Category Archives: editing


The life of the language maven can be weathering, even withering. When someone asks whether this or that is acceptable, should you be a weathercock, turning with the times? Or a weatherman, predicting the future? Or a bellwether, leading the flock?

Over the weekend, I got the following as a comment from Paula Tohline Calhoun on my tasting of however:

I have a question for you. I have been instructed on more than one occasion that the use of the word “whether” should never be accompanied with “or not.” The reason is that it would be redundant, because the “or not” is implied in the word “whether.” Is this a general rule, and are there exceptions, such as the phrase you used in the article above, “Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.”

My short answer was as follows:

If your goal in writing is always to use as few words as possible, the “or not” is not necessary. However, the minimal use of words is not always the most important goal in writing, and sometimes it’s actually counterproductive. Restatements and emphasis of what is already implied are sometimes quite useful for the flow of the text. Using more words than the most economical phrasing possible is not an error or a grammatical fault, although it can be a flaw – but using too few words can also be a flaw if it makes the prose too choppy or abrupt, or too severe in tone, or insufficiently evocative.

But wait, there’s more. Consider the following quotations (all provided handily by the Oxford English Dictionary):

Whether this be, Or be not, I’le not sweare. —The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Thou shalt remaine here, whether thou wilt or no. —A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no. —Letters, Percy Bysshe Shelley

What matters whether or no I make my way in life. —Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray

And then consider these:

whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s —Bible, King James Version

For Loyalty is still the same, Whether it win or lose the Game. —Hudibras, Samuel Butler

I knew he would act a good part whether he rose or fell. —Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith

That Reason which remains always one and the same, whether it speaks through this or that person. —The Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It implies alternatives, but sometimes the choice is not between opposites but just between a field that has been limited to two: “I’m not sure whether to get the green ones or the red ones.” “It will upset him, but I don’t know whether it will make him angry or sad.” “I really don’t care whether we have steak or fish for dinner, as long as it’s not chicken.” So whether doesn’t always imply a simple yes-or-no choice.

We’ve had the word since forever, of course. And for a long time, one of its available uses was as a pronoun, like which or whichever: “Whether do you want, this or that?” “Whether of the two will it be?” “I don’t care whether of them you choose.” “Pour it into a mug or a cup, whether you have.” It was also sometimes an interrogative particle that would seem superfluous to us now: “Whether does it work better this way or that?” “Whether is it necessary?” But these usages didn’t survive quite to our times, though some lasted into the 1800s. What we have kept is the conjunction that signals a choice between two things. Sometimes those things are both named, and sometimes only one is named and the other is by implication the opposite or the absence of the one.

So we can see that the practice of including the or not with the whether is time honoured and draws on usages where both options must be named. The issue remaining is whether it’s bad to include the or not, and if not, why not. As I have said, it’s not an error. Superfluity often makes for poor writing, but it is not ungrammatical; indeed, sometimes it is a good idea. Consider this well-known passage spoken by Winston Churchill:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

You could certainly tidy that up to this:

We shall fight hard everywhere to defend England without surrendering.

I just don’t think you should, and I will fight you on the pages and on the websites, on Twitter and on Facebook if you do. While I do not wish to foster bombast and prolixity, I do think we should resist at all costs a totalitarian regime of textual concision. Sometimes your text demands that you put in those extra words, whether you think you should.

Or not.

When to Use Bad English

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada “Editing Goes Global” conference in Toronto on June 12, 2015. Headings are PowerPoint slides.

Title slide

As editors, we’re here to make sure the text doesn’t look sloppy or uneducated. We’re expected to uphold standards of good grammar, and – no matter what the text – keep it from using bad English. Right?

Rhett Butler

Frankly, sometimes we shouldn’t give a damn. And, more importantly, sometimes we should give a damn. And a shit. And a colloquialism. And maybe even a grammatical error.

Really? Yes. Our job is to make sure that the English in the document is appropriate, certainly. But there’s a difference between bad English and inappropriate English. English that is too informal is inappropriate in many places, but English that is too formal is inappropriate in many others.

What we want to do is this: Continue reading

An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly,

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

A rant on censorship

A bit over a year ago I went on a Twitter rant about censorship. Then I made an image of the entire text so I had it in one place and tweeted that. Today Daniel Trujillo asked me about it. I found I hadn’t ever posted it here. So I dug it up. Here it is; you may have to click on the link to see the image. Maybe later I’ll convert it to real text rather than an image.

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 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 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 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 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.