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Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

subversiveI have a terrible editor confession:1You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor. until now, I had not read Carol Fisher Saller’s book The Subversive Copy Editor. I also have to take back what I said about But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?this is the best book on editing I’ve ever read.

The book, now in its second edition, has been revised and expanded with new chapters. In the introduction, Saller explains just what she means by “subversive”—rather than sneaking errors into print to sabotage the writer, she aims to subvert the stereotype of the editor locked in an eternal struggle with the writer or so bound by pointless rules that they can’t see the forest of the copy for the trees of supposed errors.

I find Saller’s views on editing absolutely refreshing. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that editors and authors are mortal enemies locked in an eternal struggle. Authors want to share their ideas, and readers, we hope, want to read them; editors help facilitate the exchange. Shouldn’t we all be on the same side?

Saller starts with a few important reminders—copy editors aren’t the boss, and the copy doesn’t belong to us—before diving into some practical advice on how to establish good author-editor relations. It all starts with an introductory phone call or email, which is the editor’s chance to establish their carefulness, transparency, and flexibility. If you show the author from the beginning that you’re on their side, the project should get off to a good start.

And to maintain good relations throughout a project, it’s important to keep showing that you’re careful, transparent, and flexible. Don’t bombard the author with too many queries about things that they don’t know or care about like arbitrary points of style. Just make a decision, explain it succinctly if you feel the need, and move on. And don’t lecture or condescend in your queries either. Saller recommends reading through all of your queries again once you get to the end of a project, because sometimes you read a query you wrote days ago and realize you unintentionally come across as a bit of a jerk.

Too many editors mechanically apply a style without stopping to ask themselves whether they’re making the manuscript better or merely making it different. Sometimes a manuscript won’t perfectly conform to Chicago or whatever style you may be using, but that can be okay as long as it’s consistent and not wrong. (If you’re editing for an academic journal or other publication with a rigid style, of course, that’s a different story.) But there’s no reason to spend hours and hours changing an entire book manuscript from one arbitrary but valid style to another equally arbitrary but valid style. Not only have you wasted time and probably irritated the author, but there’s a good chance that you’ve missed something, introduced errors, or both. Rather than “What’s the rule?” Saller suggests asking, “What is helpful?” or “What makes sense?”

And Saller doesn’t have much patience for editors who get “hung up on phantom issues and personal bugaboos,” who feel compelled to “ferret out every last which and change it to that2I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.—if you’re still relying on your high school English teacher’s lectures on grammar, you need to get with the times. Get some good (current!) reference books. Learn to look things up online.

I also appreciated the advice on how to manage difficult projects. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Saller recommends a few simple steps: automate, delegate, reevaluate, and accept your fate. See if you can find a macro or other software tool to save you from having to grind through long, repetitive tasks. Delegate things to an intern if possible. (Sorry, interns!) Ask yourself whether you really need to do what you think needs to be done. And if all else fails, simply knuckle down and get through it.

There’s also a chapter to help writers navigate the copyediting process, along with chapters on learning to use your word processor better, managing deadlines, working as a freelancer, and more. And throughout it all Saller provides sensible, practical advice. Some of my favorite bits come from a chapter called “The Zen of Copyediting,” which aims to help editors let go of the things that don’t really matter. When faced with an apathetic author, one of Saller’s colleagues tells herself, “You can’t care about the book more than the author.” Saller herself dares to suggest that “some of our ‘standards’ are just time-consuming habits that don’t really make a difference to the reader.” And finally, one of Saller’s former mentors liked to say, “Remember—it’s only a book.”

Whether you’re a seasoned editor or a novice just breaking into the field, The Subversive Copy Editor provides sage advice on just about every aspect of the job. It should be a part of every editor’s library.

The Subversive Copy Editor is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor.
2. I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.

