Tag Archives: The Editors’ Weekly

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.

Sure-fire opening lines

This was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in want of readers must be possessed of a good opening line. A book is a relationship – many of us spend more intimate time with books than with people – and it is important to start the relationship off on a good foot.

So, naturally, I wondered whether good opening lines for books were like good opening lines on Tinder.

A book, of course, is not addressing you personally. Still, like your first message to someone on Tinder (I’m told), a book’s opening line should include a couple of attention-grabbing details, be about something the reader is interested in, refer to things they know about, present honesty and vulnerability, and leave the reader wanting to know more. It’s even better if it’s witty.

On the other hand, books are supposed to bring adventure, with danger and disturbance. It’s safe, since you can close the cover and return to normalcy, but it can’t be like a nice date. Death makes for bad dates but good reading.

So, as a study in pragmatics and discourse, let’s try some opening lines of books lightly adapted to be Tinder opening lines and see how they do.

  • “Hey. I am somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert and the drugs are beginning to take hold.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • “Good evening. It is a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • “JSYK, everything in my profile happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
  • “Greetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • “How’s it going? If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
  • “Greetings. I am a woman who has discovered she has turned into the wrong person.” (Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups)
  • “Nice day, eh? The sun is shining, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
  • “A bit about myself: All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
  • “Yo. I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)
  • “Hi there. I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” (Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche)
  • “Good day. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
  • “My name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and I almost deserve it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

From these we observe two further truisms:

  1. The genre expectations of narrative fiction are sharply different from those of dating.
  2. Most protagonists of novels may be very interesting to read about but are not the kind of people you would want to go on a date with.

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

Digital enhancement for numbers (Go figures!)

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

At the ACES conference in Providence, Rhode Island, in late March, the Associated Press announced changes to their recommendations for handling numbers and debated some others.

About sixty percent of those present gasped when one of the recommendations was made – in fact, it might have been 70 percent. No, I’m going with 80% of those in attendance. But it made perfect sense to me. Continue reading

Do you want to use a Germanic feature, or do you prefer using a Celtic one?

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

Learning other languages is fun. And to learn another language is to learn more about your own language – especially when it takes on the aspect of learning more about your family tree.

You’ve probably had the experience of meeting new relatives or learning about ancestors and thinking, “Oh, that explains something.” Well, consider this: English was brought to Britain by invaders from what is now northern Germany and was learned by the resident Celts; then Scandinavians invaded and had a significant influence on the language; then the French invaded and had a major influence; then the English started invading other places and stealing their words. So discovering these other languages is discovering English – to get to know them is to get to know our own weird tongue. Such as why we can use either a gerund – learning, discovering – or an infinitive – to learn, to discover – as the subject or object of a sentence.

In French, you learn that this function is served by the infinitive. If you want to say “Seeing is believing,” you say Voir c’est croire, using the infinitives: “To see is to believe.” German has it the same way – Sehen heisst glauben – and so does Norwegian: Å se er å tro. These languages also have in common that they don’t use a present progressive tense as we do: “I am walking” translates to Je marche, Ich laufe, Jeg går – “I walk.”

On the other hand, when you learn Irish or Scots Gaelic you find they have a thing called a verbal noun. “I am walking” in Irish is Táim ag siúl, “I am at walking.” Irish uses the present progressive much as English does, and it uses its verbal nouns where English would use gerunds. (Irish happens to have its own idiomatic phrase for “Seeing is believing”: Is é a chreidiúint, “It’s believing.”) The Celtic inhabitants of southeastern Britain when the Angles and Saxons arrived from Germany weren’t Irish, of course; the language displaced by English was the ancestor of modern Breton, which is still spoken by descendants of Britons who fled to northern France (Brittany). It has the same verbal noun feature, worn down a bit by the centuries and the influence of French.

English, given a choice of two influences, chose to keep both of them. Typical.

English isn’t the only Germanic language that normally uses a present progressive, by the way, as you will discover if you learn Icelandic. Icelandic’s version uses the preposition plus the infinitive, but in the same way as Irish uses its verbal nouns: “I am walking” is Ég er að ganga. Oh, and it just happens that early Icelanders brought over a lot of Irish and Scottish people to, um, help around the house. Nearly two-thirds of the maternal gene pool and about a quarter of the paternal gene pool in Iceland is of Irish or Scottish descent.

So there you have it. In languages as in families, to learn is to discover, and seeing is believing.

The hardest language

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

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.

A whole nother thing

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

As editors, we pay attention to the written form of our language. Its relation to the spoken form is a whole other thing.

The spelling is odd, we know. But even our hyphenation doesn’t really break according to pronunciation. Consider the word breaking. Where do you hyphenate it? Break-ing. But where does the syllable break happen in pronunciation? Before the k. Don’t believe me? Shout it, emphasizing each syllable equally. You’ll shout “Bray! King!” rather than “Break! Ing!” In speech, we automatically shift a consonant at the end of one syllable to the beginning of the next if there isn’t a consonant there already, regardless of how the word is formed. But in writing we reflect the bits the word is made of, because that’s how we think of it.

Except when we don’t. And then it’s a whole nother thing.

Take a word like another. It’s made of two pieces: an and other. Put them together, and the n is automatically said at the beginning of the second syllable, so it sounds like a nother. You’d think we’d still keep it in mind that it’s really an other. You would not inevitably be right.

A whole nother isn’t the only place we’ve done this redivision. Centuries ago, a newt was an ewt and a nickname was an ekename. And speaking of nicknames, Ned and Nan come from mine Edward and mine Ann (we used to alternate my and mine as we still alternate a and an), and in Shakespeare you’ll see nuncle in place of uncle.

It also goes the other way. A poisonous snake, in English, was næddre, which would normally have become nadder, but instead of a nadder we have an adder. Likewise, a naperon gave us an apron. We pronounce them no differently, unless we put another word in between, but we think of them differently. We hear the n said at the start of the next syllable, but since the n in an always does that, we reanalyze it in a way that seems – for one reason or another – more appropriate.

Do you wish you could have someone to make rulings on these kinds of resplittings (also known as rebracketing and false splitting)? Try calling an umpire – as long as you don’t mind that your umpire would once have been a noumpere.

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept a whole nother, of course. A whole other is considered formally correct, although that implies a two-word an other. Since we’ve glued the two parts together, putting whole in the middle is arguably more like what we do in abso-bloody-lutely… except we wouldn’t write a-whole-nother.

Perhaps we should reconsider what we do and don’t think of as inviolable word boundaries. We may dislike alot quite a lot, for instance, but if we can make a word like another, can you think of a truly defensible reason for it not to be another one such? Or is that a… completely different issue?