Category Archives: Editing

by

An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictiona…

by

On Writing Well About Passives

passives

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

by

Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not …

by

Attending to Gender

plane copyI’ve been doing a lot of flying recently, which has me thinking about the term flight attendant. It is undeniably clunky. And yet here it is—an odd little success story in the larger narrative of nonsexist language reform.

Given overall trends in  these reform efforts, I don’t think it’s odd that American English speakers have found a gender-neutral alternative to stewardess and steward (the latter being relatively uncommon but possible). We’ve opted for gender-neutral terms over gender-specif…

by

Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

lain_shot

The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…

by

This. Is. Really. Important.

I know I’m not the only one who’s noticing display text—advertising, announcements, and the like—angling for the reader’s attention by placing a period after each word. So that you have to read it slowly. And feel the importance. Of every word. Of. Every. Word.

This is, I hope, a momentary infatuation with the beleaguered full stop, which typographers and art directors are enlisting to add emphasis to anything, provided the anything is brief, and preferably composed of words not in excess of two…

by

Comma Maven Meets Comma Queen

If the phrase “copy-editing memoir” quickens your heart, then you’re in store for a treat: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton), by Mary Norris of The New Yorker. One of the many tasty tidbits in the book is that Norris’s title at the magazine actually isn’t copy editor, but rather “page OK’er”—

a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go …

by

Labeling Words

open dictionary 2

Photograph by Eli Gerber

Dictionaries occupy a special place in academe. In our libraries, unabridged dictionaries regularly lie open on pedestals, where we can go stand before them; the staging suggests their authority as a place to find answers about words. Rarely do we flip to the front of it to check what dictionary it is, from what year. Then I have read many an academic article that mentions a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary or another dictionary but fails to cite the work in…

by

George Curme, 21st-Century Grammarian

A century ago this year, just before the First World War began, the grammarian George O. Curme published a short but remarkable paper entitled “Origin and Force of the Split Infinitive” (Modern Language Notes 29 (2), 41–45). It has deep roots in the 19th-century tradition of critical analysis of English grammar. And it is sobering to compare his paper’s meaty content with the thin gruel that passes for discussion of English grammar today.

Curme is following up works such as the splendidly acrid

by

Why I Don’t Use Track Changes on Students’ Papers

icon256They arrive now, in a flood, the end-of term papers. For the most part, they are beyond revision at this point, and the task ahead consists mostly of assessment. Still, I find myself clinging to my Luddite position of accepting papers only in hard copy, regardless of the risk of germ transmission by paper, regardless of deforestation, regardless of the printing costs or the various excuses the demand engenders. The main reason for my old-fashioned insistence is that I still find some students he…