Category Archives: editing

Prescriptivist or descriptivist?

I’m once again serving as a guest expert for a friend’s copyediting course. The students in these courses often ask me interesting questions about points of grammar. But this time, one of them asked me a broader question – or, rather, two of them:

Would you describe yourself as more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist?

What value do you see in each of these approaches to language? 

Since you’re here reading this, you probably know what the difference is between prescriptivist and descriptivist: a prescriptivist is someone who believes in imposition of authoritative prescriptions on language usage – fans of Lynne Truss, for instance, and avid users of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – while a descriptivist is someone who believes in observing and describing how people actually use language and not holding stern judgmental positions on it. Most modern dictionaries are descriptivist: they include a word if it’s in common use – including, for instance, impactful and misunderestimate – and they try to include all senses that are in common use. Some people believe they should be prescriptivist and forbid certain words and senses of words.

Since I have a graduate degree in linguistics, it’s no surprise that by disposition I’m a descriptivist. I love language in all its forms, and I observe how it’s used in each context. But that doesn’t mean I have an “anything goes” approach in my work as an editor. After all, I’m editing a text that is part of a specific genre and is meant to have a particular effect on a certain audience. I use my observations about how people use language (and how they think about it, which is another important issue) to decide what choices of words and phrasing will work best. 

Generally, of course, there’s plenty of latitude – more than some people think. But we can recognize that, for instance, “Go ask your mommy” will have one effect in a children’s book and quite another in a political speech. Your elementary school teachers may have said “‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word,” but aside from being obviously false (the sentence would be incoherent if it weren’t a word; it would be like saying “‘Zzblgt’ zzblgt a word”), all that does is position ain’t as a very powerful mark of “bad” English (informal, nonstandard, folksy – which is also taken as frank and honest). So in an annual report, if you’re giving forecasts on projects, you would have “It isn’t coming by January” (or even “It is not coming by January”), but you may make use of “It ain’t coming by January” as a momentary excursion in style if you want to convey a particular (refreshing, informal) frankness, which might position the ostensible writer (e.g., the CEO) as a “regular guy.”

So, on the one hand, the idea that you must not ever use ain’t just ain’t true. But on the other hand, we can thank such teachers and others like them for maintaining that opprobrium, which gives the word such power. Likewise, you can have a huge effect by slipping in a vulgarity in the right context, and vulgarities maintain their power by having some people constantly treat them as the most awful things.

In that way, we need prescriptions to give us rules to push against, and to know where we stand; anyway, we will always have them, because some people just love rules (regarding rule-seeking behaviour, see “That old bad rule-seeking behaviour”). Beyond that, it’s useful to have prescriptions just to help us decide what to do where – I regularly look things up in the Chicago Manual of Style, thereby saving me from having to justify my choices on my own account and ensuring that my choices will be consistent with choices in other similar books, which also helps make the reading go smoother.

But many of the things that prescriptivists focus on the most have little to do with consistency or clarity. In fact, that’s probably why they focus on them so much. Someone once said “School board politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” and the same goes with grammatical and lexical prescriptions: the ones that people get the most exercised about are precisely ones that make the least difference in clarity or effectiveness – which frees them up to function almost entirely as social shibboleths, signifiers of who is “the right sort.” Grammar peevery is just using the rule-seeking instinct to license social aggression while giving a plausible excuse. One of my favourite articles that I’ve written goes into this: “Why all English speakers worry about slipping up.”

So, in short, while many linguists are simply hard-set against prescriptivists, I have a more complex position. In some ways, I am by profession a prescriptivist: I enforce prescriptions within specific contexts – though those prescriptions are often made on the basis of descriptive observation. On the other hand, I don’t correct people’s grammar unless they’re paying me to do it, and I don’t think grammar is a useful indicator of character or intelligence; some very magnanimous and insightful people are not too tidy with grammar, and some people who have perfect grammar are obtuse and obnoxious. I don’t enjoy the presence of outspoken prescriptivists, but I’m sure we will always have them; and they fill a role, modelling a specific idea of propriety that we can choose to flaunt or flout as we fancy.

Editors’ anthems

A few days ago, Mark Allen of That Word Chat tweeted a request for an international editors’ anthem. So of course I made one.

No I didn’t. I made two. Because why not.

I decided that it should use a well-known existing tune, because otherwise it wouldn’t catch on. It’s not as though I can legislate it. And I decided that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” from the last movement of his ninth symphony, would work well. 

