Vocab Elements and Online Language Effects

We spend a lot of time on this blog learning new words to improve our writing and expand our minds. I wanted to know more about the study of words and how the online world is affecting our language. This month’s books were an attempt to do that: English Vocabulary Elements, which looks at how vocabulary works, and Always On, which looks at how the online world is affecting language. Both were interesting, but very different, books from Oxford University Press. Let’s dig into them.

English Vocabulary Elements

English Vocabulary Elements by Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben is a deep book. Which is not surprising when you consider the authors: Denning was a linguistics professor at Eastern Michigan University, Kessler is an assistant professor of psychology and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology (PNP) at Washington University, and Leben is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Standford University. Based on a college linguistics course, the book is well organized into topics, such as morphology (study of word structure), allomorphy (when two morphs are of the same morpheme — I told you this was a deep book!), and phonetics (study of a language’s sounds). It also discusses the history and sources of English, which I found most interesting. It includes study aides and quizzes to help you learn the material and is fairly readable, more so if you’ve ever studied linguistics (which I did many moons ago). The glossary is splendid, with such words as affix, backronym, diacritic, morph, rhotacism, and voice defined. There are helpful appendixes, reading lists, and an index as well.

I found chapter 2, on the history and origins of English, fascinating. I’ve known forever that English is a Germanic language and that many of my ancestors were Anglo-Saxons (that is, Germanic tribes that settled in England). But I didn’t know how English and German were related, nor that they have the same ancestor, Indo-European and that language historians have been trying to recreate Proto-Indo-European. Indo-European gave birth first to Germanic, Italic, Celtic, and Hellenic. English comes from a Germanic decendant, West German (which also gave birth to German, though German is more closely related to West German than English is), whereas Latin comes from Italic and eventual gives birth to French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. I found the book’s language “family tree” as interesting as my own (yes, I am a geek).

If you are an amateur linguist or really want to jump into nuts and bolts of word study, pick up this book. That said, I don’t imagine many of my readers would want such an in-depth look at how are words are formed. It’s a wonderful geeky, academic book, but for all that it’s still a geeky, academic book. For myself, I think I’d look for a readable book on English language’s history. I’m sure at least some of the words in the glossary will appear in the Weekly Vocab Builder. Poor spellers would benefit a lot from this book, as knowing the roots of words and how certain words are related can really improve spelling.

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On by Naomi S. Baron is look at how Americans use language online. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, uses her own research with college students others’ research on online language and the platforms we use to communicate with online. She looks at e-mail, IM, Facebook, blogs, and texting to answer the question: how is online affecting language? Her conclusion is surprising: these platforms are not degrading the language; if anything is, it’s the youth culture and its “whatever” attitude that defines American culture (her focus in this book is specifically Americans; she is currently working on mobile phone use by university students in Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan, and Korea). The real effect the online world is having on language is a result of our new ability to be “always on,” always available to others through the Internet and our mobile phones. Because of that, we make choices about when to engage and when not to. How does this affect our relationships, online and off-? Do we lose depth for breadth? Do we lose depth for multitasking? What kind of people are we becoming?

To be honest, I expected to read things like there is a degradation in how complex our sentences are or we are now more adept at language usage because we are reading and writing so much more. Of course, those are extremes, but the book didn’t tackle the middle either. Instead, Baron discovers that online writing, though casual, is much more like writing than it is like speech. She spends a lot of time discussing the volume (think noise here) of online language. We are learning to control that volume, turning one channel up and another down (both on- and offlline) as our needs change moment to moment, and it affects how we interact with the world. Chapters 4 through 7 discuss IM, Facebook (and similar networks), blogs, and mobile phones. It was interesting to discover we are using these platforms to fill ever-present needs and there are parallels to them that have been used before, such as diaries and talk shows (did you see that one coming? I sure didn’t). Still, if you’re familiar with online and mobile communication tools, much of these chapters won’t surprise you; the author spends a lot of time simply defining them.

