Tuesday, May 04, 2021


 This is a brief technical essay for editors. Writers are free to listen in.

Why do we argue, er, debate, er, discuss commas so often? Why do we mostly all agree about one comma and have widely divergent views about another comma? (Okay, there are only three possible views for any given comma: needed, forbidden, and optional; so maybe "widely divergent" is the wrong formulation.) Why do editors insist on the rightness of their view?

Relax. There's room for more than one approach, and readers adapt smoothly and without confusion. You will be a better editor if you acknowledge that there are different ways to approach comma usage that are equally valid.

Consider: We understand that the ur-comma was a breath mark, pure and simple. It was an aid to the lector, when few were literate and reading was done from the pulpit. But also remember that some modern writing is meant to be read aloud, whether to children or to a theater audience or at a poetry slam.

I recall an interview on NPR with Robert Alter, when he was still working on his translation of Genesis or perhaps when he had just completed it. The phrase that struck me, as he was explaining his frequent use of repetition and reduplication, was that "some people read with their eyes, and some people read with their ears."

So that's one axis: Do you use commas strictly analytically (following formal rules), or do you use them to guide the reader in the intended prosody of the sentence? Obviously, you want to have one consistent approach in a given text, and if you only ever edit that same kind of text (academic work in the humanities, say), then you will always use the same approach. But other kinds of texts may benefit from using a different approach.

Now let's look at the other axis, which extends from close punctuation (close-p) to open punctuation (open-p). Close-p is characterized by more punctuation in general than open-p, more commas and more semicolons, in particular. Open-p is characterized by a minimalist approach to commas, semicolons, and colons. If it is has more of anything, that would be the dash.

I've taken a stab (based on pure guesswork, mind you) at placing various sorts of prose on this plane I've defined. You might place them differently or think of better examples, and that's fine.


My main point is that all of these exist in the world, and chaos has not ensued. So saying, as some editors are wont, that style guide A or style guide B is the gospel handed down from above and all other possible approaches are wrong does not seem productive to me.

What makes sense to me is to realize that all of these styles are valid in specific contexts and that to the extent an editor can let go of the idea that one style is better than another in some absolute sense and can instead embrace the idea of choosing a punctuation style that suits the text at hand, that person becomes a better, more versatile editor.

We can still use analysis to describe the reason for using or omitting a particular comma, but we can do it in the context of understanding the range of possible styles.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The lowly speech tag

I think it's time for a general reconsideration of the convention around commas and speech tags. I'm sensing some grumbling among the ground troops (fellow editors), and I think it may be time for some brave style guide author or three to tackle the problem.

Here's how I see it. In the sentence "Juanita said 'I'm coming too,'" the quotation is a clause that is the direct object of the transitive verb said. Simple subject-verb-object (SVO) order, the canonical order in English. If, for variety's sake, we sometimes switch to OSV order ("I'm coming too," Juanita said.), we need a comma between the quotation and the speaker. Similarly, if we switch to OVS order ("I'm coming too," said Juanita.), we need a comma. And if we go all weirdlike and use VSO (Said Juanita, "I'm coming too.") we need a comma. In all three cases, we need the comma because of the inversion and not because of the presence of a quotation.

Now at some point (I haven't been able to pin down when this happened, but I want to say post 1900), writers started to reanalyze the situation and came up with the "rule" that there is always a comma between the quotation and the rest of the sentence. So they back-applied this idea to standard SVO sentences and we ended up with "Juanita said, 'I'm coming too.'" And that's the rule we all learned in school. Quite recently (2005 is the first example I can find, but that's probably not really the first time), we started calling the SV or VS part a speech tag, and now people debate whether something is or isn't a speech tag and therefore does or doesn't require a comma. But I think this is just a result of not analyzing the sentence grammatically in the first place.

I think that if we start consistently dropping the comma in SVO constructions, we'll all be happier, and the style guides will catch up eventually.


Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover

 For most of my life, the public was willing to trust experts—in whatever field—to render judgment on what was better or worse (an argument, a product quality, an artistic work). The zeitgeist has shifted, and now the cultural norm is to distrust experts and reject expertise as a basis for judgment. This applies to book production as much as to anything else.

So if you have never taken the time to notice or have never been exposed to high-quality books in the past and all you have is the book in hand, with no formal education or training in print production, you might pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made. Okay, fine. If a hundred people pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made, then well made it is, according to public opinion.

But now let me approach the question from an expert's perspective.

