The usual post-election vocab lesson
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Bart: I am so sick of hearing about Lisa. Just because she's doing a little better than me—
Marge: She's President of the United States!
Congrats to those of you who supported Obama. It's a giddy time for wonks and English geeks generally: we get to spend the next few months correcting President to the delightfully technical President-elect.
I don't see any U.S. newspapers using it, but there's an additional potential distinction, President-designate. Check out this 1976 entry from The American Political Dictionary:
Following the November popular election, the winning candidate is unofficially called the "President-designate" until the electors are able to ratify the people's choice. Under the Twentieth Amendment, the President-elect is sworn into office at noon on the twentieth day of January, and if the President-elect fails to quality at that time, the Vice President-elect then acts as President.
As Wikipedia points out, if the President-elect dies before being sworn in, then the Vice President–elect becomes President. If, however, the President-designate dies before being voted President-elect on December 15th, then the Electoral College could choose a different President-elect, and they are not required to choose the Vice President–designate.
Obviously the news outlets are just following the common usage of President-elect. For one thing, calling Obama President-designate might come off as the same sort of dog-whistle that mentioning the middle name Hussein is in some circles.
Still, odd that no copy editors have latched onto the December 15th date for "official" President-elect status; it seems like the sort of petty terminological minutia they usually enjoy.
Doing my part to fight the word staycation
Friday, August 8, 2008
I'm going to Wisconsin this weekend, and then I'll be in Montreal all next week. So there won't be any posts until the 18th.
In the meantime, enjoy this soul-crushing Stet of the Week, reproduced with only slight alterations from an actual message board transcript:
Our Bold Hero: On the image for [this product], soffit is spelled incorrectly, as sofit.
Project Coordinator: Checking with client.
Project Coordinator: Correct spelling for Sofit is Sofit. On the items listed below, can you correct Soffit to be Sofit? I've bolded the spots in the long description and name.
Our Bold Hero: Are you sure? Soffit is the spelling for the word meaning "A material which covers the underside of an overhang," according to everything I looked at (newspapers, Wikipedia, and dictionaries).
Apologies in advance if Sofit is some word I've never heard of that means something else...
Project Coordinator: Client wants it spelled w/one ''f'': sofit
This is something I've just never understood. Why, client? Why do you want to be wrong? Especially when it's something as silly and pointless as this.
I'm w/ Jon Boy--Why do you want to look silly?
If it's a BRAND name, and you've dropped an "f" in order to differetiate your product, OK.
Frankly, the fault lies w/ Project Coordinator, who should be protecting the client from him/herself.
Of course the P.C. has to ultimately answer to the client, but stuff like this, why even check w/ the client? You don't give non-word people an opportunity to contradict the dictionary. You don't do ANYTHING to imply they have that sort of power.
I had to use "Staycation" in a web page I was creating for a client at work (it was at the client's request, of course, and I wasn't allowed to "forget" to include the phrase...sigh). It made me want to hurl--that pseudo-word sounds soooooo cheesy!
In defense of the humble ecdysiast
Monday, June 23, 2008
From a defense of Grand Theft Auto IV in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education:
You need to be honest with yourself. Go outside and find a locked car — or go to the back alley where missile launchers hover in a glowing light waiting for you to pick them up, or go drive down that street in your town where all the strippers hang out waiting for you to pick them up — and see if you're tempted.
As someone who's finished GTA IV and who loved the game, I'll pause here to note that weapons no longer "hover" in this installment.
Nor do I recognize the mission scenario ("an epic shootout involving missile launchers and strippers") in the essay's lede.
Nor do I remember facing off against any of the "vigilante strippers" that the author alludes to elsewhere.
It would be nice if writers concerned with dispelling myths about GTA IV could refrain from creating their own misinformation; these distortions in particular are especially irritating because they make GTA look cartoonish, which it (mostly) isn't. This game has humor and satire, but it also has drama, verisimilitude, and (fantastic) characterization. It would help if its defenders could take it a bit more seriously.
So. As you may have guessed, I want to talk about the strippers. We all know what strippers are, right?
Certainly you'd expect Bill Blake, who, even if he hasn't played GTA IV, is nevertheless an adult and (this is what's known as the "kicker") a doctoral student in cultural studies, to be aware of this phenomenon.
[...] or go drive down that street in your town where all the strippers hang out waiting for you to pick them up [...]
Neither in real life nor in the game do strippers hang around on the street, waiting for people to pick them up. To put it simply:
Stripper ≠ prostitute
I don't understand how a copy editor — or any alert reader — could miss this. Say what you will about my dubious morals (or worse, my prescriptivism), but stripper is a fairly basic term, wrongly applied here, and I'm shocked that it made it to publication.
Everything now officially a blog
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Internet jargon; if used, explain that it means 'Web log' or 'Web journal'
There. There is it, the stylebook entry that the AP removed several years ago, when blog "become so common and so much a part of the language that it was no longer necessary."
The distinction between "blog means Web log" (true) and "blog is short for Web log" (untrue) is a subtle one, I get it. Maybe, if the AP entry had been a little more clear, copy editors would be going after that phony etymology like so many improper uses of the word podium.
What I don't understand is why here, now, in May of 2008, you're all using blog like some sort of catch-all for "anything written on the Internet."
(See that capitalized Internet? I did that for you. I'm sorry that I seem so angry right now.)
I've seen this many times before, but here's the lede that set me off today:
Burger King said Tuesday it fired two employees following the disclosure that an executive secretly posted blogs slamming a farmworker advocacy group.
The rest of the story ("Burger King fires 2 after blog controversy") doesn't mention blogs, just postings. Which is appropriate, because blogs were not involved in any way. It turns out that all the statements in question were made in comment threads.
