Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

ngramThe use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.

Shibboleths

Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Shibboleths for National Grammar Day

For National Grammar Day, I’m posting a slightly edited version of “Shibboleths and entering the professions,” which appeared on Pros Write back in 2012. I wrote the original in response to the raised eyebrows after I posted  “Language choices can be unsuccessful — but never wrong.” For some readers, my belief that language can never be wrong contradicts with my belief that I can prepare students for writing successfully in the workplace. The apparent contradiction deserved an explanation. So this post is about grammar rules. (I’ll get to “shibboleths” in a minute.)

According to Parker and Riley (two contemporary linguists) in Grammar for Grammarians:

“grammar” is not a simple, unified subject. Rather, it is a cover term for at least four different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of grammar: prescriptive, descriptive, generative, and contextual.

My university training as a linguist means I studied the latter three types of grammar rules. (I learned the prescriptive type in elementary school.) My role as a writing teacher means I often interact with people who assume I share the worldview of prescriptive grammar — that language can be wrong.  I don’t. Let me explain why not, borrowing from Parker and Riley’s chapter 2 on the prescriptive period.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. And so did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette and is therefore wrong. (You know, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.) Sadly, even highly educated people don’t know the history behind these vapid rules.

I’ll give you an example. Robert Lowth, who wrote the highly influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, is the subject of the portrait in today’s post. He believed there had been a decline in writing standards and that his job was to remedy the decline by formulating a set of rules for proper behavior. One of his rules is called preposition-stranding:

Keep a preposition with its object.

For Lowth and his followers, this means “the party you went to” is wrong, while “the party to which you went” is right. Parker and Riley explain:

The rule apparently is based on the fact that in Latin (as in all Romance languages), prepositions always precede a noun phrase and thus never appear in sentence-final position.

So, you should ask, what is the relevance of Latin as a model for English? Well . . . there is no direct line of development from Latin to English. Rather English evolved from Germanic roots. (I’ve added red circles to the diagram from the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.) Also, English is structurally different from Latin, using few inflections and a basic verb-object order. Too, by Lowth’s time, Latin had been a dead language for more than a milleneum. (No one outside of a monastery spoke it after ~700 AD.)  The fact that a dead language doesn’t change, while a living one cannot stop changing was apparently lost on Lowth and his prescriptivist pals.

You should also definitely ask: what were Lowth’s credentials for creating rules for English usage? He served as Bishop of Oxford and was a professor of Hebrew poetry (in other words, The Old Testament). I willingly recognize Lowth’s expertise in reading Hebrew and Latin. He might also have been a good writer. (I can’t judge the performance of 18th century British scholars.) But I won’t grant him expertise over the language I use today. His rule about preposition placement convinces me he had little enough understanding of the language used during his own lifetime.

Because of my studies in English language, I know prescriptive rules like preposition-stranding are shibboleths. As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

If my students’ language signals they may not pass inside the gate where professionals reside, I never tell them they’re wrong. I do sometimes tell them their language will elicit negative attention from some workplace readers.  But only when they break prescriptive “rules” that count as shibboleths for professional membership. It’s my responsibility to know which rules matter. Because of my studies in writing and business communication, I know ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t one of them. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

In a professional writing course, I always explain levels of formality (see my video on word choice) to everyone. I explain grammatical shibboleths to individual students whose usage signals they belong outside the gate: double negatives and subject-verb agreement are two prime examples. As needed, I explain a few other mechanical issues that serve as shibboleths: misspellings, sentence fragments, and comma splices (see my video on punctuation).

What is most sad to me is that so-called language experts (that means most English teachers, who study little, if anything, about language) perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated. But they were denied any real language education. They did not learn that English does not belong to those long-dead, reactionary, literary men of the 18th century who acted as the judges of etiquette based on their own tastes.

