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Sexist Language? See Something, Say Something

Indiana Jones covered in cobwebs

Whoa, who left this blog here? *waves away cobwebs*

No one really cares why I haven’t been blogging (it’s because life), so let’s just skip straight to the reason for this resurrection: I’d like your help.

Rhiannon Root and I will be giving a presentation at this year’s ACES conference in Las Vegas about how to spot and fix sexist language when it’s a little more subtle than, say, Bill “There must be some downside to having a woman president” O’Reilly. What I’d like from you, my beloved, neglected readers, is real-life examples of sexist language. This can be something you encountered at work, if you’re an editor, or something you read, or a trend you’ve noticed that you think is troublesome. I’d like to limit this to examples from edited writing, or at least from professional writers, so something from a blog post at the Atlantic is great, but something your insensitive cousin said on Facebook is less helpful. If you did fix the problematic language, or if you have an idea for how to fix it, I’d love to hear that too! But don’t hesitate to submit even if you have no idea how to de-jerk-ify the writing—Rhiannon and I will puzzle it out.

Any length of submission is great. It can be a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a passage, a whole article, although maybe not an entire novel. It can be something that’s easy to pinpoint, like using “female” as a noun, or it can be something a little harder to explain, like the way an article is framed.

To submit, leave a comment (first-time commenters go to moderation, but I will release you!), email me at copycurmudgeon [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave your entry in the contact box below. In exchange for your submission, you’ll receive my undying gratitude and high five if we ever meet in person.


I am a Bostonian

I’ve lived in Boston full-time for about 8 years, and before that I was in the city every day for college, and before that I was coming here for field trips and family outings, because I’ve lived in Massachusetts all my life. I am a Bostonian.

When news of the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon broke yesterday, everyone in the city started reaching out to one another. We sent “I’m OK” messages to friends and family, we tried to check in with everyone we knew in the city, we offered strangers our cell phones, our coats, our food, our bathrooms, and our spare beds, couches, futons, and air mattresses.

And as Boston reached out to make millions of little connections within city limits, the rest of the country reached out to make a connection with Boston. They’ve been sending emergency-response crews, they’ve been giving blood, they’ve been posting public tributes, they’ve been holding moments of silence, they’ve been tallying our ranks on Twitter to make sure we’re all safe, they’ve been looking for the helpers, they’ve been offering us moments of peace in the chaos.

And I—we—are profoundly grateful for all of that. Some of the best human instincts have been on display for the past 24 hours—the urge to help, to comfort, to be human together. It is profound; it is generous; it is beautiful.

So I ask, in this outpouring of fellow-feeling and generosity, one small favor. Please do not say, “We are all Bostonians today.”

I understand and adore the sentiment behind it. The sentiment is, “We grieve with you. We stand with you. We care. We’re here.” The sentiment is kind and empathetic and appreciated.

But I am in the business of making sure that what people say really expresses what they mean. And saying “We are all Bostonians” doesn’t really mean, “We mourn with you.” It means, “Our grief is the same as yours. We, too, are at the center of this tragedy.” And that rankles.

Only Boston is Boston. Only London is London. Only Madrid is Madrid. Only New York is New York. We may sorrow for their losses, we may feel wounded when they are attacked, we may keep them constantly in our thoughts, but it’s different when it’s your city, your places, your people.

Of course it’s different. We all know it’s different, which is why I’m certain no one means to sound like they’re trying to co-opt our grief. So, please, say instead what you really mean. Say you love us. Say you weep with us. Say you’re rooting for us.

To all those who have reached out to help or to comfort or to sympathize, even if the words you used were imperfect: Thank you. In times like these, “Thank you” doesn’t seem like enough, but it’s all I have. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

Next year I’ll see you at the marathon.


My Copy Editor Confession

Embarrassed walrusOver at The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller has asked copy editors to share some of their embarrassing mistakes, which I think is a great idea. It’s good to remind non-editors that copy editors are both human and all too aware of our fallibility, and to reassure other copy editors that they’re not the only ones who goof.

I’m going to confine myself to one confession, but it’s a doozy:

I once sent a paper to press with dummy text in all the page-one teases.

