PERSNICKETY EDITORS.

Theresa Nielsen Hayden has a post about a blog called Copy editing, damnit that purports to be the source of all wisdom concerning style: “Listen to me, I know style and how to use it.” The annoyingly smug tone of that sentence is the second thing that strikes one; the first, thanks to the mile-high type face, is the solecism in the blog’s name (as Theresa points out, “he’s misspelled it… ‘damn it’ if two words, ‘dammit’ if one”). One might get used to those things if the entries were well written and accurate; alas, they are neither: it’s a series of sub-Safire snippets on ancient red herrings like “most unique,” “mail is a noun, male is an adjective,” and “runner-ups.” None of this has anything to do with real style; these are the shibboleths of a certain breed of green-eyeshaded, mossbacked Perry Whites of concern only to the unfortunates who still submit copy to them. Here’s a sample of the misbegotten conflation of grammar and presumed logic:

It’s not “a couple pieces,” or “a couple million.” “Couple” is a noun meaning “two items.” Therefore, if you have a couple of something, you have to say you have a “couple of” something. It’s simple grammar.

I truly feel sorry for people who try to make the unruly productions of the human language instinct conform to the rules of logic. It’s a hopeless quest, and one that can drive its acolytes mad: I once had a colleague of this bent who, confronted with the fact that French used “double negatives” quite successfully, responded “Then the French are wrong!”
But I’m not here to beat up on the anonymous author of “Copy editing, damnit” (as Lynn says, “I don’t care if it’s your real name or not; just give me something to call you”), I’m here to point you to the comment thread at Theresa’s post, which is full of delightful comebacks by fellow grammar lovers and editors. My favorite sequence so far: “Am I the only one to notice (tsk, tsk!) that this guy also doesn’t believe in the use of the serial comma? (Said lack of use is, of course, the cause of the current fall of Western Civilization, As We Know It.)” followed by “::applauds by wiggling fingerbones::” followed by “Serial comma? Nancy’s favorite example of the importance of that little comma comes from a book that was honestly dedicated: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” followed by:

The “God and Ayn Rand” serial comma thing is possibly apocryphal, but there’s one along the same lines that Rob Hansen spotted in the TV listings of The Times:
Planet Ustinov – Monday, C4, 8pm
By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

I, too, applaud by wiggling fingerbones. (Oh, and there’s also a sequence about a word, “sinople,” that can mean both ‘red’ and ‘green.’ You learn something every day.)

Comments

  1. Piffle! Anonymous seems to have heard you and changed the name of his blog to Stylin’ and Smilin’. English has been using nomina adjectiva as substantiva since before it was a written language. Anon. is the veriest fool alive!

  2. Great heavens, so he has!
    *feels the power*

  3. If male cannot be used as an adjective, then we could not correctly say “I have six cats–two males and four females.” We would have to say “I have six cats–two male cats and four female cats.” Where do people get these ideas about language anyway?

  4. I presume you mean “as a noun”, not “as an adjective”, but in any case…not quite. For instance, try using “stupid” and “clever” in place of “male” and “female” in your example. You’ll see that you can use the construction just fine with adjectives.
    What he’s railing against is using it as an honest-to-God noun, not a substantive adjective. You typically cannot use an adjective as a substantive in cases where you can (in some circles :-) use the word “male”. For instance, you can say, “He is such a male,” whereas you cannot say, “He is such a blind.” Personally, this is a feature I wish we had in English, but we don’t seem to yet.
    By the way, Steve, I quoted your apostrophe post in a conversation on a forum at my old high school (all us IMSAns still keep in pretty good touch), and your “horrors unleashed upon an already suffering world” comment was very well appreciated. :-)

  5. I’m delighted to hear it!

  6. Today’s first para. contained the question “how do you offend the fewest number of people?”
    I sniff. I roll my eyes. I wrinkle my nose. The copy-editor in me goes in search of her battered Chicago 14 (the 15 is crisp, new, and shiny, and not to be used as a bludgeon) and thwaks Damnit repeatedly.
    What is the smallest number of times I should thwak, think you all?

  7. Ah, jennie, you’re a woman after my own heart. Thwak until Damnit cries, “Hold, enough!”—and if you ever decide to move to NYC, let me know and I’ll give you a good reference for a copy-editing job. (I still haven’t gotten my Chicago 15, but I’m circling it avidly…)

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