I choose not to continue the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. And I choose not to promote the use of shibboleths to teach students how to enter their chosen professions.  To me, there is a critical difference between telling students their language is wrong and telling them their language is likely to be unsuccessful in certain situations because it will distract some readers and undermine their credibility. As an educator, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices.

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

How to perform the role of “grammar checker” at work

From beauty by the geeks
From beauty by the geeks

Yesterday in “The big grammar quiz of 2014,” the UK’s Management Today published a terrific piece about grammar in workplace writing. Test yourself with their quiz. Then review your score with their key, which includes thoughtful and accurate explanations.

If you rely on Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, you will resist those explanations. But I remind readers to consider expert opinions from Geoff Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education in “50 years of stupid grammar advice” or the MIT lecture with Steven Pinker, “Communicating science and technology in the 21st century.”

If you’re still resisting, check out my post, “Do you know what you’re saying about grammar,” which expands on Jonathon Owen’s “12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar mistakes makes.” If you’re hungry for another quiz and more thoughtful explanations from an expert, head over to John McIntyre’s “A grammar quiz not for sissies.”

The message here is that helping people communicate in writing is difficult. But not because they haven’t learned a list of grammar rules. (Part of the problem is that there is no single list. To understand the scope of such rules, check out the HUGE project, a database of all English usage guides.) Helping writers is hard because effective language choices cannot be reduced to that kind of list.

Instead, the Management Today piece ends with 10 terrific tips for those whose unofficial role at work is “grammar checker.”

1) Always encourage [writers] to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world (www.oxforddictionaries.com is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues –Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said – and he was born in 1332.

Thanks to the authors for offering solid advice: Andrew Ingram (Better Business Writing) and Tom Freeman (The Stroppy Editor). In the spirit of promoting those with good sense, here’s the one-minute video for Andrew’s company.

Celebrating National Punctuation Day

I have been trying to avoid thinking about today’s “holiday,” but Nancy Friedman has captured my attention.  Punctuation is indeed both relevant and interesting in today’s workplace.

 

Fun with Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”

The digital world — including linguists everywhere — is rockin’ to Weird Al Yankovic‘s  “Word Crimes,” a parody of the hit song “Blurred Lines.” He rants about those who don’t know when to use  “fewer” instead of “less” or to use the apostrophe in “it’s.”

It’s all in fun. Mostly. But those lyrics make clear people do judge us based on our language choices. Look at the last verse.

I hate these Word CrimesWeird Al's Mandatory Fun
Your prose is dopey
Think you should only
Write in emoji
Oh, you’re a lost cause
Go back to preschool
Get out of the gene pool
Try your best to not drool

 

If you know me, you also know I don’t promote the importance of most peeves about usage because they are not all equally damning in the eyes of workplace readers. (See Shibboleths and entering the professions and The purist attitude toward language, too.)

For the media’s response to the “Word Crimes” video, see Huffington Post, Billboard, or Rolling Stone. For a linguist’s perspective, check out Bridging the Unbridgeable or All Things Linguistic or Ben Zimmer at Language Log. Even Visual Thesaurus is in on the action. But I have to recommend Forrest Wickman’s piece at Slate as the best I’ve read so far.

Do you question when to use a hyphen?

Photo Credit: Poetprince via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Poetprince via Compfight cc

It’s hard for researchers to avoid lengthy noun phrases. Often those phrases are a jumble for readers to interpret without hyphens. I promised some guidance to the doctoral students in my seminar on scholarly communication this semester. Here goes . . .

The topic of hyphens came up because, in the past couple of weeks, my students have shared drafts of the introduction and methods sections of their research articles. (See my posts with general guidance on research articles.) Here are several noun phrase examples from their drafts (shown without any hyphens for now):

  • traditional employee selection methods
  • scheduled lockup release date
  • proactive career related behaviors
  • corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature

Laymen (and women) may scoff or cringe. This is not plain language. Just remember that the effectiveness of a document can only be judged within its rhetorical context. We’re unqualified as judges when we aren’t the writer’s intended audience. It’s the other researchers in their field who determine what’s “plain” for the research papers my doctoral students are writing.