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Whoa There

Recently, the freelance writer and film critic Eric Snider tweeted this:

A few days later, a friend linked to this discussion thread on Goodreads started by sci-fi/fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold. In it, Bujold asked readers to help her with what she called “distributed proofreading” (I’ll just note in passing that the idea of crowdsourcing your proofreading makes my skin crawl), and one reader helpfully pointed out that Bujold had misspelled “whoa” as “woah”. Bujold responded that whoa and woah mean different things, so it was not a misspelling: “‘Whoa!’ is a command meaning ‘Stop!’ ‘Woah!’ is an exclamation of astonishment, rendered phonetically. The original meaning stands.”

I’ve never read anything by Bujold, so I have no idea whether she was being a little tongue in cheek or whether she was simply mistaken. Woah doesn’t appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, or The Random House Dictionary. According to all of these, there is just one word, whoa, that can be used as a command (often to a horse) to stop or as an exclamation of surprise.

The Oxford English Dictionary, of course, paints a more complicated picture. Whoa dates to the 1800s and is a variant of an earlier who (pronounced the same as whoa, not the same as the interrogative pronoun who), which dates to the 1400s. Who, in turn, is a variant of an earlier ho, which was borrowed from Old French in the 1300s. Some of the spellings recorded in the OED for these three related words are whoa, whow, whoo, whoe, hoo, hoe, and hoe. A search for woah leads to the entry woa, which is listed as a variant of whoa, with the forms woa and woah. Dinosaur Comics author Ryan North seems to prefer the hybrid form “whoah”:

whoah

But despite this variation, a search for whoa and woah in the Google Books Ngrams Viewer shows that whoa has been the overwhelmingly more popular form for at least the last two hundred years.

But a search in the BYU GloWbe Corpus, which includes unedited material from the web, shows that whoa occurs at a rate of 2.02 per million in blogs and woah at a rate of .8 per million—not neck and neck, but much closer than we see in the edited material in Google Books. This means that an awful lot of people misspell whoa, and those misspellings are generally edited out of published writing. (Though Bujold’s books are apparently an exception; maybe she talked a copyeditor into letting her keep woah.)

It seems obvious where people are getting the woah spelling: yeah is spelled very similarly, with a semivowel, two vowels, and a silent h. And if you’re like many Americans and don’t distinguish between wh and w—that is, you pronounce which and witch identically—then it’s not obvious where the h goes.

But as Eric Snider noted, many people don’t seem to know how to spell yeah either. The OED says that yeah is a casual pronunciation of yes that originated in the US around 1900. The entry for yeh says much the same thing: “colloq. or dial. var. of yes n.1 or yea v. ” The earliest citation dates to 1920. The entry for yah, interestingly, says that it’s a representation of German or Dutch speech (in both of these languages, the word for “yes” is ja), and the earliest citation dates to 1863. A citation from the London Daily News in 1905 reads, “America..has two substitutes for ‘yes.’ One of them is ‘yep’ and the other is ‘yah.’” I have to wonder if German and Dutch influenced the rise and spread of yeah in American English.

But regardless of its ultimate origin, yeah arose in speech, and so it’s no surprise that people came up with different ways to spell this new word. Still, most people have settled on yeah in edited writing, even though yah and ya are common in unedited writing. I even had a friend who used yeay, and I was never quite sure if this was supposed to be pronounced like yeah or yay or somewhere in between the two. (Interestingly, yay, which arose as a variant of yea, is not found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, though it is in American Heritage and the OED. And surprisingly, it dates to only 1963.)

I don’t expect the situation to change anytime soon. The more unedited writing people read, the more forms like woah and yah will look normal. Editors may continue to correct them in published writing when we get the chance, but people will go on merrily spelling them any way they please.

neowhoa

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Book Review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

chicagoq&a

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I heard that the University of Chicago Press was putting out a collection of questions and answers from the popular Chicago Style Q&A. What’s the point of having it in book form when the online Q&A is freely available and easily searchable? And yet I have to admit that this charming little gift book is one of the best books on editing I’ve ever read.

