An American Editor

April 24, 2013

On Words: Thinking About About

I have been editing book and journal manuscripts for nearly 30 years and over the course of those years, I have noticed that certain word uses were and remain popular among authors. For example, authors usually write “over 30 years of age” rather than “older than 30 years of age.”

But the use (misuse) of about bothers me more than the use (misuse) of any other word.

It isn’t so bad in fiction. Fiction doesn’t require the precision that nonfiction requires. We expect as readers flights of fancy from fiction writers, but with nonfiction, we expect a precise, clearly communicated, and accurate message. Which is why about in nonfiction bothers me.

Consider this example: “About 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” First, why approximate when it is just as easy to write, “John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963”? If a reader reads the original sentence in 2017, 50 years ago would place the assassination in 1967, clearly wrong.

Second, what does about really mean? Nearly? Around? Approximately? On the verge of? Regardless of how you define about, it lacks precision because it leaves a reader to define what is meant, which is just the opposite of what should be true of writing with the intent to communicate. If the sentence is “About the sides of the square,” then the meaning of about is precise if around all sides is meant. But what if that is not what is meant? If the sentence is, “I am about to go for a walk,” again, about is precise if what is meant is that I am on the verge of going for a walk.

Clearly, context can often provide an accurate meaning, but generally there is no accurate, laser-like precise meaning that can be supplied by a reader when about is associated with a number. Which also raises the question: If you know enough to write “about 50 years ago” or “about 100 miles,” why do you not know enough to write “51 years ago” or “103 miles”?

The imprecision of about cannot be sloughed off as acceptable colloquial English because when precision should be provided, there is no acceptable alternative to being precise. There are lots of reasons for being precise. Few writings expire after 30 days; an author who has taken the time and made the effort to write a book expects it to be read for years to come. Consequently, the author should expect that what about means today it will not mean next year, which means that today’s semicorrect information will be next year’s incorrect information.

And when it comes to measures, there is no excuse for not being precise, except, perhaps, in the case of pi, when 3.14 is acceptable imprecision. If we say a study had “about 314 participants,” why can’t we say the study had “314 participants” or whatever number of participants actually participated? Would we want our doctor to tell us to “take about 2 tablets” or would we want to know precisely how many tablets of the medicine we should take?

I find it interesting that the leading word maven, Bryan Garner, ignores the imprecision of about. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has a different view than Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009). MW notes that about can be redundant when used with numbers (e.g., the estimate is about $150). More importantly, MW notes that “the use of about with round numbers is extremely common, and is for the obvious purpose of indicating that the number is not exact.” (p. 4) Which is precisely the problem.

To write in a novel, “he walked about 50 feet before coming to a halt,” cannot cause harm; to write in a how-to book, “cut each board about 25 inches,” could cause a significant problem when it is important that each board be 24.5 inches. On the other hand, if the length that the character walked is an important clue in a mystery, then about could be the difference between solving and not solving the mystery.

Because I generally consider the use of about as “lazy” writing, I usually query an author’s use of about. I ask if a precise number is available and suggest that if one is available, that it be used in place of the approximation that about implies. I point out to the author how meaning can change with the passage of time (in the instance when about is paired with time measures), and that it should be the author’s expectation that his book will be referenced years from now. If about is paired with a quantity measure, such as number of pills to take or the length of an object, I try to give an example of how a reader could draw the wrong conclusion or, using the author’s words, cause some harm.

In the end, the question comes down to why the author chose imprecision over precision. There are times when imprecision is a necessary element of the story being told, but I think an author has to be able to justify that imprecision. The balance should always be tilting toward precision of communication until there is justification for tilting that balance toward imprecision.

The matter, as always, boils down to communication of message. If the role of the editor is to help the author communicate a clear and precise message to the reader, a message that cannot be misunderstood by the reader, then the editor is obligated to query the use of about when the context clearly indicates that about is being used to indicate an approximation.

I know that it may appear as if this is just an editor being nit-picky, but the choice of words has implications. It is the editor’s job to help the author understand what the implications are of the word choices made and provide an opportunity for the author to make alternative choices that may better express the message that the author wants the reader to receive. It is diplomacy on the local level. I want my authors to avoid the mishaps that seem to befall politicians regularly.

As an editor, do you query about when used as an approximation? Is this an instance of nit-picking? As an author, do you think about the message being sent when you write about? Do you want your editor to ask about your word choices?

