Category Archives: Language

The joys and challenges of working with non-native English speakers

By Stephen Pigney

Who wouldn’t want a job that enables them to see the world? In the past few months my work has taken me to Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, Brazil, Colombia, the United States, Australia, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Libya – and all without moving more than ten metres from my desk. These are the editor’s travels: armed with the right guidebooks (a good English dictionary and an appropriate selection of style guides are sufficient), a means of transport (an internet connection) and the right amount of energy (enough to make several journeys from desk to kettle to reference books each day), and the whole world is opened up.

Globe on a desk

These virtual travels and encounters with people from every continent are among the great pleasures of my work. They also present challenges. Home comforts often yield to unfamiliar ways of doing things; and linguistic differences frequently create inconveniences and can sometimes appear to be barriers to understanding and communication. But the good traveller welcomes such challenges, for at the heart of why we travel is the desire to experience and learn from the new, to understand, and to communicate. And good editors are good travellers.

Respect and admire those who write in their non-native language

As my list of international ‘destinations’ indicates, I encounter many people whose first language is not English. I estimate that between 80 and 90 per cent of my clients are non-native English (NNE) speakers. The quality of the NNE texts I work on varies considerably: some are written in enviably pristine, clear and stylish prose; but usually they manifest grammatical, syntactical and stylistic problems that can be extensive. Often, I will spend an hour initially reviewing an NNE client’s document and still have little idea of what it is saying. The temptation then to despair and turn one’s attention to complaining about the global state of written English, or to sharing with colleagues the chronic inability of some clients to write intelligibly, is, perhaps, natural. The good editor should – and must – resist such a temptation.

To observe that some NNE texts present huge editorial challenges is one thing; but to complain about such texts (or, worse, to mock or belittle them) has no place in good editorial practice. As an English-speaking editor, I am forever thankful that English remains the predominant language of international academia and business, and that there are millions of NNE speakers the world over who are personally and professionally committed to writing and publishing in English. And, as someone who has a passable reading knowledge of some foreign languages but no competence whatsoever to write in them, I admire anyone who is able to put together a few thousand words in a second (or even third or fourth) language.

Patience, focus and familiarity

The difficult NNE text poses practical problems – solving those problems is the essence of editorial practice. My experience is that, with patience, focus and careful editor–client liaison, almost any NNE text can be shaped into a clear and linguistically coherent document that more than meets the client’s (or the publisher’s) stylistic requirements. The more NNE texts one works on, the more attuned one becomes to mistakes and quirks of syntax common to much NNE writing; and the more familiar one becomes with a client’s writing, the more the intention and meaning of the writing becomes clear. Often, the editorial work takes on the character of translation, and translation requires time and familiarity to do well. Immediately diving into the editing of a difficult NNE rarely works; usually it is better to spend time reading it (without editing it), thinking about it, and compiling a list of issues and questions to be discussed with the client. Then one can begin the methodical editorial work: tidying up the easy things, resolving the more straightforward issues, gradually chipping away at the problems, and enjoying how the text slowly takes shape as a clear, coherent document whose meaning increasingly begins to emerge.

Learning about language and practice

Successfully editing a problematic NNE text so that it will be accepted for English-language publication is immensely satisfying. Most of my NNE clients are polite (I have never had a rude or impolite NNE client), and many express profound gratitude at the editorial work – after all, their career advancement often depends on publishing in English, so they invest much hope in their editor. Many are also keen to learn how to write well in English, and the advice I pass on and the discussions I have are invariably fulfilling ways of reflecting on and sharpening my own understanding of how English works.

Pieter Bruegal the Elder: Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1563. According to the myth narrated in the Book of Genesis, after the Great Flood humanity attempted to reach heaven by building a tower. To prevent them from succeeding, God confounded their language, so that they no longer spoke one tongue, and scattered them abroad. The story was long thought to explain why the world contains multiple languages.

However, editors are justified in feeling frustrated when there is a mismatch between, on the one hand, such involved and demanding editorial work and, on the other, the remuneration and time allowed for a project. This is by no means a problem unique to working with NNE clients; indeed, I find my NNE clients are frequently more understanding of the work involved and of what would be a realistic schedule and remuneration than are my native English-speaking clients. As with any project, it is the editor’s responsibility to explain the work involved and to agree to a mutually satisfactory working arrangement. That said, it takes experience (including more than a few tough experiences) to get a good sense of how much time is required for editing of NNE texts, and hence how to price such projects. Rather than complaining about NNE clients when one has a trying project, it is better to reflect on and learn from one’s own initial assessment of a project and communications with a client – or to complain about the unrealistic expectations of many editorial agencies who package out these projects.

With experience, the appropriate editorial skills, and a temperament suited to challenging projects, editors can find NNE clients to be a source of almost limitless, well-remunerated work. The pleasure of such work goes far beyond remuneration, however. In a world where the politics of borders and a suspicion of cultural and linguistic difference are on the rise, editing NNE texts is a reminder that communication is about transcending borders and bridging differences. What I see in my NNE editorial work is the desire all over the world to share ideas, to contribute to global knowledge, to learn from others, and simply to connect and engage in a spirit of friendship and mutual benefits. Some of my NNE clients are based in the UK, as students, academics or other professionals, and every one of their texts is a reminder of their immense and immeasurable contribution to the UK. And some of my NNE clients are based in their home countries, and I reflect on the important contribution my work makes to their countries. The linguistic and cultural differences of our world should be celebrated; but more than that, we should celebrate something that editors are doing all the time: productively transcending the differences, enhancing communication, and doing our bit to make the world a better and more interesting place for everyone.