If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Style Q&A, it’s a place where anyone can submit a question to the staff in the manuscript editing department at the University of Chicago Press. Selected questions and answers are then posted monthly. I don’t read the Q&A regularly, but when you search Chicago’s website, answers from the Q&A appear in the results. It’s a great repository of answers to questions that aren’t necessarily covered in the manual itself.

Because the book is simply a compilation of questions and answers, the organization is necessarily somewhat loose, though the books editors have grouped them into topics such as Possessives and Attributes, How Do You Cite . . . ?, and, one of my favorites, Things That Freak Us Out. If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Style Q&A, you may not know that the editors have developed a bit of a snarky voice. Maybe it’s a result of staring of pages and pages of text all day or of dealing with recalcitrant authors. Or maybe the editors have just been asked one too many times about something that could have been found in the manual if the person asking had just looked. Whatever the reason for it, it makes reading the answers a lot of fun.

For example, when someone asked if an abbreviation with periods should then be followed by another period if it appears at the end of the sentence, they respond, “Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a row like that in print? If we told you to put two periods, would you do it? Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS said you should?” Or when someone asks innocently enough, “Can I use the first person?”, they answer, “Evidently.” And when someone asks why it’s so hard to find things in the manual, they write, “It must just be one of those things. If only there were a search box, or an index . . .” And when a US Marine threatened to deploy a detail of marines to invade Chicago’s offices and impose the outdated two-spaces-after-a-sentence rule, they reply, “As a US Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this.” The editors at Chicago clearly suffer no fools.

But in between the bits of dry wit and singeing snark are some truly thoughtful remarks on the craft of editing. For instance, when someone says that they don’t think it’s helpful to write out “graphics interchange format” in full the first time when referring to GIFs, the editors simply respond, “You never have to do anything that isn’t helpful. If a style guide says you do, you need a better style guide.” Or when someone asks if you always need commas after introductory phrases like “in the summer of 1812”, they answer, “Rejoice: everyone is correct. Higher authorities are not interested in legislating commas to this degree. Peace.”

Even at a thousand pages or more, The Chicago Manual of Style can’t provide answers to everything, nor should it. Editing that relies on a list of black-and-white edicts tends to be mechanical and to miss the forest of the text for the trees of commas and hyphens. If you want to be a good editor, you have to learn how to use your head. As the editors say, “Make your choice with a view to minimizing inconsistencies, and record them in your style sheet.” There’s not always one right answer. Sometimes you just have to pick one and stick with it.

But perhaps my favorite answer is the last one in the book:

Q. My library shelves are full. I need to make some difficult decisions to make space for new arrivals. Is there any reason to keep my CMOS 14th and 15th editions?
A. What a question. If you had more children, would you give away your firstborn? Find a board and build another shelf.

Here’s my bookcase of editing and language books at home. Obviously it’s time for me to build another shelf.

IMG_20160712_154518

But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A is available now. You can buy it from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.

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15% Off All T-Shirts

Now through June 21, get 15% off all T-shirts in the Arrant Pedantry Store. Just use the code TSHIRT16 at checkout. Come take a look!


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Sorry, Merriam-Webster, but Hot Dogs Are Not Sandwiches

On the Friday before Memorial Day, Merriam-Webster sent out this tweet:

They linked to this post describing ten different kinds of sandwiches and asserted that “yes, the hot dog is one of them.” They say,

We know: the idea that a hot dog is a sandwich is heresy to some of you. But given that the definition of sandwich is “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between,” there is no sensible way around it. If you want a meatball sandwich on a split roll to be a kind of sandwich, then you have to accept that a hot dog is also a kind of sandwich.

Predictably, the internet exploded.