But I happen also to be fond of Parry’s “Jerusalem,” a setting of a poem by William Blake, and I couldn’t resist doing something on that too. Just as a back-up, you know. The words are a bit unusual, but it’s not exactly the only anthem to phrase itself as a series of questions (looking at you, “Star-Spangled Banner”). I originally wrote the second verse in “we” and “us” terms, but really, editing is a one-person-at-a-time job, so I switched it to “I” and “me” – which matches the original more closely anyway.

I would have posted them sooner, but of course I had to record them so you could sing along, and it was a few days before I had the chance. If you don’t like the sound of my voice (with tons of studio effects), just sing louder to drown me out.

Apologies for the key of the Beethoven one – it’s a bit high, I think. But that’s Beethoven’s fault.

Ode to Editing

(to the tune of “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven)

Joyful, joyful, we will edit,
Making language clear and clean,
Seeking virtue more than credit,
Helping you say what you mean.
We work magic with words and grammar,
Polishing sense and adding style,
Weaving gravitas and glamour,
Giving wisdom with a smile.

If you write it, we will read it,
Watching closely what you say,
Making fixes where you need it,
Working hard to earn our pay:
Paraphrasing, trimming and moving,
By paragraph and line by line,
Sense and sentences improving
So your words will truly shine!

The Manuscript

(to the tune of “Jerusalem” by Parry)

And did these hands, in limited time,
Trim twenty thousand words to five,
And did they fix a dodgy rhyme,
And did they keep weak prose alive,
And did the grammar and the words
Show marks of art and learnèd crafts,
And was a manuscript turned to gold
From all those dark and leaden drafts?

Bring me my pen, my laptop too,
Send me an email with the file,
Bring me a mug – no, bring me two –
Bring me my manual of style!
I will not cease from mental work,
My wit and wisdom still unbowed,
Till I have fully edited
Your manuscript to make you proud!

Backing track of “And Did Those Feet” is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Creator: Richard MS Irwin, www.hymnswithoutwords.com.

But what about plural “they”?

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association.

Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns—and only third-person singular pronouns—always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.

It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect—or lack of it—in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.

But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?

That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to you’ll need to rewrite it to avoid the pronouns—and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?

Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.

What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgement to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on. 

Global English?

This article originally appeared on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing.

English is not one language and never has been. Even Old English had different dialects. Global English is a family of varieties, mostly mutually comprehensible but loaded with traps and surprises. And even when you can easily understand English from another part of the world, you will most likely recognize that it’s from somewhere you aren’t… and you’ll eventually get confused by something.

All of that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but some people seem to think it’s possible to produce a neutral, non-regional, truly global English. I will grant that it’s possible to produce an English that seems at least slightly foreign to anyone anywhere – the famous “mid-Atlantic” English you hear in some movies is a spoken version – but it is not possible to produce a variety of English that is taken as unremarkably local by every English speaker everywhere. There are several reasons for this.

Pronunciation

The most obvious difference is in pronunciation. Get someone from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, someone from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and someone from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to have a pleasant chat and see if they can understand each other at all. 

Pronunciation is less of an issue when dealing with the written word – you probably won’t have a person from Buffalo writing “hot” and a person from Toronto thinking it’s “hat,” as you may when it’s spoken. But text is, in fundamental ways, a representation of the spoken word, and it often relies on reference to the spoken word. 

Not just jokes but advertisements and catchphrases rely on rhymes and wordplays that are particular to just some varieties of English – “caught” and “court” sounding the same, or “quarter” and “border” rhyming for instance. These differences also help ensure the impossibility of English spelling reform: you can’t make a phonetic spelling of one variety of English that won’t be incomprehensible to users of many other varieties.

Spelling

Not that English spelling is the same everywhere of course. Canadians are used to American-style spellings but can be very patriotic about colour and centre in some contexts; if a Canadian book expects a largely American audience, however, you can count on those Canadian spellings to alienate them. And on the other hand, if you just go with British-style spellings in Canada, you’ll soon realise it doesn’t always suit. And there are more striking differences, such as gaol versus jail, oestrogen versus estrogen, and arse versus ass – though that last case is arguably a difference of which word is used, not just which spelling.

Same thing, different word

There are many, many things that have different names in different countries. It’s well known that British cars have boots and bonnets instead of trunks and hoods and that a British lorry is an American truck (of a specific kind); it’s generally famous that what Americans call a barbecue Australians call a barbie. Fewer people will know that South Africans call the same thing a braai, or that instead of saying bro or buddy they say boet (which sounds like “boot”) – while in India, they say yaar.

