Category Archives: Language

A Finer Point: Compound issues

The hyphen – its inclusion or omission – is a useful marker of the evolution of language. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle tries to get a sense of the fast-moving hyphen landscape.

If you ask an editor or proofreader to reveal the punctuation mark they most agonise over on a daily basis, commas would no doubt feature. But I’d wager that deciding whether or not to include a hyphen in a compound phrase or word causes at least equal amounts of brainache. (Or should that be brain ache? Or brain-ache?)

The sorts of words and phrases that are under, or have at some point been under, what we might call the ‘hyphen radar’ of editors could be put into two main categories. The first the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls permanent compounds. These are in the dictionary (well, hopefully – see below), and can be open (‘ice cream’), closed (‘email’) or hyphenated (‘tear-jerker’). The second category of compounds is temporary. These are words joined for the communication of meaning at that moment. We are familiar with the hyphenated versions, usually used as modifiers – such as in ‘worst-dressed grammarian’ – but less familiar with open ones. The current CMOS (published in 2017) gives ‘impeachment hound’ (who can think why, recalling current affairs in America at the time?) as an example of the latter.

All these permutations are a lot to consider. Since I only have 1,000 words, I’m going to plump for looking at the hyphenation of permanent compounds.

Searching for answers

One of the most helpful, and entertaining, accounts of hyphens I’ve found is in David Crystal’s Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to their history and usage. But even here our introduction to these marks is somewhat daunting:

If I were to cover all variations in the use of the hyphen, I would have to write an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story. It is the most unpredictable of marks. Henry Fowler sums it up well in the opening sentence of his entry on hyphens in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage: ‘chaos’.

Oh, right. But maybe we could actually consult a dictionary to find out which words and phrases to hyphenate? Well, not so fast. Continuing with Crystal:

Changes in fashion are the main reason why the obvious solution to any question about hyphenation – look it up in a dictionary! – won’t always help.

He testifies how both ‘flower-pot’ and ‘flowerpot’ appear in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and describes the carnage of ‘hyphengate’, when 16,000 items in the OED had their hyphens removed in 2007 to make open or closed compounds: ‘Reactions ranged from the hysterical to the bemused.’

So, what’s to be done? If a dictionary search yields nothing but confusion, Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006) has sensible advice:

Some subjects have a conventional usage, and some authors have strong views, so ask before imposing your own system. Introduce hyphens only to avoid ambiguity … and do not feel that similar words must be treated ‘consistently’, e.g. lifebelt, life-jacket.

The mark of progress

Before it became a solid compound in Oxford dictionaries, one word was seized on in 1997 by RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, as proof that some dictionaries (Oxford, Chambers) are more stuffy than others (Collins, Longman):

What about electro-magnetic versus electromagnetic? Collins and Longman confirm that only the second is in use among those who use the term regularly, but Oxford clings stubbornly to the antiquated and pointless hyphen.

Trask’s view illustrates the oft-noted evolution of compounds. CMOS devotes a numbered point to the phenomenon (7.83): ‘With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online).’ Or as Benjamin Dreyer puts it in Dreyer’s English (US version, Random House, 2019): ‘compounds have a tendency, over time, to spit out unnecessary hyphens and close themselves up’. We at the CIEP know the truth of this: in 2019 (as the SfEP) we decided to allow the spitting-out of the hyphen in ‘copy-editor’ and related words. Many other editing organisations and, indeed, editors, still use it, perhaps because it’s still Oxford style, but it will be interesting to see how long it is before the last ‘copy-editor’ is closed up.

Oh dear. With all that closing up and spitting out we’ve managed to make the evolution of language sound both mournful and faintly disgusting. Let’s move on by looking at how this evolution sometimes works to open up compounds. Butcher’s states: ‘Note that African American has no hyphen even when used as an adjective’ – an approach backed in the UK by the Oxford stable (eg the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) and in the US by CMOS. However, as late as 2018 it was necessary to issue a plea for the hyphen in such descriptors of racial heritage to be universally dispensed with. In ‘Drop the hyphen in Asian American’, Henry Fuhrmann commented:

Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.

Finally, in 2019, as reported by the Conscious Style Guide in an updated introduction to Fuhrmann’s article, and to mutterings of ‘about time’, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook dropped the hyphen in these terms and in 2021 the New York Times followed suit.

The risk of clinging on

We all have compound terms that look ‘right’ to us open, closed or hyphenated. Benjamin Dreyer laments the loss of the hyphen in email:

Doesn’t ‘e-mail’ look better and, more important, look like what it sounds like? But ‘email’ was happening whether I liked it or not, and, as in so many things, one can be either on the bus or under the bus.

It’s no coincidence that the evolution of language is accelerated with terms like ‘email’ and ‘online’. They’re tech terms, and many a dictionary has fallen foul of these. The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (published in 2014) still advises a capital ‘I’ for internet. Any organisation following this guidance in 2022 would be seen as either painfully out of touch or intentionally cultivating a charmingly olde-worlde identity. So in these cases organisations and their editors must strike out beyond the dictionaries, and this is just as well. Merriam-Webster in its usage note ‘Should that word have a hyphen?’ cites another example where dictionaries have found themselves under the bus:

One dictionary that shall not be named was a bit notorious for showing the headword Web site long after most of the civilized world was using website. They wised up, eventually.

The speed of change in language that describes tech, an area of our lives that already moves eye-wateringly fast, is necessarily brisk. So it’s up to working writers and editors to reflect this, as well as the evolution of language in other areas. The dictionaries will follow. After all, as Dreyer says, ‘the dictionary takes its cue from us: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things’. He adds: ‘I hope that makes you feel powerful. It should.’


Resources

Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach. Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Conscious Style Guide. https://consciousstyleguide.com/.

David Crystal. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015).

Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English (Random House, 2019).

Henry Fuhrmann. Drop the hyphen in Asian American. https://consciousstyleguide.com/drop-hyphen-asian-american/.

Merriam-Webster. Should that word have a hyphen? https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/hyphen-rules-open-closed-compound-words.

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2014).

RL Trask. Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin, 1997).

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: ice cream by Candy Zimmermann, flowerpots by Scott Webb, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Editing outside your experience

The Radical Copyeditor, Alex Kapitan, recently spoke to PEN, the Professional Editors Network, members and guests about how to be a radical copyeditor when editing language that describes the experiences of those outside our own life experiences. Nicholas Taylor shares his takeaways from the event.

The Radical Copyeditor’s seven principles for editing text

The Radical Copyeditor, Alex Kapitan, spoke to PEN, the Professional Editors Network, members and guests about how to be a radical copyeditor when editing language that describes the experiences of those outside of our own life experiences.

