An American Editor

July 2, 2015

Worth Noting: Fowler’s 4th Is Here

I know that many of my colleagues swear by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Although I own it and occasionally use it, the number 1 usage book for American English is Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition.

But, as of this past June 1, Garner’s has some new competition — the updated fourth edition of Fowler: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage edited by Jeremy Butterfield, or Fowler’s 4th.

I received my copy yesterday, so I am not yet ready to give an opinion, but I plan to use it each time I use my Garner’s 3rd. One of the things I like about Garner’s, which is lacking in Fowler’s 4th, is the “Language-Change Index,” which gives me a clue as to how usage is trending.

Both books are published by Oxford, so I suspect a new edition of Garner’s may be in process.

For those of you who are like me and “collect” usage guides, it is interesting not only to compare entries in current versions of the guides, but also to look at past editions and see how usage has evolved.

In any event, it is important for professional editors to remember that these are guides. Their opinion should weigh in your decision-making process, but should not dictate your decision. See, for example, “Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance” and “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” for additional discussion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 10, 2013

On Language: Whether or Whether or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

March 11, 2013

The Drama of “And” and “Or”

One thing that I see with great frequency in manuscripts I edit is the and/or construction. I see it so often that I wonder if authors have a specific key that automatically inserts and/or into their writing.

It isn’t that and/or isn’t sometimes correct; rather, it has become a way for an author to fudge. Basically and/or adds drama to a manuscript because it leaves the reader wondering what precisely is meant (assuming the reader thinks about it at all). And/or gives at least two options, both of which are true, both of which should be exclusive of the other.

The expression dates from the 19th century and is a legal and business expression that has made its way into the daily lexicon. It serves as a great way to not commit, to not make a decision. And because it is so ambiguous, it could lead to disastrous results. Consider if your doctor told you to take “10 mg of Xyz and/or 10 mg of Abc.” What do you do? Do you take both Xyz and Abc, which is what and implies, or do you take either Xyz or Abc, but not both, which is what or implies?

What I find interesting is how editors and authors rarely question the use of and/or. Edited manuscripts that I have reviewed for clients so rarely have a query asking an author what and/or means, that I wonder what the editor thinks it means. I try to make it habit to always query the and/or construction as follows:

AQ: Do you mean both Abc and Xyz? Or do you mean either Abc or Xyz but not both? Please clarify for the reader by rewriting and replacing the and/or with either both or but not both.

Of course, as is so often true with editorial queries, the query often goes unanswered, although I did have an author once reply, ” I mean both both and but not both and thus and/or.” I did try to point out the illogic of that position but and/or remained in every instance in the manuscript.

The point of noting the travails of using and/or is to note how easy it is for an editor to fall into the colloquial trap. We are not just editors; we also are readers and consumers. As readers and consumers, we have become inured to constructions such as and/or and too often skip over them, assuming that any reader will fully understand what is meant because we think we understand.

“We shall smite our enemies and/or their allies at the city gates” is a line from a novel I read quite a few years ago. However, the inanity of the sentence has stuck with me. My first question was, “Why is a novel using the and/or construction?” My second question  was, “Are not my enemy’s allies also my enemy?” But my most important question was, “Who will be smitten? Both my enemies and their allies or just their allies, which would let my enemies smite me?”

We editors have a lot of language prejudices, prejudices that distinguish one editor from another. For example, I loathe reading people that instead of people who, and I make it a point when editing to replace due to with what I think the author really means. (If I’ve gotten it wrong, won’t readers also get it wrong?) I also distinguish between since and because. Like my editor colleagues, I have more pet language peeves. Yet, many editors take an opposite view from mine — they don’t distinguish between since and because, considering that fight long ago resolved in favor of the words being synonymous; they don’t worry about the ambiguity of due to, arguing its use has become so common place that readers can ably substitute the correct words without any guidance; and they just ignore the that/who misuse because today’s readers are unaware of the distinction. And, unfortunately, too many editors find and/or acceptable, arguing that it covers all the possibilities — which is exactly the problem: the possibilities aren’t being narrowed.

Yet, and/or is unlike the since/because issue. English has come to accept since and because as synonymous, and thus readers are not really misled by the use of one or the other. But and/or is different; it is a construction that cannot lead to clarity, only to obfuscation. This is not to claim that I never use the construct; I do — and I shouldn’t — but like all other users of English, I, too, fall into the trap of lazy usage. I do not use the construct, however, when precision of communication is required, and I do query the construction when hired to apply my professional editorial skills.

As I have said many times, the key to good editing is to ensure that the author’s intended message is communicated clearly and without misunderstanding (or the possibility of misunderstanding). That goal requires that the and/or construct be abandoned with alacrity by authors and be questioned every time by editors. Remembering that the construct had its origins in legalese, which is noted for its obfuscatory tendencies, should suffice to encourage editors to challenge the construct’s use.

If you want support for a decision to avoid this construct, take heart that both Garner’s Modern American Usage 3rd ed. and Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed. urge avoiding this construct. For an interesting history of the construct, see Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). But when questioning the construct’s use, be prepared to begin with “I say” rather than “Garner says” — think of how much more impressed a client will be when you are authoritative and resources like Garner and Chicago simply support your rationale rather than provide it!

Do you agree? Do you find the and/or construct acceptable?

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20, 2010

Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: