bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
A few weeks ago, at the ACES conference in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of being in the audience at the very first reading for Kory Stamper's new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. I'd followed Kory Stamper on Twitter for a while, even before Merriam-Webster became the unlikely voice of The Resistance. Reading her blog, Harmless Drudgery, had definitely turned me into one of those people for whom being a lexicographer sounds like the best job ever, although now that I've read the book, I must concede that it's entirely possible I wouldn't be very good at it if by some miracle I did land a lexicographer job, since I'm prone to burnout about stuff generally, and because apparently it's not really possible to tell if your sprachgefuhl is quite strong enough until you've put it to the test.

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.

This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)

Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Last summer I began studying Irish, and when I went looking for study materials in addition to what was given to us in class, I bought a tiny little pocket dictionary and phrasebook titled simply Irish Dictionary and Phrasebook. The book is about the size of a large index card, and the dictionary portion and the phrasebook portion are each about 70 pages. (The dictionary includes both an Irish-English and English-Irish section, so it is functionally more like two 35-page dictionaries.) I would read this a few pages at a time when I arrived to class early, just to learn and reinforce my basic vocabulary and practice pronouncing things. Because of its brevity, it is not entirely useful for looking up words when reading very often, but it still provides a decent chunk of solid 101-level information in a familiar and easy-to-understand format.
I could quibble a bit with the pronunciation guides provided, but quite frankly, since sounds in Irish are often different sounds entirely from the sounds in English, I can't really be mad that they didn't use the same written approximations that I tend to. I'm also finding that as I try to be more accurate in my pronunciation notes for myself, I am finding it increasingly difficult to figure out how to write down what sounds I should be making. And if I want to write the broad "dh" sound as "rh" because it sounds like a French "r" to me, that doesn't mean the dictionary is wrong for not catering specifically to people who know French sounds.
I think it's a bit cute that the phrasebook adheres so closely to the usual travel phrasebook standards, with phrases for how to book a hotel room and go through customs and all that, when everywhere you go in Ireland you can do basic travel stuff in English. But that's not really the point, is it?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
As a matter of professional interest and definitely not because I am just a giant nerd anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, the senior copy editor at The New Yorker, a highly prestigious publication. Full disclosure: I don't read The New Yorker. My interest in The New Yorker extends about as far as being vaguely proud that a friend from my high school days who works as a fact checker there recently became mildly Internet famous for making Alex Trebek say "Turd Ferguson" on air. Other than that, I figure if there's anything good--usually the Borowitz Report--somebody will post a link to it somewhere.
I went into this book prepared to nitpick, due largely to my own prejudices about The New Yorker being maybe a wee bit pretentious, and I nearly immediately found ample stuff to nitpick, since quite early in the book Norris starts talking about dictionaries. Now, when she gets deeper into talking about dictionaries, it turns out that she actually is aware that, for example, "Webster's" is not a brand name and any dictionary can use it, and that some "Webster's" dictionaries are published by Merriam-Webster and others are published by completely unaffiliated publishing houses. But that doesn't stop her from kicking off the section on dictionaries with an announcement that The New Yorker is fully committed to the Webster's "brand," to the exclusion of all other dictionaries--"even Oxford," she says, as if it were somehow surprising that an American publication would limit itself to using American dictionaries and not employ a British dictionary as its spelling reference. Perhaps this book is not aimed at people who actually work with dictionaries, I thought, especially considering that she introduces the book by seeking to dispel a number of myths about copy editors. But then I'm not entirely certain who besides copy editors she expects to be very interested in all the stuff about pencils and the copy editing workflow at The New Yorker and who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick that she gets into in the second half of the book. I, for one, loved the second half of the book, especially the Moby-Dick chapter. (The capstone course for my English degree was an entire semester on Moby-Dick. I have strong, if mixed, feelings about it.)
