For writers

An editorial response to Hamilton Nolan’s ‘Against editors’.

Nolan has some interesting points to make and some good language to make them with. But the article has a few weaknesses that limit and distort its impact.

Here’s a quick paragraph-by-paragraph summary:

  1. In publishing, writers are unjustly subordinate to editors.
  2. But don’t writers need editors?
  3. Well, OK.
  4. But writers who want career advancement have to become editors.
  5. Writing and editing are different skills, though, so the result is a loss of good writers and an accumulation of bad editors.
  6. Passing a story through a series of editors is wasteful and doesn’t help.
  7. Editing is subjective, and such a series could in theory go on indefinitely.
  8. These unnecessary editors feel the need to edit to justify their existence.
  9. Sure, some editing is necessary, but it’s not as important or as hard as writing – and it’s better-paid.
  10. Let’s keep the good editors but get rid of the needless, bad ones and instead allow writers to get raises and promotions as writers.
  11. Stories are what matter, and stories come from writers, so writers should matter more.

The first problem is near the start. Para 2 includes this imagined response to his opening shot against editors:

You’re one to talk. Your grammar is wronged, your metaphors are blunt bricks, and your similes are like a hot needle to the eyeball. Your infinitives are split, your participles are dangling, your spelling is eroneous, your cliches are old as time, your sentences are repetitive, and your sentences are repetitive.

You see what he’s doing. For example, “old as time” is itself a cliché and so on. But in fact, “old as time” is a short phrase that readers will harmlessly process in barely a second. The real cliché here is the whole paragraph.

An article about editing that makes a string of deliberate blunders in a list of those very blunders? Really? Come on. That technique stopped being cute around the same time Happy Days did. Readers of this article are likely to have read other articles about editing, and so to have seen this trick before.

The other downside of this is that it slows the piece down, just when it needs to pull readers in. After stating his case in only the vaguest of outlines, Nolan is already anticipating objections and hedging with caveats. Para 2 (and by extension para 3) kill his momentum. The caveats could wait until paras 9 and 10.

A second problem is that “editor” covers several very different jobs, and Nolan doesn’t distinguish. Titles and processes vary between publishers, but a crude typology might be:

  • managing editors, who hire and fire, set the overall policy of the publication, and do all sorts of businessy things that have nothing to do with the articles themselves
  • commissioning editors, who decide what articles should be written and who should write them
  • developmental editors, who deal with tone, focus and structure; they may make changes themselves or feed back to the writer
  • copyeditors, who look at clarity, accuracy, consistency, house style, grammar, usage, typos and suchlike.

These roles often overlap: managing editors may commission and may look over articles before publication; commissioning editors may do the developmental work; copyeditors may have licence to veer into developmental territory. But the editors who do the most wrestling with the words are usually not the ones with the money, power and status.

The higher-level editors may well be writers who have climbed the pole. But copyeditors generally didn’t get where they are by working their way up – up! – from being successful writers. So the career hierarchy Nolan sketches and the series of editors he confronts don’t match up.

By not being clearer about what he means, he risks misleading, confusing or annoying readers (depending on how much they already know).

A third weakness comes in para 10:

It is absurd that most writers must choose between a career spent writing and a career that offers raises and promotions.

This point – that writers should be able to make career progress as writers – is crucial. It’s the one thing he really wants. But he gives no detail. He must have been thinking about this for a long time; he must have ideas. Surely he can’t just mean getting paid a bit more as you get a bit better, year after year. What would these senior writing jobs be? I’m intrigued. But after this, all we get in para 11 is a peroration whose rhetorical force depends on blurring the chronology and importance senses of “first”:

Stories are, ultimately, what matter. Stories are what websites and magazines and media “brands” live and die on. Stories come from writers. Writers come first. They shouldn’t be second-class citizens in their own industry.

Nolan could have trimmed that and got rid of the earlier clichéd caveat, freeing up space to elaborate and clarify where it would help. The article would have had more focus, force and depth as a result.

He has things to say (never mind whether I agree) and a talent for saying them, but the extra perspective of an editor could have helped him raise his voice and speak more powerfully to his readers.

Because that’s what editors are really for: we’re for the readers. And we’re for the writers.

