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Issue for August 2015

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:45 PM

Go by the rules or go with the flow?

By William Dunkerley

If you compare content from your latest issue to a text from Shakespearean times, you'll see proof that word usage and grammar have evolved.

As a reminder that this process continues, Oxford's online dictionary has just added a number of new words such as:

--Butt dial, v: calling someone accidentally with your mobile phone in a rear pocket, and

--Beer o'clock, n: the appropriate time of day to start drinking beer.

(Are you ready to accept these and other new words in your publication?)

Last year the venerable dictionary also added new words that include:

--Cotch: spending time relaxing,

--Doncha: don't you, and

--Listicle: an article on the Internet presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list.

In a September 1989 Editors Only article, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current when the dictionary is published."

We wondered whether editors are taking a similar stance when it comes to the evolution of grammar.

There are two schools of thought on what constitutes appropriate grammar. "Descriptive grammar" is an approach similar to the principle enunciated by Mish. It suggests that editors should mirror the established grammatical practices of their readers. "Prescriptive grammar" is the other variant. It means following the rules right out of the grammar book.

So we asked readers whether they practice prescriptive grammar or descriptive grammar, or perhaps employ a hybrid approach. We also asked how they handle "social mediaisms." (That's a new term we coined to mean the language practices peculiar to social media communication.)

Joanne Erickson, editor of Provider, responded that it's "definitely prescriptive grammar in our magazine."

Barb Rybicki, contributing writer and editor at Art Culinaire, shares that prescriptive perspective: "AC's approach is prescriptive grammar rather than descriptive, as you define them -- in that we adhere to and appreciate standard grammar rules. While we don't dogmatically impose AP style or Strunk & White, for instance, we mostly do adhere to conventional guidelines for the English language. Some grammar rules represent AC's preferences, and we try to apply them consistently (e.g., serial commas). Occasionally, we intentionally violate rules for style or effect. That might include mimicking social media–type styles and other colloquial influences. Direct quotations are another exception."

Other editors find themselves in somewhat of a middle ground:

"I'd say we're a hybrid leaning toward prescriptive still. We're likely to let social mediaisms stand as long as they are popular enough to make sense to most people." --Dave Zoia, editorial director, WardsAuto

"We go with more of a hybrid, with a bias toward prescriptive. If someone is rather 'causal' with the use of, say, punctuation, then that gets corrected in the editing process." --Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief, Automotive Design and Production

"We use a hybrid model, with a framework based on Canadian Press style and the Oxford Canadian dictionary (for spelling) and then modified and adjusted here and there to reflect uses among readers and changes in use that aren't reflected in the CP and OCD. Generally speaking, we don't incorporate any social media abbreviations or coinages into our print articles." --Andrew Loewen, editor, Briarpatch

Dave Seyler, editor-in-chief at RBR-TVBR favors an adaptive approach:

"I'm a hybrid, fly by the seat of my pants type. Worked with a guy who used AP, so without knowing specifically what that even means, I'm sure some AP style has seeped in. I use all the words I know, and the technical jargon I need, and the industry slang that's applicable and try to put it out in a more or less conversational style.

"So I don't try to talk down to my audience, and I do try to talk like them to an extent."

Donald Tepper, editor, PT in Motion, offers good insights into his magazine's grammatical approach:

"We practice prescriptive grammar. In fact, every publication I've worked for (for 41 years) has practiced prescriptive grammar -- and that includes publications intended for truck fleet managers and owners of janitorial services. In other words, prescriptive grammar is appropriate for all educational and socioeconomic levels.

"I tend to be somewhat more flexible with direct quotes. Even there, the publications I've worked for have had the policy of cleaning up quotes and correcting grammar. We recognize that spoken English differs from written English, so what may be understandable or considered acceptable when spoken may be neither when appearing in print.

"I did have a disagreement with my boss at a previous job. That one involved a magazine for building service contractors -- typically owners or managers of office cleaning companies. Some readers had college degrees (even MBAs), but many only had high school diplomas. I would clean up quotes to eliminate any obvious grammatical errors, but I still tried to allow the speaker's 'voice' to come through. My boss wanted the quotes completely sanitized and edited to sound as if they had been spoken by PhDs. So I'm somewhat flexible on direct quotes, but not on other matters. Also, I recognize that even prescriptive grammar evolves to reflect current language and customs. If it didn't, we'd still be writing as if it were the 16th century.

