I usually stick to writing about editing and publishing here and comment about language usage elsewhere, but I’ve recently noticed a lot of people pondering the seemingly contradictory phrase “meteoric rise”:
If meteors fall to earth, why do people say 'meteoric rise'? You might as well talk about 'rocketing to the depths'
— Tom Albrighton (@tomcopy) July 7, 2016
When people rise rapidly, why is it called a meteoric rise? Doesn't meteors fall? And explode? And die?
— Troy (@ivyleaguereport) June 19, 2016
The oft-used term "meteoric rise" I feel does not make sense, as meteors fall.
— Casey Lembke (@cheese09) June 14, 2016
"(Blah, blah, blah)…Trump's meteoric rise to fame!"
You know meteors 'fall' from the sky, right?
— Moisticle (@timdanielgould) June 10, 2016
Why do people say "meteoric rise"? Don't meteors fall to the ground? ???? https://t.co/RK7LguS8xm
— cory (@coryjedwards_) June 9, 2016
So rarely do I get the chance to combine my language pedantry with my knowledge-of-astronomy-from-my-physics-days pedantry that I had to jump on this opportunity to assail you with a double dose of tedious über-pedantry. Ready? Here we go! Continue reading “Meteoric rise, meteoritic fall”
Experimental psycholinguist and author Steven Pinker gave the opening keynote at Beyond the Red Pencil, the Northwest Independent Editors Guild’s fifth biennial conference. His talk covered the same territory as his book The Sense of Style (which I reviewed earlier), but I still very much enjoyed hearing him speak in person.
Why is so much writing so bad, he asked, and how can we make it better?
One common theory is that bad writing is a deliberate choice by bureaucrats who use gibberish to evade responsibility or by pseudo-intellectuals who want to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. But good people can write bad prose, said Pinker. Another theory suggests that digital media are ruining the language, because we can all recall that in the 1980s, Pinker quipped, “teenagers spoke in coherent paragraphs.”
A better theory is that whereas speaking comes naturally to us, writing doesn’t. “Writing is and always has been hard,” said Pinker. “Readers are unknown, invisible, inscrutable—and exist only in our imagination.”
What can we do to improve writing, then? Some would suggest reading books like The Elements of Style, but among some good advice—such as using definite, concrete language and omitting needless words—is advice that is obsolete or downright baffling. “The problem with traditional style advice,” said Pinker, is that it’s an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts based on the tastes and peeves of the authors.”
Instead, we should base our writing advice on the science and scholarship of modern grammatical theory, evidence-based dictionaries, cognitive science, and usage. Pinker made a case for classic style, which uses “prose as a window onto the world.” Reader and writer are equals, and the goal of the writer is to help the reader see objective realities. “The focus is on the thing being shown, not the activity of studying it,” said Pinker. The latter is a feature of self-conscious style that contributes to the verbosity and turgidity of academic and bureaucratic writing.
“Classic prose is about the world, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world,” said Pinker, who suggested avoiding metaconcepts and nominalizations. But he urges caution on the common advice to avoid the passive voice—especially since the advice itself often uses passive voice while condemning it. “The passive could not have survived in the English language for 1500 years if it did not serve a purpose,” said Pinker. English sentences rely on word order to convey both grammatical information and content. We expect material early in the sentence to name the topic (what the reader is looking at) and later in the sentence to show the focal point (what the reader should notice). “Prose that violates these principles feels choppy and incoherent.”
So “avoid the passive” is bad advice. But why is it so common in bad writing? “Good writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who make things happen,” said Pinker, whereas “bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge.
Too much knowledge can be a curse: “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” It’s this curse of knowledge that leads to opaque writing. The traditional advice to solve this problem is to assume a reader is looking over your shoulder at what you write. “The problem with the traditional solution is that we’re not very good at guessing what’s in people’s heads just by trying hard,” said Pinker. A better approach is to show your draft to a representative reader, or “show a draft to yourself after some time has passed and it’s no longer familiar.” Rewrite several times with the single goal of making prose more accessible to the reader.
Another battleground in writing are rules of usage, but Pinker said that the “prescriptivist versus descriptivist” paradigm is a false dichotomy. Rules of usage aren’t logical truths and are not officially regulated by dictionaries, he said. They are tacit, evolving conventions. “Many supposed rules of usage violate the grammatical logic of English, are routinely flouted by the best writers, and have always been flouted by the best writers. Obeying bogus rules can make prose worse.”
How does the writer or editor distinguish real usage from those bogus rules? “Look them up!” said Pinker. “Modern dictionaries and usage manuals do not ratify pet peeves,” he said. “Their usage advice is based on evidence.”
In any case, Pinker said, “correct usage is the least important part of good writing,” compared with a conversational classical style, a coherent ordering of ideas, factual accuracy, and sound argumentation.
Disclaimer: I am utterly incapable of replicating Katherine Barber’s humour and delivery, but she said some important things about language that editors would find valuable, which is what I’ve summarized here. (I’d previously had the privilege of hearing her speak at the PLAIN 2013 conference.) If you ever get the opportunity to hear the Word Lady speak in person, don’t let it pass you by!
