Friday, March 31, 2006

Modifying Danglers

There was an amusing article in Slate a couple of weeks ago debunking those news items that say "So-and-so costs the U.S. economy some-odd billion dollars a year." The piece was inspired by a recent claim that workplace interruptions like e-mail messages, IMs, and chatty co-workers cost the economy $588 billion a year. That got me wondering what sort of damage the economy is sustaining from the time lost by copy editors' efforts to fix dangling modifiers.

In the world of New York magazine copy editing, dangling modifiers form the basis for something like a sport. CEs are always on the hunt for them, and when they're spotted there's always a surge of excitement, and a desire to share the find with the rest of the department (and whoever else may care, though, really, no one else does). Sometimes it's unclear whether a particular example is authentic, and the whole department will huddle around someone's monitor to make a ruling. (As all CEs know, dangling modifiers are know as danglers, for short. One CE friend of mine likes to tell about the time he was in the office bathroom washing his hands, and one of his colleagues walked up to the urinal, unzipped, and said, "Oh, I wanted to ask you--is this a dangler?....")

Back to concerns about the economy: The main problem with dangling modifiers is that fixing them is often time-consuming. And in many cases it's doubtful that the fix has improved the copy in any practical way--it's often no more readable, no clearer, and, finally and despair-inducingly, no more grammatical. Because the thing is, for many examples of what are called dangling modifiers, it's not clear that there is even a grammatical problem.

The classic dangling modifier is the patently ridiculous type of sentence you find mostly in grammar books under "dangling participle." Here's an example cited by Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage: "Having eaten our lunch, the bus went on to Chicago." Most readers can easily see that this seems to be saying that the bus ate lunch. That's because when you see an introductory participle phrase like "having eaten our lunch," you expect to encounter the word it's trying to modify (presumably "we" in this case) somewhere, and preferably immediately following the phrase (something like "Having eaten our lunch, we boarded the bus and set out for Chicago"). Everyone agrees there are major problems with this type of dangling modifier.

At the other end of the spectrum are danglers that are deemed acceptable by most authorities. In the sentence "Considering how hated Belichick was in Cleveland, it's incredible that another owner would want him as head coach," the phrase starting with "considering" is technically a dangling modifier, because it doesn't modify the word that it ought to ("it") or any other word in the sentence. But Garner's Modern American Usage, in which this sentence is cited, says this kind of thing is perfectly fine. (I know there are copy editors out there who haven't gotten that message yet. Once Bryan A. Garner permits something, though, it's time to let go of your quibbles.)

It's unfortunate that it's even necessary to point out that these are acceptable. But we live in a world in which the prevailing attitude toward danglers is one of extreme intolerance, and the result is an atmosphere of Draconian repression. Here's an example of a perfectly clear, succinct, readable, unambiguous, and non-risible sentence that nonetheless is forbidden under the current regime: "After years of being obligated to attend Knicks games, my interest went from faux to genuine." "Sorry," the copy editor finds himself saying, as if against his will (because who really wants to bother wasting time with this), "but 'my interest' cannot be the subject of the sentence, because the opening phrase wants to modify 'I.' It's not 'my interest' that was obligated to attend; it was 'I.' " (Actually, he doesn't say all this, he just says "That's a dangler!")

But this is how the writer wrote it, and most likely more than one editor read it and found it just fine. And look at it: Do you really think that the dangling-ness of this modifier causes any problems whatsoever? And yet when it gets to the copy editor it has to be changed, and thus ensues a back and forth in which the CE will either come up with a fix himself or ask the editor to, and the editor and/or the writer will like the CE's fix or not, or will question the CE's sanity or not for insisting that it be fixed, and, when the dust settles, the final product may end up being less felicitous than the original.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Trouble With Rules

I had dinner the other night with a friend from out of town who's a newspaper editor and writer. I was explaining to him what my blog was about and he mentioned that at his paper there is a strict preference for "such as" over "like" in references to examples of a set ("Bands such as [not 'like'!] the Stooges and the New York Dolls helped set the stage for punk rock").

The reasoning behind the rule is that if you say "things like X and Y," you are excluding X and Y from what you are talking about: not X and Y, but things like X and Y. Substituting "such as" indicates that these are examples of what you are talking about. (Note that this rule is far from canonical. Even prescriptivists like/such as Wilson Follett and Theodore Bernstein pooh-pooh the distinction.)

My friend said he'd never encountered that rule before starting at the paper, and he found it irksome, because "such as" often sounded fussy and stilted. He resisted the rule for a couple of months, but then he gave in. By then he found that he had unconsciously internalized the rule, and he'd begun to feel irritated whenever he came across an improper use of "like." The problem is that "such as" still didn't sit well with him either, so he was in a bit of a double bind. That's what happens when you subject yourself to all these conflicting prescriptivist rules: You become Tongue-Tied.

