A Small Difference

A Small Difference is a guest post on Todd Sullivan’s Samjoko Magazine website, about individual efforts to help others (March 26, 2022). It partly relates to writing and editing, where we may not know the results of our work, but we trust that our small efforts are worthwhile.

International English

My friend Dave Fessenden, who is also a writer and editor, asked what I meant by “international English” in my Career Editing interview with Todd Sullivan on his YouTube channel in the summer of 2021.

I didn’t remember saying it, and I didn’t know what I meant by it. So I watched the interview again. In it I discussed, among other things, editing the Nato Handbook for Pandemic and Mass-Casualty Planning and Response, a collection of writings by authors following a conference on the same subject. The authors came from various countries; all were fluent in English, but their writing still needed some editing. I told Todd Sullivan that I had put their writing into international English. By that, I meant eliminating or editing any usage peculiar to a country or region.

Here’s an example of regional usage I’ve seen when editing (though not in that Nato handbook): in central and western Pennsylvania, in eastern Ohio, and probably elsewhere, you hear people omit the words to be from clauses, as in “that needs edited.” I read that this usage was brought to the area by immigrants from Scotland. Changing it to “that needs to be edited” would make it clear to just about all English speakers, I think, but would not impair understanding by the people who drop to be.

Things that have different names in different countries might need parenthetical explanations (such as forms in British schools vs. grades [5th grade, for example] in American schools). In Britain, in the Philippines, reportedly in Philadelphia, and probably in other places, pavement means “sidewalk”; generally, in the United States, it means any kind of paved surface.

More difficult is recognizing differences in culture or thought as they are reflected in language. For example, in Europe and North America, World War II is considered to have begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but in Asia, it’s not necessarily thought of as a distinct, separate war: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and went to war with China in 1937, and the conflict didn’t end until Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

I’m sure there are far more international differences in English than I could spot, so the best I can hope for is to not assume that strange word usage or sentence construction by a foreign author is wrong; it might just be something regional.

If a foreign author writes something I think I understand, it’s a good idea to present my edited version, perhaps with an explanation, and ask whether it is correct.

Calling all cannibals!

I saw a billboard that said, “Eat Clean Bro.”

“That’s disgusting,” I thought. “I wouldn’t eat my brother even if they washed him.”

But then I looked at the “Eat Clean Bro” website and saw that they had turned bro into something fairly appetizing.

Actually, the company had made an elementary punctuation error and plastered it on a billboard, on a company website, on T-shirts, and goodness knows where else. In standard English, direct address (that is, speaking or writing to someone) is indicated by a comma setting off the name. “Eat your brother, Steve!” would be telling me to eat my brother. “Eat clean brother” is telling me to eat my brother if he’s clean. “Eat clean, bro” with a comma tells me, the bro, to eat clean.

In my book The Editor’s Companion I mentioned my favorite comma error, which was along the same lines: an ad in a church bulletin for a supper hosted by the youth group read, “Don’t cook Mom!” Of course not! Moms, like revenge, are best served cold. Actually, the intent of the ad was that people should attend the supper and that Mom should not cook that night. “Don’t cook, Mom!” would have communicated that.

The “Eat Clean” ad has a bonus punctuation error: thing’s with that apostrophe is either a contraction for thing is (as in “That thing’s wrong”) or a possessive, indicating something belonging to the thing (as in “That thing’s punctuation is messed up”). A simple plural, such as more than one thing, does not usually get an apostrophe in English. It should just be things.

Watch those commas and apostrophes, bro!

Sprawl machine

Real Quotations: A sprawl machine

A new quote on my website with a picture of the source:

“We have built a machine to create sprawl, and it is wickedly successful.”

Howard Mansfield
“Small Towns, Large Questions”
Yankee, March 1998, p. 41

As an editor, I have spent a lot of time trying to verify quotations. Sometimes the author provides a source, making my job easy. At the other extreme, an author may provide a dead hyperlink or nothing at all. There are numerous “quotations” websites, most of them unreliable: you can find five versions of the same alleged quotation and little to help you verify it. (An exception is Bartlett’s, an old, public-domain version of which is online at Library Spot.)

So I decided to start posting good quotations I find, but I don’t expect other editors to have total confidence in my transcribing ability, so with each quotation, I post a picture of the quotation itself and of the title page so that the primary source is there too.

More nutty news illustrations

Impossible voyage: the tanker was a ship. Maybe it couldn’t fit under that bridge.