Whether it’s race, sexuality, gender, disability, religion or faith, socio-economic background or any of the other many ways we describe ourselves, as editors, we are going to come across texts that describe people who don’t share the same backgrounds and experiences as ourselves. As editors, we are going to come across language that describes those experiences and we need to edit that with sensitivity and awareness.

Being an editor is not about sticking to a set of arbitrary rules, Alex reminds us. It is about being sensitive to language that describes people and affirms their lives and backgrounds, being aware of the rules, where they came from and figuring out which ones to apply, in context. As editorial professionals, we should be considering who those rules serve, where they came from and their impact on marginalised communities. As we know, language is always evolving and as professionals, we should be aware of changes in usage, terminology and trends.

Alex told us about the effects of an author’s choice of words. Language has the ability to:

  • dehumanise,
  • pathologise and
  • invisibilise.

Dehumanising language causes people to look the other way when its targets are suffering, completely othering groups and erasing their voices from the conversation.

Pathologising language stigmatises people who have different experiences. The language used can make people feel that they are ‘wrong’ simply for having those backgrounds or lives and that their lives need to be fixed.

Invisibilising language takes the experiences of people, whether through appropriation or erasure, communicating the idea that a group of people no longer exist. All three of these are particularly problematic and are something that editors should be looking out for.

As always, we are reminded that context matters, but our primary concern should be to avoid harm. Caring for the readers, writers and ourselves is important, Alex reminded us.

Alex took us through seven principles for editing text.

1. Be appropriately specific

Using specific language to describe people, rather than awkward or inaccurate generalisations, is going to be more inclusive. For example, describing ‘LGBTQ+ people’ is not helpful if you are trying to talk about ‘same-sex couples’.

2. Avoid euphemisms

Using euphemisms suggests that the right language is ‘wrong’ or something to be avoided.

3. Counter dehumanising language

Avoid using adjectives as nouns or equating people with a label or condition.

4. Respect self-identification

If people use a certain language, term or phrase to describe themselves, use this. You should not edit this language to make it ‘correct’ if it’s the language they use.

5. Use gender-inclusive language

More than just correcting fireman and postman, use non-sexist, neutral language. Singular ‘they’ works for both those who use this as a pronoun and for more general cases, replacing ‘he/she’ constructions.

6. Be mindful of metaphor

The idea of blackness and darkness vs whiteness and lightness is well-known, especially in fiction, but this language has the power to reinforce stereotypes.

Hands in darkness holding a candle

7. Challenge imperialism

Alex spoke about this from the perspective of someone from the US, but more widely, editors need to challenge the ideas of a collective ‘we’ approach. Who does that ‘we’ exclude when we talk about that?

There are opportunities to develop a more conscious approach to language at every stage of the editing process, from developmental editing right through to proofreading. Whether we are editorial freelancers or in-house editors, we have opportunities to ensure that language is inclusive. Publishers and presses have responsibilities, too, Alex reminds us.

At the heart of this approach is care: care for the reader, the writer and for the editor. The focus should not be on avoiding ‘offence’ or ‘getting into trouble’ but on not causing harm. When we edit, particularly language and topics that fall outside of our own experiences as individuals, we need to be tuned in to the potential to cause harm.

Using conscious language requires a lifetime commitment. It isn’t going to happen overnight and we may find that it feels awkward or clumsy at first. But language is important and we should take the time to learn from others who have experiences outside of our own to fully understand how language works for them.


The CIEP produces resources to help editors and proofreaders. These EDI resources include:

Read about where the CIEP stands on EDI 


About Nicholas Taylor

Nicholas Taylor (he/him) is an editor, proofreader and occasional writer. He specialises in working with LGBTQ+ texts, both fiction and non-fiction, and works to make text more inclusive for the whole LGBTQ+ community. He is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: hands by Anete Lusina on Pexels, candle by Myriams-Fotos on Pixaby.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP. 

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – title case

Capitals for some words, lowercase for others, and what exactly is a preposition anyway? Cathy Tingle tries to navigate the nuances of title case in headings, and in the process discovers the importance of editorial judgement.

At the end of October 2021’s A Finer Point we were running breathlessly away from the surprisingly complicated zone of sentence case, with its proper noun, identity and emphasis landmarks, towards what we were hoping would be the more straightforward domain of title case. And, four months later, we’re finally here (quite a long run, that). Let’s take a look around.

Getting our bearings

It’s tricky to know what to call this place, as it has many names: maximal capitalisation, initial caps, title case, headline style, smart capitals.

Ah, well. Even if we can’t settle on a label, it should be fairly easy to identify the characteristics of the style. Let’s consult good old New Hart’s Rules on what it calls ‘maximal capitalization’. It says to capitalise ‘the first letter of the first word and of all other important words’. Hang on a minute – what does ‘important’ even mean? Don’t panic: Hart’s has a list.

Nouns, adjectives (other than possessives), and verbs are usually given capitals; pronouns and adverbs may or may not be capitalized; articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are usually left uncapitalized.

Oh. That’s two usuallys and a may or may not. Which suggests very strongly to me, friends, that where we are, in fact, is in the vast realm of editorial judgement.

How can we possibly hope to get our bearings, then, when it comes to title case? Well, let’s start by hanging on to something that at least appears solid by trying to identify what’s never capitalised – or pretty much never.

What not to capitalise

Right then, in general, unless they are the first word in the title don’t capitalise the following word types:

  • Articles: a, an, the.
  • Conjunctions: joining words, for example and, or, but, for, so.
  • Prepositions: words that express a relation to something, for example on, off, of, to, by.

Sounds simple. But actually it’s not. It’s with prepositions in particular that we run into difficulty, because they’re not all nice and short like the ones listed above. Some, like beneath, between, against, around, towards and within are much longer, and would look odd uncapitalised. Which is partly why some style guides have a rule that all words of four letters and longer should be capitalised. For others it’s five letters or longer. Chicago style, bravely (or perhaps with a certain unfussy genius) advises lowercase for all prepositions, regardless of length. Let’s see what Benjamin Dreyer, in Dreyer’s English, has to say about that:

If you say ‘prepositions are invariably to be lowercased’, as some indeed say, you’re going to be up against titles like Seven against Thebes or I Served alongside Rommel, and that certainly won’t do. The cleverer people endorse lowercasing the shorter prepositions, of which there are many, including ‘at’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘of’, ‘to’, and ‘with’, and capping the longer ones, like ‘despite’, ‘during’, and ‘towards’. I’ll admit that the four-letter prepositions can cause puzzlement – I’d certainly never cap ‘with’, but a lowercase ‘over’ can look a little under-respected.

