An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 30, 2014

Worth Reading: Steven Pinker on 10 “Grammar Rules”

Steven Pinker is one of my favorite authors. I have many of his books in my library and have his forthcoming book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, on preorder (publication date is September 30, 2014).

A couple of weeks ago, Pinker wrote an article for The Guardian. The article, “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes),” is well worth reading. In the article, Pinker outlines the questions you should ask to “distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions” and the questions to be asked — and if answered “yes” — to reject a grammar “rule.”

The 10 “grammar rules” Pinker addresses are:

  • and, because, but, or, so, also
  • dangling modifiers
  • like, as, such as
  • preposition at the end of a sentence
  • predicative nominative
  • split infinitives
  • that and which
  • who and whom
  • very unique
  • count nouns, mass nouns and “ten items or less”

I’ve saved the article for future reference. What do you think of it?

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?

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?

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 12, 2012

Article Worth Reading: Back to the Future of Writing

In past articles, I have wondered what the future will hold for the editorial quality of books as newer generations of college graduates takeover editorial functions. In several past articles, I have lamented about what appears to be a lack of skill in some of the younger in-house editors with whom some editors work.

Recently, this problem — in the more general sense of students who can’t write an expository essay — was discussed in The Atlantic. The magazine article, written by Peg Tyre, explores one failing high school’s (New Dorp on Staten Island, NY) response to this problem. The article, “The Writing Revolution” (October 2012 issue of The Atlantic) is almost a must read for anyone who wonders whether there is hope for future literacy. To quote but one paragraph of the article:

Her [Deirdre DeAngelis, the school’s principal] decision in 2008 to focus on how teachers supported writing inside each classroom was not popular. “Most teachers,” said Nell Scharff, an instructional expert DeAngelis hired, “entered into the process with a strongly negative attitude.” They were doing their job, they told her hotly. New Dorp students were simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level. You just had to listen to the way the students talked, one teacher pointed out—they rarely communicated in full sentences, much less expressed complex thoughts. “It was my view that these kids didn’t want to engage their brains,” Fran Simmons, who teaches freshman English, told me. “They were lazy.”

This is an article that is definitely worth reading.

The Writing Revolution by Peg Tyre

October 1, 2012

On Language: The Professional Editor and the Hyphen

I know it hasn’t been very long since I last discussed the problem of hyphenation (see The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound), yet it needs to be raised again. I recently had a discussion with a couple of younger editors — younger in terms of age and experience — who are members of a wholly different educational generation from me, regarding compound adjectives and the hyphen.

It is increasingly clear to me that our educational system is failing horrendously as regards passing on to new generations basic language skills. And this lack of skills is being transferred to a broader population as editors are drawn from these groups. I have also come to realize that probably the most valuable course that can be taken in school is rarely, if ever, taught in high school and is not a mandatory course in college: logic/philosophy.

I am appalled at how poorly many of our “educated” classes have no grasp of language fundamentals and cannot follow or decipher the logic of a communication. Why, I’m sure you are asking, am I raising these issues now?

Consider these two phrases:

  1. in my small animal practice
  2. bounded by a salmon-spawning creek

What do these phrases mean?

The first phrase is unclear; the second phrase is clear but illogical. Yet both of these phrases were unanimously considered correct by my younger colleagues — without any question.

Consider the first phrase. What does “in my small animal practice” mean? Does it mean that I have a small business that deals with animals or does it mean I have a business that deals with small animals as opposed to large animals? This unhyphenated phrase leaves the reader guessing, causes the careful reader to pause and ponder, and permits the reader to draw a wrong conclusion; in other words, it fails the primary test of language and grammar: crystal-clear communication.

If the phrase means I have a business that deals with small animals, then the correct construction is “in my small-animal practice.” Why? Because small and animal are really intended to be a single “word” and the hyphen indicates that they belong together. The hyphen says that “animal” neither stands alone nor belongs with practice. It makes the meaning crystal clear.

In contrast, if the phrase means that I have a small business that deals with animals, it is not easy to clarify the construction by using or omitting the hyphen; instead, the phrase should be rephrased. The point is that clear communication is of utmost importance and hyphenation is intended to bring clarity to what would otherwise be unclear or questionable. The last thing an author or an editor should want is for a reader to involuntarily pause in an attempt to try to glean what the author intends, especially if the pause occurs on a minor or insignificant point.

The second phrase, “bounded by a salmon-spawning creek,” is on its face illogical, yet many readers and editors and authors think it is properly constructed. As written, the creek is spawning the salmon, yet we all know that it is salmon that spawn salmon (unless, of course, we do not know what spawn means, in which case it is worth having a good dictionary handy), not creeks. Creeks are where salmon go to spawn. The correct phrasing is “bounded by a salmon spawning creek” but in this construct, a reader may well pause to try to interpret what is meant because the phraseology seems a bit awkward even if grammatically correct. Thus, rephrasing is better.