(All the newspaper editors just inhaled sharply through their teeth.)

I was working at one of those outfits where copy editors do both layout and editing, and on this particular night, the front page and jump were ready well before everything else, so I laid them out and printed the draft of page one for proofreading. I left the teases blank—well, technically they said “Tease Goes Here XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX”—because I hadn’t laid out the rest of the paper, so I didn’t know what to tease yet.

The night wore on, and I put the rest of the paper together, editing and laying out a late story on a local government meeting about 20 minutes before deadline. I just… never went back to fill in the teases. I forgot. And I had no idea what I’d done until I came in the next day and saw the front page.

Everyone in newspapers has made at least one very visible, very embarrassing mistake, so my coworkers were surprisingly understanding. But I still cringe every time I think about it.

And this, kids, is why I am an obnoxiously persistent crusader for dummy text like “Hed goes here and here” or “Caption eawlfdjkfhbdsaklfdjkla” rather than joke or placeholder text. Dummy text is more likely to jump out at you when glancing over pages before sending them to press—although it’s clearly not an infallible system—and more importantly, dummy text doesn’t get you or your publication in trouble if it accidentally gets printed. What if I’d written something in those teaser boxes? Something like, “Another boring councilman meeting, page whatever,” or “Lady Minutemen is still the dumbest team name, page who cares”? Reader, I have dearly wanted to type things like that into spaces where real text should go to give the proofreader a laugh, but I even more dearly do not want to get fired. So I leave the dummy text and scribble jokey suggested headlines in the margins or call them out to the rest of the copy desk while feigning typing.

Learn from me, children. No jokes in live files.

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Freakin’ Awesome

Recently, on Twitter, a fellow tweeter (who shall remain unnamed) asked me to stop using awesome to mean, like, really cool. This person, like many others, is frustrated that the milder use common among Americans is weakening a once-powerful word. The first definition of awesome in most dictionaries is its more traditional meaning: inspiring great admiration or fear.

But even though this tweeter and their compatriots are not totally off base with this complaint, I didn’t stop to consider the request for a single second before rejecting it. And reader, I’m sticking by that decision.

You see, awesome may once have been reserved for seeing the face of god or describing the power of the atomic bomb, but we’ve been using it for much less mind-boggling situations for decades, at least in the states. The OED dates awesome meaning merely “remarkable” to at least 1961, and the “excellent or impressive” sense has been around in print since at least 1979.

After some rather laborious efforts with a calculator, I have determined that people have been using awesome the same way I use awesome since before I was born. Am I not allowed to use the language of my time, dear reader? Shall I describe that which I enjoy immensely as “keen,” “ace,” or “the cat’s pajamas”? Or is it just that I must always speak in a formal register, never slipping into even the most common colloquialisms, and denote my approval with “marvelous,” “splendid,” and “exemplary”? Shall I be forced to say, “This is the ne plus ultra of cat videos”?

Or if that’s not it, is it that I’m supposed to lament that language changes, that a word has gained another meaning, and that the new meaning might eventually eclipse its original sense? Well, I’d like to say that I’m fine with the process of language change, except “fine” originally meant “of superior quality,” only gaining the sense of “OK” in the early 1900s. Perhaps I should say that I’m cool with it? Oh, no, wait, I am actually a normal human temperature at the moment. Crap, what am I supposed to say? …Oh, uh, apparently “crap” used to mean “the husk of grain.” My bad, guys.

Well anyway, language change is completely normal, usually irreversible, and often necessary. Trying to stop it is like standing on the beach and yelling at the tide not to come in. Language doesn’t care whether everyone is OK with its changes, or even whether everyone adopts them. You can personally resist the newer meaning of “awesome” by refusing to use the word that way, as long as you don’t expect others to join you.

But hey, no hard feelings, peevers. I hope you have an awesome time at the beach.

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End of the Line

Today I’m wrapping up a two-and-a-half-day workweek, courtesy of Thanksgiving here in the states, and it has me thinking about one of the important tasks journalism copy editors do that doesn’t show up in our job descriptions: We make up time.

