An American Editor

September 19, 2016

On Language: The Art and the Science

by Daniel Sosnoski

The science of editing is mainly concerned with technical rules and procedures, things you can apply with recourse to established rules and style dictates, the rules of formal grammar, and orderly checks that bring documents into consistency with themselves. The art comes into play when you need to apply judgment or opt to break the rules when doing so results in a better read.

The theme of this essay comes from a class I took in teaching English as a second language, in which the instructor asked, “Do you think teaching English is an art or a science?” The answer of course was, “A bit of both.” I’ve found this to be true in the craft of editing as well.

How much of each quality one brings to the task is an individual matter, but there are instances where you see each play out. For example, if you are concerned about which preposition to use with “different” (from, than, to), that is a widely commented subject addressed by virtually every style guide — you can look it up. Any question about style and usage that can be addressed this way lies on the “science” side of the equation.

About That Science

Editing by pure instinct is conceivable, but the job ultimately requires both talent and study. You might work with a mentor, research grammar and style problems online, and read books about editing. If you want formal training, there are certificate programs like the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, and Copyediting.com offers courses and webinars on editing. If you’re an editor or want to become one, it’s a given that you have more curiosity about English and writing than most. It’s virtually guaranteed that when you encounter a word you don’t know, you look it up and add it to your vocabulary.

Other parts of the science are the specific skills and habits you acquire through experience. You probably have a long list of words that you know you should always spot check because they give you trouble (for me, hemorrhage, Mediterranean, and ophthalmology are cases in point). You make style sheets as you go along. You develop checklists. These are all learnable skills.

Art Class

If you spend time on social media and watch the conversations writers, editors, and language learners have among one another, you’ll see cases where questions arise that do not have clear-cut answers. These can be matters of comma placement, position of the word “only,” epicene “they,” informal intensifiers, and types of redundancies. Here’s where matters of taste and judgment come to the fore.

Is this fragment allowable? Is a semicolon in this position too fussy for the text? Does this “whom” sound pedantic? No text will solve these problems — your feel for the language and the context will be your guide.

Some people opine that you don’t have to be a good writer to be an editor. Enough respectable editors say this that I can’t dismiss it out of hand, but it is surely an “art” question. In polling some of my colleagues the consensus is that for straight copyediting and proofreading, it may be possible to do the work without strong writing skills. But for developmental, structural, and line editing, the editor will need to know what good writing looks like, be able to spot clunky wording, and smooth over rough passages. Reading widely and often is the ticket.

Meaningful Things

To be sure, some of your best catches come from editorial intuition — something has jumped out at you and you don’t know why. And that is a signal to look closer. As a case in point, I recently had one of those moments. The sentence in question was: “Average HDL was 50–59 mg/dL in men, 40–49 mg/dL in women.” What was wrong here? I knew that “mg/dL” was correct — the usual error you see is “mg/dl.” I looked it up; the figures for men and women had been reversed.

This falls under the practice of asking yourself “what does this mean?” When I supervise junior editors, I often see them correcting mechanical problems in text but they are missing errors in meaning. As a case in point, consider this discussion from a Facebook group about the following:

“On 9 September 2001, two planes full of passengers…”

The commenters who focused on the styling of the date checked the publisher, determined that it was indeed a UK-produced text and were pleased to report back that in British English, this ordering of the date was preferred style and there was thus no error as presented. Focusing too tightly on the mechanics can lead to misses like that.

Because there are so many things to check in a typical manuscript, relying on memory alone is likely to fail you at some point, so style sheets and checklists are helpful tools. With the kind of material I handle, after the general read and line editing, I’ll run through a document several times more looking for specific problems, such as errors in names and publication titles (which are common). Your style or working environment may not allow for this technique, but I’ve found it useful if time and resources allow.

Method, Not Madness

The science of editing requires that you understand grammar at a deep level and can explain clearly and persuasively why you’ve made your edits. If challenged, you should be able to defend your actions with something better than, “It just looked better to me this way.”

One of my colleagues has a visceral dislike of the word “that” and dutifully excises it from sentences like

  1. Be aware of the specific skill-sets that each duty will require.
  2. Recognize that it is very common that these two positions may be filled by one person at a time.

In A, it’s possible to remove the bolded “that.” But the bolded “that” in B follows a verb and seems to have a stronger hold on life. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage calls this problem “wrongly suppressed that” (3rd ed., pg. 808). He notes that when clauses follow certain verbs or nouns, “that” can be an effective signal to the reader preventing a miscue or ambiguity.

For example: “The belief you are unable to recognize your own voice is common,” is a miscue because a conjunctive “that” before “you” would clarify that a relative clause is following, as opposed to “a belief you are following…” And “The officer acknowledges being too fast on the draw is a common mistake” is ambiguous because without a “that” before “being” we can’t be certain if he is referring to himself or others.

But Know the Routine

The use of style sheets and checklists is one way editors obtain consistency and maintain quality in publications. You might have a house style sheet, which applies to all documents, and a project style sheet, developed during the edit of a specific work. Checklists are similar, and they encourage the practice of making multiple passes through a text, each time focusing on one or two particular issues.

Practice and experience will inform your style, which raises the question of how long, exactly, this might take. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours of study is the baseline metric for achieving mastery in most advanced skills (although later he clarified that his meaning is that extensive practice is needed, but not necessarily sufficient, to master a skill). But because the editor is attempting to master English to the greatest extent possible, I would argue that one never “masters” this particular craft. You can only improve your ability over time.

Most editors I know possess a range of reference books, style guides, and books about grammar and usage. If you encounter a problem or find yourself wanting to make a change and you don’t know why, it’s good to have tools on hand that explain the matter. Know where the battle lines are in debates that remain unsettled (such as the epicene “they”). And it’s good to have a mentor or belong to a mastermind group where you can exchange ideas with colleagues in the field.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

May 11, 2016

On Words: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

Last month, Oxford University Press published Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016). This month it’s Chicago University Press’s turn with the publication of Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). I was hesitant to preorder the book for fear that it would not be much more than the grammar section of The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010 — is it getting time for a 17th edition?), but I preordered it anyway, thinking that I couldn’t go too far wrong with only a $30 investment.

I received my copy of the Chicago Guide a few days ago. I have not had time (or inclination) to spend my weekend devouring it from cover to cover, but after looking at the table of contents and at some random selections, this may well be a book that I will spend 30 minutes a day reading until I have gone from cover to cover. The Chicago Guide is not what I expected, but it is what I had hoped for.

There are a lot of grammar books available and a lot of sharply focused books on specific items (one of my favorites is June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. [2014, Ten Speed Press]), but there aren’t many, if any, that are comprehensive and accessible. The Chicago Guide certainly is accessible and comprehensive.

The book is divided into five major parts and within each major part, numerous subparts. For example:

I. The Traditional Parts of Speech
♦♦♦♦Nouns
Traditional Classifications
6 Nouns generally

13 Mass nouns
Properties of Nouns
14 Generally

18 Person

The last numbered subsubsubsection is 558, which should give you an idea of just how much the Chicago Guide covers. Additional major parts are as follows:

II. Syntax
III. Word Formation
IV. Word Usage
V. Punctuation

Because of the way the book is designed, if you have a question about a specific item — for example, how to use a colon — you can go directly to the table of contents, find part “V. Punctuation,” locate the subtopic “The Colon,” and select from among several topics the appropriate topic for your inquiry, such as “Using Colons: 486 Without capitalizing the following matter needlessly.”

Do you remember sentence diagramming? It has been many years since I last diagrammed a sentence, but I certainly remember spending hours learning to diagram in high school English. You can refresh your knowledge and skills using the Chicago Guide, which has a subsection dedicated to diagramming.

The diagramming section is followed by a subsection on “Transformational Grammar,” which Garner defines in this way:

“…a descriptive approach that does not provide normative rules but instead seeks to derive and explain the rules of a language by showing how native speakers generate sentences. It is based on a theory first proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957.” (¶365, Chicago Guide)

Garner goes on to explain how to use the approach, which I find fascinating, as this is not something I learned in school.

