Word Usage

When the Word, Phrase and Even the Sentence Are Not Quite Right

May 16, 2002
Panel: Amy Einsohn, Marilyn Schwartz, and Virginia Rich
Organized by Diana Young
Notes By Dawn Adams

As editors, we purchase reference books by the metric ton and carefully mark significant passages with brightly colored flags and highlighters. Yet despite all these guides and manuals, we often run across questions of grammar, usage, and style that are either not addressed or not satisfactorily answered in these weighty tomes. And while Google is a useful tool for searching current usage, the results can make us more confused than before we went online. At the BAEF May Forum, veteran editors Amy Einsohn, Virginia Rich, and Marilyn Schwartz discussed some of the tricky situations editors encounter and offered ideas on how to resolve them.

A freelance editor, Einsohn is also the author of The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (UC Press, 2000); Rich is a technical writer at Autodesk; and Schwartz is the managing editor at University of California Press.

"We decided to put together an evening of copyeditors' headaches," Einsohn said. "When we met at brunch, we agreed that the number one headache was authors, but that authors wouldn't be the topic for the evening. Without authors, we'd have no jobs."

Using the BAEF audience as an impromptu usage panel, Einsohn presented ten issues in a tipsheet with examples she finds of recurring headaches in the manuscripts she edits. She called them "ever smaller peas" after a phrase used by Edward Johnson to describe the concerns of those who are preoccupied with the "Princess's English"—those peas under the mattress of generally accepted usage.

"These are ten items that I find to be big headaches simply because people disagree about them or still have old rules and superstitions about them," she said. "I find these are things that I waste a lot of time on. I change my mind from month to month."

Of the ten, the BAEF audience were in agreement on only a few—that it's sometimes OK to split infinitives; that "data" is sometimes singular; and that "due to" can be used as a compound preposition like "because of" or "owing to."

The other seven, including everyone/their, "hopefully" as a sentence adverb, and subject-verb agreement with percentages and proportions, were up for grabs. And unfortunately, Einsohn didn't have canned answers ready for those of us who were sitting, pens poised, to receive her wisdom. And when one audience member suggested rewriting, that sparked a mild debate on whether it's better to write around the problem or untangle the grammar.

"I specifically did not include an example of 'fewer than' or 'less than' X percent followed by a plural noun in my book, because I wasn't sure of the answer," said Einsohn when discussing a sentence from the EEI Communications test, [Fewer than/Less than] 7 percent of professionals who apply pass our rigorous test.

Although the Chicago Manual of Style FAQ page has ruled it should be "Less than," some members of the audience leaned toward "Fewer than" because the applicants are individual people and, as such, countable. In this situation, Einsohn said she leans toward rewriting.

Aside from authors, Schwartz identified the second group that gets under her managing editor's skin. It is copyeditors. In her research, which often consists of consulting usage manuals, dictionaries, and reference books, she has found many "truths" learned from the nuns in grammar school were not true or have not been true for a long time.

"We are not in great danger from floating 'hopefullys' and 'due tos,'" Schwartz said. "It drives me crazy when copyeditors ignore the real issues in manuscripts such as bad writing."

As an editor, her particular hobbyhorse is puns; she has been accused by authors of taking text too literally. She finds, however, when confronted with a pun, she feels like the author is not paying attention. For example, her tipsheet includes the sentence "The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are among the towering achievements of Western culture," which Schwartz assured us would not make it into the book.

The managing editor at UC Press also comes down hard on mixed metaphors and alliteration. Mixed metaphors can sometimes be an issue when the author is not a native speaker of English, as in her fifth example ("The rainbow of intellectual traditions that colored . . . may have marveled, embraced, or attacked the land. But nobody hid from it.") And overuse of alliteration can distract the reader from the meaning of the words (". . . proposed paradigm's proponents . . . offer little protection").

For Rich, working in the field of technical editing has its own set of issues, aside from ordinary questions of grammar and style. For example, editors at Autodesk have to take text from several different authors and impose a consistent voice.

"We enforce all kinds of rules that we wouldn't enforce if the author's voice were important," Rich said. "We don't like anything that implies that the software is giving you permission to do things; we don't like the magical (x appears), which means we have to explain to authors that it's OK to use passive voice (x is displayed); and we tend to avoid the future, because we don't like to make promises about what the software will do."

When working with authors who are not native speakers of English, she has noticed that prepositions are often an issue. Standardizing use of prepositions in a text (e.g., using "click" versus "click on" or "in the dialog box" versus "within the dialog box") can make all the difference between clean and sloppy text. Words into Type (WIT) does have a section on prepositions (phrasal verbs), but Schwartz recommends going to a really good bookstore that has a section for English as a Second Language to find references on the use of prepositions.

