Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The generous and the pinched

Another wrangle last week, this one in an online discussion with people who insist that the relative pronoun that, against all evidence, must not be used to refer to human beings and is "dehumanizing" when used so. Such dogmatism about the English language is common, strident, and frequently ill-informed. 

H.W. Fowler exploded the split-infinitive superstition a century ago. Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins has been available for half a century. Bryan Garner has been exposing superstitions and shibboleths about English usage for a generation. And yet what we commonly hear is that some commonplace word or usage is "uneducated" or "illiterate" or "like fingernails on a blackboard," and that we are verging on barbarism. 

What by contrast I found appealing in Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause is its atmosphere of openness and generosity. Ellen Jovin travels around the country from her base in New York City, setting up her Grammar Table in public spaces to engage any passerby who is interested in discussion of grammar and usage. Her account shows that people are fascinated by language, keen to talk about it, and--make note--willing to be better informed. 

My own experience as a professional copy editor over forty years is that my colleagues, far from being the robotic assassins of prose that some reporters would have had you think, have been open and generous in their approach to the craft. It was a quarter-century ago that Pam Robinson and the late Hank Glamann on their own volunteer time got the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing) launched. It has ever since relied on scores of volunteer speakers to broaden our perspective on language and editing and deepen our skills. 

In my own blogging I have learned a great deal from exchanges with linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky and with lexicographers such as Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, Steve Kleinedler, and Emily Brewster, all willing to share their expertise and offer support. What one finds from them is that there are many Englishes beyond the standard written form, all of which have fascinating features worth examining. 

Karen Yin's Conscious Style Guide and Conscious Language Newsletter are invaluable sources of intelligent and informed explorations of the ways the language is shifting and efforts to treat everyone we write about with dignity and respect. 

There are, of course, fair targets: journalists who can't make their subjects and verbs agree, academics who make a fetish of obscurity, merchants of vacuous business jargon, and anyone who inflicts  pretentious or dishonest or dull prose on you. Striking a blow for clarity and accuracy is always apt. 

But they aren't the targets of the people with the pinched view of language, the view that some form of standard written English is the only "correct" one, that some schoolroom nostrum carried into adulthood (and often misremembered) is eternally valid. What is actually behind the pinched view is not really an objection to words and usages in themselves, but to the people who use them. These objections are an opportunity to parade contempt for people thought to be inferiors.

Life is all choices. You can choose to frisk among the Englishes with people who are open-handedly willing to talk about them with you. Or you can clutch a precarious gentility. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

God doesn't think he's a doctor

I got into a back-and-forth online this week over using the title doctor for people with non-medical degrees. 

He's the issue for stylebook editors and  the tinpot despots who make style decrees for publications: At colleges and universities, the title doctor is in widespread, nearly universal,* use. But people who have attended college or university are a minority, and in the wider population, a doctor is understood to be an M.D. 

Or a D.D.S. or a D.O. or a D.C. or a D.P.M. or a D.V.M. (Those are the doctorates the Associated Press Stylebook approves.)

The issue has some currency because of the recent sneering at Jill Biden's being called "Dr. Biden." She holds an earned doctorate in education, but the Ed.D. does not score high in prestige on some campuses and is often dismissed as not a real doctorate. (One illustration of the snobbery among the learned came when I was at Syracuse. Someone caused a stir by obtaining and releasing the faculty salaries, and the provost caused a further stir by saying publicly that you could not expect to hire a physics professor for what you would pay a Spanish teacher.)

I think it's questionable that the Associated Press Stylebook should take it upon itself to determine which academic degrees are more genuine than others. And its decision seems even more questionable if it is based on prejudice or ignorance in the wider population. 

We are a middle-class, status-conscious society. When someone has sat through all those classes and seminars, slogged through all those articles and books, and pushed out some dissertation which, if they are fortunate, no one but their committee will ever read, let them have what little scrap of distinction society permits them. 

* A member of the faculty at Syracuse, a Chaucerian, preferred the title professor, because, he said, doctor was the title of someone making a living by probing people's orifices.  

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Take it out: in the wake of

Journalism operates on conventions (write one obituary or one police story, and you can write a thousand), and the pressure of time leads reporters to reach for prefabricated phrases. The best writers try to break free of formula. Here's a hint. 

Nearly every day I see an account that some event has occurred or circumstance developed in the wake of another event or circumstance. This is, first, a dead or at least moribund metaphor, like free rein. Unless the reader is a sailor, it's unlikely that the expression conveys an image of the disturbance in water from the passage of a ship. 

Apart from the loss of the visual image, the expression has lost much of its original sense. When a large vessel moves through the water, its wake has the potential to endanger smaller craft. But in most contexts in newspapers, in the wake of does not mean "complicates" or "makes more difficult." It often means that one event is a consequence of another, or even simply came after another. 

