Arrant Pedantry

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More at Visual Thesaurus

In case you haven’t been following me on Twitter or elsewhere, I’m the newest regular contributor to Visual Thesaurus. You can see my contributor page here. My latest article, “Orwell and Singular ‘They’”, grew out of an experience I had last summer as I was writing a feature article on singular they for Copyediting. I cited George Orwell in a list of well-regarded authors who reportedly used singular they, and my copyeditor queried me on it. She wanted proof.

I did some research and made a surprising discovery: the alleged Orwell quotation in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage wasn’t really from Orwell. But if you want to know the rest, you’ll have to read the article. (It’s for subscribers only, but a subscription is only $19.95 per year.)

But if you’re not the subscribing type, don’t worry: I’ll have a new post up today or tomorrow on the oft-maligned construction reason why.

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Book Review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

I recently received a review copy of Don McNair’s Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Clear Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave, which is available now from Quill Driver Books. I’ll be up-front: I was very skeptical of the idea that you could editor-proof your writing by following certain steps, and my opinion hasn’t changed after reading the book.

McNair starts with a basic and intriguing premise: that most writers who get repeatedly rejected are making the same mistakes over and over again without realizing it, and if they could only see what they are doing wrong and make some changes, they’d sell some manuscripts. He even says that some of his critique partners had success after following his tips. It certainly sounds promising, especially to a writer struggling to get published. But I could tell within the first few pages that this book was not going to be the panacea that it claimed to be. A few pages into the introduction, McNair writes,

Most editing manuals are like geography books that give great information about an area, but don’t show you how to get from place to place. This book is a GPS that guides you through the writing wilderness to solve your specific writing problems.

That’s the major problem with this book: it can’t address my specific writing problems, because it has no idea what they are. It may be true that many novice writers suffer from many of the same problems, but those aren’t the reader’s specific writing problems.

But the next paragraph really befuddled me:

Most editing manuals are like dictionaries from which you’re asked to select words to write the Great American Novel. This book shows what specific words to use and what ones not to use.

Why have two back-to-back paragraphs with the exact same formula but different metaphors? Why not pick one and stick with it? (On a side note, McNair frequently mentions writing the Great American Novel, but his advice seems geared more towards writers of pulp romances and mysteries than to aspiring literary greats.) And again, the book does not show which specific words to use. The chapters on “putting words in” are mostly about cramming your first chapter full of hooks and ramping up the tension by making your main characters fight while also making them attracted to each other. McNair gives plenty of before-and-after examples from his own works, but I have to say that I never found any of them very compelling, and some of them I found downright cringeworthy, as in this “after” example of putting in sexual tension:

I wrapped my arms hard around his neck and smothered his face in kisses. At least I hoped they were kisses, and not just slobber. Wren’s arms encircled me, and his hot, Juicy-Fruit breath hit my neck.

The rest of the passage isn’t any better.

The advice gets more specific when it gets to the section on “taking words out”, though I’m not sure it’s any more helpful. McNair provides plenty of words and constructions to avoid—infinitives, present participles, the passive voice, -ly adverbs, the past perfect tense, prepositional phrases, and several pages of phrases that are redundant or otherwise deemed “foggy”. Much of this advice is familiar, though some of it was new to me. Some of it may be helpful to novice writers, but I doubt any of it will editor-proof a truly terrible manuscript. Some of the advice actually seems counterproductive and even contradictory. He says to avoid cliches and recommends replacing a statement like “It was as black as pitch” with “It was as black as the inside of an octopus.” Only a few pages later, he cautions against saying that someone’s eyes were glued to the TV screen, because the reader will be distracted by the image of a pair of eyes wandering out of their sockets and being literally glued to the screen. I wouldn’t give “glued to the TV screen” a second thought, but “as black as the inside of an octopus” is such an oddly specific and random image that I would probably find it distracting enough to put down a manuscript.

The last section, on “sharing your words”, is probably the most helpful. McNair stresses the importance of critique partners and gives several rules for finding good ones. He also discusses the value of hiring a professional editor to help you polish your manuscript before shopping it around. He also gives advice on writing query letters and synopses. Again, all of this advice is probably pretty familiar to anyone who is serious about getting published.

That brings me to another problem: most chapters are only two or three pages long, barely long enough to cover the basics and certainly not long enough to develop the ideas in any depth. The advice feels not just familiar but superficial and even trite. He barely mentions larger issues like character development or plot, assuming that readers already have those things mastered and just need to polish their prose to get out of the slush pile. Perhaps that’s true of some writers, but I suspect that many more will never be published no matter how well they follow the advice in this book. The title makes a very bold claim, and I don’t believe that the contents live up to it.