Over the last fifty years, give or take, older, more expensive production technologies have given way to newer, cheaper technologies. At the same time, automation has raised the bottom (made it easier for unskilled workers to turn out acceptable work). The average quality has gone up, but the level of quality that top publishers used to fund has largely disappeared in the interests of lowered costs and higher profits.

The rationalization of publishing by the kids who came home in the 1980s with their freshly minted MBAs and said "Dad, let's take the company public; we'll make a killing" has resulted in a world in which the only books publishing executives look at are their accounting books. No one is competing on the basis of the look and feel of the finished product anymore.

 Judging the physical object

A given title might be printed in any of several different ways. 

  • It might be a print-on-demand (POD) book. This is a book printed one at a time in response to an online order. It is different from the book it follows down the production line and from the book that follows it. The publisher was offered very little choice in terms of paper quality. The machine operator is not a printing professional and, even if they are, does not have the opportunity to calibrate the color printing for the cover. The printer makes money while the machine is running, so there is little opportunity to calibrate even the black printing.
  • It might be digitally printed by a book manufacturer. This process uses basically the same equipment as the POD process. But as several copies are going to be printed at the same time, the operator has the opportunity to make needed adjustments to ensure quality, and the publisher is given a much wider range of paper choices.
  • It might be printed on an offset press. This is a method used for higher production volumes. Some offset presses are sheet fed, meaning the paper comes to the printer as large sheets on a pallet, and the press lifts one sheet at a time off the stack. Some offset presses are web presses, meaning the paper comes on a continuous roll and is cut into sheets at the delivery end of the press, after it is printed. Web presses run at higher speeds than sheet-fed presses. They are often (not always) less precise.
  • And there are a variety of other technologies, including high-speed inkjet web presses on one end of the spectrum and slower-than-molasses Espresso Book Machines on the other end (the kind you can see in a large bookstore where you bring in your own book on a thumb drive and they print it for you).
The printing technology can have an effect on quality, so if you pick up a book to apply the criteria below, know that a different copy of the same book, sold through a different channel, might have been produced differently. (Was it purchased by clicking a link on Amazon? Was it purchased at an airport bookstore? Was it purchased at a chain bookstore? An independent bookstore? Direct from the publisher?)

In addition, there are several ways a book might be bound.

  • Softcover (available in several configurations)
  • Cloth (hardcover with cloth-covered boards, available in several configurations), with or without a dust jacket
  • Image-wrap (hardcover with an image printed on it)

With that preamble, and with a stack of books of varying ages and categories in front of you, here are the factors you should practice observing:

  • Pick up the closed book and look at all three cut edges. Are the pages flat or are they wavy? Is the book rectangular (check with a square)?
  • Lay the book on a table. If it's a softcover, does it stay closed, or does the cover curl up? If it's a hardcover, is the cover flat against the book or arched? How does the thickness and stiffness of the cover compare with other books of the same general type?
  • Is the design of the cover appropriate for the book's genre?
  • Is the cover attractive? Is it executed well? Does it look professional? Does it include all the text and graphic components expected for the type of book it is (shelving category on the back cover, bar code, publisher name)? Is the author's name spelled correctly? Does the title on the cover match the title on the title page?
  • Open the book to the middle. If it's a softcover, is it a perfectbound book (pages glued to the spine) or does it open flat (cover separated from the back of the pages). If it's a hardcover, does it lie flat or snap closed?
  • Is the paper a pleasing color, texture, and weight, or does it seem a bit off, a bit too cheap?
  • Grasp a single leaf in the middle of the book and hold it up to a light. Is the type on the back of the page perfectly aligned with the type on the front of the page? That is, are the margins identical at the top and outside, or is one page just a smidge above or to the outside of the other? This is called backup; and if they're not the same, the flaw is called a backup error.
  • Now riffle through the whole book, keeping an eye on the running head (top line of text). If it moves up and down as you flip the pages, this is called head bounce. Riffle again, watching the outside margin for edge bounce.
  • Do the lines of type within the page exactly back up? This is only checkable if the two pages are just straight paragraphs of text. A lazy designer may feather the lines apart on one page to make the bottom margins align, but this is a serious design no-no.
  • Now look at a page overall. Do the margins seem well proportioned and ample, or is there too much type crammed on the page for comfortable reading?
  • Half-close your eyes so you're looking through your lashes at a blurred page. Is the rectangle of type a uniform gray, or is it spotty, with light areas and dark areas?
  • Do facing pages balance (come to the same depth, so the bottom margins are the same across the spread)?
  • Are there widows (last line of a paragraph at the top of a page) and orphans (first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page). Orphans are generally permissible in fiction, so you wouldn't deduct points there.
  • Looking at the type a bit more closely, are there ladders (three or more lines in a row that end with a hyphen), stacks (two or three lines that begin or end with the same word), rivers (noticeable streaks of white where the word spaces on several successive lines happen to line up), pigeonholes (huge word spaces), runts (very short lines at the end of a paragraph), bad breaks (hyphenated compounds where one of the components is also hyphenated at the end of a line; words misdivided at the end of a line; awkwardly broken names, and so forth)?
  • Was care taken with the copyediting and typesetting in general, so that punctuation is consistent and helpful to the reader, proper typographer's quotation marks, dashes, and ellipses are used, and so forth? Or did the designer just dump a half-edited Word file into the pages without giving it a second thought?
  • Is the typography and overall design of the pages consistent with the content of the book? Is it overdesigned to the point that the design elements distract from the content? Or is it underdesigned to the point that reading is annoying and uncomfortable? Is the design, in other words, interfering in the conversation between author and reader?
  • Flip through the book. Is foreword spelled correctly? Is acknowledgments (US) or acknowledgements (elsewhere) spelled correctly? Are the preliminary pages (prelims) numbered with lowercase roman numerals so that the book proper can begin on page 1 with arabic numerals? Does the copyright page contain all of the expected information? Does the book have an index (not all genres have indexes) that seems proportional to the text and well thought out?

