Wednesday, May 12, 2010

OED's Definition of 'Siphon'

According to this article, the Oxford English Dictionary had a faulty definition of "siphon" for 99 years.

Having worked in publishing for so long, I don't think that's stop-the-presses surprising. If authors and journalists and highly regulated oil-extraction companies and everyone else can make errors, there's no reason that lexicographers responsible for the enormous OED should be any different.

What interests me more about this article is how it's written. The second sentence is "Siphons don't work, it turns out, because of atmospheric pressure, as the OED has been saying since 1911."

Here's another way to say that. "Since 1911, the OED has been saying that siphons work because of atmospheric pressure. That, it turns out, is not true."

But, no. The writer relegated the most important piece of information in the whole article to a subordinate clause: "AS the OED has been saying." That annoys me. The placement of "it turns out" annoys me, too. Usually, that phrase cues the reader that something they already know about "turns out" to be wrong. But in this article, you learn that something "turns out" to be wrong before you learn what that something is.

Maybe I've been copy editing too much lately, thereby focusing too much on little issues like this, but I find all this rather irksome.

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Mallory said...

Also, I feel like a lot of writers are so loathsome to go to two sentences. They overload one sentence with too much information. I like your edit!

June Casagrande said...

Yeah. I think it's easy to get caught up in an angle or a tone you want to lead with, then refuse to abandon it when you realize you need to cram in more info than will fit.

In this case, I really thought that fact on which the whole dang story was built deserved to be stated outright instead of sort of tacked on.

Adrian Morgan said...

The only part of that article that really bothers me is this bit: "And when is a koala bear not a bear? When it's a marsupial."

I think that sentence patronises the reader on two different levels. One, because dressing up a fact as though it were a joke is the journalistic equivalent of saying to a child, "Let's play a game called Tidy Your Room" and expecting the child to suddenly become motivated. And two, because assuming that your readers don't know that koalas aren't bears is surely patronising even to Americans.

(Never mind the implication that koalas are only marsupials part-time...)

Incidentally, here's where I first read this story:

June Casagrande said...

All I heard was "cola" and "beer." U-S-A! U-S-A!


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