« December 2013 | Home | February 2014 »

Issue for January 2014

On Hypercorrection

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:34 AM

Sometimes life teaches us hard grammatical lessons and we overcompensate.

By Meredith L. Dias

Editors care about syntax, spelling, and punctuation. We cringe when we see misplaced apostrophes and dangling participles because, for many of us, it is our job to eliminate them. But sometimes, in our quest for grammatical perfection, we hypercorrect and create a whole new set of problems.

What exactly is hypercorrection? According to Merriam-Webster, it is "of, relating to, or characterized by the production of a nonstandard linguistic form or construction on the basis of a false analogy." Simply put, we sometimes apply hard-and-fast grammatical rules in the wrong situations because we think they apply universally.

Hypercorrection manifests itself in a variety of ways, in both written and spoken English. Let's take a closer look at two of the most common examples.

Object Pronouns vs. Subject Pronouns

We all remember being lectured about "and me" versus "and I" in elementary school. When we we said, "Me and Jeremy went to the soccer game," our teachers sternly replied, "Jeremy and I went to the soccer game." As a result, many writers fell into a pattern of hypercorrection. Some interpreted this rule as meaning that "and me" is never grammatically correct. This mind set has bred generations of people who use subject pronouns when the syntax requires an object pronoun (e.g., "He wants to go to the party with Elizabeth and I" instead of "He wants to go to the party with Elizabeth and me").

The good news is that this type of hypercorrection is easy to reverse. In the example at the end of the previous paragraph, strike "Elizabeth and" from the sentence and read it aloud. One wouldn't say, "He wants to go to the party with I," so this should signal that "me" is the correct pronoun here.

Sentence-Ending Prepositions

Our grade-school grammar lessons strike again. Most of us learned never to end sentences with prepositions, and we've been finding awkward ways to avoid doing so ever since. When I think of this particular form of hypercorrection, I remember a line from a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live. In this particular sketch, Ben Affleck, impersonating then MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, offered up this impassioned syntactic gem: "It is the fear, sir, and the tyranny up with which we dare no longer put!"

In the quote above, we have a phrasal verb ("put up with") that gets utterly mangled when we try to apply the old preposition rule. The truth is, sometimes we can't avoid a preposition followed immediately by terminal punctuation. We should think twice before swiping our red pens at phrasal verbs better left intact at the end of a sentence. As evidenced by the Affleck line, we can do some serious damage to our syntax when we try to split up a linguistic set.

Prescriptive Grammar Gone Awry

For a lot of editors, prescriptive grammar is a way of life. We each adhere to a concrete set of guidelines adapted for our various publications, and when we inadvertently break the rules, we do so with the best of intentions. We hypercorrect because we care -- about crafting clean sentences, about upholding the tenets of good grammar in an increasingly apathetic world. The key to overcoming these grammatical tics is remembering that a rule that works in Scenario A may not necessarily apply in Scenario B.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and its sister newsletter, STRAT.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Finding Inspiration in Fiction

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:31 AM

When considering aim and form, don't ignore fiction.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Asked recently to give a presentation on writing that focused on animals and critters, I engaged in some scattered reading, this to come up with telling examples, so to prove the point that our task as writers (and editors) is to make any subject we deal with as interesting as possible.

To do our work effectively, we look for information/facts/details that might tempt the reader. We consider methods -- narration, description, exposition, argument -- that might work in our behalf. We search for methods, approaches, and perspectives that might provide the right packaging.

Because my audience was to consist mostly of journalists and publicists, I focused more heavily in my readings on nonfiction. But I didn't ignore fiction because, no matter what the aim or form, effective materials gathering is effective materials gathering, effective writing is effective writing, and use of imagination is a requirement for us all.

Graphic Writing, Close-in Details, Gripping Plot

One of the most engrossing pieces of late in Granta, the British literary journal, in an issue devoted to the subject of horror, was a work of fiction carried out in a nonfictional, matter-of-fact manner. Short story writer Rajesh Parameswaran asked us to meet The Infamous Bengal Ming, a tiger, as he tells what's been happening in his life. Here's a sample paragraph, and as you read it, consider not only the author's vivid imagination but his success at collecting facts about Bengal tigers to support his literary conceit:

"I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odours of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall, hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance, the monkeys and birds who had been up since pre-dawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo-caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable. I was in love."

