An American Editor

April 3, 2013

On Words: Why Sense Matters

We have had discussions before about word choice. In general, we agree that making the proper word choice is important and is a key role played by a professional editor. Yet, we have disagreements about the finer distinctions between words. For example, many editors accept the use of since to mean because or overlook the use of due to.

Consider the following:

    1     the molestation of     2     by the priest, the church established a fund.

Insert into 1, one of the following: Since, Because of, Due to. Insert into 2, one or more of the following: male, female, children, adults. Depending on your choice, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Here are three options:

  1. Since the molestation of the children by the priest, the church established a fund.
  2. Because of the molestation of the females by the priest, the church established a fund.
  3. Due to the molestation of the female children by the priest, the church established a fund.

The sense — and thus the meaning — of each differs from the others.

In option 1, the use of Since gives the sense that time has passed; the molestation occurred some length of time ago and with the passage of that time, the fund was established but that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the time that has passed and the establishment of the fund. In fact, by using Since, it is possible for a reader to miss the key relationship, which is the relationship between the molestations and the establishment of the fund. It is true, however, that if Since is interpreted here as being synonymous with because of, a cause-and-effect relationship is established (as discussed in the next paragraph). The problem is that there are two possible interpretations, one causal and one noncausal; which is intended is a matter of conjecture.

In contrast, option 2’s use of Because of gives the sense that the fund was established as an effect of the causal molestations; that is, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the molestations and the fund establishment. With this option, the question of time passage does not surface; it is not the thrust of the sentence and it is not implied by word choice. In contemporary use, because is not fully synonymous with since, whereas since can be fully synonymous with because. With because of, the reader is not left to wonder what the author means.

Option 3 is the most problematic. What does due to mean in this context? Due to is a chameleon phrase. It has multiple possible meanings. For example, an author may mean, among other possibilities, a consequence of, as a consequence of, a result of, as a result of, because of, caused by, or from. Granted a result of and as a result of are, meaning-wise, fully synonymous, and it can be argued that each of the possible meanings I listed are really just another way of saying the same thing, but sense matters and the sense conveyed by each — at least to my ear — differs.

My problem with these types of choices is that too often sense is ignored because the meaning fits. Yet sense is equally as important. It is like having only a right shoe and expecting both your right foot and left foot to be able to wear it comfortably.

I think this matter of sense is emphasized when we look at the possibilities for filling blank 2: male, female, children, adults. If we fill-in 2 with children, for example, we are including both males and females and excluding adults regardless of gender. Similarly, if we choose males, we are excluding females, but including both children and adults. Our sense is that a certain type of molestation occurred based on the gender and age of the person molested. The words include certain implications, including implications regarding credulity — credulity of the victims and credulity regarding the types of molestation acts performed and whether the victim really was a victim.

Some editors point to the dictionary in support of their emphasizing the correctness of their word choice while discounting sense. The problem with relying on dictionary definitions is that most dictionaries today, certainly the ones we consider authoritative, are descriptive rather than prescriptive. As David Skinner noted in The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012), until the publication of Webster’s Third under the direction of Phillip Gove in the 1960s, dictionaries tended to be prescriptive and thus distinguished between word usage based not only on definition but on sense. The era ushered in by Webster’s Third was, for Americans, the era of the descriptive — how people actually used words, not whether they were used correctly. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary was born as a counterweight to that shift and the first edition, which came out after Webster’s Third, was a hybrid — occasionally prescriptive and occasionally descriptive, which is how it remains today.

The result is that dictionary support is insufficient support. Editors still need to consider the combination of meaning and sense when determining whether a particular word conveys to the reader, clearly and unequivocally, the precise message that the author intends to convey. Suppose the dictionary included the entry h8. Your author writes, “The h8 was tremendous.” Should the reader understand it to mean hate or height? Not only are the words different, but the sense each conveys differs, and the sense that h8 conveys differs even more.

