Thursday, June 10, 2010


The New Republic is currently running a stupid and inane series called "Dispatches from the Blago Trial" by Margo Howard. In the third installment, Howard makes fun of Mike Ettinger, the attorney for Robert Blagojevich, Rod's brother:
Robert gained top military clearance because he was involved with Persian missiles and in charge of three "nucular" warheads (this pronunciation no doubt a tip of the hat to George W. Bush, this Blagojevich being a Republican).
Howard impresses here with witty commentary about "nucular." But what about those Persian missiles? What involvement did this U.S. military guy have with Iranian weaponry? Why didn't a journalist like Howard find this odd? Why didn't her editors at The New Republic?

Here's my guess about what happened. In Chicago, 39th Street is also (and primarily) known as Pershing Road. The Chicago pronunciation of the street's name is "Perzhing." Whether that's the pronunciation of Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing's name, or of Pershing missiles, I don't know. But my guess is that Ettinger applied the Chicago pronunciation of the street name to the missiles, and Howard didn't notice. Maybe she didn't know about Pershing Road or its pronunciation, maybe she didn't know about Pershing missiles. Whatever.

The point for readers of this editorial blog is that if we see something that seems very odd, such as a U.S. military person who works with Persian missiles, we need to query it. Another lesson, for all of us, is that if you're going to make fun of someone's pronunciations, you should try to look nonignorant when you're doing it. The best bet might be to not make fun of other people's pronunciations.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Says who?

Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log surmises that The New Yorker has a policy against putting said and the like before the subject, no matter the length of the subject. Says Pullum,

The New Yorker apparently has a house-style prohibition on (if I may use the technical terms employed in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) subject postposing in a parenthetical report frame for directly reported speech, even when the quoted speech is preposed.
He cites this quotation, which I haven't verified:
"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says. (Larissa MacFarquhar, "The devil's accountant", The New Yorker, March 31, 2003, p.67, column 2.)
Obviously--so obviously that I feel silly pointing it out--this sentence could be made into a much easier read. As Pullum points out
the New Yorker's fierce and unyielding house style code will not allow the subject to be postposed, to yield what could have been a perfectly acceptable sentence:
"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," says Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky.
(Here I note that Pullum is inconsistent on whether "the" should be treated as part of the title of the magazine. In work, I need to notice this stuff, but in real life I passionately don't care about it. I mention it for the sake of my professional cred.)

I bring this whole thing up for a few reasons. First, it's interesting (if you're interested in this stuff, which I am). Second, obviously, if we come across this sort of antipostpositional nonsense in our work, we need to correct it (not that it's incorrect--it's just nonreadable). The third thing is less obvious and much more important. Early on, Pullum says the magazine "apparently has a house-style prohibition on...subject postposing." Later, he says the mag's "fierce and unyielding house style code will not allow the subject to be postposed." This is very seriously non-OK, and it happens a lot in the scholarly stuff we edit. Some new information is suggestive of something or other blah blah yuck yuck, and therefore whatever. We need to protest when the author of a work we're editing magically goes from suggestivity and apparentness to a solid "therefore," or, as in this case, forgets that something is merely apparent. I mean, right, we should make the protest look like a query. And they may say, incorrectly, that it's fine. But we need to do our job.

I realize Pullum may have been quasi-jokey when writing about the "fierce and unyielding house style code." But in editing scholarly books, this is a joke we need to be humorless about.

Well, of course what Pullum did was probably OK. My point was that we need to be vigilant about maybe's that morph into defintely's. I actually do think that Pullum's was better than harmless--it was downright OK. But it would be non-OK for someone in our trade to not notice it and not at least be given pause by it.
Note two of the phrases in the previous paragraph. "What Pullum did was probably OK...I actually do think that Pullum's was better than harmless--it was downright OK." I noticed this in reviewing the paragraph and decided to keep it as an object lesson. It's hard not to fall into this trap, but we editors of scholarly material need to be on the lookout for it. And any of my colleagues who didn't notice what I did should consider finding honest work instead of what we do.