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Now at Visual Thesaurus

In case you haven’t seen it already, I have a a new post up at Visual Thesaurus. It explores the history of toward and towards and specifically looks at copy editors’ role in driving towards out of use in edited American English. It’s only available to subscribers, but the subscription is only $19.95 a year. You get access to a lot of other great features and articles, including more to come from me.

I’ll keep writing here, of course, and I’ll try to get back to a more regular posting schedule now that my thesis is finished. Stay tuned.

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Who Edits the Editors?

Today is National Grammar Day, in case you hadn’t heard, and to celebrate I want to take a look at some of those who hold themselves up to be defenders of the English language: copy editors. A few weeks ago, the webcomic XKCD published this comic mocking the participants in a Wikipedia edit war over the title of Star Trek into Darkness. The question was whether “into” in the title should be capitalized. Normally, prepositions in titles are lowercase, but if there’s an implied colon after “Star Trek”, then “Into Darkness” is technically a subtitle, and the first word of a subtitle gets capitalized. As the comic noted, forty thousand words of argument back and forth had been written, but no consensus was in sight. (The discussion seems to be gone now.)

The Wikipedia discussion is an apt illustration of one of the perils of editing: long, drawn-out and seemingly irresolvable discussions about absolutely trivial things. Without prior knowledge about whether “into darkness” is a subtitle or part of the title, there’s no clear answer. It’s a good example of Parkinson’s law of triviality at work. Everyone wants to put in their two cents’ worth, but the debate will never end unless someone with authority simply makes an arbitrary but final decision one way or the other.

I wouldn’t have thought much else of that discussion if not for the fact that it was picked up by Nathan Heller in a column called “Copy-Editing the Culture” over at Slate. Someone cited one of my posts—”It’s just a joke. But no, seriously“—in the discussion in the comments, so I followed the link back and read the column. And what I found dismayed me.

The article begins (after a couple of paragraphs of self-indulgence) by claiming that “it is . . . entirely unclear what the title is trying to communicate.” This complaint is puzzling, since it seems fairly obvious what the title is supposed to mean, but the problems with the column become clearer as the reasoning becomes murkier: “Are there missing words—an implied verb, for example? The grammatical convention is to mark such elisions with a comma: Star Trek Going Into Darkness could become, conceivably, Star Trek, Into Darkness“. An implied verb? Marking such elisions with a comma? What on earth is he on about? I don’t see any reason why the title needs a verb, and I’ve never heard of marking elided verbs with a comma. Marking an elided “and” in headlines, perhaps, but that’s it.

[Update: It occurred to me what he probably meant, and I feel stupid for not seeing it. It's covered under 6.49 in the 16th edition ofChicago. A comma may be used to signal the elision of a word or words easily understood from context, though what they don't say is that it's a repeated word or words, and that's crucial. One example they give is In Illinois there are seventeen such schools; in Ohio, twenty; in Indiana, thirteen. The comma here indicates the elision of there are. The Star Trek, Into Darkness example doesn't work because it's a title with no other context. There aren't any repeated words that are understood from context and are thus candidates for elision. I could say, "Star Wars is going into light; Star Trek, into darkness", but Star Trek, into Darkness" simply doesn't make sense under any circumstances, which is probably why I didn't get what Heller meant.]

The article continues to trek into darkness with ever more convoluted reasoning: “Or perhaps the film’s creators intend Star Trek to be understood as a verb—to Star Trek—turning the title into an imperative: ‘Star Trek into darkness!’” Yes, clearly that’s how it’s to be understood—as an imperative! I suppose Journey to the Center of the Earth is intended to be read the same way. But Heller keeps on digging: “Perhaps those two words [Star Trek] are meant to function individually [whatever that means]. . . . If trek is a verb—“We trek into darkness”—what, precisely, is going on with the apparent subject of the sentence, star? Why is it not plural, to match the verb form: Stars Trek Into Darkness? Or if trek is a noun—“His trek into darkness”—where is the article or pronoun that would give the title sense: A Star Trek Into Darkness? And what, for that matter, is a star trek?”

This is perhaps the stupidest passage about grammar that I’ve ever read. Star Trek is a noun-noun compound, not a noun and a verb, as is clear from their lack of grammatical agreement. A star trek is a trek among the stars. Titles don’t need articles—remember Journey to the Center of the Earth? (Yes, I know that it is sometimes translated as A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but the article is optional and doesn’t exist in the original French.)

