Category Archives: editing

What’s English?

This was first published on The Editors’ Weekly.

Here’s a quick quiz. Tell me which of the following are English and which aren’t. For each one, say why it is or isn’t English and, if it’s not English, what it is.

  1. There’s no place to plug your car in in the parkade.
  2. A wha dat dey dem people deh nyam ih smell sweet.
  3. He was found to have contraband in the boot and under the bonnet, so he is in gaol.
  4. Breid is a staple fuid prepared by bakin a daich o floor an watter.
  5. That pom’s running around like a chook with its head cut off.
  6. Biiolojii esa saiens, daa studehs lief, plant a’ anamal.
  7. Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.
  8. I might have the odd poutine, but mostly I don’t pig out.
  9. Tell me, what is one to do yaar? They are like that only.
  10. Ðā ġeseah ðæt wīf ðæt ðæt trēow wæs gōd tō etenne.
  11. If yall are fixin to go, I might could leave early.
  12. One coffee regular. All set?
  13. I damn tired den langgar the car lor. Dun know oreddy lah!

Wasn’t that fun? As you may have guessed, all of the above are versions of English from different places (and in one case a different time). But of course they’re not equally acceptable in all contexts, and some are sometimes treated as different languages now. I’m willing to bet that several of them were more than a little hard to understand, and most of them seemed somehow “wrong” to you. So let’s look at what they are and what they mean.

  1. Albertan: There’s no place to plug in the block heater on your car engine in the parking garage.
  2. Jamaican (patois; from Chat Jamaican by J.J. Thomas): What are those people eating? It smells sweet.
  3. British: He was found to have contraband in the trunk and under the hood, so he is in jail.
  4. Scots (from http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breid): Bread is a staple food prepared by baking a dough of flour and water.
  5. Australian: That British person is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
  6. Pitkern and Norfuk (Pitcairn and Norfolk; descendants of the crew of the Bounty; from http://pih.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biiolojii): Biology is a science that studies life, both plant and animal.
  7. Medical jargon: Viagra® should not be prescribed to people with high blood pressure.
  8. Canadian: I might have the occasional dish of French fries with cheese and gravy, but mostly I don’t eat to excess.
  9. Indian English: Tell me, what can one do, man? They are just like that.
  10. Old English (Anglo-Saxon; from http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/fall.html): Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.
  11. Southern US English: If you [plural] are getting ready to go, I just might be able to leave early.
  12. New England English: One coffee with cream and sugar. Is that everything?
  13. Singlish (Singapore English; from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish): I was really tired, which is why I crashed into the other car. I don’t know any more about it!

There is not one “right” English. English is a language complex. All languages have different levels and tones and different usages for different contexts, but English, due to its spread, has much more variation than many. Within their own systems, all of the above are perfectly grammatical. Obviously, most of them would only be acceptable in a conversational tone directed to a specific audience, but to that audience, they would sound entirely natural.

And that’s the take-home. What sounds natural to you, and what sounds natural to the audience you’re editing for, in the context of your document? Are you sure? The Albertan sentence sounds perfectly normal to me, but there are many Canadians who would scratch their heads at it…

Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?

Iva Cheung has done up a nice, cogent, accurate summary of my presentation at the 2014 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. You can read it at www.ivacheung.com/2014/06/our-changing-language-when-does-wrong-become-right-james-harbeck-eac-conference-2014/.

The PowerPoint I used for the presentation can be downloaded from www.harbeck.ca/James/harbeck_wrong_right.pptx.

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitiveeat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little sis left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

Mind your idioms

Originally published in Active Voice, the national magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English has many quaint and curious phrases, clichés, and idioms, and we quite often see them misconstrued. Ours can be a very unforgiving game. You don’t have free reign to pawn off whatever one-of usages will tie you over, or do just any linguistic slight of hand (or vocal chords). No, you have to tow the line and stick to the straight and narrow, or your straight-laced readers will develop a deep-seeded dislike for you and give you short shift – they will wait with baited breath to see you get your just desserts and be hoisted on your own petard without further adieu, and the value of what you have to say will be a mute point.

Heh heh. Let me put that right:

You don’t have free rein to palm off whatever one-off usages will tide you over, or do just any linguistic sleight of hand (or vocal cords). No, you have to toe the line and stick to the strait and narrow, or your strait-laced readers will develop a deep-seated dislike for you and give you short shrift – they will wait with bated breath to see you get your just deserts and be hoist with your own petard without further ado, and the value of what you have to say will be a moot point.

Of course, that’s all well and good as long as we’re all playing the same game. But when we’re dealing with international audiences, the phrasing we use in hopes of striking a home run with our readers (or even just stealing a base) may seem to them to be not just cricket, and you won’t strike out – you will be dismissed.

We Canadian editors may be a bit smug about our position seemingly straddling the British-American fence. After all, we all know about our/or and re/er and ise/ize, and we may feel that, having mastered aluminium with an i and orientate with the ate and perhaps revise for study, estate agent for real estate agent, and some food terms – rocket (arugula), courgette (zucchini), marrow (summer squash), swede (rutabaga) – we can count on our intuitions with British.

But we run the risk of taking something for an error or typo when it’s really the correct British form. A bit over a decade ago, Orrin Hargraves came out with an excellent guide to British-American differences, Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; let me share with you some of the benefit of that smart volume: If you want to make a home from home in British English, and make a good job of it, don’t take the attitude of the know-all; know when to leave well alone if you want to cater for your readers and get on with them. Knowing your phrasal idioms can make the world of difference and give you a new lease of life – and if you don’t know them, you can rub your readers up the wrong way, and they might have a go at you and want to get shot of you. It will be more than a storm in a teacup; you will end up down at heel.

Which means, first of all, you will not render the above in a Canadian way: do not change it to home away from home, do a good job, know-it-all, leave well enough alone, cater to, get along with, make a world of difference, a new lease on life, rub your readers the wrong way, give you a tongue-lashing, get rid of you, tempest in a teacup, or down at the heels.

The best idea, of course, is to get a native British speaker – or, as occasion demands, an American speaker to add American idioms and weed out Canadianisms: don’t slip up and start talking about writing the odd test in pencil crayon, for instance (“Ohhhh, you mean taking the occasional test using a colored pencil! What was that other weird stuff you said?”). But at the very least, always look twice before crossing the idiom.

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

Go, vocatives! Go invocations!

A reader of Sesquiotica emailed me to ask about which is correct if you’re cheering someone on: “Go, Veronica!” or “Go Veronica!” (If the person isn’t Veronica, substitute the correct name, obviously.)

My answer is that it depends somewhat on context. If I’m addressing Veronica directly, I’d include the comma, as “Go” is a complete imperative (command) by itself and the “Veronica” is a vocative – her name used just to indicate I’m addressing her. If I addressed her and then said “go” it would also have a comma: “Veronica, go!”

If, on the other hand, I’m cheering for her at some event where she can’t necessarily hear me and I’m really not addressing her directly, just invoking her, I might more likely use “Go Veronica!” because in that case “Go” is not really a direct imperative, it’s an expression of support like “Up with Veronica” or “Long live Veronica,” and the “Veronica” is part of the same expression to indicate who I’m cheering for.

A lot of people don’t put a comma in for the first case either, but if you want to be formally correct, add it in.

There are also cases where a comma will help even if it’s an invocation – for instance, if your team are called The Nuts, “Go Nuts!” can mean something different from “Go, Nuts!” And fans of Minnesota’s hockey team may or may not be sensitive to the difference between “Go, Wild!” and “Go Wild!” (I’m inclined to think in this case that the effect would be the same, however.)