Words, Words, Words

By Rick Moen

Here's all you probably want to know about Linux Gazette's copyediting staff — short version: there are a few of us, we disagree on many things, there are good and compelling reasons why we'll never agree, our job is to make your articles as good as possible while doing no harm, and we not only don't mind authors who disagree with our policies but think it's healthy and natural.

The rest of this article details tidbits about our editing that yr. humble author, LG's Proofreading Coordinator, thinks he can make interesting. (Contentious points will get stressed, disproportionately: They're more interesting. Also, be warned that you're not guaranteed to hear anyone's opinion but the author's, but, hey, it's my article.) Note: Please don't think this article aims to change how you write. Our mamas having raised no fools, we don't expect that: this piece just describes how we[1] edit.

Where You Can Stuff Your Chicago Manual of Style

There are good reasons why Linux Gazette neither follows your favourite house-style writing manual nor has one of its own. Mainly, it's because we're (1) international, and (2) not anyone's employer. Because we accept pieces from, and publish to, the entire planet, good Australian, Indian, Irish, Zambian, Fijian, Canadian, and Kiribatian English need to be respected as much as are, say, UK and US English. Because we don't fund anyone's daily bread, we wouldn't dream of imposing top-down rulesets like the Chicago Manual of Style's absurdities about "open style" reversing everything else in that book. We wouldn't put up with that sort of arbitrary regimentation for zero money; why would you?

We've read your AP Stylebook, New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Fowler's, Cambridge Guide, Follett's, and Garner's, and think their foibles are pretty funny (but that the Merriam-Webster guide's free of such inadvertent comedy) — but, more important, that they're a poor tool for our mission: that mission is simply to help you express yourself well and clearly, in your own way of speaking, by making minimal tweaks to your articles so that, with luck, you're pleased with how well you wrote but can't even tell we touched anything.

The Gazette Is People

It might be nice if we could say what copyediting will and will not occur, but that's not how the world works. In the real world, policy doesn't get work done; people do. If the final staffer to touch your article prior to publication abhors the word "utilize", he/she will change it to "use" (and who can blame such a staffer, right?).

As it turns out, the staff are in cheerful ongoing disagreement on many key points. E.g., most of the staff think "website" is a perfectly fine English word, but the Proofreading Coordinator doesn't, and cares more, so he corrects it to "Web site", every time. That's just the way it works: Those who put in time and effort get to have their way (but try to use that power, such as it is, wisely, and to improve, never to annoy).

This article, in fact, basically tells you what corrections are likely to be done to correct articles by people, notably the Proofreading Coordinator, in the absence of a house style — but also acknowledging the truth that outcome depends on who does the work, because of the staff's disagreement on significant points.

The Argument Clinic's That-a-Way

Feel very welcome to tell us why our editing is horribly evil and a sign of the impending Apocalypse (not to mention that an English teacher once mugged you and stole your lunch): we don't mind, but don't promise to take your objection seriously, especially if it's one of the Obnoxious Three:

  1. "But Chaucer did it." Poor Geoffrey Chaucer, here, is a placeholder for any and all historical writers: The argument in question is that [historical writer X] wrote in some questionable way (using "gender" for a biological category, mixing "which" and "that", singular "they", "quote" as a noun, confusing "imply" with "infer", confusing "nauseous" with "nauseated"), so it's OK for you, too.
  2. "The English language should be allowed to change." This is a non-sequitur, irrelevant point. Just because LASER became a common noun in ten years doesn't mean your bizarre neologism is automatically OK.
  3. "[Person X] disagrees with you." Noted, and so what? We won't take the Appeal to Authority fallacy seriously, nor are we running a popularity contest or putting our editing practices up for modification by public poll. Sorry, it just doesn't work that way.

We won't be offended if you send in junk arguments — on the contrary, at least it shows you care about writing (and what would the Internet do without opinions?) — but you might want to avoid wasting your time.

