Hi everyone. Having been in the publishing industry since 2005, one thing I now know is that there are a lot of gray areas, and some of them are good gray areas when it comes to editing, that is copyediting, per se. This could range from Read the rest of this entry »

I have often found authors to make the mistake of being confused between “something undergoing” and “something under way,” even authors who otherwise have produced a well-written output. An example sentence:

This crisis has been undergoing since the start of the present century.

Change to

This crisis has been under way since the start of the present century.

In a short sentence like the above example, this is easy to catch, but in longer sentences, you may miss it, since both “undergo” and “under way” are not that far off semantically: both imply a certain kind of motion, a process. (In the case of “undergo,” it is the unpleasantness (often, but not always), the transition, the inflicting that is in focus, with the continuity not really in question, whereas “under way” is more about a process that lasted for a certain duration, and it is this interval that is in focus.) It is rather important to remember that “undergo” can only be a transitive verb (so someone or something has to undergo something), just “undergoing” with no object taken is not fine. For example, a country can undergo a crisis, but during that time the crisis is under way (and remember, the adverb should be two words, not one word, viz. “underway,” which is only used in adjectival usages).

The Corpus of Modern Scottish Writing, covering the period from 1945 onwards, is now launched for all public: http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/cmsw/

If something brings in more clarity, why to discard it? In the following example, the usage of “due to,” frowned upon as prepositional phrase earlier but now increasingly accepted, does make the sense hazy; I would change it.

Autolysis occurs naturally at the end of the stationary phase of growth due to natural aging of the cells.

changed to

Autolysis occurs naturally at the end of the stationary phase of growth because of natural aging of cells.

I would of course rather recast the whole sentence as follows, if I am at liberty to do so:

Natural autolysis is caused by aging of cells at the end of the stationary phase of growth.

Language is not just a system which is marked by utterances as events; but rather each human being has his own different language, and each tries to project a new language on the world. It is the trying to interpret, the desire to attempt, that is universal, not the grammar. A recent article in The New York Times is an example not only of a minefield of errors, obfuscating language, and clichés, but also of the woes when one actually doesn’t have anything to say yet is faced with the dictum to write or speak; the concerned article is the columnist Roger Cohen’s “Democracy Still Matters” (Sep 20, 2010; available here or here).

The lingering wars waged partly in democracy’s name in Iraq and Afghanistan hurt its reputation, however moving images of inky-fingered voters gripped by the revolutionary notion that they could decide who governs them.

How many of you had to read it more than once and scratch your head? You didn’t? Well, you’re bright, but not all are! You could have easily read it (assuming that a semicolon is missing) as “however, moving images gripped by …” and then wondered well where’s the rest of it. And then hunting the sentence again and again, you will realise that oh it means that “The lingering wars … hurt its reputation, however moving (are) the images of….” That definite article is necessary here; you could get a nice clue from the French translation of this article available here (“Aussi émouvantes que soient les images d’électeurs aux doigts maculés d’encre …”: note “les,” the definite article, instead of “des,” which would have allowed the omission of an article in English).

There are several other crimes committed here. The author uses “blood expended” instead of the more common “blood shed/spilled”: however, “expended” means one spends something for something, pays out something for something. Blood in revolutions and fights has often been shed even unwittingly, as mere victims of massacres; yes, blood can earn you a victory, and yet when one fights one has not thought I am spending my blood for such and such an item (here, democracy). “Expended” is practical; “spilled” is not: how many of the revolutionaries are practical?

