An American Editor

February 16, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Two — The Author Factor

Carolyn Haley

Part One of this essay discusses the baseline of establishing an indie editor’s house style. Part Two expands to discuss examples of why, when, and how to apply house style vis-à-vis author variables.

In the main, my choice to allow, disallow, or discuss a given point is driven by the author’s attitude and writing technique. The majority of my clients care more about their story content than the nuts and bolts of their sentences; they want their manuscripts “cleaned up” in a generic way, and leave it to me to decide what that means.

A handful of my clients, however, care ferociously about the small stuff, and this group divides into two. The first group wants me to follow all the “rules” precisely (without specifying which authority to follow), and the second wants me to follow their rules precisely. The latter are the trickiest authors to work with.

In a recent episode of working with a technically focused author, my sample edit saved us both a lot of trouble. The author’s response to my sample edit made it obvious that our “rules” differed, but, since we liked each other’s personality and attitudes, we had many lively conversations defining scope of work before starting, and I extra-customized his contract to reflect our joint decisions.

My standard procedure, when it comes to spelling, is to follow Merrian-Webster (MW) online unabridged and correct an author’s variant spellings to MW’s main listing of a word. The author I was working with, however, used more variant than standard spellings, so we agreed that as long as MW allowed his spellings at any level of preference, they would stay in his book. This gave him his preferred axe instead of MW’s preferred ax, and the like.

Our agreement also allowed him odd spellings for lingo in his characters’ dialogue, particularly two he was adamant about: looki and pardn’r (as in “Looki here” and “Howdy, pardn’r”). To my surprise, MW contained both these terms, but included no variants matching the author’s spellings. MW had lookee with looky as an option, and allowed pardner as an alternate to partner. Had MW not included these terms, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time searching them out elsewhere to validate (or not) the author’s use, which I didn’t care to do because we were on a tight deadline with a lean budget. Since the author’s meaning was clear with his own spellings, and he was self-publishing his book, I felt no need to challenge him. What mattered to both of us was that his historical facts were accurate, he got to keep the tenor of his story intact, and I was able to provide a clean, consistent manuscript that aligned with generally accepted authorities.

We also had to negotiate some punctuation details. My house style generally follows Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which treats the possessive for singular words ending in s the same way it does singular words ending with any other letter; thus, James’s horse instead of James’ horse. The author, however, flip-flopped between styles, so we discussed this, and he accepted my house preference. That worked fine until we came to Four Feathers’s shirt. I was all set to accommodate the author and drop the second s on this one, creating a single style inconsistency in the book with Four Feathers’ shirt, or else to suggest recasting the sentence to avoid the construction, but then he solved the problem himself by changing the character’s name to Knife Blade.

How Authoritative Are Authorities?

Sometimes my house style disagrees on points where the authorities I consult agree with one another, and I don’t happen to like their choice for fiction. An example is capitalizing God in the exclamation “Oh God!” In most instances, this is an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with deities, and to me, spelling it with a lowercase g is appropriate in the same way terms like godforsaken and goddamn have become accepted in lowercase.

Other times, when I can’t find a majority agreement among the authorities I consult, or the authorities don’t take a stand on a particular subject, I apply my house style. Common examples occur in dialogue, such as all right versus alright, and okay versus OK, ok, O.K., o.k. I prefer all right and okay and correct all manuscripts to those spellings. To date, no client has objected. Similarly, when authorities disagree on abbreviations, such as Ph.D. versus PhD, or U.S. versus US, I go with my preference, which is the version with periods.

Sometimes my core references don’t take a stand on a point, leaving me to choose. This occurred when I searched for a guideline on whether to capitalize endearments and pet names like sweetie, honey, darling, and sugar, which crop up frequently in dialogue. I couldn’t find a guideline on this in half-a-dozen reference works, or in online searches using half-a-dozen search keywords, until I consulted the FAQ section of the online CMoS, which declares: “Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names, but you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule. Please see section 8.39 of the 15th edition. (The issue is not addressed in the 16th.)” There is nothing further in the current edition — the 17th — either.

Ah. That explained why I couldn’t find an answer in one of my core references. At the time, I was using the print copy of CMoS 16 and never thought to go to an older edition. The exercise showed the value of keeping old editions as well as having both the online and print versions of a resource. I wasted time I didn’t need to waste, but did finally get the information I was seeking. It helped me decide that lowercase would be the DocuMania house style for endearments.