Bloggerheads has a great roundup of what probably happened. Misusing blog is bad enough, but here are some useful words that should have been in the AP piece: comment, sock-puppeting, YouTube.
So how do you spot a blog? Definitions vary, but nowadays it's almost universally accepted that on a blog, content will be arranged in reverse-chronological order, i.e. with new stuff at the top. For much, much more on defining the weblog, check out my increasingly outdated master's thesis.
Or, here's a neat trick: substitute Web log for blog in your article. If you can't, you're probably misusing the word blog.
I feel perfectly comfortable being pedantic about the use of "blog." People do not write blogs; they write blog posts or blog entries. I have a feeling this is going to turn into a losing battle pretty quickly, though.
Oof. Yeah, the "individual blog posts are not blogs" battle is not going well, not at all. We have to win "comments and forum posts aren't blogs" before we can even advance to that area of the battlefield.
I wonder if the next, tech-savvy generation of editors will do a better job with this.
If you scroll down towards the end of the story, however, you'll find that the Guardian has assembled some interesting quotes under the heading "An elegant pause — or merely a 'pretentious comma'?" Kudos to Jonathan Franzen for this one:
I love a good semicolon, but this sounds like one of those Literature is Dead! stories that the New York Times likes to run. I've never heard from a reader confused by one of my semicolons, and I don't remember ever throwing a book aside for being semicolon-free.
Also, since I blogged about the Eats, Shoots & Leaves Curse yesterday, I should note that another mention of her book has tempted fate. This time the problem is an extraneous, incorrect — dare I say bad? — comma:
Thanks for the link. For what it's worth, I don't think the punctuation debate is particular new here (read: Europa) either. Still, good to know that the humble semicolon can still rouse passion. Good or bad!
Oh, and I emailed the Guardian about the errant comma you also spotted. No reply yet. Probably still checking their point-vigules.
Great blog by the way.
I see that the Guardian hasn't silently corrected the story, so that comma will probably be there for good.
Not only is it a bad comma, but they apparently stole it from the following sentence. The horror!
As Word Wise so rightly observed: "you can no longer assume traditional spellings of names."
Check names and dates, people — this is basic stuff. Always check.
(Editosphere veterans will recognize the Eats, Shoots & Leaves Curse as a meta-manifestation of McKean's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." No one is exempt.)
"And talk about a preachy book! Everybody's a sinner! — except this guy."
Monday, March 17, 2008
If the Internet is to be believed, subsequent editors have only made 421 word changes to the King James Bible since the book was first published in 1611. If you include the marginalia and count duplicate errors twice, then by my reckoning there have been at least 1000 text changes (h/t F.H.A. Scrivener) — but as an apostate and an atheist, I'm not really that interested in the exact number.
In such a long text under early 17th-century publishing conditions, a mere 1000 errors still sounds impressive. Although one 1611 printing, the infamous "Judas Bible," did have Judas rather than Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane.
Even 1000 seems like a remarkably low number for a book of that size. Maybe the KJV translators and editors really did do a good job.
I just read Terry Prachett & Neil Gaiman's "Good Omens, in which several notable-error bibles are described.
I'm w/ jon boy: that's a very small number of corrections, considering!
As someone who is not an atheist, I get exasperated with the believers who think that anything remotely connected to God must be perfect.
I get equally frustrated w/ the nonbelievers who point to human frailties (look, a typo in the KJV!) as proof that there is no God.
Ooo, Good Omens used to be my favorite book; I had an extra copy just for lending out to people.
I'm generally critical of any attempt to discredit a message by focusing on errors in its composition, e.g. typos in the King James Bible. As much as I like editing errors out of faulty writing, as a copy editor I should be happiest when a work doesn't provide any such argumentative footholds.
I'm glad to hear a version of the King James is your go to, it's definitely the closest literal translation of the original Greek.
Some renditions of the New Testament have taken ridiculous liberties with the Greek, including adding words completely absent or even eliminating words from the Greek versions.
Wanted: damned lie statistics
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
A few months ago my company had someone compile a spreadsheet for each of the proofreaders. It was a thing of beauty, with every project we'd worked on in the previous six months color-coded based on the feedback we'd gotten for the finished products. You could tell at a glance how well you'd done, and the unspoken consensus was that all of our spreadsheets had much too much red. That is the color of failure.
("Changes were required due to client error" was light blue, I believe. The color of sanity.)
I've been thinking lately about newspaper error rates. I can't find any hard data on the New York Times error rate, but the paper averages about nine or ten corrections each day, mainly for straightforward factual matters.
(Digression: it perplexes me that these corrections appear online as a single webpage, replaced with new errors each day. Why does no one recognize the bloggy genius of Regret the Error?)
The NYT also still apparently scrubs out some errors for the web edition without comment, as reported on Hit & Run last week. Similarly under the radar are the numerous quote transcription errors, which would be difficult for a busy copy editor to check.
Without delving too deep into this topic, the only hard error-rate data I was able to find online was a Chicago Tribune report from 2003. (There were 1.69 proofreading errors per page.) Customer service editor Margaret Holt described the Trib's accuracy program here.
If anyone has more info on newspaper error rates, pass it along. I can see why newspapers might hold this information close, but for all I know J-school covers this in Copy-editing 101.
National Grammar Day: Readability is My God
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Outside the realm of comic books, the best arguments for prescriptivism are invariably pragmatic.
Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems like most grammatical prescriptions, even the crazy ones, came about because someone thought the text would be more readable that way. For example, even though the "avoid the passive voice" rule is much too blunt, it's true that "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive."
The novelty of the UChicago academic writing program was its extremely pragmatic approach: the intro course focused on things like subject continuity and sentence order. When pressed, one instructor told me that there was actually research behind all these new guidelines, proof they would make our writing more readable. It was hard to find fault with this purportedly scientific prescriptivism.
