U Is for Usage

People are regularly accused of not knowing their grammar when the real issue is a possibly shaky grasp of usage.

Here’s Bryan Garner, whom I’ve invoked more often in the last week or so than in the previous 10 years, on grammar: “Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences” (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., section 5.1).

And here he is on usage: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all — they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers” (CMS 16, section 5.216).

Language eddies and ripples and never stops moving.

Those collective habits tend to change a lot faster than the underlying rules. Think of a river, a pond, or the ocean: the surface sparkles and ripples and can be quite turbulent, while what’s underneath moves more sedately or maybe not at all.

Usage isn’t uniform across speakers of a particular language either. Nowhere close. Much has been made of the differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE), but both BrE and AmE include great internal diversity, by nation, region, and other factors.

Usage that raises no eyebrows in a particular field may seem clunky, appalling, or even incomprehensible in another. Recently an editor queried the editors’ e-list we’re both on about a use of “interrogate” that raised her hackles; in her experience, suspects could be interrogated but not theories, Those of us who regularly edit in certain academic disciplines assured her that in those fields theories can be interrogated too.

The editors’ groups I’m in are not only international, they include editors from many fields, genres, and disciplines. So when we ask if a certain usage is OK or not, we mention the intended audience for whatever we’re working on: fiction or nonfiction? AmE or BrE? academic discipline? subject matter? Is the tone informal or formal?

Colloquialisms and, especially, slang can be especially tricky. Slang often arises within a particular group, and part of its purpose is to set that group off from others. A word that means one thing in the wider world may mean something else within the group. By the time the wider world catches on, it’s passé within the group. This poses a challenge for, say, novelists writing for teenagers and young adults, who in every generation come up with words and phrases that set the adults’ teeth on edge: how to come across as credible when by the time the book appears in print (usually at least a year after it’s turned in to the publisher), the dialogue may come across as ridiculously outdated to its target audience.

Dog in driver's seat

I’ll assure my insurance company that I’m wise enough to ensure my safety by not letting Travvy drive my car.

In English, usage gaffes often result when words sound alike; when their meanings are related, the potential for confusion grows. Consider this sentence: “I assured my friends that I’d ensured my own safety by insuring my car against theft.” “Insure” appears regularly for “ensure,” which means, more or less, “guarantee,” and to make it even more fun, my car is insured through Plymouth Rock Assurance — which works, sort of, because they’re assuring me that I’ll be covered in case of an accident.

By Googling frequently confused words I turned up lots of lists, including this one from the Oxford Dictionaries site. I see most of them pretty regularly, the exceptions being the ones that involve distinctively BrE spellings or words, like “draught,” “kerb,” and “barmy.” It’s missing one that I see a lot: reign/rein. The expression “rein in” has come adrift from its origin, which has to do with horses. “Reign in” sounds exactly the same, but written down it doesn’t make sense.

Working editors, especially copyeditors, store all these frequently confused words in our heads. We’re always adding to the collection — and discussing whether a particular word has graduated from confusable to acceptable, at least in certain quarters. These discussions can get quite heated.

The English-language dictionaries most commonly used these days are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they describe how speakers are actually using the words, not how they should be using the words. Take “imply” and “infer”: I can imply (suggest or hint) that something is true, but you can infer (deduce or understand) that I don’t believe it. “Infer” is used to mean “imply” often enough that this is listed as a meaning in both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage, though both dictionaries include a cautionary note about this usage.

My editorial mentor, circa 1980, railed against the use of “target” as a verb, which to me at the time, a generation younger, seemed unexceptional. A few years later, however, I and others were railing against the use of “impact” as a verb. What the hell’s wrong with “affect”? we asked. I’ve pretty much given up on that one, though I don’t use it myself.

I cheer loudly whenever an author uses “comprise” correctly, which isn’t very often, but mostly I’ve given up on that one too. Once upon a time the whole comprised the parts, and the list of parts was assumed to be comprehensive. If it wasn’t, you used “include.” So few people remember that distinction that if it’s important that readers know that the list of parts is comprehensive, you better not rely on “comprise” alone to get the idea across.

