Category Archives: editing

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































Kicking ass and taking names is useful sometimes

A colleague was wondering about a construction on the order of “Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together give you a multiple of 9.” Does that sound odd to you? It did to her – she wanted it to be gives, not give. And yet the subject is two things: multiplying … and adding … So shouldn’t it take a plural conjugation, give?

It shouldn’t because it’s one action, multiplying and adding – a compound noun phrase that is nonetheless a single entity because it is a single complex action rather than two separate actions. If it’s two different possible actions – i.e., you can multiply or you can add with equal effect – then it’s plural. Parallel examples:

Kicking ass and taking names is my favourite Saturday evening pastime.

Kissing ass and taking bribes are both ways of getting ahead in business.

It’s similar to how we can say “The hop, step, and jump is the silliest track event,” not “are.”

When in doubt, though, or concerned that some readers may prefer singular while others prefer plural, you can always avoid the issue by using an auxiliary (or, as possible, a past tense), which conjugates the same either way:

Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together will give you a multiple of 9.

In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake

A recent cartoon from Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which is the most intelligent cartoon in existence, has been brought to my attention. You can see it at but, since Munroe gives permission, I’ll reproduce it here for ease of reference:

This interpretation is not just pedantry and not just a turn-off. It’s a callow mistake.

It’s callow because it transgresses standard expectations of interpersonal decency in conversation – if the other person is using a common turn of phrase and you understand what they mean, don’t be a dick about it (or, as I put it in a haiku for the ACES Grammar Day haiku contest, Which do you prefer: / keeping your friends’ grammar right / or keeping your friends?). But it’s also callow because it imposes an inappropriate misreading, the sort of simple-minded overbroad application of a rule that is characteristic of an immature understanding of grammar. The clause in question, you see, only looks like a conditional.

I’m put in mind of an anecdote I recall from the actor Simon Callow. When he was first trying to make it in theatre, he worked in the box office of a theatre. Later on, when he was becoming established as an actor, he was in the cast of a play that happened to be performing in the same theatre. One evening before a performance, one of the box office staff saw him and, thinking he still worked in the box office, asked him to come help with some box office function.

Thinking this if you want to hang out is a conditional is like thinking Simon Callow still works at the box office. It’s the same clause, but it’s been elevated. It’s a sentence adverbial.

In case the term isn’t familiar, a sentence adverbial is a word or phrase that, within the ambit of a verb phrase, could serve to modify the action of the verb, but that is instead applied to the entire sentence to frame it within a discursive context such as the attitude of the speaker or writer towards the utterance. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” uses Frankly to mean ‘I speak to you frankly and say…’; “Among other things, this book explores the concept of silliness” uses Among other things to position the following statement within a larger possible set of observations (‘There are various things this book does; one of them is that…’); “Going forward, we’ll do it this way” uses Going forward to mean ‘I am making a prescription that applies to future instances when I say…’. They do not mean, respectively, that Rhett doesn’t give a damn frankly but he may give one covertly; that the book only explores silliness when the book is among other things; or that we will do it this way only when we are progressing ahead. And In case the term isn’t familiar doesn’t mean the preceding applies only in the case where the term is unfamiliar. It means I’m saying it in anticipation of the possibility of unfamiliarity.

Because sentence adverbials use words and phrases that can be used to different effect at lower levels, they are like candy to immature minds who are eager to pounce on other people’s “errors” to show their superior knowledge. But, as with so many rigid “rules” propounded by people who claim to care about grammar but really care mainly about demonstrating superiority, the “pedantic” interpretation is founded on a simple-minded misunderstanding. We have no difficulty understanding the sentences as they are intended – the pedants don’t even have the excuse that the box-office employee (who evidently didn’t read the programmes) had. The most they can argue is that the sentences are ambiguous. That can be something worth fixing, but it’s not a grammatical error. And they’re not always ambiguous, either. We usually understand them with no risk of confusion.