Ah, sometimes capping a four-letter preposition, and sometimes not. Interesting and confusing at once.

But – and it’s a big but

To add to the intrigue, Dreyer then addresses but. I’ve listed it in the previous section as a conjunction, but, unfortunately for us, it is so much more. In fact, but is:

  • a conjunction (‘Yes, but no’)
  • a preposition (‘Everyone was using sentence case but me’)
  • an adverb (‘We are but four sections from the end of the article, so hang in there’)
  • or a noun (‘But – and it’s a big but’, although that phrase always makes my 9-year-old son chortle, as if the second but, the noun, is furnished with an extra t. (Eye roll.) If you’d prefer a less snigger-triggering example, Dreyer gives ‘no ifs or buts about it’.)

But is only one of many words that fit into various word-type categories. There are also, as Dreyer points out, such things as phrasal verbs, which are likely to contain a word you’d usually lowercase (‘Oh, Come On!’ we might shout back exasperatedly, if it were possible to shout in title case).

What to capitalise

Before we bid farewell to Benjamin Dreyer for now, we must note that he would always capitalise the last word, as well as the first word, of a heading in title case, as would Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, authors of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, which contains an excellent section on headline style. Predictably, this isn’t a universal rule.

However, capitalising nouns, adjectives and verbs in title case is pretty much a sure thing. As this should be fairly self-explanatory it’s only left to me to remind you that ‘be’ and ‘is’, though small words, are verbs and should always be capitalised … ah, unless in exceptional cases, such as those outlined in a recent CMOS Shop Talk article which explored whether ‘Is’ should always be capitalised in titles, or to conform to a style decision not to capitalise forms of the verb ‘to be’, a feature of Intelligent Editing’s Smart Capitals style.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a headache.

Books on a bookshelf

What else now?

Stuck in the middle, according to Hart’s at least, are pronouns and adverbs, the may or may nots of a title. So, just a reminder of what they are:

  • Pronouns are stand-in words and phrases for a name or names, from they to Her Majesty (which is actually capitalised for quite another reason, but you get the idea). Some are short enough to seem unimportant: he, it, but in general they are capitalised.
  • Adverbs answer questions such as ‘how?’ ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. They modify verbs, adjectives, prepositions, determiners, other adverbs, and sometimes whole clauses and sentences. Examples are happily, then and quite. Adverbs generally have at least four letters but the two-letter as can also be an adverb, as in ‘title case is different from sentence case, and just as annoying’.

Why might we not capitalise these words? One reason might be aesthetics. We’ll consider this in a minute, but first let’s look at colons and hyphens.

Capitalising after colons and hyphens

Say you’re applying maximal capitalisation style to a title and there’s a colon, and after it is an article. What do you do then? In many styles you’d capitalise whatever word follows a colon, even if it’s a word that you wouldn’t usually capitalise:

Title Case: A Miserable Exploration

So there’s one more complication for you. Sorry.

How should we treat text after a hyphen? Many of us are used to seeing that lowercase e after the hyphen in the title of Butcher’s Copy-editing (last published in 2006), and reflecting that it must be like that for a reason and therefore maybe we’d better do the same, although some of us have closed up the hyphen in ‘copy-editing’ in our own communications (because of this exact issue? Er, maybe) so we don’t have to make this decision any longer. However, it’s worth remembering that even though Butcher’s is a titan in its field, it’s still produced within a house style, and house style should always be your first port of call for such decisions. But if it doesn’t cover this point? Hart’s says:

When a title or heading is given initial capitals, a decision needs to be made as to how to treat hyphenated compounds. The traditional rule is to capitalize only the first element unless the second element is a proper noun or other word that would normally be capitalized … In many modern styles, however, both elements are capitalized.

You could imagine this working with ‘Copy-Editing’, as both parts of this compound can stand alone as words, but what about when there’s a prefix before the hyphen, such as ‘Re-’, ‘Ex-’ and ‘Co-’? In a recent discussion on the CIEP forums Sue Littleford gave an alternative to modern-style capping: ‘The guidance I usually follow … is to cap the second part if the first part can stand alone, and if not, not.’

The final judgement

Say we’ve capitalised our nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns and adverbs, and lowercased our articles, conjunctions and prepositions, and we’ve made any necessary exceptions according to our style guide. What’s the final arbiter for decision making about capitals? In the end, both Hart’s and Dreyer defer to how things look. Dreyer talks of the ‘visual euphony’ that might influence a decision to capitalise (or not), and this is what Hart’s says:

Exactly which words should be capitalized in a particular title is a matter for individual judgement, which may take account of the sense, emphasis, structure, and length of the title. Thus a short title may look best with capitals on words that might be left lower case in a longer title.

To retain some semblance of consistency, review your titles against each other in a list, which you can do in Word (left-hand navigation pane) or simply by copying and pasting them into a separate document and studying them hard. Then try your best to articulate the basis of your decisions on the style sheet for those who follow you in the process. Doing this will help you, too.

If you’re working in a US style, a miraculous link was posted on the CIEP forums a few weeks ago that can act a good basic guide to capitalising in title case (particularly after hyphenation), though, like everything to do with title case it seems, it shouldn’t be seen as absolutely conclusive. But that might be a good thing. In an increasingly automated arena, assessing the nuances of capitalisation could be one of the final areas that will stay firmly within the realm of editorial judgement.

Resources

CMOS Shop Talk. ‘Is “Is” Always Capitalized in Titles?’, https://cmosshoptalk.com/2021/08/24/is-is-always-capitalized-in-titles/

Benjamin Dreyer (2019), Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Penguin Random House UK, pp. 248–51.

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019), The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications. University of California Press, pp. 185–7.

Intelligent Editing, ‘Capitalization of Headings’, https://intelligentediting.com/docs/perfect-it/understanding-perfect-its-checks/capitalization-of-headings.html

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; section 8.2.3

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle holds the variously capitalised titles of CIEP Advanced Professional Member, copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: bookshelf 1 by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash, bookshelf 2 by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

5 ways English usage has changed since 2000

Anyone who’s stumbled on unfamiliar terms in a Shakespeare play knows that English vocabulary has changed over the centuries. But what about over the last couple of decades? When we use language every day, it’s easy to miss the subtle changes that are taking place over time. Rosie Tate takes a step back to look at five ways in which English vocabulary has changed since the turn of the century.