Editors have to consider other factors — correctness, conformity, veracity, elegance — but our fundamental concern is readability. We're there to make sure the text communicates its ideas effectively. That post about a National Clarity Day has it exactly right.
It's a shame that grammatical prescriptions don't always have much to do with readability. Dangling modifiers could trip up the reader, I can see that, but has ignorance of the which vs. that distinction ever done any harm?
(See also: Dryden's proscription of sentence-final prepositions, which is prettymuch completely ignored these days.)
Pleased to make your acquaintance, I'm Mr. Unreadable.
I think it might be because I switched schools every year and missed ever doing the 5th/6th grade sentence diagramming phase of English education.
Now, that is also liberating, but the truth is you have to hear me to understand me, because it is basically all singing (e.g. tangents get their own pitch).
Would you look at my blog to see if you could make any suggestion for my improvement?
Hmm, I think if the writer is ignorant of the that/which distinction and the reader is not, then the writer's use of that and which might cause the reader to pause for a moment and lose the flow. In that sense it might affect readability.
The same would go for things like split infinitives – I have no problem with them, but I still try to avoid them where possible in the magazine I work for because some of our readership would take issue with them. The readers that don't have an issue with them presumably wouldn't mind either way.
So I am a pragmatic prescriptivist... I imagine most copy editors would fall into this category too.
Oh and Mr Unreadable - I had a quick look at your blog (the old movies one) and thought your writing was fine. I know professional writers whose writing is less clear.
The Macrobrew Styleguide
Thursday, February 28, 2008
While I don't agree that the criterion of "correctness" has the sort of wide-ranging applicability that some prescriptivists attribute to it, like most copy editors I think that being correct is its own reward.
And so two or three times a week, I find myself checking the beer names in our mystery shoppers' beverage server interactions. It's not only that I believe you should always, always check names; it's that I refuse to leave something unfixed that is objectively, clearly wrong — even if nobody else would care.
First off, on a regional note: the plural is Leinie's, short for Leinenkugel's. Though personally, I always just say "Honey Weiss" — that's my fallback beer when the waitress is standing there and I'm panicking because I haven't made a decision.
The import beer in the notorious green bottles is spelled Heineken, but I've seen some rather creative guesses.
The light beers are usually spelled wrong. Light should be capitalized when it's part of a proper name: it's Bud Light, Coors Light, Sam Adams Light, Amstel Light, Keystone Light, Busch Light, Michelob Light, etc.
The only lite spelling you're likely to encounter is Miller Lite. Note that one of my brother's favorite beers, Miller High Life Light, does not use the funky spelling, nor does MGD Light.
Miller isn't the only company to use lite — they lost a lawsuit about this — but except for Labatt it's the only company selling lite beer that I've actually ever heard of.
(Possibly because lite has an extra negative connotation: a few years back New York Times Magazine had a tidy essay on the use of lite.)
You'd think so, but no
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Earlier this week Errata pointed me to a New York Times article on what he called "the official New York State misspelling of pot" — that is to say, the state's preference for marihuana over marijuana.
(The Online Etymology Dictionary, not citing any sources as usual, informs me that marijuana is "1918, alt. by influence of Sp. proper name Maria Juana 'Mary Jane' from mariguan (1894), from Mex.Sp. marihuana, of uncertain origin." So the crazy spelling is older, but I'm hip enough to know that these days, marijuana has supplanted marihuana in most contexts.)
You usually see marihuana only in statutory and legal writing. Here's my favorite example:
An indictment charging defendant with possession of marihuana was not defective because it spelled the narcotic with the letter "j" while statute denouncing possession of marihuana spelled the narcotic with an "h," since the two methods of spelling the drug sounds the same and are "idem sonans."
(Aside: I've already defended the technically/supposedly improper use of narcotic seen above. Basically, that ship has sailed.)
For copy editors, the marihuana spelling probably won't come up unless you're talking about legislation — it's the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Lancaster Intelligencer (how embarrassing!) — but it's another reminder that with names, all bets are off.
Another good example: for my first month editing casino mystery shopper reports, I repeatedly and mistakenly spelled it Caesar's Palace, not realizing that the omitted apostrophe is deliberate: we're all Caesars at Caesars Palace. It's a very good place to find Caesars.
"Greenpeace actions are illegal under international law (and) it's time the public stopped treating Greenpeace as heroes," Glenn Inwood, spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, in Tokyo, Japan, said Monday.
No, I don't care about the whales. Well, maybe I do — but that's not the really interesting thing here.
Which is: what the hell is going on with that (and)?
I mean, instead of a colon or a semicolon or a period or a dash, some copy editor has decided to insert a bracketed and into the sentence. Maybe he merely allowed a writer to get away with it, but let's assume an ideal copy editor here.
(For those without a trusty AP Stylebook: they use parentheses for brackets due to technological restrictions.)
There's no need to insert your own word to fix this direct quote, not when punctuation would suffice. Personally, I think that a semicolon (remember the semicolon?) would be the best option, as it sets up the same sort of nonspecific connection between two statements that (and) does here — but you could make arguments for any of the marks I mentioned above.
To ignore all those options and choose (and) is... a failure of the imagination.
Moreover, despite this bracket-craziness, they still begin the quote Greenpeace actions are illegal instead of (Greenpeace's) actions are illegal. I mean, what makes an action Greenpeace? Is ordering pizzas for your anti-whaling boat crew a Greenpeace action, if you get a receipt?
(It's also interesting that the CNN and USA Today versions of the same AP story with the same New Zealand dateline have Mr. Inwood speaking on Monday and Sunday respectively. Time zones are hard, I guess.)