Everyone in media works under a deadline, obviously, but deadlines are set according to how much time it will take for that piece of writing to work its way through the entire pre-publication process. So let’s say, to make the math easy, that a newspaper story goes through three editors and each of them needs to work on the story for one hour. The reporter’s deadline will be set at least three hours before the paper goes to press. But what happens if the reporter blows their deadline? Nothing, really. The editors get the story later, and they’ll try to finish their work on that article more quickly, but if they can’t manage it, then the next editor in line gets the story a little late, too.

But what happens if a copy editor gets the story late? Unlike most everyone else who touches the story, copy editors have a hard deadline. They are usually the last person to see the paper before it goes to press, and their deadline is already set as late as possible. (This is doubly true at places where the copy desk also handles layout, an increasingly common money-saving practice.) If their work is late, the print schedule for the whole night will be thrown off, costing the company thousands in overtime for press workers and delivery-truck drivers. It could even cost the company revenue—many publications contract their presses out to print out-of-town papers or supermarket circulars. Some community newspapers go out by mail, and if you miss the mail trucks, well, everyone in town gets their paper late, which will certainly lead to a round of canceled subscriptions.

So copy editors have to finish their work in whatever time is left before deadline, no matter how short that time is. Which is why we all have our mental triage lists—because sometimes you just won’t get everything done, and you have to know what to do first.

I should add, though, that nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with has taken their deadlines very seriously and done their utmost to meet them. But sometimes technology fails, sources call with last-minute updates, or news breaks late—like that time a horse escaped its trailer on the highway immediately outside the newspaper offices just before deadline and spent half an hour running back and forth in traffic, scaring the bejeezus out of drivers. (Yes, that really happened.) And on those days, copy editors find a way to make up whatever time was lost earlier in the process.


Space Cadet

When I was learning to type, I was taught to use two spaces after end punctuation. Later on, I learned that using two spaces was really essential when typing on typewriters, but it’s no longer necessary when typing on a computer. Is it actually incorrect now to use two spaces, or should people just do whichever they’re more comfortable with?


This remains hotly debated in some circles, and I was going to say that seems a bit silly to me until I remembered how excited many editors get over the serial comma question, and then I decided to keep my mouth shut.

The story that everyone gets told at some point is that the double-spacing thing was created with the typewriter because typewriters use monospace fonts—that is, every character is allotted the same amount of space (a period takes up the same width as an M, for example). This led to a lot of white space on the page, as skinny characters were centered in a space as wide as thicker characters (and often given huge serifs to compensate). The theory was that by adding an extra space after end punctuation, it would more clearly delineate the end of a sentence.

Newspaper clip: 1807But it turns out that’s just not true. The short version is, typesetters had been putting large spaces after end punctuation for centuries. The long version is… well, just check out this exhaustive blog post by someone who’s done way more research on this topic than I mean to do. But if you don’t believe me, you can verify this yourself by poking around in the Library of Congress site or on Google image search. The photo at right shows a clip from a newspaper dated 1807, several decades before the typewriter become commercially available, and you can see that the font is proportional, but there’s still big ol’ spaces after the periods. (You can also see spaces on either side of the semicolon at the end of the third line, which is another thing typesetters used to do.)

So two or way-more-than-two spaces was the standard for hundreds of years, until the middle of the 1900s, when typists and style guides started moving toward the one-space standard. This is the same time that electric typewriters with proportional fonts became popular, so whether they directly caused the change or not, you can see how people would think that the death of the monotype font and the two-space standard were inextricably linked.

The blogger I linked above gives three theories for why people moved to the one-space standard, all of which sound plausible to me:

  1. It’s cheaper. Text takes up less space, saving paper and therefore money.
  2. It required less expertise for typesetters, who no longer had to find each punctuation mark and figure out if it was the end of a sentence or not.
  3. Increased automation meant that two spaces in a row could get split up over two lines, starting the second line with a blank space, which looks bad.

But regardless of the reason for the switch, nearly all typographers and style guides have agreed on one space for the past 50 years. It is fundamentally an arbitrary standard, but that doesn’t mean people should just use whatever they want. Fashion is fundamentally an arbitrary standard, but if you show up to work tomorrow in go-go boots or giant bell-bottoms, you’re going to seem pretty out of touch. Which is exactly how you seem if you use two spaces after a period.

