Tag Archives: editing

Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.

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frontline

Who is at the frontline of language change?

Sorry, should that be front line? I think it should. If you are at the foremost front, you are at the forefront, not the fore front, but the line that forms the front of a battle – or, more figuratively, any other advance (especially in conflict situations) – is the front line, according to, well, every dictionary you look in.

But a lot of those dictionaries have frontline too. Not as a noun, though: as an adjective. Staff who are dealing directly with customers are front-line staff or frontline staff. If they were written as front line staff, there could be confusion over whether they were line staff at the front rather than staff at the front line. So we hyphenate. And, over time, as with this adjective, we may merge.

Or we may not. Mergers happen sometimes and not other times. You can be a healthcare professional working in health care – or working in healthcare, because that noun has a closed-up version now too. And you’re reading this on a website – or, to be old-fashioned, a web site. But you can have an ice cream float or an ice-cream float, but if you had an icecream float you risk having some pedant with a marker draw a couple of lines to indicate that there should be a space there, implying that you need grammatical trainingwheels.

The front lines, in language change as in war, are very uneven, meandering up and down and in and out, and the main thing that keeps them from moving is just if they get really entrenched (yes, when you think about it, front line and entrenched both call to mind the ghastly battles of World War I – both predate it by centuries, but both have military origins).

So… could frontline become the noun form too? Some people want it to be – a colleague mentioned to me that one of the people he works with is pushing for that change in their published text. Mind you, his coworker isn’t saying “I know that front line is standard, but I think we are making a good move forward to close up this compound. We may be in the, erm, vanguard, but we can take the fire.” No, his coworker is saying “I looked in the dictionary and it has frontline as a form so I’m going to use it everywhere.” His coworker is heedless of the noun-adjective distinction.

Which is how language change so often happens: reanalysis, or what members of preceding generations tend to call mistake. The English language isn’t really an ongoing battle – if there is an enemy, they are us. It’s more like a complex game that gets passed on from one family to another, and it doesn’t have a rulebook, and each new group of players pick up a few things from the previous players but mostly figure things out for themselves, resulting in some shift of the rules over time. We hear our parents talk, and we work things out for ourselves, and they don’t correct all of our reconstruals.

So, yeah, you could say that the front line in language change is the battle between the older generation, wanting to preserve what it knows, and the younger generation, wanting to do what suits them best. But from another perspective, the battle is as much like explorers having to put up with previous people – who didn’t get as far – shouting at them “No, you fools! You’ll fall off the edge of the planet!”

Fine, fine. The question remains: is frontline taking over from front line as a noun? Is it heading the way of healthcare and forefront? Will we soon see not only the frontline but the frontlines just as we see the headlines? Or is it like icecream and trainingwheels? Let’s have a look at a Google Ngram:

frontline_NOUN is way below front line_NOUN and both adjective forms, and not gaining very much

Hmm. Nope. Anyone who uses frontline as a noun is going to be awfully far in front of everyone else, exposed and prone to being shot at… from behind. And the general usage may not ever come close to catching up. It looks pretty well entrenched.

Addendum: I neglected to consider one important vector for change in this. Google ngrams are case-sensitive, and I only surveyed lower-case. But take a look at this:

Frontline-1

So Frontline is increasing in usage much more than frontline. Why is that? I’ll tell you one reason. Since 1983, PBS has had a documentary series called Frontline. TV shows are important vectors for language change.

But that doesn’t mean the branding of the show is spreading the one-word noun throughout the language rapidly. A brand is a brand and may stay as such. Let’s put this in perspective:

Frontline-2

After all, it’s on PBS, not NBC, ABC, or CBS. Public broadcasting is at the front line of knowledge, but most people don’t actually like to get too close to the front line. At least not intentionally.

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.

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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.

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: sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/when-an-error-isnt/)

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?”

whether

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.