 Those are some of the factors a contest judge takes into account. Spend a few minutes examining some books yourself, and see what you can observe.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Standing type

I lost track. I produce an annual directory. As directories go, it's not large—under 300 pages in 6″ × 9″ format. But I was looking forward to splashing a diagonal sash across the cover bragging that this was the 10th edition, only to have the client point out that we started down this road in 2011, not 2012, so it's actually the 11th edition. Dang. Missed my chance last year.
Most of my clients are self-publishing authors with one or at most two or three books in them. So it warms my cockles to know that I've been providing good service to one customer for eleven years. He's happy, because publishing this book has increased his consulting business several-fold over the years. I'm happy because why wouldn't I be?
But I was thinking about the production process. Here's how we do it. I export Word files from the InDesign file used the previous year. He updates the Word files with tracking on. I copy the tracked changes back into the InDesign file, update this and that, and we're good to go for another year. In terms of physical inventory, this is frictionless and weightless.
But it wasn't always so. The way this kind of catalog work used to be done (think of telephone directories or auto parts catalogs) was with standing type. If you have a vague notion of what a Linotype slug looked like—a bar of metal the thickness of the type's point size, the length of the printed line, and a bit less than an inch high—imagine the size and weight of a single page of a phone book. Now imagine that multiplied by the number of pages in, say, the Chicago White Pages or the Manhattan Yellow Pages (the Red Book, if you remember that far back). Imagine the cost of all that metal held in inventory, plus the space to keep it all within reach. Because as new listings and address changes came into the plant every workday, someone had to pull that page of type and make corrections so that when the date came around each year to print the new directory, the pages were ready to be locked into chases so new stereotypes could be made and mounted on the press.
Standing type tied up many millions of dollars in inventory before electronic typesetting came on the scene in the 1970s. Printers were all too happy to bid it good riddance.
I just thought I'd say a little something about it before the term slips into complete obscurity. Google Image Search has no idea what to do with it. Neither do the multiple dictionaries indexed by onelook.com. But now you know about it.
Happy New Year.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mycelia of hatred

I've been thinking (always dangerous, I know). A common metaphor for hatred, bigotry, and discrimination of all kind is that a wind-borne seed falls on fertile ground and sprouts and blossoms. Another metaphor is that a spark ignites tinder and is fanned into a raging fire.

I think neither of those is quite right. If we've learned anything in the last four years, it's that the hatred has always been there. It doesn't need a seed or a spark to bring it into existence.

So let me propose a different metaphor, one that might actually have some predictive value: Hate is a fungus. More specifically, each type of hate, each type of domination and subjugation and indifference to the suffering of others is a fungus. And as with actual living fungi, there are no constraints on the emergence of new species to feed off of new substrates.

We think of the forest floor as being infiltrated with the mycelia of all manner of mushrooms. But in truth all kinds of soils are filled with fungal mycelia. They spread quickly and broadly, with some individual organisms spreading over many square miles. Yet we don't notice them until the season and weather provide just the right conditions for this vast network to send up the fruiting bodies we notice on our hikes. Yet they are there, spreading, absorbing nutrients and energy from their environment, all the time. 