Then there are occasions when no reference resource can answer the question. This occurs often in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), where authors make up their own vocabulary. For example, a recent manuscript contained a special author-invented metal, which he spelled xenite, zenite, and xynite on different pages. There was no contextual difference to warrant variations, so all I could do was query which spelling he preferred, then make sure it was used throughout the story. (In case you’re wondering, it was xynite.)

A common occurrence in SF/F where I choose my own solution is when leapt, dreamt, and burnt arise. These -t constructions of past tense, instead of the conventional -ed version, are deemed archaic or obsolete in American English according to my core references, and thus should be corrected. Their persistent appearance in client material, however, gives me pause. Do those authors use -t spellings because their SF/F novels are set in environments, cultures, or worlds modeled after ancient Europe or America (a common scenario in the genre)? Or because the authors were influenced by other novels in the genre that were published in different eras or countries? Or is it merely a coincidence that a batch of SF/F authors who happen to be my clients use different dictionaries than mine, or their word processors’ spellcheckers are set to a different version of English?

It only matters because I edit to first-preference standard, so I have to choose whether to impose my standard on the clients or accommodate their style(s). My choice usually depends on the author and the book. As an example, one of my prolific clients, who is several volumes into both a science fiction and a fantasy series, uses leapt, dreamt, and burnt in all of them. He does so intentionally to achieve a certain tone. Once I understood this, I made sure that all his manuscripts use these spellings. Conversely, he doesn’t give a hoot about hyphenation or commas or other mechanical minutiae, so I correct to my first-preference standard at will for everything else.

(Interesting aside: The same authors who use the -t constructions of past tense usually reverse style when it comes to the past tense of kneel. With that word, first-preference spelling is knelt and second is kneeled, yet the authors prefer kneeled. Go figure.)

Defaults

As an American editor who works predominantly with American authors, I default to American language preferences as expressed by my core reference resources, unless it’s clear from the project that other versions of English (British, Canadian, Australian) are at play. Thus, in American manuscripts, I change grey to gray, colour to color, whilst to while, travelling to traveling, cheque to check, and so forth. I also remove the terminal s on words such as towards, backwards, and upwards, and remove the hyphen on prefixes, such as non-profit, re-engineer, counter-measure, and multi-colored, making them all solid. I call out any exceptions out on the style sheet.

With punctuation, I use the American system of double quotation marks around dialogue instead of single quotation marks (ditto when words appear in scare quotes; for some reason, many of my American clients put dialogue in double quotes, but use single quotation marks when calling out words in scare quotes). I also put commas and periods inside close quotes of either type, and employ the serial comma in series ending with “and” (e.g., red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue). I feel strongly about these practices and only deviate from them if the author expresses a strong preference to the contrary.

When it comes to spellings in transition (words that are still spelled one way in my core references but are transforming through common usage), I let context be my guide. Examples of transition words are electronics-related terminology such as those mentioned in Part One (e-mail to email, Internet to internet, cell phone to cellphone) and the vocabulary of modern institutions (health care to healthcare), along with words like duffel bag (which I’m betting will become duffle bag first-preference spelling in MW within a few years) and Dumpster (a trademark succumbing to genericization like xerox, google, and photoshop).

(Another interesting aside: Genericize hasn’t made it into MW online unabridged yet, but I can find it all over the Internet and hear it in conversation. If I adhere too closely to my core references, then I can claim a word doesn’t exist!)

Mechanical Minutiae

House-style decisions involving italics, dialogue, dashes, and ellipses come up so often that I’ve standardized my practices and keep a checklist on my style sheet template to remind me to address them every time.

Italics

I follow CMoS for italics use in general, which in fiction occurs commonly in media titles of complete works, ship and aircraft names, foreign languages, words as words, letters as letters, sounds, and emphasis. What I encounter most often, though, is silent speech: thoughts, remembered or nonverbalized remarks, dreams, and telepathy, all of which are conventionally italicized. It only gets problematic when telepathic communication goes on for paragraphs or pages. That much italic text is tough on a reader’s eyes, yet nonverbal communication must be set off from the main narrative by some system or other for the reader’s comprehension.

Before desktop word processing, authors only had underscore and all-caps available, later bolding, to indicate what would end up as italics when the book was typeset. Nowadays, if they use those styles for emphasis, they announce themselves to readers as amateurs whose work is not yet ready for submission or publication. I therefore ensure those styles get stripped from the manuscript and replaced with italics, or otherwise set off for clarity.