Good editors are good travellers

Editorial work with NNE clients is a form of virtual travelling. To be a good traveller requires an open mind, a sensitivity to cultural difference, and a willingness to embrace, celebrate and learn from that difference – and the good traveller is rewarded with greater understanding and rich, liberating experiences. The same requirements and rewards apply to the NNE texts worked on by the good editor.

Stephen PigneyBased in London, Stephen Pigney is an editor who works with clients from all over the world. He started his editorial business in 2017, joining the SfEP at the same time; he is currently an Intermediate Member. With a background as a researcher and lecturer, he specialises in academic and general non-fiction writing on most subjects. He is trying to become a better non-native speaker of other languages.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

 

Plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Ever had to deal with text that makes you feel alienated, inadequate or frustrated? We’ve all had that experience – of struggling to make sense of writing that’s pretentious and showy, filled with jargon and buzzwords, or simply badly planned and confusing.

Sometimes you might long for the writing to be as poetic as Shakespeare, as gripping as Stephen King or as much fun to read as JK Rowling. But when you need information quickly, you just want it to tell you, without all the frills, what you need to know.

In other words, you want it in plain English.

Water ripples above book pagesWhat is plain English?

Plain English is about communicating with people in writing as clearly as possible.

George Orwell and Ernest Gowers, writing in the 1940s, were among the first to encourage writers to use plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human,’ wrote Gowers in his guide Plain Words. There’s no one accepted definition today, but the International Plain Language Federation sums it up nicely:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. [our emphasis]

It’s about putting the reader’s needs first, even above the writer’s preferences, when it comes to deciding how to word and organise a text. This doesn’t ignore the writer’s priorities – quite the opposite! What’s your main aim as a writer, if not to communicate clearly with your readers?

What is it for?

You can use plain English to:

  • make information accessible to people who aren’t specialists in your area (whether that’s about health, money, research, government policy or something else)
  • share essential information (on safety or the law)
  • give people the chance to have a say on things that affect them, or to use services they’re entitled to
  • build a reputation for putting customers first
  • build a good relationship with readers
  • save time and money (on clarifying misunderstandings, reprinting documents).

So you can use it for ethical and economic reasons. By making letters, reports, policies, articles and application forms easier for people they affect to read and understand, you’re making a difference to those people. You’re also making savings for your organisation, and helping to achieve its marketing aims.

What can using plain English do for me?

Writing in plain English can help your organisation:

  • make the text more effective (informing, selling to or empowering the reader, or appealing to more readers)
  • market itself (by strengthening your reputation, building trust and loyalty, and attracting customers, staff and suppliers)
  • achieve its business aims (eg increasing profit by saving time and money)
  • fulfil its purpose (providing a public service, raising awareness of an important issue).

Open book with letters flying outHow can an editor help?

Editors offering plain English services can help by making text clearer and easier to read. Many of them can suggest ways to improve its structure and layout too.

According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English, the average UK adult has a reading age of just 13. They’re also busy – they don’t have time to read insurance policies for pleasure. So in a plain English edit, an editor aims to make the writing as easy as possible for the average person to read.

To do this, editors follow established guidelines, such as those in the Oxford Guide. ‘Translating’ a piece of writing into plain English isn’t a mechanical exercise, though – a trained editor considers the reader’s level of knowledge and what will be clearest for them.

Some editors can also help by:

  • giving training about using plain English
  • completely re-writing a document, or writing a plain English summary
  • designing templates and style guides that follow plain English principles.

What else can I do?

  • Keep the reader in mind when you’re planning, writing and designing the text – think about what will be clearest and most logical for them.
  • Make sure you’ve included all the information the reader needs – don’t assume they know as much about your subject as you do.
  • Learn about the principles of plain English (by doing training and using resources, such as those available from the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland).
  • Test the text on real readers to see if they understand it quickly and easily.
  • Get feedback from readers on documents you’ve already published and make improvements.

If you write in simple, direct language, readers are more likely to respect and value what you have to say. And this will make as much of a difference to you, and your priorities, as it will to your readers.

Laura RipperLaura Ripper began her career in 2004 at Plain English Campaign, where she translated all sorts of documents into plain language. In 2008 she moved to a wider editorial and communications role, which included raising awareness of the UK’s switch to digital TV. Laura set up her proofreading and editing business in 2012 to concentrate on the aspects of her job that she loves best. She still specialises in plain English, and has found these skills useful for every type of document – from journal articles to board game rules. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. When she isn’t at her desk, Laura loves walking in the hills. She has two feline assistants.

Luke FinleyLuke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. He briefly worked in publishing in the 1990s, but most of his working life has been spent in the voluntary and public sectors, in social policy development and implementation. His experience of local government gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying (sometimes in vain) to persuade people to communicate more clearly.  Luke will edit or proofread anything from academic books to charities’ annual reports to travel agents’ websites, but mostly works on social policy and politics texts.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Inclusive language – and inclusive editing

By Sarah Grey

At the SfEP’s wonderful 2018 conference in Lancaster, I had the privilege of speaking with attendees about inclusive language. It’s strange, leaving the United States to talk about this topic at a time when inclusion and kindness seem to be very low on my country’s agenda – yet I am convinced that the stakes for inclusive and ethical editing are higher than ever.