Chapters 8-10 wrap up the book and are worth the time to read. Baron even suggests you could read those first, and then go back and read more about her research, which is what I did. Chapter 8 discusses America’s youth culture and it’s “whatever” attitude and how that’s more the source for the decline in reading and writing skills. Chapter 10 discusses the cost to our culture of “being always on.” But Chapter 9, “Gresham’s Ghost: Challenges to the Written Culture,” is especially worthwhile for writers. The author closely examines the writing culture. She looks at why we write things down and why being published in the traditional sense is so important to us. She discusses vapor text, particularly Wikipedia. Is it changing our ideas of what authorship is? Where does writing fit into our culture, what will it become in the future? Should you bother reading blogs (like this one) about grammar and good writing? I’d argue you should, of course; language is still about getting your message not just out but understood. Good writing and good editing facilitate that.

But where is writing headed? “The future of written culture,” Baron writes, “will be a product not only of education and technology but of the individual and social choice we make about harnessing these resources.” (212) Let’s make conscious decisions about our education, technology, and harnessing them.

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Writing Tip: Journaling

A brand-new journal, all clean and crisp, is such a weighty thing. It holds such possibilities for discovery, creativity, and the all-important record. What would our modern society be without a record of events? We spend so much of our time reliving events in our talk, in our prolific online musings, in our dreams, even in our nightmares. Once it’s set down, it’s real. It’s permanent. (Or so we like to think.) A journal, then, can be our own personal record of what really happened. Or, more precisely, how we viewed events through the color of our emotions. Our journals can be a place to discover who we really are, a place to work out issues, to dream big and in living color.

Why, then, did it take me two years to fill 234 pages?

I recently filled my old journal. It’s a refillable journal, with a beautiful rust-colored leather cover and is filled with a 234-page lined book:

I’ve always tried to match my journals to my personality, to encourage me to write (you can see how well that worked). In 2007, I was very focused on using fewer resources. I sprang for the leather because I love the feel of it. But I liked that it  is refillable. OK, so not too many resources are saved, but a few are and that counts for something. At some point I had tucked inside two pictures of my kids from 2004. Here’s the one of Duncan:

Duncan, age 7 mo.

Not sure why they are in there, but I still love those pics. So I glued them in. Maybe with the new one, I’ll glue one in the front from 2010 and one in the back at the time I finish. It’d be neat to look back and see how my kids changed in the time it took me to fill my journal.

My first entry is on October 19, 2007. It details the migraine I had that day and what I did for it. It also lists the exercise I took that day. For the most part, that’s what I put in my journal: a record of my migraines, which can be severe, and of my exercise, which can be scarce. Both keep me aware of new patterns, like the fact that I’ve barely worked out since mid-December (sigh), and of how programs are working. Not very helpful as a writing tool, though excellent as a health tool.

There are other entries as well. Resolutions made and broken. I often resolve to watch less TV and workout more. And I always break them both. When I travel, I keep detailed notes. What the trip was like, how I felt about it, and so forth. I only recently started travelling alone and it was a new experience for me. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, especially since most trips were to NYC for business. New York is a very large place compared to Haverhill. It was overwhelming for me and not a lot of fun. After all, it was all work. But I got better at it, which I can see through  my journal entries. And there were fun trips too, mostly with the family. It’s nice to read about those times; I may even share them with the kids some day.

I lived my Cursio in the fall of 2007, so that experience is recorded here. It was a wonderful growth in my relationship with God and it’s lovely to revisit that weekend as I experienced it rather than as I remember it. There are other entries, too. Those that show me working my way through a depression, coming to the realization that I wanted to work for myself, working through troubled relationships. There’s even an entry that is a rough draft of a flyer for a fundraiser that never got off the ground. Maybe I’ll retread it sometime. Occasionally, I’ll add a powerful dream to it. But mostly, I go to my journal when I’m overwhelmed, when just thinking won’t do. When I’ve prayed and talked with others as much as I can, and I still need to order my thoughts or change my thinking about it.