If “times have changed” isn’t reason enough for you to go with one space, consider this: Many layout programs ignore multiple spaces and reduce them to one. HTML does the same. And if you’re writing for publication, the first thing your editor is going to do is search and replace any instances of two spaces with one. So you’re hitting the space bar hundreds of extra times for absolutely no reason. It’s just wasted effort.

If you grew up using two spaces and can’t seem to break the habit, you’re not hurting anything if you continue doing it. It’s not “wrong” any more than ’80s hair is “wrong,” it just looks pretty silly in 2012. But I do encourage you to drop the extra space if you can manage it. That look went out with the bullet bra.


In Defense of Ebooks

Benedict Cumberbatch eyerollE-reading isn’t reading,” Slate declared yesterday. Oh, well, thanks for the info, guys. Glad someone finally made a ruling on that.

As usual, the headline is hyperbolic linkbait and the article is somewhat more moderate, but it’s just another version of the same old paean to the feel of a book—the heft, the smell, the susurrus of turning pages. And as usual, I reply: Oh, puh-leeze.

I mean, I love those things too. Of course I do. Every reader does. I’ve spent many bright summer afternoons happily puttering around the twilight interior of a used-book shop, inhaling scents and caressing bindings. I’ve felt the satisfying weight of a novel promising many hours of good reading ahead, and tested the thin fan of pages under my right thumb to gauge how much longer I can remain engrossed in another world. I’ve gazed fondly on my books arrayed around me, gently unfolded the dog ears of a library book, taken delight in the marginalia of a previous owner, sheepishly wiped ink from my face after an impromptu nap, and pressed books still warm from my fevered reading into the hands of friends.

But I have also lugged dozens of boxes full of hundreds of books up countless stairs. I have bought a score of bookcases and gotten rid of other furniture to accommodate them. I’ve stacked books on every horizontal surface in my house. I’ve sat restlessly in waiting rooms, fingers drumming on the cover of a just-finished book. I’ve waited a year or more after publication to read a book I refuse to pay hardcover prices for. I’ve waited weeks for pre-ordered, back-ordered, special-ordered, wait-listed books to arrive in my local bookstore or library. I’ve been intrigued by books after skimming a few pages while standing by the shelves, only to realize after buying them that I hated them or, worse, already owned them. I’ve struggled to prop up heavy books while at the beach or in bed; I’ve been knocked on the bridge of the nose by books slipping from my grasp as I try to turn pages; I’ve cut short reading sessions because my thumbs gave out; I’ve been subjected to paper cuts and sneezing fits and muscle aches for my reading habit.

Books are wonderful and I adore them. But I’ve been on the e-reader bandwagon for 3 years now—first a Kindle, now a Nook—and I adore those too. They make books cheaper, more portable, easier to store. They make it easier to keep track of books people have recommended to me and to scoop up another the moment I finish the one before. They allow me to read in more places—lying supine in bed, as a straphanger on a crowded train, while waiting in line. E-readers aren’t perfect, of course: Their books are still difficult to lend, their battery life is not unlimited, and technically you don’t really own the books they contain, so the retailer or publisher can revoke your purchases without warning. And of course, although the books are often cheaper than their paper counterparts, the e-readers, even the basic ones, cost as much as 4 or 5 new hardcovers. For me, the problems of ebooks are outweighed by their benefits. I still do about half my reading on paper—because some of my to-be-read pile dates from several years ago and because I still can’t pass up a good used-book store or library sale—but I try to buy ebooks whenever possible.

I’m not bothered by people who don’t like ebooks, though. I’m not really trying to sell them on a new way of reading. I think, by now, most people understand the benefits of digital books. If those aren’t enough to tempt you over, well, so be it. But people who don’t like ebooks seem to be bothered by me. At parties, in newspapers, on blogs, paper-book advocates seem eager to explain why they love the book as physical artifact, as if the rest of us aren’t aware of or have forgotten these earthly pleasures. The Slate writer mentioned above talks about the book as the “foundation of Western humanistic learning for the [past] 1,500 years,” as if da Vinci could not have learned anatomy on an iPad, as if Galileo would not have had an easier time publishing his findings if he didn’t need a press, as if digital backups would not have preserved now-lost works when the Library of Alexandria burned. As if, indeed, the book itself has not changed radically in the past 1,500 years—abandoning hand copying for the printing press, abandoning vellum for paper, abandoning leather bindings for cardboard, abandoning individual illuminations for unadorned mass production, and overall becoming smaller, cheaper, lighter, more portable, and more accessible to the masses. Which, of course, are the very same benefits that ebooks offer.

