Category Archives: editing

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; 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.)

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction

In Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize-winning book Hellgoing, one of my editorial colleagues has spotted the following sentence:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

Does that look quite right? Are you not quite sure? It’s the sort of sentence that you might not think much about unless you stop and look at it, but if you do stop and look at it it might start to drive you a little crazy.

So let’s go into this little Hell and take apart this sentence and see how it works.

Core subjects and verbs:

She tried . . . but she wasn’t succeeding.

Tried what?

…tried not to stare…

Not to stare at whom?

…not to stare at Marco…

I’ll abbreviate “She tried not to stare at Marco” as STNSM. It’s syntactically fine, I think we can agree.

Now: when?

STNSM while he spoke…

OK, spoke to whom?

…he spoke to X

where whoever X was, he was speaking to him.

So X was the person he was speaking to. Whoever that was.

Now here is how that plays out in that bit of the sentence. We need a relativizer:

…he spoke to {the person} {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}

What happens is that {the person} is replaced by the whole {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}.

The relativizer is “whoever” or, as the case may be, “whomever”:

…he spoke to {whoever {he was speaking to [him]}}

The “him” at the end moves up and merges with the relativizer, giving it accusative case (i.e., making it the object) (see the bottom of this post for more on this):

…he spoke to {whoever [+him] he was speaking to}

…he spoke to {whomever he was speaking to}

That’s where the confusion happens. The raising and merging into “whomever” is something that can confuse just about anyone until they learn about the underlying movements.

It could have been

…he spoke to the person to whom he was speaking

Then “the person” stays put and it happens this way:

…he spoke to {the person} [relativizer] he was speaking to {him}

The relativizer would become just “whom”, moved up from the end:

…he spoke to {the person} [whom] he was speaking to

But the “to” typically follows it up in this case:

…he spoke to {the person} [to whom] he was speaking

Notice there are two “to”s in both versions.

So let’s look at the whole sentence again and match the parts:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

What are the verbs?

tried … (not) to stare … spoke (to) … was … speaking (to) … wasn’t … succeeding

The conjugated verbs have subjects:

She tried … he spoke … he was … she wasn’t

Let’s add the complements:

She tried not to stare

to stare at Marco

he spoke to whomever

whomever he was speaking to [him]

she wasn’t succeeding

There are also the conjunctions “while” and “but”, and that makes the whole thing.

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

So there are actually no surplus words. Each verb “speaking” requires a “to”: “spoke to” and “was speaking to”. Formal English often frowns on stranding the preposition at the end, but it’s always been an available feature of English; indeed, it requires less syntactic movement. Raising the preposition with its complement is a funny thing to do from a syntactic perspective, and linguists call it “pied piping” because it’s as though the object is a pied piper getting the preposition to come dancing along with it.

Most of that is of course rather complex and more than the average person is inclined to want to know. But editors aren’t average persons, so I have put it here for your enjoyment.

Now, here’s the bit more about the “whoever” becoming “whomever”: The reason “whoever” is “whomever” is because it’s merged with the “him”. The entire relative clause is the object, and the case doesn’t penetrate inside it. Here’s proof:

He looked at whoever was speaking to him.

It would not be correct to say “whomever was speaking to him” because the “was” requires a subject, and that is “whoever.”

As it happens, I talk about how case assignment doesn’t automatically percolate into phrases in my latest article on, “‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’.”

Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts

A company called ePly Online Event Registration has, on its website, a page on common errors of grammar and word choice that people make when creating web forms: “Are You Making These Common Wording Errors on Event Websites and Registration Forms?

It’s such a pity they didn’t get someone who had any expertise on the subject to write it. You see, some of their recommendations are good, but it’s all couched in a muck of ignorance and rubbish. It does no favours to the company – nor, for that matter, to the reputations of those who give grammar advice.

Let’s have a look at what I’m talking about, point by point.

First they tell people not to use insure where they should use ensure. I actually have no factual disagreement with this point; it’s a correction I make all the time. They give an example of correct use: “Ensure you register on time.” This is indeed grammatically correct. However, it’s also a bit stilted. Depending on the tone you want, “Make sure you register on time” would be better; giving the exact time might be even better (e.g., “Make sure to register by 11:59 pm on December 23”).