For that matter, there are regional differences even in America, some of them quite celebrated. Is a Pepsi a pop, a soda, or a Coke (used in defiance of trademarks)? Do children on playgrounds ride see-saws or teeter-totters? Such regional differences – which don’t always divide on the same lines – are what linguists call isoglosses, and maps showing the isoglosses are some of linguists’ favorite things.

Same word, different thing

Americans occasionally run up against the fact that pants and fanny mean less publicly acceptable things in British English, and Americans are likely to know that in England and Australia mate refers to a friend rather than a romantic partner.

They’re less likely to know that hotel can mean a restaurant in India; that South Africans call a traffic light a robot; that in India you don’t graduate, you pass out; that tea can be a full meal in England; that a torchlight in Nigeria is a torch in England and a flashlight in the US; that I understand you in the US is I hear you in Nigeria; or that South Africans say shame when they are shown a cute baby or told of happy news such as an engagement.

Americans may not even know what someone from a different part of the US means by boulevard (a grassy strip between sidewalk and street or a wide avenue with a green strip in the middle?).

Turns of phrase

The lexical differences also extend to idiomatic turns of phrase. Where an American might write Main Street on Friday is different from a suburb on the weekend, a Brit would have The High Street on Friday is different to a suburb at the weekend.

A person from England might say I’ll knock you up to mean I’ll drop by and might tell you to keep your chin up by saying Keep your pecker up, but if the hearer is from North America, the results could be… awkward.

Some differences are points of pride: New Yorkers make waiting on line rather than waiting in line a kind of local shibboleth, and for New Zealanders, a phrase like Kiwi as (as in This food is Kiwi as) is, well, as Kiwi as… as what? They expect you to fill in the blank.

Grammatical niceties

There is also the matter of things that are correct usage in one variety but terrible errors in another. I dreamed I dove into a lake may be fine in the US, but I dreamt I dived into a lake is necessary in England. I casted my vote yesterday is terrible in some countries but absolutely correct in Nigeria. I’ll call you when I reach is normal in India rather than I’ll call you when I arrive.

Cultural references

Words and grammar aren’t the only things that vary from place to place though. English-speaking culture is obviously far from uniform, and some baseline assumptions just don’t work the moment you cross a border. Food is different, and passing references can quickly be opaque: not everywhere has food trucks or pretzel carts or chaiwallahs; not everyone can order poutine or grinders or bangers.

And while any Canadian will know what another Canadian means by toque and parka, most other people in the world won’t.

Americanizing and Canadianizing texts is a large and expensive business, and the spellings are the least of the issue. I remember one time a Canadian colleague working on a converted document discovered a number of instances of underprovinciald in a document; it turned out that someone had done a replace-all from state to provincial without checking. But when a guide to a health care topic starts talking about insurance, no amount of word replacement will fix the disparity between the US and Canada – or, really, between the US and anywhere else.

Houses and other buildings can be different, including what’s called the first floor (ground floor in the US and Canada, the floor above ground in most of the rest of the world).

There are also regional differences. In Canada, for instance, if you talk about a condo in Ontario, you probably mean a high-rise apartment; in Alberta, a condo is more likely to mean a townhouse, possibly a vacation property. What you mean by the word bungalow can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the US. And in some cities, a duplex is typically side-by-side residences with one common wall, while in others, it’s a house with one residence on the upper level and the other on the lower – meaning that a reference to the people in the other half banging on the wall may be confusing.

Global varieties

How many kinds of English are there? Hmm, get a book of paint colors from a hardware store and tell me how many kinds of white, or blue, or black there are. Get another book and count again. English has national standard varieties, regional varieties within countries, local variants, socially divided varieties (often people from the same social group in different cities will sound more like each other than like people from other social groups in their respective cities). 

And don’t forget that the status of English is not the same in every country where it’s spoken – it’s the historical main language in some, the language of a colonizing class in others, and a lingua franca in still others. 

But in every country where texts are published in English, someone needs to make sure that that English doesn’t seem strange. And that someone may be you. The one thing you can be sure of is that while one variety of English may be comprehensible to speakers of another, it may alienate them – and may give rise to significant misunderstandings.

No exceptions?

Do I see a hand in the back? …Yes? …Labels on boxes? And short warnings and things like that? Yes, it’s true that you can produce some short passages that look local to anyone anywhere. But that’s not a global variety of English; it’s a snippet, and many other similar snippets will not seem so universal. 