Lengthy noun phrases are often unavoidable in research written for other researchers. That’s because they express complex ideas efficiently.  If you have to write about corporate initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on the environment and impact on social welfare 25 times in a document for peer researchers, it makes sense to condense that to corporate social responsibility. When such noun phrases become common enough, abbreviations like CSR (or acronyms) are born. Then you don’t have to worry about hyphens — unless you use the abbreviation in a lengthy noun string.

I won’t lie. The prescriptions for using hyphens in written American English are complex. Linguistics Girl describes all seven of them:

  1. With affixes
  2. In compound nouns
  3. In coequal nouns
  4. In compound modifiers
  5. In phrasal modifiers
  6. In numbers
  7. To avoid confusion and misreading

Many of these prescriptions require lots of memorization of idiosyncratic words. Like in #1: you’re supposed to use a hyphen after the prefix pro- plus a list of a dozen more affixes but not with others. Well . . . OK.

And, of course, some words with the same prefix (like proactive) have become so common that the hyphen isn’t used anymore. You could simply refer to a standard dictionary when you have a question about hyphen usage. Researchers, however, use many terms that are not common enough to appear in standard dictionaries (like pro-social). Their only hope is to use the same spelling they’ve seen in the specific research journal they are targeting for their own work. Geez! I told you it was complicated.

I offer researchers two pieces of advice about hyphen usage. First, be consistent with specific terms throughout your document. Spell proactive and pro-social the same way every time. If your paper is accepted for publication, professional editors will apply hyphens as needed to comply with their specific style guide. You just want to be consistent so you don’t signal to the editor and reviewers that you’re sloppy.

Second, avoid ambiguity in compound modifiers (rule #4) by adding hyphens to clarify meaning. Let’s look at one of the compound modifiers used by my students: traditional employee selection methods. Does it mean (a) methods for selecting employees that have been used in the past or (b) methods for selecting employees who have values associated with the past? Ambiguity in compound modifiers is not caused by individual words with multiple meanings. It’s due to the multiple underlying structures possible for a string of words.

noun phrase tree 4
meaning (b)
meaning (a)
meaning (a)

Meaning (a) can be illustrated with the diagram at  left, which shows its internal syntactic structure. Meaning (b) can be illustrated with the diagram at right with a different internal structure. Either structure might be perceived by a reader experiencing the same string of words. Hence — ambiguity and the value of a hyphen to indicate the intended structure and keep the reader from wandering into territory the researcher did not intend.

  • traditional employee-selection method signals meaning (a) by hyphenating employee and selection to show both are modifiers of the head noun (N) method and that traditional modifies the noun phrase (NP) containing the three nouns
  • traditional employee selection-method signals meaning (b) by hyphenating selection but not employee with method to show both are not equal modifiers of it and traditional modifies only the noun (N) employee

I think the compound nouns in my students’ drafts would be less ambiguous with the hyphens shown below:

  • proactive career-related behaviors (career and related modify behaviors; proactive modifies the entire three-word phrase)
  • scheduled lockup-release date (lockup and release modify date and scheduled modifies the entire three-word phrase)

I could be wrong. The only way I’ll know for sure is when they tell me if I’ve chosen the same structure they intended. Then they can use hyphens to make that structure unambiguous for future readers.

(I used the syntax tree generator from Miles Shang to create the “tree” diagrams common in linguistics.)

Do you know what you’re saying about grammar?

adviceDo you offer grammar advice to others? I urge you to read 12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar makes to insure you’re not repeating common mistakes. Jonathon Owen, blogger at Arrant Pedantry (and also a linguist, writer, and editor) knows what he’s talking about. To me, the most serious mistake self-proclaimed “specialists” make is Mistake #3 on Owen’s list.

The writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing.