Flamewar Issues Cannot Be Avoided, So We Just Deal with Them

There's a good reason we don't aim at perfect, pure English: it doesn't exist and never has, the language having after all resulted from an unfortunate collision between mediaeval Norman French and lowland German (loosely speaking). Many structures in English remain badly broken, and the ability to speak precisely in it is only thanks to tireless efforts by many countries to bridge or rope off its crevasses. Thus the old joke about a rancher trying to deal with his snake problem: "Dear sirs, I'd like to order two mongooses." (He frowns, crosses that out.) "Dear sirs, I'd like to order two mongeese." (Frowns, crosses out, tries again.) "Dear sirs, I'd like to order a mongoose. While you're at it, please send a second one."

One of the numerous eternal and inescapable flamewars about English revolves around its lack of a generally usable, non-peculiar third-person singular pronoun that isn't gendered. Yes, we know this is a big problem (and part of an even bigger one whereby the language encourages sexist bias), can quote Douglas Hofstadter's "Person Paper on Purity in Language" fluently, and (I think I can speak for the staff, here) agree wholeheartedly with him. The fact remains that using "they" (as is often done, these days) to fill the gap tends to destroy that word's ability to clearly distinguish between singular and plural.[2] Most on the staff think this damage is perfectly OK; the Proofreading Coordinator politely and firmly disagrees (and, e.g., doesn't care whether Chaucer used it, nor Jane Austen or any other number of famous authors). So, don't be surprised if your singular "they" becomes "he or she" (one of many imperfect solutions, but one that is at least grammatical).

Our copyeditors' most important principle, in that and other areas, is rather like that of medical schools' maxim of "Primum non nocere" ("First, do no harm"). I call our version Rule Zero: "Ignore any rule, rather than doing anything peculiar that will tend to call attention to itself."

Another inescapable flamewar is correction (or not) of quoted text. The stilted alleged quotations festooned around many "News Bytes" columns are a case in point:

"Launchpad accelerates collaboration between open source projects," said Canonical founder and CEO Mark Shuttleworth. "Collaboration is the engine of innovation in free software development, and Launchpad supports one of the key strengths of free software compared with the traditional proprietary development process. Projects that are hosted on Launchpad are immediately connected to every other project hosted there in a way that makes it easy to collaborate on code, translations, bug fixes, and feature design across project boundaries. Rather than hosting individual projects, we host a massive and connected community that collaborates together across many projects. Making Launchpad itself open source gives users the ability to improve the service they use every day."

We of the editorial staff would be thunderstruck, and also dismayed, if Mark Shuttleworth had actually uttered that mouthful of stilted marketing bafflegab (quoted in issue 166). He seems like a pleasant and intelligent fellow, so the smart money's on that prose emerging from someone in Canonical, Ltd.'s corporate PR department (or hired PR agency), working from a generic press release template. More to the immediate point, you should have seen how dreadful these press releases were before we fixed them. But, you ask, "How dare you fix a direct quotation? Isn't it presumptuous to change what someone said?"

You have part of the answer already: in corporate PR, what you say is often not what you say. Accordingly, we have few qualms about fixing some marketing ghostwriter's bad grammar, spelling, and punctuation. As to the rest, if a quoted person ever complains "Hey, Linux Gazette presumed to make me sound literate. The bastards!" we will be looking forward to the novelty and to apologising winningly if insincerely.

A Few Guidelines Peculiar to the Magazine, Itself

These Are a Few of Our Favourite Peeves

Here's a grab-bag of the most-encountered blunders (that we imagine might be interesting):

"spell check": Unless you mean something that checks spells (and J.K. Rowling will be jealous, if you do), you should write "spelling check".

"vice president": This term is correct if you're referring to a president in charge of vice (an enviable career option), but not otherwise. More than likely, the intended term is "vice-president".

"web": Wrong. It's a proper noun, "Web" (unless you're talking about spider extrusions or analogous woven structural meshes, or a type of offset printing machine). Note that "webmaster", "weblog", "webcam", etc. are not proper nouns, so they're lowercase.

"website": Wrong. It's two words, "Web site". (But why, we hear people asking, is "website" an impermissible coinage if "webmaster", "weblog", and "webcam" aren't? Because new words were needed for those concepts. We already had "Web site"; it works just fine. Don't tell us it's too exhausting to include the space character and lean on your shift key: We won't buy that.)

(lack of) serial comma: The "a, b, and c" pattern is preferred over "a, b and c" by many of our editors. It improves clarity, and avoids the accidental perception of b and c being a grouped pair or otherwise having more in common with each other than they do with a.