He mentioned another nefarious phenomenon involving linguistic rules. An editor at a publication he once worked for once told him that it was wrong to use a contraction when the verb is "has"—i.e., you can write "he's" for "he is" but you can't write "he's" for "he has." He thought this rule was ridiculous and decided to ignore it. But soon enough he found himself flinching whenever he came across an example of someone writing "he's" for "he has." Somehow he'd managed to internalize a rule that he disagreed with.

What is this strange power that these rules have, even over someone who doesn't buy into them? I find it fascinating that one can almost against one's will be induced to feel irritation at someone else's use of language simply by being exposed to a rule, no matter how groundless it might be. Maybe it has something to do with hearing the rule from an authority figure. You are confronted with a dilemma. Do you defy the authority or succumb to it? It's much easier to go along, of course. And once you've submitted, the tendency is to want to impose it on others, too. Hence the almost involuntary feeling of irritation that arises when someone else breaks the rule. You've agreed to comply, to be obedient—why should others be allowed to get away with defiance?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Look, Ma—No Copy Editors!

Here's the opening paragraph of a post Monday by an Iraqi blogger at Iraq the Model. It flouts rules of punctuation, hyphenation, syntax, and consistency (and is a run-on sentence), but it's perfectly clear:

We woke up this morning to the sounds of many explosions in Baghdad and since we are familiar with those sounds we recognized that these were no doubt mortar shelling but not like the usual which is one or two rounds fired by some terrorists in a hit and run manner; this time fire was exchanged between two or more groups and lasted for more than an hour.

Not a copy editor in sight, but it's still great read, and as far as I know there have been no complaints about its use of language from the blog's many readers. Yet if this sentence appeared in, say, an article in the New York Times, there would be hundreds of outraged emails, and endless discussions at Romenesko would ensue. Why the divergent reactions?

On a superficial level, it's obvious. We know what professionally edited prose looks like, and we know this ain't it, so it would be shocking to find something like this in the Times (or in any mainstream publication), and readers would wonder just what had gone wrong.

Yet the passage communicates very effectively. I'm sure I could find a number of sentences in today's Times that would require more effort to understand. Granted, we do make allowances when we know that someone is not writing in their native language, or even when we know someone isn't a professional writer. But look how easy it is to make those allowances--why do we refuse to do that when reading "professional" prose? (I'm not saying we should--just wondering.)

This leads me to the big question here: Blogs (and other less meticulously edited media) represent an increasing portion of our news diet, and readers are becoming increasingly accustomed to reading prose like this in rapid alternation with highly edited prose. Should copy editors be worried that people will start expecting less polish from their prose?

Then there is the meta level: The main goal of copy editing, to my mind, is to enhance the clarity and effectiveness of communication. Yet here we have a passage that is clear and communicates effectively and yet is also clearly devoid of copy editing. Now, if this sentence appeared in a professional publication it would require a substantial amount of work. If the value added by that work is not strictly about clarity or communication, then what is it about? (I'm not suggesting there aren't any other legitimate values; I'm just interested in what people think they are.)


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Verbal Hygienists R Us

Soon after starting Tongue-Tied, I was excited to discover a book called Verbal Hygiene, by Deborah Cameron, a British linguist. Verbal hygiene is Cameron's term for the myridad ways in which people try to control language, ranging from school children making fun of the way other kids on the playground talk to usage "mavens" writing books about the atrocious state of English. Toward the latter end of that range are copy editors, who not only get to complain about others' use of language but also get to force them to use it differently (though some might say we are located on the other end of the range, with the schoolyard bullies).

Cameron says all users of language practice verbal hygiene, and thus everyone, including descriptive linguists, engages in prescriptivism. (Note that she takes pains to say that classic prescriptivism of the stern, finger-wagging-grammarian sort--the kind that descriptive linguists find most offensive--is only one example of what she means by verbal hygiene.) In fact, she argues, the dogmatic insistence among some descriptive linguists that tampering with language is forbidden is, in its own, topsy-turvy way, a form of language prescriptivism.

This book represents a new twist in the usage wars, for me at least. I've seen traditionalist prescriptivists attack descriptivist dogma (the right vs the left), and I've seen descriptive linguists attack prescriptivist dogma (the left vs. the right), but this is the first time I've come across a linguist attacking the dogmas of her own field (the far left (?) vs. the not-so-far left).