September 3, 2012

Choosing Words — Carefully

The advantage writing has over speech is that writing gives the author time to rethink what he or she has written. With speech, there is just that fleeting moment before the words form to think about what is about to pass the lips.

A recent gaffe by Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was a stark reminder of the importance of word choice. Although I will repeat his gaffe in a moment, I do not want to discuss the rightness or wrongness of what he said; rather, I want to focus on choosing words carefully and why it is important for authors to think carefully about their writing, something which too few seem to do.

Todd Akin was questioned about his views on abortion, a very hot topic in American politics, and he said: “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” so the woman cannot become pregnant (emphasis supplied). Politicians seem to be adept at providing editorial fodder.

This is a classic example of the importance of word choice and applying the test of correctness. The test is the anti clause, that is: What is an illegitimate rape? This faux pas by Akin also demonstrates why it is important to consider the appropriateness of a particular word choice. And I’m not referring to the political consequences; instead, I mean the communication-miscommunication conundrum.

Many of us have read at least one of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was one of the great masters of language. Virtually every word was chosen with extreme care because each word could direct one to a clue or misdirect one away from a clue. Sherlock Holmes was a master detective who could see what everyone else missed, but Conan Doyle had to convey what Holmes saw in a manner that would allow the reader to solve the mystery along with Holmes or be confounded and then praise Holmes’ superior acuity when he lays out for the reader all the “obvious” clues. The point is that Conan Doyle had to consider a word and what I call its anti version (i.e., the antiword) to be sure that the word conveyed only the meaning (or obfuscation) that Conan Doyle intended.

I suspect that for Conan Doyle the word and antiword conflict resolution came quickly and easily. Poets, too, seem to have an innate grasp of this concept as they try to convey much by little. But for many of us, it requires some effort. It is clear when reading many novels that for many authors, a conscious effort is needed to resolve the conflict. It is clear because so many do not seem to ever come to grasp with the problem and even fewer seem to resolve it.

(In essence, antiword is a substitute for opposite [as in legitimate vs. illegitimate] but neither opposite nor antonym is, I think, a broad enough term or concept for this problem. I think, perhaps wrongly, that anti, which does imply opposite and antonym but also implies other characteristics, is a better descriptor. Thus my use of antiword.)

Consider whether something is legitimate or illegitimate, as in the Akin quote. In the quote, the question is less whether something is legitimate than whether it is illegitimate. It is the antiword that throws into question the accuracy of the word chosen. For legitimate to be correct, illegitimate must also be correct. Yet illegitimate in the context of the quote is incorrect.

Which brings us to the next step in the analysis: Why is the antiword impossible? Or illogical? Or implausible? Or simply incorrect? In the case of the Akin quote, it is because by definition rape is always illegitimate and therefore the antiword to illegitimate — legitimate — must be incorrect in the sense that there can be no such thing as legitimate rape. (Understand that it is the use of legitimate with rape that presents the problem. Akin could have said “uncoerced sex,” in which case, the antiword coerced is as accurate as its antiword uncoerced and renders a different meaning to the quote.)

I know the argument appears to be circular, but it really isn’t. What it boils down to is that both the word and the antiword must be capable of being correct in the exact same sentence. The Akin quote would more accurately reflect his “claimed” views had he used coerced sex rather than legitimate rape. More importantly, there would have been no miscommunication (which, I know, assumes that there was miscommunication in his original statement).

This is the dilemma that a good writer faces: How does one choose to describe something so as to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author wants? The good writer creates believability when both the word and the antiword can be correct, because the message sent, albeit stealthily, is that “I considered the antiword, but it fails to bring you to where I want you to go, even though it, too, is possible.”

The best storytellers are those who weigh the word and the antiword, even if they do so subconsciously. In fact, I suspect that the better a writer is the more this process takes place subconsciously. But it does take place, which is what matters. That it takes place is what separates the craftsperson-writer from the amateur writer.

The value of the word-antiword process is that it enhances the likelihood that the correct word is chosen and that communication, rather than miscommunication, between author and reader occurs. Anyone can sit at a computer today, pound out a 100,000-word novel, and self-publish it. Very few people can rise to the level of a craft-author, that is, one whose words convey clear, precise meanings and messages. It seems to me that we can see this difference in many forms of writing, including less formal writing such as blogs.

The greater the care that is taken with word choice, the more accurate the communication and the better the writing — a goal to which every author should strive.

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