Doctor, doctor…

Simon Rich’s ‘guy walks into a bar’ joke is really well done. Because I have little originality and even less shame, I’ve stolen adapted his approach to make my own. Continue reading

Write for a single reader

People sometimes say you should write the way you talk. I see what they’re getting at – be more direct and flowing, less stuffy and formal – but you shouldn’t take that advice too literally.

Writing and speech work very differently. If you’ve ever transcribed a conversation, you’ll know that a lot of the time people don’t even talk in sentences. And anyway, some of us are more fluent in writing than in speech.

Maybe a better version of that tip would be to write in a way that would sound natural if you read it out loud, or to write the way you would talk if you were an Aaron Sorkin character.

But a different way of making the same point struck me recently.

I was doing a piece of editing, and one passage in the text didn’t make sense. It was ambiguously phrased, and I didn’t know enough about the subject to figure out the intended meaning. So I emailed the writer and asked him to help.

His reply consisted of two paragraphs.

The first began “I was trying to make the point that…” and then gave me a perfectly lucid, direct explanation of it. The second began “So I would suggest rewriting it as follows…” and then presented a rewrite that, while clearer than the original, was a good bit stiffer and more overwrought than the explanation he’d just given me.

What had happened was very simple. First he had answered my question, telling me – one person to another – what he wanted me to understand. And then he had gone into Writing Mode.

In Writing Mode, you put aside your ordinary, natural fluency for fear that it isn’t up to the occasion, and you reach for ornate words and sentence structures to self-consciously craft a declaration. But these efforts often just get in the way of communicating.

So my advice is to write for an audience of one single person. Don’t let yourself be daunted by the sense that you’re addressing a crowd.

Sure, you may be aiming for a large readership, but each of them will read as an individual. So write for an individual. Imagine one of them in particular – someone who may well not have the same knowledge and priorities as you – and write directly for that one person.

Try it. Yes, I mean you.

Blog comments policy

  1. Don’t be a dick.
  2. If you’re being a dick, I’ll delete your comment, unless maybe you’re being a really funny dick.
  3. I am the final arbiter of dickery.
  4. I will try not to be a dick myself in deciding whether you’re being a dick. No promises, though.
  5. Get over it. It’s just some guy’s blog, and he’s like kind of a dick. Anyway, do you have any idea how few people read this thing?

Passive aggression

As a guide to good writing, Kellye Crane ranks alongside George Orwell and Stephen King. By which I mean they all make the same mistake.

But before I get onto them, I want to mention William Safire.

In 1979, Safire wrote a list of ‘fumblerules of grammar’ – rules that break themselves. You can get a flavour from the first three:

Remember to never split an infinitive.

A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.

The passive voice should never be used.

And so on.

But the passive-voice fumblerule is real. Stephen King, in his 2001 book On Writing, said: “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

“Have been created”? Passive alert! But does this really make King seem timid? I don’t think so. Continue reading

Bad grammar

Conservative newspapers love stories about the poor grammar of modern teenagers. So it’s surprising that the Daily Mail has a great example this week but doesn’t realise it.

The Mail sympathetically tells the tale of Albert Gifford, a 15-year-old from Somerset. After a family visit to the cinema, he wrote to BMW:

I was at the cinema recently, watching Godzilla, when I saw an advert for the new BMW 2 Series Coupé. But the whole advert was ruined by the slogan “it bites as bad as it barks”. This is grammatically incorrect, as ‘bad’ is not an adverb, so cannot be used in this context.

The word “badly” would be acceptable or even more exciting alternatives like ‘fiercely’. It would also be correct to say “its bite is as bad as its bark”. I was distracted with it throughout Godzilla, and didn’t enjoy it fully.

There follows a protracted correspondence between him and a very patient man at BMW. In the course of this fruitless exchange, Albert Gifford adds:

In no well-known saying is ‘bad’ used as an adverb. You can look it up in a dictionary if you like, and it will describe it as an ADJECTIVE (and maybe even a noun), which it is.

But he’s wrong.

