When is a dictionary like a usage manual?

Well, depending on the dictionary, the answer could be “sometimes.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked me how Garner’s Modern American Usage compared to the OED. Honestly? That’s apples and oranges. And if you add stylebooks to the set, it’s apples and oranges and bananas.

I know you know what a dictionary’s for. That’s where you look up spellings, definitions of words, parts of speech, and sometimes — but only sometimes, depending on which dictionary you have — usage tips. If you’re a really bad speller, a “normal” dictionary might be next to useless. You’ll want a misspeller’s dictionary instead. If you’re a person who often can think of the concept of a word, but not the word, perhaps a reverse dictionary would work better for you. Here are five dictionaries I keep on my reference shelf, right here where I write and edit. I use the Encarta the most, but truthfully, I more often than not look online at the Merriam-Webster site. The Chicago style references M-W, so that’s where I go for “business.” I love my Encarta, though, for “pleasure browsing.” It contains a lot of usage information, but not as much as a dedicated usage manual.

Two general for general use, one for etymology, one for idioms, and a reverse. All helpful in their own ways.

Two for general use, one for etymology, one for idioms, and a reverse. All helpful in their own ways.

Next, I have two usage manuals. As the name would suggest, they’re dedicated to English-language usage. Not to spelling, or definitions, or how the words should appear on the page, but to how words are (or should be, or should not be) used. The paperback M-W I’ve had for years and years. The copy of Garner I just got a couple of weeks ago. I’m very, very happy with the latter most of all because of the “five stages of acceptance,” as I’ve taken to calling them. I wrote about those over on G+ not long after I got the book, in a post about the shift in meaning of the word “nimrod” from “mighty hunter” (the Biblical Nimrod) to “fool, idiot” (thank you, Bugs Bunny). That shift epitomizes Garner’s “stage 5″: “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Once a change reaches stage 5, the ship has sailed. The train has left the station. Give it up; there’s no going back. I find Garner’s book most useful for identifying when it’s still worth fighting to retain a usage, or when it’s best to just let it go and grumble to myself.

I grumble a lot.

Garner and M-W, the two usage manuals I own

Garner and M-W, the two usage manuals I own

Then we have stylebooks. These are unlike either dictionaries or usage manuals. The main thrust of any stylebook is to engender consistency in presentation. Nearly all journalistic media uses the AP stylebook. That’s why for the most part when you’re reading a news item, it looks pretty much like every other news item out there as far as actual appearance. The title is capitalized a certain way. There’s a dateline, and the date is styled a certain way. Times are presented in a certain way. You get the drift, I think. You don’t use a stylebook to look up a definition of a word. You use a stylebook to see how a word should be presented (styled) in your work, to conform to that style. For example:

mecca Lowercase in the metaphorical sense; capitalize the city in Saudi Arabia.” (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2012)

If you don’t know what “mecca” means as a metaphor, this won’t tell you. You need a dictionary for that. However, now you know that if you use this metaphorically, you don’t capitalize it. That’s a style issue. In the AP stylebook, this particular word is found right where you’d expect it: under the letter M, just like in a dictionary. In the Chicago Manual of Style, though, you won’t find “mecca” listed in that way. CMoS is positively labyrinthine compared to AP. They have different focuses, different audiences. I learned Chicago style long before AP, and I still have to look up some things to make sure I’m not mixing them.

I bought a copy of the New Oxford Style Manual so I would have a reference handy when I’m copy editing UK writers’ work. Not that it seems to matter much, honestly. I asked a number of them online if they used the term “full point” (which NOSM says is the preferred term, now) or “full stop.” No one had even heard of “full point.” The schools are still teaching “full stop.” Take THAT, NOSM. I won’t even go into the issues with quotation marks, save to say everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Mostly. Apparently in the fiction market, dialogue is set the same way as it is in the US: double quotes for direct quotations, single quotes for quotes-within-quotes. BUT, in the nonfiction market, that is reversed — that is to say, it’s the way I expected, with direct quotes set in single quotation marks, and double ones used for quotes-within-quotes.

NOSM doesn’t reflect that, though, which I find interesting in the extreme. Anyway, here’s the third photo.

"The" UK stylebook (comparable to Chicago) on the left, CMoS 16th ed, and AP

“The” UK stylebook (comparable to Chicago) on the left, CMoS 16th ed, and AP

So, right. I can’t compare a usage manual to a dictionary to a stylebook. They’re different books with different purposes. Dictionaries have some elements of usage manuals; usage manuals have some elements of dictionaries; stylebooks might contain abridged dictionaries (the NOSM contains the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), and often contain brief notes about usage. But, all in all, one cannot replace another.

Review: Lapsing into a Comma, Bill Walsh

I don’t normally review books here, but for this one I’m making an exception. Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them is a delightful and insightful work that would fit nicely into any copy editor’s reference shelf. (You might have to turn it sideways, but still. It would fit.) Walsh is copy editor at the Washington Post; journalistic concerns are prevalent in his writing for good reason. If that’s off-putting to you, get over it. Just because you have no need for datelines in your writing doesn’t mean you can’t make use of his assertion that every good copy editor needs the sensibilities of a 13-year-old boy. (It’s in there. I swear. And he’s right.)

