Category Archives: editing

The Honourable Member for the 18th Century?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons in England, has lately been the subject of remark for his questionable sense of style. And I don’t mean his unfortunate sartorial choices. I mean his directives on English usage. He has, we learn, given his staff a style guide that is just not what a style guide should be.

Many people chalk up his preferences to traditionalism and preferring the old ways. But Rees-Mogg, often called “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century,” is not actually expressing preferences supported by tradition. Like most modern grammar numpties, he’s fancying himself more traditional than tradition. The point is not to hold back the march to modernity; it is to enforce an entirely recent invention of the past for the sake of maintaining a certain sense of superiority. A sort of Disneyification, if Disney were run by ghastly snobby boys. Continue reading

Just for reference

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

If you edit academic books or articles, you probably spend a lot of time tidying up references. Sometimes as much time as editing the entire rest of the text. First, you have to pick your style: Chicago (note or name-date), MLA, APA, or, in the sciences, AMA or Vancouver. Then, you have to make everything consistent with it, to the extent possible. On top of that, you may have to look up the sources to double-check them.

I’ve edited medical continuing-education presentations that had no bibliographies and would cite some sources as just, for instance, “Heinz & Wong 2013.” I would have to find the rest of the citation—and I would, nearly every time, with a single search. Which means that anyone else who wanted to know would also be able to find it as quickly. Our citation standards were developed before the wonderful world of high-powered search engines. If we can find the source from an incomplete or inaccurate citation, how much of this tidying up is necessary? Continue reading

One fewer thing to fuss about

Let us say, for the nonce, that the author of a book telling people how to improve their English has declared, “More is commonly used in speaking of numbers; I believe greater would do better. No greater than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No more than a hundred, but more strictly proper. More is best reserved for mass quantities.”

Well. We English speakers have a very problematic relationship with our language. If something seems natural, simple, clear, and obvious, and if it’s something we heard people do all the time, we are very eager to believe a rule telling us it’s wrong. We’re prone to rule-seeking behaviour because we’ve learned to be insecure about our grasp of English’s rules – they’re so capricious and inconsistent – and a new rule also gives us an additional sorting and tidying tool… and something to whack people on the head with to show our superiority, too.

So, if the book came out at the right time and found the right audience, we would soon have people insisting that cookbooks that say “More than 200 of the best high-fat recipes” should instead say “Greater than 200 of the best high-fat recipes,” and that when inviting friends over you should say “The greater, the merrier”; news articles would fussily put “Observers estimated there were greater than 5,000 people in attendance” and “He has lived in the city for greater than five years.”

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s so incredibly near-fetched, it’s fetched right off your page… more or less. Continue reading

Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not. Continue reading

Novel medical treatments

To go with my presentation “Translating medicalese into everyday English,” here’s the article that I wrote for The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

People with serious health problems are often subject to novel treatments. But that shouldn’t mean being treated like they’re in a novel. Continue reading

Translating medicalese into everyday English

I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my life helping people communicate healthcare information clearly and effectively to ordinary readers (among other things – I’m not a one-trick pony!). This year at the Editors Canada conference I gave a one-hour presentation sharing some of the important things I’ve learned.

Here’s the handout: harbeck.ca/James/Harbeck_Medicalese_Handout.pdf

And here’s the article I wrote for the Editors Canada blog to go with it: Novel medical treatments

If you work for a company that communicates healthcare information to ordinary people, I can come do a seminar for you with exercises – get in touch with me via jamesharbeck.com/contact/.

Here’s the presentation – all 56 minutes and 23 seconds of it:

Rime of the Ancient Editor

Marie-Lynn Hammond (a luminary in the world of Canadian folk music and also a professional editor) was asked to write a song to celebrate the 40th birthday of Editors Canada (also known as the Editors’ Association of Canada), and she asked me to join in writing the words. She wasn’t able to be at the conference in Halifax, so I led those present at the opening reception in singing it. Here’s a cellphone video of it.

And here are the words:

I am an ancient editor (well, OK, not that old);
I do to words what’s right and true and also what I’m told.
I mostly work alone and yet I’m not alone at all,
for editing lures many with its nerdy siren call!

CHORUS:
Hey ho! Haul up the manuscriptand brave the waves of prose,
and on the storm of muddy words some order we’ll impose.
Hey ho! Fix up the manuscript by sunlight and by moon!
We’ll steer a course to clarity for deadline’s coming soon!

I sail through books and articles, and sometimes even verse;
I try to make them better or at least not make them worse.
I move, delete, and query, tracking changes all the while,
And though hands and eyes may weary, still I do it all with style.

I toil in anonymity, I serve the author’s voice;
It’s grammar over glamour—but when freelance, I rejoice!
For I can work from coffee shops, or home if I decide,
In my housecoat and pyjamas with my cats all by my side.

And when the writing’s so banal I fear I’ll fall asleep,
[I must] beware the dangling modifiers lurking in the deep!
And if the structure’s full of holes and threatening to sink,
I pray I’ll be forgiven should I end up in the drink!

Our crew’s been here for forty years, and we’re still going strong;
They said that we’d be obsolete, but oh! we proved them wrong.
As long as words are in the world, they’ll need a steady hand,
And that’s why we are editors, and oh! my friends, it’s grand!