1. Tech talk

Our lives have drastically changed with the rise of technology – and the English language has followed suit. The need to name new inventions and concepts has given us memes, hashtags, cryptocurrencies, blogs, vlogs, tweets, paywalls and much more. The word ‘selfie’ (which feels to me like it’s been with us forever) was first used by an Australian in 2002 – and only went into the OED as a new word in 2013, beating ‘twerking’ and ‘bitcoin’ as word of the year.

Technology has changed the meaning of some words – like ‘catfish’, which used to refer only to a fish but is now also used to describe someone who fakes their online identity for fraudulent purposes. Some old words are used differently – like the noun ‘friend’, which is now also used as a verb (to friend/unfriend someone on social media). And words that started off in written form as abbreviations – like LOL and FOMO – have now made their way into our spoken language.

2. Words to describe the climate crisis

Although terms related to climate change – ecocide, global warming, greenhouse effect, extreme weather, eco-warrior – existed before 2000, their use has sharply risen this century as environmental crises have multiplied. Some newspapers have actively decided to change the language they use to report these stories. The Guardian, for instance, changed its house style in 2019 to reflect the urgency of the crisis, favouring ‘climate crisis or emergency’ over the more neutral ‘climate change’, and ‘global heating’ over ‘global warming’.

New words have also appeared. We’ve all heard of ‘microplastics’, the plastic debris that gets washed into our oceans and causes damage to wildlife. We can also now label our fear of environmental doom (‘eco-anxiety’) and have a word for those who deny anything of concern is happening (‘climate denier’).

3. Coronavirus (vocabulary) is everywhere

In just a couple of years, the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed our ways of living – and our language has adapted accordingly. Words that we rarely used before 2020 – quarantine, self-isolate, social distancing, lockdown, key workers, furlough, PPE – have become commonplace. By April 2020, ‘coronavirus’ was one of the most commonly used words in the English language – its usage even surpassing that of the word ‘time’, according to the OED.

But as well as technical and medical terms, the pandemic also gave rise to linguistic creativity. New words were invented to make sense of what we were going through and to inject some fun into difficult situations – like ‘quarantini’ (a cocktail you drink while in quarantine) or ‘blursday’ (a day in the week that feels the same as the day before).

4. Lost words

As well as new words being added to our repertoire, others are falling into disuse. Dictionaries regularly cut words out to make space for new ones. Collins Dictionary has dropped words like alienism, bever, brabble, charabanc and frigorific from its smaller print dictionaries, a decision that reflects how little these words are used. Let’s face it, when was the last time you used the word ‘brabble’ (which means ‘to argue’)?

More worryingly, though, was the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to remove 50 words connected to nature in 2007. It caused public outrage, though not until 2015 (when someone finally noticed). Words such as ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘dandelion’, ‘ivy’ and ‘willow’ were cut, while words like ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’ were added. The word ‘blackberry’ (referring to the edible berry) was out, while the Blackberry (mobile phone) was in. This points to a shift in our lifestyles – more tech, less nature – but it begs the question: are we losing the ability to label the natural world around us? Are we more likely to use the general word ‘tree’ than to recognise an oak, cedar or willow tree? (If you do feel the need to reconnect to the natural world, I strongly recommend Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass as an antidote.)

5. We’re (a bit) more inclusive

Individuals are demanding that language be fairer – it shouldn’t exclude groups based on age, race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Many organisations and brands have taken this on board by using inclusive terms – gender-neutral pronouns, for instance – and encouraging their staff to use pronouns in their email signatures. There’s been a lot more media coverage on the topic, though it is of course still contentious – should we use the word ‘guys’ to include women? Do we all use ableist language without realising? Although we have a long way to go when it comes to using inclusive language, there’s growing awareness of it – and that’s more than can be said for the 20th century.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. We know that the English language is constantly evolving, uncontainable and used by each of us in a unique way. If you have noticed changes in how you or others have used English in recent years, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


The CIEP is working to embed equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) across everything we do. We aim to foster an environment where all members feel safe and equally able to contribute to CIEP activities.

Explore our EDI resources


About Rosie Tate

Rosie Tate is co-founder of Tate & Clayburn, a London-based company that offers copyediting, proofreading, copywriting and translation services to clients worldwide. A first-class Oxford University languages graduate with an MA in Documentary Filmmaking, she’s an experienced editor, writer and producer, having worked for Oxford University Press, the BBC and Save the Children.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: selfie stick by Steve Gale; dandelion by Saad Chaudhry, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP information director.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Context is everything: how learning a language shed new light on my editing practice

In this post, which moves from Hollywood film stars to the hairdressers and Dutch language textbooks, Julia Sandford-Cooke explores how learning a new language helped her to reflect on her professional skills.

I often think about Antonio Banderas. Well, not the Spanish actor specifically, but rather his character in the 1999 film, The 13th Warrior. He plays Ahmad, an Arabic-speaking scholar improbably taken prisoner by Norse warriors whose chief interests are picking fights and gossiping around the campfire. In a famous (and possibly unintentionally hilarious) sequence, Ahmad quietly observes their chatter. It is initially unintelligible (the actors are apparently speaking modern Norwegian) but, as time passes, English words creep in, indicating his growing understanding, until he’s suddenly able to insult their mothers with astounding fluency and a confident grasp of complex grammar. Subsequent dialogue is in English, which now represents what we understand to be the language of the Norsemen.

These days, the movie is remembered almost as much for this scene as for being one of Hollywood’s biggest financial failures, allegedly making a $130 million loss. It’s a clever and memorable cinematic concept but, in my experience, not a very realistic way of learning a foreign language.

Gossip goal

I sit in the hairdressing salon, my face as fixed in concentration as Ahmad’s, while the stylists and customers chat in rapid Dutch. After just over a year in the Netherlands, I, like him, would love to decode the juicy gossip around me but merely listening to a new language will not miraculously make me fluent in it. I can make out the odd word but it certainly doesn’t pop out as English (well, apart from ‘Netflix’ and ‘weekend’). Instead, it just sounds vaguely familiar and by the time I’ve looked it up in my mental dictionary (‘“makkelijk” … I know that one … “Difficult”? No … “Important”? No … ah, I have it! “Easy!”’) the conversation has moved on and I still have no idea what they’re talking about. And as for speaking to them – well, I won’t be insulting their mothers any time soon or, more likely, complimenting them on such a flattering cut ‘n’ colour. But it’s my ultimate objective to be able to take part in their conversations.