Katherine Barber was the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary when it became the first dictionary to change its definition of marriage to “the legal or religious union of two people,” in 2004. At her keynote to close Editing Goes Global, Barber, bestselling author of Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language and Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, told us she was very proud of that change. “And I can tell you—we got letters,” she said, to laughter. “We also got letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’” This milestone shows the importance of dictionaries; they’re not just about looking something up.
Barber joked that her job as a lexicographer was easy, compared with our jobs as editors: “Lexicographers only have to write sentence fragments,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about transitions or plots or character development.” What they do have to worry about, though, is capturing the regional differences in language that can help define a culture or a nation. Canadian English is a good example: “You must not confuse Canadian English with American English,” Barber told the international crowd, “because Canadians will hate you! We’re unclear about what our identity is. One thing we’re sure of is that we’re not American. And I say that with all respect and fondness for Americans.”
Differentiating ourselves from Americans is why we stick a u in colour, for instance. Barber enjoys checking dictionaries to see if they’ve included the colour variant. In one “Webster’s” dictionary at a discount store, she didn’t find a u in colour because colo(u)r wasn’t listed at all! A lot of so-called Webster’s dictionaries aren’t legitimate—anyone can claim to have created a Webster’s dictionary. “Merriam-Webster is the real deal,” said Barber.
Merriam-Webster doesn’t always capture Canadianisms, though: its entry on toque defines the word as “a woman’s small hat without a brim made in any of various soft close-fitting shapes” and claims that the word is pronounced “toke.”
We may recognize toque as a Canadianism, but we use many terms without realizing that they’re unique to Canada (or to certain parts of Canada). What do foreigners think when they first see signs advertising “bachelor for rent”?
Barber closed with a plea that editors retain regionalisms when their meaning is clear. Huck, meaning throw, in Western Canada and jambuster, meaning jelly donut, in Manitoba are not only valuable data for lexicographers, but they add to the vibrancy of our linguistic tapestry.
For most of its centuries-long history, the dictionary had been the source of a largely one-way flow of information. Today, online dictionaries can track what words people are looking up, and, as Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski showed us, this rich data can offer us fascinating insights into what people may be thinking about at any given moment.
“Editors know the dictionary better than anyone else,” said Sokolowski. Merriam-Webster’s traditional constituents were mostly librarians and teachers, and it was only through Twitter that Sokolowski (whose own Twitter feed was named among TIME’s best of 2013) discovered the large editorial community of dictionary devotees. Many of us find ourselves reading the dictionary for fun. “People think they’re the only ones telling me they read the dictionary,” he said, “and always in a conspiratory tone. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act.”
In Noah Webster’s time, that intimate act was restricted to an elite few: Webster charged $20 for his dictionary in 1828, making it very much a luxury item. After Webster died, the dictionary’s printers—the Merriams—reduced the price to $6 in 1847 and then to $3 in 1847. After the war, they introduced paperback versions, and the pocket dictionary cost only 25 cents. The democratization of the dictionary continued: Merriam-Webster put its Collegiate Dictionary online in 1996, and now we can all look up words for free.
Adults use the dictionary a bit differently compared with children, said Sokolowski. “We look up to learn more, not to profess ignorance.” We look up words to learn about their etymologies, to get a better grasp on their usage, and to understand their shades of meaning in different contexts. Major events often trigger a spike in lookups: when Princess Diana died in 1997, top lookups included paparazzi, cortege, and princess. After the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, lookups included rubble, triage, terrorism, jingoism, and surreal. When California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was struck down, Merriam-Webster saw a spike in lookups of marriage—and what Sokolowski calls an echo spike for bigot.
Among the most looked-up words are affect and effect. “English is hard,” said Sokolowski. “English presents us with difficulties. Lookups can reveal struggles between orthographic variants,” such as camaraderie and comradery. Some words—including pragmatic, conundrum, and paradigm—are looked up all the time. Spikes in two-letter words, usually in the evenings around Christmas and Thanksgiving, are a hint that people are playing Scrabble. Some lookups are cyclical: love spikes in February every year, “not for spelling, and not for pronunciation.”
Sokolowski added, “We’re good at reading data; we’re not very good at reading minds.”
How does a word make it into the dictionary? Criteria for adding a word are
- sustained usage,
- frequent usage, and
- meaningful usage.
(Antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t meaningful, so it doesn’t get an entry.) It used to take fifty or sixty years for a word to be added to the dictionary. “Blog got in after five,” said Sokolowski. Of course, Merriam-Webster regularly receives letters, some from users who disagree with the dictionary’s stance. “Standard English is a privileged language,” said Sokolowski. “Language changes fast enough for us to notice, and most of us don’t like the change.” Regardless of whether users like a definition, though, the function of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to offer a snapshot of American English of the day. It is synchronic, in contrast with the diachronic Oxford English Dictionary, which records a word’s evolution over time. “We need both,” said Sokolowski.
The only Merriam-Webster dictionary behind a paywall is the Unabridged, with almost 500,000 words—all of them fair game for participants of the national spelling bee. Access to the Unabridged also allows you to run advanced searches, for words that were coined in a certain year or that have a certain language in the etymology, for example, and to run reverse lookups of words that appear in the definition.