I know that some of you are thinking, “It’s a joke! Lighten up!” Obviously this argument has already occurred in the comments, which is why my post was linked to. I’ll grant that it’s probably intended to be a joke, but if so it’s the lamest, most inept language-related joke I’ve ever read. It’s like a bookkeeper feigning confusion about the equation 2 + 2 = 4, asking, “Shouldn’t it be 2 + 2 = 22?” Not only does Heller’s piece revel in grammatical ineptitude, but it reinforces the stereotype of editors as small-minded and officious pedants.

I’ve worked as a copy editor and layout artist for over ten years, and I’ve worked with a lot of different people in that time. I’ve known some really great editors and some really bad ones, and I think that even the best of us tend to get hung up on trivialities like whether to capitalize into far more than we should. When I first saw the Slate column, I hoped that it would address some of those foibles, but instead it took a turn for the insipid and never looked back. I looked at a few more entries in the column, and they all seem to work about the same way, seizing on meaningless trivialities and trying to make them seem significant.

So I have a plea for you this Grammar Day: stop using grammar as the butt of lame jokes or as a tool for picking apart people or things that you don’t like. And if that is how you’re going to use it, at least try to make sure you know what you’re talking about first. You’re making the rest of us look bad.

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Grammar Day Sale

In honor of National Grammar Day this Monday, I’ve reduced all the t-shirts in the Arrant Pedantry Store by $1 (sorry, the price drop doesn’t apply to the product designer). Plus, you can get $5 off orders of $30 or more with the coupon GREENWEEK through March 5. Watch this space for a real post on Monday.

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Free Shipping Again

Yes, it’s another post full of shameless self-promotion. Get free delivery on all orders today through Wednesday with the code FREELOVE. The code works at both the regular store and the product designer. No minimum purchase required.

I apologize that I haven’t written a real post in over a month. Right now I’m frantically trying to finish writing my thesis so I can graduate in April. I’ll try to write something here soon, but until then, you should check out this new group blog called Foolproofing, offering sarcastic editing advice from expert editors.

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Relative Pronoun Redux

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Pullum wrote on Lingua Franca about the that/which rule, which he calls “a rule which will live in infamy”. (For my own previous posts on the subject, see here, here, and here.) He runs through the whole gamut of objections to the rule—that the rule is an invention, that it started as a suggestion and became canonized as grammatical law, that it has “an ugly clutch of exceptions”, that great writers (including E. B. White himself) have long used restrictive which, and that it’s really the commas that distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as they do with other relative pronouns like who.

It’s a pretty thorough deconstruction of the rule, but in a subsequent Language Log post, he despairs of converting anyone, saying, “You can’t talk people out of their positions on this; they do not want to be confused with facts.” And sure enough, the commenters on his Lingua Franca post proved him right. Perhaps most maddening was this one from someone posting as losemygrip:

Just what the hell is wrong with trying to regularize English and make it a little more consistent? Sounds like a good thing to me. Just because there are inconsistent precedents doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to regularize things. I get so tired of people smugly proclaiming that others are being officious because they want things to make sense.

The desire to fix a problem with the language may seem noble, but in this case the desire stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the grammar of relative pronouns, and the that/which rule, rather than regularizing the language and making it a little more consistent, actually introduces a rather significant irregularity and inconsistency. The real problem is that few if any grammarians realize that English has two separate systems of relativization: the wh words and that, and they work differently.

If we ignore the various prescriptions about relative pronouns, we find that the wh words (the pronouns who/whom/whose and which, the adverbs where, when, why, whither, and whence, and the where + preposition compounds) form a complete system on their own. The pronouns who and which distinguish between personhood or animacy—people and sometimes animals or other personified things get who, while everything else gets which. But both pronouns function restrictively and nonrestrictively, and so do most of the other wh relatives. (Why occurs almost exclusively as a restrictive relative adverb after reason.)

With all of these relative pronouns and adverbs, restrictiveness is indicated with commas in writing or a small pause in speech. There’s no need for a lexical or morphological distinction to show restrictiveness with who or where or any of the others—intonation or punctuation does it all. There are a few irregularities in the system—for instance, which has no genitive form and must use whose or of which, and who declines for cases while which does not—but on the whole it’s rather orderly.

