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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

E-books that read YOU

Today I heard a great story on the NPR radio program On the Media. The host talked to Alexandra Alter, a reporter who wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal (which you can read here) about how the major e-book publishers are tracking your e-reading habits and using the data to shape future publications. As you read an e-book, your Kindle, Nook, or iPad is gathering data about where you start reading, where you stop, what sections you skip, what passages you underline, and so on, and transmitting that information back to the publisher. Here’s the opening paragraph from the Wall Street Journal article:

It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” And on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first “Hunger Games” book is to download the next one.

With the data they collect, the publishers determine (rightly or wrongly) what readers want to see and then try to deliver more of the same in subsequent releases. In other words, the publishers are putting their e-books through virtual focus groups.

And it gets better (or worse; your mileage may vary). In the radio interview, Alter added that some publishers have started releasing early digital editions of books, gathering data on how customers read those books on their devices, and then changing the eventual print editions to reflect that feedback. So if enough people quit reading the book before the end, the publishers are likely to punch things up so the hardcover has a better chance of keeping your eyeballs all the way through.

Set aside the privacy concerns for a moment (though I don’t want my Nook to narc me out to Barnes & Noble—do you?). Regardless of whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that publishers are trying new ways to create books that will hold your attention, it’s not hard to see how this development might diminish the perceived role of editors. If an algorithm can decide that chapter 1 is boring and the book takes too long to read, but there’s a very popular passage in the middle of chapter 7, so let’s have more stuff like that, is there still room for humans in this process?

Sure, that question is a bit dramatic, because the answer is yes, at least for right now. But how can we stop publishers that are focused on the bottom line from giving too much weight to data about sales and reading habits?

The name’s Spiderman. Harvey Spiderman.

So there’s a new Spider-Man movie out now, conveniently titled The Amazing Spider-Man, and I don’t intend to get into a debate over whether they really needed to reboot the franchise already with another origin story. (The answer is “no,” by the way. Thus ends the debate.)

I’m here instead to say that I’ve already seen several reviews, including this one in the online Seattle P-I, of an apparently different movie with a similar title: The Amazing Spiderman.

Okay, okay, I know it’s the same flick, but really—when you’re reviewing a movie, I think it’s kind of important to get the name right, and as Karen noted in a recent post, hyphens are cheap, my friend. Plenty to go around. Besides, when you run the word together like that, the movie sounds more like a documentary about a two-bit magician named Harvey Spiderman.