Users took to Twitter with the hashtag #hotdogisnotasandwich to voice their disagreement. Numerous Twitter polls showed that anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of respondents agreed that the hot dog is not a sandwich. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Emily Brewster went on the podcast Judge John Hodgman to defend Merriam-Webster’s case. Part of her argument is that there’s historical evidence for the sandwich definition: in the early to mid-twentieth century, hot dogs were commonly called “hot dog sandwiches”. Jimmy Kimmel, on the other hand took to his podium to make a more common-sense appeal:

That’s their definition. By my definition, a hot dog is a hot dog. It’s its own thing, with its own specialized bun. If you went in a restaurant and ordered a meat tube sandwich, would that make sense? No! They’d probably call the cops on you. I don’t care what anyone says—a hot dog is not a sandwich. And if hot dogs are sandwiches, then cereal is soup. Chew on that one for a while.

For reference, here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of soup:

1 : a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food

Read broadly, this definition does not exclude cold cereal from being a type of soup. Cereal is a liquid food containing pieces of solid food. It doesn’t have a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base, but the definition doesn’t strictly require that.

But we all know, of course, that cereal isn’t soup. Soup is usually (but not always) served hot, and it’s usually (but again, not always) savory or salty. It’s also usually eaten for lunch or dinner, while cereal is usually eaten for breakfast. But note how hard it is to write a definition that includes all things that are soup and excludes all things that aren’t.

My friend Mike Sakasegawa also noted the difficulty in writing a satisfactory definition of sandwich, saying, “Though it led me to the observation that sandwiches are like porn: you know it when you see it.” I said that this is key: “Just because you can’t write a single definition that includes all sandwiches and excludes all not-sandwiches doesn’t mean that the sandwich-like not-sandwiches are now sandwiches.” And Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, concurred: “IOW, Lexicographer Fail.”

I wouldn’t put it that way, but, with apologies to my good friends at Merriam-Webster, I do think this is a case of reasoning from the definition. Lexicography’s primary aim is to describe how people use words, and people simply don’t use the word sandwich to refer to hot dogs. If someone said, “I’m making sandwiches—what kind would you like?” and you answered, “Hot dog, please,” they’d probably respond, “No, I’m making sandwiches, not hot dogs.” Whatever the history of the term, hot dogs are not considered sandwiches anymore. Use determines the definition, not the other way around. And definitions are by nature imperfect, unless you want to make them so long and detailed that they become encyclopedia entries.

So how can hot dogs fit the description of a sandwich but not be sandwiches? Easy. I propose that sandwiches are a paraphyletic group. A monophyletic group contains all the descendants of a common ancestor, but a paraphyletic group contains all descendants of a common ancestor with some exceptions. In biology, for example, mammals are a monophyletic group, because they contain all the descendants of the original proto-mammal. Reptiles, on the other hand, are an example of a paraphyletic group—the common ancestor of all reptiles is also the common ancestor of birds and mammals, but birds and mammals are not considered reptiles. Thus a chart showing the phylogenetic tree of reptiles has a couple of scallops cut out to exclude those branches.

Foods may not have ancestors in the same sense, but we can still construct a sort of phylogeny of sandwiches. Sandwiches include at least two main groups—those made with slices of bread and those made with a split bun or roll. Hot dogs would normally fall under the split-bun group, but instead they form their own separate category.

Proposed phylogeny of sandwiches

Proposed phylogeny of sandwiches

Note that this sort of model is also quite flexible. Some people might consider gyros or shawarma sandwiches, but I would consider them a type of wrap. Some people might also consider hamburgers sandwiches but not hot dogs. Sloppy joes and loose meat sandwiches may be edge cases, falling somewhere between hamburgers and more traditional split-roll sandwiches. And in some countries, people might also say that the split-bun types aren’t sandwiches, preferring to simply call these rolls.

Wherever you draw the line, the important thing is that you can draw the line. Don’t let the dictionary boss you around, especially on such an important topic as sandwiches.

