. Many editors have a single source; some rely solely on the grammar sections found in various style manuals. But usage changes over time and I think a professional editor has to follow those trends and have the local sources to do so. I, for example, use H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed revised with supplements), Garner’s Modern American Usage (as well as its two predecessor editions), Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Good’s Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as well as several other usage and grammar guides, in addition to the sections on usage and grammar that appear in various editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, and the APA’s Publication Manual.

It is not unusual for me to have several of my resources open on my desk as I compare and contrast the views of each before making a decision. The books I named above are only a small portion of my local resources. As an editor, I believe it is important to also be able to trace the etymology of a word or phrase, so I have numerous etymological books handy.

The point is that a professional editor relies on much more than just a single dictionary and a single style manual. A professional editor has and uses a library of resources because language is constantly changing and because no single source covers it all. I grant that the Internet has made more resources available and accessible, but it is not always easy to determine the reliability and accuracy of online information. Print publications rely on reputations earned over decades. When I hire a freelance editor, I want to know that the editor has and uses resources in which I have faith.

Do you agree? What’s in your professional library?

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?

May 6, 2010

On Books: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology

I am very interested in the etymology of words. Consequently, I tend to look for and buy books about language and words. Perhaps the best dictionary-type source of English etymology is Anatoly Lieberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008, University of Minnesota Press).

A professor of Germanic philology at the University of Minnesota, Lieberman has authored numerous books and articles on the subject of etymology. An Analytic Dictionary is probably his most important work. A relatively sparse book in terms of words discussed (only 55 are addressed), Lieberman introduces a new methodology for reporting etymology. Whether this methodology will be broadly adopted remains to be seen, but it certainly has my vote.

Most etymology dictionaries provide word origins as if the origins are undisputed. In some cases, they do not tackle a word’s origins, noting instead that the origins are “unknown”; in other cases, they present the origins but do not note that the origins are disputed. Rarely do they provide a complete etymology.

Consider the word boy. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories begins its discussion (which is a single, short paragraph) by assigning the origin to Middle English and saying “the origin is obscure.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives slightly more detail but also finds the word to be of “uncertain origin.” Lieberman, in contrast, provides 8 pages of etymological information, discussing all of the existing derivations, all of the research and speculation, and then choosing what he believes to be the likeliest. However, the reader has enough information to draw his or her own conclusion as to the likely origins and a solid basis for further research.

For those with an interest in English etymology, Lieberman’s effort is an important contribution to the subject. Unlike other dictionaries that simply synopsize a word’s history without giving the reader any source information, Lieberman takes great pain to be sure to discuss earlier etymological works, exposing the reader to significantly more than just the conclusion. My hope is that Lieberman will followup with additional volumes of the dictionary and that other etymologists will adopt Lieberman’s approach to word history.

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