Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Coinage in My Head That Just Won't Mint

Two weeks before the deadline for my new book, I keep hearing in my head a term I think made up: “I hit the decimal point.”

Its bones are kind of like “it shit the bed” or “he screwed the pooch,” just without the yuck factor.

The idea is that I was trucking along writing this book (it's about sentence writing), working at a fine clip, when suddenly I noticed that the the words "the end" seemed to be moving further away. With every hour I put into the project, completion was set back an hour.

I remembered I needed to further explain something about adverbs. I realized that I'd stumbled on a disparity in the linguistics world that I had to find a way to deal with. (Experts, it seems, use the term "participial phrase" for the same thing that others call a "participial clause." Geoff Pullum from Language Log was kind enough to write me back and explain that, basically, it's a matter of interpretation. Just he explained it better than that.) I realized that I needed a chapter on quotation attributions (something that hit me around the jillionth time I edited a certain writer's use of "enthused" as quotation attribution. "Our peppermint facials are very soothing," Jones enthused. Yuck.).

Anyway, "I hit the decimal point" seemed the only way to explain how I seemed to be getting infinitesimally closer to finishing -- but never done.

I've always wondered about how phrases get coined. I've always found it fascinating how, one day I hear a co-worker say, "You rock," then suddenly I'm hearing it everywhere I turn -- for twelve years and counting.

But, today, I think I've unlocked one secret of phrase coinage: In order to catch on, it has to be good.

Also, I hope I've unlocked the secret of how to apologize for being an AWOL blogger without resorting to the tedious blog opener "Sorry I haven't blogged in so long"). The secret: Bury the apology under a long story about how busy I've been.

(Sorry 'bout that.)

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8 comments:

Faldone said...

"It should be good" is a little ambiguous. It should be instantly understandable and my first impression of "I hit the decimal point" was "I got it exactly right", not, I think, what you had in mind. Just my opinion and without really seeing it in context, mind.

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. You have a point.

"I bit the decimal point."
"I done got 'et by the decimal point."
"The decimal point screwed the pooch."

Nah.

Oh, well.

8'FED said...

At the place where I'm working at the moment, I occasionally get given proof-reading tasks to do. This has nothing to do with what I'm there for, but it's an occupational hazard that if people find out you're moderately good at something, you'll get volunteered.

I have reached the following conclusion: copy editing is weird. By that, I mean psychologically weird, and by that I mean it messes with my head.

On the one hand, it requires sufficient attention to detail to spot errors, but on the other, it requires a sufficient sense of perspective to tell the difference between errors and mere stylistic variation. Trying to do both at the same time is a constant struggle against the human brain's natural tendency to get bogged down in a particular train of thought, and feels somewhat like walking along a very thin tightrope, blindfolded.

Faldone said...

How about "I got paradoxed by Zeno"?

June Casagrande said...

Yup. Copy editing is very weird. Yet somehow satisfying/compelling/the task you love to hate.

Something.

I'm impressed, though, by your awareness of the "let the writer have his own style" stuff. I have a hard time remembering that.

I'm too trigger happy. Sometimes while copy editing a computer document, I might, for example, put in a comma between clauses like: "Joe eats apples, and he eats oranges." But then, a week later, I'll be proofreading it on the page, and I'll take the comma out -- before I remember that I was the one who put in the comma in the first place.

On the one hand, it's a sort of a childish "gotcha" impulse, on the other, it's almost like a way to stay awake. I mean, if you're reading to find errors, you want to find errors. I worry that I change stuff not because I should but only because I can.

All very weird stuff indeed.

June Casagrande said...

Faldone:

: )

"I bit the Tron"?
"I got infini-slapped"?
"I'm chasing the horizon weasel"?

(Cleary, Winston Churchill I ain't.)

8'FED said...

It's one thing to be aware that in theory writers should be allowed their own style. It's a completely different thing to be aware of the implications of this, at the time, in practise.

Walking that very fuzzy line between error and variation is so very, very disorienting. One moment I spot some borderline case that bugs me and the next moment all my reference points have slipped away and I'm travelling without a map. From there, "I don't know what's erroneous any more" is only one step away from "I don't know what's real any more", and that way madness lies. I totally identify with the thing about the comma and I'm glad it happens to the professionals.

The internal dialogues can be interesting. Which of these do you recognise?

(Me #1) That sentence is ugly. It has too many commas.
(Me #2) No! If I allow myself to correct little details like that, I won't know where to stop!
(Me #1) But it bugs you, right?
(Me #2) Shut up!

Or:

(Me #1) That sentence would be easier to follow if the 'while' was an 'although'.
(Me #2) But that's the sort of a change that a prescriptivist would make!
(Me #1) Maybe, but honestly, I'm not laying down a general rule here. I just think that in this particular case it should be changed.
(Me #2) You're turning into a prescriptivist! Be afraid!

(BTW, I don't get these documents electronically so I can't easily experiment and change things back. It's all done with paper and red pen.)

June Casagrande said...

The second one rings truest. But, luckily, I don't have to worry about the prescriptivist label. I follow a style guide. (Several different ones, actually.) So I just does what they tells me. If the style guide doesn't specifically say that "since" is a no no in place of "because," that's all I need to know.

I think that a lot of the prescriptivist stuff is rooted in good ideas that, unfortunately, are mistaken for or stated as rules. "While" is indeed a synonym for "although" But it's often a reallly bad one (whenever it can be misleading).

On the other hand, I work with someone who automatically changes "like" to "such as." She does this even to documents that I've already copy edited. She does this even when "like" clearly works better.

Knee-jerk prescriptivism is the worst.

But here's what's really interesting to me: When I'm writing my grammar column, I have no problem using "since" for "because" and things like that. But when I'm copy editing stuff that goes in an advertorial section of a newspaper, I tend make much more conservative choices.

I think readers give more credit to a writer appearing in an editorial section than to the writer whose stuff is in an advertising section.

I base a lot of decisions on those kinds of considerations: Less-respected publications have to work harder to earn readers' respect. If you flout prescriptivist standards in marketing copy, people assume it's out of ignorance. But the same choice in the New York Times is presumed to be an educated choice.

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