Ugh. I think a good rule of thumb is to never insert something in brackets (or remove something with ellipses, for that matter) unless you really have to. And if the plain quote is ugly or unusable for some reason without heavy editorial intervention, then maybe you should find a different quote or simply paraphrase.
Thank heavens you posted the original quote. My brain was hurting from contemplating what sorts of idiot would think the postcard version (even sans typo) was deep enough to warrant writing down, much less a whole postcard.
I've not heard of the "author" either. I can only hope that this aphorism is not the most memorable thing he's written.
Is it weird to really love the word stong? Stay stong. We are stong.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Yesterday I edited a mystery shop report that was chock-full of very obvious pleonasms. Here are the two worst offenders:
There were no existing problems that needed to be resolved.
During the interaction she was pleasant and friendly while cashing out my voucher.
I saw about six different iterations of each of these sentences.
In this case, I'm going to have to side with Strunk. The dictate "omit needless words" sounds more sensible as the offenses against it become more egregious. See also: the Ten Commandments.
However, every word that doesn't "tell" isn't needless. The word that, for example, often doesn't tell you anything, so it follows that it could be omitted. Thusly:
This does not require the writer to make all his sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but every word should tell.
Obviously, some words are only there to add a bit of extra clarity to the sentence — and most of us are fine with that. In a poll I set up a while back, a majority of ACES forum members said they would write stated that instead of stated.
Now, I'm just a simple Midwestern proofreader, but...
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
So I would gladly sacrifice a bit of drama for the sake of accuracy, but apparently not all copy editors make that choice. I didn't get past the self-indulgent first page of this New York magazine article on Gawker, in part because the writing was so slippery.
She was mortified, and I=pissed: High-minded citizen journalism, it seems, can also involve insulting people's ethnic backgrounds.
Does the equals sign work in the past tense? Whatever. Vanessa Grigoriadis is referring to this entry, which makes no reference whatsoever to her ethnic background. Citizen journalism, it seems, can also involve jokes readers make in the comment section.
Grigoriadis isn't the first person to have done this, but I find criticizing a blog for its comments extremely dubious. As expected, the Gawker legal page includes the caveat "Gawker is not responsible for the content of user comments."
Worse still is the phony timeline Grigoriadis uses to drum up sympathy: this could have been fact-checked in about thirty seconds.
She starts by writing that
I woke up the day after my wedding to find that Gawker had written about me.
Timestamp on the New York Times wedding announcement: September 24. The announcement itself says that she was married "yesterday," which would put the actual wedding on September 23rd, a Saturday. The Gawker article was posted the following Monday, the 25th, so I'm sure the day after Grigoriadis's wedding was just wonderful.
Need more pathos? How about this:
Plus, only pansies get upset about Gawker, and no real journalist considers himself a pansy. But there is a cost to this way of thinking, a cost that can be as high as getting mocked on your wedding day.
Yeah, that must've sucked. Except: no! Because it never happened!
Names and dates, people: if Grigoriadis says Gawker hates her, check it out.
(Incidentally, what's with writing "New York Magazine"? Either magazine is part of the name or it's not.)
At first, I didn't get what was going on: I was flabbergasted that the NYT would spell videogame with a hyphen.
Then I realized that they were spelling it video game. Like the AP, the NYT sometimes hyphenates compound modifiers before nouns to avoid potential confusion. This is the video-game phenomenon of the year, not just the year's biggest game phenomenon to make use of video.
For me, that awkward, ugly hyphen is probably the strongest case you can make for using videogame over video game. I'm also put off by sentences that start with Video game — with the space there, I'm expecting a verb after Video; it takes a split second to grasp that the subject of the sentence has changed.
(I prefer boardgame to board game, for the same aesthetic reasons.)
A quick Google search shows that the videogame vs. video game debate has been raging for some time, with the recent publication of the Videogame Style Guide adding considerable fuel to the fire.
Styleguides lend authority and consistency to your writing, but with one crucial caveat: you prettymuch have to follow the entire guide. So it's probably pretty frustrating to see a guide with so much good, necessary videogame style advice advocating a variant, less popular spelling of video game.
I'd imagine that proponents of video game are just as irked by videogame as I was (and still am) by the AP's preference for adviser over the much more common advisor.
The first claim may be a general trend, but it's hardly a rule: Bradshaw of the Future supplies Maple Leaf, still life, and high brow. Off the top of my head, there's also Range Rover, pack rat, and Jucy Lucy [sic!].
As for the second claim... dudes, I'm looking right at it: video is modifying game.
The first article I found about this style choice was so contrary to my grammatico-political beliefs that I considered running it verbatim as an April Fool's Day gag. Sample:
In the introduction, there is a colon followed by a capital letter, for no apparent reason. I looked up the usage of colons in Strunk & White, just in case I was having some kind of memory lapse. I wasn't. It's not correct to use an uppercase letter there.
Much better was the response over at GameSetWatch, where Benj Edwards gives these and other spurious arguments a thorough fisking. There are some contentions, however, that I don't think he manages to refute: for example, the notion that we should follow the AP styleguide habit of writing most video words as runtogethers has a quirky sort of logic to it. Editors love eliminating exceptions, unless those exceptions can themselves be made into a rule.
Moreover, I remain sympathetic to the contention that 45 percent of Joystiq readers prefer videogame. It may be the less popular spelling variant, but it's a variant that emerged from within the gamer community, and it's there that it has most of its support. This styleguide is originating within that community, so while the IGJA might have been well-advised to wait until videogame was more widely accepted among gamers, they have no reason to follow the usage of the masses.
The masses, as readers of a certain age may recall, once referred to all videogame consoles as Nintendos.
(Video-game consoles, NYT?)
