Uncommon Sense

November 30, 2020

Fascinated by Trivia

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

January 28, 2019

Not a Very Capital Idea

Filed under: Culture — Steve Ruis @ 12:11 pm
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When I was a babe, acronyms were punctuated. For example, the IRS was “the I.R.S.,” to alert people to the “shorthand” being employed. (It was also standard, to use the full name followed by the intended acronym or contraction in parentheses, when first mentioned, for example “. . . the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) . . . ” again to alert people of the use of the shorthand version. We dropped the periods some time ago. Afterward we just used “all caps” to signify an acronym.

All of that is now out the window (is there an abbreviation for defenestration?) and AIDS has become Aids, the FBI the Fbi, the IRS became the Irs, NASA became Nasa, NOAA became Noaa, and so on. These are now thrown in with no explanation or clarification, you are supposed to know them already.

As casual as people have become with capitalization (due to cellphone typing?) we are setting ourselves up for even more miscommunication with this new practice.

And … at around the same time, titles have been decapitalized, e.g. The Sound and the Fury has become “The sound and the fury.” even so far as to have a full stop/period at the end of the title! (Note Titles are rarely sentences requiring a period.) I do not see how these changes improve our ability to communicate.

As mentioned, I think the source of these changes has probably crept into ordinary usage because of cell phones. The “keyboards” of these little fuckers are arcane at best. Earlier on, if you hit the “All Caps” button, it stayed on. Now, often as not, it lasts for only one character, so if you want to type “NASA” you have to hit <Caps Key> then N, <Caps Key> then A, <Caps Key> then S, <Caps Key> then A! Eight strokes whereas if the caps key stayed on until taken off, it would be five. No wonder that people send messages looking like they have been written by e.e. cummings.

I think article and book titles got screwed up by magazines, trying for ever more trendy looks in their pages. Most ordinary creativity comes through breaking rules (extraordinary creativity involves setting new rules). So magazine article titles, which were ordinary in their capitalization became eye catching by “breaking the mold” or “breaking the rules.” Actually I think this began with advertisements which are in the “Hey, look at me!” business big time. From there it spread to the rest of the magazines pages. (Can you remember back when people were complaining that they couldn’t tell the adverts from the articles in trendy magazines? This was because they were copying one another’s styles. Now, we are used to it, although still fooled as to which is which from time to time.

Punctuation evolves. We no long hyphenate fireplace (fire-place) or tomorrow (to-morrow). We no long use periods between the letters of an acronym. Most of these things are good things as they pare away unnecessary characters (FBI doesn’t need periods (F.B.I.) because of the all-caps being used as a signifier already. I sincerely hope that when such changes occur and they are found to be unhelpful, that we either change them back or to something else that is.

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