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Archive for November, 2009

Copyediting podcast: FIDDLY RULES 6—Use “Due to” with caution

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

FIDDLY RULES 6: Use “Due to” with caution

The sixth in a series of podcasts about fiddly rules that Copyediting editor Wendalyn Nichols says are nevertheless ones that careful writers follow. In this episode, fiddly rule number 6: Use “due to” with caution. (2 min.)

 

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Interlocutory delight

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Interlocutory delight

One morning back in October I was listening to National Public Radio, part of my morning ritual. As I was making breakfast, I heard Michele Kelemen interview the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, about an announcement of a new policy on Sudan. Kelemen noted that Sudan’s president had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, and asked whom, then, the U.S. would speak with.

Rice answered that we do not meet with Bashir, but “obviously, we have other interlocutors in the government in Khartoum, as well as in the rebel groups in Darfur, as well as the government of south Sudan. And we will deal with all of them.”

I put my coffee down and pulled out a notepad. I had to record the fact that Rice had said “interlocutors.” Not “other people we’re having discussions with,” but “interlocutors.” Man, do I love it when someone uses exactly the right word for the context, expecting the listeners to go look it up, darn it, if they don’t know it! It’s a telling commentary on just how far down the folksy path we’ve meandered in our public discourse if an official’s use of an entirely appropriate—not show-offy, not unnecessarily obfuscating, just appropriate—five-syllable word was unusual enough to stand out.

One of my editorial colleagues clearly didn’t know the term. I was relating my delight in Rice’s apt word choice to him, and suddenly his smile got a little sheepish and he mumbled apologetically that he’d have to go back to his office and look it up. He was talking to the Dictionary Lady: he knew I would not just tell him what it meant.

I invite you to look up interlocutor, too—not because I think you don’t know what it means, but because you might be interested in the etymology, in the context of dramatic dialogue and debate from which it arose. So much of what makes a word the best choice has to do with the connotations it brings with it; if we lose awareness of those, we lose the richness of English, with its full store of subtly differing synonyms.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting podcast: FIDDLY RULES 5—“Compound objects with ‘me’”

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

FIDDLY RULES 5: “Compound objects with ‘me’”

The fifth in a series of podcasts about fiddly rules that Copyediting editor Wendalyn Nichols says are nevertheless ones that careful writers follow. In this episode, fiddly rule number 5: Make sure to use me, not I, in a compound object. (2 min.)

 

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Parallel universe

Monday, November 16th, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Parallel universe

Linda Lowenthal, who writes the Currents column for Copyediting, sent me a note last week titled “Wow, that sandwich is really brand-spanking!”:

A Dunkin’ Donuts ad I saw on the T [the Boston subway system] last night said something like this (line breaks/punctuation as accurate as I can recall):

Brand-spanking,
Lip-smacking,
New biscuit sandwich.

Eh??

On first read, it doesn’t seem that the writers of this ad have violated any parallelism rules. Each of the three terms — brand-spanking, lip-smacking, and new — is an adjective modifying biscuit sandwich. (Biscuit is an attributive noun, so that actually makes four modifiers for sandwich, but the unit being modified is biscuit sandwich.)

But something is still very wrong with this ad: the modifier brand-spanking new is a fixed expression, but the word order in the ad makes us treat brand-spanking separately from new. That’s because each of the modifiers is presented as modifying biscuit sandwich separately. In effect, we have the following:

Brand-spanking biscuit sandwich
Lip-smacking biscuit sandwich
New biscuit sandwich

The result? A “brand-spanking biscuit sandwich.”

Perhaps Dunkin’ Donuts does hope its biscuit sandwich will spank the one produced by a rival brand, and who knows — maybe that subliminal suggestion was one intended by the ad writers. I suspect that ad writers as a group, especially those engaged by a major international chain, are a lot more calculated in their choices than many of us who edit for a living give them credit for.