So it is with hatred. It spreads out of sight, underground. And when conditions are right, it emerges and becomes visible, forming clumps and clusters and great fairy rings of fruiting bodies that release another generation of spores to strengthen and magnify the population. When the conditions become unfavorable, the mushrooms disappear, but the mycelium continues to thrive out of sight.

Other fungi spread above ground, forming the molds that digest abandoned buildings, roads, and the rubber dust cast off as your tire treads wear. But some of these are thin, invisible films that coat (and shield) the visible objects in our environment. White privilege comes to mind.

Okay, so much for the metaphor. But my serious point is that we have mathematical models for the growth of mycelium. And if I'm right, the same equations describe the mycelia of hatred and can be used to understand how it spreads and grows. The idea of uprooting it like an unwanted shrub or spraying it like a weedy lawn would be understood to not apply, to be the wrong approach. Instead, society could focus on managing the conditions that lead to outbreaks. Fungi are devilishly hard to eradicate, but they can be managed.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What you should expect when you ask for editing

In a discussion on Facebook, a new editor said that in a copyediting course she had taken, the instructor was a strict prescriptivist about grammar. She wondered how strictly she should enforce the "rules of grammar" when editing.

In the ensuing discussion, she was advised that some of what she had learned were what are called zombie rules (I think Geoff Pullum, on Language Log, is responsible for that turn of phrase), rules like not splitting an infinitive and other relics of the ill-begotten attempt in centuries past to make English grammar conform to Latin grammar. (Spoiler: it doesn't.)

The young editor asked how to identify these zombie rules, and in the context of the discussion, this is what I said. I thought it might be helpful to others, so I'm posting it here as well:
As several other people have already commented, it's good to follow linguists and editors trained in linguistics. The modern (i.e., since late nineteenth century) idea of "grammar" is that it's a description of the language as it has evolved, not a set of arbitrary rules endeavoring to tell people how they should speak ("grammar" in the sense that schoolteachers use the word).

That said, one of the features linguists describe is register, sometimes called diction. In natural speech communities in all cultures and language groups, speakers distinguish between formal and informal register (linguist John McWhorter commented recently on the strange flattening of that distinction by a certain elected official who shall here remain nameless). So, in a sense, the grammar of formal diction is different from the grammar of informal diction, even though together they compose the grammar of the language taken as a whole. And register can be broken down further. The informal register you use with your parents may differ from what you use with your peers or with your toddlers, and the formal register used in accepting an award from the local Rotarians may be different from what you would use to address the Nobel awards banquet in Stockholm.

Further, the way we write differs markedly from the way we speak, in any register.

We do expect schooling to teach students the dialect of the dominant culture, the idea being that if they learn that, they will be able to get a decent job and earn a living. And that's the genesis of the schoolteacher's approach to grammar: follow these rules, and you won't be thought stupid by rich white dudes.

But that's not the editor's role. We should take a more subtle approach: we know the standard dialect (the dialect of the socioeconomic elite) and can correct text to match that if we're hired to do so. But we can also respect the fact that all speech communities have their own perfectly valid dialects (each with its own various registers), and we can be flexible enough to edit in those contexts too. (This comes up mostly but not solely in the context of fiction.)

If you limit yourself to the minutiae of copyediting and proofreading and do not wish to think hard about the questions of usage and style informed by a passing familiarity with linguistic principles, then the general idea is to do no harm: just fix the little stuff, and don't "correct" the author on the basis of the kind of rule you're asking about here. If, on the other hand, you also are charged with line editing or substantive editing, then you do need to think about these questions.
If you are a careful writer with a distinctive voice, you should expect an editor to preserve that voice. If an editor tears apart your perfectly fine prose to make it conform to rules she learned in fifth grade, she has done you a disservice. You deserve better than that.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Switching hats, changing gears, taking your meds

Dear certain particular author (if this doesn't apply to you, then it doesn't apply to you),

You have decided to publish your book yourself. Great. I'd love to help you do that. Please understand, though, that while writing a book requires all the free-flowing creativity you can muster if it's going to result in anything people will want to read, publishing is a business that requires a more disciplined creativity.

If you are going to publish your book, then you are going to be a publisher, and that means you are running a business, not an atelier. You have to take off your writer hat and put on your publisher hat.

And when you are wearing your publisher hat, I beg you, I implore you, at least until we get the product out the door, after which you can be your wild genius self once again, please take the meds your doctor prescribed.

Thank you.