An American Editor

September 11, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

In the land of word resources, one stands above them all: The Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Because once in the OED, always in the OED.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the dictionaries and usage manuals most editors rely upon. Each edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary runs about the same page length and uses about the same size typeface, and is about the same thickness as previous editions. The only way this could occur is if some words got dropped as new words were added.

In olden days, I kept all my “outdated” dictionaries, largely because I liked books and couldn’t bear to part with a book. But after getting estimates to move books across country (several times), I realized that the heavyweights that I no longer ever opened needed to go. And so they did — a move that I regretted once I settled down and knew that any further moves would be local.

“Outdated” dictionaries and word usage books do have a place in the editor’s arsenal. If you are editing a novel that takes place in the 1950s, slang from the 2000s won’t be very helpful. You want to be able to check meaning and usage that is relevant to the period in which the action takes place.

Authors are products of their times. Authors write with the words with which they are familiar, the words they grew up with, that they learned in their schooldays — words that may have been removed from the dictionary to make room for more current words. And just as authors are products of their time, so are editors. We tend to use words the way we were taught to use them, and occasionally learn from an astute editor that the way we used the word is no longer acceptable. (Someone very near and dear to me drives me crazy by constantly saying “cool”. But I do recognize the lexicon era from my much younger days :).)

What brought this to mind was an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “When Good Words Go Bad” by Jen Doll (with a different title online: “How to Edit a Dictionary”). I remember some of the now-gone words, like “ostmark” and “tattletale gray.” Another word/phrase the article mentions is “complement-fixation test,” which I still come across in material I edit.

I have also noted changes in hyphenation of compound words/phrases.

An editor has to be word knowledgeable, but what does an editor do when a word needs to be checked but it isn’t in the dictionary? Today, the easiest path is to search the Internet. I’ve done that, but never have felt comfortable relying on such a search. I’m from the days when the value of a source was measured by the source’s (national or international) reputation. I don’t know an English language editor who wouldn’t agree that the OED is a reliable source or, for American editors, that Bryan Garner’s opinion as to word usage is more valuable than general Internet search results.

Consequently, I find that I am not only saving and using older versions of what I consider to be reputable sources, but that I am buying them when I come across them in bookstores. My path backward in time is a split road — some paths go back decades, some only an edition or two.

One of the most interesting resources I have is H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., revised). I have the original fourth edition along with its several supplements, a multivolume discourse on and exposé of the American language. You can find these books and the supplements at places like AbeBooks.com (e.g., at this link) and other antiquarian book shops. They are not popular and thus are often inexpensive. I recommend buying them if you want to learn about the American language from a person who was a recognized language authority.

Although I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked, the point I’m trying to make is that my outlook about resource books has changed. In my youth, I would never have considered having and using prior editions of dictionaries or usage books. After all, I live today and my language should be of today, or so I thought.

Now that I am an older, wiser, and more experienced editor, I recognize that in the absence of those older resources, not only is language forgotten, but writings can become less meaningful. What bohemian meant in 1930 was not the same as it meant in 1950 or in 1970, and certainly not what it means today, but what it meant in 1930 might make the difference between understanding and not understanding the allusion Sinclair Lewis was making when he used the term in 1931.

I know I have written before about the resources a professional editor has (should have) on hand (see, e.g., Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources and The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf), but what I failed to discuss — perhaps even consciously recognize — is the value of prior editions of major resources in my day-to-day work.

Another interesting aspect is to see how respected resources have changed — “grown” or “matured” — over time, which is visible by comparing editions. When I have time, I’ll pick up the three editions of Bryan Garner’s American usage books and compare an entry. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes they are more obvious, but what they always are is informative.

When I am uncertain about how an author has used a word — my recollection of its meaning being different than the author’s use would indicate — I’ll open a couple of editions of a dictionary and see what changes, if any, have occurred over the years.

What I have discovered is that being able to research through prior editions of a language resource has made me a better editor. It certainly impresses authors when I can give a meaningful comment that traces language usage and explains why the current word may not be the best choice. The corollary, I have also discovered, is that impressed authors ask my clients to be sure to hire me to do the editing on their book.

