Monthly Archives: August 2008

let comma heads, as it were, prevail

A colleague mentioned another colleague’s having found a sentence with sixteen commas in it – “what may have been a record.” Well, who can pass up a challenge like that? Continue reading

a convincing – or persuasive – argument?

An email sent around to members of the Editors’ Association of Canada enjoined members to “Convince [a fellow] editor to become a member of EAC,” which sparked a debate among members as to whether “convince” could – or should – be used there rather than “persuade.” It was pointed out that usage guides note that some people find “convince someone to do something” objectionable, but it was also pointed out that the distinction was unfamiliar even to some EAC members. This provoked a response that ignorance of the law is no defense. Which provoked a response from me on the nature of laws of language: Continue reading

the long and short of English vowels

A colleague mentioned an exercise she was editing in which adult ESL students are asked to sort words according to whether the vowel sound is short or long. She asked, “Where did this terminology come from, anyway? And is there any other way of effectively describing this sound-spelling relationship?” Continue reading

Jack Lyon is right too

I’m told that Jack Lyon of Editorium discerns a semantic difference between, for instance, “I like ice cream too” and “I like ice cream, too.” Although I don’t know that I would set it down as a hard and fast rule, I do find that it works for me as for him: for me, the comma in this case does reflect a difference in intonation and sense. Consider these two sentences: Continue reading

editor James Harbeck on titles and job descriptions before names

Titles and job descriptions before names are compound modifiers. Here’s an extract from an email I sent internally a while ago on this topic:

When there is a nonrestrictive modifier (set off by a comma or commas), the sentence has to be syntactically coherent without it. News media often make the mistake of confusing nonrestrictive modifiers with noun heads preceded by attributive nouns. Here’s an example: “The article was written by noted pharmacist, Trish Rawn.” This is not proper. Continue reading

going all the way with statistics

I just happened across an excellent illustration of why you need to go all the way through statistics to the hard numbers rather than stopping at initial impressions. This is in a presentation on newborn screening for a specific disorder. Check out these numbers:

Sensitivity
(probability of correctly identified patient): 100.00%

Specificity
(probability that healthy baby has normal result): 99.94%

False Positive Rate: 0.06%

Looks great, right? No false negatives, and only 0.06% false positives. So if you have a baby who tests positive, what are the odds that baby actually has the condition? Continue reading

on editing versus linguistics

In one of his always good salvos against prescriptivism on Language Log, Arnold Zwicky happened to mention me (see Recency). In apparent reference to an editorial policy I had mentioned having against “X times X-er” statements (e.g., 5 times larger, 8 times smaller), as well as to comments by others who were opposed to the usage, he responded, “Yet I’ve never stopped asking, ‘Why don’t you understand the clear meaning of what people are saying?’”

The following was my response, which I think is worth setting forth as a statement of the different pragmatics governing editing and linguistics: Continue reading