Now there’s a new journal in town, waiting to get to know me:

Writing this blog has me in the habit of writing more. Perhaps I’ll journal more. Perhaps I won’t. I know what I use journaling for, and that at least will continue.

It’s often suggested that writers keep a journal, one in which they can practice their craft, open themselves up to risk in their writing. Your journal can be used to develop story ideas and characters or try out new writing styles. You should write in your journal regularly, even every day. Don’t follow my example of taking two years to fill less than 300 pages! How long should you write for? In a podcast about journaling, Grammar Girl suggests writing for 15 minutes a day. If you’re writing an hour or more every day, ask yourself if you’re procrastinating a writing project you should be doing.

If you’re going to keep a writing journal rather than any other type of journal (all are good IMHO), there are lots of creative writing exercises that would suit your journal. You don’t have to do one every day. Try one once in a while or when you’re feeling stuck. These sites offer some good ideas:

And there are lots more. Search on “journal writing exercises” or “creative writing exercises” or something similar.

Do you journal? What kind of journaling do you do, and how has it helped your writing (or has it)? Share your experience in the comments section!

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Punctuation Points: The Direct Address Comma

Recently, this cartoon made the rounds of language mavens:

The comma rule depicted here is simple: use a comma with the name of a person you are directly addressing. If the name comes first, it is followed by a comma: Children, please stop jumping on the beds. If the name comes at the end of the sentence, the comma precedes the name: Stop jumping on the beds, boys. And if the name (or names) comes in the middle of the sentence, surround it with commas: What I said, Sean and Duncan, was to stop jumping on the beds! As you can see from my example sentences (other than my children’s habit of jumping on the beds), you don’t have to use a proper name to address someone. A title works, even an informal one like boys.

In the cartoon, the comma changes the sentence from a bothersome one about cannibalism to a friendlier one about a grandchild encouraging Grandpa to have something to eat (as long as it’s not Grandma). Got it? Good. Let’s try a quick quiz.

  1. Arthur you really should consider running for office again.
  2. When Arthur ran last time, he lost by just a few votes.
  3. Don’t you want to go the distance Arthur?
  4. Right now Arthur is the best time to campaign.
  5. Just because the election is two years away is no reason for Arthur not to start knocking on doors.

Give it a whirl, and check back on Monday for the correct answers. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, post them below. And if you just want someone else to think about commas for you, visit my Website.

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Grammar Bite: Compose vs. Comprise

Which of these sentences is correct? (Hint: more than one may be correct.)

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.

As you might have guessed, today we’re tackling the compose/comprise argument. Careful writers and editors have definite opinions on whether the two words are interchangeable and whether is comprised of is acceptable. Let’s start with a couple dictionary definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary, comprise means “to include especially within a particular scope … sum up: a whole religion comprised within one book; comprised in the party slogan.” It defines compose, in part, as meaning:

to form by putting together two or more things, elements, or parts: put together: FASHION—now usually in passive: a well-composed body; composed of delegates from every state in the union

to form the substance of: CONSTITUTE: composed his personality—now used chiefly in passive: composed of many ingredients

American-Heritage defines comprise as “to consist of; be composed of” and “to compose; constitute,” noting the usage problem with the latter definition. It defines compose as “to make up the constituent parts of; constitute or form,” pointing to its usage note at comprise.

In its collegiate dictionary, Merriam-Webster notes that a usage like “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary” is “still attacked as wrong” although it’s been in use for over 300 years. M-W is seeing comprised of in more literary uses but warns the writer may be taken to task for it. Best to play it safe, it suggests, and choose something like “The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.”

What I like about American Heritage is that it doesn’t suggest that someone has her knickers in a twist for wanting to be precise in her writing and lays out the issue in plain English:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.

