Monthly Archives: January 2012

It’s Chilly Out There

SOPA and PIPA have been all over the news lately, and for good reason. Numerous commentaries and protest actions finally made it clear to Congress that these bills were poorly written with overly broad powers destined to have a chilling effect on otherwise legal activities.

In more recent news, Apple released its new iBooks Author product, heralded (by Apple) as a new world of textbook publishing. It looks like a typically nice Apple product, with an easy user interface and functionality. It ties in with the expanding ebook market as well as the very strong iPad market.

But as some have pointed out, there are worrisome sections in the EULA.  One section says that if you create a work on iBooks and want to charge a fee for access, you have to have a separate contract with Apple, and that work may only be sold and distributed via the iBookstore. Seems a little greedy, but Apple wants to control its own publishing environment and isn’t in the business of free/open source distribution models, so I can let that pass despite my dislike for DRM.

I have a big problem with one small sentence in the agreement: “Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.”

So, your work could theoretically never be published if Apple doesn’t like it.

And, of course, “Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.”

You create something, Apple decides (based on what, I’m not sure) that it doesn’t want to distribute your work, and POOF, all your time and product go down the proverbial drain. Unlike a traditional publishing process, you can’t go to a different publisher/distributor, or even self-publish it. It’s locked away forever.

Some point out that iBooks Author files can be exported as .txt or .pdf files, which would then be free for distribution elsewhere. I am unsure that the EULA defines “Work” clearly enough to confirm that, especially as a PDF would still include all the “proprietary” layout. Apple’s own description of the functionality states “Drag and drop a Pages or Microsoft Word document to the Book navigator to add it as a new section.” This implies to me that one could create a work externally to the software, import it, and that output would be subject to the EULA, but the original Word or other file would still be yours to do with as you see fit.

This lack of clarity, plus the fact that, evidently, the user doesn’t need to consciously accept such an agreement before using the software yet using the software itself binds you to the EULA, makes me mighty suspicious. Apple advertises this product as using “the industry-leading ePub digital book file type,” but what good is it to trumpet that functionality when you won’t allow cross-platform publishing anyway?

Generally, I like and use Apple products and platforms. But this seems a new low in their attempt to control users and products.

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Ceci N’est Pas un Synonym

Just beside the highway near my home is a large billboard for the Red Lion hotel chain that says “Count Less Sheep”. Every time I see it, I think, Damn, do advertising people not know the less/fewer rule?

This morning I was thinking about this rule. Is it that important, really? We all understand what the billboard means, just as we do at grocery stores that have “10 items or less” checkout lines. So who cares?

This is an age-old discussion among those who care about words and language: is it a slippery slope to poor grammar, or is it merely a reflection of the variable nature of language over time?

In this case, I would argue that the terms in question have different enough meanings to make the distinction important. Both are adjectives describing a decrease in amount, but with an important distinction. Less is used with mass nouns, where the exact amount cannot be quantified:

“We are getting less snow this winter than the average.” (We can measure snowfall, but in this sentence, snow is simply a substance, not a number of things.)

Fewer is used with count nouns, where we can quantify exactly:

“There have been fewer storms this winter than average.” (We can count how many storms have occurred.)

This morning I cast my mind for a similar example that is perhaps more tangible, because we use synonyms all the time with much less furor than when discussing less/fewer. (See what I did there? Ha!)

What about cupcakes vs. muffins? They’re both sweet baked items, often made in the same kind of pan and from almost identical recipes. They’re similar in size, and both typically are baked in paper wrappers.

On the other hand, cupcakes are always frosted and/or decorated, while muffins aren’t. Muffins are usually less sweet and served as a breakfast food or snack, while cupcakes are definitely dessert.

So, cupcake and muffin aren’t synonyms, even though the words describe very similar items. I think less and fewer work the same way. I wouldn’t say “I think this cupcake needs fewer frosting,” nor would I say “I should have eaten less muffins this morning”.

Because both of those statements are just ridiculous. Cupcakes can always use more frosting, sheesh.

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Cranky Editors, Irritated Writers

Copy editors can be a cranky lot. We’re responsible for fixing, conforming, advising, querying… all in relation to so-called errors. We take something a writer has created and we change it, often according to rules that the writer didn’t request nor is aware of. We’re a middleman between the writer and the publisher, or the writer and the production manager, or the writer and the typesetter, or a combination thereof.

I would say copy editors definitely add value. Writers need not worry about house style, or formatting headings, or arcane rules of how to format bibliography entries and can simply focus on the content. On the other side, the production staff need not worry about these things either, because they have hired the copy editor to do so.