It’s all about confidence

Antonio Banderas’ first language is, of course, Spanish, so it’s somewhat ironic that his character hears familiar words as English. My Amsterdam friends whose first language is Spanish all learned English at school and now speak it fluently and rapidly. If they forget the odd word, it doesn’t matter – they just keep on talking and we understand them just fine.

Significantly, they’re also much more likely than the first-language English speakers I know to have focused on learning and speaking Dutch since moving here. Yes, it is true that everyone can speak English here so there is an argument that it’s not worth the hassle, but personally, I feel that if you want to integrate in a country, you should at least make an effort to learn its language. In any case, I’ve found that just because they can speak English doesn’t mean they will, which is fair enough, I suppose. And it’s also pretty useful to understand what you’re being told in emergency situations, or on public transport.

Perhaps the habit of learning languages is more ingrained in those who do not speak English as their first language. It’s pretty common for these immigrants – both adults and children – to switch between three or four languages. Much of it is about confidence – going out onto the unforgiving streets knowing you’ll make mistakes and trying not to care.

My personal lack of confidence is mixed with an equally unhelpful stubborn pride. I insist on conducting business in bad Dutch in shops and cafés and while having my COVID-19 vaccination, even if waiters insist they don’t understand my slight mispronunciations or I get jabbed in the arm I sleep on. And then I go home and cringe at the fool I’ve made of myself. Speaking isn’t even my forte in English so it’s no wonder I struggle so much in Dutch. It’s some consolation that my Spanish-and-English-speaking friends admit that learning Dutch as an adult is hard because our confidence drops as we get older and we’re more aware of the implications of getting it wrong.

So how do these experiences affect my editing practice?

Learning Dutch has made me look at my work from several new perspectives.

Being a beginner.

It’s humbling to start from scratch. There’s so much I don’t know and I have to work very hard to know it. I’ve been in the conscious incompetent stage of learning for quite a while now. It simply isn’t easy, whatever Ahmad might think. I hope this awareness makes me more empathetic with writers and other people I interact with professionally. And of course, this doesn’t just apply to learning a language – it applies to learning any skill.

Being an expert.

At the same time, it reminds me that I’ve been through the editorial wilderness and emerged, after more than 20 years, with a huge experience and solid skills that clients value. It’s taken a lot of work and effort to get here but it has been worthwhile. I can prove to myself that persistence pays off.

Keeping me alert.

Editing is an intellectually stimulating profession. Learning a language before and after work often feels like yet another way to tire my brain. But it also exercises slightly different aspects of my mind, and just watching Netflix of an evening feels less and less of a constructive way to spend my time.

Brushing up on my grammar.

I have to admit that it draws attention to my tenuous grasp of grammatical theory. The argument that ‘children can learn a language without trying and therefore so can you’ just doesn’t fly. I have to consciously decode the word order following a coordinating conjunction or the effect of an inactive word form. My middle-aged mind has to consciously think ‘Ah, that’s a modal verb, which sends the second verb to the end of the clause as an infinitive’. That’s not a thought the average toddler has.

Understanding mistakes.

Anyone who has edited the writing of those for whom English is an additional language will have noticed particular mistakes relating to the authors’ translations of their thoughts into English. There are plenty of examples from Dutch speakers but recently I passed a woman trying to explain to someone that he could get the item he wanted from the ‘warehouse’ down the road. She meant department store – warenhuis in Dutch. It is illuminating to realise why certain errors occur.

Drawing attention to learning methods.

I’m a textbook editor but I rarely open my Dutch textbook, other than to check the grammar rules. Interaction is key (whatever Ahmad might think). Purists may sniff at the gamification of language learning in apps such as Duolingo and Babbel but actually, I find their bite-sized, repetitive and memorable methods convenient and engaging. I currently have a 467-day streak in Duolingo, meaning I’ve actively practised my Dutch on the app every day for about 15 months. But I combine it with watching (or trying to watch) Dutch movies, listening to Dutch music (Dutch rhymes in a very satisfying way) and having fairly regular face-to-face Zoom lessons. Julie, my lovely tutor on iTalki , is endlessly cheerful and patient, even when I’m clearly speaking complete nonsense. And, of course, there’s no substitute for immersing myself in everyday situations like, for example, going to the hairdresser. All of this suggests that those who produce learning materials should think holistically – no single method is enough – and, of course, no student approaches learning in the same way.

So I often think of Spanish-speaking Antonio Banderas as an Arabic-speaking scholar listening to Norwegian-speaking actors speaking English to represent speaking Norse. Learning a new language is hard. But one day I too will be able to decode the gossip and maybe even join in – without cursing anyone’s mothers. Not intentionally, anyway.

About Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has spent more than 20 years in publishing and just over one year in Amsterdam. When she’s not speaking bad Dutch, she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: Amsterdam canal by Ethan Hu; Dutch flag in Amsterdam by Luca Lago, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Wise owls: what’s your favourite phrase or saying?

We asked our parliament of wise owls to tell us about their favourite phrase or saying. And because it’s nearly the end of the year, we even said it didn’t have to be related to editing.

Liz Dalby

‘I can’t think about that right now.’

The thing I seem to find myself saying most often is ‘I can’t think about that right now.’ If this sounds negative … well, it is and it isn’t. Often, I can only take in a certain amount of bad news. I want to stay informed about the world I inhabit, but at the same time I’m human and can only cope with so much. So not thinking really hard about everything (the environment! politics! people being bad to each other! the groaning to-do list!), all the time, is a necessary act of self-care. It enables me to function: to carry on without overwhelm, and get stuff done.

In my editing life, ‘I can’t think about that right now’ is less an evasion, and more a trusted approach to workflow that has served me well over the years. The way I undertake an edit is to do it in several separate passes that focus on different things. So for example, my first pass would entail styling headings and getting a sense of the overall structure and logic of a document. While I’m doing this, I might notice that there are some inconsistencies (a stray z spelling or em dash, for example), but I simply make a note and skip over them, not stopping what I am meant to be doing. I might even mutter ‘I can’t think about that right now.’ (Yes, I do talk to myself sometimes when I edit.) Not allowing myself to be sidetracked in this way saves me time and maintains my focus and accuracy.

Sue Littleford

‘It’s the way you hold your mouth.’

Mum, observing my failure to thread a needle, would declare that, ‘It’s the way you hold your mouth’. And, of course, it is. Next time you’re threading a needle, or putting on mascara, or concentrating hard, take a mental step back and check in with your mouth. Odds are your tongue is stuck out, or your lips are contorting – think of little kids learning to write and draw. Try to arrange your mouth neutrally and you’ll find the task just got harder! The phrase just means that you’re not applying yourself correctly.