Both dictionaries, one more prescriptive, the other more descriptive, suggest that comprise can be used for compose and comprise of is increasingly used and acceptable, though careful writers should avoid both.

And you’re a careful writer, right? Let’s check in with the usage experts.

According to my pal Garner, in correct usage comprise means “the whole comprises the part,” while compose means “the whole is composed of the parts.” He also states that is comprised of is becoming “ubiquitous” (stage 4 in the Language-Change Index) but is still “considered poor usage” (175)

And what of Fowler, whom I reviewed last week? He doesn’t mention it, though Burchfield explains in his edition that this was an oversight in the final version and quotes an early tract with Fowler’s opinion (167–168). Both Fowler and Burchfield come down on the side of comprise not being the same as compose, and the latter offers plenty of examples, though he admits this may be a losing battle they’re fighting.

Many other experts side with more precise wording, including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, Words into Type, 21st Century Grammar Handbook, and Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.

It seems, then, the correct answer is, as it so often is in language, it depends. You can certainly get away with any of the sentences we started with and not be wholly condemnable:

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.

However, when you have to be understood, when first impressions truly count (and don’t they always in writing?), don’t use comprise to mean compose and don’t use is comprised of. Remember: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole:

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.

What do you think? Would you use comprise to mean compose in formal writing? Would you dare to put is comprised of in your next book or business report? Let me know in the comments section!

7/21/11 Update: AP Stylebook link updated to newest version of the manual; typos fixed.

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Understanding a Classic: Fowler’s Modern English Usage

I’ve said before that every writer needs five resources to help her in the writing craft: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, a usage guide, and resources that offer writing advice. A usage guide helps you determine how specific words and phrases are used or what word is wanted, such as whether you want less or fewer or what the proper positions are for adverbs.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, almost 20 years after the idea for it was first brought to brothers Frank and Henry Fowler’s attention. The dictionary was written during a rise in prescriptive grammar: language experts were telling speakers how they should speak, prescribing how language should work, as opposed to describing how language speakers used language. And their ranks were swelling. So a book that told you how to use this word or that phrase was just the thing. Henry and his brother Frank worked on their dictionary while James Murray was working on the Oxford English Dictionary, and they kept tabs on that project (check out The Meaning of Everything, which gives a history of the OED). Ironically, the OED‘s goal was, and remains, to describe all the words in the English language. It gives not just the current definition of a word but all previous definitions of that word back to its first appearance in print.

One of the heavyweights in this category is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. It was such a big hit when it first appeared that, according to the introduction to the latest printing, “within a few years, people no longer felt it necessary even to mention the title and talked simply of ‘Fowler’” (vii). The first edition is still revered by language mavens.

Frank and Henry started planning the book in 1911, though Frank was actively working on the Pocket Oxford Dictionary until his death in 1918 while fighting in the war. Henry then finished the POD and picked up his usage dictionary work again, finally completing it in 1926.

The dictionary was revised in a second edition in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers. I’ve never seen this edition, but according to the New York Times, Gowers “gave it a light going-over, preserving both the spirit and the substance of the original.” The book was revised again in 1996 by Robert Burchfield. This edition is generally regarded as heavily edited and more of Burchfield’s work than Fowler’s. It was this edition I was introduced to and it worked well enough for me, until I found Garner’s.

Now Oxford has seen fit to re-release the original Fowler, restoring it to its former glory, as it were.

So is it worth slapping down $20 or $30 for another book that will gather dust on your shelf?

First, Fowler shouldn’t be the only usage book on your shelf, particularly if you’re writing for a US audience. Fowler is undoubtedly a man of his place. His dictionary covers modern English usage, not American usage. He’s also a man of his time. There’s a revealing, if outdated, essay on “feminine designations””(175-176):

This article is intended as a counter-protest. The authoress, poetess, & paintress, & sometimes the patroness & the inspectress, take exception to the indication of sex in these designations … These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making their objection in the interests of language or of people in general; they object in their own interests only; this they are entitled to do, but still it is lower ground, & general convenience & the needs of the King’s English … must be reckoned of more importance … With the coming extension of women’s vocations, feminines for vocation-words are a special need of the future.

