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Issue for September 2014

New Words, Irregardless of Taste

Posted on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:45 PM

Today's fast-paced personal communication is quickening the process of language evolution.

By William Dunkerley

As editors, we use dictionaries and style guides to create a consistent fabric for the varied content we produce. The goal of achieving consistency over time is now being challenged, however, as changes in language and usage are occurring at an accelerated pace.

A recent announcement by OxfordDictionaries.com brings that into focus. It introduces a host of new words such as:

--acquihire: an act or instance of buying out a company primarily for the skills and expertise of its staff, rather than for the products or services it supplies.

--clickbait: content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular Web page.

--cotch: spending time relaxing.

--doncha: don't you.

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

--mansplain: explaining something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing:

--subtweet: a Twitter post that refers to a particular user without directly mentioning them, typically as a form of furtive mockery or criticism.

Are you ready to permit usage of these and similar words in your publication? Or do your instincts tell you to dismiss them as faddish?

Slow Adoption of New Usage

Dictionaries and style guides have traditionally taken their time incorporating evolutionary changes. For instance, the term "e-mail" first appeared in the 1980s as an abbreviation for "electronic mail." Now it's considered a word by itself, and in most usage the hyphen has been dropped. A Google search brought 2.79 billion results for "email" and only 233 million for the hyphenated version.

The word "website" has had a similar evolution. At first "Web site" was widely accepted as the correct style. The Google Ngram Viewer shows that the popularity of that rendering began to decline around 2001. At about the same time, the single-word uncapitalized version, website, began its ascent. However, it wasn't until April 16, 2010, that the Associated Press online stylebook abandoned "Web site" in favor of "website."

Is that quick enough in the context of today's language milieu? Modern people now have more communication options than were available earlier: ever-ready voice communications via mobile phones, texting, social media, email. These technologies can only quicken the pace of change in usage and in the adoption of new words.

Writing in Editors Only for the September 1989 issue, 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 [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published."

Resistance to Change

Despite the inevitability of language evolution, there are some who ardently resist it and consider new changes in poor taste. At one time there was an organization called The Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature. It once boasted a membership of almost 2,000. But when I just tried to visit its website, I found a broken link.

In some countries, national governments have even gotten into the language protection act. Ukraine has been in the news lately for its tussle over the use of Russian as an official language in some regions. The revolutionary government that took charge in February quickly tried to cancel the extant permissive law. Legislators were afraid that Russian might overtake the use of Ukrainian in what is essentially a de facto bilingual country. Even though that legislative change was never signed into law, the attempted action may actually have provoked residents of Crimea, a largely Russian-speaking area, to seek or accede to reintegration with Russia, from whence the region had come during the 1950s.

In the 1990s France enacted legislation to ban the influx of foreign words such as "cheeseburger," "cash flow," "marketing," "software" and "air bag." But the law was declared unconstitutional. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Constitutional Council ruled that "the government had no right to impose official French translations of foreign words on private citizens, companies, and the media."

Just think, if the US had successfully enacted a similar law, we might have to call a crepe a thin pancake. And I don't know what we'd do with the word mayonnaise.

Nonsensical Words

I deliberately included the word irregardless in the title of this article to illustrate a possible downside to following the crowd when it comes to everyday language usage. Irregardless (1.57 million Google search results) is apparently a product of confusing the words regardless and irrespective. Those words got mashed together to form irregardless. "Regardless" means "despite everything." The prefix "ir" generally serves to negate what follows. Irresistible, irresponsible, and irreverent are examples. So the word irregardless is literally nonsensical.

Doncha think there's something fundamentally wrong with following the crowd and using a nonsensical word like irregardless?

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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Writers Are Writers

Posted on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:45 PM

Valuable advice from books with a different audience in mind.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In my persistent quest for books on writing, I come across those I believe you, as readers of Editors Only, should become aware of, and numerous past columns have dealt with them. Often, I also come across books on writing that are addressed to brothers and sisters in the trade who aim for different markets: fiction writers, poets, children's book authors, academic journal scribes. These I will pass on to you, unless I find some sort of link that I think might be of value.