One of the annoying things about many grammar books comes down to this: when the books discuss a part of speech such as adverbs and give sentences as examples, the sentences have little to do with the discussion going on and rarely identify the part of speech under discussion; instead, they often list the appropriate words separately. I have never considered it a good instructional method, and now, with the Chicago Guide in hand, I am certain it is not a good method. The Chicago Guide’s method is wholly different and much more welcome to me. Instead of discussing adverbs and then listing a few sentence examples, the Chicago Guide highlights the adverbs as they appear in the discussion (see figure below), which is, I think, a more intuitive way to learn to identify adverbs — or any other part of speech.

Illustration of Identifying Part of Speech Under Discussion

Part of Speech Under Discussion

The Chicago Guide also has another excellent feature — two indexes: a word index and a general index. The word index is handy if you have a question about a specific word (e.g., “afflict, 284, 330”). The general index appears to be comprehensive, but I am not certain how much use it will get, considering the detail of the table of contents.

From the little amount of time I have spent with the Chicago Guide, it is clear to me that this is a great companion to Garner’s usage guide. Even though I do not always agree with Garner’s advice, I do think that if you edit American English, both Garner’s Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation should be within reach.

Will you be adding one or both of these books to your editorial library?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 20, 2016

On Language: Garner’s Modern English Usage 4th Edition

Bryan Garner has published a new edition of his American English-focused usage, grammar, and style guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition. I received my copy two days ago. It follows the same format as the third edition but is approximately 200 pages longer.

I find it interesting that he calls it the “Fourth Edition” when the third edition was titled Garner’s Modern American Usage, and the first and second editions had titles that differed from any previous or subsequent edition. I’d be interested in Garner’s explanation.

I have on preorder Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. I was unable to preview it, so I am hoping it is significantly more than what appears in The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition. It is due to be published on April 5.

Regardless, if you edit documents in American English, Garner is considered the leading authority on questions of grammar, usage, and style. The new Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition is a must-have reference for questions regarding American English.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 16, 2016

Articles Worth Reading: Don’t P@nic

Filed under: Articles Worth Reading — americaneditor @ 2:52 am
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A new feature of The Economist magazine is a series on language usage. The first article, “Don’t P@nic” by Johnson (Johnson is the “name” being given the columnist whose true name is not divulged; presumably it is after Samuel Johnson), is about punctuation and how it has been unstable over the ages. If future articles are like this, the series should provide fascinating insights into language.

Don’t P@nic

Enjoy the article; I certainly did.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 24, 2014

The Practical Editor: Working the Real World

Today’s column by Erin Brenner marks the first essay in a new monthly series, “The Practical Editor.” In this series, Erin will address real-world editorial issues and the balance needed between real-world demands and what could (would) be if all the stars were aligned in the editor’s favor. Please welcome Erin as a new columnist for An American Editor.

________________

Working the Real World

by Erin Brenner

There’s nothing like honing a well-written manuscript until it would make the angels weep for its beauty, grace, and clarity. Helping create a work of art thrills and satisfies me. Having a hand in producing something like this from George Eliot’s Middlemarch would be an honor:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!”

Too bad that I and most of my colleagues work in the real world.

Few manuscripts are the next Middlemarch, few authors a modern George Eliot. Certainly, we copyeditors could weave an author’s words until they became something glorious, but we run up against real limits: in raw materials to work with, in time to do the work, in money to be paid for the work.

Of course we want to do it all. Of course we want to turn that doggie daycare website into Literature! Why else would we have become copyeditors? Literary geniuses are rare, though. Much of the editing we do is the down-and-dirty variety on manuscripts that will be read tomorrow and wrapped around fish the day after.

True, there’s more text being published than ever before, even discounting all the casual emails, Facebook postings, and so on. That’s more opportunities for copyeditors. But because of that increase, readers are absorbing material more quickly, too. They don’t always notice the niceties. It’s get the message and move on.

Most of the time.

Then there are our dream projects: projects where the client wants the Cadillac service. They want you to bleed over every word, to make the manuscript sing—and they’re willing to pay for it and give you the time to do it.