That, on the other hand, is a system all by itself, and it’s rather restricted in its range. It only forms restrictive relative clauses, and then only in a narrow range of syntactic constructions. It can’t follow a preposition (the book of which I spoke rather than *the book of that I spoke) or the demonstrative that (they want that which they can’t have rather than *they want that that they can’t have), and it usually doesn’t occur after coordinating conjunctions. But it doesn’t make the same personhood distinction that who and which do, and it functions as a relative adverb sometimes. In short, the distribution of that is a subset of the distribution of the wh words. They are simply two different ways to make relative clauses, one of which is more constrained.

Proscribing which in its role as a restrictive relative where it overlaps with that doesn’t make the system more regular—it creates a rather strange hole in the middle of the wh relative paradigm and forces speakers to use a word from a completely different paradigm instead. It actually makes the system irregular. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. Grammarians have looked at the distribution of which and that, misunderstood it, and tried to fix it based on their misunderstanding. But if they’d step back and look at the system as a whole, they’d see that the problem is an imagined one. If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes. And it makes perfect sense as it is.

I’m sure, as Professor Pullum was, that I’m not going to make a lot of converts. I can practically hear copy editors’ responses: But following the rule doesn’t hurt anything! Some readers will write us angry letters if we don’t follow it! It decreases ambiguity! To the first I say, of course it hurts, in that it has a cost that we blithely ignore: every change a copy editor makes takes time, and that time costs money. Are we adding enough value to the works we edit to recoup that cost? I once saw a proof of a book wherein the proofreader had marked every single restrictive which—and there were four or five per page—to be changed to that. How much time did it take to mark all those whiches for two hundred or more pages? How much more time would it have taken for the typesetter to enter those corrections and then deal with all the reflowed text? I didn’t want to find out the answer—I stetted every last one of those changes. Furthermore, the rule hurts all those who don’t follow it and are therefore judged as being sub-par writers at best or idiots at worst, as Pullum discussed in his Lingua Franca post.

To the second response, I’ve said before that I don’t believe we should give so much power to the cranks. Why should they hold veto power for everyone else’s usage? If their displeasure is such a problem, give me some evidence that we should spend so much time and money pleasing them. Show me that the economic cost of not following the rule in print is greater than the cost of following it. But stop saying that we as a society need to cater to this group and assuming that this ends the discussion.

To the last response: No, it really doesn’t. Commas do all the work of disambiguation, as Stan Carey explains. The car which I drive is no more ambiguous than The man who came to dinner. They’re only ambiguous if you have no faith in the writer’s or editor’s ability to punctuate and thus assume that there should be a comma where there isn’t one. But requiring that in place of which doesn’t really solve this problem, because the same ambiguity exists for every other relative clause that doesn’t use that. Note that Bryan Garner allows either who or that with people; why not allow either which or that with things? Stop and ask yourself how you’re able to understand phrases like The house in which I live or The woman whose hair is brown without using a different word to mark that it’s a restrictive clause. And if the that/which rule really is an aid to understanding, give me some evidence. Show me the results of an eye-tracking study or fMRI or at least a well-designed reading comprehension test geared to show the understanding of relative clauses. But don’t insist on enforcing a language-wide change without some compelling evidence.

The problem with all the justifications for the rule is that they’re post hoc. Someone made a bad analysis of the English system of relative pronouns and proposed a rule to tidy up an imagined problem. Everything since then has been a rationalization to continue to support a flawed rule. Mark Liberman said it well on Language Log yesterday:

This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.

Unfortunately, this is often par for the course with prescriptive rules. The rule is taken a priori as correct and authoritative, and all evidence refuting the rule is ignored or waved away so as not to undermine it. Prescriptivism has come a long way in the last century, especially in the last decade or so as corpus tools have made research easy and data more accessible. But there’s still a long way to go.

Update: Mark Liberman has a new post on the that/which rule which includes links to many of the previous Language Log posts on the subject.

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Last Day for Standard Shipping for Christmas

If you’d like to buy anything for Christmas from the Arrant Pedantry Store or product designer, today’s the deadline for ordering with standard shipping. You still have a few more days if you plan on using premium or express shipping—see the deadlines here.

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Completion Successful

The other day I added some funds to my student card and saw a familiar message: “Your Deposit Completed Successfully!” I’ve seen the similar message “Completion successful” on gas pumps after I finish pumping gas. These messages seem perfectly ordinary at first glance, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized how odd they are. Though they’re intended as concise messages to let me know that everything worked the way it was supposed to, I had to wonder what it meant for a completion to be successful.