His advice to look up “bad” in a dictionary is so good that I did it six times. The OED, Collins, Chambers, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage and Dictionary.com all list “bad” as an adverb. Most of them add that it is nonstandard, colloquial or informal, but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.

“Bad” is a flat adverb – an adverb that takes the same form as the adjective, with no “-ly” added to the end. Many are in standard use: hold me tight, shout it loud, aim high, drive slow, shine bright…

Sometimes flat adverbs have the same meaning as their “-ly” versions; sometimes they’re different.

“I need it bad” and “I need it badly” mean the same thing but differ in register. Likewise “They didn’t do too bad” and “They didn’t do too badly”. But in the case of the BMW ad, “badly” definitely wouldn’t work. “It bites as badly as it barks” would imply that the car is doubly useless. “It bites as bad as it barks” carries the desired sense of power and ferocity.

Some people frown on this usage, though.

Disapproval of adverbial “bad” goes back a long way. The earliest complaint about it that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives is from Robert Baker in 1770:

Some writers employ the word bad as an Adverb, and would not scruple to say That was done very bad: which is not English. The Word ill (it is true) is both an Adjective and an Adverb: but bad is only an Adjective.

The usage itself, as the OED reports, goes back another two centuries:

George Turberville, 1575:
He lures, he leaps, he calles, he cries, he ioyes, he waxeth sad,
And frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.

Later examples include:

William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848:
I didn’t do my duty with the regiment so bad.

Walt Whitman, 1863:
He has had frozen feet pretty bad.

Muhammad Ali, 1965:
I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.

John Lennon, 1969:
I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad

These are obviously informal and colloquial uses: dialogue, poetry, song. You wouldn’t write “I want this job so bad” in an application letter. But advertising slogans clearly aren’t bound to follow the conventions of formal prose. Advertisers can vary their English as much as lyricists, if they think it’ll work.

The only problem would be if it didn’t work. BMW’s target audience might include a lot of people who react badly to colloquialisms. But Albert Gifford, at least, is too young to drive.

Grammar: theory and practice

How good is your grammar? Find out with my simple test!

  1. Which British prime minister led both a majority Conservative government and a multi-party coalition, having previously served as a minister under two Conservative and two Liberal prime ministers?
    (a) Benjamin Disraeli (b) Winston Churchill (c) Harold Macmillan (d) Ted Heath (e) David Cameron
  2. How many times as large as the distance from the Earth to the moon is the distance between the innermost and the outermost of Saturn’s rings?
    (a) 0.2 (b) 0.5 (c) 0.8 (d) 1.1 (e) 1.8
  3. If you could see tourists posing to be photographed, leaning slightly to the side and theatrically straining to hold up thin air, what landmark would you see behind them?
    (a) Angkor Wat (b) The Taj Mahal (c) London Bridge (d) The Hoover Dam (e) The Leaning Tower of Pisa
  4. Of all the countries that border Russia but are not members of the European Union, which has the smallest population?
    (a) Norway (b) Azerbaijan (c) Georgia (d) Mongolia (e) Belarus

How did you do?

I don’t care whether you know the answers. But if you understand the questions, you have at least a pretty good practical grasp of English grammar (and vocabulary).

Most grammar tests aren’t like mine. They usually focus on the theory, or on the finer points of the test-setter’s preferred version of standard formal written English.

The theory is fine, but to obsess with it is to miss the wood for the trees. If you learned English as your first language, you absorbed almost all of its grammar with little explicit instruction. Immersed in the language, your insatiable infant brain figured out the functions of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on without needing to have those terms defined. Indeed, you wouldn’t be able to understand definitions of them without already knowing the language well enough to know how they work.

Language is essentially a skill; to treat it as a body of facts is possible but secondary. You can know it without knowing about it.

But knowing about it is good too. The theory can be helpful for seeing how to finesse sentences that don’t feel quite right, for learning a second language (or appreciating different dialects of English), and for teaching language (or explaining edits).

Finding out about how grammar works can help to strengthen the grasp of language that you already implicitly have – as long as it’s taught well. If taught badly, it can undermine your faith in that mostly sound intuitive grasp.

(OK, the answers are b, a, e and d.)