Copyeditors need to know what the manuscript at hand calls for. What are the author’s and publisher’s goals? However beautiful Eliot’s prose is, it doesn’t sell soap.

What is the audience’s expectations of the manuscript? However much Eliot makes you feel, she doesn’t teach you how to perform open-heart surgery.

The practical copyeditor keeps the author, publisher, and audience in mind while editing, flexing well-trained editing muscles to find that unique balance between good writing and getting the job done for the manuscript at hand.

In this column, I’ll explore practical editing. It’s not enough to know the rules. You need to know how to apply them and why you would apply them differently in various situations. When would allowing vogue words be acceptable? When would you follow an author’s awkward dictate, such as “don’t split infinitives”?

Copyediting is a muscle. Having the power to do the heaviest lifting is useful, but being able to control how much power you use at any time is better. And knowing when to apply that power, and when not to, is invaluable. It’s the difference between failing and succeeding in our business.

Part of that control comes from understanding the difference between usage rules and style guidelines, so I’ll examine some common misunderstandings, such as the idea that all redundancies are bad and that certain phrases, like “don’t use reason why,” shouldn’t be used. I’ll also look at why it’s OK to use notional agreement, singular they, and hopefully as a sentence adverb.

I’ll provide lessons on structuring your editing for the real world — the one with doggie daycares and deadlines. The Copyeditor’s Typographic Oath will be a great map to guide us, as will the ideas of zombie rules and dog-whistle edits. I’ll offer triage lists, a method for judging the acceptability of neologisms, and online resources to inform your editing.

We’ll also talk about practical approaches to running an editing business and marketing yourself, such as structuring your business to meet your needs, balancing work and play, and learning to say no. We’ll discuss using social media as part of your marketing plan and why it’s important to do more than social media.

I’ll even debate some of Rich Adin’s ideas and expand on others. Can you really not teach copyediting? Is there really no such thing as light, medium, and heavy copyedits? Perhaps I’m biased on these points because I teach in a copyediting program. But I know how I struggled in my early days and how the training helped me. I believe you can teach copyediting, though not everyone can learn it.

I invite you to send me your topic requests as well. What would you like me to write about? Email me!

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?

February 5, 2010

On Words: Bellum

The American use of bellum, the Latin word for war, is interesting. In American history, the antebellum and postbellum periods are the pre- and post-Civil War, respectively. Neither word is associated with any other war, just the Civil War.

Also interesting is that bellum doesn’t have its own entry in either Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) or the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.); the entries are either antebellum or postbellum.

I’ve been word sleuthing, trying to discover definitively why Americans associate bellum only with the ante and post Civil War time frames; why not, for example, ante- and post-Vietnam War? My guess is that newspapers and magazines of the post-Civil War era used the phrases and they became associated with those eras.

In 1867, the Fredericksburg News (Fredericksburg, VA) ran a headline “Attention, Ante Bellum Debtors to the News.” In 1878, the North American Review wrote: “To go back to Ante-war money, Ante-war wages, and ante-war prices, might be tolerable if, at the same time we could go back to ante-war freedom from debt and ante-war lightness of national taxation.” Southern Magazine (1874) wrote of Atlanta: “It looks so little like a post-bellum town.”

Although bellum simply means war and antebellum and postbellum can be used to describe and pre- and post-war period, American usage of these terms appears to be confined to the pre- and post-Civil War periods because of the impact the Civil War had on both American history and American psyche. Limiting words to specific time frames gives structure to the words.

Using a Latin substitute, bellum, for an English word, war, probably would be rejected by many Americans. The Middle English origins of war (werre) indicate a long rejection of bellum for everyday discourse (imagine hearing, “We’re off to bellum!” — it doesn’t strike a very war-like chord — or “Bellum! Bellum! Bellum!”). But antebellum and postbellum, as descriptors of a 30-year period on either side of the Civil War, strikes a better sounding chord, especially when joined with south.

If someone has a better idea or more information on why and how antebellum and postbellum became associated with 1830-1861 and 1866-1890 eras of American history, let me know.

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