It’s like going up to a rail ticket office in a European country and knowing enough of the local language to buy a ticket without their noticing that you’re not a native speaker: it doesn’t mean you’re fluent. You couldn’t carry on a conversation without being smoked out. You sure couldn’t write an article – let alone a book – that would be smoothly idiomatic. 

The same is true with using English from one part of the world in another part of the world. Oh, they’ll understand you, probably. But they’ll know you’re not from there, and there will be extra friction and effort in the communication and comprehension. You may not realise it, but the little differences to what you’re expecting colour your reception. And editing means understanding, appreciating, and working with these subtleties.

In effect, localizing English is like translating from one language into another, just subtler. You should only localize into a variety you have native fluency in – if you try to adapt a text into the English of a country you’re not from, you will eventually make an embarrassing mistake. But you also need to know the variety you’re converting from well enough to understand the local points of usage and cultural assumptions, so you don’t think a Canadian’s toque is a chef’s hat, don’t believe that a South African at a robot is watching an android, or don’t get what the big deal is about jumping out a first-floor window.

Which, in my view, seems like an excellent excuse to do some international traveling… when you can.

toruntila

I hate getting a toruntila. It’s like wanting an Oreo and getting an Oregardingo, like ordering a sausage and getting a saCanadage. The disappointment cannot be overprovinciald: you have been the victim of a reckless replacement; the filling you expected is not there and instead you have something… out of place and perhaps weirdly starchy. You look at your plate, wave over the waiter, and say “I’m not leaving till I get a tortilla” – but even as you speak your words are changed to “I’m not leaving until I get a toruntila.” Oh, the hupersonity!

Yes, toruntila may look like tarantula, but while it can be hairy and can have a nasty bite, it’s really what a tortilla becomes when someone decides that till needs to be replaced with until throughout the document (by the way, while preferring until to till is defensible as a matter of taste, till is by no means an error – in fact, until was originally formed from till, not the other way around). And, more broadly, just as a mondegreen is a misheard lyric (often containing a nonexistent word – classiomatic is an automatic classic of the type), and a Cupertino is an erroneous spellchecker replacement (because Word ’97 would suggest Cupertino in place of cooperation), a toruntila is a reckless-replacement sandwich.

Say, for instance, you tell your find-and-replace to change “re” to “regarding” throughout, and you neglect to check “Whole Word Only”; say you tell it to replace “USA” with “Canada” and neglect to uncheck “Ignore Case”; or say you equally recklessly replace “state” with “provincial” or “man” with “person” (or with “human”)… there you are with your Oregardingo and saCanadage and underprovinciald and hupersonity (or huhumanity). And if you run a second reckless replacement to make son into child, you may get huperchildity, which is a second-level toruntila.

Do you doubt that these things happen? Editors know that they do. But why take my word for it? You can easily Google toruntila and see for yourself. It’s not a word that exists in this world for any other reason than the reckless replacement, and every context you see it in clearly needs tortilla instead. As Jonathon Owen has pointed out on finding this particular gaffe in several books, “It takes multiple independent screw-ups to make something like this happen.” And yet happen it does. (And more easily on websites that have less rigorous editorial processes.)

So now you have a word for it. Every disuntilery, every unforreceivetable or forbecoming, every discomRobertulation, every denaTorinog, every schildmark, every dash of cardamother or kernel of fathercorn… they are all toruntilas, with an unexpected filling that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Watch the ACES Celebrity Spelling Bee

ACES, the Society for Editing, has an annual spelling bee as part of its conference, with proceeds going to its education fund, and this year it’s something extra special. Like the rest of the conference, it’s online – and this time it’s all editing celebrities! OK, it’s five celebrities and me. I will be competing against Benjamin Dreyer (of Penguin Random House, and author of Dreyer’s English), Mary Norris (of The New Yorker, and author of Between You & Me), Ellen Jovin (of the Grammar Table, and author of quite a few editing guides), Henry Fuhrmann (of the Los Angeles Times), and Steve Bien-Aimé (professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University). 

Only one will prevail! But the big winner (aside from you lucky audience members) will be the ACES Education Fund: your fee for getting to watch is a donation of at least $15. It’s on April 21, 4–5 pm Eastern time. Get your ticket at the ACES website.

They asked if I would make a promo video. Of course I would. Here it is.

Don’t look busy

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

It’s a good thing I’m not working in-house anymore. I’ve been far too busy lately to look busy.