Three people sat on bench in front of a wall of photo portraitsEditors have a long tradition of defending accuracy and fairness. We want to do right by our clients and by readers. We value inclusivity. We want to be on the right side of history. Almost all social justice movements, whatever their focus, take up questions of language as part of the struggle for equality and freedom. When that happens, language change, which is usually a very gradual process, becomes conscious, deliberate, and much, much faster. Language and politics are forever catching up to one another, pushing and pulling against one another. Our job as editors is to help language catch up.

There’s no one authority on inclusive language. We all have our own biases and knowledge gaps, and we can’t know what other people’s lives are like. People identify ways where language leaves them out or gets them wrong, and they speak up about it and start getting creative about alternatives and trying new things to see what catches on. It’s important for me to add here that there are debates about many of these things (such as people-first language in discussions of disability), so it’s important to stay up to speed on the debates that affect topics you edit.

Language changes because old words haven’t kept up with new realities, or realities that are newly being confronted. When you have the power of naming, you can frame how other people see you. You are literally setting the terms of the discussion. And that, in turn, allows you to put forward what you need in very material and tangible ways.

Etiquette

My grandmother always taught me that the goal of etiquette is to make sure every guest feels welcome and included. As editors it’s our job to see things from the reader’s point of view, not just our own or the author’s – and to welcome readers into the text and keep them reading. So editing for inclusive language is about understanding where language leaves some readers out and finding ways to invite them in.

But there’s a basic principle that underlies the idea of etiquette, of making people feel welcome, and it works very well when editing: treat people like they’re people. Don’t treat them like they’re lesser, like they’re unintelligent, like they don’t exist or don’t matter.

One way of doing this is othering: calling attention to someone’s differences from the unstated idea of ‘normal’: for example, referring to the Asian doctor or the trans librarian when ethnicity and gender aren’t relevant to the story, or dividing a catalogue page into ‘laptop bags’ and ‘women’s laptop bags’. This treats people from the othered group like a special exception whose identity has to revolve around their difference, or like they simply don’t exist, except perhaps in relation to someone more important.

For example, the Guardian recently tweeted the shortlist for the New Academy literary prize with the headline ‘Neil Gaiman and Haruki Muramaki up for alternative Nobel literature prize’. Only seven paragraphs in did the article mention that ‘the shortlist is completed with two female writers’, Maryse Condé and Kim Thúy.

Silhouttes of people standing, their reflections on the floorSo this is something we can watch for as we edit – is everyone identified equally? Do the women have names? Does the interview ask everyone about their child-care arrangements, or only the women? It’s also common to see men’s names given with a full title and women’s titles omitted, as well as surnames for men and first names for women.

Do these slights in themselves hurt anyone? Yes and no. Small instances that might seem innocuous enough pile up. If you’re labelled as other, these microaggressions, as they’re called, happen over and over, and in patterns and in partnership with more violent incidents. Experience that enough and you begin to see how one feeds into the other.

Ethics

That brings us to ethics – because the way we as editors use language has serious consequences in the real world.

Our decisions can influence what the boundaries of normal, legitimate discourse are. Granted, when someone like Donald Trump is in power, those boundaries are pushed further and further out into the realm of the bizarre, but here we are. The boundaries of legitimate discourse can, depending on where we as a society place them, contribute to or even provide justification for physical violence. And while our decisions can’t shape the course of language change, we do have some influence over how language changes. And in that respect, the decisions we make truly do matter.

In the news media it’s especially noticeable when different words are used to describe the same things done by different people. Words carry assumptions and judgements: Are you a protestor or a rioter? Are you assertive or abrasive? Is your government an administration or a regime? The specifics of these terms vary from place to place depending on who has power. They also function as ‘dog whistles’, political code. When these saturate the media and find their way into people’s worldviews, that can have real consequences, including violence.

There are always competing narratives about any conflict, so when you’re editing material that deals with one, whether it’s intended to be neutral or takes a specific stance, you need to do your research and understand which terms are used by whom and whether terms imply a specific stance or are relatively neutral.

The term illegal alien, for example, sounds like it should refer to Klingons or Time Lords, but it’s been used since the 1990s to describe people arriving at the US–Mexico border from Central and South America. It has largely fallen out of mainstream use over the last decade or two, as human rights activists have pointed out that it is blatantly dehumanising. The AP Stylebook, the New York Times, and the American Library Association dropped the term, with the latter noting that it is ‘increasingly associated with nativist and racist sentiments’. Avoiding such inflammatory terms isn’t euphemism; it’s accuracy.

But this July, the federal Department of Justice sent an email to all US attorneys’ offices instructing them never to use the term ‘undocumented immigrants’ and instead refer only to ‘illegal aliens’. In the context of thousands of immigrant children under the age of five being separated from their parents and detained literally in cages, the federal government is taking steps to ensure that only the most dehumanising possible term is used. That’s not a coincidence.Barbed wireWe see similar dehumanisation of migrants across Europe. Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Institute describes this as ‘a conscious policy to reintroduce language that was previously not acceptable in debate’. Obviously we can’t control what the politicians do, but we can push back when we see that sort of language being treated as normal discourse in the texts we edit.