Yikes. Did Fowler really say that we need words like murderess and edtriss (both listed in the entry)? Yup, he did. (Shudder.)

Fowler also reflects the his times in that he is sometimes prescriptive and sometimes descriptive. In his entry on split infinitives (558-561), he addresses people who don’t know what a split infinitive is but who care about not splitting them:

These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives … the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible … After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author’s opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle for themselves whether, in the following sentence, “either to secure” followed by “to resign”, or “to either secure” followed by “resign”, should have been preferred

Fowler concludes that split infinitives are grammatical in English and should be allowed.

But at “elemental, elementary” (133), Fowler describes the situation without making comment:

The two words are now pretty clearly differentiated, the reference of -al being to “the elements” either in the old sense of earth, water, air, & fire, or as representing the great forces of nature conceived as their manifestations … & that of -ary being to elements in the more general sense of simplest component parts or rudiments.

Fowler does, indeed, have wisdom to impart, a wisdom that has held up for almost 85 years. In addition to the split infinitive conclusion (one largely held now to be the correct position), check out the entry for “affect, effect” (13):

These verbs are not synonyms requiring differentiation, but words of totally different meaning, neither of which can ever be substituted for the other. Affect … means have an influence on, produce an effect on, concern effect a change in: effect means bring about, cause, produce, result in have as a result.

It’s worth noting here that Burchfield kept this entry in his version but substituted his own essay for the split infinitives entry — and came to a different conclusion.

No one usage manual can do all things. Have more than one. Compare one’s advice to another’s and think about what truly lies in these entries. Fowler’s classic first edition should be one of those — for its advice that stays current and for the place in language history it illustrates.

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Dash It All

Hyphens, and Em-dashes, and En-dashes, Oh My!

Hyphens and dashes are common pieces of punctuations that can really improve your writing—if you know how to use them. Hyphens can show relationship between words and numbers. Em-dashes can lend your writing a bit of excitement. And en-dashes can show a range in an elegant manner. Today, a brief rundown of what they are and how to use them.

The Hyphen (-)

It’s just a little horizontal line, but the hyphen is a handy piece of punctuation. Among its many uses:

  • To join two words in a compound word, such as a phrasal adjective:  brand-new blogger
  • To join two names in a compound name: Robert Smith-Jones
  • To show word divisions: tan-ta-lize
  • To separatecharacters: 555-123-4567
  • In e-mail addresses and URLs

Note, however, that adverbs that end in -ly are not hyphenated in an adjective phrase as a rule: lovingly made mittens. I notice this a lot from writers who use AP Style, and it drives me crazy. Did AP once say to use a hyphen with a phrasal adjective containing an -ly adverb? (Honestly, I don’t know. If you do, tell me!) And because I’ve said this is the rule, I’m sure someone will come up with an exception to it. If so, please leave it in the comments below.

Did you notice another use of the hyphen? It can be used to show prefixes and suffixes, as in -ly.

The Em-Dash (—)

The em-dash is so called because it is the width of the capital m in the same font. Often on the Web (and back in the day, on a typewriter), it is represented by two hyphens (), though you can use one of the ASCII codes: ampersand-pound-8212-semi-colon or ampersand-mdash-semi-colon. Some style guides put a space before and after it (e.g., AP Style); some don’t have a space on either side of it (e.g., Chicago). Either way, the em-dash’s most common use is to set off a part of the sentence, usually with strong emphasis. You could also use a comma, a colon, or parentheses to set off the text, but be sure to match the punctuation’s strength with your words’ emphasis.