I don’t remember hearing this anywhere else, though, so I’d been wondering if it was from Mum’s familect. But after a squiz on Google and, discarding those that are about speech therapy, I get nearly 300,000 hits just on the phrase as Mum used it (there are variants, naturally). One person claims it originated in the 1950s and is from the US, another that it’s Irish. Mumsnet thinks it’s from Lancashire but a fair few people on that forum say they’ve never heard it in Lancashire; but people in New Zealand know it (but don’t say which part of the world their ancestors emigrated from). Well, my family’s from what is now Greater Manchester, so it certainly showed up in pockets of north-east Cheshire and south-east Lancashire! The consensus is that it’s something old folks say. Let’s give it a new lease of life and get all generations using it because it is a simple truth, pithily conveyed.

Melanie ThompsonMelanie Thompson reading the SfEP guide 'Pricing your project'

When the CIEP information team posed this question I didn’t think I had a favourite phrase or saying, then as the deadline loomed* (as they are wont to do) several candidates came along at once – just like buses.

Brand new in at number 3 is:

‘HIPPO’

I heard it in the first episode of Stephen Pinker’s new series for Radio 4 (Think with Pinker). It stands for ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’, and is something editors are probably very familiar with.

Holding on at number 2 is:

‘Keep on keeping on’ (aka ‘KBO’, source: Churchill)

Applies to many situations we editorial professionals face, whether it’s starting out and early training, building up a client list, or just keeping going in a long edit, or a long freelance career. I once ran a workshop at the SfEP (as was) conference based around this theme.

But still up there at number 1 is the Bard himself with:

‘To thine own self be true.’

A great motto for freelance workers: more than most, we really do have the opportunity to aim for this target.

* Cf. Douglas Adams.

Nik Prowse

‘Do the needful.’

One of my favourite phrases for a work context is ‘do the needful’, which in an editorial or production setting can be useful in an email such as, ‘The author has sent me the revised manuscript, which is attached. Please do the needful.’

I first encountered this when new to publishing and working in-house for a science publisher. The old hand in the office, who was the fount of all knowledge and who I was keen to learn from, often rattled off emails containing the phrase, and to me it made instant sense: it meant ‘please do what is necessary’. It was concise and, to my mind, a polite way of asking someone to do something.

Years later, working as a freelance project manager, when I asked my in-house colleague to do the needful she questioned it and whether I was sure that’s what I meant to say. She was familiar with the phrase but had only seen it used by colleagues based in Southeast Asia. It is a common phrase in Indian English, and perhaps sounds unusual to those more used to British or American English. As many of us work with typesetters, editorial controllers and project managers in India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, I’m sure it’s a phrase that is often encountered and which has trickled into parlance in the UK and the US and Canada too.

I love its conciseness and musicality, and I would be very pleased to see it used more widely. So you know what you have to do: spread the phrase, do the needful!

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’

I stumbled over this saying many years ago, when I was still in my 20s. It was a long time before I discovered that American author Neale Donald Walsch had coined it. Walsch is most well known for his book series Conversations with God, which I’ve never read, but where the quote comes from. I’m not religious, but this saying is a daily reminder to me to push myself forward. It’s very easy to slide into a rut, but you only get one shot at life. You’re never going to live every day like it’s your last, because life gets in the way, but I’ve had some of my best experiences when I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone. And some of my worst, but let’s not go there (that said, I learned from them). So I’ll keep stepping out of my comfort zone, because I don’t want to die full of regrets that I didn’t try this or didn’t do that because I was too lazy or timid or fearful.


Other wise owl wisdom in 2021 covered making prices public, how long editing takes and where clients find them.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: owl by Jesse Cason; another owl by Joe Green, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

 

A Finer Point: The vocative comma

Cathy Tingle updates a column of Christmas past for a festive reminder of what one kind of comma can teach us.

As I am an editor, my favourite Christmas carol – obviously – is ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ because of the vocative comma (the one before ‘Gentlemen’). This type of comma is particularly important in creative works, as I discovered a few years ago when I cast my eye over a friend’s unedited novel and encountered characters being addressed directly without this comma: ‘I really don’t know Marion’, ‘Did you see Marion?’ (Marion was the addressee in both) and ‘Trying to sober up Richard?’ (as Richard was asked at the end of a party). The meaning conveyed in each case is quite different from what the writer was intending, as in the old classic ‘Let’s eat Grandma’.

A multitude of angels – sorry, angles

Commas cause most people who work with words to pause for thought now and then, and they can’t possibly be covered in one short column. Why? Because there is just so much to say. Larry Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, divides the comma population firmly into four types: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas. In his recent CIEP guide on punctuation Gerard M-F Hill takes on the brave task of simplifying Trask’s model, and consequently gives the comma ‘with minor exceptions … two functions in prose’: isolating and listing. But it takes an action-packed 22-page chapter to elaborate fully on these functions and their exceptions.

Elsewhere, John Seely, in the Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, identifies seven roles for commas if we omit their use in numbers. And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) devotes sections 6.16–6.55 – that’s 40 sections – to them.

Even if we could square up these various ideas about how many uses commas have (and it’s tough: Fowler’s deals with this by following New Hart’s Rules), comma use is, according to David Crystal in Making a Point, sometimes simply a matter of taste, because it’s linked to psycholinguistics. ‘One person says, “I need a comma to make the meaning of this sentence clear”; another finds the same sentence perfectly understandable without a comma. It’s because they have different processing abilities.’

So, because things are hectic enough at this time of year, how about we look at just one type of comma, the vocative, which many experts including Seely and Trask don’t even cover directly? Who knows, it might tell us a small thing about commas in general.

Merry gentlemen, or not so much?

Back we go, then, to ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. This is interesting because, of course, it’s often rendered as ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen’, and indeed I spent my childhood picturing a group of jolly old chaps. (My friend Judith spent her childhood thinking that the lyrics included the words ‘to save us all from Santa’s power’ – it’s ‘Satan’s power’ – but that’s another story.)

In fact, ‘rest you merry’ used to be a recognised phrase, meaning ‘rest well, be happy’. Dickens, in A Christmas Carol (1843), actually changed the title to ‘God Bless You Merry Gentleman’, in the words of a boy singing outside Scrooge’s door. There’s no comma at all in my 1946 edition, which isn’t to say Dickens didn’t put one in the original, but the point is that he made ‘God Bless You’ the unbreakable phrase in this line (and those who punctuate before ‘Merry’ are making ‘God Rest You’ the unbreakable phrase), whereas ‘God Rest You Merry’ is the title’s original unbreakable phrase and so the comma should follow that. As we wrote about this carol’s title in last year’s festive CIEP quiz, ‘if you’re interested in the impact of punctuation, it’s an interesting exercise to omit the vocative comma, then move it slowly up the sentence from the end, displaying its power to change meaning’. There you are – something to do once the presents are opened on Christmas Day.