Love will come to mean horror in this outrageous, cunningly crafted story. What I quoted was its second paragraph, but I must tell you that I was hooked from start to finish by graphic writing, close-in details, and a gripping plot. Here was an animal hard to ignore.

Make the Reader Want to Find Out More

Bernd Heinrich, writing of a "Wasp Odyssey" for Natural History, introduced a professor of entomology who, after setting up a trap for insects on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, discovered among her catch "a monstrous wasp -- monstrous compared with the tiny, delicate-green 'gold wasps' that are her specialty. It was two and three-quarters inches long, pitch black with black wings. It had sharp spikes on the underside of its abdomen, and a pair of scimitar-shaped jaws that were even larger that its front pair of legs. She had never seen anything like this and wondered how and why nature would design something so unlike all other wasps."

Sharply descriptive is Heinrich's depiction of the discovery. It made me want to find out more. That's our ever present goal: to make the reader want to find out more.

With 2013 being 17-year locust time for portions of our East Coast, nature writers devoted considerable attention to that invasion. Carl Zimmer of The New York Times wrote of "creatures with eyes the color of blood and bodies the color of coal ... crawling out of the earth ... emerging en masse, clambering into trees and singing a shivering chorus that can be heard for miles." They've spent 17 years "sucking fluid from tree roots. Now, at last, they are ready to produce the next generation. The adult males are snapping rigid plates on their abdomens to produce their courtship song. The females are clicking their wings to signal approval. They will mate and then die shortly afterward. Their time in the sun is short, but their 17-year life span makes them the longest-lived insects known."

Entomologist Craig Gibbs, in a contribution to the Op-Ed page of the Times, added facts such as these to capture the reader's attention: "Their buzzing can reach 90 decibels, equivalent to some power motors. They have been seen in clusters of up to 1.5 million per acre. As if from some horror movie, cicada nymphs have been described as 'boiling out of the ground.' Snow shovels are sometimes employed to clear them away. But there is no reason to fear these insects."

There's amazement in the learning. I cannot resist.

Approach and Substance Hard to Ignore

Karen Lange was on a mission in "Back to the Land," an article written for allanimals, a magazine published by The Humane Society. She sought to shock. Our desire for cheap food, Lange said, has resulted in market compliance. We get shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store, but for most of us with "no idea of their true cost."

That "cost": "Hens were jammed into small cages, chickens bred to quickly grow big breasts, their bones often unable to support the weight; sows imprisoned in spaces barely larger than their bodies; cattle crowded onto huge feedlots where they stood exposed to the cruelest weather. Farms transformed into CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). To keep animals alive and profitable in the midst of the crowding, stress, filth, and uncollected corpses, farmers cut off beaks and tails, and administered a never-ending regimen of anti-biotics."

Horror of a nonfictional kind. There may well be counter arguments, but Lange's compilation of chosen specifics made me cringe and wonder about personal changes in eating habits. Here was a story hard to take but hard to ignore. Approach and substance merged into a convincing sequence motivating me to react.

Cause and Effect Journey

The publication Outside was honored for an article by Ian Frazier titled "Terminal Ice," a cause and effect discussion about the growing impact of global warming. "We are melting," Frazier wrote, "like the Wicked Witch of the West. Soon there will be nothing left of us but our hat. From Chile to Alaska to Norway to Tibet, glaciers are going in reverse. Artifacts buried since the Stone Age emerge intact from the ice; in British Columbia, sheep hunters passing a glacier find protruding from it a prehistoric man, preserved even to his skin, his leather food-pouch, and his fur cloak. All across the north, permafrost stops being perma-.

"In the Antarctic," Frazier continued, "some penguin populations decline. In Hudson Bay, ice appears later in the year and leaves earlier, giving polar bears less time to go out on it and hunt seals, causing them to be 10 percent thinner than they were 20 years ago, causing them to get into more trouble in the Hudson Bay town of Churchill, where (as it happens) summers are now twice as long."