Those of you who have worked in corporate environments know what I’m talking about: You can spend an awful lot of time and effort looking busy instead of getting things done. There are a few reasons for that.

One reason is that, since we know work requires effort, and effort is tiring and demanding and becomes more unpleasant the more you do, we tend to assume that we’ll get more done if we make our lives hell.

Another reason is that a corporate environment is a social hierarchy, and it’s important to display your place in the hierarchy appropriately. You have to perform compliance behaviour to show your superiors that you are properly subordinate: showing up by a certain time, being at your desk looking like you’re doing work, attending meetings, doing emails late into the evening, displaying great effort for your masters. And if you have people reporting to you, you have to behave consistently with having responsibilities and status, which includes attending meetings to decide things, delegating tasks, and making sure your subordinates are performing their compliance behaviour. That’s a lot of time spent on looking busy and making sure other people are looking busy.

A third reason is that people who don’t know how to do things get to decide how they’re done. Since knowledge is assumed to confer status, status is assumed to come with knowledge, and anyway status trumps knowledge regardless. Bosses and clients have the status and get to make the decisions, whether or not they know the most. So things are often done inappropriately, ineffectively, and on unrealistic timelines. And you may spend a lot of time trying to convince your bosses and clients of better approaches.

A fourth reason is that because a lot of what we do is unpleasant (for reasons just given), many of us put it off until it requires rushing and working overtime, which is messier and less efficient but produces an illusion of being effective (for reasons also just given).

The result of all this is that many of us take a long time to learn an essential fact: If you know what you’re doing and plan well, you can get a lot done and still have time to rest and recharge.

Now that I’m a freelancer, I’m not part of anyone’s command structure. I’m a hired expert. As long as I deliver good results on time, the rest doesn’t matter. So I can plan to do the work when and as will be most efficient and effective.

So why am I so busy right now? Just because of one of the great benefits and hazards of freelancing: whereas in a corporate environment I was on salary and didn’t get any extra money for working extra, now every extra hour worked is money in the bank. And who doesn’t like making more money?

A day in the life of an editor

So you want to be an editor? Are you ready for the editor’s life? Are you ready to hoist your pen (I mean computer), haul up the manuscript, and brave the waves of prose?

Or maybe you’re already an editor, but you’re in-house and want to try freelance, or vice versa?

Let me tell you how to live a day in the life of an editor, in-house versus freelance.

I should say, first, that I worked for more than 20 years in-house in corporate environments, 18 of that in the same company. Then I left (of my own accord, I’ll have you know, and they were sad to see me go; they remain a client of mine). Now I am a freelance editor, and have been for a few years. (I also edited freelance on the side while working in-house during the day, but that’s not the same thing at all.) On top of all that, I know quite a few other editors, and occasionally I hear from them about how they live their lives. So I’m in a good position to talk about what your day will look like as a professional editor, whether in-house or freelance.

Of course other editors will read this and say “You missed something!” or “That’s not how my day goes!” or “Who do you think you are?” I look forward to seeing their comments about their own experience, and you should read those too.

Right. Let’s go. Here’s the agenda.

  1. How to get out of bed
  2. How to have breakfast
  3. How to dress
  4. How to commute
  5. How to plan your day and week
  6. How to manage your desk
  7. How to decide what work to take on
  8. How to track time, bill, and get paid
  9. How to socialize
  10. How to take a vacation
  11. How to spend non-work time
  12. How to go to bed
  13. How to be an editor
Continue reading

andor, tai

In English, we have a bit of a disjunction in our conjunctions. We can navigate them in speech, but in writing we have a problem. Consider this sentence:

Do you want food or drink?

In speaking, there are two ways we can say it, and the meaning is distinct:

Do you want food or drink [even tone until “drink,” then rising]?

Do you want food [rising tone] [slight pause] or drink [falling tone]?

With the first one, it’s understood that you might want both food and drink (or you could say “neither” or “no thanks”). With the second, the implication is that you can have one or the other, but not both (and it’s assumed you’re going to have one of them).

But when you get into writing, you can’t make that distinction. And when it’s formal writing and ambiguity is a bad thing – especially if it’s a context where lawyers might be involved if things get awkward – the “both” option can’t necessarily be taken as implied:

Offer the participants food or drink.

Crumpets are available with butter or honey.

Imagine if I were in some tea room (probably, by the look of the text, one run by a disgruntled former office manager) and I saw that second sentence and I said “I would like a crumpet with butter and honey.” Imagine the server said “Can’t you read? One or the other.” Imagine I were a lawyer. Do you think I’d be able to argue that I should be able to have both?