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Book Review: Perfect English Grammar

Disclosure: I received a free review PDF of this book from Callisto Media.

perfectenglishgrammar

Grant Barrett, cohost of the public radio program A Way with Words, recently published a book called Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking. In it, Barrett sets out to help writers like himself who may not have gotten the best education in grammar or composition in school, ranging from middle-school students to “business professionals and community leaders who need a refresher on grammar points they last thought about decades ago.”

The book is designed as a reference book, something to be pulled out and consulted in those moments when you can’t remember the difference between a present perfect and a past perfect or between an initialism and a conjunction. The book is well organized, with chapters like “Verbs” broken down into topics like person, number, mood, linking verbs, and so on. The different topics are also very clearly marked, with bold colors and clear headings that make it easy to flip through in case you’d rather browse than use the table of contents or index.

Barrett starts with some general principles of writing like writing for your audience rather than yourself, avoiding using a thesaurus to learn fancy new words, and sticking to whichever style guide is appropriate in your field. He then moves on to the basics of composition, with a reminder to be aware of register and some good tips for getting started if you’re feeling stuck.

One weak spot in the chapter on composition was the section on paragraph and essay structure. Though Barrett says that paragraphs don’t have to be a certain length, he says that a paragraph should have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a conclusion sentence, and he explains that the classic five-paragraph essay has a similar structure. I’ve never been a fan of the five-paragraph essay as a way to teach composition. Perhaps it’s a necessary stepping-stone on the way to better composition, but to me it always felt more like a straitjacket, designed to keep students from hurting themselves and their teachers. But the chapter ends with some good advice on writing transitions, avoiding common mistakes, and having your work edited.

The later chapters on parts of speech, spelling and style, and sentence structure provide helpful introductions or refreshers to the topics, and I like that Barrett uses more current linguistic terminology. For example, he talks about verb tense and aspect rather than just tense (though I think the explanation of aspect could have been a little clearer), and he groups articles, possessives, quantifiers, and others under determiners. He also defends the passive voice, saying, “Both active and passive voices are essential to everyday writing and speaking. Broadside suggestions that you should avoid the passive voice are misguided and should be ignored.”

Though his treatment of various aspects of grammar is sometimes a little brief, he uses grammar mostly as a way to talk about frequent problem areas for novice writers, and this is where the book is most valuable. You have to have at least a basic understanding of what an independent clause is before you can identify a comma splice, and you have to be able to identify a subject and verb and be aware of some common tricky areas before you can identify a subject-verb agreement problem.

However, I found a few pieces of usage advice a little less helpful. For instance, Barrett advocates the singular they (which I was happy to see) but warns against sentential hopefully—even though it is, as he says, fully grammatical—because some people have been erroneously taught to dislike it. He also recommends following the rule requiring the strict placement of only, which Jan Freeman (among others) addressed here. In that column, published in 2009, Freeman asked for readers to send her examples of truly ambiguous onlys. I was apparently the first person to send her such an example, nearly five years after her column was published.

Most of the usage advice, though, is solid, and some of it is even quite refreshing, like this passage in which he addresses the usual advice about avoiding adverbs: “There is nothing whatsoever intrinsically wrong with adverbs. In fact, avoiding them leads to bland, forgettable writing. You can and should use adverbs.” My biggest complaint with the chapter on usage and style is simply that it is too short; there are many more usage items that a novice writer may need help with that aren’t covered here.

Despite these quibbles, I think the book is full of good advice that will be helpful to both novices and more experienced writers who may need a refresher on basic topics of grammar, usage, and style.

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On a Collision Course with Reality

In a blog post last month, John McIntyre took the editors of the AP Stylebook to task for some of the bad rules they enforce. One of these was the notion that “two objects must be in motion to collide, that a moving object cannot collide with a stationary object.” That is, according to the AP Stylebook, a car cannot collide with a tree, because the tree is not moving, and it can only collide with another car if that other car is moving. McIntyre notes that this rule is not supported by Fowler’s Modern English Usage or even mentioned in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage does have an entry for collide and notes that the rule is a tradition (read “invention”) of American newspaper editors. It’s not even clear where the rule came from or why; there’s nothing in the etymology of the word to suggest that only two objects in motion can collide. It comes from the Latin collidere, meaning “to strike together”, from com- “together” + laedere “to strike”.