Don’t forget if you set off a word or phrase in the middle of the sentence, you need a matching set of punctuation marks. That is, if you introduce a phrase with an em-dash, you must also end the phrase with an em-dash. Same applies if you go with a less-emphatic punctuation mark.

Grammar Girl has a helpful post on em-dashes versus colons. This has stayed with me:

A dash also introduces extra material, but, well, a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark. A dashing young man is certainly not an ordinary young man, and if you’re dashing off to the store, you’re not just going to the store, you’re going in a flurry.

The En-Dash (–)

The en-dash is half the width of an em-dash (ASCII codes: ampersand-pound-8211-semi-colon and ampersand-ndash-semi-colon). I see fewer and fewer en-dashes in everyday copy; it seems to be relegated to very formal writing only. Which is too bad, because the en-dash is a useful little piece of punctuation:

  • It can represent the word to in a range: 2001–2009. Used this way, both ends of the ranges are included, which is a fine point often ignored these days. And with the en-dash, you don’t need the from to precede your range: The Christmas sale, running SaturdayMonday, will offer great savings.
  • It can join a phrasal adjective when part of phrase is an open compound: New Mexicobased.
  • It can represent a range with no ending: 2001.

Further Reading

These resources offer deeper discussions into hyphens and dashes, as well as explain a couple other, rarer dashes (so rare that I’ve never used them).

  • Words into Type
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
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A Writer’s Checklist

You’ve nurtured an idea, slaved over every word, and you’re ready to send your words out into the world. But wait! Have you reread your work? Unfortunately, many small, easily fixed errors can creep into your copy (I’m always finding errors in my blog posts despite the time I spend bleeding over them). Take just a few minutes to review your copy, with this handy checklist in mind, and you’ll increase the quality of your work:

  • Watch for missing words. You know what you want to say, but for some reason your fingers didn’t type all the words. Especially if your copy isn’t going to an editor next, reread your copy slowly. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. Read it in a different setting. Whatever it takes to make it seem new.
  • Check for homonym errors. Spell-checkers won’t catch these bad boys. Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. “To,” “too,” and “two” are a common set of homonyms that are often misused.
  • Companies are not people. Companies and organizations are referred to in the third-person singular: it and its.
  • Choose the right relative pronoun. Who refers to people; that refers to things.
  • Double-check words that are frequently confused. Be aware of such words as than/then and lose/loose. Weber State University offers a good list of frequently confused words. Print it up and tape it to your desk.
  • Check your math. If you include numbers and equations in your writing, double-check your math. There’s nothing worse than misplacing a decimal point or transposing two numbers…except having your readers find that you did it.

Today’s world moves fast. We’re forced to write more and faster. That’s when most errors sneak through. Taking just a couple minutes to review your copy helps ensure that it is of the highest quality, encouraging your readers to trust you and take your words, your message, seriously. And if you run short on time, drop me a line. Getting a professional editor gives your writing a better chance to meet its goals.

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Weekly Vocab Builder

Could your writing use some oomph? Try using one of these words this week:

And did you hear? The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its Word of the Year: unfriend. Says Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for the dictionary:

It has both currency and potential longevity. In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most un– prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar un– verbs (uncap, unpack), but unfriend is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of friend that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!). Unfriend has real lex-appeal.

Check out this year’s runners-up as well at OUP’s site (hashtag appeared earlier on one of my Wordnik lists). And follow me on Twitter to get the vocabulary word of the day. Maybe one of the words I cover will be next year’s Word of the Year!

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Who vs. Whom and Other Writing Bugaboos

Every writer has them: little points of grammar she can never remember. Is it who or whom? When is effect the right word? Is it i.e. or e.g., and what do they stand for anyway? Herewith, a few points to help you produce cleaner copy.