Admittedly, there are many instances where an “or” is not problematic. But take it from a guy who’s worked on millions of words of information about human health and its care and treatment: sometimes you really need to be clear about this kind of thing. There’s a reason that the usage and/or has burbled up into the written language.

There’s also a reason that many style guides tell you to avoid it and many editors will, on seeing it, sneeze and swat half of it away, leaving either and or or. It’s ugly, it seems inelegant, it’s often unnecessary, and there’s a slash in the middle of it.

So what do we do?

Well, I mean, I know what we generally do. It prevails because people like it and it makes them feel safe, and meanwhile other people do their best to get rid of it wherever they see it in the same way as they get rid of irregardless: with a shiver. It becomes a make-work project for text workers.

But look. I’m an editor but I’m also a linguist. And I’m the kind of editor working on the kind of stuff where having and/or is sometimes very useful. So here’s the thing: what do you do when you see “and/or” on a page and you have to read it out loud?

You say “and or,” don’t you? Or, really, “andor”?

I propose that we just run up the white flag and get rid of the slash (slashes are for fan fiction anyway) and make it andor. Hey presto, it’s one word!

But I know that not everyone will like that. I know that some people will see in andor what Swedish speakers see in ändor (which is Swedish for ‘behinds’ or ‘ends’): a bummer. So if you don’t like ends, let me suggest some Finnish: tai.

Finnish has two words for ‘or’: vai and tai. Guess what the distinction between them is.

Yes, it’s this: where we say “Do you want food or drink” and mean “but not both,” it uses vai: “Haluatko ruokaa vai juomaa?”; where we say it and mean “Do you want food andor drink,” it uses tai: “Haluatko ruokaa tai juomaa?”

Isn’t that handy? Now, I know that it’s uncommon for grammatical particles to be borrowed from other languages, but it’s not altogether unheard of. And while it may seem a weakness that tai sounds like “tie,” I see it as an asset: if it’s a tie between food and drink, you can have both.

So take your pick: do you want andor or tai? Or… do you want andor andor tai? (Or do you want andor tai tai?) You may be inclined to say “neither” or “no, thanks.” But in this case you have to pick at least one, because otherwise you’re stuck with and/or – and even if you never use it, it’s not going away!

The performance of a text

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

A novel or a short story – or a nonfiction book or article – is, on the other hand, a finished work. You sit down, you read it, you get the same thing every time. Right?

Ha, no.

We’re all editors here, so we know how many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on a text before it’s published. But we might casually assume that once the wording is finalized and all the errors are fixed, the text is done and all printed versions are fungible.

Even though we know it’s not true.

We know it’s not true because we know that reading a nicely laid-out print magazine version of an article is a different experience than reading a text flow of it on a website. We know, if we’re proofreading, what a difference some seemingly small things can make – misalignments, for instance, or bad breaks.

And we also know it’s not true because when we’re shopping for books, if there are several different editions of the same work, we will choose carefully between them. Just as we may choose between a performance of Beethoven’s 5th that is fast-paced and percussive and one that is more stately and smooth, we may likewise choose carefully between two editions of, say, Jane Eyre. One of them might be on pulp paper in a casewrap hardcover with a photo on the cover and a small, tight type face with narrow margins and no paragraph indents, while the other might be a trade paperback with a stylish minimalist cover, creamy, durable paper, and well-set type in a graceful face. You’ll get the same story, sure, but you won’t get the same feeling from reading it – about the story or about yourself.

A book is a performance of a text. So is a magazine layout of an article. So is this website’s presentation of this article you’re reading now.

Different performances differ in so many details. If it’s a website, are there pictures? How wide is the text column? Is it cluttered with ads? What font is it in? If it’s a book, does it feel cheap or luxurious? Is it light or heavy, soft or hard? What does the cover look like? Do you like the type face? Is it easy to read in low light? Do the pages turn easily? And, for heaven’s sake, how does it smell?

Does all this seem peripheral to the actual text? Tell me this, then: if you’re buying an audiobook, does it matter whether it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Waits? Helen Mirren or Siri? You’re getting the same story, right?

Sure you are. But a different performance. And the difference between type faces in which you read Sherlock Holmes stories can be as affecting as the difference between Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and Basil Rathbone’s. The difference in page layout, paper, and binding can make as much difference as the set design of a production of a play. The page is a stage – or a concert hall.