Arrant Pedantry

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Numbers and Hyphens

Recently I got a letter from my phone company informing me that my area code will be switching to 10-digit dialing sometime next year. Several times the letter mentioned that we will have to start dialing “10-digits.” It was very consistent—every time the numeral 10 was followed by the noun “digits,” there was a hyphen between them.

Now, I’ve tried to mellow over the last few years and take a more descriptivist stance on a lot of things, but I’m still pretty prescriptivist when it comes to spelling and style. Hyphens have a few different purposes, one of which is to join compound modifiers, and that purpose was not being served here.

Unfortunately, this is one of those things that most people aren’t really taught in school anymore, and even a lot of editors struggle with hyphens. It seems that some people see hyphens between numerals and whatever words follow them and generalize this to mean that there should always be hyphens after numerals.

But this isn’t the case, because as I said before, hyphens serve a purpose. The stress patterns and intonation of “10 digit(s)” are different in “You have to dial 10 digits” and “You have to dial 10-digit numbers,” because one is a compound and the other is not. The hyphen helps indicate this in writing, and if there’s a hyphen when there doesn’t need to be one, the reader may be primed to expect another word, thinking that “10-digits” is a compound that modifies something, only to find that that’s the end of the phrase.

Of course, one may argue that in compounds like this, the noun is always singular (“10-digit dialing,” not “10-digits dialing”), thus preventing any ambiguity or misreading. While technically true, some readers—like me—may still experience a slight mental hiccup when they realize that it’s not a compound but simply a numeral modifying a noun.

The solution is to learn when hyphens are actually needed. Of course, not all style guides agree on all points, but any decent style guide will at least cover the basics. And if all else fails, trust your ear—if you’re saying it like a compound, use a hyphen. If you’re saying it like two separate words, don’t use one. And if you’re writing or editing anything for publication, you really should know this already.

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How I Became a Descriptivist

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the grammar free-love hippie that I am now. I actually used to be known as quite a grammar nazi. This was back in my early days as an editor (during my first year or two of college) when I was learning lots of rules about grammar and usage and style, but before I had gotten into my major classes in English language, which introduced me to a much more descriptivist approach.

It was a gradual progression, starting with my class in modern American usage. Our textbook was Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in editing or the English language in general. The class opened my eyes to the complexities of usage issues and made me realize that few issues are as black-and-white as most prescriptivists would have you believe. And this was in a class in the editing minor of all places.

My classes in the English language major did even more to change my opinions about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Classes in Old English and the history of the English language showed me that although the language has changed dramatically over the centuries, it has never fallen into a state of chaos and decay. There has been clear, beautiful, compelling writing in every stage of the language (well, as long as there have been literate Anglo-Saxons, anyway).

But I think the final straw was annoyance with a lot of my fellow editors. Almost none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than following the strictures laid out in style guides and usage manuals (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was somehow exempt from reference). And far too often, the changes they made did nothing to improve the clarity, readability, or accuracy of the text. Without any depth of knowledge about the issues, they were left without the ability to make informed judgements about what should be changed.

In fact, I would say that you can’t be a truly great editor unless you learn to approach things from a descriptivist perspective. And in the end, you’re still deciding how the text should be instead of simply talking about how it is, so you haven’t fully left prescriptivism behind. But it will be an informed prescriptivism, based on facts about current and historical usage, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the rhetoric coming from the more fundamentalist prescriptivists.

And best of all, you’ll find that the sky won’t fall and the language won’t rapidly devolve into caveman grunts just because you stopped correcting all the instances of figurative over to more than. Everybody wins.

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Source Checking

In my current job making day planners, I get to read a lot of quotes. I don’t know who decided that day planners needed cheesy motivational and inspirational quotes in the first place, but that’s just the way it’s done.

One of my tasks is to compile databases of quotes and to make sure everything is accurate. The first part is easy. We’ve got a couple dozen books of quotations in the office, and if for some reason we want a little variety, there are countless sites on the internet that compile all kinds of motivational quotes.

Unfortunately, virtually all of our sources are unreliable. All but a few websites are completely untrustworthy; there are no standards, no editing, and no source citations. Most people seem to think that a vague description of who the person is (“actor,” “business executive,” and so forth) should suffice.