I was easily prompted to follow this cause and effect journey and to find out when, how far into the future, our successors on this troubled planet are likely to melt down to their hats. It may be a while, I discovered, but the direction is consistently being set, according to the solid flow of information packaged into Frazier's warning of "a warm apocalypse."

My hunt resulted in numerous other samples of compelling stories about elephants, apes, snakes, and dragonflies, but I've more than used my space. So, that's it for now, with perhaps more to come.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Assessing the readability of an Economist.com excerpt.

This month, our Fog Index sample comes from a January 25 article on Economist.com ("Spam in the Fridge: When the Internet of Things Misbehaves," from the print edition). Here's the excerpt:

"If you are in marketing, this is a great idea. Being able to browse the internet from your television, switch on your washing machine from the office or have your fridge e-mail you to say that you are running out of orange juice is a good way to sell more televisions, washing machines and fridges. If you are a computer-security researcher, though, it is a little worrying. For, as owners of desktop computers are all too aware, the internet is a two-way street. Once a device is online, people other than its owners may be able to connect to it and persuade it to do their bidding."

--Word count: 107 words
--Average sentence length: 21 words (10, 45, 12, 16, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (8/107 words)
--Fog Index: (21+7)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

This excerpt is in great shape. The average sentence length is low, and there are few longer words. Still, a few changes here and there might further improve the Fog score. Here's our slightly tweaked version (with series commas added for house style):

"If you are in marketing, this is a great idea. Want to sell more televisions, washing machines, and fridges? Tell people they can browse the internet from your television, switch on your washing machine from the office, or get an e-mail from your fridge saying that you are running out of orange juice. If you are a computer-security researcher, though, it is a little worrying. As desktop computer owners are all too aware, the internet is a two-way street. Once a device is online, people other than its owners may be able to connect to it and persuade it to do their bidding."

--Word count: 103 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (10, 9, 34, 12, 14, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/103 words)
--Fog Index: (17+8)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

With our changes, we were able to shave a point off the Fog Index. Note that the percentage of longer words went up a point because the total word count decreased. However, splitting up the longer second sentence cut four points from the average sentence length.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Digital Magazines in 2014

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 10:56 AM

In the news: As the digital hype dies down, magazines are taking a more careful approach with their digital editions.

Here at Editors Only and in our sister newsletter, STRAT, we've talked a lot about the hype surrounding digital magazine editions. Some editors mistakenly believe that going online is the antidote to all their circulation woes, but digital continues to be just one component of a magazine's overall success.

Magazines seem to be taking more measured digital approach as 2014 gets under way. "What many publishers are now telling me is that they see their new mobile and tablet editions as part of a series of products built around their existing brands," writes D.B. Hebbard of TalkingNewMedia.com. "Tablets, they say, will not replace print -- but neither will mobile or other digital products. As a result, they are seeing their magazine titles very much the way Apple sees the iPhone or iPad, as part of an ecosystem." Read his analysis of the current digital landscape here.

Also Notable

Planning a Digital Edition

If you're considering creating a digital edition of your print magazine, you have a few options. Would your content be better served in a replica edition or in a dedicated digital magazine with social media functionality? Roy Beagley of Foliomag.com asks other important questions: "Is it going to support the print product or branch out on its own? Is it going to replace the print product? Does the editorial department have the ability to be proactive in possibly producing 'personal' content? What information can you access on your subscribers to make their digital experience worthwhile?" Read his article here.

Revenue and Audience Growth in 2013

Magazine data and statistics for 2013 have begun to circulate, and the news is good for some publishers. Despite the challenges of print and digital publishing last year, some companies were able to post record-breaking numbers. Among those is Hearst, whose recent staff memo touts record profits and revenue. Atlantic Media saw significant increases in both readership and online traffic. Read more about these successes here.

Magazine Website Mistakes

What are the three worst things you can do with your magazine website? How can you avoid losing readers before they've even begun clicking on your content? Read Adam Grim's list here on NxtBookMedia.com.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

« December 2013 | Top | February 2014 »