Direct thoughts can be handled in different ways, such as:

What’s that all about? (no tag; speaker identified by context)

What’s that all about? he wondered.

What’s that all about, he wondered.

What’s that all about? he wondered.

“What’s that all about?” he wondered.

I favor using italics and dropping the tag where possible. The important thing about thoughts is that they must be in first-person voice, regardless of whether the voice of the narrative is in first or third person. If not, then they are considered indirect thoughts and kept in roman (e.g., What was that all about? he wondered).

A recent project challenged my standard italics practice. The main character had long psychic dialogues with an alien entity on another planet light-years away, and we needed a way to make it clear who was “talking.” In these dialogues, the characters were disembodied, so the usual gestures, actions, and expressions that make speakers obvious weren’t available to use. The option of inserting “he said” at changes got intrusive.

After experimenting with different combinations of italics and quotation marks, none of which worked gracefully, I recalled a trick I’d seen in a short story I’d edited the year before, where the author distinguished between an individual character’s thoughts and his psychic dialogue with another character by using European-style quotation marks, guillemets (« »). I ended up putting these around the alien’s communication. They instantly and obviously distinguished his words from the human character’s words, providing a visual break in block italic text while enabling readers to follow the story.

Part Three continues with examples of when and when not to apply house style, and a summary of the benefits of having a house style.

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

February 5, 2018

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

Carolyn Haley

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

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

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

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

Building a House Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deviation Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article

by Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article is usually romanized as al-, but the vowel is sometimes written as e (especially common in Egyptian names) or u. Although it is such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — it often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In this essay, I talk about these elements:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In Part 4, I will discuss these difficulties:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing the article
  • alphabetizing names and words with the article

Assimilating with the Following Letter

Years ago when I joined the staff of a large Islamic website, it did not have a style guide, so I set out to write one in consultation with the heads of several departments. It was not easy because the website had a broad range of intended audiences and levels of formality between departments, and for technical reasons we could not use diacritics (which I felt were inappropriate for most of the audiences anyway). The Arabic definite article was the source of many arguments, which I lost. The books I now work on use the style that I prefer, so I am not constantly cringing as I edit.

The arguments were about what to do with lam, the letter that is usually written as l in English. Half the letters in Arabic are shamsiya letters (“solar” letters) and half are qamariya (“lunar” letters). If lam comes before a solar letter, it is assimilated to the letter following and is known as lam shamsiya (“solar lam”). “The sun” in Arabic, al-shams, is actually pronounced ash-shams. If lam comes before a lunar letter, it is pronounced as usual and is known as lam qamariya (“lunar lam”). “The moon,” al-qamar, is pronounced as it is spelled.

Most scholarly books and trade books ignore the lam shamsiya and do not show assimilation. To my mind, this is best for the average reader, who will perhaps recognize al- as a morpheme but be confused by its variants. The assimilation should be shown when the correct pronunciation is important, such as in transcribing poetry, prayers, or Qur’an. Authors of Islamic books might insist on showing the assimilation in all cases. If you are an author, you should, of course, check the publisher’s guidelines and discuss them with your editor if you have any disagreement. If you are a copyeditor and your author has shown assimilation of lam and the managing editor is OK with it, be sure it is done consistently.

In romanization, the l of the definite article assimilates with the following letters, with or without diacritics: t or th, d or dh, s or sh, z, r, l, n.

Merging the Article

The article is usually romanized as al- in scholarly texts, but individuals may write the vowel differently in their names, and the article may merge with the preceding word. A common Arabic male name consists of Abd (or ʿAbd) [ʿ 02bf] (slave) plus one of the names of God: for example Abd al-Aziz (or ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) [ʿ 02bf, ī 012b] “slave of the Almighty.” An individual with such a name might spell it with Abdal or (more often) Abdul or Abdel as the first part, and the second part might be attached to the first with a hyphen or closed up. Thus, someone named Abd al-Aziz might spell his name Abdal-Aziz, Abdal Aziz, AbdalAziz, Abdalaziz, Abdul Aziz, Abdul-Aziz, AbdulAziz, Abdulaziz, Abd el-Aziz, Abdel Aziz, Abdel-Aziz, AbdelAziz, or Abdelaziz. The name Abdallah (or Abdullah) “slave of Allah” is often spelled as one name.