  • Who vs. whom. Who is used in place of a subject noun, whereas whom is used in place of an object noun. Try switching out who/whom for he/him. If you’d use he, you want who; if you’d use him, whom is your answer: Who was late for dinner? He was late for dinner.
    I sent an e-mail to whom? I sent an e-mail to him.
  • I.e. and e.g. I.e. stands for id est in Latin, which translates to that is in English. E.g. stands for exempli gratia in Latin, which is for example in English. If you can remember that i.e. is that is, you’ll be able to make the right choice. (Anyone have a mnemomic device for remembering which is which?)
  • Affect and effect. Affect is generally used as a verb, and effect is generally used as a noun. Here’s a mnemonic device, courtesy of Copyediting: “To Affect is to Act on, but the Effect is the rEsult.”
  •  Farther vs. further. Farther is used for distances, while further is used for time or degree: I walked farther today than I did yesterday.
    John wants to discuss the topic further at the meeting.

What bugaboos haunt your writing? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll cover them in a future post.

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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Editorial Process

I recently read “Your Copy Sucks: You Don’t Even Know What ‘Edit’ Means” by T.J. Dietderich on PR Breakfast Club. It was great to see someone not only defend editing but try to explain the different jobs that can come under the editing banner. I fear, though, that the post didn’t go far enough to correct misconceptions about the editing process.

Titles vs. Tasks

Part of the problem is that an editor’s title may bear no relation to her role. As fellow editor Levi Bookin points out:

Doctors and nurses both work in the field of health. There are some functions that either might perform, such as injections, but each must have a certificate relating to the individual vocation.

Editors, copy editors, and proofreaders all work in the field of preparing a manuscript for publication, but none has to provide a certificate relating to his occupation. Any may do all the work of any or all of the others.

The role does not have to match the title in publishing. What does Senior Editor mean, anyhow? It doesn’t even give a hint as to what kind of editing that person might do. It could just as easily be a video editor’s title as a text editor’s.

Another part of the problem could be the type of publisher we’re talking about. Publishing has never been limited to just books and periodicals. Advertising, research papers, company reports: they’re all published works, just not all public works. All need writers and all need some sort of editing process to prepare the document for readers. They just don’t necessarily have the same process, nor do they need to.

But these days, publishing isn’t even limited to print. If you have a blog and regularly post to it, you are a publisher (and a writer and an editor and…). The digital world offers us cheap, even free, tools to get our ideas out there for all to see. As a result, not every publisher understands traditional publishing processes and what all those roles involved.

And let’s not forget that digital publishing is challenging traditional publishers, who are responding by compressing processes and cutting corners.

A Rose Is a Rose

An editor’s title notwithstanding, what does an “editor” do?
Let’s start at the top. Dietderich talks about an “editor-editor” who assigns story ideas, decides what goes into the publication, and makes big changes to a piece–such as to the plot structure or the overall argument. This is a developmental editor. She be might called an executive editor, an editor in chief, a senior editor, an assigning editor, or even a plain old editor. The developmental editor might give a writer an assignment, particularly if the publication is a periodical. She’s got an idea or an outline for an article and she assigns a writer to it. When the writer turns in his assignment, the developmental editor may want big changes, such as structure or argument, so the article better fits her original idea or the purpose for the assignment.

In book publishing, the publisher might assign a developmental editor to a project. Maybe this is the writer’s second or third book in a series and he’s having trouble deciding how the story should grow, what order the action should be in, or something similar. The developmental editor helps him work out those issues.

Perhaps the writer is someone with an incredible story to tell, but he’s not really a writer and needs someone to help him out. He may get a deal with a publisher who assigns him an editor. Or he may hire someone to help him with the writing process to get his story ready to shop around to publishers.

Once the writing is finished–the writer has told his story, feels the structure and argument are good, and is basically ready to hand over his labor of love to a publisher–it’s time to polish the piece. There will be an editor to look at the document on the whole and section by section, another editor to look at it at the sentence level, and still another to look at it letter by letter. Not all publishers or media take such care with copy, and not everyone is aware of all these levels.