Let’s talk about “register” for a minute. Register is a term used to refer to the way styles of language vary according to situation. Example: when stating your opinion of the new PlayStation 4, your words and their structure vary in different situations:

  1. a text to your friend (ps4 is the sh@% f#$k xbox)
  2. a conversation with your grandmother (it’s better than any other game system)
  3. an online consumer review (better gaming than Xbox)
  4. an online professional review (The PlayStation 4 is $100 cheaper than rival Xbox One and has the upper hand on indie and day one digital-only offerings.)
  5. an academic essay (Compared to Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 gaming system demonstrates critical advantages: it is less expensive, and there are more independent, as well as more digital-only, games available at the time of its release.)

The style of your language — its register — differs because the rhetorical situation (your audience, purpose, mode of delivery, etc.) differs. I’ve referred to this as code-switching in previous posts.

Back to Mistake #3. The formal writing register is the style of language preferred when writing for teachers.  That’s example 5 above. None of the other styles of language would be appropriate for use in an academic essay. But here’s my point. The style of example 5 would NOT be appropriate for any of the other four situations. (If you think the style of 5 would be appropriate for situation 4, you might need to think carefully about the audience for online reviews of gaming systems.)

As Owen wrote in the post that prompted mine:

Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.

The choice between Who did you give the book to? and To whom did you give the book? is a choice of register. Only the most formal written register includes the use of whom.

If you’re providing grammar guidance, make sure your advice takes register and genre into account. Also remember that the register of the business world is less formal than the academic register. And specific business genres can be both more formal (a white paper) and less formal (an email request to a colleague who is also a close friend) than the business register in general. Using an inappropriate register for a specific situation is a breach in manners — like wearing white shoes after Labor Day — not a breach in grammatical competence.

I’ll repeat what I wrote in Shibboleths and entering the professions: What is most sad to me is that so many people perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated — even with English degrees. They parrot memorized etiquette rules based on the language preferred by teachers. But they were denied any real language education. An education that taught them about registers and their rhetorical functions. An education that would allow them to make good judgments about the most appropriate style of language for a specific situation.

Wanna know the difference between a dash and a hyphen?

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

‘Cause my day job kept me from blogging this week, I’m reprinting a wonderful article by James Harbeck: You’re using that dash wrong: A comprehensive guide to our language’s horizontal lines — from the humble hyphen to the three-em dash.  It’s worth a few minutes!

Published in The Week on September 10, 2013

Ah, the dash — the all-purpose punctuation mark. If you don’t know what punctuation mark to use — you can’t decide between a few, or you just have no clue — it’s the one that seems like you can always toss it in. Some writers use dashes very liberally. Some are so bold as to declare that there seem to be no real rules for the use of the dash.

Which is silly, because, in typographical terms, dashes are rules — “rule” is the typographical word for a straight line.

But it’s also silly because there are definitely places you just can’t get away with using them. So, where do you draw the line? And just how long is the line you draw?

Fortunately, typographers have come up with a detailed set of rules. Unfortunately, the rules forusing those rules — ha ha, got you there — are not always so tidy.

Here is the full set of commonly available horizontal lines, from the hyphen to the three-em dash (doesn’t that sound like an Olympic event?). If they seem like the panoply of forks at a fancy dinner place setting, just waiting for you to make a fool of yourself using the wrong one, relax — they are, but almost nobody else knows all the rules either.

Hyphen (-)

What it looks like: It’s the shortest of the lines. Sometimes it’s tilted up, but that’s less common now; in olden times, it was sometimes a double line, especially when used at the end of a line to indicate an interrupted word.

How to use it: For all those readers who have already said, “That’s not a dash!”: You’re right, it’s not. Don’t call a hyphen a dash. They have different functions (except when you’re using hyphens to represent dashes… see below). Hyphens go in the middle of words: When a word is broken at the end of a line, in compound words such as three-em dash, to add clarity as necessary between roots and affixes (such as in co-worker so you don’t read coworker as cow orker), and in constructions such as compound adjectives (off-white shirt) and names (Tay-Sachs disease).