Of course, the biggest thing that gets to me in this article is how glossed over is everything by the usage of “inappropriate” tenses, just so that the author can at the end, though without any substance that he shows except for a deceased’s opinion, conclude with self-congratulation that yes, democracy has to be sustained. “The lingering wars … hurt its reputation,” “China grew,” “Democracies seemed blocked.” What is this timeline? A timeline suggests that a war was fought during 1790-1796; is all this finished? Has the hurt to democracy ceased, or has China’s growth, or is the democracy in Israel not seeming so corrupt now? Why not “have hurt,” “has grown,” or “have seemed blocked”? Why not “There have been exceptions …” when it is only the recent past we’re talking about? In the end, the author’s questionable motives culminate with “however marginalized those dead white men may appear in the dawning Asian century“: it’s a beautiful way to say and not yet say. The dawning century is Asian, yes; and the dead white men who represented the voice of democracy are dead, yes. Two different things, and the writer connects them into one sentence, to give the impression to the reader they are connected? And yet, we read just before that it’s America inflicting wars on nations, while Russia and China have hardly any ideology. In that respect, corrupt governance seems to be a global thing and irrespective of ideologies or overt government structures; why does the writer choose to make such a connection?

Another sentence with strange usages: “Democracies seemed blocked, as in Belgium, or corrupted, as in Israel, or parodies, as in Italy, or paralyzed, as in the Netherlands.” “Parodies”? Is the writer talking of successive democratic systems in Italy? “Corrupted”? Why not “corrupt”? What is the difference here between “blocked” and “paralyzed”? Is the first one malfunctioning and the latter one not functioning at all?

And yes, the chief defect: “It’s important to stanch the anti-democratic tide.” And now that the reader awaits with bated breath a revelation as to why it’s necessary to hold on to democracy, the author instead of giving answers simply ends with quotations and aphorisms, and they are his reasons! Goodness me!

And well, what to say of the sentence “the historian who brought the same unstinting lucidity to his death last month from Lou Gehrig’s Disease“? Before you think Judt also as a pioneering biologist, and maybe a self-healing prophet as well, make changes thus: “the historian who showed the same unstinting lucidity faced with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which finally led to his death last month.” I guess this sentence says everything about the column/article.

These so-called “paper sons” had spent considerable time studying the background of their supposed ancestors … (Carol Nolte, “Legacy of hope and despair,” p. A1, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan 21, 2010)

“So-called” already warns the viewer that something hatched, cooked up, played with, or unfamiliar is going to come up; putting quotation marks around the following term is bad style. Not simply bad style, but double emphasis, which only confuses the reader. Either dispense with “so-called” or remove the quotes—let the text flow.

The definite article is one of the things that make English so fascinating for me, just as it’s the partitive article du/de la/des that does it for French. So here’s a para that I was about to misinterpret for a second, and then after rereading, got the meaning of:

A few words need to be said about the reason for the macro-phase separation. On the onset of postcrosslinking, the entire polymer solution is transformed into a gel. Still, full conversion of the bifunctional crosslinking agent requires time in the two-step Friedel–Crafts reaction. After attaching to one polymeric chain, most bifunctional reagent molecules have to spend some time, until through fluctuations, an aromatic ring of another chain approaches the reagent’s pending second functional group to a distance suitable for reaction.

I placed a query to the author for “have to spend some time,” that does he mean “have to spend some time idle,” which I think is what he most likely meant. As I didn’t have the opportunity to proofread this one, don’t know what the author replied. I of course didn’t want to make changes myself without confirmation from the author. Now the interesting thing is that last bit of phrase highlighted. First, I thought the author means to refer to the Friedel–Crafts reaction once again, and I was about to change to “to a distance suitable for the reaction.” But, an instinct stopped me, thankfully! I grasped that oh, the author simply means that as the ring approaches the functional group nearer, reaction can now happen: the probability of a reaction happening (to what kind of reaction does it belong to doesn’t matter, just that a reaction, an interaction, could).

Pay close attention to what the author is saying; sometimes, when thought is moving faster than what can be projected, a writer might forget a word which with its absence makes the sentence meaningless, if not ridiculous.

With the vigorous development of network technology and the popularity of the Internet …

changed to

With the vigorous development of network technology and the rising popularity of the Internet …

We were not talking here of markets and brandings, hence not of how popularities are built; but rather just of a factor which has led to the increase in the number of e-commerce services in the recent past.

A Reuters post dated 6 Feb 2010 says:

Obama has faced opposition to the proposal from Republicans who want money paid back to the government by big banks returned to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.