I’m trying to see it from the ad writer’s perspective. The cadence of the ad works, with the metrical similarity of brand-spanking and lip-smacking, and I suppose it’s possible to analyze it as a sort of infixing, along the lines of abso-BLOODY-lutely: “brand-spanking LIP-SMACKING new.”

Well, perhaps that’s being charitable. But I do think it’s true that if the order were reversed — “lip-smacking, brand-spanking new biscuit sandwich” — that the two modifiers, lip-smacking and brand-spanking new, would sound much more like the clichés they are. The violation of the expected rules of word order makes it fresher — a trick that poets have used for centuries. It certainly made Linda take notice. Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting podcast: FIDDLY RULES 4—“Irregardless”

Friday, November 13th, 2009

FIDDLY RULES 4: “Irregardless”

The fourth in a series of podcasts about fiddly rules that Copyediting editor Wendalyn Nichols says are nevertheless ones that careful writers follow. In this episode, fiddly rule number 4: Correct “irregardless,” regardless! (2 min.)

 

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Tenets and tenants

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Tenets and tenants

In his November 5, 2009, post on the Political Animal blog for The Washington Monthly, columnist Steve Benen wrote:

“A central tenant of the right-wing agenda has been rejected with the defeat of TABOR (known deceptively as the ‘taxpayer bill of rights’) in these two states…”

In one of the blog comments, someone with the initials TR said, “‘Tenet’ not ‘tenant’ in the article. That copyeditor needs to be sacked.”

The criticism, of course, begs the question — not even The Atlantic Monthly provides copyeditors for its blogs (according to a friend who regularly blogs for that publication). But setting aside both the assumption and the drastic remedy for the error that TR suggests, he or she is quite right that the word needed was tenet, not tenant.

Another commenter (”Algernon”) said, “This mix-up of ‘tenant’ and ‘tenet’ has been creeping into a lot of blogs lately.” I’d argue that the confusion is not limited to blog writers, but rather that blog writers tend not to be edited. I caught the use of tenant for tenet (the error never seems to go the other way) in a colleague’s e-mail earlier this year, and the pair of “confusables” is common enough to be listed in usage manuals.

A tenet, just to remind ourselves, is something that one holds to be true. In Latin, tenet means ‘he holds’: it’s the third-person singular, present-tense form of the verb tenēre ‘to hold’. It is usually distinguished from the near-synonym belief by being applied to beliefs or principles that are held to be true by a group rather than just by one person. So we can, for instance, speak of “a central tenet of Judaism” or “one of the core tenets of free-market economics.”

The word tenant also harks back ultimately to tenēre, but by means of Old French into Middle English. It’s the present participle of tenir ‘to hold’. This time, though, what you’re holding is land, and the participle hints at the tenuous nature of that possession: you’re holding it for now, but you don’t own it.

Tenuous does not come from the same root, by the way — it’s from the Latin tenuis, meaning ’slight’ — but tenure does, and so do tenacious, tenable, and tenementCopyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Getting a word into “the” dictionary

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Last night (November 4, 2009), I went down to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on West 26th Street in Manhattan to be a guest on Seven Second Delay, a radio show broadcast on WFMU and streamed from the show’s blog.  (No, no apostrophe in Citizens is needed; it’s a brigade made up of citizens, not a brigade for citizens–that is, it would be, if it existed. But the show’s name ought to have a hyphen in it:  Seven-Second Delay.)

It’s not a language show; it’s an unscripted weekly talk show very much in the style of late-night comedy programs on television, only a lot less slick. Once a month, the program is broadcast from the UCB Theater instead of from the studio.  It has two hosts: Andy Breckman, a former writer for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live who is the creator and executive producer of the TV series Monk (or was; he kept talking last night about having just joined the ranks of the unemployed); and Ken Freedman, station manager and program director of WFMU.