Change in the wake of to following, and the reader will readily understand your meaning. And you will have omitted three words you can well do without.  

Start here

 When I posted photos of the shelves on which I keep my books on language and writing, Ben Yagoda noticed some gaps and kindly sent me copies of two of his books. Today I commend to you How to Not Write Bad (Riverhead Books, 177 pages, $15 and cheap at the price). 

It is not what you would call an ambitious book; he makes it clear from the start that you should look elsewhere if you have ambitions for belles lettres. He wants to make the student writing papers and the person writing memos for colleagues adequate and free of embarrassment at the task. 

His method is to identify four dozen or so basic lapses in grammar, usage, and writing that he has identified over the years as a teacher of writing at the University of Delaware. Subject-verb disagreement, punctuation, confusion of homonyms, reliance on cliches, and more. I can attest to the accuracy of his catalogue; these are the same deficiencies I identified in student work over twenty-five years at Loyola University Maryland and over forty years in the work of professional journalists. These are the mistakes that everyone makes all the time. 

He urges the writer to keep current with how the language is being used by wide reading. There is no substitute. How to Not Write Bad was published in 2013, and in it he predicts that singular they, widely deplored at the time, was likely to become standard in a decade. So he was prescient. Some of the cliches he lists have faded, but a substantial number of them continue to deaden writing. You have to pay attention. 

His examples, many from student or business work, are apt and his explanations concise. He shows how to excise extraneous language. And he continually stresses that you must clean up after yourself

If your ambition is to become a great writer, have at it. But to become a great writer, you must first become a good enough writer. This is a place to start. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

The small part

 On Saturday I attended a little gathering of Baltimore Sun employees and alumni to celebrate the belated acquisition of The Sun's 2020 Pulitzer Prize for exposing Mayor Catherine Pugh's Healthy Holly scandal, a handsome Tiffany crystal. I remarked online of my pride in having had a small part in the enterprise. 

A gentleman, whose name I do not care to mention, commented, "Only losers take credit credit for something in which they had little to no impact."* This is how people think when they do not understand what copy editors do. (Lately this is also how officers of publishing corporations appear to think.) 

It is the case that I did not report or write the articles or take the photographs. But other things accumulate to create impact. 

In editing the Healthy Holly stories, after they had been through the hands of the reporters and the assigning editors, I read each one through. If something did not seem clear to me, and might not be clear to the reader, I asked questions. I checked for factual accuracy and resolved discrepancies. I regularized, where necessary, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and other matters of English usage. When the length of a story exceeded the space allotted on the page, I had to trim intelligently so that no significant details were lost. I wrote or edited the photo captions. I wrote the headlines, which are the reader's gateway to the text, seeking to make sure that they were accurate and appealing. And I made a page proof so that another editor could check my work. The whole point is to make each story factually correct and as clear as possible. 

Work that is largely invisible may not be appreciated, and it was true in many newsrooms for many years that copy editors were seen as losers, the copy desk the last stop for reporters whose legs or livers had given out. But every copy editor knows how much work goes into this obscure craft, and how much it can improve stories. 

The better reporters also know that. 

*I could write [sic] after that doubled "credit," but that would be snotty. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

End a sentence with a preposition if you want to

 Yes, I know, Someone told you that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. Someone also told you never to split infinitives, none is always singular, and avoid the wicked passive voice, even though you're not quite sure what it is. Someone told you a lot of rubbish.

And even though you (probably) don't advocate the Ptolemaic theory that the universe revolves around the Earth or the theory that fire is the release of phlogiston from combustible substances, you continue to adhere to nonsense merely because Someone once told you so.*

Let me roll out a couple of the Big Guns. 

A century ago, the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler wrote this: "It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late ('They are the fittest timber to make great politics of' said Bacon; & 'What are you hitting me for' says the modern schoolboy) be kept true to their name & placed before the word they govern." 

The maintenance of this superstition, he writes, means that "immense pains are daily expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English."

More recently, Bryan Garner writes thus in Garner's Modern English Usage: "The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar. ... But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar." 

To illustrate, he compares the "Correct and Natural" ("people worth talking to") to the "Correct and Stuffy" ("people to whom it is worth talking"). Among the examples of natural English he cites is a sentence by George Orwell: "The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with." 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage closes its entry on the subject with a set of terminal-preposition sentences by established writers of English, including Bunyan, Swift, Johnson, Austen, Carroll, Joyce, Frost, and Thurber. 

You may at this point be unconvinced, firm in your resolve never to conclude a sentence with a preposition. And this is America, where if it is your preference to sound like a prig, it is also your right. 

*For a catalogue of rubbish frequently taught, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing is available by order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores like The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.