Just over half the book is taken up by “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook.” I hesitate to call this the meat of the work, because honestly the whole book is packed with important stuff. This section, though, is an alphabetical listing from “a/an” to “yes, I have/yes, I do.” (If you don’t know why that last entry’s needed, I envy you. I really do.) Preceding this are chapters with particular focus: how to think while using a stylebook (it’s not blind obedience to “the rules”), how to use a dictionary (in which I found out I did know what I was doing, despite what some folks tried to tell me!), how to deal with Information-Age trends (including a wonderful rant about the United Nations), how to “say what you mean and mean what you say,” why “innumeracy” is a problem (why is the sentence “An average caseworker might handle up to 100 cases a month or more” meaningless?), how to deal with sensitive issues like race, sex/gender, and the ubiquitous “singular they,” and how to manage punctuation.

Also included are two chapters specific to journalistic style, on  writing headlines and dealing with quoted material. For my money, those two are the least helpful pieces in the book. I don’t write headlines per se (I don’t count blog post titles as headlines, particularly), and I don’t use much directly or indirectly quoted material (as in, “Bill Walsh of the Washington Post admits that he’s never seen an entire episode of ‘Star Trek,’ but he still knows who Mr. Spock is”). YMMV, of course. (Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means. Get thee to the Urban Dictionary and look it up.)

All right. That’s what’s in the book. I would hope you can tell from my writing that Walsh is of the same mind as I on many things (especially that mind-of-a-13-year-old-boy concept), with the same “reverent irreverence” I tend toward. I had no idea of this before reading his book. It’s very heartening to me to find out I hold the same views as such a big fish as he. The need to think while using a stylebook is paramount to my work. To quote him: “A finely tuned ear is at least as important as formal grammar, and that’s not something you can acquire by memorizing a stylebook. But reading and thinking about a stylebook writer’s reasoning might help you develop that ear.”

I’m pretty sure my ear is under constant development, and I need to thank Bill Walsh for his contribution to that. To get your own copy, you can click the Amazon.com link below if you like.

Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh

 

 

 

Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)

Prepositions, Churchill, and You

“This is the sort of pedantic(bloody/tedious) nonsense up with which I will not put.” — Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps, perhaps not)

First, I shall provide a link so I don’t have to summarize here. I suspect many of you know where I’m headed with this already. Those who don’t, clickity the link, please. We’ll all wait.

::whistles and has a cup of tea::

Excellent. Now, to business.

It’s nonsense that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s how it sounds best and makes sense. Blame the essayist John Dryden, since apparently he’s the one who started all of this back in 1672. (If you’ve read the article you know this already. If you haven’t read it, and think perhaps now you should, please do so. We’ll still be here when you come back.) Patricia O’Conner, in her wonderful handbook Woe Is I, puts the blame on Robert Lowth, a English clergyman and Latin scholar, and sets the date fuzzily at the eighteenth century. In any case, who done it doesn’t matter. It was done. (And yes, that’s passive construction. However, I can fairly safely say this was not done by zombies.) Anyway . . .

Many idioms employ prepositions, and altering the word order can create mayhem with your meaning. Turn up (as in “turn up the volume” or “something’s bound to turn up”), lean on (as in “put pressure on someone for answers”), space out (as in “sorry, I spaced out there for a minute”). You can think of more, I’m sure. Cambridge put out a whole dictionary full.

The point of all this is to assure you that there’s no need to twist your sentences into pretzels to avoid ending them with prepositions. There’s simply no reason to do so. If what you have to say sounds best and makes sense with a preposition at the end, run with it. As long as it’s not something that’s really incorrect, such as “Where are you at?” (the “at” is redundant; where already contains the sense of location or placement), no one has any reason to be concerned for your grammatical soul.

My normal caveats apply. If you’re writing dialogue, clearly you might well have a reason to have a character use nonstandard grammar. These hints are generally for more formalized writing, or for the narrative surrounding your dialogue. If you’re writing an academic paper, you will do well to avoid terminal prepositions (ones at the end of sentences) in favor of more standard, formal language. Even journalism (or what passes for it these days) should hew to a slightly more formal standard; avoid ending sentences with prepositions if you can, while maintaining clarity and sense.

Otherwise? No one should care what word your sentence ends with.

(Thanks to a G+ pal who asked me about this earlier today, thus sparking this post! You shall remain nameless. Fear not. I won’t turn you in. Heh.)

Who IS Chavez Cancer?

This time I have to thank Steve Miller for posting about this headline on his Facebook wall. Because of that, I wound up searching for the exact wording and discovered the precise location of the travesty of usage that is

Cancer personified.

I don’t know how long the link will remain active, so: CHAVEZ CANCER RETURNS, NAMES SUCCESSOR.

What, now? Who is Chavez Cancer? (Steve has some ideas about that, apparently.)