‘“No punctuation” is the ultimate marker of semantic tightness’, as David Crystal says in Making a Point. Commas create breaks between words, to put it simply, and if there’s no comma we tend to read the words as one block. There’s something about the special confusion experienced in response to the lack of a vocative comma that makes you appreciate this fully.

If you’d like to further explore the comma nuances in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’, complete with a cappella musical accompaniment, may I recommend to you a short video, new for the 2021 festive season, by RamsesThePigeon. It really is a gift.

No comma, no confusion

But what if the lack of a comma before a name doesn’t cause confusion? One thing the vocative comma has been suffering from is a sense that it has become non-essential in phrases like ‘Hi John’. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl), in The Grammar Devotional, valiantly tries to explain why it’s necessary in such cases:

In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of direct address apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking?

Yet the comma after ‘Hi’ is used less and less. In November 2019, Ellen Jovin of @grammartable lamented on Twitter: ‘If people I communicated with still used vocative commas after “hi,” I would have continued to use them. But they look at me as though I have three dangling participles if I even bring up such a thing.’ Are we losing the vocative comma in this formulation because there is very little scope for misunderstanding without it, as with 2019’s giddy pre-Covid inter-generational put-down ‘OK Boomer’? Whatever else you thought of it, and however you capitalise it, this phrase is certainly not punctuated. So perhaps we’re slowly discarding all punctuation except what’s absolutely necessary for comprehension.

A simple lesson

I still keep in touch with my high-school English teacher, now in his mid-80s, and as you might expect, along with the chat about how my kids and his grandkids are doing, occasionally punctuation comes up. In a letter in 2019, he said, ‘I used to try to teach various classes that punctuation was in many instances more important than spelling: I could make out that “ejog” (as I had to once) was meant to be “hedgehog” from the material round about, but if the punctuation was misplaced or non-existent the sense was lost.’ He continued by revealing his tried-and-tested example: ‘I tended to use “Stop Toby” (our dog) v. “Stop, Toby”.’ Well, then: perhaps the vocative comma can teach where no other comma types can reach. With my own vocative comma firmly in place, it only remains for me to wish you a lovely festive season, everyone.


An earlier version of this column was published in Editing Matters, Jan/Feb 2020. CIEP members can access all issues of Editing Matters in the archive.


Resources

The Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edition. University of Chicago Press.
David Crystal (2016). Making a Point. Profile, 2016.
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol (1946); reprint Penguin 1984.
Mignon Fogarty (2009). The Grammar Devotional. St. Martin’s Press.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.
Gerard M-F Hill (2021). ‘Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders.’ CIEP guide. ciep.uk/resources/guides/#PEP
New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press.
RamsesThePigeon. ‘Where Is the Comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Supposed to Go?’ YouTube video. youtube.com/watch?v=sxfxy-3dGz0
John Seely (2020). Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation. Oxford University Press.
RL Trask (1997). Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Penguin.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is a copyeditor, tutor and member of the CIEP’s information team.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

How can corpora help editors and proofreaders?

How often have you needed another word for a common term or phrase to avoid repetition? You can turn to a thesaurus, but there is a much more comprehensive source of inspiration accessible online. Ana Frankenberg-Garcia explains.

To make texts accurate and readable, we are required to evaluate other people’s words and wordings. However, people express themselves in different ways, and it is not always straightforward to tell whether documents need to be changed or how they can be improved. This is especially true when the subject matter, terminology or style of the text at hand is not entirely familiar. Dictionaries, glossaries, style guides and online searches can help, but not always. That is when we turn to more experienced colleagues. But what if they too don’t know the answer? What if they give us conflicting responses? What if it is late at night and we have an early morning deadline? Don’t worry, a corpus can help, and can often help more than any other source you have used before.

What is a corpus?

A corpus is a collection of authentic, machine-readable texts sampled to be representative of the language or language variety we wish to focus on. For example, a corpus consisting of a large number of business letters written by business people going about their normal routine can help us observe how words are objectively used in business correspondence.

How can corpora help?

Imagine you are not sure whether a business email should end in I look forward to hearing from you or I am looking forward to hearing from you. A corpus such as Professor Yasumasa Someya’s free Business Letter Corpus, with one million words of UK and US business letters, will do the trick. Compare the search results for looking forward and look forward.

First, you can see that look forward, with 997 occurrences, is more conventional in business letters than looking forward, with only 161 hits. Note that this is just in UK and US business letters, not the entire internet, so you know exactly where your results are coming from. Next, you can see that corpus software aligns the expression searched in the centre of your screen, which means you just need to scroll down to inspect every single occurrence of it. Reading ‘vertically’ makes finding out how words are used in context much faster and easier than reading linearly, as we normally do. And indeed, if you observe the context of how these wordings are employed, you will notice that looking forward tends to occur in more informal circumstances (eg fun night, great show, long chat), whereas look forward is used more formally (eg favourable reply, challenging career, future opportunity).

Another thing that corpus software does is help you to find out, in seconds, how words are used together.

Imagine you have a blank and can’t think of a verb to go with opinion. If you run a search for opinion in the enTenTen corpus (with 38 billion words of current English), you will not only be able to scroll down results like the ones shown above, where you can spot verbs like give, sway and form, but you can also carry out a further search step where the software automatically counts, ranks and sorts all the words that occur, say, four words to the left of opinion. This will generate a list of words frequently co-occurring with opinion, which you can scroll down and notice verbs like express, voice and share (see right).

Or, even better, you can sort this list to zoom in on just the verbs that occur in the context of opinion (see far right). There is no space here for more examples, but there are countless other ways in which corpora can help editors and proofreaders.

How can editors and proofreaders access corpora?

Until a few years ago corpora were only accessible to researchers, but nowadays anyone with access to the internet can consult one. A good place to start is the no-frills, free, online SkELL (Sketch Engine for Language Learning) corpus. The British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English can also be accessed free of charge. If you want more English corpora, and corpora in many different languages, the incredibly powerful Sketch Engine tool used by big dictionary makers is available for a modest subscription fee.

