Monthly Archives: March 2011

A pox to be eradicated

At some point in this sentence the writer’s concentration wandered away, never to return:

The smallpox eradication programme was completed during the Cold War at a time when political upheavals delayed timely eradication.

Look at the logical failure at the end: was the eradication still timely after all those delays? No. Then either the upheavals prevented timely eradication or they delayed eradication, full stop.

And what on Earth is the overall structure doing? ‘It was completed at a time when things delayed it’? No, that won’t do. This hangs together much better:

The smallpox eradication programme was completed despite delays caused by some of the political upheavals of that period of the Cold War. 

But it can be much shorter. In particular, while there was an official Smallpox Eradication Programme, this sentence doesn’t need to mention that as such. So:

Smallpox was eradicated despite delays caused by Cold-War political upheavals.

I thought about getting away from the passive:

Cold-War political upheavals delayed the eradication of smallpox.

But, given the context of the preceding copy, I wanted the eradication to be the opening focus of the sentence.

One thing that can get me down about my work is that I don’t have the time to give every clumsy passage the attention I’d like to. But making the effort when I can perks me up again.

A known known

…he enjoys an acknowledged reputation…

Either this is a redundancy or it’s an ingenious way of saying “he’s famous for being famous”.

Ancient Chinese proverb

If you want the gods to laugh at you, email them a document with ‘final’ in the filename.

A little-appreciated little appreciated point

Guy Keleny’s Saturday column in the Independent – correcting the paper’s recent linguistic failings – is always a treat. Today he takes issue with the sentence “This mission was ill-conceived, poorly-planned and embarrassingly-executed.”

(Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar.) Adjectives can be used either attributively (“the house has a red door”) or predicatively (“The door is red”). A similar distinction can be applied to the past participles of verbs. Attributive: “The house has a painted door.” Predicative: “The door is painted.” Furthermore, the adjective or participle can be qualified by an adverb. Attributive: “The house has a well-painted door.” Predicative: “The door is well painted.” Note that adverb and participle are joined by a hyphen in the attributive function only, not in the predicative. I know this distinction is frequently ignored, but let’s show a bit of class by observing it.

There is one more crucial point. Even when the participle is attributive, there is no hyphen when the adverb ends in –ly. That is an arbitrary convention, but it holds nonetheless. So if the painters turn out to be cowboys , there is no hyphen: “The house has a badly painted door.”

The hyphen is right only under quite limited conditions – where the participle is being used attributively and the adverb does not end in –ly. In the passage above, two adverbs end in –ly and all the participles are predicative. So, no hyphens.

High-strength grammar, and plenty of class. But I have one nit to pick: the lack of hyphenation when the adverb ends in –ly is not an arbitrary convention. It’s for clarity.

Some words – well, ill, high, low, little, long, best and others – can function as adjectives or adverbs. A hyphen makes it clear that a particular use is adverbial.

A well-treated patient is not the same as a well treated patient: the former has been treated well; the latter has been treated and is well. The best-located reporter is the one in the best place to get the story, while the best located reporter is the best we’ve been able to find. A long-ignored film has failed to attract attention for years; a long ignored film may be new but has perhaps been disregarded on account of its length.

True, most of the time the context gives little risk of ambiguity (no one is likely to describe a mission as ill and conceived), but the convention applies consistently. There’s no need for a hyphen before* –ly adverbs because there’s no danger of them being mistaken for adjectives.

* Oops. I mean ‘after’.

Add absurdum

How can somebody be a ‘Sales and Marketing Executive’ and think that the short form of advertisement is spelt A-D-D?

I shared this forehead-slapper with a colleague who appreciates these things but is far less bitter and jaded than me. She said (after she’d stopped laughing) that language is constantly evolving and that we have to be open to new developments.

Well, yes, but sometimes you get a mutant baby that just has to be smothered at birth.

Ungodly inconsistency

I’m wrestling with an article by a historian who, among other things, has switched from the BCE/CE dating convention to BC/AD mid-sentence. I can only assume that he converted to Christianity while typing.

(While I’m a resolutely secular atheist, I hate BCE/CE. My problem is that it’s still the Christian dating system and changing the initials isn’t going to fool anybody. I have no problem using BC/AD, simply because it’s the overwhelmingly accepted system. Trying to pretend it doesn’t have a Christian origin – albeit an incompetent one – is just silly. Sorry, I realise this is becoming a bit of a Winterval/’our great traditions under threat’/’political correctness gone mad’ rant, so I’ll stop before anyone offers me a job driving taxis or writing for the Mail.)

Applying for an edit

Applications will be considered by the Blenkinsop Foundation based on the applicant’s application form and the eligibility criteria.


To their credit, the person who sent me this copy had added the comment “Is there a neater way to phrase this sentence?” Yes. In fact, there are probably several.

Copyeditors as civil servants

I completely agree with the Typographic Oath – “do no harm” – and the other commandments produced at the Copyediting Blog.

The implied analogy is with doctors, but I see the role of the copyeditor as being closer to that of the civil servant. You may not get to make policy, but you use your expertise to help your political masters achieve what they want without breaking the rules or rubbing the public up the wrong way.