Edwards closes with some standard prescriptivist arguments, e.g. "any arbitrary change against the standard introduces unnecessary confusion" and "video games have been called 'video games' since the early 1970s, and there's no good reason to stop that trend."
He also asks — and to be fair, the IGJA kinda invited this question in their FAQ — "What are you trying to prove?"
I'm going to go ahead and say that most people are probably choosing the spelling that looks better, not trying to "prove" anything. My own preference is largely an aesthetic one. However, after reading through all the commentary on this, I think it's also clear that people on both sides can and will see an agenda in the presence or absence of a single space.
The writers behind the Videogame Style Guide no doubt knew the various connotations that people attach to these different spellings, and they probably anticipated many of the arguments against their unlikely choice. Nevertheless, for this styleguide they had to mandate one of the two options. I think they chose the right one, but I believe them when they say that they didn't make this decision lightly.
2. Doesn't Blogger do TrackBacks? Anyway, your post inspired me to author a response.
Thanks and take care, Tim
Thanks Tim, your language enthusiasm remains "the tits." I've commented over at your blog, essentially just rehashing.
Trackbacks... long, boring explanation. But my language RSS feed collection is practically an all-seeing eye.
The NYT dictionary of choice is Webster's New World, which shows video game for the noun. Presumably the NYT stylemeisters do not feel a need to supersede that.
I take language seriously and I don't appreciate being painted as an "April Fool's Day gag." I stand by my comments, and I don't see why you or anyone would disagree anyway. We really don't have cardgames or boardgames and videogames would be just as silly. It's been spelled "video game" for decades and there's no need to change it.
Sirlin - that April Fool's Day thing was an expression of the apparently extreme divide between our grammatico-political stances. For example, I would rarely if ever go to my copy of the Elements of Style to find out if something is "correct."
Your apparent attitude towards language reflects the mindset of most Americans, and I don't consider that position or the fact that you hold it ridiculous. As with "video game," many (even most) intelligent people agree with you.
However, given everything I've written here (especially the "Manifesto," which you're welcome to read if you care about grammar politics), my pretending to espouse such a view would be patently absurd.
I'm still very confused here. I'm American and America sucks, but neither of those things have much to do with anything here. I can go along with your manifesto, but I don't see what that has to do with this either.
I'm deep within the video game industry. I'm part of many different gaming circles, and I run the Evolution Fighting Game Championships, the biggest fighting game series anywhere in the world except for Japan's Super Battle Opera. I write for Game Developer Magazine and gamasutra.com. I wrote a book about competitive gaming. I have never seen any gamer in any of my circles ever use "videogame" even one time. It's also inconsistent with "card game" and "board game" as I said before. When I weigh these two possible spellings, I have nothing at all on the one hand, and everything I've ever seen on the other. So...why would we invent a new spelling? I must be missing something. Or is the claim that all the gamers I interact with are not representative and that a huge number of real people actually use "videogame"? If that's the claim, at least I'd know what the debate is, but I don't yet see any reason in favor of that spelling. That book with "videogame" in the title is the subject of many jokes because of it, further demonstrating the silliness of it.
Of course "video-game" would be even more jarring, so at least that's off the table (unless you're a writer for the New York Times).
I was responding to your concern about my earlier "April Fool's Day gag" comment. The point there wasn't your opinion on "video game" but instead the way you talked about grammar in making your case. I've changed the excerpt I used to better reflect the essence of my gripe. (In this case, contra Strunk, many people capitalize the first letter of a full sentence when it appears after a colon. It's AP style, for example.)
But on "video game": the argument that it's the most popular version is a good one, probably the best argument in its favor — but if you're actually claiming that a lot of gamers and gaming magazines don't use "videogame," then I suggest you go to Google, or any gaming website, and search the articles for "videogame." There are millions of results for "videogame" on Google, and thousands on IGN, Gamespot, and Gamespy. The Videogame Style Guide FAQ claims that 45 percent of respondents to a Joystiq poll support "videogame." It's still not the most common spelling, but it's quite common within any metric of "the community" that you want to use.
As my post makes clear, I'm not really persuaded by a lot of IGJA's arguments. My argument is two-fold:
1. This spelling variant is already in common usage.
2. I prefer the way "videogame" looks, especially since it will never acquire an ugly hyphen when modifying another noun. This could happen to "video game" in both AP and NYT style, and while I have very little against "video game," I hate "video-game."
Of course "video-game advantage" has to be hyphenated, just like "first-mover advantage". Are you going to tell us that all instances of "first mover" should become "firstmover" just so people won't use that "awkward, ugly" (but standard) hyphen? That's silly.
That would indeed be a silly thing to think. Obviously I'm not for turning all compound nouns into runtogethers, but videogame already has wide currency and — as the version that avoids the hyphen issue — I think it's aesthetically preferable to video game.
Wired Style put it nicely: "When in Doubt, Close It Up."
I had a debate with my copy editor for a book I am writing precisely on this issue. Very nice that to have found this blog entry. I am indeed going with videogames.
I'd like to think that I've developed the ability to appreciate such errors aesthetically, with minimal judgment of the actual writer. Note the delightful confluence of RAS syndrome and "unnecessary" quotation marks here. 'Tis like a fine wine.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
A doozie of a usage quirk, this time from a mystery shopper in California. With only a few exceptions, this writer forms all past tense sentences thusly:
[Actor] was [adjective] to [action] .
I spotted three variations of this pattern. The most common was able to:
When we first arrived at the table, Cari was able to smile and make eye contact.
Followed closely by sure to:
Nicolai was sure to initiate our interaction with a friendly "Sir, I can help you over here if you are ready."
Finally, about once per page, this writer used kind enough to. This particular example is a double-whammy:
After Teresa was sure to answer my question, she was kind enough to ask if there was anything else that we needed before we ended our encounter.