If your copy is fortunate enough to be in a process that takes such care, your copy will go to a substantive, or line, editor next. Again, titles abound and usually have nothing to do with job function: senior editor, editor, associate editor, and so on. However they are labeled, substantive editors look at the organization of the whole piece, structure, transitions (between chapters, sections, paragraphs, etc.), redundancies, jargon, sexist language, awkward constructions, excessive use of passive voice, wordiness, logic, tone, and so on. Substantive editors do not choose what goes into a publication.

The copy editor takes on the document next. She’s looking at sentence order and structure, sentence and paragraph length (particularly if the piece is to be published online), grammar, word usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and anything else she’s been asked to watch out for.

If the editorial process doesn’t include a separate fact-checking phase, the copy editor must fact-check as well. The list varies but generally includes names, addresses, phone numbers, URLs, dates, other numbers, and basic facts (e.g., President Obama is the 44th president of the US). Plenty of print publishers still hire copy editors, though this is an area hit hard by economic downturns and the digital revolution. When you need to cut back on something, you tend to skimp on the quality. And copy editors ensure quality.

Proofreaders are the end of the line, and they make sure the finished project is correct. Exactly how they do that depends on the type of proofreading they do. Traditional proofreading compares “dead copy” against “live copy,” that is they compare the last approved version of the piece against the new version and ensure they match and all changes have been incorporated. Editorial proofreading skips the dead copy part. The proofreader must read–and correct–(“cold-read”) the latest version (hopefully the version that will actually publish but not always) of a document. She corrects spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style.

If the Shoe Fits

As in Dietderich’s post, these are simplified definitions. Really, we’re talking about two different things here: tasks and titles. I’ve seen plenty of companies advertise for a “proofreader”–and offer a proofreader’s salary–for a copy editor’s job. I saw one ad the other day that wanted the right person to be both copy editor and proofreader and still get the job done perfectly. Yet any good editor knows the best rule is “the more eyes, the better.”

It’s easy to miss an error in a piece you’ve read two or three times already. Your brain knows what comes next and your eye will skim the sentence, allowing your brain to remember rather than see. Only, your brain remembered what it was supposed to see rather than what it actually saw. Memory is funny that way. And the longer the list of possible errors is, the more opportunities to miss something.

I’ve also seen plenty of jobs that want the copy editor to be a writer as well. Again, these are two different skills sets. Not that you can’t do both, but you shouldn’t do both on the same piece. And of course, they’re paying copy editor wages, not writer wages, which are higher. Employers can slap any title they please on a job. Hey, I was ClickZ’s Copy Chief & Associate Editor, yet I had no copy editors under me and I still can’t tell you what “associate editor” was supposed to mean for my employer because other associate editors in the company did not do the same job I did.

In the end, the key isn’t the job title; it’s the tasks to be performed. When clients hire me to edit for them, I don’t get hung up on titles (though I do define them on my site). Instead, I talk to them about what kind of things they want fixed. Spelling and punctuation? Check. Grammar? Check. Usage and style? Check. How about paragraph structure, transitions, awkward constructions, etc.? The list goes on until we’ve defined the job.

Every publisher’s and writer’s needs are different. It makes sense to know what the different levels of editing are, what the editor can do to help the copy, and what the editor’s skill set is. Then, no matter what the role is called, you know what to expect from your editor. True, the jargon can weigh you down (you’ll keep reading this blog to learn more, right?). Also true, the editorial process will likely keep getting compressed (if so, I want to be called Super Editor) and even change as digital publishing continues to develop. Knowing what your editor’s role is, rather than her title, will help you know what to expect from her.

Just don’t ask what a subeditor is.


A reader responded to this blog post elsewhere, adding these editing roles:

  • Acquisitions editor: This position is usually found within publishing houses. The editor will seek out books to publish and edit them into something usable.
  • Anonymous reviewer: Found in academic circles, this person reviews a manuscript from a technical perspective. She will suggest improvements to the author.

What other editing roles do you know of?

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