Similarly, I was well on in my editorial career when I learned that “dogs such as Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies” was assumed to include malamutes and huskies, whereas “dogs like Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies” did not, presumably with the rationale that malamutes are not like malamutes; they are malamutes. No way would I expect a general readership, even a literate, well-informed readership, to know this.

At the same time, I do occasionally feel a little smug because I’ve got all this esoterica stored in my head. But I do try to keep it under control when I’m editing.

T Is for That

That is a handy and versatile word. It can be an adjective:

That puppy followed me home.

Or an adverb:

Are you that sure of yourself?

Or a pronoun, standing in for a person, place, thing, event, or anything else that is clear from context:

That is the way we’ve always done it.

Or a conjunction:

She insisted that we show up on time.

Or a relative pronoun, which is sort of a cross between a pronoun and a conjunction:

Any map that shows my road as two-way needs to be updated.

In the grammar and usage section of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Bryan Garner puts it more elegantly: “A relative pronoun is one that introduces a dependent (or relative) clause and relates it to the independent clause. Relative pronouns in common use are who, which, what, and that” (CMS 16th ed., section 5.54).

Here’s where things get interesting, maybe a little confusing, and sometimes even contentious. These “dependent (or relative) clauses” can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive, or, as they’re sometimes called, essential or nonessential. Borrowing from CMS again: “A relative cause is said to be restrictive if it provides information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. . . . A relative clause is said to be nonrestrictive if it could be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers or otherwise changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence” (CMS 16, section 6.22).

Here’s a restrictive clause:

The novel that we’re reading this month can be found in the library.

And here’s a nonrestrictive one:

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which we’re reading for class, was published in 1985.

Here’s where the contentiousness comes in. Have you in your travels come across the “which/that distinction”? I don’t believe I was aware of it before I got my first editing job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit in Washington, D.C. My mentor was a crackerjack editor with decades of experience in New York publishing. Thanks to her I’ve been able to more or less support myself as an editor all these years. She was a stickler for correct usage, and as her apprentice I internalized most of her thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

High among the thou shalts was Thou shalt use only “that” for restrictive clauses and only “which” for nonrestrictive clauses, and “which” must be preceded by a comma.

This is the which/that distinction, and like many another novice editor I became a zealous enforcer of it. Worse, I became a tad smug about it. As I like to say, “everyone’s the hero of their own story,” and for copyeditors, whose brains are crammed with rules and guidelines, this sometimes leads to a conviction that it’s our esoteric knowledge that stands between us and the collapse of civilization, or at least the English language.

In other words, I looked down my snoot at any writer who used “which” for restrictive clauses.

Until I noticed, before too many years had passed, that writers of British English (BrE) regularly used “which” for restrictive clauses without their prose collapsing into a muddle.

And that speakers of American English (AmE) often don’t make the distinction in conversation.

Hmmm. By this point, the which/that distinction was so ingrained that I applied it without thinking in my own writing and in editing as well. This stands me in good stead in U.S. trade publishing, where which/that is still a thou shalt in many quarters.  Nearly all of the AmE writers whose work I edit apply it automatically, so I don’t have to change anything.

With BrE writers, at first I’d diligently change all the restrictive whiches to thats, but then I started getting uneasy. The which/that distinction is a convention, not a rule. I wasn’t improving the prose in any way by enforcing it. Most important, by diligently enforcing a distinction that didn’t need to be enforced, I was pretty sure I was missing more important stuff. Like many other editors and proofreaders I learned early on that the mistakes I missed usually came in close proximity to the ones I caught. It’s as if the editorial brain takes a self-congratulatory pause after each good catch, and in that moment an obvious error can slip through.

So I stopped automatically changing all those whiches to thats. I’d note on my style sheet “which OK for restrictive clauses” so the proofreader wouldn’t flip out and think the copyeditor was asleep at the keyboard. So far the language hasn’t collapsed and my publisher clients haven’t dumped me, but it still feels a little daring so I look over my shoulder a lot to see who’s watching.