The rule is not supported by traditional usage either. Speakers and writers of English have been using collide to refer to bodies that are not both in motion for as long as the word has been in use, which is roughly four hundred years. Nor is the rule an attempt to slow language change or hang on to a fading distinction; it’s an attempt to create a distinction and impose it on everyone who uses the language, or at least journalists.

What I found especially baffling was the discussion that took place on Mr. McIntyre’s Facebook page when he shared the link there. Several people chimed in to defend the rule, with one gentleman saying, “There’s an unnecessary ambiguity when ‘collides’ involves <2 moving objects.” Mr. McIntyre responded, “Only if you imagine one.” And this is key: collide is ambiguous only if you have been taught that it is ambiguous—or in other words, only if you’re a certain kind of journalist.

In that Facebook discussion, I wrote,

So the question is, is this actually a problem that needs to be solved? Are readers constantly left scratching their heads because they see “collided with a tree” and wonder how a tree could have been moving? If nobody has ever found such phrasing confusing, then insisting on different phrasing to avoid potential ambiguity is nothing but a waste of time. It’s a way to ensure that editors have work to do, not a way to ensure that editors are adding benefit for the readers.

The discussion thread petered out after that.

I’m generally skeptical of the usefulness of invented distinctions, but this one seems especially useless. When would it be important to distinguish between a crash involving two moving objects and one involving only one moving object? Wouldn’t it be clear from context anyway? And if it’s not clear from context, how on earth would we expect most readers—who have undoubtedly never heard of this journalistic shibboleth—to pick up on it? Should we avoid using words like crash or struck because they’re ambiguous in the same way—because they don’t tell us whether both objects were moving?

It doesn’t matter how rigorously you follow the rule in your own writing or in the writing you edit; if your readers think that collide is synonymous with crash, then they will assume that your variation between collide and crash is merely stylistic. They’ll have no idea that you’re trying to communicate something else. If it’s important, they’ll probably deduce from context whether both objects were moving, regardless of the word you use.

In other words, if an editor makes a distinction and no reader picks up on it, is it still useful?

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ACES Presentation: Copyediting and Corpus Linguistics

On Saturday, I presented at the twentieth annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, held in Portland, Oregon. My topic was “Copyediting and Corpus Linguistics”, and my aim was to give editors a crash course in using corpora to research usage questions.

I was floored by the turnout—there were probably close to two hundred people in attendance. And I was surprised at how quickly the hour went by. I wish I’d skipped most of the background stuff and spent more time demonstrating how to do different kinds of queries and answering questions, but live and learn, I guess. I’ll have to remember that if I teach the topic again at future conferences.

I’m posting a slightly expanded version of my presentation below. And if you attended and you still have questions, or if you weren’t able to make it, feel free to leave a comment here. I’ll do my best to answer.

And, of course, a big thanks to ACES for hosting and to all those who attended. ACES folks are the best.

“Copyediting and Corpus Linguistics” (PDF)

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The Taxing Etymology of Ask

A couple of months back, I learned that task arose as a variant of tax, with the /s/ and /k/ metathesized. This change apparently happened in French before the word was borrowed into English. That is, French had the word taxa, which came from Latin, and then the variant form tasca arose and evolved into a separate word with an independent meaning.

I thought this was an interesting little bit of historical linguistics, and as a side note, I mentioned on Twitter that a similar phonological change gave us the word ask, which was originally ax (or acs or ahs—spelling was not standardized back then). Beowulf and Chaucer both use ax, and we didn’t settle on ask as the standard form until the time of Shakespeare.