While this is probably the most extreme case that I've seen, about once a week I edit a mystery shopper who overuses did to form the past tense. (Which adds an odd, contrarian emphasis to sentences like "He did thank me.")
I'm starting to dislike did.
Proper linguistics terminology notwithstanding, I've decided to call this profusion of over-verbed sentences auxilaration. Or possibly auxilaration!, with an exclamation mark like Jenny! from Wayside School.
From the editing side it looks lazy, like the writer just couldn't be bothered to conjugate those other verbs. Really though, it was more work for the writer to do things this way — and since the entire narrative has to be written in the past tense, it's considerably more work for me. Although most of these sentences are grammatical, when you have so many of them together it quickly becomes ridiculous. And the able to variation has its own problems.
So why do this? The auxilarated shoppers tend to be fairly competent as amateur writers go, and they don't seem to have any problems correctly conjugating the verbs that do slip through. Nor is this one of those cases where the structure of the survey question is influencing the structure of the answer.
What then? Overcorrection? Some sort of folk grammar? Perverse stylistic preferences? Bad advice from an ill-informed pedant? I have no way to know.
The apartment of the future
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
I was looking at some client-side copy yesterday when I found this sentence. In comparison to the amateur writers I edit for my part-time job, this professional writer neatly illustrates how you can be exactly good enough to suck:
The apartment literally hovers over the water and the extensive views encapsulate all of Auckland Harbour's iconic landmarks.
Wundergrammar: Colon-Break Quotes
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Less exciting than my discovery of semicolon quotes, but still notable: this writer introduces all direct quotations as if they were block quotations. That is to say, with a colon, no quotation marks, and a break in the text:
Cordilia said: Thank you and good luck.
When I got to her station she said: How can I help you?
Though I suppose that even for block quotes these are unusual, since most people would probably add a blank line before the quote. And indent!
In any case, it's pretty safe to say that we're all a bit confused about quotations. For my part, last summer I went through a phase where I was refused to add in a comma when using said to introduce a quotation — now I have to coach writers who ignore this convention that it's our company style.
While most college-educated people (or at least, most English majors) probably agree on the basic mechanics of quotations, there are still sticking points out there — dark, warm places where prescriptivism can fester.
For example, from what I've seen, I'm at odds with much of America in my belief that the verb state can introduce only indirect quotations, not direct quotations. It also looks very weird when people introduce a paraphrase with stated instead of stated that. Such are my correctness conditions.
More than once, I've edited writers who broke both these 'rules' and used stated rather than said. Exclusively.
(It would be interesting to know what speaking verbs can introduce a paraphrase without that for most people. I'd guess that more than 90% of English speakers, whatever their preference, would have no problem with He said the dog was brown.)
The Wundergrammar: Semicolon Quotes
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
A curiosity: I just finished editing a writer who did not punctuate quotes in the usual style. Instead of using quotation marks, she availed herself of the semicolon. Some examples:
As I left, Ramona said; good luck.
Daniel approached as I sat at the bar, smiled and said; hi, what can I get you?
Julietta smiled and said; hello, my name is Julietta. I will be bringing you to your table.
A good friend of mine advocates abandoning the semicolon altogether — in favor of the em dash — and he's not alone in his disregard for the mark. It may be a sign of the times that someone could even think of using the semicolon like my writer did. As if it has nothing better to do!
At the very least, this usage represents a woeful misreading of the semicolon charter.
Love in the Time of McKean's Law
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Since this week's NYT "On Language" column is about a snoot's search for love, I should also mention that Epstein's rambling second sentence is full of stuff that her fellow snoots might object to:
One day, as a cure for a broken heart, a heart that had only barely survived a head-on collision with another heart, a heart just out of intensive care, bruised and limping and still shying at the sound of any traffic, I decided to go online to find distraction in the arms of other, virtual men and maybe, as a bonus, a suitable replacement for the one no longer in my life, to meet someone the normal way, as opposed to the archaic, anachronistic, so 1970s way I had met HIM — I'd had my skis (nearly) charmed off me at 10,000 feet by my instructor, who was trying, with a dribble of luck but gallons of patience, to teach me how to jump turn on telemark skis.
Faced with this sentence, a prescriptivist might ask some foolish questions:
Is a distinction being lost here between cure and heal? If heart is a flowery synecdoche for person, would we say "I got into a head-on collision with another person"? Are the men virtual, or just their arms? If the former, are you trying to find a replacement for the virtual man no longer in your life? Should the adjectival phrase so 1970s be hyphenated when it proceeds a noun? Why is nearly in parentheses? And can telemark not stand alone, or is there some reason why you wrote that you were (nearly) charmed off your skis while on your skis?
As for me, I don't particular care for the sentence, but I agree with the thrust of the article: in any real life situation that matters, grammar snob oneupsmanship is a fool's game. A fun one.
What few people seem to realize is that it's also a game that nearly everyone can play; society functions as well as it does because most people confine themselves to WTF reactions and tolerate the rest of us. Epstein seems to have brushed up against the boundaries of that tolerance, and in toning it down I think it's clear that she made the right choice.
The grammar muggles are actually even more generous than mere tolerance would suggest — they actually look to us as authorities in certain situations. I find it enormously gratifying that I can get some measure of respect for working with language(!) even from coworkers who would have little-to-no interest in my language geekery in its pure form.
I've got a dispatch from the trenches; I don't usually do editing work on the weekend, but I was stuck in a spreadsheet all day Friday and didn't get around to my other job. Here's the offending sentence:
I told her it was a credit card and she asked if I had a pin #.
Now, like any good copy editor I know that PIN stands for Personal Identification Number, so pin number is redundant. In a direct quote I want accuracy, period, which is why I didn't touch the ATM machine in the previous sentence. That's right, I did, and without even a [sic].