I try to express to the authors with whom I work that words are living things; they expand and contract in both meaning and sense, depending on what surrounds them. Like a puppy in desperate need of training and taming, so words need to be trained and tamed to convey with precision. They cannot be allowed to flounder and cause the reader to either wonder what the message is or to draw the wrong message. That words have been used for centuries without precision matters not to the task of the editor. Much of the looseness of words over the course of time has been because for much of that time words were conveyed by speech, not writing, and speech provides numerous clues to meaning and sense that are absent from writing (do we need a better example than e-mail?). Let us not forget the continuing interpretive problems as regards statements made in the Bible. Because of the lack of precision in word choice, fundamental philosophical disputes have arisen and continue to demand attention. Need we go any further than to ask what was a “day” at the time of creation?

Perhaps over the course of time there was little difference between words like because, since, and due to; perhaps any distinctions are modern-day inventions. But I think there is a distinction of sense that should not be ignored.

What do you think? Is sense as important as definition? Does sense play a larger or smaller role than definition in meaning and word choice?

July 7, 2010

Worth Noting: Words by Tony Judt

As I have mentioned several times over the life of this blog, I am a subscriber to The New York Review of Books. In a recent issue of the NYRB, Tony Judt, an historian, wrote a column titled “Words.” This is a column well-worth reading.

Judt discusses inarticulacy and how the education of the 1950s and early 1960s taught students to speak and write with precision, to be articulate so that others could comprehend what was being communicated. He goes on to lament the “revolution” of the 1970s and subsequent years that lessened the emphasis on articulation and heightened the emphasis on the idea being more important than its expression, and thus a rise in inarticulacy. As Judt, put it:

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom.

Perhaps more alarming is Judt’s analysis of academic writing:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism.

The obscurantism of which Judt complains, I see daily in my work as an editor. How much trouble are we in when our best-educated people are unable to express themselves with clarity — or are unwilling to do so? Leadership is usually top-down, not bottom-up. More importantly, if the best educated are unable to recognize their own obscurantism, how can we expect them to correct (or even identify) obscurantism in others? Or if they can identify it, correct it?

As Judt notes, when words become Humpty Dumptyish (i.e., they have multiple meanings but mean only what I say they mean), the ideas the words express also become Humpty Dumptyish, that is, meaningless, because there is no foundation by which they can be understood globally. When the ideas become Humpty Dumptyish, they become anarchic and chaotic. Perhaps this is the problem in today’s partisan politics — political ideas have no meaning because they have so many meanings. The pomp becomes more important than the circumstance (perhaps a diplomatic-world failing) and the standard becomes that of text fragments.

I recall how unhappy I was when I discovered that my daughter’s high school English teacher (and this was in the early 1990s) had no idea that a sentence was composed of words that undertook important parts of speech, such as noun, verb, adverb, each designed to contribute to a universal understanding of the message. Yet this teacher was responsible for grading my daughter’s grasp of English, as well as teaching my daughter how to grasp English. Sadly, it appears that the situation continues to deteriorate, if some of the books I edit are an indication of the articulateness of the current generation of academic authors.

I have often thought about what it is that can be done to reverse course. I sure would hate to discover that but for inarticulacy war could have been avoided. I also wonder how many mishaps that we are now paying for occurred as a result of President George W. Bush’s inarticulacy. Alas, I do not see an easy road to resolution; rather, I see the problem getting worse. I see it getting worse because of the difficulty in focusing.

I think the problem of inarticulacy is exacerbated by the “need” to multifunction. Few of us use a laser-like focus in our daily lives; we need to handle multiple things simultaneously and so we take a shotgun approach, hoping the “effective” zone of the spread is sufficient. We also reward the ability to multifunction, regardless of how effective the multifunctioning is. The old saying was to handle one problem at a time; today’s saying might better be handle all problems simultaneously and hope for the best.

Reversing the inarticulacy trend is probably impossible because too few people are knowledgable about how to be articulate — and because too many people would resist the necessary steps as being an infringement of their freedoms. Imagine if suddenly every parent was told that for their child to graduate from elementary school to middle school the child had to show proficiency in debating skills. (Of course, the first objection, and rightfully so, would be the teachers can’t show that proficiency so why should my Susan show it?) Part of the problem is the texting mindset. How do you overcome the fragmentary expression culture that it creates?

As articulation decreases and inarticulacy increases, I wonder what will become of our society 50 years from now. Would those of us educated in the 1950s and 1960s be able to communicate effectively in that future? Will the United States become a third-rate country because of dysfunctional communication skills? Will editors have a role in such an anything-goes-writing-milieu?

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