An American Editor

February 12, 2014

To Serial or Not to Serial?

One thing I have noticed over the years is that what was once controversial in editing comes back to be controversial again. Like the cycle of life, editorial controversies are never put to permanent rest.

The current resurrected argument is whether or not to use serial commas.

My first thought was “what difference does it make whether serial or nonserial rules the manuscript?” My second thought was “what is the primary task of an editor and how does that task mix with the to-serial-or-not-to-serial question?”

We probably should begin with composition, because that is where this controversy has its origins. The more characters there are in a manuscript, the longer the manuscript. If “unnecessary” characters can be omitted, space will be saved and the cost of production will decline. It might not matter greatly if only one copy is being published, but multiply the savings over thousands of copies and over many manuscripts, and the savings become significant. Welcome to the age of bean counting.

(This attempt to save money is also at the foundation for the notion that there is no space on either side of a dash. But I digress….)

What is the primary reason to have a manuscript edited? I see the primary purpose as clear communication. What is the primary purpose of punctuation? To afford the reader clues as to the message the author intends to convey.

Consider this phrase: pregnant women and children. A professional editor would not let such a phrase stand. Why? Because it is not clear whether both the women and the children are pregnant or just the women. Of course, many arguments can be made as to how pregnant does not modify children, but there only needs to be one argument that it does to make the phrase questionable.

Similarly, as Lynne Truss famously pointed out, a professional editor would not let the phrase “eats shoots and leaves” stand without querying it. Whereas in the “pregnant women and children” instance rewording for clarification is the appropriate path, in the “eats shoots and leaves” conundrum, the correct path is punctuation.

Yet how much punctuation? If the intended meaning is that the actor “eats” some food, then “shoots” another actor and “leaves ” the premises, then serial commas are needed: eats, shoots, and leaves. With the serial commas, there is no mistaking the meaning. But those who oppose serialization would prefer a single comma: eats, shoots and leaves.

How clear is the single comma version? Not at all. There are two vibrant possibilities: the actor “eats” and what the actor is eating is “shoots and leaves”; the actor “eats,” then “shoots” another actor and “leaves” the premises. How is the reader to know which is meant?

Clearly there are a multitude of ways to avoid this situation (e.g., “eats bamboo shoots and leaves”) but the question under consideration is serialization. The premise of the antiserialists is that excessive punctuation interferes with the reading flow, thus minimizing the amount of punctuation enhances the reading experience. Proserialists, on the other hand, see punctuation as necessary to ensure understanding and thus as an enhancer of reading flow because the reader does not have constantly stop and attempt to discern what the author intended.

I admit that I fall in the proserialist camp. I see the role of punctuation as the same as highway signage — I need enough of it so that I do not need to stop in the middle of the highway to think about whether to turn right or left.

Editing is about comprehension, not about saving space. Editing is intended to laser focus on author meaning, not on fulfilling the latest lexical fashion. Serial commas rarely mislead a reader, unlike absence of a serial comma. So what harm comes about by serializing? A professional editor’s goal is to make the reading experience so smooth that the reader absorbs the author’s message without consciously realizing she is doing so.

Sufficient punctuation is one of the tools that brings this about. Insufficient punctuation requires a reader to either stop and attempt to decipher the author’s meaning or to gloss over the author’s point in hopes that either the point was not critical or that it will become clear subsequently. But having a reader battle with insufficient punctuation is not in either the author’s or the reader’s interest.

In the case of “eats, shoots and leaves,” the reader either inadvertently draws the correct conclusion or stops to ponder what is meant. What is the negative to the serial usage, assuming the intended meaning is “eats, shoots, and leaves?” There is none and there rarely is a problem using the serial comma (assuming its use conveys the correct meaning). So why have a rule that insists that the serial comma be avoided whenever possible? Why not make the rule always use the serial comma?

I am convinced that the rationale for the avoidance rule has nothing to do with communication, understanding, readability, or any of the other metrics that a professional editor should be concerned with when editing. I believe that it is an accountant’s rule: Omitting the “excess” punctuation lowers the financial outlay for a manuscript. The accountant’s rule does not address any of the metrics that might cause a manuscript to succeed or fail in the marketplace; instead, it laser focuses on cost.

Yet it strikes me that the cost of misunderstanding, of missing the author’s message is far greater than the financial cost of serializing. If readers have to struggle to understand an author, reviews and recommendations are likely to be negative and thus decrease sales. Ease of reading and understanding cannot be divorced from the decision to serialize or not serialize. The professional editor does not work with absolute rules. For the professional editor, all rules bow to the one rule regarding comprehension, and all rules (except that of comprehension) are flexible.

The difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor lies in the rigidity with which the editor applies the “rules” laid out by style manuals and third parties. The more professional the editor, the more the editor determines for herself what the appropriate rules are that govern a particular project, even if it means explaining to a client why a client’s “rule” is being ignored.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 6, 2013

On Language: Are There Rules?

A colleague wrote on another forum: “Yet these [rules of grammar] are elements of correct use of language (and key in quality editing/writing).”

What is correct use of language is arbitrary. “You and I” can be as correct as “you and me” — it just depends on the dominant grammar trend at the time of usage. Grammar “rules” are simply conventions that some self-appointed group of “authorities” has determined reflect current values in expression, which values many current writers and editors accept and agree with. If that were not true, then the rules today would be identical to the rules of 500 years ago and would be immutable, yet we know that grammar rules are always in a state of flux.

I am of the opinion that there is only one true grammar rule: The manner in which something is spoken or written must be such that the listener or reader can make no mistake about the speaker/writer’s intent and meaning. Aside from that, all so-called rules of grammar are here-today-gone-tomorrow rules of consensus.

Consider style manuals and usage manuals. If rules were universal and permanent, there would be no need for more than a single style manual, usage guide, or even dictionary, as there could be no difference and no room for interpretation. Yet we have many of each, and each has differences from the others.

Consider this example: “early rising people” versus “early-rising people.” Which is grammatically correct depends on which style manual, grammar book, and usage manual one looks at and applies. Or, better yet, consider the serial comma — now abandoned in British and Canadian English, except for when it would enhance clarity, and under assault in American English. Yet for decades, using the serial comma was the rule (and one that I think should be kept because its use improves clarity).

Correct use of language is neither a black-and-white proposition nor written in stone. Rather, it is more like silly putty.

The sibling proposition is that “to break the rules [of grammar], you must first know the rules.” In a sense, that proposition is true. But with the rules being in a state of  flux, it is difficult to nail them down so that one can know what rule one is breaking. I think that perhaps the rules being broken are less rules of grammar than they are rules of current consensus and spelling.

In discussions with colleagues, I have noted that when the talk gets to grammar, the discussion really becomes one of word choice. Grammar is the structure of sentence, word choice (and its companion spelling) is using the correct word spelled correctly (e.g., taught vs. taut). Yet sentence structure isn’t rigidly defined even though some grammarians would have us believe otherwise.

Sentence structure, like most things in editing, really revolves around understanding, communication, and clarity: Is the sentence written so that a reader can understand it? Does the sentence communicate the message the author wants to communicate or is it communicating a different message, even if only to a few readers? Is the sentence so clear that there is no possibility that a reader will misinterpret the sentence and what is being communicated by the author?

Rules of grammar are intended to promote those three principles without becoming so inflexible that either the meaning or the drama of the sentence is lost. How sterile is “to go boldly” compared to “to boldly go”? Ultimately, the rules of grammar boil down to this question: What is in charge?

If rules are in charge, then there is no room for flexibility; either the rule is met and satisfied or it is ignored and broken (consider, e.g., the “rule” against splitting infinitives). If the rule is ignored and broken, and there is no effective mechanism for enforcing compliance with it, then it is not a rule; at most, it is a suggestion based on past experience that has been created by a self-selected group. When was the last time you nominated and voted for someone to be part of the grammar rule-making board?

Today, we know that the rule against splitting infinitives was a misguided attempt to squeeze American English into a mold into which it could not fit. Yet the attempt lasted for decades. I remember losing points on essays in high school for not adhering to that rule. Not one English teacher questioned the rule or its soundness; every one enforced it by lowering a paper’s grade. Yet, inexorably, the rule met its death because it could not be enforced outside the classroom. Consequently, one must question whether it ever was really a rule with willy-nilly enforcement or just a suggestion.

Today’s rule in opposition to the serial comma is similar to the split-infinitive rule. Is it more deceptive to the reader to have the extra comma than to forgo it? What harm does the inclusion of the comma cause? Even in an economic sense, the cost of the serial comma probably doesn’t amount to even pennies on a print run.

The movement is afoot to minimize punctuation. The trend began in British English, which is where the trend to do away with the apostrophe seems to have also been born and taken root, and has spread. But the rule is not much of rule because it has the clarity exception: If clarity is improved, keep the serial comma.

