Arrant Pedantry


Solstices, Vegetables, and Official Definitions

Summer officially began just a few days ago—at least that’s what the calendar says. June 20 was the summer solstice, the day when the northern hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun and consequently receives the most daylight. By this definition, summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, in late September, when days and nights are of equal length. But by other definitions, summer starts at the beginning of June and goes through August. Other less formal definitions may put the start of summer on Memorial Day or after the end of the school year (which for my children were the same this year).

For years I wondered why summer officially began so late into June. After all, shouldn’t the solstice, as the day when we receive the most sunlight, be the middle of summer rather than the start? But even though it receives the most sunlight, it’s not the hottest, thanks to something called seasonal lag. The oceans absorb a large amount of heat and continue to release that heat for quite some time after the solstice, so the hottest day may come a month or more after the day that receives the most solar energy. Summer officially starts later than it should to compensate for this lag.

But what does this have to do with language? It’s all about definitions, and definitions are arbitrary things. Laypeople may think of June 1 as the start of summer, but June 1 is a day of absolutely no meteorological or astronomical significance. So someone decided that the solstice would be the official start of summer, even though the period from June 20/21 to September 22/23 doesn’t completely encompass the hottest days of the year (at least not in most of the United States).

Sometimes the clash between common and scientific definitions engenders endless debate. Take the well-known argument about whether tomatoes are fruit. By the common culinary definition, tomatoes are vegetables, because they are used mostly in savory or salty dishes. Botanically, though, they’re fruit, because they’re formed from a plant’s ovaries and contain seeds. But tomatoes aren’t the only culinary vegetables that are botanical fruits: cucumbers, squashes, peas, beans, avocados, eggplants, and many other things commonly thought of as vegetables are actually fruits.

The question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable may have entered popular mythology following a Supreme Court case in 1893 that answered the question of whether imported tomatoes should be taxed as vegetables. The Supreme Court ruled that the law was written with the common definition in mind, so tomatoes got taxed, and people are still arguing about it over a century later.

Sometimes these definitional clashes even lead to strong emotions. Consider how many people got upset when the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto wasn’t really a planet. People who probably hadn’t thought about planetary astronomy since elementary school passionately proclaimed that Pluto was always their favorite planet. Even some astronomers declared, “Pluto’s dead.” But nothing actually happened to Pluto, just to our definition of planet. Astronomers had discovered several other Pluto-like objects and suspect that there may be a hundred or more such objects in the outer reaches of the solar system.

Does it really make sense to call all of these objects planets? Should we expect students to learn the names of Eris, Sedna, Quaoar, Orcus, and whatever other bodies are discovered and named? Or is it perhaps more reasonable to use some agreed-upon criteria and draw a clear line between planets and other objects? After all, that’s part of what scientists do: try to increase our understanding of the natural world by describing features of and discovering relationships among different things. Sometimes the definitions are arbitrary, but they’re arbitrary in ways that are useful to scientists.

And this is the crux of the matter: sometimes definitions that are useful to scientists aren’t that useful to laypeople, just as common definitions aren’t always useful to scientists. These definitions are used by different people for different purposes, and so they continue to exist side by side. Scientific definitions have their place, but they’re not automatically or inherently more correct than common definitions. And there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, tomatoes may be fruit, but I don’t want them in my fruit salad.


New Posts Elsewhere

I have a couple of new posts up elsewhere: a brief one at Copyediting discussing those dialect maps that are making the rounds and asking whether Americans really talk that differently from each other, and a longer one at Visual Thesaurus (subscription required) discussing the role of copy editors in driving restrictive relative which out of use. Stay tuned, and I’ll try to have something new up here in the next few days.


Accepting and Rejecting Changes in Microsoft Word

As many of you probably know, editors usually use Microsoft Word’s Tracking Changes feature to mark their editing changes. The days of writing in red pen all over hard copies of documents are largely gone. What this means is that authors and editors can communicate by email, sending versions of the document back and forth until it’s complete. The author can view the editor’s changes and use a tool in Word to either accept or reject these changes. Whether you already know how to use Tracking Changes or not, I hope you’ll learn something in this tutorial. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that you are the author and that you have just gotten a marked-up draft back from your editor.

Using Tracking Changes

First the basics. (If you know how to use Tracking Changes, go ahead and skip to the Time-Saving Trick heading.) When you open your document, you will notice colored changes—usually red—throughout your document. Anything added is underlined, anything deleted is struck through, and any formatting changes are noted with a dotted line out into the margin, where a little bubble informs you of the change made. Like this:

Let’s say you notice that a word has been added within your first paragraph, and you’re fine with the editor’s addition of that word. You’ll want to accept the change. There are a few ways to do this:

  • You could right-click the red, underlined word, which would bring up the menu shown below, after which you would click Accept Insertion.
    Note: The menu may also say “Accept Deletion” or “Accept Formatting Change,” depending on the type of change the editor made.


  • You could click the word and click the Accept button in the Review tab. Below is an image of the Review tab so you can see where the Accept button is. It is the little white page with a blue check mark on it, to the left of the white page with a red X on it (the Reject button). Both are near the right side of your screen.


  • You could click at the beginning of your document and click the Next button to jump to the first change in the document and then click the Accept button. Of these three methods, this one is the fastest.


If you disagreed with the addition of the word for some reason, you would click Reject instead of Accept, but the rest of the steps would be the same. The red underlined word would then turn black and lose its underline. It would become a normal part of your document.

Time-Saving Trick

Which brings me to the best trick I have learned for using Tracking Changes. If you have a long document or a document with many changes, clicking Accept hundreds of times can get tedious and time consuming. Here’s what you can do instead.

Start at the beginning of your document. Click the Next button in the Review tab.


This will show you the first change tracked in your document. If it’s fine, click Next again. Do not click Accept! If it’s not a change you like, either reject the change using one of the three methods listed above or make a change of your own (your change will be tracked in a different color). Keep clicking Next after viewing each change that is acceptable to you. Because you’re jumping quickly through your document, this shouldn’t take long, and because you’re using the Next button, you’re not accidentally missing any changes. When you get to the end of the document using this method, you can feel confident that you have viewed all changes, that any changes that you didn’t like have been changed so that you’re happy with them, and that everything remaining is ready to be accepted.

If you have not made any changes of your own to the document (other than rejecting changes), click the tiny down arrow below the Accept button. Click Accept All Changes in Document (the bottom one in the drop-down menu). You’re done!


If you made any changes to the document of your own that you still want your editor to review, click Show Markup, just to the left of the Accept button. Click Reviewers, which is at the bottom of the list. You should see both your name (or initials) and your editor’s. For the sake of this tutorial, let’s say I’m Ruth and my editor is Julia.


Uncheck your name (in this case, Ruth). This will hide all the changes you’ve made for the moment.

Then click the tiny down arrow below the Accept button. Click Accept All Changes Shown. If you haven’t hidden any reviewers, this option will be grayed out.


This will accept all of your editor’s changes but none of yours, which is a good thing, because your editor can now review your changes and do what you just did with his or hers. You can then go back to Show Markup > Reviewers and check your name to show your changes again. Your document should look nice and clean, with only a few of your changes remaining for your editor to review.

Depending on the length of your document and the number of changes, this trick could save you hours of reviewing time. I hope it makes the editing process easier for you.

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