How to make it: Press the key to the left right of the 0.

Substitutes for it: There isn’t a substitute, but you’ll never need one — every font has this character, and so do typewriters. It’s been around for much longer than the others.

Minus sign (−)

What it looks like: A little longer than a hyphen, and sometimes higher-placed.

How to use it: To indicate a negative number or a subtraction operation.

How to make it: Use the minus sign on your numeric keypad if you have one, or find it in your symbols menu.

Substitutes for it: A hyphen or an en dash, depending on the typeface.

En dash (–)

What it looks like: It should be the width of an n. In some typefaces, it’s longer or shorter than that. Some faces distinguish it from a hyphen by making the hyphen thicker.

How to use it: The classic use of an en dash is to represent range (“June 18–20”). It is also used by fussy people in place of a hyphen when you’re joining compound things that have hyphens in them: “The Bedford-Stuyvesant–Haight-Ashbury competition” (see the longer dash in the middle?). It is sometimes used instead of a hyphen to join open compounds: “The New York–New Jersey border” (the idea is that with a hyphen people might think it was a York-New Jersey border that was New, or something). And it is often used, with a space on either side, in place of an em dash — some typographers even recommend it.

How to make it: On a PC, it’s ALT 0150 on the numeric keypad; on a Mac, it’s Option -. MS Word will auto-replace two hyphens with it if they have a space on either side, and on a PC in Word you can also use Ctrl plus the minus on the numeric keypad.

Substitutes for it: Until fairly recently, not all browsers supported this character, so websites often used a hyphen in place of it, even when it was serving as an em dash. And many websites still do use a hyphen for it when it’s indicating relation or range, mainly because the people handling their content don’t know (or maybe don’t care) about en dashes.

Em dash

What it looks like: It should be as wide as an M. Some type faces make it even wider. It’s also supposed to have no elbow room on either side, so if you put several together they will make a smooth line.

How to use it: Normally this character is used with no space on either side, but that can keep lines of text from breaking on either side of it — a big reason that people often put thin spaces or even full spaces on either side of it. And where in a sentence do you use it? Think of it as representing the motion your head makes when you quickly look to the side — a jump in thought, a quick hop to a connected topic (“She doesn’t like them — they’re ‘guy things'”). If there are two of them, the second one jumps back (“If I were there — and thank heavens I’m not — I would do it”). If there’s nothing after it, it’s an interruption or break (“Hey, watch out, what are you—”). So, in short, you can use it where you would use a period, or a colon, or parentheses, but you will find that it gives a different feel, a more active and suspended one, less technical. It’s often a bad idea to use it where you would use a comma — unless the comma is at a clause boundary and you want to signify a greater break. Don’t use it with a comma or colon or semicolon — that’s so 19th century.

How to make it: On a PC, ALT 0151 on the numeric keypad; on a Mac, Option Shift -. In MS Word, type two hyphens without spaces on either side, and AutoCorrect will replace them with an em dash.

Substitutes for it: As I said above, you can also use an en dash with a space on either side. When people used typewriters, you were supposed to use two hyphens for an em dash. Now that we have computers, that’s not necessary — unless you’re typing an email that might be received by someone who’s using a different character encoding (there are still some little issues — the geeks who made the first computer character sets weren’t typography geeks).

Two-em dash

What it looks like: Two em dashes side by side with no gap.

How to use it: To indicate that part of a word has been omitted — usually a name or a vulgarity: “Mr. S—— told Ms. J—— that he would be d——d if he invited her out again.”

How to make it: Use two em dashes. But some typefaces do include this as a character.

Substitutes for it: Four hyphens.

Three-em dash

What it looks like: Three em dashes side by side with no gap.

How to use it: To indicate omission or repetition of a full word, especially a name. In a bibliography, use it in place of the author name to indicate that the entry has the same author as the previous one.

How to make it: Use three em dashes. But some typefaces will give you this, particularly dingbat fonts.

