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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Hot Debates

Editors are a persnickety bunch, but not everything we work with is engraved in stone.

What we do work with are style guides: not rules but guidelines for everything from dash usage to chapter title formatting. When editors work with a publisher’s style, the guidelines are fairly hard and fast for that particular client.

The debate comes in when you have preference, or when the client, typically an author working directly with the editor as in self-publishing, looks to the editor to set the style for the manuscript. Then the editor has a chance to delve into the various style guides in his or her experience and apply them as seems appropriate.

LinkedIn groups and various discussion venues for editors such as provided by the EFA or Copyediting-L are regularly filled with lively debate on such issues of preference. Do we prefer spaced en dashes or unspaced em dashes? Do you add a comma after a phrase ending in a question mark that falls in the middle of a sentence?

Other debates are less procedural: Where is the line between copy editing and developmental editing? How much fact checking should a line editor do? Is a degree or continuing education certification necessary or even desirable for a freelance editorial career?

One of the joys for me in freelance editing is the flexibility in this regard. Each client has different expectations and guidelines, and I can alternate between assuring conformation to a publisher’s style guide and creating my own for an author.

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Summertime, and the working is easy

I have hit a quiet spot in my workflow. Waiting for a new project from a regular client, waiting on a new client to decide on a project, waiting on several payments. Waiting, waiting, waiting….

So, I divide my time between family and drumming up new business.

I join discussions on LinkedIn.

I update my running list of books I’ve edited (over 85 titles now!).

I plan Hallowe’en costumes for four, including Tudor, Regency, and Japanese items.

I send out cold e-mails to possible clients in my niche.

I search out my cat who is not supposed to go outside but yet was found in the backyard this morning.

I teach my kids about what the Hopi ate, wore, and lived in.

I tweet.

I welcome new members to the EFA board of directors.

I finish up a crocheted bag for my daughter, and supervise her knitting.

I check job boards.

I send off editing tests.

Welcome, summer!

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New Day, New Skills

I recently began indexing book manuscripts. I often work with authors directly, and more often than not they need an index in addition to editing. I have referred such work out to colleagues in the past, but it occurred to me that I could expand into that area relatively easily.

I’m still learning, as in all things. Exploring various software programs designed to assist the indexer. Discovering what a different mental process is required for indexing in comparison to editing or proofreading.

So far, so good. I am enjoying the work, and now have an additional skill to offer.

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Yes, Virginia, We Are That Nerdy

I got quoted on Yay, me!

I was wrestling with a comma problem, asked some peers on a discussion board, and things just got crazy from there.

And for helping me learn about commas and their proper placement, I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus.

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US Editorial Hegemony?

I often wonder about the idea of US style über alles when editing endnotes.

The Chicago Manual of Style, section 17.100, states: “If the city of publication may be unknown to readers or may be confused with another city of the same name, the abbreviation of the state, province, or (sometimes) country is added.”

Who determines whether a city is likely to be unknown to readers?

I edit primarily scholarly works; for example, I would wager that many scholars know that Harmondsworth and Aldershot are in the United Kingdom (because of the number of publications coming out of those locations), but would the lay reader?

I typically leave capitals and other major cities without a country designation, as it’s reasonable to think that most people know where Madrid or Oslo or Vienna are.

But what about Valladolid? Or Bergen? Or Salzburg? Same countries as the previous cities, and yet possibly unknown to US readers. Less likely to be unknown to European readers. I know where all those cities are, so I can’t rely only on my own knowledge to decide on this.

Conversely, I would not expect a US reader to need a state for Atlanta, Seattle, or Denver, but a European reader might need it.

What the issue comes down to is whether the reader has enough information in the notes to locate the referenced publication. Now that so many references can be tracked down online with only a title, is this so crucial? I’m not sure. Even for publications with a potentially global readership.

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The Joyful Dangers of Editing Nonfiction

For the most part, I edit scholarly nonfiction. Which means I end up reading lots of stuff I never would have otherwise encountered.

Anthropological explorations of tour guides’ experiences in exotic locales. Analyses of ancient Greek philosophies. An interview with the former prime minister of Ukraine about her experience of gender relations.

Right now I am working on a series of chapters on prominent atheists from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In only a few days I have learned new things about Mark Twain, H. P. Lovecraft, H. L. Mencken, Nietzsche, and many others.

The danger of this is that now I have overwhelming cravings to read far more than I have time for. Gore Vidal’s novels, Twain’s essays, Lovecraft’s short stories are all calling to me, calling with the siren song of something new and different.

But there is just no time.

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