My experience has been that people with Arabic names who grow up in a country that uses the Latin alphabet are consistent in spelling their names, but people who grow up in a country that uses the Arabic alphabet are often inconsistent in romanizing their names. This can be a problem for researchers — those who publish under multiple spellings will not get all the credit they should, and those who are looking for a particular person have to search multiple spellings.

Your job as an editor is to check that the spelling of an individual’s name is consistent, even if two people with the same Arabic name spell their names differently. A carefully prepared style sheet is essential for this. As I mentioned in Part 1, your task is easier when editing scholarly works that use diacritics (where ʿAbd al-[name] is used for historical names), but, depending on the style guide, names of people from recent centuries may or may not be transcribed using those rules and thus may be variously romanized.

Elliding the Vowel of the Article

In Arabic script, some conjunctions and prepositions are inseparable from the following word, and in most transcription systems these are shown with a hyphen: bi-, wa-, li-, la-, etc. The vowel of the definite article is not pronounced. Whether and how this ellision is shown in transcription varies from one system to another, giving writers and editors one more thing to watch for.

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) gives the following examples in its guidelines: “fī al-ʿirāq wa-miṣr” (in Iraq and Egypt; is not an inseparable prefix in Arabic script) but “fī miṣr wa-l-ʿirāq” (in Egypt and Iraq). However, the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam 3 differentiates between prefixes that keep the alif or delete it in Arabic script, and gives these examples in its Instructions for Authors: “wa-l-kitāb, fī l-masjid, Muḥyī l-Dīn, bi-l-kitāb, but lil-masjid.” Yet another transcription system shows the ellision with an apostrophe: wa-’l-kitāb, fī ’l-masjid. In this case, the author and copyeditor must also ensure that the symbol for hamza (ʾ) is not used where an apostrophe should be.

Part 1 of this series discusses the reasons for various spellings of Arabic names and terms, and Part 2 discusses some other challenges that authors and copyeditors might have. Part 4 will provide more discussion of the definite article.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

July 19, 2011

In Search of the Semicolon

The trend in punctuation seems to be less is more; that is, it is better to have less punctuation than to have more punctuation. The trend began with the comma, but seems to be spreading to other non-sentence-ending punctuation; to-wit, the semicolon.

The semicolon is a time-honored punctuation mark to separate two or more independent clauses that are joined without a coordinating conjunction or by use of a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, thus, and furthermore. The semicolon is also used to separate elements in a series that is long and complex or that has internal punctuation.

The purpose of using the semicolon is to bring clarity to what might otherwise be a confused or misleading sentence.

I recently edited a book in which I made consistent use of the semicolon — only to receive instruction from the client to replace the semicolons with commas. When I asked why, the response was that neither the particular inhouse editor nor the author approves of semicolons and thus they wanted use of semicolons minimized.

What does a professional editor do? The reality is that the professional editor has little choice. He who pays the piper can call the tune! Unfortunately, this attitude toward the semicolon is symptomatic of a very minimalist trend in editing: The author’s choices are sacrosanct unless … (with unless never really being defined so that it can be consistently applied).

With the passing of each day, we move further away from good grammar being a goal to strive for and closer to the Twitter standard of language — short and ungrammatical, isolated statements that convey an imprecise meaning.

Minimizing punctuation is not inherently a nefarious goal. After all, the purposes of punctuation are to interrupt an illogical flow and to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Another purpose is to define the parameters of a written idea. Consequently, the less disruption via punctuation that is necessary, the clearer the statement being made and the better the communication from author to reader.

Yet being ruled by a broad mandate to “minimize the amount of punctuation” is to ignore the fundamental purpose of punctuation and grammar: to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Stated another way: to enhance communication between writer and reader. What good does it do to spend hours creating a message that no one can understand?

I recently read a newspaper article whose headline was “For a full ride to graduate school, a tweet is the ticket.” (The headline differs depending on the source, but the article remains the same.) The University of Iowa was offering a full scholarship, worth about $37,000, to the best tweeter of a 140-character tweet in lieu of a second application essay. I understand that it takes time to read, analyze, and evaluate an essay, but a tweet in lieu of such an essay?