Substitutes for it: Six hyphens.

Did you know dictionaries are democratic? The real story behind “twerk”

DictionaryI’m guessing many of you don’t understand how a dictionary is created.  It’s true of the vast majority of people — even highly literate ones.  So here’s your chance to get educated about lexicography. That means dictionary-making.

The misconception that dictionaries are authorities on language is pandemic. John McIntyre’s piece”You Could Look It Up” appeared in today’s Baltimore Sun as a response to some poor journalism about the addition of “twerk” to the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not to the Oxford English Dictionary).  McIntyre ends with the following comments:

Language is a rich subject, and linguists and lexicographers have much to tell us about it. But journalism has instead for the past half-century, since the publication of Webster’s Third, made the dictionary a whipping boy for cultural trends that the writer dislikes. This approach has gone stale.

It may surprise many of you to learn that dictionaries are simply a collection of words (or phrases) used by speakers and writers of a language. You know, as opposed to a collection of words officially sanctioned by some expert or experts.

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on the same topic as McIntyre last December, which included the following:

This view of The Dictionary as the ultimate arbiter of our shared language is one that dictionary editors themselves are quick to disown. “Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language,” Ms. Stamper wrote on her blog. “That’s what you — the reading, writing, speaking public — do. Language is democratic, not oligarchic. That’s where the real glamour is.” [emphasis is mine]

Ben’s referring to Harmless Drudgery, a blog written by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.

I think the best way to understand what a dictionary is and what lexicographers do is by watching this wonderful TEDTalk by Erin McKean, CEO of the online dictionary Wordnik.

Just before I pressed the publish button on this post, Gabe over at Motivated Grammar published a piece on this topic. He offers informed opinions about language.  Dictionaries reflect usage. They don’t legislate it. Educate yourself, folks!

To better understand . . . Or to understand better?

split infinitive cartoonHas anyone given you grief over splitting an infinitive in your writing? If so, they would claim “to better understand” is wrong because the adverb better appears between to and the verb understand. The “rule” to avoid splitting infinitives originated in the 18th century due to a faulty comparison of English with Latin. (For more on such misinformed “rules,” head over to Motivated Grammar.)

While I find it surprising, the choice to split or not does sometimes elicit controversy. If you don’t believe me, you can read about a recent tussle between a journalist at The Economist and a linguistGrammar Girl might be right when she advises “it takes boldness to split an infinitive.” But do a journalist and a linguist accurately represent workplace readers? (I’ve urged you to attend only to usage that matters as established by research rather than to any individual’s pet peeves. I’ve listed the most relevant studies again at the end of this post.)

Of the six major research studies on writing mechanics since 1981, split infinitives were included in exactly zero of them.  In the most recent study (“Mistakes are a fact of life: A national comparative study” by Lunsford & Lunsford), split infinitives were considered but purposefully excluded because they were so rare in the writing of freshmen composition students. In the most relevant study for our purposes (“Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors” by Leonard & Gilsdorf), split infinitives were not tested because they were not considered one of the 45 most potentially distracting language choices.

Linguistics Research Digest recently summarized  a 2013 study by Perales-Escudero on the use of split infinitives in the Journal of English Linguistics. Here’s what the summary said.

We might assume that split infinitives would most often be used in spoken language, due to its more informal and less rigid nature and Escudero-Perales [sic] did indeed find that some examples, such as to just + verb’, to really + verb and to actually + verb are much more common in spoken registers.  On the other hand, he also found that other examples, such as to effectively + verb and to better + verb, showed strong associations with written academic registers.  In fact, the split infinitive that was used with most frequency in the COCA [Corpus of American English] was to better understand and it was mainly used in the written academic register, which we would probably perceive as the most rigid with regards to language rules.  However, it seems that it is this particular register which has given rise to its own split infinitive forms, especially those made with to better and to effectively.

So the evidence I have says stop thinking about split infinitives. There are so many other things to learn about writing successfully in the workplace!

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.