Next they hop onto the which/that distinction:

“That” refers to the noun in the sentence and gives essential information about the noun. “Which” introduces a qualifier that is non-essential.

Hm. First of all, the restriction of which to nonrestrictive clauses is not a grammatical law; it is a stylistic recommendation and does not have to be followed, even in North America (let alone in Britain). Secondly, their grammatical explanation is no good: “refers to the noun in the sentence” – most sentences have more than one noun; the subordinate clause beginning with that refers to the noun right before it… when it refers to a noun. It can also be the complement of a verb: “I think that you’re wrong.”

Then there’s their use of “essential” and “non-essential.” This is not really a clear way to put it. If I say “My car, which is older than I am, is not yet 50,” it is an essential trait of my car that it is not yet 50, though the “which is” clause is not essential to the sentence structure. The real difference is that the which-clause is nonrestrictive: that is to say, it’s not further specifying which car I’m talking about; I have only one car. Were I to say “My car that is older than I am is not yet 50,” it would imply that I have more than one car, and I am restricting the scope to the one older than I. But it is actually the commas, not the which or that, that make the difference. I could say “My car which is older than I am is not yet 50” and that would in fact be grammatically correct – though against a common North American practice.

They next pick on whether versus if:

“Whether” is not interchangeable with “if.” “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives.

Hmm. I don’t know if that’s true. Which is to say I don’t know whether that’s true. Which is to demonstrate that I actually know it’s not altogether true: although use of if in place of whether is considered less formal, it is possible in many (though not all) places.

One example of where it’s possible is their example. This is their example of correct use: “Indicate if you are attending the dinner.” Yes, that’s right, they seem to be saying that “Indicate whether you are attending the dinner” is incorrect. This is actually gobsmackingly off-base. The formal standard would actually be “Indicate whether you will attend the dinner.” The problem with the if version is not simply its reduced formality – which can be a good thing – but the fact that in some cases it may be misread: “Do X if you will do Y” can be taken as “If you will do Y, do X” and by implication “No need to do X if you are not doing Y” – an unlikely misconstrual in their specific example, but a possible one in some cases.

Next they dive into the less/fewer matter. Now, I’ve covered this in “When an ‘error’ isn’t”; the use of less for countable items dates back a millennium and a half and has been seen even in journals of science and philology. It’s true that if you use less to refer to countables you will provoke the ire of the peevers, and thus you do well to stick with fewer in contexts with any formality. But it’s not the iron-clad rule they make it to be. And what’s really bad is their explanation for it:

“Less” is for hypothetical amounts, whereas “fewer” or “few” refers to a number that is quantifiable.

OK, now I know for sure that this was written by some underpaid drudge with no real knowledge of the subject who looked up some stuff on grammar advice on the web and didn’t really process it well. For the record, less refers to mass objects: things that can’t be counted – be they real or hypothetical. Fewer refers only to countables. (Few is not a comparative and should not even be in that sentence unless we also bring in the non-comparative words for mass objects: little, not much, and a few others.) “A number that is quantifiable” is a head-desk phrase. All numbers are quantifiable. Oh, ePly, would you hire a non-expert to write about any other thing? Perhaps they would. I don’t know. Well, what they have here is rubbish. Browbeating, grammar-peeving rubbish that has some facepalming mistakes in it.

Just to prove further that their author is desperately ignorant in matters of English words and grammar, they move on next to this:

Impactful simply isn’t a word – “The keynote speaker will give an impactful presentation…” is grammatically incorrect. Sorry to take that one away from you.

First: impactful is a word, and has been for a long time. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s not a word, you have no understanding of what is and isn’t a word. Take a linguistics course, for heaven’s sake. One intro course in linguistics and you would stop making all of these dreadful errors.

That includes the error of saying that using a non-word is grammatically incorrect. No, a sentence such as “The vulks spanged the gromple” is not grammatically incorrect, it just uses lexical items for nouns and verb that are not attested in the lexicon and have no agreed sense. On the other hand, “The clowns spanks the dog” is grammatically incorrect because we can see it has an improper conjugation, and “Spanks the dog clown the” is grammatically incorrect because the word order is all wrong.

Next they talk about affect versus effect. This is in fact an important distinction to make. The advice they give is also generally true:

Remember, “affect” is a verb while “effect” is a noun.