"One final observation: While we practice prescriptive grammar in our articles, we show a lot more flexibility with article titles and headlines. For example, an upcoming cover story looks at the usage and benefits/drawbacks of health care rating websites. We may be using the line on the cover 'Raters Gotta Rate.' We'll see how that one goes over!"

Thanks to the editors who responded to our questions. There may be no absolute answer to the prescriptive vs. descriptive dilemma. But most editors clearly favor sticking close to what the grammar books say.

I have a feeling it may be some time before we read in a mainstream publication something like: "Doncha know when you're just cotching at beer o'clock you might be more prone to butt dialing?"

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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Let's Make Music, Part II

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:39 PM

Four more musical concepts to make copy sing on paper.

Peter P. Jacobi

Last month, I promised installment two of "Let's Make Music," this year's version of my annual summer lecture given to a body of writers at a weeklong conference. It follows in condensed form. Remember that I left you after covering six of ten words with musical connections I deem important for writers, words I think you, as editor, should look for in copy handed to you for publication.

Remember that I discussed six words: MELODY, TONE, RHYTHM, ORCHESTRATION, PASSION, and IMAGINATION. To them, I said, I would add four more: VOICE, SUBSTANCE, SURPRISE, and HONESTY.


As for "VOICE," I said it "means that the work of art has a distinct personality, a singularity; that it is given birth by an artistic presence, by a composer or writer with an assured creative manner, an artistic signature recognizable enough and interesting enough to attract a public.... Voice is an essence that separates one artist from another." The great composers had and have voice in abundance, I said, and so do great writers.


"SURPRISE" was my next word. I put my explanation this way: "A symphony works because it contains different themes and different developments of those themes. The composer carefully tosses in changes of pace, of mood, of instruments being used, of volume, of intensity. An opera works because the music is ever changing as the plot unfolds. Change brings surprise, a welcome aspect of a successful piece of music.'

Philosopher John Dewey once declared that "music gives us the very essence of the dropping down and the exalted rising, the surging and retracting, the acceleration and retardation, the tightening and loosening, the sudden thrust and the gradual insinuation of things." Changes, Dewey was talking about. Surprises, Dewey was talking about.

So, what about writers? Novelist Anne Bernays preaches the point: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently. You can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal."


Add "SUBSTANCE" to the list. That means adequate content, material, subject matter. Even when composers wrote what we call "abstract" music, music without a topic or program, they offered and still offer substance. Lasting music has something to tell us by speaking to the emotion, to our senses, to out taste. In writing, we have to be writing about something, and we have to have the information, the details that fascinate, that tickle a reader's brain, that attract and cause the reader to pay attention, that teach or entertain or inspire."


The final word I chose was "HONESTY." To me, that means "being true to one's artistic self for -- like all of us -- the artist has but one 'you,' and it is the one 'you' that can add something different, something unique, something personally experienced, something personally thought, something personally felt.

"The composers who amount to anything across the ages," I argued, "were and are artists of honesty, of integrity. I'm not talking here about lives lived with integrity. Among them, there were and are flawed beings like the rest of us. But as artists, if we indeed do remember them or pay them attention, you'll find that they were or are true to their work, their talent, their output, their chosen art form, and their audience.

"Musicians to their audience. Well, are we, as writers, any different? I say no, absolutely not."

The ABCDEFGs of Good Writing

Put those ten words together, I urged. "Practice them, use them, and they can result in something wonderful, something magical, be it in musical or literary form."

I began my conclusion to the talk by singing the first line of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," then singing -- to the same tune -- "A-B-C-D-E-F-G." To each of those letters, I then added a word:

A -- Be ACCURATE. Don't pass the wrong along.

B -- Be BRIEF. Don't waste space or words.

C -- Be CLEAR and COMPLETE. These are absolute essentials. Without them, you do nothing but confuse your reader.