Customer service

As editors, it’s our job to help our clients convey a message to an audience and to remove anything that gets in the way of that message, like unintended sexual connotations or grammatical mistakes. That includes protecting them from making gaffes or inadvertently causing offence. Often these mistakes come from ignorance or thoughtlessness.

There are also times where the author might not actually be flat-out wrong, but still manages to distract the reader. (This is why I advise writers to stay away from the word niggardly, even though its etymological origins have nothing to do with the racial slur.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to make your clients’ writing bland or inoffensive. Nor does it mean that you should shrug off or ignore or cover up writing that’s problematic. What it means is that if your author is going to offend anyone, you want that to be intentional. As an editor I’m a proxy for the reader, and if something causes a strong reaction in me, I want to be absolutely sure that it’s the reaction the author was going for.

We also have a responsibility to keep our authors up to date. Just as we would correct them if they used outdated tech terms, we can do the same when it comes to social issues. We’re not here to shame our authors or tell them they’re doing it all wrong. We’re here to make the finished product better, so a little tact can go a long way.

I try to assume the best of intentions on the author’s part and start from there. Most of the time it will end with the client thanking you.

Tools

If you’re writing about a specific community, check for style guides published by advocacy groups. If you find yourself working a lot on a specific issue, consider compiling your own stylesheet to help you keep things straight.

If you’re still not clear on certain terms or ideas, though, don’t just ignore them: make the effort to learn. Read books, articles and blogs by prominent members of the community you want to learn more about, consume their art, follow them on social media, or talk to them in person. If you do more listening than talking, you’ll pick up on a lot, not just about what terms people are using but also how people in that community are affected as human beings by language. And if you really need in-depth information you can’t find on your own, consider hiring one of the many people who offer consulting on these issues.

What if you screw up? Try not to get defensive or make it about yourself; listen and try to understand it from the reader’s perspective. Speaking up about oppressive language can be stressful, so the person taking the risk of pointing out your error is doing you a favour. Respect that, learn from it and try to do better. It gets easier with practice.

The bottom line is that if you’re editing only the words on the page, you’re not being thorough. We also have to read – and edit – what’s between the lines. That’s what inclusive editing is all about.

Sarah GreySarah Grey is a freelance editor and writer at Grey Editing LLC in Philadelphia, USA, and the 2016 recipient of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copyediting. Before becoming a full-time freelancer, Sarah spent several years in the translation industry, where she learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and of understanding a text’s audience. She specialises in academic nonfiction, social justice, and food writing.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

English Grammar Day 2018

By Abi Saffrey

Since 2014, the British Library and UCL (in association with PhilSoc and the University of Oxford) have hosted English Grammar Day. Although the event is primarily aimed at those teaching or studying grammar, the variety of sessions makes it a fascinating day for anyone with an interest on what we do with our words.Dictionary entry for grammarI first found out about English Grammar Day 2018 earlier this year (thanks Twitter) and was very keen to go – despite not having studied linguistics for 20 years, it’s still a subject that fascinates me and grammar is part of my day-to-day editing life. And it’s not often that you can get a day of CPD for the bargain price of £10 (and in the wonderful surroundings of the British Library too).

Jonnie Robinson started the day with a look at the British Library’s Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – excerpts of people talking about their word choices and grammar demonstrate how grammar forms part of our identity. The next session, presented by Lynne Murphy (an SfEP conference favourite), showed us the differences between American and British English grammar. Nope, not as different as we might like to think.

After a cuppa and a leg stretch, Rebecca Woods discussed how children acquire the grammar needed to ask questions – how they build up the components necessary to create a grammatically correct question (and how short a time it takes them), and of course what funny things they come out with in the process. How chickens?Small chick with other chicks behindTeaching and understanding grammar is on many teachers’ minds following curriculum revamps over the past few years. Suzannah Ferguson, a primary teacher now moving into postgraduate study, explained how there is a generation of teachers in schools who are without grammar knowledge and without second language knowledge. They face a steep learning curve just like their pupils. Suzannah was passionate about reassuring children (and teachers) that grammar is not the scary beast that it can easily be perceived as.

After lunch, SfEP President David Crystal brought humour and warmth to his session about grammar teaching.

‘Poppy knew what adjectives and nouns are.
She’d been drawing circles around them for ages.’

Giving children (and writers) the ability to play with words, to ask why changing the ‘standard’ word order changes the effect, develops their love of language. (Anyone for a game of adjective tennis?) Most children know many grammar rules through their acquisition of language – David believes we quibble and debate about around only 5% of grammar as a whole. We’re all grammar experts by the time we start to learn to write and read.

The final session was a panel discussion with all of the presenters, chaired by John Mullan from UCL. In summary:

  • Breaking (grammar) rules is fun.
  • Observe, explore and investigate language to make it – and grammar – interesting.
  • Usage creates norms.
  • Grammar arguments quickly evolve into identity.
  • Linguistic prejudice is real, and wrong.