Do you keep a library of older resources that you have replaced? Do you use them or are they just taking up shelf space? Or are you an editor who relies on the Internet?

October 22, 2012

The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf

One of the things that editors don’t often discuss is what’s on their editorial bookshelves. If someone asks for a recommendation, say for a grammar book, editors chime in with their favorites, but the overall bookshelf, the tomes they rely on in their daily work, are rarely discussed.

Knowing what’s on an editor’s bookshelf is like having a window into the editor’s “soul.” Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit.

I remember hiring a freelance editor years ago and when I received back some edited chapters for a medical project, I was concerned by the spelling errors that remained. I inquired whether the editor used medical spellcheck software as an initial screening tool, and was surprised to learn the editor did not. The editor was an experienced medical editor and had a related medical background before becoming a freelance editor. The editor told me that he/she did not use medical spellcheck software because he/she didn’t trust it and believed his/her background was sufficient and he/she could do much better without it. Alas, the fruits of the editor’s efforts didn’t support that belief.

I know I am limited in what I can require freelance editors I hire to use and own. It is a fine line between freelancer and employee, and it is a line that cannot be crossed without financial penalty. I can recommend but not require. However, I do inquire before hiring.

(Just as having the right resource materials handy is important, so is it important to have the right tools handy. Although I cannot require the freelance editor I hire to own and use EditTools or Editor’s Toolkit Plus, or PerfectIt, or any other piece of software — Microsoft Word being the sole exception — owning and using these tools, and others, would improve the editor’s accuracy, consistency, and efficiency, and increase their effective hourly rate. It seems to me that it is to the freelancer’s own benefit to buy and use these tools.)

Knowing what resources an editor uses other than the Internet gives an insight into the quality of the editing I am likely to receive. It is no guarantee, just an insight. Too many editors, I believe, rely too much on Internet sources, and do so to the exclusion of local resources. I know of editors who do not own a dictionary, for example, because they can use the Internet. I suspect that in another decade or so, online-only resources will be the accepted norm. My problem with it (well, I really have several problems with online-only resources, not least of which is reliability) is that when an editor tells me that they rely on online-only resources, I cannot get a feel for how competent an editor they may be. The Internet is so vast and the quality of the resources so variable, that it doesn’t give me confidence. Consequently, I want to know about local (as opposed to Internet) resources that the editor owns and uses.

It is not that the local resources need to be exhaustive; rather, they should reflect the editor’s sense of professionalism and be geared toward the focus of the editor’s work. For example, if a medical editor tells me that they use only Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, I wonder why they do not also have and use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which is the other leading medical dictionary in the United States. And I also wonder about them when they tell me that they are using Stedman’s 26th edition instead of the current 28th edition, or Dorland’s 31st edition when the current edition is 32. (In my library I have the current editions of both dictionaries as well as the past three — or more — editions. Sometimes it is important to check past usage as well as current usage. And sometimes words get dropped from dictionaries.)

Specialty dictionaries are important but are insufficient by themselves. We deal with languages that are ever-changing and no single dictionary or usage guide is always and forever sufficient. So, I also like to know what primary language resource books the editor uses. I find that I often have to go to more than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that fit the author’s usage but The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition did).

And as the fact of specialty dictionaries implies, the more general dictionaries, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, often lack field-specific terms, or, more importantly, do not accurately reflect what is the standard in a particular field. So additional supplemental dictionaries are important, such as the APA Dictionary of Psychology. And authors love to use popular phrases, which makes resources like the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase & Fable, and thesauruses valuable.

What do you do when faced with a word that you cannot locate? Authors love to “create” a word by combining forms. Do you immediately reject the combination? This is not an unusual occurrence in medical writing (which is why I prefer character count to word count for determing the manuscript page count). Resolution of the problem is not always easy, but I have found Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words, The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary to be invaluable. Also useful, albeit for a different purpose, is Bothamley’s Dictionary of Theories. It provides a capsule way to determine if the author’s use of, for example, “paradoxical cold” or “paralanguage” is appropriate.