If that's not enough to provide fodder for Tongue-Tied, Cameron devotes a whole, dense, 40-page chapter to us copy editors, professional verbal hygienists par excellence. And I'm afraid the portrait she paints is not all that flattering. The question is, does she have a point or is she just another writer who didn't like having her prose put under an editor's microscope? I'll get to that in my next post.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Proved Hypercorrection?

Here's a sentence from an article in The New York Times Magazine by Daphne Merkin. Note the use of "proved" as an adjective:

Writers in the business of trend-spotting have to come up with trends, after all, and Sheehy, the author of the best-selling "Passages," is a proved virtuoso at this genre.

People normally say "proven" in this situation. And I'm sure most people write "proven" as well. Is Daphne Merkin an exception? Maybe, but I have a strong feeling she originally wrote "proven" and it was changed by a copy editor who was misapplying the common prescriptivist rule that "proved" is preferable to "proven" when it's being used as a past participle (that would make it an example of hypercorrection). If Merkin had written this: "Sheehy had proved herself a virtuoso at this genre," then "proved" would have been "correct." But in what she actually wrote, it should have been "proven," as is clear from The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: "as an adjective before a noun, proven is better: a proven remedy, proven oil reserves."

I was curious about how prevalent this usage was in the Times, so I did a couple of Nexis searches comparing "a proved" with "a proven" (that won't catch things like "we enlisted proven experts," but it does provide a basis for comparison). Turns out it's very rare. There are only two instances of "a proved" in the past five years, compared with more than 400 for "a proven."

Now, I'm not saying "proved" is certifiably wrong here, just that it's clunky and unnatural sounding. It looks like a case of robotic but faulty rule application. But it's not surprising that copy editors, who are trained to follow a set of arbitrary rules (even when they flout common sense), sometimes get confused and apply a nonexistent rule that turns something serviceable into something stilted.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and, er, Redundancies

Recently I discussed how copy editors sometimes cultivate irritation excessively, assiduously accumulating pet peeves to arm themselves as language guardians. Now I'm feeling irritated--at a language guardian. The indispensable copy-editing blog A Capital Idea pointed me to an article by Shawn Moynihan in Editor & Publisher, a prescriptivist rant (really and truly) against the phrase "It is what it is." White House press secretary Scott McClellan used the phrase in response to reporters' questions about the government's domestic surveillance, and that has Moynihan in a froth. He calls it "one of the most deflective, idiotic phrases ever to creep into the vernacular" and says that McClellan's use of it means "it is time to draw the line." (Hmmm, that sounds like a tattoo idea: ITTDTL.)

It's one thing to circumvent the truth. It's another thing to lie. But to deflect questions about a topic as crucial as the Bush administration's admitted use of domestic spying by invoking [see note 1 below] one of the most say-nothing, let's-change-the-subject phrases [SNLCTSP--see note 2 below] ever to creep into the English language, is something else entirely.

Apparently the White House can lie as much as it likes, but as soon as it misuses language, it's time to draw the line. Scott McClellan must be wishing he'd picked the straightforwardly evasive "No comment." (Or not: How exactly is a staffer at Editor & Publisher going to draw the line? Forbid newspapers from quoting anyone who uses the phrase?)

The phrase "It is what it is," writes Moynihan, is "about as offensive as it gets to those of us who still care about words and their meaning." He's a proud member of an embattled and dwindling clan of word lovers, and here he presents his membership credentials and philosophy:

Full disclosure here -- as managing editor of E&P, I read a lot of copy. Language in all its forms fascinates me. Communication, be it lingual, physical, musical or otherwise, in the end is really all we have. When used effectively, it is, quite simply, the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal. And when it's misused, for someone who considers word use of great importance, it's deeply offending.

Putting aside the strange "weapon" metaphor (is that really why we value language? And isn't Moynihan accusing McClellan of using language as a weapon?), what's most important here is that a word lover is offended. (And make no mistake--he's really beside himself: He later calls the phrase "absolutely galling.")

In the next paragraph Moynihan addresses the laity:

The phrase "It is what it is," for the uninitiated, is one of the most deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic phrases in the English language. And not surprisingly -- mostly because it's at times useful for ending an argument without having to justify your point -- it's beginning to penetrate the vernacular. And certainly, the White House.

The uninitiated (see note 3 below) had better take his word here, because he doesn't explain why the phrase is "deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic." He must have sensed the futility, since the uninitiated most likely don't read the "Shoptalk" column in Editor & Publisher.

Here's what I'd like to know: If McClellan's linguistic legerdemain is powerful enough to fool the public (or "pull a fast one on the masses," as Moynihan says), how is it so easy for Moynihan to see through it?