Bryan Garner’s language-change index

One of the best aspects of Garner’s Modern American Usage is that Bryan Garner doesn’t simply judge things as right or wrong. He doesn’t shy away from condemnation, but he knows – like any genuine language aficionado – that English is always in flux and always contains grey areas.

So he has a language-change index. “Its purpose,” he says, “is to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.”

There are five stages of change that a particular piece of language may be at:

  1. Rejected. “A new form emerges as an innovation (or some dialectal usage persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage. … People normally consider innovations at this stage outright mistakes.” Examples: “unconscionably” to mean “unconsciously”; “thiefs”; “prevaricate” to mean “procrastinate”; “highjack” instead of “hijack”; “baited breath”; “brung”.
  2. Widely shunned. “The form spreads to a significant portion of the language community, but it remains unacceptable in standard usage. … Terms in stage 2 often get recorded in dictionaries as variant forms”. Examples: “simplistic” to mean “simple”; “principle” to mean “principal”; “pour over” to mean “pore over”; “fall between the cracks” instead of “fall through the cracks”; “weeped”; “between you and I”; singular “criteria”.
  3. Widespread but… “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.” Examples: “in regards to” instead of “in regard to”; “miniscule” instead of “minuscule”; “infer” to mean “imply”; “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate”; “flaunt” to mean “flout”.
  4. Ubiquitous but… “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” Examples: “regretfully” to mean “regrettably”; “fulsome” to mean “lavish”; “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”; superlatives used with two objects (e.g. “the best of the pair”); “anxious” to mean “eager”; “the reason is because”.
  5. Fully accepted. “The form is universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Examples: “none” with plural verb; “decimate” to mean “cause destruction to”; “under the circumstances” rather than “in the circumstances”; “finalize”; “you can’t have your cake and eat it”; split infinitives where they feel natural.

Continue reading

Pickiness is not perfectionism

If someone sternly insists that it’s wrong to use a certain word a certain way, many people will be inclined to believe this – even if they themselves use it that way. They vaguely imagine that some definitive set of language rules exists and that they follow maybe three-quarters of these rules – more, if they make a special effort – while the discerning few manage 95%, 99%, even 100%.

It might be a bit intimidating or even annoying to be corrected, but it’s good to have someone around with such high standards. Right?

There’s just one problem. A person’s standards may be strictly defined, boldly stated and uncompromisingly applied, but that doesn’t mean those standards are high.

Standards can be arbitrary and idiosyncratic. And there is no hierarchy of discernment: different people get twitchy about different alleged mistakes. Some people fume about restrictive clauses beginning with “which” but happily split infinitives; for others, it’s the other way round.

There’s a big stock of common complaints that these people pick from as they feel their own particular urges. But there are also some much rarer complaints. These are not signs of grandmaster-level perfectionism: they are just quirks, however confidently decreed. The pet peeves that any particular person happens to have are not a reliable guide to good English.

For some examples, see Simon Heffer’s recent list of “common mistakes”.

He makes some fair points (“acquiesce” means to agree grudgingly, not just to agree; the past tense of “earn” is “earned”, not “earnt”; a “fatwa” is any Islamic clerical judgement, not necessarily a death sentence) and he emits some of the usual howls of pseudo-rationalised outrage against perfectly good standard usages (“between” must not be used with more than two objects; “hopefully” must not be used to mean “let’s hope that”; “transpire” cannot mean “happen”).

But a few things on his list I had never seen before. So I looked them up in several usage guides (Fowler 1926, Merriam-Webster 1994, Burchfield 1999, Peters 2004, Garner 2009) and dictionaries (OED, Collins, Chambers, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage). Heffer says:

ABLE Only living beings are able. To say that ‘this key may be able to open the door’ is wrong. A man may be able to open the door using the key, or the key may unlock the door.

The only usage guide to even mention this as an issue is Peters, and she notes only a tendency, not a rule: “able to takes animate subjects much more often than inanimate ones”. Indeed, her own usage gives us some inanimate subjects. Elsewhere in the book, she writes that “software is able to identify some of the abstract language”, that free morphemes are “able to stand without any attachments” and that various words are able to do various things.

