Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Type Crimes and Taxes

tax guideType crime is the term author Ellen Lupton uses in her book, Thinking With Type, to describe egregiously bad typography. That description came to mind as I perused the latest fluff mailer from our MP; the so-called “Tax Guide.” So-called because it isn’t a guide: it’s the usual, dreary Conservative whack-a-mole propaganda about how great they were when in power and how evil the Liberals are now.

In fact, if you want actual information, the publication has a final page where you have to send in to get it (or call the Canada Revenue Agency). And unless you’re an accountant, you’ll need more info because this “guide” is pretty vague at its best and has no specific information about filling in your tax form.

Dreary is right: in terms of design, layout and typography, it’s simply awful. I grade it somewhere between the abysmal colour advertising produced by the Town of Collingwood, and the even worse greyscale newsletter. It also has some grammatical errors that a real editor would have caught. *

And why is her information awkwardly centred at the bottom of the front page instead of flush right?

tax guide_03

Look at the sample above (pages 4-5). The first thing that strikes the reader is the vertical density of the type. The leading (the space between the lines) is far too tight, leading to a drabness of copy (in some paragraphs, descenders of one line touch the ascenders of the next!).

The thinness of the body typeface, too, adds to the overall greyness.

You should notice that the leading in the stacked headlines is inconsistent, too.  And why stacked? There’s plenty of room to spread them across the page. That stacking creates odd, disconnected white spaces that leave the reader’s eye bewildered where to go next. Across to the icons on the right? Down to the words below?

The vertical and horizontal lines around two sides of each section increase the sense of funereal confinement and make each section look like an obituary. And that little diamond on the left end of the horizontal fencing keeps drawing the eye to it.

The background attack-ad graphic at the upper right (“clawed-back for 2016”) impairs clarity and readability. If you look closely, you’ll see that the author used double spaces after end punctuation in sentences, not the proper single space. The paragraph indent is too narrow for the line length, too.

Clawed back doesn’t need a hyphen in either instance. But the benefits were not “clawed back” – they were reduced to former levels. The proper definition of a claw back is, “…money or benefits that are distributed and then taken back as a result of special circumstances.”

And don’t get me started on the run-on sentences, the bureaucratese language and the byzantine descriptions of how our tax system works replete in this work.

By the way, American travellers have an $800 duty-free exemption when returning, compared to Canada’s measly $200. Maybe it’s not something to crow so loudly about.

The headline font for sections appears to be Arial, the body Times New Roman (both over-used and boooooooring….) and the page heads are Agenda bold or perhaps Humanist 521. Why some words are in inverse type is beyond me, nor can I fathom the reason for the inappropriately wide space between some of the inverted words and the other words in the headline.

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The Secret to Good Writing

The urge to writeSpoiler alert: the secret to writing well is…. (insert drum roll)... writing. Writing a lot. Every day. Every possible minute you can spare. Writing and writing more and then writing even more. But doing so within a pre-specified limit. Oops…

Now we all know that, aside from some local bloggers and EB columnists, most of us get better the more we practice a thing. Writing – aside from the aforementioned inept exceptions – included.

It means not vegging in front of the TV all night, or trolling the Net for images of the Kardashian’s oversized ass, or scrolling through Facebook streams. It means writing. Sitting down and writing instead of doing a lot of less meaningful but pleasantly mind-numbing things.

That, in brief, is the message in a recent article in The Guardian. Author Oliver Burkeman distills this from his reading of How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency, an apparently highly over-priced book by Robert Boice (the reviewer didn’t check to see if Boice had re-packaged his book under a less-expensive format). As Burkeman puts it,

The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. Reading that, I nearly flung my £68 book across the room in impatience. But that wouldn’t surprise Boice. Because impatience, for him, is a huge part of why writing causes so much grief.

As the owner of a healthy library of books on writing and grammar, and as someone who writes every day, as if driven by compulsion, I can attest to his frustration. Far too many of these self-described experts blather on about what is basically a simple process, and make it both more complex and mystical than it really is: write, write some more, then write even more.

So far, Boice has that right. But he strays from the message.

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Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Me, Myself and I Redux

T-shirtAt Collingwood Council meetings, you will always hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.*

Argh! Where did these people go to school? Clearly our education system has failed us if people were raised to say that. And this is in the public record, too.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. It’s like saying “I seen…” and “yous.”

The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…”

So why the mistake we so frequently hear at the table – and in fact in many other councils across the province?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears are the cause, at least according to the grammar sites I read.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” or “I got me a pickup truck…”). But this is misplaced.

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean (or should say) “between you and me…”

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Me, Myself and I

T-shirtAt council meetings across the province, you will hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…” So why the mistake?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears, according to the grammar sites I read today.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” of “I got me a pickup truck…”).

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean “between you and me…”

“I” is the subjective pronoun, not the objective one. That’s “me.”

So what about myself? That’s called a reflexive pronoun and to be used properly, it needs a reference back to the speaker (reflect = reflexive) – i.e. a use of the subjective pronoun.

For example, when someone says “I made it myself”  they are being grammatically correct. “Myself” reflects back to the subject, “I.” When they say “It was made by myself” they are incorrect and should say “It was made by me.” Same with “Please contact me” – correct. “Please contact myself” – incorrect. Why? because in these two sentences, “myself” has nothing to reflect.

Reflexive pronouns are always the object of a sentence, never the subject. So “Bill and I played ukulele last night” is correct. “Bill and myself played ukulele…” isn’t because “myself” cannot act as a subject. Just like you would never say “Bill and me played ukulele…” or use the pronoun by itself: “Myself played the ukulele…”

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