Thursday, September 22, 2011

Class consciousness and The Chicago Manual of Style

When I send proofs to an author for proofreading, my cover letter says something along the lines of “No changes should be introduced at this point other than the actual correction of actual errors. This is not the time for rewriting or for mere improvements; it can get expensive and time consuming. (I understand that there is nothing ‘mere’ about an improvement, but the time for them has passed.)” Or words to that effect. Nevertheless, most authors improve (in their opinion) the wording at the proofs stage. When assigning responsibility for errors in proofs, my employer uses the abbreviations that appear in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), section 2.131:
PE (printer’s error--the customary term for what is generally a typesetter’s error), AA (author’s alteration), EA (editor’s alteration), and DA (designer’s alteration).
Is there some sort of class distinction here? The tradespeople (unlike improvements, they can be considered “mere”) engage in errors; we professionals make alterations.

A recommendation, if I may. Let’s let our abbreviations acknowledge that even intelligent professionals, such as the authors we serve and even we our very good selves, commit errors. (The manual does acknowledge this, describing AAs and EAs in 2.131 and 2.132 as errors that need correction.) It would be an honest thing to do. It might even make the authors a little bit more shy about introducing changes in the proofs stage if they were asked to label them as errors. Not likely, but possible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Miss Froy and the OED

I'm recommending that you do three things, preferably in this order.
1. If you're unfortunate enough to never have seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), do so at your earliest convenience. If you don't have any convenience, see it at your earliest inconvenience. You'll thank me later. (It's my favorite movie!) (Don't worry, it isn't scary.)
2. Do you subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the day? If not, why not?
3. Read the rest of this post.
I now realize that I've quoted shamelessly from the OED in the past, and I may not have met the legal requirements for doing so, in which case I apologize. I'm not going to just copy and paste the whole thing this time. And all quotes from the OED in this post are Copyright © Oxford University Press 2011.

Today's word of the day is McGuffin, also spelled MacGuffin, Maguffin, and maguffin. Although OED uses McGuffin as its main entry, I'll be using MacGuffin because that's the spelling in the two exemplary quotations that I think are most authoritative. The OED defines MacGuffin as an item in a film or other narrative fiction that is "initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops."

It's hard to define words; if I were a lexicographer in the definitions department in the digital age, the definitions would mostly be videos of me waving my arms around and saying, "Well, you see, a MacGuffin is when, like, for example, you've got your...." So it's without any claim of superiority that I say I think this definition is flawed.

Let's talk about The Lady Vanishes. I'm not going to ask if you enjoyed it, since if you didn't, I don't want to know that about you. If you haven't seen it yet (yet! understand?), what follows won't spoil it, because it involves MacGuffins (the word is usually associated with Hitchcock), and we don't really care about them. Many, including Hitchcock, believe that The Lady Vanishes has the best MacGuffin of them all: the tune sung by the local minstrel near the beginning of the film. But this tune isn't "initially presented as being of great significance"; we don't realize it's important until near the end. On the other hand, this may be the exception that proves the rule (I use the cliché intentionally; "proves" here means "tests," not "proves" in its usual modern sense). Maybe it's such a great MacGuffin because it we don't realize it's a MacGuffin until the end--it violates the norm of MacGuffins. It's a meta-MacGuffin. In hindsight, the audience identifies the MacGuffin. We realize that until the importance of the tune becomes clear, we had thought of Miss Froy (the lady who vanishes, played by Dame May Whitty) as the MacGuffin. Of course, she doesn't make a very good MacGuffin--she is lovable and eccentric, so we actually do care whether she turns up.

In one of the OED's illustrative quotations, Hitchcock says,
In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original. (Alfred Hitchcock, Lect. at Univ. Columbia 30 Mar. 1939 [typescript, N.Y. Mus. Mod. Art: Dept. Film & Video])
Indeed. Given that he mentions "the tune" and that the lecture was the year after the release of The Lady Vanishes, I conjecture that this is what he's referring to.

Anyhow, never mind. Just thinking out loud. I mean, I guess the point is that definitions are hard to do, and I love The Lady Vanishes, and I write about the OED a lot in this blog, and the word of the day was MacGuffin. [flapping arms uncontrollably]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures with adverbs (1st of 3): literally

I almost never agree with the language police (hereinafter referenced as the "LP"), but I have to admit that literally in a nonliteral sense usually makes my left knee go numb. (I also have to admit that I used reference as a verb hoping that any LP reading this would get annoyed.)

Although I usually dislike nonliteral literally--and note that I haven't called it incorrect or made fun of those who use it, which should establish my non-LP bona fides--I'm not sure it's always inappropriate. I realized this when I read "Literally the most misused word" by Christopher Muther of the Boston Globe. Muther quotes Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and
Zimmer points to a recent quote by Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who said, "This is literally a dream come true, just like it is for everyone on this team."

"Thomas and his teammates didn't all 'literally' dream about winning the Stanley Cup and then wake up to find themselves acting out their dreams," Zimmer says. "He could have used another intensifier ('absolutely,' 'definitely,' 'unquestionably') to make the same point."

"Thomas and his teammates didn't all 'literally' dream about winning the Stanley Cup and then wake up to find themselves acting out their dreams"? And how does Zimmer know this? To me, it sounds utterly plausible. Zimmer throws in some nonsense about "acting out their dreams." But a dream of winning the cup, not necessarily predicting every play, sounds reasonable.

But let's assume for a moment that Thomas and the rest of the guys didn't literally (in the literal sense) dream of winning the cup. Even then, I think it's not implausible to think that in their waking hours they fantasized about it, or thought about how it would feel. If that's the case, what would be wrong with using literally here, even if it's nonliteral? We all know that words can be used figuratively--Muther uses ubiquitous nonliterally. Does literally have some special status that requires that it always be literal? For me, literally may require a higher standard than other words for its nonliteral use to annoy me, but Zimmer has chosen as his example a usage that is not only OK, but probably the best possible word in the context.

Here is Muther's statement about the literal truth of literally:
What the word means is "in a literal or strict sense." Such as: "The novel was translated literally from the Russian."
Taken together, the definition and the example make no sense. The combo suggests that "The novel was translated nonliterally from the Russian" means that it was translated neither in a literal nor in a strict sense. Is Muther saying that a nonverbatim translation (I assume that in the example literally means verbatim) is not a translation in a strict sense?

I'm not interested in trying to fix this. But I do find it much more troubling than the displeasing use of literally.