But surely edited and published books would be reliable, right? Not usually. Only one or two of the books in our office have real source citations so that we could track down the original if we wanted. Most just name an author, and sometimes they even screw that up—I’ve seen a quote by Will Durant attributed to Aristotle (it was in a book in which he discussed certain of Aristotle’s ideas) and another quote attributed to Marlene vos Savant. (For those of you who don’t know, it should be Marilyn vos Savant.) I can’t even figure out how an editorial error like that happens. Then there’s a quote from Jonathan Westover that pops up from time to time.

You begin to realize pretty quickly just how low the standards are for this genre of publishing. Most people don’t care about the accuracy of their inspiration—it’s the warm fuzzy feeling that matters. So things like research and thorough copy editing go out the window. It’s probably largely a waste of my time too. I doubt any of our customers would’ve spotted the errors above, but I feel like a fraud if I don’t try to catch as many of them as possible.

I’m beginning to realize that there are probably dozens of apocryphal, misattributed, or otherwise problematic quotes that I’m missing, though, simply because I don’t have the resources to track everything down. Googling for quotes seldom turns up anything of real use. And anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of our books are sourced entirely from the internet or from other unsourced collections of quotations. It might be an interesting study in stemmatics if it weren’t such an inane subject. Though sometimes I wonder if there are real origins for these incorrect quotes or if it’s just bad sources all the way down.

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Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive*, it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voila! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing

–Staff

So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.

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*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.

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I Am Not an English Major

I am not an English major. It’s true that I used to be—I’m not disputing that. But I’m not anymore, even though my new major doesn’t really sound different. I’m an English language major. There’s a subtle yet profound difference there. Some keen and discerning people recognize that there’s a difference, but even then they don’t always catch on to what it is. I’m not learning English as a second language—I already speak it fluently, thanks. Nor am I learning how to teach English as a second language—if that’s what I wanted to do, I’d get a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) minor.

So what exactly is my major? Well, like the name says, I study the English language. Not its literature, but the actual language itself—cool stuff like grammar and usage and phonology and semantics and the history of the language. I can tell you everything about the Great Vowel Shift and what separates Old English from Modern English (for starters, Shakespeare is not Old English).

Why am I so frustrated that I have to explain all of this? It’s because people often ask my wife and me what our majors are (hers is English), and they almost invariably respond, “Oh, so you’re both English majors.” Well, no, not really. Our majors have exactly one required class in common. It’s true that we’re both editors and devout word nerds, but our fields of study are quite different. The English major focuses on literature and writing, whereas the English language major focuses on linguistics.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This is all thoroughly fascinating, but what’s the point? Isn’t this just another one of those fluffy humanities majors that don’t prepare you for the real world? What in the world do you actually do with a degree in English language, anyway? Flip burgers? I certainly hope not. Go on to law school? Ugh. No way. Teach high school? Not a chance. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got tons of respect for teachers, but I decided a long time ago that teaching wasn’t for me, and I’ve gotten tired of people asking, “So, are you going to be a teacher?” It was an annoying question when I was still an English major (and thus had more of a chance of teaching high school), but it’s a far more annoying question now that I’m an English language major (and thus have zero chance of teaching high school). They want someone to teach literature and writing and that sort of thing, not someone who can explain to students the difference between a punctual and a durative verb or the phonological and grammatical changes that separate the Germanic languages from the rest of the Indo-European language family.

Instead, I am going into the wonderful world of editing. Not just proofreading or typo-fixing: editing. I fix things like bad organization, grammatical errors, poor wording, and stylistic issues. I am the mechanic that fixes those funny squeals and clunks and keeps things running smoothly. I am the midwife that makes sure the words are delivered without any problems. I am the security guard that pats down suspicious-looking sentences and confiscates their contraband grammar. I am the janitor that cleans up authors’ messes, messes that they’re perfectly capable of cleaning up themselves, but they don’t bother because they know I’ll take care of it. I am the guy you complain about and gloat over in absentia every time you find the typo that slipped through. I am the guy who will likely never get his name on a book cover, no matter how much he works on that book.

That last thought depresses me sometimes. I might never be published. I might never see my name in print. I might never write anything that will be of value to anyone but me. But is that so bad? Do I have to be a writer to be valued? Is it true that those who can’t write, edit? I really don’t think so. I like what I do. I’m good at it. And if no one ever quite understands just what it is I do, I should take it as a compliment, for that is the curse of the editor: when we do our jobs well, no one even knows we are there.

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