Class Warfare Blog

November 30, 2020

Fascinated by Trivia

Filed under: Culture,language,writing — Steve Ruis @ 9:59 am
Tags: , , , ,

Americans and the British are often described as being two countries separated by a common language. As an editor, I find myself editing works written by British people, among others, and there are definitely subtle differences between American usage and British usage. You are probably aware of things like spelling differences, e.g. honor and honour, color and colour, etc. and both region’s slangs are vastly different, but other things are more subtle.

For example, in punctuation Americans use double quotation marks, “ ”, first and then if something quoted is nested inside of that quote we set that off with single quotes, ‘ ’. The British do that in reverse order.

What stimulated this post was I was reading a piece in the New Yorker than began “On November 22, 1820, the New York Evening Post ran a perfunctory book ad that was none too particular in its typesetting:

WILEY & HALSTED, No. 3 Wall street, have just received SYMZONIA,
or a voyage to the internal world, by capt. Adam Seaborn. Price $1.

This advert was printed in 1820 in America and includes the British practice of treating collective nouns as being plural rather than singular. So, in the U.S. we might say “the team was devastated by the loss” whereas the Brits would say “the team were devastated by the loss.” In British English the word team infers multiple team members so is treated as referring to a plural thing, whereas in the U.S. the “team” is one thing and so is treated as a singular thing. In this case the publisher is clearly at least two people and is treated as a plural, with “have just received” rather than a singular, with “has just received.” (E pluribus unum?)

The quotation indicates that the American practice was either the same as the British practice at that time or at least was not fully transformed into the American practice with some doing it one way and others doing it the other.

You, of course, are wondering why anyone would care, but apparently a great many do. As a college professor, even teaching a subject like chemistry, I took seriously my responsibility to teach my students how to write. (Every chance I got to talk to an employer of students such as mine I asked them “What could we be doing better on behalf of our students?” and to a person, they responded with “Technically they are fine, but if you could teach them to write better, that would be very helpful.” It was almost as if employers of STEM students got together in their secret base to create this talking point.)

So, as a teacher of college freshmen, I gave up T-F, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank test questions and asked but two kinds of questions: one which required a calculated answer (with the reasoning displayed clearly or explained) and one that required a short, that is paragraph length, essay answer, e.g. an explanation, or a description, etc. By the end of the semester my goal was a 50-50 distribution of these two types of questions.

And do not think I was not envious of those biology teachers who ran their mark-sense (Scantron) answer sheets through our mechanical reader and had their midterm exam scored in under ten minutes. (I gave my tests on Fridays so I would have the hours needed to read and score them and be able to return them at the next class meeting.)

I was in the unenviable position of having to explain to my students why being clear in one’s writing was very valuable. I told them that if they said in a job interview “I be excited about working here.” that they would not get a job offer. People, including employers, do not think logically; they usually respond to their gut feelings about people and people who speak or write and make gaffes are generally considered to be “not up to par” and are passed over.

I am musing on “why I give a shit” about obscure grammar points. Partly I had to know better than my students what was and wasn’t acceptable in written language and partly I was curious. I became known as something of a grammar grouch, a despicable sort of human being who is constantly correcting people. (Yes, I am recovering; thank you for caring.)

I also know that all of these rules are entirely arbitrary. Yes, they have been established to promote clear communication, and this can be critically important when laws and contracts are drafted, but I know of no laws regarding the topic per se. We just go along to get along.

As an editor, my main goal is to preserve the voice of the author. If I have met them and spoken to them (this is becoming increasingly rare), I want to hear their voice in my head as I read their piece, because that is what will happen when people who know the author read that piece. If you do not understand this, consider the college freshman who writes a short essay that reads as if written by a college freshman but then abruptly transitions into formal encyclopedia English or even British encyclopedia English. Gosh, do you think they did a little copy and paste plagiarism? It is not that hard to tell the voice shift in reading such things, so readers who know the author can tell if I rewrite a part of their piece in my own voice . . . instead of the author’s.

When editing British manuscripts for our magazine, I use American punctuation for our largely American audience but retain British spellings (colour, honour, etc.) to preserve the author’s voice. For the one book I edited for a British author, I preserved both the British spellings, but also the British punctuation (which was quite a test).

Yes, I know I am weird, kinda proud of it. Just wanted to share a little of the consequences of being weird . . . like me.