Even more puzzling: How can someone believe that crimes against language are worse than lies? It doesn't make much sense until you realize that many prescriptivists see language as the foundation of all morality. If you believe that, then maybe a string of good honest fibs is nothing compared to a single misuse of language. That would be an attack on the moral fiber of society, and that's where you have to draw the line.


1. Moynihan's concern about word usage has its limits. I can't find any definition in M-W's Collegiate that corresponds to this usage of "invoking." With an extreme stretch, you might say he means "to put into effect or operation: IMPLEMENT." He was probably going for something with the connotation of "to call forth by incantation : CONJURE." But you can't call forth an incantation by uttering the same incantation. Maybe he should have just said "incanting" or "uttering" instead of "invoking."

2. Whenever someone invokes, er, says something is "one of the most X things ever," it makes me wonder what the other, similarly X things are. Since Moynihan doesn't provide a list, here are some possible candidates. The ur-SNLCTSP has got to be "Whatever." Just ask Russell Crowe, who was provoked by "Whatever" to draw the line with a hotel telephone. Another is the old Budweiser line "Why ask why?" which hasn't managed to creep as far into the English language as "Whatever." One that never quite crept into the English language at all is "Que sera, sera." Actually, it's surprising we haven't heard that one in a press conference yet--it has a Rumsfeldian ring. If we draw the line now, maybe we can keep it from creeping in.

3. Actually, it's not clear from the syntax whether (1) he's addressing the uninitiated or (2) he's saying that only the uninitiated consider the phrase "meaningless." I'll assume he's addressing them. (But then wouldn't "for the initiated" be a dangling modifier?)

Monday, February 06, 2006

When I Hear the Word "Memoir," I Reach for My Polygraph

Among other valuable neurotic traits (like a sense of irritation, which helps you spot errors), copy editors have to cultivate a certain level of paranoia. It's productive to be irrationally suspicious of every sentence. But when you're at home reading, say, the Sunday New York Times, you'd like to be able to turn off the skepticism switch and sit back and enjoy.

That was my state of mind yesterday as I clicked on Leah Hager Cohen's review of a memoir called My Fundamentalist Education, by Christine Rosen, who attended a Christian school as a child. Repose swiftly gave way to vigilance, however, after I read the hackneyed and tendentious opening sentences:

Hear the phrase "religious fundamentalism" and you are likely to picture a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, Jewish settlers resisting removal from the Gaza Strip or the slaying of abortion doctors in the United States. But the fundamentalists described by Christine Rosen in her closely observed memoir bear little resemblance to the extremists who have become the staple of the nightly newscasts.

This is written by (or addressed to) someone who thinks entirely in stereotypes. Who else would find it surprising that not all fundamentalists are violent extremists? Can the Times really be this simple-minded? Suppressing the urge to hit the "back" button, I read on, my innocent curiosity having turned morbid, to see whether Rosen's "close observations" could rescue us from the realm of lazy media cliche.

As I feared, the bits Cohen quotes leave us mired in stereotype. The fundamentalists depicted in Rosen's book are not extremists, they're just tacky white trash, for whom getting to Bible camp requires "a sweltering two-hour ride in the church van." Once there, campers swim in an "algae-covered lake." The mothers of Rosen's Christian-school classmates wear "vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears. Visiting missionaries have 'out-of-date clothes' and 'badly cut hair.' "

The truth is, this is precisely what many people picture when they hear the phrase "religious fundamentalism": poor, ignorant, fashion-challenged rednecks. The reviewer has replaced one stereotype ("fundamentalists are extremists") with another ("fundamentalists are hicks"), neither of which gets us beyond the "staples of the nightly newscasts." On the contrary, we're simply having a different set of snobbish preconceived notions confirmed.

In a paranoid leap, I recalled what Ana Marie Cox had said about former Times reporter Rick Bragg (who lost his job because some of his claims to have actually observed what he wrote about turned out to be false), that he was the master of the "Platonic ideal of Timesian condescension." (And what is the phrase "vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears" if not a Platonic ideal of white-trash tackiness?) Could something like this be going on here? I wondered. In the wake of the Frey fiasco it's hard to know what to think. Don't confabulators like Frey (and Bragg and Stephen Glass and Jason Blair) pull off their feats by making their fabrications conform to what readers already believe or want to believe?

My flight of fancy was ludicrous, of course. I have no doubt that Rosen experienced her church ladies firsthand. And it could well be that her book is a lot more nuanced than what is conveyed by the Times review. But right now the word “memoir” sets off alarm bells, and on Sunday mornings I don't want to be in paranoid-copy-editor mode. So no more reviews of memoirs for me, at least in the Sunday Times.