The University of Iowa is not the only institution to offer a tweet scholarship, and this worries me. As an editor I recognize that tweets are intended to be informal quips. I also understand that it takes great skill to condense a 1,000-word article (essay) to its 140-character essence. But to make that condensation something has to give, and what gives is spelling and grammar. I’m not so sure that I want to be medically treated by a doctor whose claim to fame is the he or she is a Twit who successfully condensed his or her life story down to 140 characters. Nor do I feel comfortable in following the business advice of a 140-character Twit. After all, it will be my money on the table, not the Twit’s money.

More important, however, is the message that is being sent about communication skills combined with grammar and spelling skills. Before Twitter, most of us considered grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be essential parts of good communication. Lack of skills in one meant a deficit in the others and incomplete communication at best, miscommunication at worst. That is being turned topsy-turvy as Twittering becomes the established route to success. With Twitter, every character counts, so it is better to write 8 than ate.

This also affects the professional editor because Twitter has no grammar or spelling standards. If the Twitter language becomes the norm and accepted, what we end up with is a free for all with no rules — no punctuation, no grammar construction, no misspelling — because every character counts. If authors and inhouse editors begin to accept this lack of rules as the standard, we will see a decrease in the need for editors and an increase in poorly written material (poorly, that is, in the sense of poorly communicating the author’s message to its audience).

I see the death spiral of the semicolon and comma as the harbinger of chaos to come. It is not that we should flood our work with punctuation but that we should be guided by what is best and necessary to communicate clearly and accurately, not by a desire to participate in the newest minimalist trend.

What do you think?

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?

February 18, 2010

On Words: Alright and All Right

Dictionaries and usage guides are necessary tools for editors. Problems arise, however, when the guides and dictionaries disagree or when they say “yes, but.” Such is the case with alright and all right.

Authors, including such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce, have used alright, but the consensus seems to be that alright is not all right to use — it is nonstandard English.

That alright is considered substandard English is odd considering fusions of all ready to already and all together to altogether are accepted uncritically. But that is one of the mysteries and beauties of English — the lack of rhyme or reason for something to be okay or not. One theory, advanced by the The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, is that already and altogether became single words in the Middle Ages, thus before the arrival of the language critic, whereas alright has been around for little more than 100 years (since near the end of the 19th century-beginning of the 20th century), giving language critics an opportunity to cast aspersions on its use.

Even though the words are not always synonymous, some critics, such as Bryan Garner, ignore the differences. As the American Heritage Guide notes, “The sentence The figures are all right means that the figures are all accurate, that is, perfectly correct, while The figures are alright means that they are satisfactory.…”

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage asks “Is alright all right?” and answers with a qualified yes: First, all right is more commonly used in print. Second, the authors of most handbooks for writers think alright is wrong. And third, alright is more likely to be found in trade journals, magazines, and newspapers than in more literary sources. (Is word snobbery at play here?)

The earliest use of alright in modern usage is by Chaucer in 1385. But once we leave Chaucer, there are no examples of either alright or all right until the late 17th-early 18th centuries when there are examples of all right but with all used as a pronoun, as, for example, in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719): “desir’d him to…keep all right in the Ship.”

The first uses of all right as a fixed phrase appear in the early 19th century, as in Shelly’s (1822) Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (“That was all right, my friend.”) and in Dickens’ (1837) Pickwick Papers (“‘All right, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.”). The first recorded use of alright in modern times was in 1893 in the Durham University Journal.

The controversy over the correctness of alright seems to have begun in the early 20th century. Frank Vizetelly denounced the use of alright in his 1906 book, A Desk Book of Errors in English. In 1924, the Society for Pure English published a symposium on alright by H.W. Fowler of Fowler’s Modern English Usage fame. Fowler considered the word bad spelling and in his 1926 Modern English Usage, he repeated his earlier denunciation of the word. In Fowler’s third edition (R.W. Burchfield, Ed., 1996), the discussion opens with “The use of all right, or inability to see that there is anything wrong with alright, reveals one’s background, upbringing, education, etc., perhaps as much as any word in the language.” The entry concludes, “The sociological divide commands attention.” Basically, Fowler, a word and social snob preferred all right because the hoi polloi prefer alright, an attitude continued by Burchfield. Clearly, a well-reasoned and justifiable position.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Theodore Dreiser repeatedly used alright in his manuscript but H.L. Mencken, his editor, had him change it to all right. It seems to be a battle between writers (alright) and self-proclaimed language experts (all right). Merriam Webster goes on to say that “undoubtedly [alright] would be even more frequent in print than it is if copy editors were less hostile.” (Editors do have some influence!)