If I had not read the headline, I would’ve thought the proposal was from the Republicans. That is just one of the horrific ways this one sentence was created; having no comma before “who” means that the Republicans are not unanimous, but rather the article is talking about only some motley group of them. Definite article and/or use of possessive would certainly have helped to clarify the sentence further. Breaking into sentences or not including some understood things would have helped that second convoluted clause. I anyway think that the proposal faces opposition, not Obama.

Hence, I would change to the following:

Obama’s proposal has faced opposition from the Republicans, who want money paid by big banks to be returned to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.
Addendum on 1 Jul: Probably, I would just say “The proposal has faced …” as it must have been already discussed before (as evident from “the proposal” in the original post). What’s curious here how media often twists things into egocentric wars, into personalities stamping themselves on the world; how people relate much more to a person facing opposition rather than a policy facing opposition. It’s unfortunate, because policies affect people in their real lives, and the debate instead of centering around them gets lost in who is pushing for what, who’s winning and who’s losing.

The Cricinfo story on the running England-South Africa Test battle had an old irritant today:

Nevertheless, it was the change of pace that did for Duminy in the end, as Swann entered the attack in the 109th over, and true to his reputation, made an immediate impact. On the first day, he had needed three deliveries to remove another South African left-hander, Prince – this time he struck with his fifth ball, a sharply spinning offbreak that Collingwood snaffled at slip in a near-replica dismissal.

Of course, there are several irregularities here; the comma in the very first line should be after “and” and not before; that’s highly ridiculous though understandable since the writer must have been in a hurry on a news website. Again I would have opted for a semicolon after Prince, but that in itself might turn out to be just my peculiarity. However, what starts getting me is a needless use of the word “snaffle”; I saw the dismissals, and at the most the bowler snaffled the batsman overall, as Duminy was not looking particularly uncomfortable. To suggest that the catch itself was a snaffled one suggests the reflexes to be quicker than they were required in this case; the catch was a good one, but it was not something out of the ordinary, and if not bountiful, Collingwood did have ample time to take it, considering him to be an international-level cricketer. What irritated me highly though was that “near-replica dismissal.”

Along with its counterpart “exact replica,” I am almost dead tired and flogged and rinsed of replicas completely. The two dismissals, that of Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy, were exactly similar (note “exactly” is fine here); they were carbon copies! How to suggest that as near replicas beats me first of all, besides the further thought that what exactly is a “near replica”? The Oxford University Press says replica is “a very good or exact copy of sth”; so then is a near replica something which seems to have some resemblances to something when you can stretch your imagination a bit? To say nothing that here anyway they were perfect copies, not even good copies, so why this generous usage of words, and why not just “replica”, or to make your point sharper, “replica of a/the dismissal” (“replica” as noun, which always is preferable to me—avoids all confusion).

Of course, terms like “exact replica” are further off the mark, especially if you now move to Webster’s from Oxford, which says “replica” to be “a copy exact in all details”! So is an “exact replica” an “exact exact copy”? What exactly?

The subset of users can be selected (a) using k-most similar users or (b) a set of users whose similarity values are above a certain predefined threshold.

changed to

The subset of users can be selected choosing (a) the k most similar users or (b) users with similarity values above a certain predefined threshold.

There were multiple problems with this sentence; first “using,” even if it would have been a proper word, was inside the first condition, and thus the second condition was disconnected from the clause that introduced the conditions. It was also a bit not clear in the sentence whether the sets have similarity values or the users, till you looked at the subject/verb agreement: users … are above. Of course, logic would also dictate the same, but why should the reader stop or hesitate anywhere? “k-most” was almost as good as “the k most”, but then we don’t usually say “three-most ordinary articles”; we say “the three most ordinary articles” or “the three most-ordinary articles” (which I would prefer, but somehow is rarely used). I made the “k” italic since it’s a variable, but that’s OK; different people have different conventions, just follow one within one work. I would still debate whether “certain … threshold” doesn’t amount to redundance, but I would leave the author at peace here: maybe his book would be 30% of what it was originally if I start paring down the redundancies!