And to be honest, most every book on the subject of writing is likely to include, within its pages, some piece of advice that might be of assistance. Here are a few examples.

Fiction-Focused Collections

The Writer's Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books) -- a fiction focused collection.

From an essay, "Performing Surgery without Anesthesia," by Chris Offutt, short story writer: "The process of revision ... is draining the sink and seeing what's in there, which is usually a mess. Revising requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity.... One of the ways that I do it is to go away from the work, leave it alone. If you get some distance and time from the first draft, you can look at it objectively. It's the same with a broken heart. Think about it: a little distance and time will heal your broken heart; a little distance and time will allow you to look at a draft and figure out what it is you're doing.... I think the word revision means to see again or to look again. Most people don't do that; they polish. You must learn to re-see your work. And that often means noticing what the story is really about, what it's become. Not what you thought it was, or what you wanted it to be."

An eye-opening reminder.

The Writer's Notebook II, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books) - again, a fiction-focused collection.

The beginning of an essay titled "Beginnings," by novelist and memoirist Ann Hood: "I cannot write an essay, a short story, or even a novel until I know my first line. At night, I put myself to sleep rearranging words, inserting a comma and then taking it out again. I edit and revise that one sentence while I cook dinner, wait in the car for my kids to walk out of school, do the laundry. The pressure of getting that sentence right is enormous. In fact, not just that sentence, but the opening paragraph -- no, the opening page -- has to do so much that in some ways it is the most important thing to write.... When the writer John Irving told me that he always knew his first line before he began writing, because by knowing his first line he then knew his last line, I understood yet another burden of the beginning: it puts into motion the events that will drive the story to its resolution."

The conclusion of the concluding essay in the book, "Endings," by Elissa Schappell, fiction and magazine writer: "It all comes down to this: endings are a bitch. The best ending is one that leaves readers with a profound sense of awe and wonder, not only at the world the author has created but also at the considerable skill with which the writer has pulled it off. The truth is, the best endings don't feel like endings at all. The best ending is one in which the world gets larger, not smaller. It's not an ending at all. It's the beginning of understanding the world and ourselves in a new way."

Solid advice about two critically important elements in an article's structure and development.


Handling the Truth, On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart (Gotham Books) -- the title identifies market.

Kephart has authored five memoirs. In Handling the Truth, she goes through the whole process of writing in this genre. In a chapter on "Tense," she says: "Past or present? Present or past? It's going to make a difference. Tense announces predilection and instinct. On the one hand: sense and detail, anecdote, in-your-face, it's happening, you're with me. On the other: cogitation, meditation, speculation, consideration, the sense of something measured. The heart and the mind. The eye and the I. It's still, in some fashion, alive, or it was. One or the other is going to appeal. One or the other will be right."

Immediacy or reflection. History reclaimed or just history. The reader present or the reader brought in after the fact. Decisions. Decisions.

Children's Literature

Writing from the Heart, How to Write for Children by Joy Cowley (Boyds Mills Press) -- as the title proclaims, for writers who seek to satisfy young readers.

This acclaimed and revered New Zealand author concludes her book with a chapter, "Putting on Your Editor's Hat." She offers ten "time-tested hints that may help you," among them, in abbreviated form:

"Have you included all the information that the story needs?"

"Is the information in the right order?"

"Next we check our beginnings and endings."

"Pacing. A story is like music. It has movement and moods -- fast and slow, gentle and hard, words that have rhythm, words that clash in discord. You can say a lot about what is going on in the story by the words you choose and the length of sentences. Long sentences slow a story to a relaxed pace. Short sentences give a sense of tension and breathlessness. If we tell a story all in the same way, it can sound to the readers like a monotone."

"Spelling, punctuation, syntax. At this stage, we look through our stories to check these three. We are not only concerned with correct spelling, punctuation and the arrangement of words. We are also looking for repetition. Do we have too many sentences structured the same way? Do we have words that clash or are repeated, when we don't want that effect? Remember that every story written for children will be read aloud. Read your story out loud. Words are different to the ear and to the eye."