The first question is, what is it that’s being completed? Obviously it must be the transaction. But rather than describing the transaction as successful or unsuccessful, it describes the act of completing the transaction as such. So is it possible to separate the notions of completion and success? In my mind, the fact that the transaction is complete means that it was successful, and vice versa. An incomplete transaction would be unsuccessful. After all, if the transaction were incomplete or unsuccessful, it certainly wouldn’t give me a message like “Completion unsuccessful” or, worse yet, “Incompletion successful”.

So saying that the completion is successful is really just another way of saying that the transaction is complete. But as a consumer, I don’t really care that the abstract act of completing the transaction is successful—I just care that the transaction is complete. The message takes what I care about (the completion), nominalizes it, and reports on the status of the nominalization instead.

What I can’t figure out is why the messages would frame the status of the transaction in such an odd way. Perhaps it’s a case of what Geoffrey Pullum calls nerdview, which is when experts frame public language in a way that makes sense to them but that seems odd or nonsensical to laypeople. Perhaps from the perspective of the company processing the credit card transaction, there’s a difference between the completeness of the transaction and its success. I don’t know—I don’t work at a bank, and I don’t care enough to research how credit card transactions are processed. I just want to put some money on my student card so I can buy some donuts from the vending machine.

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Hanged and Hung

The distinction between hanged and hung is one of the odder ones in the language. I remember learning in high school that people are hanged, pictures are hung. There was never any explanation of why it was so; it simply was. It was years before I learned the strange and complicated history of these two words.

English has a few pairs of related verbs that are differentiated by their transitivity: lay/lie, rise/raise, and sit/set. Transitive verbs take objects; intransitive ones don’t. In each of these pairs, the intransitive verb is strong, and the transitive verb is weak. Strong verbs inflect for the preterite (simple past) and past participle forms by means of a vowel change, such as sing–sang–sung. Weak verbs add the -(e)d suffix (or sometimes just a -t or nothing at all if the word already ends in -t). So lie–lay–lain is a strong verb, and lay–laid–laid is weak. Note that the subject of one of the intransitive verbs becomes the object when you use its transitive counterpart. The book lay on the floor but I laid the book on the floor.

Historically hang belonged with these pairs, and it ended up in its current state through the accidents of sound change and history. It was originally two separate verbs (the Oxford English Dictionary actually says it was three—two Old English verbs and one Old Norse verb—but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole) that came to be pronounced identically in their present-tense forms. They still retained their own preterite and past participle forms, though, so at one point in Early Modern English hang–hung–hung existed alongside hang–hanged–hanged.

Once the two verbs started to collapse together, the distinction started to become lost too. Just look at how much trouble we have keeping lay and lie separate, and they only overlap in the present lay and the past tense lay. With identical present tenses, hang/hang began to look like any other word with a choice between strong and weak past forms, like dived/dove or sneaked/snuck. The transitive/intransitive distinction between the two effectively disappeared, and hung won out as the preterite and past participle form.

The weak transitive hanged didn’t completely vanish, though; it stuck around in legal writing, which tends to use a lot of archaisms. Because it was only used in legal writing in the sense of hanging someone to death (with the poor soul as the object of the verb), it picked up the new sense that we’re now familiar with, whether or not the verb is transitive. Similarly, hung is used for everything but people, whether or not the verb is intransitive.

Interestingly, German has mostly hung on to the distinction. Though the German verbs both merged in the present tense into hängen, the past forms are still separate: hängen–hing–gehungen for intransitive forms and hängen–hängte–gehängt for transitive. Germans would say the equivalent of I hanged the picture on the wall and The picture hung on the wall—none of this nonsense about only using hanged when it’s a person hanging by the neck until dead.

The surprising thing about the distinction in English is that it’s observed (at least in edited writing) so faithfully. Usually people aren’t so good at honoring fussy semantic distinctions, but here I think the collocates do a lot of the work of selecting one word or the other. Searching for collocates of both hanged and hung in COCA, we find the following words:

hanged:
himself
man
men
herself
themselves
murder
convicted
neck
effigy
burned

hung:
up
phone
air
wall
above
jury
walls
hair
ceiling
neck

The hanged words pretty clearly all hanging people, whether by suicide, as punishment for murder, or in effigy. (The collocations with burned were all about hanging and burning people or effigies.) The collocates for hung show no real pattern; it’s simply used for everything else. (The collocations with neck were not about hanging by the neck but about things being hung from or around the neck.)

So despite what I said about this being one of the odder distinctions in the language, it seems to work. (Though I’d like to know to what extent, if any, the distinction is an artifact of the copy editing process.) Hung is the general-use word; hanged is used when a few very specific and closely related contexts call for it.