A picture of Italy? Maybe those are the leaning towers of Petronas.

No, the Petronas Towers are in Melbourne, Australia—or someplace that starts with an M. Maybe Malaysia?

Bear attacks: Mr. hiker, could you pick that attacking animal out of a lineup?

UN appeals: Are these Gaza school buses that need to be repaired?

Come on, agency! These pets are waiting for an explanation!

An editor should check illustrations to make sure they match the content, but I don’t think an editor would have been needed to spot such gross mismatches, except maybe the Petronas Towers, which were famous as the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 (they are in Malaysia, not Italy or Australia).

Usefulness to others: a real quotation

A new quote on my website with a picture of the source:

“We should be useful to others over our whole lives.”

Everett Watts
Quoted in “The Two Congregations of St. George” by Richard Schultz
Yankee, June 1995

(As an editor, I have spent a lot of time trying to verify quotations. Sometimes the author provides a source, making my job easy. At the other extreme, an author may provide a dead hyperlink or nothing at all. There are numerous “quotations” websites, most of them unreliable: you can find five versions of the same alleged quotation and little to help you verify it. (An exception is Bartlett’s, an old, public-domain version of which is online at Library Spot.) So I post good quotations I find, but I don’t expect other editors to have total confidence in my transcribing ability, so with each quotation, I post a picture of the quotation itself and of the title page so that the primary source is there too.)

Legend doesn’t have it

This graph accompanying a news story on the website of WTOP radio, Washington, DC, lacks something: it has colored lines representing reported cases of Covid-19 in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, but it doesn’t say which colors are associated with the District of Columbia and the two states. The colored lines from top to bottom probably don’t match the list from left to right in the headline, because Washington has a much smaller population than either Maryland or Virginia. My guess is that the blue is Virginia, because it has a much bigger population than Maryland or Washington, that the orange is Maryland, and that the red is Washington. But don’t leave readers guessing. Editors need to check graphics to make sure that the graphics provide information clearly.

Pets and school buses illustrate news confusion

Why is that group of pets illustrating a headline about tortoise movers? And are they the officials who identified a cougar? Or is one of those cats a cougar? And are they accusing the former teacher? Or are the cats his former victims?

And nothing says college like a row of school buses.

WTOP is, as the name suggests, the top news radio station in Washington, DC. I’ve listened to it many times, and I check the news on the WTOP website just about every day. But the website has some odd choices for illustrating its news. Are these choices made by a human being or by a computer? If it’s a computer, computers still need supervision. That’s where an editor can help and ask the tough questions spelled out above.

Navigating alphabet soup

Navigating alphabet soup isn’t easy, says this item in the Virginia Railway Express Ride magazine. In the first two paragraphs, it hits the reader with 12 unexplained abbreviations, initials, and acronyms (acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced like a word, not by saying the letters, as the late William Safire, the “On Language” columnist of the New York Times, explained so well; FAMPO in this item is an acronym, pronounced as though it were a word; VRE is not: it’s pronounced by saying the letters V-R-E).

”Navigating alphabet soup” makes me picture someone floating on a cracker and paddling across the soup.

My good old Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual also refers to “alphabet soup”: “In general, avoid alphabet soup. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms which the reader would not quickly recognize.” In this Ride magazine item, readers would quickly recognize VRE: it’s the initials of the commuter rail service, Virginia Railway Express. Readers might assume that CEO means “chief executive officer,” but there was plenty of room to spell it out, and the fascinating website Acronym Finder offered 72 possible meanings, including “customer experience officer,” “corporate executive officer,” “chief ethics officer,” and “chairman and executive officer”—all plausible. Readers also would know CSX, the name of a railroad over which VRE trains operate. It was established in 1980 in a merger of two railroad systems, Chessie and Seaboard. “C can stand for Chessie, S for Seaboard, and X actually has no meaning,” according to a 2016 article by William C. Vantuono in Railway Age, so trying to spell out CSX would be pointless. RIDE, despite being presented in all capital letters, is not an acronym, as far as I know.

Although I’ve been a rail passenger advocate in Virginia for more than 20 years, I could not identify with certainty the exact names represented by all the other initials, only most of them.

If writers want to be understood, they need to match their vocabulary to their readers’ knowledge. Editors often are a bridge between writer and reader, and we editors need to be sure that readers aren’t left paddling on a cracker, trying to navigate the alphabet soup.