But there is another aspect of copy editing that often goes unheralded: communication. We are the “experts” in the aforementioned arcana, and we must be able to explain such things clearly and (here’s the kicker) kindly and respectfully.

Recently an author griped in a freelancers’ group on LinkedIn that she needed advice in “dealing with [a] nit-picking, unqualified editor”. Aside from the problems of blatant errors in judgment on the editor’s part, what struck me was the seemingly poor communication going on.

An example: “He doesn’t agree to any concessions and seems overly concerned with grammar and punctuation than content.” I hear this writer saying that she wants her editor to compromise, and to retain her authorial voice more than conform to style conventions. These are not unreasonable requests, and yet it appears that the editor is struggling to comply with his client’s needs.

From the reverse perspective, Carol Saller recently griped about writers who don’t listen to their editors. While she had tongue firmly planted in cheek, Saller’s complaints are obviously real: authors who neglect to read clearly written instructions, who submit massive changes at the last possible moment, or who seem to have read the editor’s instructions but then respond in unreasonably complex or difficult ways.

I’ll go back to those kicker words kindly and respectfully. I think writers and editors often feel that they are on opposing sides instead of being a team. They are interdependent, and thus would be better served working together collegially. Of course there are going to be bad apples, as my LinkedIn example shows. But I look on my editing expertise as something that should help the author, not hinder.

So, I sometimes go overboard to retain that team feeling. Respect for the author’s voice and expertise in his or her subject matter is paramount; I expect that same respect in return for my editorial expertise. Clear communication, at all stages of the process, is vital. Rather than overwhelm with technical jargon, can I just say “XYZ is part of your publisher’s style, therefore I have made ABC changes”?

Please and thank you go a long way. Thinking ahead of time what your teammate might need is a big help: neither an author nor an editor is necessarily able to respond to requests immediately, so we have to leave space in the production schedule for communication. I often work with authors who are university professors, so understanding what times of year are more hectic for academics comes in handy. When the author is my client, I make sure to ask up front how much editing he or she wants, so that we can avoid later conflicts like grammar vs. voice.

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Language Fluidity, or, Don’t Be Such a Nazi

Geoffrey Pullum recently wrote about “faith-based grammar”, railing against those who believe that “there are rules that we should follow even if native-speaking grammarians and fine playwrights and novelists disregard them”.

His point was that, if famous and excellent writers such as Lord Byron and E.B. White (no less the average speaker) use a certain grammar formation that goes against a perceived tradition, we’d be better off ditching said tradition and moving on.

In a previous post, Pullum quoted a correspondent saying “No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening”.

I concede that it’s tricky balancing following rules that are important for clarity and precision with flexibility in one’s perceptions and opinions and a healthy acknowledgment of the importance of context. I believe traditions should be followed only if they are useful. Language is fluid.

Linguistic fluidity also applies to words themselves. Even those that have negative connotations.

One example is the word “nazi”. Although its literal meaning is specific to the fascist, nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist German political party of the World War II era, the term is used today in a variety of colloquial usages. How is this acceptable?

I believe people are using the term “nazi” for the most part in a humorous way, such as with a charactonym.

The man who inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s creation, the Soup Nazi, wasn’t too pleased, but then he’s still profiting from the association over 15 years later. Obviously meant to play on the character’s overly strict regulations for his restaurant customers, the name highlights the absurdity of the situation.

“Grammar nazi” is a more widespread example (over 3 million search results on Google), again playing on the tendency of some to overemphasize the importance of correct grammar at the expense of others’ feelings or to constantly point out errors. In this case, the use of nazi in the phrase is also humorous, emphasizing the disproportion of the topic, grammar, with the vehemence of the person. There’s even a silly video exemplifying this phrase:

A third usage of this term is the pejorative “feminazi“, popularized by radio host Rush Limbaugh. Linking “militant” feminism, in particular abortion-rights activists,  with fascist nazism, this usage is not so much humorous as a dysphemism meant to disparage.

A less humorous example, but one that still reveals the change in meaning of words over time, is the use of “czar” for political appointees. Like “mogul”, “sultan”, or “kaiser”, the term originally applied to autocratic, totalitarian heads of state. The modern political usage is clearly metaphorical; drug and cybersecurity czars are civil servants, more advisors and overseers having nothing close to dictatorial powers.

Language flows over time. Sometimes, we apply rules that are antiquated (how many native English speakers use the supposedly proper construction “It is I” rather than “It’s me”?). Sometimes, we create neologisms that play on contrasts between historical atrocity and relatively benign obsessions. In the end, I think, common usage tends to triumph.

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