The real low point of this book is the chapter on gender, and not even entirely because of her rather idiotic insistence that pseudogeneric "he" wouldn't be a problem if people didn't notice it and think it was (which: welcome to literally how words meaning things works) while, as usual, completely glossing over the fact (actual, scientifically studied fact) that singular "they" straight up actually is not a problem because people don't notice it and even people who claim it is Very Very Wrong and one of their Biggest Pet Peeves and are deliberately on the lookout for it so they can correct it manage to miss it at least half the time in other people's speech or writing and can usually be counted upon to use it regularly themselves. (Tom Freeman calls out her use of singular they in this very book over at Stroppy Editor: This was, indeed, a disappointing argument to run into, especially after what is a very intelligent discussion of the fundamental flaw in most attempts to come up with new pronouns to fit into the language: most of them try to be logical, so they stick out, where as English is not logical and the whole damn point of pronouns is to blend in. No, most awkward part of the chapter on gender is her somewhat self-congratulatory account of her bumbling journey to accept her transgender sister--who she introduces as her brother, although at least she doesn't deadname her (I think). While I mostly like the personal, autobiographical stuff in this book, I would have been pretty OK if this chapter had stuck to being A Brief History of Pronoun Schemes Academics Have Come Up With To Avoid Admitting Singular They Exists.
The high point of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter on swearing, which is very sweary and thoroughly delightful. Although this is in close competition with the discussion on VICTORIAN COMMA USAGE, because I adore both wacky Victorian writing and fussing over commas, and I admit I've always sort of wondered what passed for "copy editing" back in the day when all the sentences were 50 words long and full of too many commas and stuffed with Significant Caps. Well, now I know! I don't know how many other people feel that their lives are greatly improved for knowing this--maybe it is just me--but I am WAY happy. Oh, and the bit about the pencil convention was golden.
Actually, everything after the third chapter (that being the gender one) had me pretty much completely hooked, full of gossip about the staff at The New Yorker, dryly funny personal anecdotes about really nerdy things, and grammar advice delivered with, huzzah, a good attitude. Idunno, maybe they had to put the weird, less-good-attitude stuff at the beginning to lure in the sort of target audience that reads books by copy editors? Apparently if you start off by saying "I am a professional copy editor and I have no time for fucksticks who think bad grammar signals the End of Civilization and probably think Strunk & White is a good grammar guide, what twerps" you won't retain readers who self-identify as "interested in grammar" for long enough to teach them anything--you have to lure the people who liked Eats, Shoots and Leaves in first. Like how the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black had to be about the middle-class blonde white girl to bring in a middle-class white audience before it could start giving them everyone else's interesting stories. Or that seems to be the going theory for why the first three episodes are kinda weak, anyway. What was I saying? Oh, yes--the book gets less cranky as it goes on.
Also, I am super, super jealous of the sheer number of people involved in the QA process in a New Yorker piece. The place has a separate style editor. A STYLE EDITOR. I want to be one of those when I grow up. I sort of am, at my current place, but I am also the sole copy editor for most pieces, the proofreader, the fact checker, the collator, the person who has the graphic designer input all the changes, and sometimes the formatter. I'm also turning into the foreign languages and geography QA'er, apparently, which I suppose is somewhere between being a style editor and a fact checker at the same time.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Stylebooks aren’t necessarily meant to be read all the way through, any more than the dictionary is. They’re reference books, and they’re meant to be used so you just look up the bit you like. But as many dorky people end up reading the dictionary straight through (I was never one of them, which I am actually a bit surprised at), I like to read most reference books I have to use straight through, to get a more complete idea of what exactly is in it and a better feel for what and where I need to look things up. Which means I really ought to have finished reading The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011 several months ago, instead of just looking around in it for things.