"Noun gangs," those strings of nouns, can also impede a reader's comprehension. For phrases like "transmission case input shaft," Rich recommends breaking them up with prepositions to make the relationships between the nouns more clear. And cleaning up usage is not just important for having the text in idiomatic English; it is vital when the final documentation will be translated into 19 languages.

In addition, Rich has to take into account that the "book" might be published in several different forms—CD ROM, Web pages, and electronic help files—which makes many traditional publishing conventions moot, as the text may not be read from beginning to end. Schwartz noted that even traditional book publishing avoids using terms like "above" and "below" that suggest a spatial relationship.

Rich's employer has its own house style that authors should refer to first, but the editors also point authors to the Microsoft Manual of Style for issues not covered in the house style guide.

The overriding theme for all three alpha-editors was clarity and comprehension. When asked about breaking Web addresses across lines, Rich responded that the Web address should be kept as readable as possible, breaking at a slash or a hyphen or omitting the end-of-line hyphen if breaking within a word.

And when presented with the subject-verb agreement question on whether "engine" should be plural in the sentence "They can't see what goes on inside of their cars' engines," Einsohn cited Wilson Follett, author of Modern American Usage, who prefers the plural, and WIT, which states that the singular can avoid ambiguity. "In my book (p. 364), I use 'Each of whom was picking their nose' as an example, because you need memorable examples," Einsohn said. "Both Follett and WIT weigh about equally with me, so as far as I'm concerned, you can take your pick. But logically neither one really works."

Some of the other questions brought before the panel included

When to put certain punctuation marks inside a quotation within a quotation (Per Schwartz, in U.S. usage, the period and the comma always go inside of single and double quotation marks, semicolons and colons go outside, and exclamation points and question marks go inside or outside depending on whether they are part of the quotation)

Where the adverb should go in "No one else would even have tried" (Schwartz noted that in U.S. English, adverbs are allowed to float a little, whereas in British English, auxiliary verbs are normally not split by adverbs)

Whether to use "his" or "him" or "him from" in the sentence "I want to stop his getting drunk" (Rich suggested that "his" was most grammatically correct, but Schwartz said in different contexts that "his" versus "him" could change the meaning; for example "I love the man dancing" versus "I love the man's dancing")

Whether to repeat the "to" when there is a series of infinitives "To read, write, and think" (Rich recommends leaving it out unless the "to" is necessary for clarity)

Whether a comma should follow a brief introductory clause (Rich believes that it depends on the particular sentence or the client's wishes; Einsohn cited the section in her book (pp. 86-88), which explains that for short adverbial phrases you normally don't need a comma unless there is a chance of confusion)

How punctuation should be styled with bold or italic text (Einsohn researched this—periods, commas, colons, and semicolons are set in the same typeface as the preceding word; questions marks and exclamation points are in the same typeface if they are part of the term; paired punctuation marks such as parentheses and quotations marks are set in italics or bold only if the material within them begins and ends with italics or bold; and for a situation such as the possessive of Newsweek, the "'s" would be set roman).

Sometimes idioms rule (Amy is a friend of hers, not Amy is a friend of her), and often there is no hard and fast rule. When asked about "women helping women" as opposed to "women's helping women," Schwartz said that idiomatically "women helping women" sounded right. And Einsohn cited Theodore Bernstein (Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage), who wrote that if you feel like you're on the verge of doing something atrocious, don't do it.

As a side note, the audience had already resolved the that-which question before the panel began. We agreed that "that" was used for restrictive clauses (essential to the meaning of the sentence) whereas "which" was generally reserved for nonrestrictive clauses (parenthetical information). "Which" can sometimes be substituted for "that" but never vice-versa. We also discussed the differences between "like" (things that are the same) and "such as" (things that are similar). And finally, we were treated to a performance of "Old MacDonald" in Latin by Mary Heldman—something which (restrictive use) may become a BAEF forum tradition.

We had asked Amy to recommend some references on usage and style, and Borders displayed the following books on a table in the back of the room:

Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (UC Press, 2000)

Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, Fourteenth Edition (U of Chicago Press, 1993)

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1994)

R.W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide (Hill & Wang, 1998)

Constance Hale, ed., Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age (Broadway Books, 1999)

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax (Broadway Books, 1999)

Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English (Washington Square Press, 1991)

Marilyn Schwartz and others, Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Indiana University Press, 1995)

More than 65 people turned out for this forum—a testament to the seemingly endless popularity of forums on grammar bugaboos.

Here's a copy of Amy's tipsheet on multiple-choice style stumpers Grammatical Stumpers and Moral Indignation.

And here's Marilyn's tipsheet made up of strange sentences that did not make it into books published by UC Press.

From Autodesk, see style sheet entries that Virginia shared with the audience.



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