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 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

How many hours do you spend sitting at your computer for work and pleasure? How many hours are you willing to spend reading an ebook on your work computer? How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

I find these latter two questions to be the ones that haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my computer.

Beginning with the first question, I spend 6 to 8 hours every day (often including weekends) working at my computer. I’m an editor and these days, most editing is done on the computer, not using paper and pen. Included in that time is some time spent on “pleasure” activities, such as bill paying online or finding information on why my cat is retching on the carpet. Important stuff that is not work related and thus must be pleasure related.

So now I’ve spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the 4 walls of my office, staring at my 3 monitors, and reading, for the most part, manuscript that is in need of my editorial skills. Now I want to relax, leave my office behind — especially my computer — and read an ebook for pleasure rather than work. I do not want to continue sitting in my office and reading on a computer screen. Yes, I do own a laptop, so I could move to a more comfortable spot and read on it, but using my laptop is just an invitation to do more work; my laptop is essentially a duplicate of my desktop system except that it is a single-monitor system and portable. I stared at an LCD screen all day; do I really want to do it some more?

Besides, the laptop isn’t exactly lightweight. It is difficult to hold like a book so that I could lie in the hammock and read. Well, truth be told, I can’t really take the laptop outside because I can’t read the screen in the sun. So now my Sony Reader comes into play. Using it is like reading from a paperback. I can hold it easily in 1 or 2 hands and at the easy-to-read angle depending on how I am relaxing. For me, at least, using my Sony rather than my laptop for pleasure reading is a no-brainer. And the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes, just like a printed book.

OK, the first 2 questions are answered: I spend too much time working on my computer screens and, no, I do not want to spend any more time reading for pleasure on those same screens. The idea of pleasure reading is that it be enjoyable, pleasurable, and somewhere other than in my office. That takes us to the third question: How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

If I want something from the latest bestseller list, finding the ebook is easy. For me, I can just go to the Sony eBookstore. The problem is that I rarely read books from the bestseller lists; I want to find new authors whose books are worth reading and reasonably priced. I do not want to pay $12 to $14 for an ebook that I am essentially borrowing.

Consequently, I tend to migrate to places like Fictionwise (which appears to be on its death bed as a result of recent moves by its owner, Barnes & Noble), Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other similar places. But there are so many and there are way too many choices to sort through. I recently timed how much time I spent at Smashwords trying to find a few ebooks for July 4th weekend reading. Truth is that after an 30 minutes, I simply abandoned the quest. Why? Turns out Smashwords is having a great sale this month on some books. But “some” is a big misnomer — there are approximately 800 books being offered just in the category Newest & Longs — that’s 80 “pages” of books to sort through in just this filtered category; if I don’t filter by using Longs, there are 1446 pages, each with 10 ebooks on it!

And I have to read the descriptions of many of the books to make the determination of whether I might be interested. Sometimes I can tell simply by the title or the price (e.g., I’m not interested in 450 Home Business Ideas nor in paying $9.99), but most times I at least have to read the description. So, after a relatively short time I say enough — I no longer am willing to stare at my computer screen.

When I suggested that better filtering was needed (Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers) by ebooksellers, several commenters wrote to praise Amazon’s filtering methods. Alas, however, I do not have a Kindle (and so cannot use an ebook bought from Amazon), so the response was I could get the free Kindle applications that work on my cell phone or PC. Yup, just what I want to do — read an ebook on my cell phone; and I’ve already — I think — dismissed the idea of reading on my computer.

The real answer is for places like Smashwords to become more in tune with customer needs, and, concomitantly, author needs, by offering better filtering. Think about those authors whose books appeared on pages 20 to 80 of the 80 pages I was looking at before the holiday — I never got to their books, so they never had a chance to sell me a copy, because I lost interest long before I ran out of options.

eBookstores have the technology available to offer customers and authors better filtering options. If they want to succeed down the road, they need to implement those options. If anything is going to hurt the indie author, it is the frustration in trying to find his or her book — to find that needle in the haystack of needles.

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