Connections: Language Creep

Connections: Language Creep

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 22:21

In this digital age in which even someone like me, who thinks of herself as a stickler for grammar and punctuation and has made the English language her lifetime work, uses linguistic shortcuts — IMHO, for example — it seems pretty antiquated to complain about other writers’ prose stylings.

I never claimed excellence in grammar, but there was a time when I boasted of a proclivity for spelling. (I used to tell colleagues I could remember and spell the most complicated last names of people I’d never met.) Nevertheless, I inevitably feel the left side of my brain, which an encyclopedia tells me controls language, click into critical high gear when I notice something in print that is wrong or just doesn’t make sense. 

Like many editors, I think about words all the time and cannot help automatically copy-editing whatever text is in front of me — sometimes opening just inside my head and sometimes out loud, to the consternation of whoever might be peaceably sitting nearby minding their own business and eating toast. “Dangling modifier!” I will exclaim.

Aiming for the exalted status of grammatically correct isn’t easy. It is obvious that the reading public is the victim of what I shall call “grammar creep”: Online editions of even the most prestigious newspapers and magazines clearly do not undergo the many levels of editing and proofreading that we we once considered a universal must for good journalism. Here at The Star, a number of staffers — editors, and a couple of proofreaders, including the stalwart Isabel Carmichael — strive toward grammatic perfection. 

The more eagle eyes around a place like this the better. Inevitably something creeps in that shouldn’t have. I remember the time decades ago when we had the word “epitaph” instead of “epithet” in a headline. 

I patted myself on the back as we prepared this weekend’s edition because I noticed the name of a tree spelled two different ways in the same article, and I had never heard of the species. It turns out that a “katsura” tree was correct; “katsera” wasn’t. (Take that, rookie reporters!) Not too many pats were called for, truthfully, because it is so easy these days to grab a computer or iPhone and check whatever you want, should you feel the need to bother.

Don’t get me started on hyphens and commas. For the most part, we follow New York Times style and use hyphens for compound adjectives. (Google it, friend.) We also use the hotly debated Oxford comma. We spend a lot of time talking about commas around here. 

That commas are tricky is given chapter and verse in “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” a book by Mary Norris. I recommend it to you. Ms. Norris was a copy-editor at The New Yorker for more than three decades. Even those of you who care about good English and who read The New Yorker regularly may find its copy-editing style a bit weird. Somewhere along the line, for example, The New Yorker settled on some arcane spellings, such as “focussed,” and is not inclined to budge. 

  We do have many similarly arcane and persnickety rules at The Star, including an insistence on Ditch Plain instead of Ditch Plains, inserting a hyphen into “fund-raiser,” and using a comma instead of a semicolon in the last of a series of semicoloned clauses. The words “false title” can set off soliloquies. (Another Googling opportunity.)

The aforementioned Ms. Carmichael once told me of a long-ago teacher, who instructed students to use punctuation only if it was necessary to clarify a sentence. Good idea.

By the way, in case you are of a generation like mine that doesn’t use alphabet soup like IMHO, as seen in the first sentence above, it stands for “in my humble opinion.” I like that innovation. LOL.

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