According to Bryan Garner, today’s usage guru, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009). Garner labels alright as a stage 2 word, that is, “widely shunned” on his Language-Change Index. Garner also calls alright an “invariably inferior” word, but without saying why it is “invariably inferior.”

I know that my opinion regarding usage isn’t at the level of esteemed, but this seems to me to be much ado about nothing. Using Garner’s own statement that “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” demonstrates the utility of distinguishing between all right and alright, with both being acceptable when appropriately used. If he had written instead, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially alright,” it would be clear what “colloquially alright” means. By using all right, it isn’t clear whether alright is colloquially inaccurate or simply unsatisfactory, although we can guess the former from the tenor of his comments. However, if we accept Garner’s statements that the function of language is to communicate clearly, it seems to me that it is perfectly alright to distinguish between all right and alright solely by intended meaning and not by whether some critic thinks one is a better spelling or form than another. It also seems to me that it is all right to always use alright.

January 28, 2010

Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers

In 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen described the economics of the performing arts. The point of their study was that some sectors of an economy have high labor costs because they tend not to benefit from increased efficiency. Baumol and Bowen illustrated this proposition using a 1787 Mozart string quintet: that quintet required 5 musicians and a set amount of playing time in 1787 and today still requires 5 musicians and the same amount of playing time.

Like Mozart’s quintet, there is a limited amount of efficiency that can be gotten in the editorial process. A 500-page manuscript still needs to be read page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, when edited.

Years ago the reading was done on paper with pencil and editors used a limited number of markings to signify elements of the manuscript, such as a chapter title or a bulleted list. Today, the coding has become more complex and most manuscripts are read on a computer. But editing is still as labor intensive today as it was 25 or 50 or 100 years ago. Perhaps even more labor intensive as editors have assumed responsibilities that they didn’t have back then, such as removing author inserted styling. And some publishers now want editors to use XML codes and advanced, expensive software like InCopy. Editors are now doing much of the work that typesetters did as near ago as the 1980s, in addition to dealing with issues of grammar, spelling, syntax, and organization. (For a discussion of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

Yet, unlike other labor-intensive professions such as nursing, garbage collection, and teaching, wages for editors haven’t grown; instead, they have declined. (Imagine paying a nurse or a teacher today what they were paid in 1995, let alone what they were paid in 1985 or 1975.) In fact, in contrast to what would be expected in the normal course of events, publishers have decided to make editors their sacrificial lambs on the altar of quarterly profits and are now paying rates that are the same as they paid in 1984 or, in some cases, less, while demanding that more work be done in a shorter timeframe.

One book packager (a packager is a company hired by a publisher to handle most or all aspects of the editorial and production phases of publishing a book) recently solicited experienced American editors to do high-quality editing (and wanted a no competition agreement, too!) in the medical field. High-quality medical editing is slow and careful, with editing at a rate of 3 to 5 manuscript pages an hour the norm, especially if the mansucript requires a “heavy” edit. In exchange for the editor’s effort, the packager offered a rate of 80 cents a page, or $2.40 to $4.00 an hour — not even minimum wage let alone a wage commensurate with the skill and knowledge levels required for this kind of editing. Would you want your doctor to rely on such a low-quality book to prescribe your medications?

Not all publishers or packagers pay such a miserly sum, but this packager doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, this packager is surrounded by myriad other packagers and publishers who pay poverty-inducing wages. Such low offers are increasingly being seen by American professional editors.

Who loses when editors are hired at such poverty-inducing rates? The book buyer loses because it means that an unskilled editor will be hired to do a very cursory editing job. When you buy a book that is riddled with errors, an increasingly common occurrence these days, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the publishers who have lost any sense of pride in the quality of their books.

As with any profession, editors deserve a fair wage for their skill and knowledge, with specialized skills deserving higher compensation. Publishers have lost the book buyer’s trust because of high price with low quality. One way to regain buyer’s trust is to raise quality. To raise quality, a publisher needs to hire experienced, skilled editors at a fair rate of compensation.

The hue and cry for quarterly profits doesn’t mean that costs should be contained regardless of what is sacrificed. Rather, it means that publishers must change their business model and become more efficient in those areas where efficiencies can be obtained. Editing is not one of those areas because a lower price for editing does not equate with higher efficiency or quality. Editing is labor intensive — a computer cannot take over an editor’s work. Someday publishers and packagers will realize that false economies are a sure path to extinction.

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