The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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Reconciling descriptivism with editing

November 10, 2015

A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:

Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).

Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).

Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.

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The pedantic, censorious quality of “sic”

April 29, 2014

Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death,* quotes a text that uses compliment when complement was intended, and adds [sic] to indicate this. What’s of interest here is the footnote she then appends:

I do not like the repeated use of sic. It seems to impart a pedantic, censorious quality to the writing. I have throughout made every effort to quote the funeral trade publications accurately; the reader who is fastidious about usage will hereafter have to supply his own sics.

This “pedantic, censorious quality” is sometimes insinuated and sometimes unmistakeable. Sic – not an abbreviation but a Latin word meaning thus or so – can usefully clarify that a speaker said or wrote just as they are quoted to have done. But it can also serve as a sneer, an unseemly tool to mock a trivial error or an utterance of questionable pedigree.

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Grammar and sticklers

October 5, 2011

This is a recap of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Looking at them together, I notice a recurring theme of objecting to people objecting to things there’s nothing wrong with.

First, in “Hopefully you won’t object to this”, I take issue with the AP Stylebook’s continuing denial that hopefully can mean “Let’s hope” or “I hope” or “It is hoped”. (It says the word means only “in a hopeful manner”.)

I use hopefully both ways, and I like having this option. Declaring that it’s wrong to do so is, frankly, a lost cause: a futile attempt to deny or halt a natural drift in language. . . .

Adverbs have been used to qualify entire clauses and sentences for centuries. Clearly, it’s a useful feature, one I’ve made use of in this very sentence and elsewhere in this post. In the second half of the twentieth century, the occurrence of certain sentence adverbs grew rapidly, according to Robert Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (actually and basically are often criticised too). This might explain the concurrent surge in objections, but it doesn’t justify them. [more]

Business in cyber” is about the history and spread of the productive cyber– prefix, including a report from writer William Gibson on how he coined cyberspace.

The cyber– prefix has become synonymous with computers, particularly the Internet, but its original meaning is somewhat different, and it might easily not have risen to productive prominence at all.

The first cyber word in English was cybernetics, introduced in 1948 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in a book by that title. It comes from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning steersman, guide, governor, and was originally used to describe the comparative study of control and communication systems in machines and living creatures.

Cyber– was soon adopted in other technological fields and came to have futuristic connotations: of exciting advances in how we communicate, and of new ways of being and interacting. [more]

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently shared a video of David Crystal talking about how the internet is changing language. He says the technology has not changed English very much, but there are some noteworthy developments – new styles, in particular.

These observations serve as an introduction to “Slang keeps on swinging”, in which I write that since the arrival of the internet, grammar and spelling

have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible – and the common vocabulary has grown only slightly, relative to its total size. Slang, however, is always an active frontier. . . . Most of it fades quickly, but there is always a chance that it won’t, particularly if it captures something vital about a particular culture, subculture, or time.

Innovation in language, just as anywhere else, is a sign of health. The slang condemned by strict linguistic conservatives, far from indicating a decline, rather suggests an interest in language and a creative enthusiasm that propels it in new directions. [more]

Last up: “A foolish consistency” quotes Emerson out of context to discuss bogus grammar rules (split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences…), usage myths (decimate, aggravate…), and the etymological fallacy

that a word should or must mean what it meant originally or long ago, and maybe in another language altogether. The fallacy does not take account of linguistic change, and rests on the false idea that words cannot or should not change their meanings.

These restrictions have no basis in grammatical correctness, yet they have survived for generations, passed on from teacher to pupil or stickler to stickler-in-waiting. . . . Correctness is primarily a matter of convention, and conventions change. Consistency should be applied only as far as common sense carries it. [more]

Your thoughts are welcome here or at the individual posts. For more, see my full archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

You need a good sense of whom, or…

August 2, 2011

There’s an old debate over whether that as a relative pronoun can refer to people. As far as I’m concerned, of course it can. The usage is fully standard and has been for centuries. Briefly: that can be used to refer to people or things, which refers to things, and who(m) is reserved for people and animals:

the house that she lives in (or which)
something which has long been disputed (or that)
people who fuss over relative pronouns (or that)
Tabby, whom I adopted as a kitten, is four today. (or who)

Note, though, that that and which are less interchangeable in AmE than they are in BrE. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a helpful history.) Sometimes a distinction is made depending on whether an animal has a name: who for animals with names, that or which for animals without names. This is the AP Stylebook’s advice.

AP style does not allow that to refer to people, and neither does the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.* This is style advice, which is very different to grammatical correctness. For the latter, we consult works more authoritative than style guides. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains the following note:

That, of course, is permissible when referring to humans: the people that were present or the people who were present. Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.

Which brings us neatly, our sense of irony to the fore, to a recent edit in the NYT. Garner wrote a commentary in its Room for Debate on the need to reform legal education in the United States. His article concludes as follows:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind whom I teach – looks very bright indeed.

But this is not what he wrote. That, not whom, was the relative pronoun in Garner’s original text. Apparently an editor “fixed” it before publication, “thereby changing the sense entirely,” as Garner remarked. Thus:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind that I teach – looks very bright indeed.

The parenthetical text between the dashes – “the kind ___ I teach” – was meant to refer to the seminars Garner teaches; after editorial interference, it referred to the lawyers who attend them. The edit was worse than unnecessary.

If practicing lawyers were the antecedent (i.e., what the relative pronoun relates back to), that would be grammatically fine, though it goes against NYT style. But it would make more sense in that instance to use whom, since this precludes the possible ambiguity: whom could refer only to the lawyers; that could refer to either the lawyers or the seminars. So a sensible reading would connect that to the seminars.

Presumably the two readings were not noticed, just one mistaken one, and the edit was made automatically to accord with house style. If there had been any doubt, the editor would surely have consulted a colleague, or some reference books, or if necessary the author himself. Maybe multiple editors agreed to it.

Regardless, the change was made and published and it undermined the sense of the text.

If I were editing prose from someone who writes dictionaries of law and English usage, I would expect the prose to be smooth and punctilious, and I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no harm.


* I don’t have a copy of the NYT manual, but I trust Merrill Perlman‘s report at the Columbia Journalism Review.