I'm fixing this. I can't make direct quotes better, i.e. change history, but it's my job to make writing better and the meaning of the sentence isn't changed by this revision.
Back in the trenches, editing mystery shopper reports on the side. It's respectable fun if you've got a real job too.
One issue I find myself dealing with quite often is ask/asked confusion.
Through the magic of state-coded writer I.D.s, I can even tell you that it's writers from Mississippi and Alabama who seem to have the most trouble with this. Many of them use ask as the past tense version with remarkable consistency, so I'm fairly sure they aren't just making thousands of unintentional mistakes.
This problem is so common that our company actually has a standard coaching note for it:
Please note that when using the word 'ASK' in the past tense, the proper spelling is 'ASKED'. Ex: She asked me if I was finding what I needed.
That's how you write a coaching note when differing correctness conditions seem impossible to you. Here's my reactive grammar remix:
Please note that when using the word 'ASK' in the past tense, the [company] stylebook prefers the form 'ASKED'. Ex: She asked me if I was finding what I needed.
Note to would-be linguists: an electronic archive of hundreds of thousands of state-coded mystery shopper reports, like, say, the one my company has, would probably make a kickass corpus.
It's a testament to something or other that drugs has become so closely associated with illegal drugs. The AP styleguide entry on drugs reflects this:
Because the word drugs has come to be used as a synonym for narcotics in recent years, medicine is frequently the better word to specify that an individual is taking medication.
And here, already, we get to what I really want to talk about. More technical definitions to the contrary, narcotic has become a synonym for illegal drug. You know that the prescriptivists have lost the semantic battle when even the AP unblinkingly uses narcotics in this way. A friend of mine who was annoyed by this issue (he claims to consider only the narrow, technical definition accurate) was surprised to find that I would not side with him.
Many law enforcement officials in the United States inaccurately use the word "narcotic" to refer to any illegal drug or any unlawfully possessed drug. An example is referring to cannabis as a narcotic. Because the term is often used broadly, inaccurately or pejoratively outside medical contexts, most medical professionals prefer the more precise term opioid, which refers to natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic substances that behave pharmacologically like morphine, the primary active constituent of natural opium poppy.
While it's a definite extension of the original meaning, I wouldn't go so far as to call this broader usage of the word "incorrect" — there are probably more police and laypeople out there equating narcotics with illegal drugs than there are doctors and sticklers using the narrower meaning.
And I dare you to say that when you hear police narcotics unit, you actually think they have a different unit for marijuana, cocaine, meth, LSD, etc.
I mean, maybe they do, but psh.
As a copy editor, my initial instinct was to go with the sticklers, because in edited English, language is not a democracy (witness adviser in AP style). However, given that the broader meaning is common usage, I'd let narcotics stand in almost all cases and only worry about narcotic, the adjective, when it was describing a particular drug or its effects. Ninety-percent of the time, the use of narcotic/narcotics will be an issue of precision, not correctness.
P.S. Since I was unaware that this is even an issue, I can't help but find this Columbia Guide to Standard American English entry amusing:
Narcotics is the plural of the noun, and it requires a plural verb: All these narcotics are addictive, but only that narcotic has a deadly narcotic effect.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Corrected two instances of proximity misconjugation the other day. Stuff like this:
*The pizzas available this coming month at Giovanni's looks delicious.
See how look is grabbing the conjugation from the nearest noun? I don't know about you, but this lazy verb breaks the flow of the sentence sufficiently to be WTF for me. Often sentences with promixity misconjugation are longer than my ridiculous example, but, well, I can still remember that subject from a dozen words ago.
It almost seems like this is the opposite of the dangling modifier problem, which usually occurs when the writer doesn't realize that there's a closer subject for the modifier to latch onto.
I wonder if there's a negative correlation in the occurrence of these two error types. I'll try and remember to look around the next time I get some messy QA editor work.
Among other valuable neurotic traits (like a sense of irritation, which helps you spot errors), copy editors have to cultivate a certain level of paranoia. It's productive to be irrationally suspicious of every sentence.
Many copy editors, testy and otherwise, seem to have come to much the same conclusion. I certainly remember a growing sense of satisfaction when I realized that my paranoia could actually be an asset.
Besides unfamiliar words (see: "On mispelling"), there are three things which I've attempted to cultivate a strong suspicion toward: names, idioms, and etymologies.
The first is easy to check, or at least was back when that was a big part of my job: all I had to do was search the campus directory or website. Idioms were harder, not so much because I couldn't find the recommended version as because replacing idioms like "chomping at the bit" and "hone in" with their less familiar counterparts often precipitated a minor philosophical crisis.
Then there were the etymologies.
I think we can all agree that if a piece of writing is making an etymological claim, the etymology should be correct. Other considerations — like whether the information is pertinent or whether it's appropriate to make an argument from etymology — can come later, because the dictionary is right there.
During some downtime, I once spent half an hour fixing a "nobody knows" etymology the writer had provided for the name of one of the school's less popular clubs, so that it instead specified the proper Elvish.
(I don't know a word of Elvish — my geek energy is directed elsewhere — but it always reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien's comment on the beauty of "cellar door," which also appears in a spectacularly dumbed-down form in the movie Donnie Darko.)
The interesting, plausible-sounding etymologies are always worth checking. I think I caught one or two back in the day, phony acronyms from what I remember, and at the campus bar I once got in a somewhat protracted argument over the origins of "call a spade a spade." Not the most ridiculously academic argument I've had there.
The area now known as Federal Triangle was then built in the 1930s in a separate project over what had been Washington's red light district. (The word "hooker" comes from the fact that Union General Joseph Hooker, who lost to Lee at Chancellorsville, liked to frequent brothels in this neighborhood.) Today, it is home to the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Where racily clad prostitutes used to congregate, dark-suited commuters now queue at slug lines for rides back to the Virginia suburbs.