One of my fellow guests was the Saw Lady, Natalia Paruz, who told me before the show that people in the saw-playing community were divided about calling themselves “sawists” (like pianistviolinist) or “sawyers” (people who play the saw). I pointed out that sawyer already existed as a word for someone who puts a saw to its more typical use. And that people who play, say, the bass are called either bassists or bass players, not “bassers.”

She liked my rationale, especially since she was in the “sawist” camp herself. Then she said, “So how do I get ’sawist’ into the dictionary?”

In all the media appearances I’ve made promoting and discussing dictionaries, that question is always in the top three (along with “What new words are going in the dictionary?” and “What’s your favorite word?”). I used to try to explain that there’s no single “the” dictionary, for a start, and that different dictionary houses have different criteria for how long a word needs to be watched before it is included. I also would point out that the word has to appear in a variety of printed, edited sources, not in a hundred faxes all sent in to the dictionary publisher by the word promoter’s relatives.

But now, I have an easier task, thanks to the increasing openness of dictionary site developers to interactivity. I told the Saw Lady to type “sawist” into the field at Wordnik.com. When you type in a word, whether it exists in the site’s data set or not, you can click on a link to leave a comment on the word. I suppose it’s the 2009 equivalent of sending in a fax, but it might get more noticed.

If you do find a legitimate use of an emergent meaning or word, Grant Barrett would like to hear from you. He’s the proprietor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, whose mission (according to the Web site)  is to record “undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words.” (Instructions about what is and is not a legitimate citation are available on the site.)

 Oh, and my favorite word is serendipity.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Proscribe with caution

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Proscribe with caution

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching again, and ran across the following sentence in a lesson plan on teaching negation: “Most Germanic languages, including English, proscribe against the use of double negatives.”

The writer wasn’t using the sense of proscribe meaning ‘condemn’ that we find in the following sentence I pulled from Google News:

    It is one thing to proscribe selfishness but quite another to prescribe the common good.

Nor was the writer using the sense of banishing or outlawing a person or group, which is how proscribe is used in the following comment about the British National Party:

    If politicians do not want BNP members to appear on television they should proscribe the organization.

The sense that is closest to what the writer meant was that of ‘prohibit’ or ‘forbid’, which is still pretty strong, as the following sentence demonstrates:

    Such laws are designed to minimize the destruction of life and property, proscribe cruel treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war.

But in using proscribe to talk about what languages do or don’t allow, the writer made two errors, one lexical and one grammatical.

First, proscribe is not a synonym for do not allow. In all of its meanings, it’s stronger than that; ‘prohibit’ is the mildest of them. English and other Germanic languages don’t prohibit or forbid the use of double negatives, as if this were a law one could write; the types of double negatives the writer was talking about (as opposed to the one in “I don’t not like him. I just don’t quite like him, either”) have simply fallen out of use and are now considered nonstandard in most contexts.

Second, proscribe is a transitive verb; using it with against would make it intransitive. Doing so violates the meaning, as well: the concept of forbidding or prohibiting against something is close to being a double negative itself.

Other errors in the use of proscribe are demonstrated in more sentences I found when I was searching Google News. In each of the following, dictate is meant; there is interference from the meaning of prescribe:

    California being the latest…to more strictly proscribe the conditions farm animals can be raised under…

    No longer would the Government proscribe how money would be spent by local authorities.

    To be honest we’re kind of neutral about how people access our content and don’t feel we should proscribe how people should be watching Sky.

And another error, this time another grammatical one, is to use “proscribe someone from doing something”:

    SAG’s Constitution does not unambiguously proscribe the Board from abolishing committees by a simple majority vote.

    Ancient Shinto beliefs proscribe women from entering the straw dohyo sumo ring.

The verb does not take this complementation pattern (although both prohibit and prevent do). It takes a direct object, which means that fixing the above sentences would result in the following, more awkward wording: “…proscribe the Board’s abolishing of committees…”; “…proscribe women’s entering…” If changing the complementation pattern results in such awkwardness, fix the sentences by changing proscribe to prohibit, or by recasting them. Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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