Monthly Archives: August 2014

Same difference

Oliver Kamm ponders an alleged rule of grammar:

NM Gwynne, the author of the bestselling but absurd Gwynne’s Grammar, says: “Sometimes [prepositions] are important simply because to give the wrong preposition is illiterate, as ‘different to something’ is wrong and ‘different from something’ is correct.”

Why is it illiterate to say different to? Gwynne does not say; nor is it true.

I can answer this. At least, I can report Gwynne’s answer, which he gave at a talk earlier this year.

He said that there’s a danger of ambiguity. If we allowed ‘different to’, then a sentence such as ‘He looks very different to me’ would have two possible meanings: his appearance is unlike mine; or his appearance has, in my opinion, changed.

This is silly, for two reasons.

First of all, because so many words have more than one use, there are lots of indisputably correct standard usages that can – in theory – lead to ambiguity. But context usually makes the intended meaning clear, and if it doesn’t then it’s no great effort to rephrase it.

For example, a sentence such as ‘His garden looks very different from mine’ might have two possible meanings: his garden’s appearance is unlike that of mine; or the appearance of his garden changes if you look at it from the perspective that mine offers.

Secondly, the question of ‘allowing’ this usage is laughable. Language pundits have embarrassingly little influence on general usage. We can recommend, but there really is no question of allowing or forbidding. Nobody is in charge of the language. Nobody ever has been.

The idea that ‘different to’ is wrong was first expressed by Robert Baker in 1770, but he was already too late. It is well- and long-established in British English:

  • William Bonde (1526): His lyght is moche different and vnlyke to the lyght of the holygoost.
  • Henry Fielding (1737) ‘Tis a quite different Thing within to what it is without.
  • Thomas Paine (1811): The king, who, very different to the general class called by that name, is a man of good heart…
  • WM Thackeray (1852): The party of prisoners lived…with comforts very different to those which were awarded to the poor wretches there.

True, it has always been less common than ‘different from’: Google Books puts ‘different from’ well ahead of ‘different to’, by about 14 to 1 at the end of the 20th century – but falling sharply. And uncommon doesn’t mean wrong.

More recently, in the UK part of the GloWbE corpus (recording language used on web pages in 2012), ‘different from’ is only modestly ahead of ‘different to’, by about 10,000 to 7,000. What’s more, of the first hundred of the entries for ‘different to’, not a single one uses it in the second way that Gwynne suggests. His fear of ambiguity seems overblown.

Still, some people don’t like it, and that’s worth remembering. Attitudes to usage – like usage itself – need not have a rational basis, but they’re facts all the same.

Despite its critics, though, ‘different to’ is irreversibly a part of the language. That ship has sailed, crossed the ocean, reached its destination, been dismantled, and had its parts used to build houses in which generations of people have lived happy and productive lives.

Update: catteau in the comments reminds me of a good post on this by Stan Carey.

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.