Category Archives: editing

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.

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

Words that glitter and splash

I was to have been presenting on this at the ACES conference in Salt Lake City this year, but, for pandemic reasons, that was cancelled. So the nice people of ACES asked me if I would be interesting in contributing an article to their website on the topic, with a limit of 3000 words. I was happy to do so… and managed to keep it just under the limit! I’m presenting it here as well. This is a longer read than my usual, but on the other hand it’s much shorter than my master’s thesis. Continue reading

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

But is it art?

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

Is writing art?

And if it is, what is editing?

If we say writing is “artful,” or “artistic,” or “an art,” we mean that we appreciate it aesthetically and admire it for the skill it evinces. But if we say not “writing is an art” but “writing is art” – or “this text is a work of art” – we connect it to an identity that is simultaneously nebulous and overloaded. Continue reading

The Editor’s Carols

After my previous editorial music video, I had a couple of requests for some Christmas songs. Which is good, because I was going to do it anyway. Here’s my medley – quick and dirty, because I’m too busy editing to spend all day on it. (I’m not lying: I’m fully booked – editing full books!)

About the serial comma

People have opinions about the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma). Sometimes very strong opinions. So I sat down with my lunch, some Cheerios, and a Martini to tell you the truth.

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive. Continue reading

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