However, they should effect one little change there: add a word such as normally or usually after each is. There is a noun affect referring to emotion, but it is uncommon; there is a verb effect, which is a silk-shirt way to say “cause to happen.” Still, this is not as bad as most of their slip-ups.

Next is the it’s/its distinction, also one worth maintaining. The only mistake they make is to say this:

“It’s” refer to a verb, whereas “its” is a possessive.

First, refer is conjugated improperly; it should be refers. Second, refer is not the right word either. It’s doesn’t refer to a verb; it contains a verb – one of two possibles: is and has. They should just say “It’s stands for it is or it has, whereas its is a possessive like his.”

Next they talk about the difference between then and than. They actually pretty much don’t say anything wrong about this. For once.

They follow this, however, with another example of a stylistic recommendation presented as an absolute law:

“Farther” refers to measurable distance, “further” should be used for an abstract length.

This is a distinction you can make but don’t have to. You can talk of going farther in a relationship and further down a road if you want; it’s just more common to do the converse. On the other hand, you can go far but not fur, and you can further an aim but you can’t farther it.

Oh, yes, by the way, their sentence has a comma splice in it. These people who tell you to proofread your forms (in their tips below their grammar advice) haven’t managed to catch a comma splice. Now, many nice people make comma splices – but I would recommend against making one in a screed of grammatical prescriptivism. Or, if you do, hire a proofreader to catch it.

They inveigh next against “misconnecting verbs”:

Wrong: You should try and register before the price goes up. Right: You should try to register before the price goes up.

The “wrong” version is informal – I wouldn’t recommend it in formal businesslike prose. They don’t really explain what’s up (the first is two imperatives presented in a colloquial idiom; the second is an imperative with an infinitive complement – but that’s more technical than most people would understand), but I’ll give them a pass on this one.

They cap off with this injunction:

“Cannot” should always be written as one word. Not “can not.”

In many cases, it’s actually better to write can’t, but that does depend on the formality of the document: many web forms suffer from excessive formality: “Upon completion of the registration process” rather than “When you have finished registering,” for instance. With cannot, though, they’re making too hard a rule again. Consider the distinction between can not do it (“am able not to do it”) and cannot do it (“am not able to do it”).

It’s not that there’s no value in reminding people of some common usage errors and some things that may seem excessively informal. It’s just that it can be done without overstating cases, saying inaccurate things, and making errors of one’s own.

How does one do that? Get an actual expert to write about it. There are many available, often at shamefully low rates.

A walk on the wildcard side

In my experience, most editors – let alone less proficient users of Word – have little to no familiarity with Word’s wild cards and are afraid to try them. This is a pity: It’s like being afraid to learn how to copy and paste instead of retyping every time. Using wildcards is not hard, and it can save you a lot of time.

Do you need to memorize a whole bunch of rules? No. This isn’t a course where you will have a closed-book test at the end. Whenever you can’t think of what to do, the Microsoft Word MVP Site has a lovely resource at . You can just look there and refresh your memory. But I’ll save you a little time and effort with a rundown of the basic principles, followed by some useful examples.

Basic principle 1: Know your superheroes

There are a few symbols that, when you have “Use wildcards” checked under Find and Replace, become something magical and highly powerful:

  • *: The asterisk can represent any number of whatever characters. If you search w*rd you will find word, weird, walked backward, and even phrases such as what! To do 7 isn’t hard – anything that starts with a w and ends with rd and doesn’t have another w or rd in between. Also wrd, because * can stand for nothing at all.
  • ?: The question mark represents one character of any type. Search l??t and you will find lent, last, l33t, etc., but not lit or least.
  • @: The at-sign represents a repeat of the previous character zero or more times. If you search ah@ you will find ah, ahh, ahhh, etc.