This fascinating word origin story is easily debunked, and yet it slipped through because Fukuyama (and presumably a copy editor and one or two other readers) didn't bother to check it. Never trust a pretty etymology.
It's all about the paranoia. And if you're paranoid enough, it can be just as satisfying to find out that an etymology is really true: I listened to an old John Ciardi "On Words" podcast today and was surprised to learn that margarita apparently comes from a Spanish name that can also mean "daisy."
Since the inventor of the margarita is still disputed and I have no OED access, I can only give Ciardi the benefit of the doubt, but his theory was that the salt around the rim represented the white petals of the flower.
This is the kind of thing I love discovering about English. I'd like to think that when I'm checking an etymology it's win-win: either I catch a factual error, or I discover something new about the language.
"< Spanish Margarita, a female forename < post-classical Latin Margarita (see MARGARET n.).
The reason for the application of the name in either sense is unclear, and does not appear to follow any such use in Spanish. The uses recorded at sense 1 could perhaps reflect brand names. The cocktail name is variously attributed, with suggested origins in Mexico, California, or elsewhere in North America, and is commonly assigned to the 1930s or 1940s."
Often my misspelling is a result of a pronunciation spelling, itself usually based on a nonstandard pronunciation (or should I say "pronounciation?"). This makes it hard to tell where the pronunciation spelling stops and the spelling pronunciation begins.
(A friend of mine, the zine guy, makes a habit of pointing out the standard pronunciation when I slip up. Unfortunately, he always frames his observations as the "correct" way to pronounce something — the IPA notation from Moses' tablets, I guess — which leads to an excessive amount of protestation on my part. I should probably try to learn enough about my Minnesotan accent to separate my local color from my ignorance.)
My solution to the spelling issue is straightforward and boring: I've long since fell into the habit of looking up a word if I'm at all unsure about its spelling. To Bartleby!
(Incidentally, this is probably the only English word with a legitimate joke etymology that is more popular than the word blog. The latter comes from we blog, a nonce phrase formed from weblog.)
Less familiar to non-editors are sic, Latin for thus, and stet, from a Latin verb for "to stand."
Sic is used either to prevent the ill-informed from "correcting" something they aren't supposed to or — in printed material — to point out that an apparent mistake is not the editor's fault. Because it isn't just used for internal communication, it often appears in brackets or parentheses: I'm partial to it as [sic].
In my experience, stet is less language-oriented than sic: a layout editor will almost always write stet. Perhaps that's also why it seems like less of a buttal: I'm really not that attached to my ledding and kerning suggestions. Though very similar to sic in meaning, stet is rarely used for evil, unless you count foiling copy editors.
All of these are quick ways to respond to criticism, anticipate a question, what-have-you, and as often-unanalyzed elements of markup notation (I may know what "stet" does, but not what it means) they're quite symbolic, close to what we need.
A rogue copy editor's manifesto
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
As outlined in the Language Log post "Everything is correct" versus "Nothing is relevant", there is a third way between a complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage and a slavish prescriptivist adherence to rules that often have no relation to how good, honest sentences are formed.
As I understand it, Reactive Grammar, a.k.a. WTF grammar, is about abiding by your own correctness conditions rather than usage guides. You can still make language mistakes, but if a sentence is clear and intelligible to both its speaker and its audience, then it doesn't matter if, say, it ends with a preposition. And why should it?
I'm currently employed by two different companies as a proofreader and quality assurance editor respectively, and in the past I spent a year as copy chief of our school newspaper and three years tutoring students on how to write effective essays. I've found that even if you're in a position where you have to enforce arbitrary rules like the AP styleguide's preference for adviser over advisor, there's no harm in knowing that language prescriptions like those in your usage guide are neither magic nor objectively "correct."
This knowledge can even help you to be less arrogant. There's no reason to look down on a writer for using which in a way which you wouldn't, especially when you find out that many other people have the same correctness conditions as that writer. You might recast a sentence with that sort of which in order to fit with internal style rules or promote clarity or satisfy the language cranks in your audience, but all that's about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.
There's also no reason to — as I often did in the past — stop a conversation to enforce a language "rule" when what the speaker said was completely intelligible to you. The latent classism in pointing out that "ain't isn't a word," or the fact that, yes it is, aren't the point. The point is that you are the people, the language is working for you, and if you didn't have some WTF reaction to how the speaker is talking, then there's no reason to bring Strunk and White into this. As they say, or should.
Thoroughly enjoyed this one. Especially the last paragraph and sentiment.
Frankly I was a bit shocked when I saw you'd made a pic that expressed something so close to my core beliefs.
Sadly, or rather, not, that wasn't me who made that image. That was my good friend at noweverybody.blogspot.com. Though we work together at: onegoodideaaday.blogspot.com. I enjoy your work, keep it up!
I love you, I love you, I love you!
I, too, find myself between the prescriptivists and descriptivists. I got my M.A. in Linguistics some thirty years ago -- and now I write historical novels, which makes me ever mindful of the copy editor.
Kudos on a lovely site.
I agree, but I think this "complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage" you mention is a straw man. A real descriptive grammar is a description of usage, including what is used and not used in various social contexts. In other words, I think the descriptive approach is the third way.
I responded to alienvoord's last comment here, and he's responded to my response there as well.
Essentially, I'm fine with the definition many actual descriptivists would use for "descriptivism," but the perjorated, straw-man sense of that term is common enough these days that I'm willing to accept a third label instead.
Descriptivists — as imagined by the prescriptivists — may not even exist, but it's still useful (and quick) to be able to say "no, I'm not one of those people; I have some correctness standard."