D -- Be DARING. Use the spirit of adventure and experiment that is within you.

E -- Be ENTHUSIASTIC. Write with urgency, as if you truly care.

F -- FINE TUNE. Edit the best you can and then edit again.


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.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:37 PM

Assessing the readability of a NewYorker.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from an August 25 NewYorker.com piece ("Inside the Fight Over Bitcoin's Future" by Maria Bustillos). Please note that we have italicized the words with 3+ syllables, per Fog-Gunning criteria, that we've included in our calculations. We will do this in future issues as well.

Here's the sample text:

"Prior to the release, a block-size debate had been blazing for months on Bitcoin forums. Opponents of an increase argued, for instance, that mining larger blocks would require more computing power, thereby discouraging small operators in favor of the massive mining farms that have gradually concentrated the network into fewer and fewer hands. It was widely feared, as well, that a serious disagreement among the core developers might further destabilize public faith in Bitcoin. Those in favor of an increase contended that "forking" -- creating a competing version of a program in response to diverging aims -- is the very essence of open-source software development."

--Word count: 103 words
--Average sentence length: 26 words (15, 38, 21, 29)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (11/103 words)
--Fog Index: (26+11)*.4 = 14 (14.8, no rounding)

We need to shave at least three points from the Fog score to fall within ideal Fog-Gunning range. With over 100 words split into just 4 sentences, we're left with a high average sentence length. Let's see if we can cut some of the Fog:

"Prior to the release, a block-size debate had been blazing for months on Bitcoin forums. Opponents of an increase argued that mining larger blocks would entail more computing power. This, in turn, would discourage small operators in favor of the massive mining farms that are consolidating the network into fewer and fewer hands. It was also widely feared that dissent among the core developers might further weaken public faith in Bitcoin. Those in favor of an increase contended that "forking"--creating a competing version of a program in response to diverging aims--is the very essence of open-source software progress."

--Word count: 100 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (15, 14, 24, 18, 29)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (5/100 words)
--Fog Index: (20+5)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

The most powerful change we made was splitting the second sentence in two. However, equally important were recastings that removed longer words. We didn't have to do much to bring our average sentence length down by 5 points and our percentage of longer words down by over half.

Correction for the July issue: Last month, we featured an excerpt that required a single punctuation change (changing an en dash to a period) to bring down the Fog score by a few points. The excerpted text we ran at the beginning of the article was our corrected version, with the punctuation change already implemented. We apologize for this error.

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Making the Most of Magazine Spine Design

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:36 PM

In the news: How one magazine turned to creative printing solutions to revamp its spine.

Most discussions about magazine design focus on the front cover, which is a publisher's first and best chance to snag would-be readers at the newsstand. This month, Cable Neuhaus of Foliomag.com reminds readers of another important component of a magazine cover: the spine. "The spine presents endless opportunities," he writes. "It is a vitally important, if underappreciated, space; it can make a real difference in how a book is perceived by readers and advertisers."

He discusses a recent issue of ShowBoats International, whose experiment with the texture of its spine (i.e., using uncoated paper stock to give the appearance of adhesive, giving the magazine a more luxurious feel) paid off. Read the full article here.

Also Notable

Also Important: Magazine Covers

Spines are often forgotten in magazine design discussions, but the emphasis is typically on covers with good reason. As Erik Sass discusses in a recent MediaPost.com piece, a well-designed print magazine cover can still drum up media buzz. "Print magazines may be struggling on the advertising side," he says, "but over the last few weeks, the response to a series of magazine covers has made it pretty clear that, despite the rise of all sorts of digital rivals, the print incumbents still occupy a substantial chunk of our attention." Read more here.

More on Magazine Cover Design

Steven Heller of Wired.com also discussed magazine design recently, in a piece entitled "Magazines Can Compete with the Web -- with the Right Design." He writes: "Unorthodox cover designs are even more important to the survival of traditional print magazines now that digital platforms and products are pushing them into the margins." His article focuses on the work of iconic Esquire designer George Lois to emphasize just how important effective cover design is in keeping a print title relevant on today's newsstand. Read more here.

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