Category Archives: editing

The medicalese looking-glass

I’ll be giving a webinar in two weeks for Copyediting.com on translating medical writing into normal English for ordinary people. I’ve written a blog post for them on one of the most significant features of medicalese: it makes people disappear.

Medical Writing: Looking in the Glass

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Walk away from this sentence

A colleague called my attention to the following sentence in the article “Trudeau gives his definition of ‘national interest’: Chris Hall”:

Why is Justin Trudeau investing so much in a single pipeline that his officials met on Friday in Toronto with Kinder Morgan executives, who issued the threat to abandon the project while the prime minister was travelling to a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident, and who can still walk away from it on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

If you’re left reeling and trying to figure out if it’s saying the hockey players killed in the bus accident can still walk away from it, you’re not alone. And yet the sentence is perfectly grammatical and makes sense – once you take it apart and set the pieces on the table. Which is not to say it should have been published as it was.

Let’s start by making it a fun exercise in field-stripping a sentence. Continue reading

There is to be no overthinking and no false agreement

A colleague asked me about a grammatical judgement someone had questioned her on: a sentence of the type “There is to be no swinging the legs back, no leaning forward, no pushing down on the feet.” Surely it should be “There are to be…” said the person, because there are three things named. My colleague knew well that it’s is – if you use your native-speaker reflex, that’s the choice you’ll make unless you second-guess yourself – but there’s always the matter of explaining why.

Well, here’s a quick analysis of why. It has to do with no and the number it negates. Have a look at some sentences that most native speakers would find idiomatic (they all work without the to be as well):

“There are to be no flowers.” → negating plural

“There is to be no gardener.” → negating singular countable

“There is to be no water.” → negating mass object, which is treated as singular because it’s not plural (singular is the default in English and plural is the “marked” option)

“There is to be no watering the flowers.” → negating gerund representation of action, which is inflectionally the same as a mass object because it’s not plural

“There is to be no water and no wine.” → negating mass and mass, which is still mass and thus still singular (absence of mass is absence of mass; nothing plus nothing is still nothing)

“There is to be no watering the flowers and no drinking the wine.” → as in the previous one, singular because unmarked (equivalent to mass objects – no specification of plural number)

“There is to be no gardener and no bartender.” → distributively negating non-plural objects; compare “There are to be no gardener and no bartender” or “There are no gardener and no bartender,” which may sound not quite right

“There are to be no flowers and no water.” → may seem weird because it’s conflicting in number

“There is to be no water and no flowers.” → also weird, but possibly more acceptable because we default to the singular on existential predicates (why we often say “There’s flowers on the table” when formally it’s “There are flowers on the table”)

So negation of a mass object is a mass negation, and as such takes the singular, and negation of multiple gerunds is also by default singular because it doesn’t specify plural and because in any case it would get the distributive singular. It only gets plural if it is specified to plural (“There are to be no swingings back of the legs”).

The “There are to be…” thought is clearly an example of overthinking. It’s false agreement, because although there are multiple noun phrases, the agreement is with not the quantity of noun phrases but the quantity signified by them. A native speaker’s ear will normally by reflex give the singular, but we override that reflex if we overthink. It’s like thinking too hard about the muscles used in standing up: swinging the legs back, leaning forward, pushing down on the feet… you may end up stuck in your chair until you stop overanalyzing it.

If you’re interested on more on there is versus there are, by the way, I’ve covered the topic a couple of times, once on this site in “There’s a couple of things about this…” and once for The Week in “There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you” (their title!).

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.

Does verbing impact the language?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly.

A favourite crank for language cranks to crank is the demon of verbing. It wrecks our language, they protest! They target such usages as impacted and referenced in business-speak and medalled in broadcasting. While liberal-minded linguists may see these words as just more of the odd flowers that bloom in the spring (and spring up throughout the year, for that matter), the grumblers want to weed them out.

Just recently, for instance, the Guardian gave column space to one Jonathan Bouquet, who fumes at such conversions and would like to bin them all. He welcomes loanwords, he protests, but “there are some constructions that still grate”: impacted and reference, for two, and “Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use ‘headquarter’ as a verb.” He especially dreads “the fullest flowering of such manglings” during the Olympics, with medal and podium used as verbs.