The problem is, however, that my younger colleagues with whom I was discussing hyphenation of compound phrases didn’t grasp the illogic of the phrase and thus did not see it as erroneous. I think it is because students after my educational generation were not and are not required to take courses in logic/philosophy and thus lose the opportunity to learn to dissect language constructs based on logic (as opposed to based on rigid rules of grammar). Essentially, that is what a good basic, introductory course on logic/philosophy does: It teaches one to construct and destruct language based on logic, which is what a professional editor does.

(It is worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect when “rules” of grammar are applied yet illogical. It is also worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect rule-wise yet fail the fundamental test of good grammar, which is crystal-clear communication. A professional editor keeps these limitations in mind while editing.)

A professional editor’s primary function is to ensure that clear, consistent communication occurs between author and reader. It is like a syllogism in that B must follow A or the argument falters. It is not enough for an editor to know that compound adjectives are hyphenated; the editor must also know that by hyphenating the compound phrase, the phrase is now crystal clear and not as muddy (or muddier) as before. Yet for many editors, simply following the rule to hyphenate the compound is sufficient; there is little thought being given to the subtleties of meaning and communication-miscommunication.

This is why an author needs a professional editor. The author already knows the intended meaning and thus reads a phrase as crystal clear. Few authors can distance themselves far enough from their work so as to question the subtleties of language and grammar choices. And this is why an author should expect to pay more than a few dollars for a professional editor.

The professional editor doesn’t simply ramble through a manuscript and add a hyphen here, delete a hyphen there. The professional editor considers what that addition or deletion does to the clarity of the message, and what subtle meaning changes occur as a result of that addition or deletion.

Some real constraints on editors, however, must be noted. Whereas in the ideal world, an editor has all the time that is needed to properly edit and is working for a client with an unlimited budget, the real world imposes both time and budgetary constraints, which affect the depth of editorial analysis. Even so, some phrases should stand out as potential obstacles to reader understanding, and those phrases are the compound phrases that beg for the addition or removal of a hyphen and the application of a test of logicality.

September 17, 2012

On Language: The Fallacy of Not Splitting the Infinitive

Filed under: On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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Rules of grammar are good and important. They are good because they act as a guide; they are important because they provide us a way to communicate with each other so that we understand what each participant to a conversation is trying to convey.

The flipside is that grammar rules are also bad. They allow a “noted and respected” language commentator to “definitively” determine (or should it be “to determine ‘definitively'”?) what is and is not acceptable grammar. To some authors, editors, and grammarians, the rules are rigid and unyielding. Cite the rule and follow it — or else! Alas, the rules are really like clothing — fashionable today, unfashionable tomorrow.

This is such a tale — a tale of the bad side of the “rules” of grammar; the dark side, if you will. This is the tale of splitting the infinitive!

We all know modern English’s most famous split infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Granted, that is not the entire sentence or paragraph (which was: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”) as spoken by William Shatner at the beginning of virtually all of the original Star Trek television series, yet it is the phrase to which most of us turn when we want to justify splitting infinitives.

We need not rely on that quote to justify splitting infinitives. In fact, it is those who oppose ever splitting infinitives, or who believe it can be done in exceptional circumstances only, such as in the above quote, who have the tougher road to travel.

English has been a language of split infinitives since at least the early 1300s. For hundreds of years, no complaint was heard, not a grammarian rose in opposition, until the mid to late 1800s. Suddenly, English needed to be raised from its common roots to the heights of perceived linguistic nobility. After all, England and English were conquering the world — the sun never set on the British Empire — and what good was it to be a conqueror if one’s language was barbaric. Okay, I admit that I really don’t know that this is the reason, but it is as good a tale as any, because otherwise there really is little reason for the sudden change in what is and is not kosher grammar.

The change did come about, however, as grammarians began to identify English with what they considered the epitome of language: Latin. Latin was a “pure” language, especially compared to English. If there ever was a born bastard, its name is English. Unlike Latin, which was reluctant to adopt and incorporate other languages, English had no pretensions of nobility or pure blood; English was (and is) a working language that will adopt and incorporate words from anywhere. It is malleable. Unlike Latin, which was stiff and which is now dead, English is flexible and living. Like how it is said in Russian? No problem, English will make it its own. We use vodka, for example, as if it was always an English word. English is an aberration; just ask the French Academy of Language (L’Académie française), which strives to preserve a “pure” French language.

The prohibition against splitting infinitives came about in the late 1800s as grammarians increasingly tried to equate English with one of its many forebears — Latin. Grammarians tried to apply Latin’s rules of construction to English, causing consternation for generations of school children. The application of Latin construction rules to a language as unstructured as English was (and is) problematic at best, impossible at worst. But fashion is fashion and if one wants to be king of one’s niche in the world, one must be fashionable.

Consequently, once the rule against splitting infinitives gained some traction, many of the leading grammarians jumped on the bandwagon. One’s reputation as a grammarian was at stake and fashion leads by the nose.

Unfortunately for the grammarians, the mass of English speakers and writers are resilient and reluctant to give up what sounds good — and what conveys the proper message — and so although we often cite the rule against splitting infinitives, we give it the honor it deserves by ignoring it. As Bryan Garner writes (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 767): “Although few armchair grammarians seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.” I would go a step farther and say that split infinitives are proper unless they might cause a miscommunication.