Honestly, even had it read “Chavez’s Cancer” the result wouldn’t be much better. The cancer is still naming a successor. At least the original version has some black(er) humor. It’s headlines like this that make my editor-senses twitch fitfully, my fingers curl into claws, and my eyes narrow. My gaze becomes fire. Smoky tendrils waft up from my ears. Is it really that difficult to write a headline that doesn’t scream “IDIOT!”? What’s wrong with “Cancer Returns, Chavez Names Successor”? It uses all the same words, and makes the point without causing editorial rage. I think it’s a plot by the website to lure me there.

How do you plead?

More apropos: “How have you pled? Or pleaded? Which one is it, anyway?”

The answer is: Both. Yes. Either. Doesn’t really matter.

I told you you probably wouldn’t like the answer to that question in my last blog post. But did you read it? Did you listen? Do I sound like your mother?

This site provides an interesting perspective that, to me, cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s a legalese issue from my point of view. Think about it for a moment. What’s the real difference between “The mother pleaded for mercy on her child” and “The suspect pled not guilty”? The first one takes place outside the courtroom (one assumes, anyway), the second inside it. Dictionaries tell us that “pleaded” is the standard form, but we’re used to hearing “pled” because we’re addicted to courtroom dramas from “Perry Mason” to “Law & Order.”

Another site points out the poetic use of “pled” (citing Spenser, among others) over “pleaded,” and explains that while lawyers also tend to use “pled” over “pleaded,” they use “deeded” instead of the “unfortunate-sounding alternative” one would arrive at if following the same formula. (I’ll wait while you work that out.)

It would seem to me, based on these readings and several dictionaries, that “pleaded” is the standard form for the past tense of “plead.” It would also seem to me that if the writer prefers the sound of “pled” for some reason (be that poetic license or legalese), that is also acceptable in general. As always, check your preferred usage manual if you care about that sort of thing. (And you should care about it. If you don’t, why are you reading this blog in the first place?)

 

The Debate Continues

No, no. Not that one.

Sometimes other folks can say what I’m thinking more eloquently than I can. This is one of those times. I invite you to click on this link to read a NYT piece in which two grammarians debate which rules to adhere to, and which to let slide.

If I have to choose a label, I find that I can’t. I have elements of both prescriptivism and descriptivism in my grammatical worldview. Apparently that’s not entirely bad.

I can live with that.

Two really unfortunate typos

Hi, folks! I haven’t been too present on the blog lately. I was away for much of last week on a family vacation, and tomorrow I’m heading to GenCon to see old friends, but I recently found* two typos that I had to share. Consider them snacks to tide you over until a real post comes along.

First, you’ve heard of Porsche, right? Their cars ain’t cheap, so you’d figure the company would have a little money to invest in producing great ads. However, they seem to have skimped on the proofreading in this series of billboards promoting their Boxster. I always say if you’re going to misspell the name of your own product, you might as well do it big.

Next up is this obituary, which contains a hilariously inappropriate acronym in the photo caption. Apparently, some folks on Twitter have called this the “worst caption fail of all time.” I really don’t know how this particular error can be explained. You’d have to go out of your way to make this mistake. One theory is that the caption writer meant to signify “lots of love,” but that just makes me LOL.

(When I say I “found” these typos, I mean I read about them online. One of them was sent to me by a friend, and one of them was discovered while browsing. I much prefer taking photos of real typos in the wild, but until Karen and I launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund our world travels for that very purpose, a prescriptive grammarian’s gotta do what a prescriptive grammarian’s gotta do.)

Battle of the bugle

I often read Kevin Drum’s blog at the Mother Jones website and felt like sharing a great typo he found in the Washington Post.

Fighting with cone-shaped corn chips might be worth watching, too.

The original story has since been updated on the Post‘s website, and Karen and I usually don’t spotlight errors that have been corrected—we don’t want to seem like rabid editors chasing down every typo ever made—but the idea of a bugle battle at the Olympics was too good to pass up. And, of course, this is yet another example of a mistake that a spellchecker wouldn’t (and apparently didn’t) catch.

Living Language Peeve: Slang at the CSM

I know some of my readers who are also real-life friends or acquaintances are aware of my “living language peeves.” Those are the things that we could eliminate, if we could only keep the language from evolving. Granted, some of those evolutionary steps aren’t necessarily bad things. Sometimes, for instance, we need a word for a thing that was just created or invented. That’s a Good Thing. However, my peeve for today falls into the Bad Thing category no matter how I slice it.

“Humongous” in a Headline? Really, CSM?

Now, lest someone out there think I’m a total stick-in-the-mud, I use that word plenty in everyday speech. I don’t shy away from slang. In daily speech, with my family and friends, there’s no reason to be stodgy. However, I draw the line at using slang in professional situations like when I’m teaching, or making a presentation to a group. I apply the same standards to writing. I don’t expect to see “humongous” in a headline at a news outlet with the reputation of the Christian Science Monitor. I just don’t. The Onion, sure. A college paper with a carefree bent, sure. The NYT? The CSM? The WaPo? No, I’m sorry–I expect their writers and editors to use standard English.

And that’s the way it is, Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Good night, David.

 

ETA: Later tonight, this version appeared on the RSS feed. Both links remain active at this posting. More info in my comment timestamped 7:02pm.