To add another analogy: When I was in New Zealand, I rented two different cars on separate occasions. In New Zealand they drive on the left, and so some of the driver’s controls are also the reverse of what I’m used to. With the first car, I managed to get used to the turn signal being on the opposite side from what I expected. Then when I rented the next car it was a model with the turn signal on the North American side. So I had to get used to it again and not keep turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn left or right. But in all of that, I did not say that the controls were wrong and I was right and stick to my preferred sides. I did not insist on turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn off the highway – or on signaling a turn when I wanted to wipe the windshield – because those were the correct sides for the controls to be on. I did what worked. When my expectations did not correspond with the results, I corrected my perspective. Which is what those who care about understanding language must do if they do not wish to be wrong.

So this pedantry is both a turn-off and a callow error.

Which, of course, Randall Munroe knows. He also knows that linguistics isn’t his area of expertise, and I’m not going to hold it against him for missing the analysis. He’s not the only one.

More honoured in the breach or the observance?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

It is tempting to say that getting classical quotations right is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But if we did, we’d be guilty too. In the original, Hamlet is telling Horatio about the tradition of drinking sprees in the Danish court; he says it makes Danes look bad to other nations. So when he says

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance

he doesn’t mean they don’t do it; he means they shouldn’t do it. Honour’d here means ‘honourable’, not ‘complied with’.

Sometimes our errors come from shifts in culture. In a time when fires were the main source of heat, for instance, a fire that burnt bright but didn’t give off much heat was not much use. So when Polonius advises Ophelia to watch out for the ardor of young men (such as Hamlet), he uses this metaphor:

I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

These days, we use light as a positive metaphor in conversation, and heat more often as a negative one, so people often say a topic generates “more heat than light” – quite the reversal from the original.

We may look on such misinterpretations and say “Now is the winter of our discontent” with cultural knowledge. But we would be stopping short; here’s the whole opening sentence of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

So he’s saying that their unhappy period is now made happy by the new king. (Admittedly, the man who is saying this is not happy about the state of affairs.)

Sometimes we just get a word wrong, perhaps because another word seems to go better with it (and another author, perhaps). We play our cats to sleep and say “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” – and think it’s from Shakespeare – when the original is from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride, and it’s “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Now, why not use a popular variation when appropriate, right? But we’re editors, and part of our job is to keep writers from looking bad, which means we have to take a do-or-die approach to quotations. Or, um, well… Tennyson’s original in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is as follows:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Do and die? Perhaps we would do better to quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just as long as we get the wording right.

Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t:

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.

At sixes and sevens about nine and 10

A colleague raised a common issue: she had chosen to use Canadian Press style for a website with health information, and it left her with stuff such as “at ages six to nine, you will use 10–20% more.” What to do about those mixed and inconsistent numbers when they show up together like that?

I’ll tell you what: Don’t follow Canadian Press style. Or any other style like it, when it comes to numbers.

In many ways, CP style is appropriate only for newspapers. For instance, usages such as “$9-million” are not standard English but have a justification in the narrow columns of a newspaper. CP style rules for spelling out numbers, however, are not appropriate for newspapers. Nor for most other nonfiction, in fact.

Long ago, when teaching test prep for the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and SAT, I realized that numerals communicate more directly, immediately, and effectively to the reader, stay better in the mind, and leap off the page much more readily. In any work that is being referred to for facts, numerals are more effective for all magnitudes, not just for 10 and higher. And in a context that is as space-sensitive as a newspaper, the only reasons for preferring spelled-out numbers are prissiness and dogged traditionalism. That’s it. Adhering to their rules produces not only the example above but even worse things, rubbish such as “He is facing an eight- to 20-year sentence” and “seven in 10 people.” There is nothing about this is that is helpful to the reader; it is distracting and impedes comprehension and retention.

And how about starting sentences with numerals? The standard argument is that the reader somehow won’t know you’re starting a sentence. Why? Numerals stand out as much as capital letters. There’s a space after the period – a suitably large one in a modern proportional font, too – so no one will mistake it for a decimal.

Look, do you really prefer this:

Nineteen-eighty-four was a bad year. Eight out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from six to 20 years.

to this:

1984 was a bad year. 7 out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Really. Which leaps off the page and into your brain more readily? Which sticks in your mind better? Quick, tell me (try it without looking first, then just at a glance): How many out of 10 members in the second example? And in the first? And what was the jail time range in the first? And in the second?

