Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

June 1, 2022

This Reuters story about monkeypox, published on 30 May 2022, has an unfortunate ambiguity in its headline:

Beneath the Reuters logo is the headline, in black on white: 'Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic, WHO says'

The same headline appeared on sites syndicating the report, like Yahoo! News and Nasdaq, and with trivial differences at the US’s ABC News, India’s Business Standard, Singapore’s Straits Times, and others.

The problem is the main clause:

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Joyce County by Ray Burke

February 20, 2022

It was a hundred years ago, in 1922, that James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in Paris. Joyce famously set the novel over the course of a day in Dublin; his connections with Galway, a smaller city on the opposite side of Ireland, are less well known but intriguing in their own right.

Those connections are mainly a result of Joyce’s lifelong relationship with Nora Barnacle. Though he visited Galway just twice, Joyce’s exploration of it continued vicariously through Nora as they settled and resettled in cities around Europe. Anyone who has read ‘The Dead’ will appreciate the richness and resonance of that exploration. But Joyce also wrote about Galway in poetry and in articles for a Trieste newspaper, for example.

Cover and spine of 'Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce' by Ray Burke. Cover is mainly white, with line drawings of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce, and Connemara mountains in the background. The spine is light green, and the border of the cover is green fading into purple. The O in 'Joyce' and 'County' are linked and so appear like Joyce's glasses. At the bottom are the publisher's name, Artisan House, and the text 'Foreword by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland'.Delving into this relationship between writer and place is Ray Burke in his book Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce, recently published in a beautiful revised edition by Connemara-based Artisan House. Long-time readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in Joyce’s writing, and I’m delighted to have worked as copy-editor on this project.

Joyce County, first published in 2016 by Currach Press, now reappears with original illustrations by Raymond Murphy and Joe Boske and around 10,000 words of additional text, the result of ongoing research in the intervening years. From the new foreword by Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland (and himself a poet and scholar):

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How well read should editors be?

October 13, 2021

Asked about their work, experienced copy-editors point to the importance of reading – and reading broadly. It’s well-founded advice. Editors tend to be avid readers, but with biases for and against certain types of books, such as we all have. And any budding editor who isn’t a voracious reader might consider that lack of appetite a red flag.

But just how does diverse and eclectic reading help us edit? Are there books, or types of books, that are essential reading for editors? And what of editors who forgo fiction and would not dream of reading anything ‘unrealistic’ or formally experimental: Are they missing out, even if they edit only non-fiction?

I was invited to explore these questions for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly the SfEP), which has now made my essay freely available: How well read should editors be? In it I write:

Broad reading opens us up to diverse world views, the same way that talking with different kinds of people does, and this informs our work. More directly, it familiarises us with lesser-known words and their habitats and collocations. It trains the ear on different forms of authorial rhythm, narrative, and humour. It accustoms us to different writing styles and devices, metaphors and clichés, norms and lexicons. Reading from different eras and dialects educates us on the inexorable drift of idiom.

The head for my essay, with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading logo (blue circle, white initialism) in the top right. Under the heading 'Focus', for focus paper, is the essay title ('How well read should editors be?') followed by my name.

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The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

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Headline trials halted

September 16, 2020

This headline appeared on the front page of the Guardian website last weekend and came to my attention via Mercedes Durham on Twitter:

Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart

Headline: "Oxford Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart". The word "Oxford" is set off in bold red typeface.

It’s quite the syntactic rug-pull. Everything seems fine and straightforward until that last word, restart, which turns out to be the predicate, forcing the reader to re-evaluate what they’ve just read. The sense is so obscured that it may take a few attempts.

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That puzzling omission

May 31, 2020

The following line appeared in a recent article in the Guardian:

Researchers who questioned more than 90,000 adults found “complete” compliance with government safety measures, such as physical distancing and staying at home, had dropped in the past two weeks from an average of 70% of people to less than 60%.

Notice the problem? This is a good example of a ‘garden path’ sentence. It leads readers up the garden path before the syntax takes a sudden turn that forces them to rearrange and reprocess what they’ve just read.

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