Friday, October 14, 2022

Maybe it's time to let go of it

I posted this a couple of days ago: What long-held usage distinction/rule/shibboleth have you just given up as an editor, reluctantly or not? I was happy to drop the bogus "over/more than" and no longer see any utility in "comprise/compose" and "compare with/compare to."

Many of the responses were instructive. 

Dave Nelsen replied, "There was a time when I gave a lot more thought to singular 'they,' carefully considering the context and audience every time I’d come across it. Now I just allow it anywhere and everywhere, which is so much easier.."

Wendalyn Nichols was succinct: "I welcomed the moment that being a fan of singular 'they' no longer felt like a dirty secret."

Inevitably, one gentleman replied: "actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, 'they' and 'their' as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason."

"They" has been in use as a singular in English as long as there has been an English, antedating the singular use of "you." Even the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have grudgingly accepted reality. Language Log has multiple posts on the subject, for those willing to be informed. 

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, after which the damned Normans destroyed English, collaborating with illiterate peasants to drop inflections and junk the genders of nouns, and to illustrate how a language is an evolving consensus among its users. 

Thomas Consolo says that he is "still not giving up on 'comprises' vs. 'is comprised of.' " Ah, the years I've spent changing "is comprised of" to "is composed of." The rule, for civilians, is that "comprise" can only mean "includes," not "is made up of." The other day I made a quick check at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (limited access because I no longer have university faculty status) and found 2,537 citations for "comprises" and 3,229 citations for "comprised of." When the language moves on, think about moving with it. 

Someone else asked about "farther/further." In the 2011 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, 62% of the since-disbanded usage panel favored the traditional distinction that "farther" should be restricted to physical distance, not "to a greater degree or extent." In the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2014), the first definition of "further" is given as "farther." 

"Farther/further" is a prime example of what I have called dog-whistle editing: insisting on distinctions of usage that only other copy editors hear. Another is the journalistic "over/more than" rule, developed by 19th-century U.S. newspaper editors to restrict "over" to physical distance. It is a rule that does not actually exist in English outside of newspapers. Look that up in Merriam-Webster's

Of course, there was a tweet saying, "So, taken together, the thread respondents uphold no standards at all. Depressing."

I spent forty years as a copy editor enforcing standards, and still do as a retirement side-hustle. Some of the standards I used to enforce I no longer do, having recognized that the language has changed and that some of them  ("farther/further," "over/more than," "since/because") were bogus. If you want to be a serious editor, you must continually examine what you are doing and make an effort to keep informed. 

And there is this. There is not enough time for editing, even in the places that still place a value on it. All editing involves triage, and if you are still spending your time changing "further" to "farther" or "over" to "more than" out of a misplaced sense of precision, you may well be overlooking some error of fact, some jumble of organization, or some piece of slack writing that begs to be tightened. 

Try to keep up.