If you’re communicating factual information where the numbers matter, use numerals. Don’t worry, people will still remember how to spell them even if you don’t spell them out. You are not contributing to the decline of literacy. You are facilitating the communication of information.

Will some readers complain if you don’t spell out the low numbers? Yes – the kind of reader who is more interested in making sure that everyone follows their personal set of rules than in the actual communication being effected. These are not readers to take any account of; almost nobody even likes them. Most readers just want the facts.

The only numeral that is problematic, in fact, is 1, and that’s because it looks like l and I, especially in some type faces. For my own house style at the company where I work, I have set the rule to be that we use numerals for all numbers in all contexts except where 1 appears by itself, in which case we spell it out for clarity. We make occasional exceptions with idiomatic phrases, where the numeral would look odd (no need to be at 6s and 7s about that). Otherwise, it’s all numerals, and that makes it much more effective and usable.

You will note I said “most other nonfiction.” For works that are more narrative in style, such as many biographies and most fiction, numerals may stick out quite a bit in the flow, since – as noted – they leap off the page and communicate much more quickly. In a story they can be like sudden spurts of water in a steady stream (or like your tap after the water’s been off and air has gotten into the line). So I don’t take issue with the literary habit of spelling out up to ninety-nine and, in dialogue, even higher. But in informational material – such as health data – I strongly advocate all numerals all the time.

And the Canadian Press ought to smarten up and do so as well. Until they do, though, effective editors will do better to ignore their prescriptions. After all, the name of the game is effective communication, not “Who’s following the holy writ?”


This article first appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, goshdarn it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them.

Actually, if you want a really untranslatable word, try a preposition. How about French à? Does that mean “to”? Hmm. In C’est à moi? In J’habite à Montréal? In poulet à la crème? You can’t come up with a single equivalent word for any preposition, because different languages always use them in different ways. And yet within the sentence you can always translate them, as much as you can translate anything else.

But the dirty secret of translation is that you can’t really translate anything else either.

You can only come sufficiently close in the context of the text and your culture. And sometimes barely even sufficiently. Every word has different overtones and associations and references for different cultures – and for different sets of people (and even for each different individual) within a culture. It has different phrases it typically shows up with, different places it’s been heard, different rhymes, different sets of things it has been used to refer to commonly. And there are different attitudes towards what it refers to.

The idea of a purely accurate translation is like the idea of a truly authentic culinary experience from another culture. Say you want an authentic Thai curry. You go to a Thai restaurant. But they’re using Canadian-grown ingredients. So you go where they have imported Thai ingredients. But you’re still in a Canadian restaurant. So you go to Thailand. Ah. But you’re still… a Canadian in Thailand. You didn’t grow up eating Thai food. Look, imagine a person from another country (maybe Namibia or Vanuatu) eating fruitcake or roast turkey or tuna casserole for the first time. There is no way their experience of it is going to be like yours. You just have to accept that. Cultural experiences are not truly fully translatable. And language is a cultural experience.

Of course, there are many things that are purely functional, and the cultural accretions are quite incidental. “Push to open.” “Tear here.” No problem there; cultural attitudes towards pushing and tearing can be treated as separate issues. That lulls us into thinking that accurate translation is possible.

But even there, we’re taking tone and connotation for granted. Why doesn’t the packet say “Rip here”? Why doesn’t the door say “Shove to open”? And once we get even a little farther from the purely mechanical, judgment calls are a regular thing. Send the same document, even on a technical subject, to two different translators and you will get two different renditions, each with its merits and detractions. And if you get into fiction or plays or – the worst – poetry, you’re really just getting a sort of harmonic resonance of the original, on a different instrument.

Consider this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

The famous first stanza of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Lovely, flavourful Italian. Here’s Robert Pinsky’s version:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Here’s Courtney Langdon’s:

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

Right road? Straightforward pathway? Path which led aright? Wood, woods, forest? Dark, gloomy? Midway, half way?

This is why Italians say traduttore traditore. Which has been translated “to translate is to betray.” But really I think it’s better rendered as “Translator? Traitor.”


*Oh, you want a word for that? How about discrescent? Or pain-déçu? I know: bedrøvet. That’s the Danish version of “sad.”