Basic principle 2: Be more specific

Much of the time, you don’t actually want to use such high-powered ammunition. You may not be able to specify an exact word – if you could, you probably wouldn’t need wild cards – but you can limit it to a smaller set of characters. There are four tools you need for this:

  • <>: The angle brackets indicate the start and end of a word. So <*> is a word of any length, <?> is a one-letter word, and so on. You don’t have to use them together: ?> will find the last letter of any word.
  • []: Square brackets let you search for any one of a specified set of characters. If you want to find mad, bad, sad, or dad, you can search [bdms]ad. If you want to find a semicolon or colon, use [;:]. If you want any of a range of characters, you can use a hyphen to indicate the range: [0-9] means any numeral; [A-Z] means any capital letter; [a-z] any small letter; [A-z] any letter at all; [0-9A-z] will find any numeral or letter.
  • !: The exclamation mark means “not!” So if you want an occurrence of a letter other than lowercase p or q, for instance, use [!pq]. And if you want to find all words that are not capitalized, you can use <[!A-Z]*>.
  • {}: If you want more than one occurrence of the type of character just specified, you can specify how many using curly brackets. [0-9]{2} will find any two numerals: 29, 47, 68, etc. You can indicate minimum and maximum numbers of occurrences with a comma: [A-Z]{1,3} will find anything with one to three capital letters in a row; [0-9]{2,} will find any set of two or more numerals in a row (no upper limit). To find all capitalized words four or more letters long, use <[A-Z][a-z]{3,}> (if you don’t use the <>, you will also find the Phone in iPhone, for instance).

Basic principle 3: Divide and number

You are very likely to want to break down what you’re searching for into two or more parts, so you can change, move, or remove one part and not another. The way to do this is to use parentheses in your search term and backslash numbers in your replace term.

For instance, let’s say you have 99039 J Wilkins, 85042 K Palmer, etc., and you want it to be Wilkins: 99039, Palmer: 85042, and so on.

So you start with three parts: The number, the initial, and the last name. They are, respectively, [0-9]{5}, [A-Z], and <[A-Z][a-z]{1,}> – plus the spaces, don’t forget that there are spaces between the words. We can use parentheses to divide it into the following parts: ([0-9]{5})( [A-Z] )(<[A-Z][a-z]{1,}>).

We now have parts 1, 2, and 3. And that is how Word will know them – to be precise, as \1, \2, and \3. In your replacement, you are putting the third one first, then a colon and space, then the first one third – in other words, \3: \1. That’s it!

Basic principle number 4: Backslash your way out of conflicts

What if you want to find one of the special characters above as itself? What if you’re looking for parentheses, for instance? Just use a backslash before the character: \( and \) for the parentheses, \@ for the at-sign, and so on.

Now here are three examples of ways wildcard find-and-replaces can make your life easier.

Example 1: Putting en-dashes in number ranges

You want to change hyphens to en-dashes between numbers? You just need to find any number, hyphen, any number, and change it to the same but with a dash in place of a hyphen:

Find: ([0-9])(-)([0-9]) Note that you don’t have to backslash the hyphen – it only has special meaning inside square brackets.

Replace: \1–\3

Be careful, though – if you have phone numbers in your document, you will need to avoid them or change them back.

Example 2: Converting US-style large numbers to metric-style

How about if you need to change numbers such as 4,231 to 4231, but numbers such as 67,853 to 67 853? First change the 5- or 6-digit numbers (because the 4-digit numbers also occur inside the 5- and 6-digit ones):

Find: ([0-9]{2,3})(,)([0-9]{3})

Replace: \1 \3

Then change the four-digit numbers:

Find: ([0-9])(,)([0-9]{3})

Replace: \1\3

But beware: if you have numbers over a million, they will be affected by this, so you’ll have to deal with them first.

Example 3: Formatting titles in a bibliography

Let’s say your bibliography entries are like this:

Garfield TC. The mechanisms of purring. Journal of Feline Biomechanics 23:7 (1998): 12–45.

And you want them to be like this:

Garfield TC. “The mechanisms of purring.” Journal of Feline Biomechanics 23:7 (1998): 12–45.

Because you can’t apply formatting to just part of the result, you need a multi-step process. First add the quotes and some markers for where the italics will start and stop (I’ll use | and §, assuming those are used nowhere else in the text to be dealt with). Turn off the automatic smart quotes – Word may curl them the wrong way.

Find: ([A-Z]. )([A-Z]*.)( )([A-Z]*)( [0-9])

Replace: \1"\2"\3|\4§\5

Then let’s italicize the title:

Find: (|)(*)(§)

Replace: \2 Specify format as italic

Then you need to turn on autocorrect to smart quotes and find and replace all the quotes (find " and replace with " and it will curl them all for you). Et voilà: like magic!