As far as I am concerned, the AP Stylebook does not hold a candle to the Chicago Manual of Style, either in terms of its organization or its editorial decisions. It’s organized alphabetically, like a dictionary, except for the bits that are separated off into their own sections, apparently just because the editors feel like it. There is a separate punctuation section, but no separate grammar section. There is a separate social media section, but not a separate politics or government section. The alphabetical stuff can be difficult for looking up grammar questions because you don’t always know what aspect of the question it’s filed under, whereas with the CMoS you can almost always just look at the table of contents and immediately figure out the one or two places it’s most likely to be. The grammar and usage bits are often short, which you’d think would be useful because it means they don’t make a whole lot of exceptions to things, but often just means that your answer isn’t addressed explicitly and you have to read through their examples to see if a similar construction is used as an example. And there is a sad lack of tables.

That said, you can still learn a lot from reading it, because it has entries discussing the proper ways to report on a wide variety of random things that get reported on, so it’s a great collection of random facts. The sections discussing media law and ethics are also really interesting, as are some of the longer entries that discuss news issues at greater length. There’s also a surprising amount of discussion of words’ histories, which is always fascinating.

What there is not, and what I would have found very useful, is a short discussion of style and structure on an article level, and a breakdown of the sort of journalistic jargon that you probably don’t want to actually use in the story itself (for example, there is no entry for “nut graph”). I suppose journalists are already supposed to know that stuff, but I’d like to have a short cheat sheet at my fingertips anyway.
Most of it was a fairly enjoyable read, still, because I’m a dork like that.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I admit, I was prepared to be annoyed when I first picked up Bill Walsh’s The Elephants of Style, given that its name is a shout-out to what I’m pretty sure is the least helpful book on English usage in the language. (I know many people have found it helpful, but those people are not word nerds. If you say you found it helpful, I’m glad for you, but I’m also not going to view you as having any credibility if you start to try and talk language or writing stuff.) I was additionally apprehensive when Walsh started off by proclaiming himself a prescriptivist. But he assures us he is a reasonable prescriptivist, and so I gave him a chance. And mostly, he is quite reasonable—he’s in a position of giving advice, so he must by necessity prescribe do’s and don’ts (and yes, that’s the correct use of apostrophes in “do’s and don’ts”; we all hate it, too), but he also really knows his stuff, and is pretty up-front about when his peeves are his own peeves that he has developed through the application of logic, which is a thing with a pretty limited role in language. While he wears the curmudgeonly thing as a persona, the book is situated firmly in the “make them remember it by making it funny” school of teaching, rather than the regular boring elitism that so unfortunately plagues much grammar and usage “advice.”

Walsh is a newspaper copy chief, so while his advice runs to “newspaper style” in some ways that are not always applicable to everything, his main goal seems to be making things as readable as possible, rather than, say, showing off how articulate you are (which is, sadly, the goal of a lot of other self-described prescriptivists). And this book has a lot of really solid advice on how to do that, including areas where he advises throwing out or working around certain aspects of “technical correctness” to get more natural-sounding sentences (what one of my creative writing teachers called “invisible writing”). And it doesn’t spend a lot of time rehashing the basics—it’s pretty much all about the “elephants in the room” of writing; the bits people actually get confused about or about which there’s no consensus. He’s also got some useful, if scathing, advice about the “flair, panache” definition of style, like a list of the most tired tropes to use in an introduction.

Overall, it’s very silly, but solid as an elephant.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I borrowed June Casagrande’s The Best Punctuation Book, Period from a girl at my office, and so far, it is indeed the best punctuation book I have found. The first half breaks down every punctuation mark in English, with one chapter devoted to each, and covers nearly every conceivable way each one can be used. As you would expect, the chapter on hyphens is the longest. It’s easy to navigate, as each chapter has a gray tab with the mark in question in the outside margin, making it easy to find the mark you’re looking for by thumbing through the book. The discussions and example sentences are clean, clear, and easy-to-follow, and breaks down how the usage varies by the four major publishing styles (news, book, academic, and scientific). For thornier questions, the author also put together a Punctuation Panel of expert editors, who all give their opinions, and the book discusses on what issues the panel is split and along what style lines (if any), etc. The back half of the book is a giant alphabetical reference table of punctuated words and phrases, marked with little icons for each style they apply to. The author has a light touch in terms of voice, but most of the book is “meat” with very little in the way of asides or jokes. This is exactly as it should be, though—it’s really a reference book, and it has come in useful for me on several occasions already.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I am currently on a quest to read every grammar, usage, and copyediting book in the office, because reasons. I started simple, with a volume from the “Quick and Dirty Tips” line, The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl, by Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl. This book is set up so you read one grammar or usage tip per day, thereby taking a year to read a book that’s less than 250 pages long. Not happening. I am in fact rather embarrassed that it took me about six weeks to get through this, because I was keeping it on my desk and trying to read a couple of tips every day, and then had to work from home for half of February.

In addition to the actual author photo of Fogarty in the back of the book, the front of the book features a cute cartoony avatar of the “Grammar Girl” persona, a bookish-looking brunette white girl with glasses. I assume this is meant to make the book look relatable to the 80 percent or so of the editorial field that is brunette white girls with glasses. Like, I’m assuming it’s supposed to be a cartoon of Fogarty, but it could be a cartoon of me, or Colleen, or Linsey, or Lisa, to name four of the five editors in our pod.

