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By Michelle Waitzman
Most people take dictionaries for granted. They are available to us, at home or at school, from the time we first learn to read. Those of us who work with words rely on them regularly. But few of us spend much time thinking about how a dictionary is put together and kept up to date. It’s almost as though we expect them to spring into existence, fully formed. The truth is much more complicated—and fascinating.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer,* and her book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s best-known dictionary publishers: Merriam-Webster. Sound boring? It’s not! Stamper takes us on a memorable journey through the ways in which the English language has evolved (and continues to evolve), the lengths that lexicographers go to in order to describe current usage, and the backlash that can result from a seemingly innocuous definition.
Each of the book’s chapters is named for a word chosen to illustrate the topic of that chapter. For example, the “Irregardless” chapter is about words that many people argue are not “real” words at all; the “Take” chapter discusses the challenges of defining small words that are used in a multitude of ways; and the “Nuclear” chapter is about differences in pronunciation.
By Michelle Waitzman
Can you tell whether a book was written by a man or a woman, based only on the words the author used? Is the road to hell (or at least to bad writing) paved with adverbs, as Stephen King once claimed? Do American authors write “louder” than British authors? If you’re intrigued by these questions, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve will satisfy your curiosity.
Author Ben Blatt uses data journalism to apply statistical analysis to a wide variety of topics. In this book, literary works and bestselling fiction are subjected to his big-data approach, often with surprising results. While this isn’t meant to be an instructional book by any stretch of the imagination, writers and editors might find some of the takeaways applicable to their own work. His statistics on sentence length, repetition, gender balance, and other topics may give readers some additional things to think about when they write or evaluate a novel. But generally, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is simply an interesting and unusual way to look at writing.
By Summer Cowley
As classes in universities and colleges move forward, we ought to consider the process of editing the writing of post-secondary students. For me, this has largely meant checking the work of English language learners (ELLs). In my work as a writing centre tutor and as an English as a second language (ESL) instructor at four higher education institutions in Canada, I have noted two common pieces of advice given by instructors to ESL students and three higher-level concerns that editors might consider. ELLs are generally advised to use spelling and grammar software and to have their written work proofread by native English (L1) speakers/writers. For editors, a few higher-level questions may arise concerning the development of a writer’s voice, the question of how much editing is too much, and how editing for ELLs requires an approach different from editing for other groups. Below, I discuss how we might approach these issues when working with ELLs at post-secondary institutions.
Indigenous editing principles, featuring Gregory Younging and his new style guide, Elements of Indigenous Style
When: NEW TIME: Tuesday, October 23, 2018, 6:30–8 PM
Where: NEW LOCATION: Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) Spadina, 192 Spadina Ave., Third Floor, Room F
(CSI Spadina moved across the street, to 192 Spadina Ave., as of late September.)
For the second program meeting of 2018–19, we are excited to feature Dr. Gregory Younging, author of the new and indispensable style guide, Elements of Indigenous Style (Brush Education, 2018).
Gregory’s exciting study—move over Strunk and White—is the first comprehensive style guide on Indigenous writing. It comprises 22 editorial principles or guidelines and explains why each one is needed. The first principle stresses, in part, that Indigenous Peoples must prioritize their self-perceptions and epistemologies. And the last, on the seemingly straightforward matter of verb tense, probes the nuts and bolts of how to write responsibly about Indigenous Peoples past and present. The other 20 supply much needed advice on ensuring appropriate and respectful interaction with Indigenous cultural materials and their custodians.
In introducing his new book, Gregory has recently delivered talks and conducted workshops across Canada. Now, happily, it’s Toronto’s turn! Please join us for what will surely be an enlightening discussion of Indigenous style—a subject of vital relevance for writers, editors, and publishers today.
Crystal against crystallization
by James Harbeck
(Oxford University Press, 2017)
How can we have crystal-clear language spoken by people with a crystal-clear understanding of how it works? For one thing, don’t try to crystallize it—just Crystal-ize. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, by David Crystal, is for anyone who wants to get Crystal clarity on the function and uses of English. Crystal is a world-renowned British linguist, academic, and author. He is one of the leading lights of popularizing linguistic understanding; he has written, co-written, or edited more than 120 books, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, The Stories of English, Language and the Internet, and, most recently, a series of books beginning with Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, continuing with Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, and now adding Making Sense, which gives us what is effectively an introductory course in English linguistics—syntax, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, and history—written for people who want something readable and usable. And he adds some extra details that you’re more likely to get in a course in effective writing.
It can be difficult to review a book that has nothing wrong with it. Honestly, in real life I would normally just say, “If you’re interested in grammar, read this book; if your work in any way involves grammar—and of course it does—read this book; even if you know a lot about grammar already, it will still be worth your time.” But let me give you some more details so you know why I’m recommending it. (more…)
(Oxford University Press, 2017)
By Christine Albert
Some words are so familiar that it feels as though we instinctively know what they mean. And when we don’t, we use a dictionary to read its definition and determine how it can be placed alongside other words to form cohesive narratives. But how often do we think about the history behind the word itself, the changes it’s gone through and the nuances it provides the English language and the topics being discussed?
In The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language, David Crystal examines the verb to be, highlighting the meanings created and used throughout its long history. A linguist, editor, and prolific writer, Crystal is well-known for his research in English language and has published over 100 books and almost 500 articles on topics such as religious language, Internet language, and clinical linguistics. Each chapter of The Story of Be is dedicated to a specific function of the verb, ranging from the more philosophical (“existential be”) to the scatological (“lavatorial be”). In the latter chapter, for instance, Crystal muses on the origins of the saying “Have you been?” to denote using the washroom, delving into past literature to see when this phrasing began. Alongside these explanations are numerous examples from a variety of sources, including literary, pop culture, religious, and technological. And sprinkled throughout the book are text boxes that focus on the history of the word’s various tenses, showing their development from Old English to modern times and their regional uses. (more…)
The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, blog posts, and podcasts. If you read or hear something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].
By Carol Harrison
Need a five-minute break from hacking and chopping and cursing the English language? Open Culture features a short lesson by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowern on the roots of English. A sweet, simple, and smart TED Talk, cheekily animated by Patrick Smith.
Speaking of roots, The Independent’s Natasha Salmon reports on how the French language is facing a backlash on gender-neutral words.
I’m a big fan of Words to that Effect, “a literary podcast of the intriguing, the curious, and the unexplored” hosted by Conor Reid from Dublin, Ireland. In episode 9, “Imaginary Countries and the Ruritanian Romance,” Conor talks about making up place names. Lovely stuff!
And for those days when you’ve run so low on dilithium crystals that your flux capacitor just goes kablooey, consider listening to “Technobabble” on Imaginary Words. In this episode, scientists and screenwriters team up to get the words right. It’s the droid you’re looking for.
Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at CPA Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.
This article was copy edited by Afara Kimkeran.
The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].
By Carol Harrison
Blimey! The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi reports that data shows the Americanization of English is rising.
“Friends with benefits” and other idioms that may not translate: or that time The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi made her mom guess the meanings of English expressions.
Because, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that idioms can be annoying: So say The Globe and Mail readers.
On people, language, and respect: Alex Kapitan writes about person-centred language in the blog The Radical Copyeditor.
It is my great honour to introduce a new honorific: Merriam-Webster on Mx.
So, does this mean my computer will swear back? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance writes about how AI has created its own language.
Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at FRAS Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.
This article was copy edited by Ellen Fleischer.