But when I said that “it was ‘ax’ before it was ‘ask'”, that didn’t necessarily mean that ax was the original form—history is a little more complicated than that.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ask originally meant “to call for, call upon (a person or thing personified) to come” and that it comes from the Old English áscian, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *aiskôjan. But most of the earliest recorded instances, like this one from Beowulf, are of the ax form:

syþðan hé for wlenco wéan áhsode

(after he sought misery from pride)

(A note on Old English orthography: spelling was not exactly standardized, but it was still fairly predictable and mostly phonetic, even though it didn’t follow the same conventions we follow today. In Old English, the letter h represented either the sound /h/ at the beginning of words or the sound /x/ [like the final consonant in the Scottish loch] in the middle of or at the end of words. And when followed by s, as in áhsode, it made the k sound, so hs was pronounced like modern-day x, or /ks/. But the /ks/ cluster could also be represented by cs or x. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use ask and ax rather than asc or ahs or whatever other variant spellings have been used over the years.)

We know that ask must have been the original form because that’s what we find in cognate languages like Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and Old High German. This means that at some point after Old English became differentiated from those other languages (around 500 AD), the /s/ and /k/ metathesized and produced ax.

Almost all of the OED’s citations from Old English (which lasted to about 1100 AD) use the ax form, as in this translation of Mark 12:34 from the West Saxon Gospels: “Hine ne dorste nan mann ahsian” (no man durst ask him). (As a bonus, this sentence also has a great double negative: it literally says “no man durst not ask him”.) Only a few of the citations from the Old English period are of the ask variety. I’ll discuss this variation between ask and ax later on.

The ax forms continued through Middle English (about 1100 to 1475 AD) and into Early Modern English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (about 1386 AD) has ax: “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housbond to the Samaritan?” In Middle English, ask starts to become a little more common in written work, and we also occasionally see ash, though this form peters out by about 1500. (Again, I’ll discuss this variant more below.)

William Tyndale’s Bible, which was the first Early Modern English translation of the Bible, has ax: Matthew 7:7 reads, “Axe and it shalbe geven you.” The Coverdale Bible, published in 1535 and based on Tyndale’s work, also has ax, but the King James Bible, published in 1611, has the now-standard ask. So do Shakespeare’s plays (dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s). After about 1600, ax forms become scarce, though one citation from 1803 records axe as a dialectal form used in London. And it’s in nonstandard dialects where ax survives today, especially in Southern US English and African American English. (I assume it also survives in other places besides the US, but I don’t know enough about its use or distribution in other countries.)

In a nutshell, ax arose as a metathesized form of ask at some point in the Old English period, and it was the dominant form in written Old English and an acceptable variant down to the 1500s, when it started to be supplanted by the resurgent ask. And at some point, ash also appeared, though it quietly disappeared a few centuries later. So why did ask disappear for so long? And why did it come back?

The simple answer to the first question is that the word metathesized in the dominant dialect of Old English, which was West Saxon. (Modern Standard English descends not from West Saxon but from the dialect around London.) These sorts of changes just happen sometimes. In West Saxon, /sk/ often became /ks/ in the middle or at the end of a word. Sound changes are usually regular—that is, they affect all words with a particular sound or set of sounds—but this particular change apparently wasn’t; metathesized and unmetathesized forms continued to exist side by side, and sometimes there’s variation even within a manuscript. King Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, switches freely between the two: “Þæt is þæt ic þé ær ymb acsade. . . . Swa is ðisse spræce ðe ðu me æfter ascast.” This is pretty weird. When a change is beginning to happen, there may be some variation among words or among speakers, but variation between different forms of a word used by the same speaker is highly unusual.

As for the second question, it’s not entirely clear how or why ask came back. At first glance, it would seem that ask must have survived in other dialects and started to crop back up in written works during the Middle English Period. Or perhaps ax simply remetathesized and became ask again. But it can’t be quite that simple, because /sk/ regularly palatalized to /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) during the Old English period. You can see the effects of this change in cognate pairs like shirt (from Old English) and skirt (from Old Norse) or ship (from Old English) and skipper (from Middle Dutch).