The book did not spring from the hand of god in the form that was most common when you were a child; it has been evolving for centuries. Nor is the book disappearing—paper books still make up 85% of the market, despite a huge surge in the number of ebooks sold in the last few years. So the next time you’re considering boring an audience with a 3,000-word rhapsody to the sensation of an overladen bookstore bag bumping against your knee, please consider instead merely repeating “I hate change” for as long as it takes to fill up the space.

Especially if you’re running an all-digital publication. I mean, come on, Slate. Seriously?

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The Irrelephants of Style

Clearly fiction and poetry bring with them a different set of rules (i.e. basically none) to grammar and style, how does one deal with the challenges presented there? Is there any point at which an author’s decision to subvert grammatical norms goes beyond stylistic playing and becomes just plain aggravating?

First, I should explain for my readers who aren’t editors that when I talk about “style,” I’m talking about style guides. Almost any place that publishes text will use some kind of style guide, which serves two major purposes: 1. Tell editors what to do when there’s more than one correct option, like when they’re wondering whether to use the serial comma or which words to capitalize in a headline or chapter title. 2. Make sure multiple editors all do the same thing when they confront such arbitrary choices, so text is consistent throughout the publication. You don’t want headlines saying “Healthcare Advisor Caught in Email Scandal” on page 1 and “Health care adviser caught in e-mail scandal” on the jump page.

The other thing I should mention is that I don’t actually edit fiction. I’ve worked nearly exclusively in nonfiction, and mostly in journalism. There are a number of situations in which I will ignore the rules of style and sometimes even grammar: Journalists don’t try to force direct quotes to conform to written English standards or style guides, though we will choose the most readable and consistent-with-house-style options for spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. I will sometimes allow writers to use casual idioms and slang to add a little color, but only if it’s appropriate to the content (e.g. no jokey internet-speak in, say, a story about a company’s bankruptcy and layoffs). In headlines, the content is so strongly dictated by the space available that most rules go out the window, hence journalism’s development of “headlinese.” Feature stories, soft news stories, columns, and editorials, where the writer’s distinctive voice is part of the draw of the piece, are generally allowed more leeway with some of the least-essential rules, but you won’t find anything too out there. None of Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks, for example.

My rule is that for a writer to be allowed to flout the rules, the breach must add more than it detracts from the piece. Accuracy and clarity are always my first concerns, but consistency is worth something, too. Copy editors in journalism also strive to maintain the tone of their publication throughout, to provide a unified feel to dozens of stories written and edited by a diverse staff. In essence, the publication has its own voice, which takes precedence over the voice of an individual writer. So if a turn of phrase is clever or well constructed, but it invites an inaccurate reading, or it’s impossible to reconcile smoothly with the rest of the sentence, or it’s harshly discordant with the rest of the publication, out it goes. But if it’s euphonious and expressive, if it will draw the reader in without confusing them, if it’s appropriate to the story and the publication, but it violates the style guide? Well, that I will leave in.

But people who copy edit fiction are usually working alone on a discrete project, so they don’t have to be so concerned about a unifying tone, and they’re editing for an audience that sees the writer’s voice as part of the draw of a story, rather than one that expects the writer to fade into the background, maintaining the just-the-facts style we expect from news writing.

So since fiction editors clearly have room to ignore the rules, I asked a few of them to weigh in. But as it turns out, they follow most of the same rules I do.

They all value clarity:

My guideline for fiction is whether I think a reader will stumble over it. Sometimes… I crowdsource it to see what others, both editors and noneditors, think. If it seems awkward, then I change/”normalize” it. If not, then I leave it.