In case you doubt this, consider the classic example of a sentence that really, really needs the serial comma (quoted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden from a probably apocryphal book dedication): "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

"Free Software": Sorry, no. It's just not a proper noun (except when used as part of an actual name such as Free Software Foundation or Free Software Definition), so the correct usage is "free software" as a noun, and "free-software" as a (compound) adjective.

Sure, we know some folks try to draw a distinction between "Free software" (meaning free as in freedom) and "free software" (meaning free as in cost). However, that doesn't work, sorry. Your readers still won't get it.

"Open Source": Sorry, no. It's just not a proper noun (except when used as part of an actual name, such as Open Source Initiative or Open Source Definition), so the correct usage is "open source" as a noun and "open-source" as a (compound) adjective.

"email" vs. "e-mail": The Proofreading Coordinator prefers the spelling "e-mail" over "email", even though many others on our staff consistently feel otherwise: The rationale for the hyphen is that "email" is too easy to misparse as a one-syllable word, and also is in fact identical to a somewhat obscure synonym for "enameled" (taken from the French word for that concept). This is probably a lost cause, but don't be surprised if the word does get hyphenated in your article.

Apostrophes on plurals of acronyms (and initialisms): Don't. It should be 1950s rather than 1950's, 100s rather than 100's, and BASICs rather than BASIC's (for the plural forms). Think of it this way: That apostrophe serves no purpose and creates confusion with the possessive case, so Rule Zero dictates leaving it out. (If you don't, we will.)

Speaking of possessives: The possessive of "emacs" (a singular noun) is "emacs's", not "emacs'". Similarly, the possessive of "Xandros" (a singular noun) is "Xandros's", not "Xandros'". Get it?

We could go on. We shouldn't — and we know all of the above will keep on needing correction. That's OK, really.

Don't Take It Too Seriously

The English language is a train-wreck. Don't sweat it. We just aim for it to be a well-swept, orderly train-wreck — solely so that your work as authors gets displayed as well as we can manage.

There's an old joke among copy-editors: "Q: Should the phrase 'anal-retentive' be hyphenated? A: Always when it's used as a compound adjective. Never when it's a compound noun." If you found that amusing, you might just be one of us.

[1]: Some uses of "we" in this piece are covered by the middle fork of Mark Twain's dictum that the "editorial we" is permitted only to kings, editors, and people with the tapeworm.

[2]: Erosion of English speakers' ability to distinguish singular from plural has become unmistakable: For example, not long ago, I heard a radio announcer say "Levitz is having a sale at their Oakland warehouse." Such phrasing makes my head spin, but now passes without comment among the general public.

Bio picture Rick has run freely-redistributable Unixen since 1992, having been roped in by first 386BSD, then Linux. Having found that either one sucked less, he blew away his last non-Unix box (OS/2 Warp) in 1996. He specialises in clue acquisition and delivery (documentation & training), system administration, security, WAN/LAN design and administration, and support. He helped plan the LINC Expo (which evolved into the first LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, in San Jose), Windows Refund Day, and several other rabble-rousing Linux community events in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's written and edited for IDG/LinuxWorld, SSC, and the USENIX Association; and spoken at LinuxWorld Conference and Expo and numerous user groups.

His first computer was his dad's slide rule, followed by visitor access to a card-walloping IBM mainframe at Stanford (1969). A glutton for punishment, he then moved on (during high school, 1970s) to early HP timeshared systems, People's Computer Company's PDP8s, and various of those they'll-never-fly-Orville microcomputers at the storied Homebrew Computer Club -- then more Big Blue computing horrors at college alleviated by bits of primeval BSD during UC Berkeley summer sessions, and so on. He's thus better qualified than most, to know just how much better off we are now.

When not playing Silicon Valley dot-com roulette, he enjoys long-distance bicycling, helping run science fiction conventions, and concentrating on becoming an uncarved block.

Copyright © 2010, Rick Moen, rick@linuxmafia.com.

This article was originally published in Issue 171 of Linux Gazette, February 2010. Unfortunately, the copy was tampered with, to its detriment, at publication deadline by the magazine's editor-in-chief and his wife, without consulting the author. The text's integrity has been restored for this mirror copy. Further, the author asks that any links be to this article copy, rather than the tampered one.