Although the day was not directly aimed at editors, it did feed my appetite for language awareness and grammar knowledge. It reminded me to question my own preferences for certain structures or word choices; an author’s voice must be respected when it does not sound like my own.

I will certainly be booking my ticket for English Grammar Day 2019 as soon as the email arrives next spring – join me, editors and language lovers!

Abi SaffreyAbi Saffrey is an editorial project manager and copy-editor, and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She really should get around to finding a suitable postgraduate linguistics course.

 

 

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Mediterranean Editors and Translators: All About Editing

First, a bit about me

As a ‘re-emerging’ translator, I have been attending METM conferences as another stop on the road to reconnecting with a profession I fell into years ago and laid aside due to personal circumstances. As a bit of an outlier, I justify my presence by moderating the ‘off-METM’ Translation Slam. A few weeks before the conference, I sent two ‘volunteer’ MET members a short text to translate from Spanish to English, and during the slam we discussed the choices they made (word choices, but also punctuation choices!). I mention this as it has a great deal to do with my experience of the METM16 conference, which this year was all about editing.

Wait, what is MET?

MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) is an association of translators and editors whose main language is English, whose objective is peer training, and whose founders thought Mediterranean sounded sexier than European.

Based in Barcelona, MET holds workshops two or three times a year, but the big bash is the annual conference in mid-to-late October. Following an afternoon and morning of workshops as warm-up, the day-and-a-half-long conference is filled with panel discussions, lectures, interactive sessions, and presentations set two or three to a timeslot, except for the two keynote or plenary talks.

metm16-cloister-lunch-sfep-cescanadon

This year’s conference, ‘Raising standards through knowledge sharing and peer training’, was held at Tarragona’s Centre Tarraconense ‘el Seminari’. The cathedral-ceilinged auditorium filtered the sunlight through its stunning stained-glass windows onto keynote speakers Margaret Cargill, in from Australia, and Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen’. Jealous yet?

Workshops and conference sessions

As I said, it was all about editing for me this year. I attended Joy Burrough-Boenisch’s fantastic three-hour Friday-morning workshop, Editing theses and dissertations written by non-native speakers of English, where I also learned about a series of online proofreading and editing guidelines. In the afternoon, John Linnegar taught me the difference between light, medium, and heavy editing; I was impressed by Kate McIntyre and Jackie Senior’s work as in-house academic editors in the Netherlands (and also made a note to look at SENSE’s guidelines); and Valerie Matarese talked about author editing. After a panel discussion on interventionism as an editor/proofreader of academic papers, I learned about ITI from Sarah Griffin-Mason, about the social science genre from Susan M DiGiacomo, about translating and editing titles from Mary Ellen Kerans, misused English in EU publications from Jeremy Gardner, and disability-related terms from Mary Fons i Fleming.

Keynote talks

Friday evening, just before the Clos Montblanc-catered wine reception in the cloister, Margaret Cargill shared with us her studied understanding of ethics and education in academic publishing in relation to editing and translating. The issue of what constitutes teaching, and where the line is drawn at what my professors used to call cheating, are hot topics. Times change, technologies change, the world is changing, and we professionals must keep abreast of how these changes affect the way that we work, whether our field is in academics or technology, business or fiction.

Right before Saturday’s cocktail lunch, also in the cloister, Mary Norris held us captive during her keynote talk, ‘New Yorker style: the major arcana’. Using a few New Yorker cartoons and a piece of fiction, Mary led us through the process of query-editing copy to the characteristically peculiar standards of the famous magazine. She even gave us an example or two of times when she clashed with the ‘artistic vision’ of certain authors. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses, she confessed, but she never seems to lose her good cheer or her enthusiasm. What a pleasure it was to have her at the conference, and it was an added pleasure to have both Margaret and Mary among the Sunday-morning post-conference diehards who took a stroll along Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater and beachfront to El Serrallo and a final vermouth among colleagues and friends.

But getting back to me

It turns out that what is showcased in every translation slam – the infinite ways in which a given translation can be resolved – is also true when editing text. The ethics involved in translating a 150-year-old Spanish text into the English of 2016 are as complex as those of editing a non-native-English speaker’s PhD thesis, even though the possible consequences may not be as dire.

Happily, the eternal question remains: How far can you stretch the truth of the original text to make it fit into ‘proper’ English? And what is proper English, anyway? I’m hoping to attend a few more sessions on this very subject a year from now in Brescia, Italy. #METM17

kymm1Born in Boston, Kymm Coveney has lived in Spain since the 1982 World Cup. A former commercial translator, she is currently transitioning to literature (Catalan/Spanish/English). Meanwhile, accounting pays the bills.

Links to poetry, flash fiction and translations are at BetterLies. Glasgow Review of Books showcases her latest poetic translation. She tweets mostly about poetry @KymmInBarcelona.

Photo credit: Cesc Anadón, MET

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Tom Hawking.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

The English language is both an art and a science

Since entering the world of professional proofreading, writing and editing, I have thought a lot about how we use the English language.

Language as an academic subject is generally considered to be an art or a humanity. It is subjective. We can use it in different ways when communicating with different people. We can use it to paint pictures and arouse feeling. We can be creative with it.