Anyway. The book itself is really good, breaking down a miscellany of grammar and usage issues into small, clearly-explained bits, making it both a good grammar guide and an excellent illustration of what’s meant by the detestable term “snackable content.” The reader’s main companions in illustrating the various issue at hand are Aardvark, who I assume is an aardvark; Squiggly, who seems to be a snail; Grammar Girl herself; and the nefarious peeves, who look kind of like a cross between small turtles and fat stripey gummy bears. The examples also draw heavily from pop culture and more-or-less-current events. It’s not quite The Transitive Vampire, but the example sentences are still a lot more fun and memorable than most school grammar textbooks (not that that’s a very high bar).

Not every day’s entry is a straight-up language lesson, though—about one day a week features a word game, like a word search or a jumble, and many of the Wednesdays are devoted to short profiles of “Language Rock Stars,” important or influential people in the history of English grammar study, development, and documentation. Some of these rock stars go way back (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster) and others are linguists, writers, and editors who are currently active. (Some of them are also people whom I personally consider confused hacks, like William “I Once Reprimanded a Newspaper for Using Newspaper Style” Strunk, but I can’t pretend that they weren’t influential. Unfortunately.)

Overall, this book is well-researched, useful, easy to understand, and a good balance of actual usable advice (most of it) and things that are just fun to know (just enough). And the index means it actually is usable as a reference book, even though the body of it is structured to be pleasing to read through rather than to find a specific topic. Huzzah indexes! (Sadly not “indices.”)
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Oh my gawd, what does one say about Ancillary Justice? It's Ann Leckie's first novel, and it has managed to win basically every SFF genre award out there, including the Hugo for Best Novel. It's certainly the sort of book you don't want to talk too much about in front of people who haven't read it, partly because it's a bit hard to explain until you start reading (at which point it's not nearly as difficult to follow as I was afraid it would be) and because you don't want to give anything away. You just kind of want to shove it in people's faces going "IT WON THE HUGO AND THE NEBULA AND THE ARTHUR C. CLARKE JUST READ IT."
This is, of course, insufficient as a book review, and I'm sure will be VERY insufficient as a book club discussion, which is what I've got next Thursday, particularly since everyone at the book club will have read it.
Our protagonist is a soldier who goes by the name of Breq, though this is not her name. She is an AI, and she used to be a much bigger AI: She used to be an entire ship, and all of the cyborg "corpse soldiers"--heavily modified human bodies that all shared one consciousness--that staffed it, known as ancillaries. But Breq, formerly ancillary unit Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, is the only one left after Justice of Toren and her entire crew were blown up. Now, twenty years later, Breq is hellbent on revenge, and nearly in a position to get it. But there are a couple of complications: One, she picks up one of her former captains, near-dead after developing a drug addiction after being cryogenically frozen for a thousand years. Two, the entity Breq is hellbent on revenge on is none other than the Lord of the Radch, the supreme ruler of the largest imperial human civilization--and the Lord of the Radch has her own ancillary selves, which has led to a whole host of other interesting issues.
The one thing I knew about the Radch going into this book is that they don't mark gender socially--not in language, not in dress, not in mannerism. Unlike Ursula LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness, Leckie--through Breq's first-person narration--defaults to referring to everybody as "she," in the dialogue when characters are speaking Radch, and in Breq's viewpoint narration, since her native language is Radch. The result is a book where, 90% of the time, it's easy to read everybody as female, even though there are a few instances where it's pointed out that particular characters are male or female, usually minor ones. I think Sievarden is the only really major character whose gender is ever given; he is male. But I don't know what gender Breq's one remaining body is, or what gender the Lord of the Radch is, or what gender Lieutenant Awn was (although I was strongly reading Awn as female and Lieutenant Skaaiat as male, for some reason). The one excerpt from this book that I had read was a scene where Breq is talking to someone not in Radch and is struggling with picking the right gender markers in the gendered language they are using, and I went into this a little worried that the whole book was going to be like that and be exploring pronoun usage on every page (which would get old fast), but mostly it doesn't--mostly the book zips along just reading like it's all ladies all the time, which I am entirely OK with.
In addition to being a highly personal story of revenge and a highly sci-fi-y story about a ship in the body of a cyborg traveling around a bunch of planets trying to shoot someone with a fancy space gun, this story is also very political. All the conflict and murder and revenging results from a set of policy reforms implemented by the Lord of the Radch, trying to halt the previously inexorable, Manifest Destiny-like expansion and assimilation "civilization" project of imperial Radch. These reforms, of course, call into being the idea that there was something less than 100% ideal with the old way of doing things, which is an idea that is extremely unpopular with many important people, including... ah, but that would be spoilers.
I really wish this book had been out when I was taking Betsy Huang's "Aliens and Others in Science Fiction" course at Clark. Justice of Toren One Esk/Breq's identity stuff is really interesting, especially the stuff about how One Esk differs from the rest of Justice of Toren, and what happens when she gets stuck in one body and tries to pass as human, and ahhhh so much awesome stuff.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
At my fancy new freelance gig there is often some downtime between jobs, which, after having examined all of the house style guides multiple times, I decided to use to review the CMoS, since I haven’t actually had to use it in a while. And that, dear reader, is how I ended up reading the entire Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, by the University of Chicago Press, cover to cover. (Yes, I know that’s not how style guides are mean to be read.) (And yes, I know there are sixteen editions, but the office doesn’t have the sixteenth.)