–Katie Freeman

If the writer’s intent is clear, I will let grammatical issues slide somewhat. … That having been said, abusing grammar for the sake of “artistry” is an interesting concept few since the times of Joyce and e.e. cummings have done effectively. Be careful. Very careful.

Daniel Callahan

They all value consistency:

Stylistic creativity becomes annoying when it’s careless or inconsistent. Preserving the authorial voice is clearly paramount, and is part of the relationship of creative trust between an author and their editor, but there’s a clear qualitative difference between a writer at the top of their game playing with the form and function of language and someone who can’t quite keep up with the narrative style they’ve adopted. This is when it’s aggravating—when it’s not clear whether inconsistencies or oddities in form or usage are intentional, resulting in pages and pages of queries.

Louise Maskill

In [Tom Wolfe’s latest novel] Back to Blood, whenever a character was thinking, instead of just using italics as we usually see in novels, Wolfe had a block of six colons before and after the sentence, like this: ::::::I don’t believe this!:::::: He uses ellipses and em dashes in unusual ways, too. There were also deliberate misspellings in dialog sections where Wolfe was trying to mimic English spoken with a Russian accent (e.g., “I vill zee to eet” for “I will see to it”). And Wolfe has always been known for making up words entirely, like “luxodontic” to describe a woman’s dazzling smile. So your average dictionary or style manual isn’t going to help you there. You have to work with a comprehensive style sheet to ensure consistency.

Karen Wise

And they all think that nonstandard usages should serve the story:

I have worked on a manuscript that was staggeringly beautiful, mind-numbingly disturbing, and grammatically incorrect in many places. … In that instance, the unique feel set by the writer’s voice was, I think, integral to the story itself. The story could have been told in a much colder, much more remote and distanced voice that matched the publisher’s style guide, but the story itself would have lost some of its immediacy and some of its power.

Jillian Bell

In a first-person narrative, in particular, quirky grammar or vocabulary helps to convey the narrator’s personality. I recently edited a novella written in the first person where the author (narrator) had made up some words and footnoted them with explanations—quite an unusual thing to do in fiction, but it worked because it suited the narrative voice.

Averill Buchanan

The biggest difference between me and fiction editors had more to do with the way the publication process works. For those not in the publishing industry, when an editor queries something in a manuscript, they’re asking the author a question about something they were confused by. Journalism copy editors do ask writers to clarify points when needed, but the writers don’t usually see what edits we made before their piece goes to press. In fiction, authors review and approve or reject all copy editing changes before the book is published. One editor writes that the key to figuring what’s a mistake and what’s an intentional subversion is to query, query, query.

I recently queried an author about the term “ferment a revolution” in dialogue. I pointed out that the correct term would be “foment a revolution” but said I thought he might be intentionally using “ferment” because it seemed like something the character would say. I then asked if he wanted me to correct it. He did not, and I know he appreciated me asking rather than just changing the term.

Tammy Ditmore

The reason we’re all so much in agreement, letter writer, is that one of the jobs a copy editor does is serve as the first reader of a (nearly) finished work. Content and development editors have seen an article or manuscript go through too many revisions to have a clear-eyed view of it anymore. Copy editors come in fresh, the way the audience will, and try to look at the writing through a reader’s eyes. We find what confuses us, what annoys us, what we think is more flourish than function, and we smooth these things out so the next reader, the one who’s paid to read this, gets clean, clear copy. What bothers the reader bothers us; we look out for readers because we are readers.


More Grammatical Than Thou

Gabe Doyle, the linguist behind the Motivated Grammar blog, put up a good post a couple weeks ago about the fine-for-me-but-not-for-thee attitude among some grammar peevers.

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully*, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey… When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

I, too, have been frustrated beyond words with this phenomenon, which I think might be related to the correspondence bias—when someone else messes up, you tend to think of it as a sign of their fundamental character, but when you mess up, you tend to think the causes are all circumstantial. So that guy made a typo because he’s an ignoramus of the highest order, but you made a typo because you were working fast to meet a deadline, because the cat jumped on your head at 5 a.m. and you’re exhausted, and because that stupid keyboard is set up weird. And maybe all those things are true! But they could be just as true for that other guy, yet people often don’t see it that way.