I only have to listen to my children to find lots of examples of this creativity in motion. We were recently walking along and my three-year-old said to his big sister, ‘Oh no – you’ve unclupped my shoe!’ Now, ‘unclupped’ clearly isn’t a word, but we all knew what it meant: she had accidentally stepped on the back of his shoe and it had come off his heel. It was well and truly unclupped. He couldn’t find a word to describe what he meant, so he made one up. I hear this happening all the time, and some of them are great words!

My daughter is reading Roald Dahl’s The BFG at the moment. Now there’s creativity and colour for you. One of the most prolific children’s writers was brave enough to have a main character who, for the whole book, uses ‘is’ for any form of the verb ‘to be’. The Big Friendly Giant eats scrumdiddlyumptious snozzcumbers rather than school chiddlers like the other giants eat. The book is full of these seemingly nonsensical words, which somehow do still make sense to six-year-olds and adults alike.

The flipside of this is that language also has rules. Grammar can be approached scientifically or mathematically and there are still many aspects of language that can be considered objectively right or wrong.

Take, for instance, the commas in this sentence. I have used them parenthetically so they need to come as a pair. If you take one of them away, the sentence doesn’t work. If you take them both away, it is OK. For me, this echoes mathematical equations: symbols can cancel each other out and where the parentheses (or brackets in maths) sit can really alter the meaning (or answer) you get at the end.

Another example is the conjugation of verbs. The verb form is often different depending on who is doing the doing. Again, I think this reflects mathematical statements where certain numbers or parts of an equation are affected by a function, whereas other numbers stand up in their own right. In languages like German, where there are different genders for nouns, there is an even greater choice of conjugations for different cases. These can be taught in tables, so we can, for example, look up the correct form of the article for a masculine noun in the dative case.

We can also see maths in the way reading is currently taught in British schools. Children are taught to ‘chop and blend’ phonics in the same way as adding and subtracting numbers. They learn that c+a+t=cat just as 2+3=5. But at the same time, they learn the exceptions to the rules: the spelling and pronunciation of common but phonically irregular words like ‘the’ and ‘me’.

So, on balance, are we working with an art or a science? I think it’s both and, in that respect, what a great thing it is. Some of us will be sticklers for certain rules: I was taught to never split an infinitive but I understand many people will accept this now. There, I’ve done it – but it was only for effect, and I won’t do it again. But I will quite happily bend other ‘rules’ I once learned (like allowing myself to start a sentence with the word ‘but’). The Oxford English Dictionary paves the way in this evolution of language, with new words being added to each edition as they reach common usage. The June 2015 update has around 500 new words, phrases and senses, including ‘twerk’ and ‘yarn-bombing’. One day, someone made up these words and they caught on. Personally, I’m hoping to make a case for the verb ‘to unclup’ to be included in next year’s update.

Face_May2015 smallLisa Robertson set up Editwrite in April 2015, after working for a local authority for over 14 years in various children’s services planning and commissioning roles. She offers a range of editorial and writing services, including document writing consultancy. Her specialist areas are children’s services, the public sector and charities. She is an Entry-Level Member of SfEP. www.editwrite.co.uk

 

Proofread by SfEP Entry-Level Member Susan Walton.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Writing out web addresses

Here’s a question I’ve seen a few times of late: when writing out a web address, must we include the whole address or is it safe to omit part of it?

Some house styles set out guidelines for writing web addresses. One would think, then, that the practice is simply a matter of style. In fact, it mostly is – but not always.

So that we know the names of the components that make up a web address, let’s take a look at an annotated example:

Components of a web address

Keeping with protocol

Web addresses begin with a ‘protocol’, the most common being http:// and https://.

From the technical point of view, the protocol isn’t usually required when quoting web addresses. To use the SfEP’s own website as an example, all modern browsers will treat the following addresses as equivalent:

When it comes to being consistent, we wouldn’t usually want both styles of web address to appear in the same piece of work.

The complications tend to come about when we start introducing addresses with other protocols to the same document. For example, if we wanted to make specific reference to a secure website, it would be correct to indicate this by including the protocol in the address, such as:

The intelligent reader will see the protocol and immediately understand that the website is secure, regardless of any other information about the site in the text.

Almost every website that has a secure area will also have rules that discreetly redirect users from the standard protocol (http://) to the secure protocol (https://). To demonstrate this, one can visit the following address:

Now, because a protocol hasn’t been included in the example above, the browser will try to take the user to the http:// version of the site (this is the default behaviour of all web browsers). Seeing that action, the server running the website will automatically and immediately redirect the user to the https:// version.

In short, this means that, even for secure websites, a protocol isn’t usually required in the address. I write ‘usually’ because there are some rare cases where web servers may display the wrong page if the secure protocol is not specified.

In cases where any protocols are included so as to give the reader a cue, it stands to reason that all other web addresses in the same document should also include protocols, on grounds of consistency.

In a document where standard web addresses are the only ones used (i.e., http:// and nothing else), it seems unnecessary to include the protocol. Omitting the protocol is both consistent and technically correct.

Handling new domain names

One common reservation with omitting protocols is when it comes to the newer domain suffixes, many of which most readers may not have heard of. Here are some examples:

If you saw these in running text, would you know that they were web addresses? Or might you think they were the ends and beginnings of unspaced sentences? The caveat here is that if unusual or novel addresses are used in a document, they might be worth qualifying with a protocol – and in turn that would require every other address in the document to include a protocol, too (on the assumption that we’re going to be rigid about consistency).