Dashing around

My article this week for is on dashes – the title is rather provocative, but the text is useful:

You’re using that dash wrong

To go with it, I present another poem from my book Songs of Love and Grammar:

Dashing around

My boyfriend is the dashing type.
He writes – whips off – with vim – and hype.
He goes – he comes – cycle completing –
and yet – I feel – he may be cheating.
Last week he sent a note – “Dear N –
I hope – so soon – we join – again!”
But then – missent – another too –
“Dear M—can’t wait—to meet—with you!”
From N – to M—his life’s a whirl!
He’s dashing—yes – from girl to girl!
I think I should have picked a man
with more breath & attention span.
I’ll find & marry someone bland
who’ll come & stay with ampersand.


A colleague today mentioned that her copyediting professor had said the Mazda “Zoom Zoom” slogan was incorrect because zoom implies upward motion, as with a plane or rocket.


I am not happy that someone who is teaching editing would insist on a false restriction such as this. Why do people zoom in on one specialized sense and take it as the whole picture?

Here is why that instructor thought this was a real restriction: in aircraft slang, as of 1917, to quote the Daily Mail (from the OED), “‘Zoom’..describes the action of an aeroplane which, while flying level, is hauled up abruptly and made to climb for a few moments at a dangerously sharp angle.”

So the instructor is right? No, of course not, for two reasons.

First, that is a specialized sense and not the original – the original sense, dating to 1892 at the latest, is, per OED, “To make a continuous low-pitched humming or buzzing sound; to travel or move (as if) with a ‘zooming’ sound; to move at speed, to hurry. Also loosely, to go hastily.”

And second, what matters is not how the word was used in 1917 or 1892; what matters is how the word has come to be used and generally accepted in the most recent decades. Usage determines meaning, and current usage – like much non-specialist usage for the past century – allows zoom to refer to speed more generally, as in the original definition, and certainly to automotive speed.

But oh, oh, oh, some people just have to, have to, have to come up with restrictions on language. They don’t want to see the big picture. In the field of meanings they look and discover an “original” sense or see some “technical” meaning, zoom in on that, and decide that that must be the true sense and all the others are wrong. The etymological fallacy runs rampant. Conversational trump cards. Learn a new rule, feel more superior – or anyway learn a new rule and have new mental furniture to structure your existence. (Many, perhaps most, people actually love rules and restrictions, even if they don’t always adhere to them. As Laurie Anderson sings, “Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it.”)

But isn’t the specialized sense the more accurate sense? They’re specialists, after all!

No, that doesn’t make it more accurate. That makes it more of an exception. Look, in medical speech, indicated means ‘considered the appropriate treatment’ – as in “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are indicated in clinical depression,” which means “drugs such as Prozac are considered appropriate treatment for depression.” But in everyday speech, that’s not what we mean by indicated, and you’re not required to be talking of berrytherapy if you say “He indicated the berries on the table.” So with technical terms generally. This includes biological classifications. The botanical class called berries includes bananas, but in ordinary life bananas are not berries.

I’m put in mind of a guy I knew in university who said that Calgary wasn’t a city because it didn’t have a cathedral. He based that on the idea that in medieval times a city was a city if it had a cathedral. He was, of course, wrong for several reasons: Calgary has a cathedral; we are not in medieval times; the medieval definition of a city that he was calling forth was not the original definition nor in any way a reliable definition, and it certainly is not the current definition. In short, he needed to zoom out. And get with the times and the facts, too.

And then there’s the fellow – a former English teacher, yet – who disputed the semiotic use of the word icon to refer to something that signified by resemblance. An icon, he declared, is an Orthodox religious image, and any other use is an abuse! Ah, dear, dear, dear. The word icon comes from Greek for ‘image’, so if you want to talk about commandeering a word for a specialized sense, it would be the Orthodox usage that does so…

Zoom is a perfectly usable (even if currently somewhat commandeered by Mazda) word in relation to speed, especially engine-driven speed, and it has a nice taste to it. We can ask ourselves why “zoom” specifically. There are similar sound words, too, like va-va-voom and the vroom vroom of an engine. The sound a piston engine makes (and, more particularly, made a century ago) seems best matched with a voiced fricative to start with, but the depth of the roar can call forth the high mid-back vowel [u], and the sustain and echo of it can be represented by [m]. Compare zip – much quicker and less substantial. Compare it with other sounds such as “shing” – that would be a sword being unsheathed, not an engine, no? Perhaps “brrrr”? No, that could be an engine, but one that’s just holding steady. You really do get a sense of something moving rapidly past and into the distance with “zoom.” Even the movement of your mouth, with the tongue moving from front to back while the lips purse and then close, reinforces this.