This is an important symbolic issue. Too many editors and writers are adamant that one never splits an infinitive. (There is also the problem of recognizing when an infinitive is being split, but that is a tale for another day.) These editors and writers are correct — if they are writing in Latin. If they are writing in English, infinitives are more often split than not, and correctly so. English does not adopt the grammar rules of French or German simply because it has incorporated words from those languages in its lexicon. Similarly, it does not — and should not — be hamstrung by construction rules of a dead language, especially in light of how many non-Latin-origin words make up the living, flexible potpourri language we call English.

A good author and a good, professional editor will be guided by the fundamental question of grammar: Does the construction facilitate understanding or misunderstanding? Professional editors need to think of split infinitives in much the same light as they should think about commas: to use Lynne Truss’ example, is it “eats, shoots, and leaves,” or “eats shoots and leaves,” or “eats, shoots and leaves,” or “eats shoots, and leaves”?

We need to boldly go where English has been before and accept split infinitives as the norm.

September 5, 2012

The Business of Editing: Whom or Who?

Filed under: Business of Editing,On Language,On Words,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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Sometimes language usage can be very difficult. This is especially true when we rely on our ears. If a construction doesn’t sound right when spoken, we often assume it cannot be right when written. This is the problem of whom and whowhom often sounds incorrect when it is correct.

Because the growth and modernization of language rarely follows the written-oral (aural) trajectory and nearly always follows the oral (aural)-written trajectory, word usage comes and goes based on the latter trajectory. This has been recognized for years, as evidenced by Grant White’s, an 18th century grammarian, pronouncement in 1870 predicting the death of whom. In his great treatise on the American language , The American Language (1936), H.L. Mencken wrote that “Whom is fast vanishing from Standard American.” The predictions of death have been ongoing, yet whom remains a part of the lexicon.

One problem with whom is that it sounds stilted. A more fundamental problem is that so many people do not understand when to use whom and when to use who.

Who is the subject of a verb (“It was Jon who put out the fire”) and the complement of a linking verb (“They know who started the fire”), whereas whom is the object of a verb (“Whom did you speak with?”) or a preposition (“She is the person with whom we need to speak”).

Yet when I look at the foregoing description, I do not find that my understanding of when to use who and when to use whom is any easier to implement. The subject versus object distinction is helpful but not always clear.

Perhaps a better method for determining which is correct when is what I call the substitution principle, which is found in The Gregg Reference Manual (10th ed., 2005 by William Sabin). According to Gregg (¶1061 c and d),

Use who whenever he, she, they, I, or we could be substituted in the who clause.

Use whom whenever him, her, them, me, or us could be substituted as the object of the verb or as the object of a preposition in the whom clause.

The substitution principle makes the choice easier. Using examples from Gregg, here is how it works, beginning with who:

Who booked our conference?
Who shall I say is calling?
Who did they say was chosen?

The substitutes for the foregoing who examples are, respectively:

He booked our conference.
I shall say he is calling.
They did say she was chosen.

Now let’s look at whom:

Whom did you see today?
To whom were you talking?
Whom did you say you wanted to see?

The substitutes for the foregoing whom examples are, respectively:

You did see her today.
You were talking to him.
You did say you wanted to see her.

The substitution principle seems to work fairly well. Yet it does not avoid the problem of whom sounding stilted and wrong. And because it sounds stilted and wrong, it is likely that it will not be properly used. Perhaps it shouldn’t be used at all.

Perhaps we should rewrite sentences that demand a whom or at least those that make us wonder if it should be whom rather than who. How many of us react positively to “Whom are you going to endorse in the next election?” Whether read or spoken, it comes across as stilted. We are more likely to write and say, “Who is your candidate in the next election?” or even “Who are you going to endorse in the next election?” because it reads and sounds more natural to our aural sense.

The question neither asked nor addressed so far is this: Does it matter if we use who in place of whom? My thinking is that it does not matter because we will write and speak the who sentence in a form that aurally sounds natural and correct, and thus no one will question the use of who and wonder if it should have been whom. Having said that, the reality is that, as with most things in the English language, everything depends on context.

The failure to get who and whom correct in fiction is of less concern than in nonfiction. Yet even in nonfiction, unlike other words, the misuse of who and whom is rarely, if ever, misleading or a cause of miscommunication. To my way of thinking, that is the key to language usage: If there is no miscommunication, then the ultimate goal has been met; if there is a chance of miscommunication, then correction is necessary.

For most of us, it will be the rare sentence that will cause us to pause and remark, “I wonder if this should have been whom and not who.” Should such a case arise (i.e., one where we pause and wonder), we should rewrite the sentence or apply the substitution test and make the correction. In the absence of that  “aha” moment, I think we should simply let the matter go because it is not causing any miscommunication or stumbling.

Yes, there is a grammatically correct usage for who and whom; but the purpose of grammar is to ensure understanding. Automatic application of grammar rules for the sake of applying them does not further grammar’s goal in this case. Flexibility has been the cornerstone of English grammar over the course of time.

What do you think?

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