The cautious editor could use this argument to recommend that protocols be included on all addresses, to prevent a major rekeying effort in the event that some novel address is later added to a work that had previously contained only run-of-the-mill addresses. You’d have to make a decision about whether this would be too cautious an approach. For what it’s worth, I’ve been omitting protocols for quite a while now, having previously been a staunch supporter of mandatory inclusion.

Omitting the ‘www.’ part of an address

Some people don’t know that it’s usually possible to omit the ‘www.’ part of a web address and still be able to retrieve the website. This part of the web address is known as the ‘subdomain’. Most web servers are set up so that the domain (the key part of the address) and the ‘www.’ subdomain each allow access to the website. Here is an example:

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to omit what would otherwise be a redundant ‘www.’ from the address. Here are some examples:

Trailing slashes

A trailing slash is the forward slash character (/) sometimes added to the end of a web address. This should be added only to the end of a domain name or a folder name in the address. Here are some examples:

  • www.example.com/ – correct
  • www.example.com/folder/ – correct
  • www.example.com/folder/file.html/ – incorrect

One might wonder why a trailing slash would ever be added to a web address, given that the website ought to be displayed just as well without it. The answer is that the appropriate use of the trailing slash eliminates one unnecessary request from your computer to the server, thereby reducing the load on the server. You might not notice any positive effect, but it’s still a good practice to adopt: very busy servers will run better if their load is lightened in any way.

Web addresses followed by punctuation

A web address directly followed by any punctuation mark has the potential to confuse, because some readers may incorrectly interpret the punctuation mark as being part of the address. Word processors and email programs can sometimes be guilty of this mistake, turning an otherwise correct address into a link that doesn’t work when clicked. Thankfully, this is less of an issue than it once was.

It’s quite easy to fall foul of the ‘address plus punctuation’ problem when copying and pasting an address. It’s therefore sensible to avoid directly following an address with a punctuation mark; however, if the context is clear or the readership is web savvy, there may be no need to reword the text.

In my opinion, the omission of a terminal punctuation mark for the sake of clarity is preferable to the occasional practice of adding a space between the address and the punctuation mark. As usual, we should be consistent in the handling of all such matters.

Conclusion

If your client’s style guide sets out preferences for how to write web addresses, you should of course follow those preferences. But be mindful of any newer types of address that might confuse readers, and check that all addresses do indeed work as written.

If you have no style guide from which to work, remember that it’s perfectly fine to use the shortest possible address that will result in the desired website being loaded correctly.

John EspirianJohn Espirian (@espirian) is the SfEP’s internet director and principal forum administrator.

As a freelance technical writer, John specialises in producing online help content that’s actually helpful.

 

Proofread by SfEP Advanced Professional Member Etty Payne.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Round-up of the ten most popular SfEP social media posts in March

SfEP logoSocial media moves very quickly, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are no different. So, to ensure you don’t miss out, here’s a summary of our ten most popular posts in March:

  1. 7 grammar myths you learned in school. OxfordWords blog. (Posted on Twitter and Facebook 23 March.) The Oxford Dictionaries OxfordWords blog suggests that some of the grammar rules we learn in school should be described more as helpful guides, while others are simply ‘inventions’.
  1. 10 British words that baffle Americans. BBC America. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 19 March.) The reference to ‘craic’ as British raised some eyebrows among our Facebook fans.
  1. Friday Funny: Acyrologia. (Posted on Facebook 20 March.) Several of our Facebook fans had their own suggestions for words that sound similar but have a completely different meaning.
  1. The 50 books every child should read. i100 Independent. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 5 March.) To mark World Book Day, we shared a list compiled by Sainsbury’s of books every child should read before they turn 16. Our Facebook fans added their own suggestions and argued that children should be allowed to discover their own favourites and that any book that gets children reading is good.
  1. 32 of the most beautiful words in the English language. Buzzfeed. (Posted on Facebook 11 March and Twitter 12 March.) Our Facebook fans were keen to add their own favourites, although it was noted that a reference to the source of the words would have been a bonus.
  1. Feeling the freelance squeeze. Northern Editorial blog. (Posted on Twitter 16 March.) A blog post by SfEP professional member Sara Donaldson explores the often difficult subject for freelances of talking prices and money.
  1. Are these the best book-to-film adaptations? The Guardian. (Posted on Twitter 9 March.) A survey by BT TV, coinciding with World Book Day in the UK, the nation’s top ten book-to-film adaptations. One of our Twitter followers said she’d enjoyed Sense and Sensibility as a book much better after seeing the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet film version.
  1. Sweden adds gender-neutral pronoun to dictionary. The Guardian. (Posted on Twitter 26 March.) The official dictionary of the Swedish language is adding a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, to enable reference to a person without revealing their gender. One of our Twitter followers suggested this would be a solution to the dreaded singular ‘they’.
  1. Semicolons: how to use them, and why you should. Huffington Post Books. (Posted on Twitter 23 March.) The author of this article suggests a big part of the semicolon’s problem is its mysterious nature and seeks to clarify its usage.
  1. There is no ‘proper English’. Wall Street Journal. (Posted on Twitter 17 March.) The author of this article argues that grammatical rules are merely stylistic conventions and that it is time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books.

