To Enfilade or Not to Enfilade

From the biography I’m copyediting: In an assassination attempt, “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, enfilading the car with shrapnel.”

Well, I had a pretty good idea what the car looked like, but “enfilading”? I had to look it up.

“Enfilade” is both a noun and a verb. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (online), the first definition of the noun is “an interconnected group of rooms arranged usually in a row with each room opening into the next.”

Um, no.

The second? “Gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Enfilade” the verb: “to rake or be in a position to rake with gunfire in a lengthwise direction.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (online) gets right to the point: “to rake with gunfire.”

The AHD entry includes an image of the architectural “enfilade,” along with this definition: “A linear arrangement of a series of interior doors, as to a suite of rooms, so as to provide an unobstructed view when the doors are open.”

By this point I’d totally forgotten the assassination attempt and the bullet-riddled Mercedes. I barely noticed that though the target of the attempt survived, his driver was decapitated.

“Enfilading,” I decided, meant precisely what the author intended, but it was not the best word for the sentence in question.

What’s wrong with it? you may be asking. If it means what the author meant, why change it? Readers can always look it up if they don’t know the word. This is what “dumbing down” is about: pandering to people who are too lazy to look things up.

Good question, and one I devoted some thought to. I’ve got a pretty big and flexible vocabulary. It’s probably my single most valuable tool — more valuable than dictionaries, more valuable even than my laptop. If I didn’t recognize “enfilading,” I had to assume that many intelligent, well-read readers won’t either. Most of them will guess — correctly — at the meaning and move on. As a casual reader, I might do likewise.

But when I’m editing, I’m not a casual reader. I’m paying close attention to the construction of sentences, the choice of words in those sentences, and the spelling of those words. When a word or a phrase stops me in my tracks, I take a second look.

“Enfilading” stopped me in my tracks. It threw me out of the text I was reading and sent me to the dictionary. Nothing wrong with that, of course — and sometimes you want a word or phrase to call attention to itself, to make readers screech to a halt and ponder or marvel at what they’ve just read.

But this is a biography, not a poem or a short story or a memoir. It contains nearly 600 pages of text, followed by almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography. More than 200,000 words altogether. The narrative is more important than the words used to create it. The words are means to that end, not ends in themselves.

Nevertheless, if “enfilade” was the only English verb that could describe what was done to that car, I’d leave it alone. But it’s not. Over the years I’ve read many, many accounts of vehicles shot up by gunfire, and every single one of them managed to get the idea across without “enfilade.” Another, less unusual word could be pressed into service without diminishing the narrative.

When I contemplate changing something that isn’t wrong grammatically or according to the dictionary, I ask myself a question: Did the author consciously settle on this word, or phrase, or way of constructing the sentence? 

Some writers are more careful stylists than others. Some of us sweat blood over almost every word. Others of us just want to tell the story. Most of us probably rework some passages a dozen or more times and let others flow by without a second glance.

Editors can’t know for sure what was in an author’s head, but within a dozen or so pages of starting a job, a capable editor generally has a pretty good idea how careful a stylist its author is. By the time I got to “enfilading,” I was 99 percent sure that my author’s focus was on marshalling facts and opinions into a coherent narrative, not on the particular words used to do it.

I also suspected that he was overusing a thesaurus to fill in gaps in his vocabulary. Not infrequently he’d employ a word that had the right dictionary definition but whose connotations or associations that didn’t suit the particular context. I had a very strong hunch that “enfilade” had come from a thesaurus, not from the author’s working vocabulary.

To enfilade or not to enfilade?

I made my decision: not. After some thought, and with a strong assist from the American Heritage Dictionary, I settled on “rake”: “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, raking the car with shrapnel.”

The author can stet his original if he wants, but I don’t think he will.

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