Some of it, it must be confessed, was rather dull, although I suppose this is to be expected, as style manuals are not really intended to be light adventure reading. Other bits were surprisingly entertaining, as Chicago’s editors occasionally have snarky opinions about certain misuses, particularly hypercorrections. But neither of these is all that important. What is important, and what I am pleased to report, is that the CMoS 15 is extremely well organized and eminently easy to read, discussing style issues in clear, plain language, in detail, and with plenty of illustrative examples. It also defines all the language and publishing jargon that it uses.

As someone who has been in editorial services for a few years now, I read this to “refresh my memory”—and refresh it I did, not just about Chicago’s particular style conventions but also about a lot of writing and publishing stuff that I had once known but grown a bit fuzzy on, like the difference between a “font” and a “typeface” (I blame Microsoft Word for continually confusing me on that one). I am, however, somewhat embarrassed at the amount of stuff I straight-up learned, some of which was dorky etymology/history stuff (like about the use of Fraktur typefaces in German typesetting), but some of which was actual editorial things that I really ought to have known already (it seems “till” really is its own preposition that means the same things as “until,” not a shortened form with an extraneous L).

In multiple cases, particularly for things involving punctuation and capitalization, there are multiple “systems” of doing it correctly. In these cases, the CMoS quite usefully gives its preferred rules first, but also gives rundowns of the less preferred systems along with explanations of why they are less preferred but not wrong (dated, regional, etc.). This has already come in helpful when trying to disentangle copy that seems to have been written my multiple people using different styles, and when project managers have come to ask me about my edits, which has already happened twice.

The organization of the CMoS is beautifully sensible and easy to navigate. It starts off with some basic discussion of What Are Things That Need Editing, such as books vs. journals and some notes of manuscripts, different stages of proofs, etc. Then it gets into the nitty-gritty grammar and usage stuff, starting with basics like parts of speech and punctuation and progressively addressing more specialized topics, such as how to treat foreign publications and math. I was particularly interested in the chapters on names and foreign languages; it had me thinking about the panel I attended at Readercon lat weekend. The later parts of the book deal with special documentation and with indexes and appendixes (sadly, CMoS does not use the old-fashioned “indices” and “appendices,” which are my favorites). The two appendixes roughly delineate the common production processes in book and journal publishing, just to give the editor a better idea of their place in the system (and, presumably, so that one does not have to ask stupid questions at work).

One of these days I should acquire my own copy of the 16th edition, to see how they compare, and because as an editor I should really have a better collection of stylebooks than just the writing guides I have from Pearson, which are mostly MLA, anyway. If any mysterious wealthy benefactors are reading this, I have an Amazon wishlist. (I am also afraid of ponies, FYI.)

But for now, the real question is, do I spend my next bout of downtime reading the Associated Press 2009 Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, or do I just start reading fiction at my desk?


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