Joanna BoweryJoanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she offers freelance marketing, PR, writing and proofreading services as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an entry-level member of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Karen Pickavance.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Round-up of the ten most popular SfEP social media posts in February

SfEP logoSocial media moves very quickly, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are no different. So, to ensure you don’t miss out, here’s a summary of our ten most popular posts in February:

  1. 33 signs that were vandalised with the most hilarious responses ever. Pulptastic. (Posted on Facebook 20 February.)
  2. The wonderful names Chinese tourists have given British attractions. i100 from The Independent reported on the results of a campaign that asked people on China’s most popular social media sites to come up with names for 101 British attractions. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 19 February.)
  3. Happy Friday – Is there a copy-editor on board? SfEP (Posted on Facebook 6 February.)
  4. Ten things people once complained would ruin the English language. From the io9 blog. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 9 February.)
  5. Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain. The Guardian reports that reading from a hard copy improves concentration and that taking longhand notes rather typing onto laptops increases conceptual understanding and retention. (Posted on Facebook 25 February and Twitter 26 February.)
  6. 40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally. Volunteers from the TED Open Translation Project share their favourite idioms from their mother tongue and how they translate literally. (Posted on Facebook 12 February and Twitter 13 February.)
  7. Editor confession: the things I hide from writers. A contributor to the copyediting.com blog admits to hiding some things from writers when editing their work. (Posted on Twitter 20 February.)
  8. When in Rome… read some place name idioms. The Oxford Dictionaries blog explores the reasons why some locations become proverbial. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  9. Language and words in the news – 21 February. The Macmillan Dictionary blog shares a list of popular links related to language and words in the news. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  10. Anybody can be a proofreader, can’t they? A link to the SfEP self-test in proofreading proved popular in February. (Posted on Twitter 9 February.)

Joanna BoweryJoanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she offers freelance marketing, PR, writing and proofreading services as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an entry-level member of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Anna Black.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Why language matters when discussing terminal illness and death

Word cloud of metaphors used in end-of-life and deathHow do people talk about the end-of-life and death? And why does it matter? The language used at these, often difficult, times can have a great impact according to Zsófia Demjén, a linguist and lecturer at The Open University‘s Department for Applied Linguistics and English Language. She offers food for thought for anyone editing text that includes a description of serious illness or death.

How people talk about something, so the theory goes, can tell us as much about what they think as the content of what they’re actually saying. This is the premise of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ (MELC) project at Lancaster University.

Over 20 months, an interdisciplinary group of researchers (linguists, computer scientists and palliative care specialists) led by Elena Semino scrutinised the spoken and written language used by terminally ill patients, family carers and the healthcare professionals who work with them. They collected 1.5 million words of interviews with and contributions to online fora by the three groups and focused specifically on what kinds of metaphors they used and how.

Metaphor involves talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another. When you say that someone died after a ‘battle’ with cancer, you talk about being ill and attempting to get better in terms of military conflict. When you say that someone has ‘passed away’, you talk about dying in terms of a movement away from a current location. Metaphors are interesting because they are often used in describing complex, emotional, subjective and taboo experiences, such as health, illness and death. They can convey things indirectly but also vividly and concisely. Any systematic patterns suggest underlying attitudes, thoughts and needs of those using the expressions. For example, early on in the project the team noticed that death is talked about in at least two ways: sometimes it’s something that approaches the patient, ‘they are aware the end of their life is coming’, and sometimes the patient moves towards it, ‘some people are very, very upfront about talking about death and dying and “that’s where I’m going. It is my end-of-life”‘.

Different ways of describing the same thing have different implications and suggest different underlying attitudes. Death approaching the patient can imply that he or she has no control or influence over what is happening to them. While this may ultimately be true for all of us, various aspects of the experience of terminal illness are open to influence and the second framing (patient approaching death) allows for that more easily. This is a common theme: metaphors, in their entailments and implications, always foreground certain aspects of whatever experience they’re describing, while backgrounding others.

The proverbial ‘battle’ and ‘journey’ metaphors for illness are no different. Examples such as ‘staying as positive as possible is a proven way of fighting back’ and ‘I am ready to kick ass! Bring it on!’ highlight the ways in which being ill may involve strength, perseverance, endurance and heroism, and encourage us to see recovery as a victory (and not recovering or dying as defeat). But these examples also background the possibility of seeing illness as part of life, as something to go through or as a journey shared with others: ‘We met all sorts on our cancer journey’; ‘you seem to have come through the tunnel of cancer and are on the mend’.

These and many other types of metaphors are used by all three groups in the MELC dataset. No single metaphor is objectively superior to another; different metaphors may be more or less appropriate for different people, or for the same person at different times. When people describe their experiences or when others describe these for them, it is crucial that there are a variety of options so that vulnerable people don’t have unsuitable framings imposed on them. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the entailments of each choice in case they point to underlying issues that require attention.

Dr Zsofia DemjenDr Zsófia Demjén is Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. She specialises in the intersection of language, mind and healthcare,​​​​​​​​​ investigating the implications of how people use language to describe their experiences of illness. Before she joined The Open University, Zsófia was Senior Research Associate on the Metaphor in End of Life Care project at Lancaster University. You can follow Zsofia on Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Gary Blogg.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.