Anyone who works professionally with language can benefit from corpora. Corpora are, after all, where lexicographers and linguists get the raw material they need to compile dictionaries and other language resources in the first place. Although corpora don’t provide us with black-and-white answers, they do give us access to how words are used in the real world, in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions. Even when it is late at night and we have an early morning deadline!


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Editing Matters. CIEP members can access the Editing Matters archive.


About Ana Frankenberg-Garcia

Ana Frankenberg-Garcia is the programme leader of the MA in Translation, University of Surrey. Her research focuses on applied uses of corpora in translation, lexicography and language learning.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: letters by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

 

 

The 2021 CIEP conference: Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Katherine Kirk reviewed Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance, presented by Louise Harnby.

Near! Far!

Louise Harnby is one of the most helpful editors around, and her Switching to Fiction course will earn you two points towards CIEP membership upgrades. This year, conference attendees got a taste of that high-quality content with Louise’s fabulous introduction to narrative distance. In her session, she explained:

  • what narrative distance (or psychic distance) is
  • why it should be dynamic, not static
  • how problems with narrative distance connect to showing vs telling, info-dumping, head-hopping and other common pitfalls
  • how editors can show writers how to adjust narrative distance to make their writing stronger.

Discussed in more depth in The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, narrative distance is a stylistic tool that affects point of view, showing versus telling, and more. It’s all about the relationship between reader and character: how deep in the character’s head is the reader, and how connected are they to the character’s emotions? To understand narrative distance, editors should know about narrative perspectives and their effects. Second-person is creepily intimate, third-person objective has the widest narrative distance, and third-person omniscient may have some intimacy between the reader and narrator, if not the characters. Editors who want to learn more about these would get a lot out of the CIEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

Louise describes narrative distance as a continuum that readers can zoom in and out of. The level of intimacy should gently ebb and flow. When it leaps around, that’s where problems come in. Overreliance on a wide degree of narrative distance makes the writing static and can result in info-dumping (and pace-killing). Spending too long in an intimate distance, putting emotion before description and action, can feel sentimental and overblown. Jumping too far from one degree to another can be jarring, like shifting gears too fast. Head-hopping is where the perspective leaps abruptly from one character to another, and readers get confused or can’t invest in the character’s experience. Some authors might overuse filter words (noticed, watched, felt) to avoid head-hopping, but this adds a degree of distance between the immediacy of the experience and the reader.

Louise says editors should not be too prescriptive regarding narrative distance. Instead, we should use our instincts and acknowledge subjectivity. A small change that shifts the narrative distance can have a huge effect on pace, emotional impact, and characterisation. We can use techniques like:

  • free indirect speech
  • removing filter words and words like ‘suddenly’ or ‘instantly’
  • using characters’ full names
  • changing direct speech and thought to reported speech or thought.

Being aware of narrative distance helps editors with the flow of prose, the shifts of intimacy with a single narrative style, and shifts of viewpoint. It helps authors to know how and why to fix problems, and it helps readers to enjoy the story more. Within a day of Louise’s talk, I’d already applied it to my own work. I can’t wait to see the lightbulbs pop on over my clients’ heads when I explain narrative distance to them.

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who lives halfway up a volcano in Ecuador. She works on all types of fiction for adults, especially Science Fiction and Literary Fiction.

She also edits Tabletop Role-playing Game (TTRPG) content. Katherine spends far too much time on social media, and is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The 2021 CIEP conference: Easy English

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Anna Baildon reviewed Easy English: The principles of writing for people with low literacy and what editorial professionals can learn from them, presented by Cathy Basterfield.

What is Easy English?

One of the reasons I attended this interesting session is that Easy English is a new concept for me.

Cathy described Easy English as ‘writing for people who haven’t got functional literacy’. She showed us examples of Easy English documents which made it clear that this is the polar opposite of the writing styles we often work with as editorial professionals. But Cathy emphasised the myriad texts which we encounter in our daily lives and which are inaccessible to many people.

Cathy has many years’ experience in speech pathology and working with people who use non-verbal communication. Our chair, Hugh Jackson, noted that Cathy pioneered the development of Easy English, so we were in good hands. Delegates contributed some thought-provoking questions, most of which Cathy answered in the time available.

Why do people need Easy English?

Easy English caters for people with the lowest levels of literacy. This may be related to a disability or other reasons. It was sobering to consider the impact of being unable to access information that I take for granted – Cathy mentioned the significant health, social and economic consequences – and to see data showing that a surprisingly large proportion of adults do not have the literacy to manage day-to-day tasks.

Easy English is most commonly used for information that people need, such as health information or terms and agreements. (I learned that there is an accessible information standard that all NHS and adult social care providers in England are legally required to follow.) Easy English is generally not used for the cultural, leisure and news content which people with higher literacy read for pleasure and engagement reasons. Cathy said that research shows that people with low literacy do want to read these richer types of material. This demonstrates an even greater potential for applying Easy English approaches.

One very interesting point Cathy made was that Easy English can be effective for people with higher literacy levels. She gave an example of a document about court proceedings that was useful to someone at an intensely stressful and emotional time.

Some nuts and bolts

Cathy used example texts to demonstrate some Easy English techniques. We learned that we should use:

  • a lot of white space
  • directly relevant illustrations (not photographs) to help convey the meaning of the text
  • short words and sentences
  • minimal punctuation
  • positive phrasing
  • bullets to separate items in a list.

I liked the idea of ‘unpacking the language’ so that the meaning becomes accessible.

Headlines I’ll remember

  • It’s hard to write in Easy English!
  • Access to written information should not be a reading test. It should be enabling.
  • Access to information is a right. ‘Access’ means that a person reads, understands and knows what they can do.

I agree with conference organiser Beth Hamer that Cathy gave us ‘a different perspective’ and challenged our assumptions. I can see that Easy English is related to plain English and Easy Read, but that it goes further. I would like to explore these specialisms after I’ve completed my core training. In the meantime, it will be interesting to spot opportunities where I can use the principles in more subtle ways in my work.

Thank you to Cathy, who joined us live from Melbourne where it was late evening.


Useful resources

Cathy’s website: https://accesseasyenglish.com.au

CIEP guide: Editing into Plain English https://www.ciep.uk/resources/guides/#EPL

CIEP training course: Plain English for Editors https://www.ciep.uk/training/choose-a-course/plain-english-editors/


Anna Baildon is an Entry-Level Member and is relishing CIEP training to strengthen her expertise. She has worked in niche librarian roles in higher education and has significant experience in wrangling non-fiction copy into a publishable state. Anna has degrees in English literature and librarianship and a lifelong affinity with words. She plans to freelance, offering both copyediting and proofreading services.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.