Oh, and why do we “zoom in” and “zoom out”? There’s that rapid motion again. When camera lenses capable of quickly and smoothly changing focal length came in, the effect of the focal length shift from the viewer’s perspective was experienced – as it still is – as being like rapid motion towards or away from the subject. As zooming towards or away from the subject – into or out of the frame. So there’s another one for the rapid motion sense. Oh, and that’s a technical sense, too. It’s also been around for more than 60 years. So there. Now zoom out again.

Repainting birds

There’s been a discussing among some of my fellow editors in recent days about a word – the word complicitly – seen in a document. Should it be changed? But why? Well, it’s not in the dictionary. (“Which dictionary?” is of course another question.) But it fits in the sentence and there’s no problem understanding it. But it’s not in the dictionary! Maybe we should rewrite the sentence to be safe. Etc.

The is the point where I sigh, roll my eyes, and tell a little story.

A guy painting pictures and feeding the birds in a park sees a bird land near him and come up for some food. He doesn’t normally see birds that look like this one. He looks in his field guide to birds and it’s not in there. There’s one that looks like it but has yellow streaks on its wings. So he paints yellow streaks on the bird’s wings before feeding it. Of course, now the bird is going to have some social and aerodynamic problems, but at least it’s a real bird now.

I trust you see what I’m getting at.

Dictionaries are like field guides. They’re not legislation. They tell you what you can see in the wild, but they’re not always exhaustive, and they lag behind reality. We’re editing. We do what we do to enable and enhance communicative effectiveness. We’re not repainting birds.

any more, anymore

Dear word sommelier: When should I use “any more,” and when should I use “anymore”?

If you’re not Canadian or American, you can pretty much avoid this issue and use any more everywhere. But in Canada and the US, we have a merged form, anymore, that has taken on one specific sense and left the others to the old two-word version.

First let’s start with the parts. They’re good old Germanic parts, not borrowed from anywhere else. They’re so old and basic that they have multiple uses. Any can be an adjective (Do you have any idea?) or a pronoun (I don’t have any), but it can also be an adverb, modifying an adjective, and that’s what it is in any more and anymore. More can be a noun (I want more) or an adjective (I want more food) or an adverb (Could you be more specific?). In any more, it can be any of them; in anymore, it’s an adverb.

There are three general areas of meaning that you can use any more in, and anymore is used for just the last one:

Quantity. I don’t want any more. I want fifty dollars, and not any more than that.

Degree. I don’t like this any more than you do. I couldn’t possibly love you any more [than I already do].

Time. I don’t want you anymore. I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore. Do you do it anymore?

You may notice that the examples all have one important thing in common: they’re all negative phrases or negative-option questions. Actually, you can use any more in a positive phrase: Any more than this and we’re in trouble. But in standard English, anymore is always in a negative phrase or a question with a negative option. Not anymore can be paraphrased as not any longer or as no more or no longer.

Note that I said standard English. There are areas where it’s not so uncommon to hear positive anymore in ordinary speech: Anymore, we hold the parties indoors. We can see that for these speakers it has moved out of its place in a whole limiting phrase and has become a synonym for these days or now: We don’t do that anymore > We don’t do that these days; These days we do this > Anymore, we do this. I am not endorsing this usage for standard written English, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see it more mainstream some decades hence. But you should know that it exists. At least for some speakers, anymore is not a one-valence word anymore.

When you are considering serving this word in a sentence, you should pay attention to the rhythm – it trips quickly, not quite as long as any longer but less staid than no more or no longer. It’s a more common and casual usage, too, and is less likely to be seen in formal documents, where you may see wording using phrases such as in previous years and until recent times and prior to the current situation and so forth. There are really many ways to describe the aspect of time, and some of them take quite a bit of time themselves. Probably the most formal – and obviously poetically referential – alternative to not anymore would be nevermore. To get a sense of the difference, imagine Poe writing, “Quoth the raven, ‘Not anymore.’”

Thanks to my colleagues in the Editors’ Association who brought up this issue and helped me clarify my thinking on it.