It’s not entirely clear when this palatalization of /sk/ to /ʃ/ happened, but it must have been sometime after the Angles and Saxons left mainland Europe (starting in the 400s or 500s) but before the Viking invasions beginning in the 800s, because Old Norse words borrowed into English retain /sk/ where English words did not. If palatalization had occurred after the influx of words from Old Norse, we’d say shy and shill instead of sky and skill.

One thing that makes it hard to pin down the date of this change is that /sk/ was originally spelled sc, and the sc spelling continued to be used even after palatalization must have happened. That means that words like ship and fish were spelled like scip and fisc. Thus a form with sc is ambiguous—we don’t know for certain if it was pronounced /sk/ or /ʃ/, though we can infer from other evidence that by the time most Old English documents were being created, sc represented /ʃ/. (Interestingly, this means that in the quote from Alfred the Great, the two forms would have been pronounced ax-ade and ash-ast.) It wasn’t until Middle English that scribes began using spellings like sch, ssh, or sh to distinguish /ʃ/ from the /sk/ combination.

If ask had simply survived in some dialect of Old English without metathesizing, it should have undergone palatalization and resulted in the modern-day form ash. As I said above, we do occasionally see ash in Middle English, which means that this did happen in some dialects of Old English. But this was never even the dominant form—it just pops up every now and then in the South West and West Midlands regions of England from the 1200s down to about 1500, when it finally dies out.

One other option is that the original ask metathesized to ax, missed out on palatalization, and then somehow metathesized back to ask. There may be some evidence for this option, because some other words seem to have followed the same route. For instance, words like flask and tusk appear in Old English as both flasce/flaxe and tusc/tux. But flask didn’t survive Old English—the original word was lost, and it was reborrowed from Romance languages in the 1500s—so we don’t know for sure if it was pronounced with /sk/ or /ʃ/ or both. Tusk appears in some dialects as tush, so we have the same three-way /sk/–/ks/–/ʃ/ alternation as ask.

But while ash meaning the powdery residue shows the same three-way variation, ash meaning the kind of tree does not—it’s always /ʃ/. Ask, ash, and ash all would have had /sk/ in the early stages of Old English, so why did one of them simply palatalize while the other two showed a three-way variation before settling on different forms? If it was a case of remetathesis that turned /ks/ back into /sk/, then why weren’t other words that originally ended in /ks/ affected by this second round of metathesis? And if /ks/ had turned back into /sk/ at some point, then why didn’t ax ‘a tool for chopping’ thus become ask? Honestly, I have no idea.

If those changes happened in that order, then we should expect to see /ask/ for the questioning word, the tree, and the tool. But there’s no way to reorder these rules to get the proper outputs for all three. Putting palatalization before metathesis gets us the proper output for the tree but also gives us ash for the questioning word, and putting a second round of metathesis at the end gets us the proper output for the questioning word but gives us ask for the chopping tool. And any way you rearrange them, you should never see multiple outputs for the same word, all apparently the products of different rules or at least different rule ordering, used in the same dialects or even by the same speakers.

So how do we explain this?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Maybe the sound changes happened in different orders in different parts of England, and those different dialects then borrowed forms from each other. Maybe some forms were borrowed from or influenced by the Vikings. Maybe there were several other intermediate rules that I’m missing, and those rules interacted in some strange ways. At any rate, the pronunciation ax for ask had a long and noble tradition before falling by the wayside as a dialectal form about four hundred years ago. But who knows—there’s always a chance it could become standard again in the future.

Sources

Hayes, Bruce, Robert Kirchner, and Donca Steriade, eds., Phonetically Based Phonology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 138–139.
Lass, Roger, Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58–59.
Ringe, Don, and Ann Taylor, The Development of Old English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 203–207.

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