The importance of this recently surfaced in a discussion I had with a client. My client complained that in a book that was to follow Canadian English, we used the serial comma, and Canadian English does not use the serial comma. As I noted to the client, such a broad statement is wrong. Canadian English would prefer not to use the serial comma, but accepts it where it enhances clarity. So, I asked my client, who decides the issue of clarity? The answer is the editor initially and the reader thereafter. Consequently, if the editor decides to include the serial comma, it is not wrong. “Which,” I asked, “is clearer: eats shoots and leaves or eats, shoots and leaves or eats, shoots, and leaves?”, making reference to Lynne Truss’ excellent book. “The answer,” I wrote, “depends on which is meant and that between the second and third option, the addition of the final comma makes a world of difference in clarity.”

My client, as is the right of clients, was unimpressed and instructed that Canadian English does not approve of the serial comma and, therefore, we were not to use the serial comma. To the client, this was a rule of grammar, and as a rule, not to be violated.

As editors, we fail our clients and public by referring to rules of grammar rather than to grammar suggestions. Today’s “rules” of grammar are simply reflections of today’s language fads. Tomorrow, different rules will come about that abrogate the former rules. Although I have yet to succeed, I continue to try to educate clients that there are no immutable rules of grammar except for the three principles of understanding, communication, and clarity. If those three principles are met, then the rules of grammar have been satisfied and how we structure the text to meet those three principles using grammar suggestions makes the text more conform or less conform to current grammar suggestions.

March 22, 2011

What’s Wrong with this Sentence? The Editor’s Eye

I was reading some fiction recently, when I came across this sentence (and it is the complete sentence as it appeared in the story):

“As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial.”

The sentence brought me to a halt. What is wrong with the sentence? Nothing? Something? I’ll wait for your editorial eye to tell me the answer, and how foolish I was to be stopped by a perfectly good sentence.

(Waiting for time to pass and your editorial eye to grapple with the question and come to a resolution.)

Okay, enough time has passed. Either you are ready to tell me how foolish I am or how magnificent an editor I must be. Which is it?

Grammatically, the sentence is fine. It has everything one could hope for in a succinct bit of prose. The problem, if there is one, lies with Beelzebub and Belial. Beelzebub is a name for the Devil, as is Belial. To the average reader, the sentence reads, “As well ask [the Devil] to rein in [the Devil].” To distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial requires a sophistication that the average reader of the type of fiction in which the sentence is found is unlikely to have. To make the distinction requires some familiarity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work few of us have mastery of, and perhaps knowledge of Late Latin translations of Biblical Hebrew.

A confused reader is likely to turn to a handy dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in which the primary definition of Beelzebub is “The Devil; Satan” and that of Belial is “A personification of wickedness and ungodliness alluded to in the Bible.” It seems to me that the former includes the latter and the latter includes the former; that is, they are one and the same.

But when we get to Paradise Lost, we learn that although both Beelzebub and Belial are evil incarnate, each is a different fallen angel. Milton uses Beelzebub as the name for the fallen angel who is the Devil and Belial as the name of the fallen angel who represents impurity. With Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence becomes clear (or at least clearer); without Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence is muddy. How many of us have Paradise Lost in our hip pocket?

I ask the question because it raises an editorial question. If the book I was reading had been a book about etymology or language or Paradise Lost or any number of nonfiction topics, the sentence should pass without hesitation, assuming there was explanatory context for it or a reader would be expected to know the allusion. But the book was fiction, which means it was addressed to a different audience with a different expected level of literary sophistication. Consequently, the editorial question becomes: Should the editor have flagged this sentence, questioning whether it would be understood by the expected readership?

I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

I grant that with some of the new electronic reading devices learning the difference between Beelzebub and Belial is pretty easy. On my Sony 950, for example, I can double-tap on the names and the Oxford American Dictionary pops up with definitions/explanations. But as quick and easy as that is, doing so interrupts the flow of the story. Alternatively, I can just ignore the sentence and assume it has some deep meaning that is of little relevance to me or the story, but isn’t that accusing the author of wasting my time with irrelevancies? Is that the reputation an author wants to develop? Being a time-waster?

Presumably an author has chosen words carefully to convey a particular meaning. In fiction, an author wants that meaning conveyed immediately, with as little fuss on the reader’s part as is possible. A good author includes in his or her story only those words and phrases that are relevant for conveying the tale the author wants to tell. Consequently, in the fiction I was reading, the sentence, “As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial,” had great importance — it was important to convey in a compact way the difficulty of getting a character to do/not do something. Which means, does it not, that the sentence needs to be understandable so that the meaning is conveyed?

Which brings me back to my original question: What is wrong with this sentence in light of who the expected reader is? Is this the best way to convey the information to be conveyed to the reader? Will using two names that are often identified with the same “thing” be helpful or confusing? What should the professional editor do when faced with this type of sentence?

Although there is no definitive answer to any of the questions, how an editor answers them and what the editor does can speak volumes.

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