I honestly can’t tell whether Mr. Bouquet sincerely believes what he writes, or whether he’s taking the, uh, mickey. Although his position is extreme, there are many who hold the same views. But it’s not really the movement of words from one class to another that nettles them – it is the movement of people from one class into another. They dislike the words because they dislike the self-important upstarts who use them: barbarous posers putting on airs and commandeering the language.

I state this with confidence because when they air their grievances they nearly always characterize the sources of these usages peevishly, and because they inevitably use – without comment, without even noticing – words that are the product of exactly the same process: verbs that were nouns first, nouns that were verbs first, adjectives that were nouns first, and so on. They accept and use the fruits of conversion, except when someone they don’t fancy uses a word that looks new to them.

Do I overstate my case? Consider verbs Mr. Bouquet used gladly: grate, flower, mangle. If I look at the rest of his brief rant, I see also – used ingenuously – the verb monitor and the noun import. But take a look at the rest of what I’ve written here. How many words can you count that are regularly used as multiple classes of word? Let’s see: crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look… Look, whenever you scan a book (or book a scan), you’re sure to spy some verbing. English would not be English without it.

And if you’re fine with all those but not with impact, reference, medal, or podium as verbs, why is that? Is it because those latter four could be rephrased using existing words? Consider how many of the words you’re fine with could be paraphrased reasonably well. This is English. We are the ancient spice shop of languages. We have far more words than we need – but we can use them all to good effect. When we take dislikes to words, it’s almost always related to our ideas of the people who use them.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a word you don’t like. But it’s best to be clear on why you don’t like it.

Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.

A macaronic feather in our cap

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

English is gloriously macaronic.

I don’t mean that it’s like a big bowl of elbow noodles, not exactly. But I also don’t mean that it’s like a macaron – well, maybe I do, but that’s not the word means. Macaronic, linguistically, refers to something that’s a mixture of languages. Macaronic poetry, for instance, may switch from English to Latin – some well-known Christmas carols do this (anything containing the words in excelsis, for starts). More broadly, macaronic refers to something that’s a jumble of things. Macaronic architecture, for instance, is exemplified by the heedless stylistic promiscuity of the McMansion style. English is macaronic: it’s made up of an almost hyperreal mixture of words from different languages. And it’s full of macaronic words, too.

A macaronic word is one that combines parts from multiple languages. The word hyperreal, for instance, uses hyper, which we took from Greek, and real, which comes from Latin (via French). And, fittingly, McMansion mixes Gaelic and Latin sources. This may seem like mixing Lego and Meccano – inadvisable or at least somehow improper. But we do it all the time, and not just with the usual classical parts. In fact, any new term that enters common usage has a pretty good chance of being an assemblage of pieces every bit as cosmopolitan as a modern city. To illustrate, let’s look at a few entries added in 2017 to Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

  • froyo: from frozen, an old Germanic word, and yogurt, taken from Turkish
  • Internet of Things: Internet is Latin inter plus Germanic net, and of and Things are also Germanic
  • ransomware: ransom, by way of French from Latin redemptio, plus ware, an old Germanic word
  • pregame: Latin pre plus Germanic game
  • photobomb: Greek photo ‘light’ plus bomb, which comes from French bombe, which comes from Spanish bomba, which comes from Latin bombus, which refers to a buzzing or booming noise and is also the source of boom
  • airball: air, ultimately from Latin by way of French, plus ball, Germanic
  • EpiPen: the Epi is in this instance short for epinephrine but, either way, is a prefix taken from Greek; Pen traces back to Latin penna, ‘feather’
  • weak sauce: From weak, which is Old Norse in origin, and sauce, which comes from French, tracing ultimately to Latin salsus ‘salted’ (which is also the source of salad)
  • alt-right: from alternate, which comes from Latin, and right, which is Germanic (so much for their “purity”)

Macaroni? The effects are more like the sandwiching of cream between meringues in a macaron. And as with our words, so with our sentences. Nearly every sentence in this article liberally mixes Germanic and Romance (Latin/French) words, plus some Greek (sometimes by way of Latin) and occasionally something else too. I think it’s delicious.