Addendum Oh, and the book, Symzonia, is considered by some to be the first American foray into science fiction.


  1. Navigating between different languages, I’ve had to forego precision. If I an manage clarity and some degree of structural elegance, I’m satisfied.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by The Pink Agendist — November 30, 2020 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  2. I don’t think you’re being weird. To me you sound like an excellent editor. Proper grammar is important to preserve the exact meaning of a sentence for an audience that may be from a different culture than the author. But so is preserving the original content of the author as much as possible.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by grouchyfarmer — November 30, 2020 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

  3. Finally! I know who to ask!

    When did regular old quotation marks become the the despicable “scare quotes?” And why?

    I often use quotation marks to imply a spoken text by myself or others. I also use regular old fashioned quotation marks, to actually “quote” someone. Or to quote a phrase, a title, a song, etc. etc. etc.

    Every time I use them, I feel like I may be attacked by some internet weirdo who insists quotation marks are the debil! Or inflamatory! Or by using them I am falsely implying some devious nature! Or what the hell ever.

    I want my quotation marks back. “Dammit!”

    Also anyone unneccessarily adding a “U” (see what I did there?) to a word that just does not need it is Rong!!!

    My first year of high school we had the meanest, old, ornery, horn rimmed glasses wearing, take no prisoners, English teacher. Everyone feared her. She was infamous. No one wanted to be the unlucky draw to her class. But I got the draw. She lived up to her reputation.

    Best damn teacher I ever had.

    I strongly disliked her then, but now as an adult, I see what she was doing. She did it well. I get it now. She, like you, understood, that proper English gets you a foot in the door, where a poor study of our spoken language might not.

    Unless they are just hiring ditch diggers. In that case nevermind.

    Liked by 4 people

    Comment by shelldigger — December 1, 2020 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

    • “Scare quotes” are a particular usage of quotation marks; a use that’s been around for as long as most of the other ones, though I think the nonsensical name is fairly new. “So-called quotes” or “sarcasm quotes” would be more accurate names.

      There is no reason anyone would ever mistake a quoted entire sentence, an attributed quote of any length, or a title for “scare quotes”; they normally go around single words or short phrases. Like “conversion therapy” (torturing kids to make them pretend they aren’t gay), “the host” (a cracker that a priest said some magic words at), “alternative medicine” (of no actual medical value), etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by D.T. Nova — December 7, 2020 @ 10:27 pm | Reply

      • Now I can live with “so called quotes” or “sarcasm quotes.” I have used them in that manner, though not often. Next thing I knew, they became “scare quotes!”

        Seems to me the examples you have given would fall under “so called quotes” and the “sarcasm quote.” I see nothing that would indicate the word “scare” in them.

        There are some things in this world I may never get. Advanced algebra being one, and what the hell ever a “scare quote” is, being another.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by shelldigger — December 9, 2020 @ 11:41 am | Reply

        • Modern Algebra was the last math course I took. I barely passed the course. I couldn’t handle a math class in which the only numbers in the textbook were the page numbers.


          Comment by Steve Ruis — December 9, 2020 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

          • I can say my first year of algebra went fairly easily. My second year went ok at first, then it got to where every single day a new formula was on the board, and we had to learn it, and test on them at the end of the week. Well, you get hung up on one, and the teacher doesn’t have time for you, you start falling behind and it snowballs.

            So, needless to say my second year of algebra didn’t go so well. That said I have found very little use in my life for the algebra I did learn, so… whatever. There are other things I’m good at. 🙂

            Page numbers being the only numbers… Yeah. It’a all alphabet soup math at some point!


            Comment by shelldigger — December 9, 2020 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

            • As to direct application of that knowledge, I tend to agree with you, but like philosophy, that also has no direct applications, it does teach you something about how to think.

              Kind of like the old saying–Hitting your head against the wall has an upside in that it feels so good when you stop.

              On Wed, Dec 9, 2020 at 12:20 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



              Comment by Steve Ruis — December 9, 2020 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

              • Lol! Indeed.

                Learning how to think takes many forms. I believe I ended up with exactly the amount of algebra I needed. 😉


                Comment by shelldigger — December 10, 2020 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

    • I remember spending the eighth grade diagramming sentences. I don’t remember much else. Musta made an impression upon me.

      On Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 3:26 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — January 18, 2021 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

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