Which brings us to the base issues of editing — usage and grammar. I like to know what usage sources an editor owns and uses. It is not enough to make a decision about grammar, an editor must be able to defend it and to be able to defend it, an editor must have some sources to consult. Many editors have a single source; some rely solely on the grammar sections found in various style manuals. But usage changes over time and I think a professional editor has to follow those trends and have the local sources to do so. I, for example, use H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed revised with supplements), Garner’s Modern American Usage (as well as its two predecessor editions), Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Good’s Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as well as several other usage and grammar guides, in addition to the sections on usage and grammar that appear in various editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, and the APA’s Publication Manual.

It is not unusual for me to have several of my resources open on my desk as I compare and contrast the views of each before making a decision. The books I named above are only a small portion of my local resources. As an editor, I believe it is important to also be able to trace the etymology of a word or phrase, so I have numerous etymological books handy.

The point is that a professional editor relies on much more than just a single dictionary and a single style manual. A professional editor has and uses a library of resources because language is constantly changing and because no single source covers it all. I grant that the Internet has made more resources available and accessible, but it is not always easy to determine the reliability and accuracy of online information. Print publications rely on reputations earned over decades. When I hire a freelance editor, I want to know that the editor has and uses resources in which I have faith.

Do you agree? What’s in your professional library?

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 26, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)

As noted in Part 1, one way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their style guide library. The professional knows that to do a good job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library.

In addition to style manuals, a professional editor’s library includes usage books, that is, books that discuss and provide guidance on correct usage of language. For example, my library includes Garner’s Modern American Usage; Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words; The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; H.L. Mencken’s multivolume work The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States; and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary, among other language resources.

We haven’t even gotten to the dictionaries and grammar guides, or the books about language cognition and origins, all of which form a part of a professional editor’s library. The editor’s resource library is an important facet of what distinguishes the professional from the casual editor. Another facet is the professional editor’s skill with and knowledge of these resources.

Authors and publishers who care about the quality of their books care about the professionalism of their editors. They recognize that a professional editor is skilled and knowledgeable and brings something important to the book: the firming of the communication link between the author and the reader.

It is this communication link to which the usage guides are inextricably connected. Usage guides help an editor choose the right word. Is it Arkansan, Arkansawyer, or Arkie? How about aren’t I vs. amn’t I vs. an’t I? Given the choice, which of the following is the superior phrase: catch fire or catch on fire? Or cater-corner vs. catter-corner vs. kitty-corner?

A professional editor considers who is the intended audience for the book. If a book is being written for a local audience, then localisms may be excellent word choices, although not so fine for a national audience. But what about a term that has been broadly heard but little understood?

Recently, I read a news article that used the term mugwump. How many readers understood the term or its origins? A professional editor would look at the context and apply the correct definition. Before the 1880s, mugwump meant an important person, the high-muck-a-muck. In the 1880s, it became transformed to refer to Republicans who supported the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Today it means an independent. Is this important? If you are writing a book whose events take place in 1884, don’t you want your readers to understand what the term meant in 1884, not what it means today or meant in 1801?

So we return to the question of book quality. It is these skills and knowledge that professional editors bring to a manuscript. But publishers are increasingly less interested in those skills and knowledge because their accountants see no financial gain in emphasizing editorial quality. And authors too often believe that their manuscript as given to the publisher is “perfect”; they see no gain in paying for a professional editor, much less any editing at all.

A book’s quality is amalgam of multiple endeavors, not least of which is the author’s original creativity. Equally important, however, is editing by a professional who respects his or her profession enough to invest time and money to continuously acquire the skills, knowledge, and resources that distinguish the professional editor from all other claimants to the editorial mantle. Publishers and authors who fail to recognize that distinction — between professional and nonprofessional editing — embark on the road to mediocre quality at best.

This mediocrity brings with it a backlash from consumers who are unwilling to pay the wanted price, who do not buy future books written by the author, and who give negative reviews. This backlash is increasingly evident in the ebookers’ revolt over pricing and quality in ebooks.

Publishers need to recognize that they cannot continue to pay slave wages and expect professional editing — the two simply do not go hand-in-hand. Professional editing and quality do, however, go hand-in-hand.

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