Garner notes that the restrictive that is used “in polished American prose,” but that “in British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.”

Says the usage note in Merriam-Webster’s:

Although some handbooks say otherwise, that and which are both regularly used to introduce restrictive clauses in edited prose. Which is also used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. That was formerly used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses; such use is virtually nonexistent in present-day edited prose, though it may occasionally be found in poetry.

In its much lengthier usage noteAmerican Heritage comes round to more or less the same conclusion: “But this [restrictive] use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose.” The whole note is an excellent introduction to which/that and restrictive/nonrestrictive. Check it out.

Editing Workshop, 4

We interrupt the alphabet — in the A–Z Challenge you can take Sundays off — to bring you “Editing Workshop, 4” It’s been almost exactly two years since “Editing Workshop, 3,” and I’d love to do more of them.  This A–Z thing has reminded me that I’ve got a lot of free-floating stuff in my head but I need a hook to get hold of it and pull it out. Like a letter of the alphabet — or a query from a writer, editor, or reader. That’s what sparked this one. If you’ve got a question or an observation, use the contact form to send it along. I will get back to you.

This query about “post” came from someone who works in medical publishing:

I have been annoyed for the past few years by the increasingly trendy use of “post” instead of “since” or “after “: “Post the election, people have been wondering . . .” It is especially prevalent in my field, medical publishing — “The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” — and I never allow it. Nor have I been able to discover whether it is considered even marginally correct by anyone anywhere. In any case, I think it is in dreadfully poor taste. Your thoughts?

This is the sort of usage question that editors discuss among ourselves all the time. What’s considered correct, informal, or acceptable varies from field to field, and my field is not medical publishing. But I’ll take a stab at it as a generalist and hope that some of my medical editor colleagues will weigh in in the comments, drop me an email, or use the contact form at the bottom of the page to respond.

I had an instant negative reaction to “post the election,” which is to say that my fingers itched to make it “after the election” or “since the election,” depending on the rest of the sentence. “Post” isn’t a preposition, thought I, but I’ve been wrong before so I consulted the dictionary — three dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and Oxford (UK), all online. None of them listed “post” as a preposition. This usage may catch on and become standard, but it hasn’t yet, and because “after” and “since” serve the same purpose so well, I’d go ahead and change it.

“The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” is something else again. “Post surgery” isn’t the same as “post the surgery.” Here I think “post” is a preposition. This would be clearer if it were either fused with “surgery” or attached to it with a hyphen: “postsurgery” or “post-surgery.” I’d go with the latter because I like hyphens a lot better than Merriam-Webster’s does. On the Copyediting-L email list, HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal, and I’ve been a HARPy since I knew there was such a thing.

“Post-”prefixed words can certainly be adjectives — “post-election party” and “post-surgery protocol” both sound unexceptional to me — but offhand I couldn’t think of many “post-”prefixed adverbs, which is what I think it is in “The patient’s symptoms improved post-surgery.”

“My mental state deteriorated post-election” strikes me as grammatical enough (it’s also true), but it doesn’t sound idiomatic to my ear: I’d probably say or write “My mental state deteriorated after the election” or “The patient’s symptoms improved after surgery.” However, in a document where brevity is desired and expected by the intended readers, the adverbial “post-election” or “post-surgery” might be fine.

So what do you think, both you generalists and especially you who work in the medical field? Is it OK or not OK or OK under certain conditions?

Two comments:

Linda Kerby: “I agree with your comments. If it is used as an adjectival phrase like ‘post-operative improvement was without incident’, then yes. But the other use is awkward. I do not see much use of that, thank goodness.”

Louise Harnby: “Great post (couldn’t resist it!). In fact, Oxford Dictionaries does support the use of post as a preposition, but you have to scroll waaaay down the page to the fourth definition! https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post#post_Preposition_800. They even give an example that includes ‘the’. I agree with your enquirer that this sounds a little sticky, so it may well depend on the context (I’m not a medical editor either) and readership, but there is dictionary support for the prepositional form!”