May 17, 2004

More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron

Mark Pilgrim is nearly done with his (online) python programming book Dive Into Python, but is currently being subjected to that bane of the author's life, the copy editing phase.

He says:

Dive into Python is almost finished. ... Now the copy editor is wielding her virtual pen and striking through every word I’ve ever written. Incorporating her revisions is simultaneously humbling, enlightening, and mind-numbingly tedious.

Here are the main things I’ve learned so far:

  • I use have to when I mean need to.
  • I misplace the word only. Instead of you can only walk through a stream once, the copy editor prefers you can walk through a stream only once.
  • I use lots when I mean a lot.
  • I use which when I mean that.
  • I overuse footnotes to be cute. This is a bad habit I picked up from the interactive fiction version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the infamous footnote 12.
  • I use like when I mean such as.
  • I use then immediately after a comma, when I mean and then.
  • I overuse semicolons for no particular reason except that I’ve always liked them.
  • I use note when I mean notice, and vice-versa.
  • I use we when I mean you. As we saw in the previous chapter… We’ll work through this example line by line. And so forth. Apparently we won’t be working through this example. You will be working through this example; I will be in the Bahamas drinking my royalty check.

Well, I don't know who is paying that copy editor, but if she were working for me she would be toast, because every single thing about English grammar here is wrong.

There are some style suggestions included: don't overuse footnotes, don't be too liberal with the rather literary device of the semicolon. On things like this, advice from an opinionated reader or a publisher with style guidelines can be helpful. I won't say anything about them. And the last point is also about style, though I think the style advice is dead wrong: inviting the reader into your deliberations and saying as we saw in the previous chapters feels much warmer and more supportive than the alternatives (as I stated in the previous chapters is all pay-attention-to-me, and as you saw in the previous chapters suggests authorial omniscience about the reader's mental state). But the rest (familiar copy-editor changes all) are based on nothing more or less than flatly false claims about what is grammatical in contemporary Standard English. This copy editor should be told not just to lay off, but to go to school and take a serious grammar course. Enough of these 19th-century snippets of grammatical nonsense that waste authors' time all over the English-speaking world. Let me go through the grammar points on which poor Mark is being corrected, one by one:

  • Have to and need to are essentially synonymous. There is a slight tendency for the first to be used when the compulsion source is external and for the second to be used for internally driven urges, but they can easily be used the other way round, as we see from the naturalness of Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom and You need to move your car because that side of the street is being swept today.
  • The word only is frequently positioned so that it attaches to the beginning of a larger constituent than its focus (and thus comes earlier), and that is often not just permissible but better. Ian Fleming's title You Only Live Twice was not copy-edited to You Live Only Twice. Why not? Because he knows how to write, and he didn't let an idiot copy-editor change his writing into mush, that's why.
  • Lots of garbage and a lot of garbage are both grammatical and mean basically the same thing. Lot here is not used in any literal sense; it's what's called a non-count number-transparent quantificational noun (CGEL ch. 5 sec. 3.3). The main difference is that lots of is more informal in style (especially with count plurals: lots of stupid quibbles is distinctly more informal than a lot of stupid quibbles. But informal does not mean incorrect. It is perfectly appropriate, and becoming standard, to use informal English constructions in computer programming books and lots of other kinds of academic and technical published prose.
  • There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don't respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:
    • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
    • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
    • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
    • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
    • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
    • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...
    Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you've read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.
  • Like has exactly the same meaning as such as in contexts like this one (I could have said in contexts such as this one). There is a difference in formality level: like is more informal. But informal does not mean incorrect. I believe I have said this before. Please pay attention.
  • Then can introduce a new clause immediately after a comma; an extra and is not needed. Bram Stoker writes: The carriage went at a hard pace straight along, then we made a complete turn and went along another straight road. Do these copy editors think their writing wisdom is greater than that of the author of Dracula? Huh? They are morons, and they are wasting Mark Pilgrim's time with their fiddling.
  • Note and notice, as verbs, have basically the same meaning. It is hard to imagine a context in which one would need to be corrected to the other, or in which direction.

Have I made myself absolutely clear? Well, just in case, I will say this once more in a box, in a larger typeface designed to catch the attention of dimwitted people or perhaps even copy editors:

The things mentioned above are not debatable, they are facts about English that can easily be checked, and it is about time copy editors were told to stop wasting millions of hours on pointlessly correcting them when they were correct in the first place.

God dammit, I can feel the veins standing out in my neck. I need to step outside for a while and kick something.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 17, 2004 02:36 PM