How often have I written of this? Well, I don't know, but it bears repeating.

Important matters for you to think about again, expressed by authors who didn't have you in their mind's eye when they verbalized their teachings. But remember: writers are writers.

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 Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:44 PM

Assessing the readability of a ScientificAmerican.com article.

This month, we're calculating the Fog Index of a September 26, 2014, ScientificAmerican.com article ("A Guardian 'Agent' to Protect You from Digital Fraud" by Greg Blonder). Here's the excerpt:

"First, we are no longer able to flourish in a complex environment without automated assistance. The revolution is already upon us. Instead of unaided and unpracticed human driving skills, computers prevent our cars from skidding on ice. Soon, autonomous vehicles will replace cab drivers. Anti-virus software scans incoming messages on our behalf, alert for malevolent Trojan horses we might otherwise click on without their intervention. IBM is fielding systems that diagnose disease or provide marketing assistance. These artificial replacements for human instinct and judgment are growing more powerful every year, and will continue to do so for decades. They should be harnessed to protect our privacy, rather than pry ever deeper into our lives."

--Word count: 114 words
--Average sentence length: 14 words (15, 6, 16, 7, 21, 11, 22, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 17 percent (19/114 words)
--Fog Index: (14+17)*.4 = 12 (no rounding)

The writer has done a good job of controlling the fog in this sample. Despite a somewhat high number of longer words, the Fog Index is 12, thanks in large part to the low average sentence length. The Fog-Gunning ideal is a score below 12, so let's see if we can shave off at least a point.

"First, we are no longer able to flourish in a complex environment without automated assistance. The revolution is already upon us. Instead of human driving skills, computers now prevent our cars from skidding on ice. Soon, autonomous cars will replace cab drivers. Anti-virus software scans incoming messages on our behalf, alert for viruses we might otherwise click on. IBM is fielding systems that diagnose disease or provide marketing support. These artificial replacements for human instinct and judgment are growing more powerful every year, and will continue to do so for decades. They should be harnessed to protect our privacy, rather than pry ever deeper into our lives."

--Word count: 107 words
--Average sentence length: 13 words (15, 6, 14, 7, 16, 11, 22, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (13/107 words)
--Fog Index: (13+12)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We didn't need to do much here. By replacing a few longer words with shorter ones and making a few other tweaks, we reduced our Fog Index by two points.

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Indie Magazine Boom?

Posted on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:43 PM

In the news: Are we in a golden age of indie magazines?

Last week, Vogue surveyed indie magazine editors and publishers to highlight the recent success of indie print magazines. Digital still commands the magazine conversation, but there is a growing market for traditional print magazines, such as Kinfolk and Tiny Atlas Quarterly, that are highly designed and printed on heavy paper stock. So why are indie print magazines so hot right now?

According to Lizzie Garrett Metler in her Vogue piece, this trend toward niche print titles is a direct response to a lot of the throwaway content clogging social media feeds. "If BuzzFeed is a cup of dehydrated instant coffee consumed quickly to caffeinate on the subway," Mettler writes, "the neo-indie magazine is an expensive, labored-over cappuccino one sips slowly in the glow of good lighting." Read more here.

Also Notable

Editors vs. Video Producers

Last month, CapitalNewYork.com published a piece entitled "At Condé, Editors Clash with Video Division." The piece highlights a new sort of interdepartmental friction: editors versus video producers. Some Condé Nast editors have found themselves excluded from video production decisions, a loss of creative control that many editors find unsettling. With Condé Nast spending more and more on video content, it remains to be seen how involved its editorial staff will be in the future. Read more here.

Macworld Shutters Print Edition

After thirty years in print, Macworld has ended production of its print edition. Earlier this month, the magazine laid off many staffers and announced plans to go digital-only in the US. (However, there will still be print editions of the magazines in other countries.) Read more here.

Yahoo Hires New Magazine Editors

Earlier this month, Yahoo added new editors to its digital magazine staff -- one for its food division and another for its TV division. Like Condé Nast, Yahoo is testing the waters with video content. Read more about Yahoo's magazine initiatives and recent hires here.

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