None of the dictionaries mention Heffer’s rule in their definitions. AHD gives examples including “a detergent able to remove stains” and “The new submarine is able to dive twice as fast”. And the OED shows that non-living subjects have been able to do things since at least 1551: “Neither can any Lawe be able violentlye to force the inward thought of man.”

AREA is a word that should have a specific geographical significance, but which has become a catch-all term to refer to a subject or a topic. ‘This used to be a nice area’ illustrates a legitimate usage. ‘Growing roses is an area I know a lot about’ is not.

Among the usage guides, only M-W mentions this, noting a few complaints from the 1970s and 1980s about the figurative sense. It says that this usage seems to have taken off mainly after World War II – hence objections to novelty – but that it is now firmly established. But the usage is older: Fowler, listing synonyms for “field” (an equally geographical word with an equally figurative topical meaning), gives without comment the example: “A debate covering a wide area”.

The OED doesn’t list Heffer’s hated meaning. But it also says “This entry has not yet been fully updated” and refers readers to its sister, Oxford Dictionaries Online. ODO gives us “A subject or range of activity or interest: the key areas of science”. All the other dictionaries have similar definitions.

BATTLE This is an intransitive verb. One does not battle cancer, one battles against it, or possibly with it.

The usage guides don’t mention this. The OED dates the transitive verb back to 1399: “Cristes feith is every dai assailed..and batailed.” None of the other dictionaries say that “battle” can only be intransitive. I find nothing to make sense of Heffer’s objection, let along to support it.

CURMUDGEON A curmudgeon is not a bloody-minded old man. He is a miser and subject to avarice. That may make him difficult, but bloody-mindedness is not what defines him.

The usage guides don’t mention this. The OED – quoting Samuel Johnson – gives only the miser definition. But it also gives the “entry has not yet been fully updated” warning again; following the link to ODO, I find “A bad-tempered or surly person”. Collins and Chambers cover miserliness and surliness, as does M-W – labelling the miser definition “archaic”. AHD doesn’t give the miser definition at all.

Clearly, the word’s use expanded to cover not just misers but the ill temper associated with them, and then the miser sense dwindled. I don’t know when this shift happened, but it seems to me that these three examples from the 1890s don’t easily fit the miser definition.

To summarise: one statistical tendency, one inexplicable dislike, and two lingering aversions to novelties that are no longer novel – all quixotically reimagined as absolute rules of English.

You can call it pedantry if you like; I call it pickiness. Children who dogmatically refuse to eat certain foods are not thereby gourmets. And adults who dogmatically refuse to accept certain meanings of certain words are not thereby linguistic perfectionists.

Same grammar, less metonymy

Same-luxury-less-lorries

A “bad grammar award” has been given to Tesco, for the label that appears on its toilet-roll packaging:

“Same luxury, less lorries”

The grammarati insist that “less lorries” should be “fewer lorries”, because “lorries” is a count noun and not a mass noun. Others argue that the less/fewer distinction, despite the best efforts of those who love it, has been widely ignored for centuries and that this is a matter of formal vs informal language, not correct vs incorrect.

I have a different objection: the critics are missing the point of the slogan.

Do you care how many lorries were involved in the transportation of a toilet roll? Of course you don’t, and Tesco didn’t imagine for a second that you might.

The point is that Tesco claims to be reducing the amount of motorised haulage involved – maybe it sources its toilet rolls locally, or has them delivered by bicycle, or packages them more compactly – and thereby reducing its greenhouse emissions (and the traffic on the road).

For example: if ten lorries drive ten miles each, that’s greener than having one lorry driving 1000 miles – even though there are more lorries. What matters is the amount of driving.

Tesco is using “lorries” as a more concrete, vivid way of saying “haulage” or “transportation”. This is an example of metonymy, like “the pen is mightier than the sword” or “keep your eye on it”.

To be honest, I find “less lorries” inelegant; I have many of the same linguistic tastes as the grammarati. But the world is full of inelegant marketing slogans, and this is a tame example to single out for special derision.

And in any case, “fewer lorries” would have pushed the reader far more strongly towards a literal interpretation, because the important things that it’s reducing – haulage and thereby pollution and congestion – are all mass-noun concepts.

Image from Lesley Morrissey

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