I’ve also noticed that the people most eager to issue a grammatical smackdown are often peddling some of the worst grammatical advice. “Never split an infinitive, you nincompoop,” they may sniff. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, you ninny,” they might huff. “Really? Ending a sentence with a preposition? I thought you were smarter than that,” they may sneer. And all too often, they look to me for support, thinking that copy editors must be the grammar judge and jury to their volunteer police force. But I take a much more moderate path, as do most copy editors I know. Really, most of us are quite sympathetic to writers and their errors. I mean, we spend 40 hours a week for years mastering all these rules, refining our ear for language, and weighing the irreconcilable edicts of multiple grammar authorities. It’s complicated! No one can know it all. But it’s our job to know as much as possible so that writers can concentrate on writing. It’s OK for writers to slip up sometimes. That’s why we’re here.

I did that on porpoiseSo for whenever you need a response to these peevers and moaners, I’ve created this all-porpoise graphic. When they snottily point out an error you made? When they get holier-than-thou about a mistake that’s not a mistake? When they try to claim their errors are not really errors? “I did that on porpoise,” you reply. It’s useless to argue with someone who just wants to feel superior—even if you win the argument, you lose at life. Instead, just tweak them a little. You’ll feel better.

*The phrase “sentential hopefully” refers to when you use hopefully to modify a sentence, so that in context hopefully is understood to mean “it is to be hoped,” rather than “in a hopeful manner,” which some people claim is the only correct definition. Compare:

  • Sentential hopefully: Hopefully, it won’t rain today; I forgot my umbrella.
  • Regular-adverb hopefully: “Can we go for ice cream after?” she asked, hopefully.

Even the AP Stylebook, which is usually pretty stodgy, has decided this is acceptable now, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.


The Lost Because

I have a proofreader who corrects every “because of” to “as a result of,” and I’d like to know if she just hates “because of” or if there is a some rule I’m unaware of.

For example, “Overall, oil services’ operating margins will likely contract as a result of reduction in available rigs.”

Would “because of” work just fine here?


My first reaction when I saw your question was that your proofreader had fallen for some grammatical hokum somewhere along the line. But hey, I’ve been mistaken before, and it worried me that I couldn’t think of what fake rule your proofreader might be trying to follow. So before I pronounced on anything, I consulted some reference books.

None of the books I checked mentioned “as a result of” at all, which already bodes poorly for your proofreader, and the usage section of the Chicago Manual of Style 15th doesn’t mention because or because of either, which suggests there’s no complex secret rule that you and I are ignorant of.

And the books that did offer some explanation don’t really seem to help your proofreader’s case either.

  • AP Stylebook (2012): “Use because to denote a specific cause-effect relationship. ‘He went because he was told.'”
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition): “The conjunction because ordinarily begins a dependent clause that expresses reason, cause, or motive for whatever appears in the main clause.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition of “because of”: “by reason of; on account of”

So far, so good for you. You’re describing a cause-and-effect relationship, which all three sources say is the proper use. But it wasn’t until I went to the last book on my frequently-referenced list that I found something really interesting:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Someone—we do not know precisely who—decided that because could only be used to introduce an adverbial clause; it could not introduce a noun clause. The rule was devised, presumably, for the purpose of denouncing the phrase the reason is because. However, because had all along been used to introduce noun clauses, even in sentences where the word reason did not occur.

Aha! I think this is exactly the bit of hokum to which your proofreader fell prey. I bet they’re changing your because of when it shows up in front of nouns because of this half-remembered fake rule from freshman comp.

At least, I hope that’s the case, because the only other reasons I can think of are even sillier. Do they think because is too casual? That’s bogus; because is used in all registers of writing. Do they think you can’t use because with of? That construction is so common it has its own Merriam-Webster’s entry, as we saw above.

So my advice is to ask your proofreader why they keep changing this construction. Maybe they’ll tell you something interesting, but more likely they’ll tell you something that’s obviously nonsense. In that case, you can refer them to an authority that explains their error and ask them to have a lighter touch on because of in the future.

Bonus advice: It’s totally fine to start a sentence with because, so long as you make sure it’s not a sentence fragment.

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