The Art & Science of looking at a text

Recently I came across a French video that compared the eye movements of a professional editor and those of a layperson  correcting a text. There is no doubt that the eyes of a professional editor scan a document differently than those of the average reader and that this distinction has important implications for the successful rendering of any document into  another language.

The purpose of the French video was to demonstrate a method of assessing work efficiency known as “eye tracking”, the process of measuring either the point of the human gaze or the motion of the eye relative to the head and of tracing the route of the gaze and plotting the points at which it pauses to study a detail.  Eye tracking has been widely used in advertising design and has proven to be useful in evaluating the efficiency of web layouts. Eye_movements_of_drivers

The Swiss government has even used eye tracking to compare the visual analysis of road conditions made by novice and experienced drivers. In these images, for example, the novice is busy estimating the distance between the wall on his left and a parked car, while the experienced driver is using his peripheral vision for this task while concentrating his direct gaze on the dangerous point in the curve ahead.

A very interesting post in Greta and David Munger’s psychology blog Cognitive Daily (marred only by the use of the word “different” where “differently” should have been used) cites a study by Stine Vogt and Svein Magnussen that compares the eye tracking of an artist and a psychologist when looking at a picture. It turns out that the scan pattern of the artist was far more complex than that of the psychologist, a result that elicited numerous comments from readers with arts training.

Vogt and Magnussen have put forward the theory that artists are trained to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately obvious perceptually, an idea seconded in the blog’s comments section where Dan Lurie noted, “ Artists look at framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm (among other things) when examining the world around us. We are trained in composition as it relates to where the eye will go first, and where it will travel …”

I use my arts training every day in my translation and editing work, not only to scan the original document, but also to pre-visualize the possibilities of the target document I’m aiming for. Every gesture that can make or ruin a work of art has its correlative in translation, copywriting, and editing, whether the project is a corporate report or a novel.  With words, as with images, bad decisions, poor craftsmanship, and a failure to capture a concept as a whole can result in a finished document that is stilted, difficult to appreciate or understand, and of little interest or use to the intended reader.

A good translator or editor, like a good driver, is continuously using his peripheral vision to gauge the relationships between textual elements while concentrating his attention on the “dangerous point in the curve ahead” that may be lurking in what first appeared to be a straight-forward document.  Dan Lurie’s list of an artist’s preoccupations (framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm) is similar to the list of elements that a translator or editor must keep in mind to achieve a readable final text. “Where the eye will go first and where it will travel” is an important factor to consider in the translation of any document and a crucial element to keep in mind when translating and editing literature, advertising texts, and instructions.  Part of a translator or editor’s job is taking care of what Brian Mossop calls the “writer-reader relationship”. If the intended audience doesn’t consider the document readable, all the work put into it has been done in vain and the client and original author have been poorly served. Regardless of topic it addresses, a well-translated and edited text that is a pleasure to read has a greater chance of being distributed in its entirety and being quoted by others—an essential consideration in today’s viral world.

Reading similar material in both source and target languages helps translators keep their peripheral vision in peak condition. I try to reserve time each week to read well-written articles and reports in both Spanish and English related to the fields I work in, as well as a selection of major international newspapers in both languages.  All these activities pay off in the moment I’m faced with a new text.

OriginalFilm_Gilbreth timeclockEye tracking and similar techniques are used by translators and editors to enhance their perform and output. A few of the techniques currently being touted remind me of those described in the 1950s best-seller Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of the dozen children of time and motion study experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The world of  communications media spins at an ever faster pace and professionals in all communications fields struggle to keep up with it. For today’s translators and editors, the trick is not to compromise one’s standards of quality or lose one’s sense of humor while keeping up with the rhythm of the times.


In Celebration of National Punctuation Day

I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.   Gustave Flaubert

Things that make us [sic]Wikihow has published a site suggesting what people might do to observe National Punctuation Day. Don’t get too excited. There are also Wikihows that feature tips on how to celebrate Chocolate Mint Day (treat yourself to a chocolate mint beauty mask), National Battery Day (ask yourself what the world would be like without batteries), and Hobbit Day (throw a Hobbit party for your friends). As there is also a National Grammar Day, founded by Martha Brokenbrough (author of the witty Things That Make Us [Sic] and prime mover of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar), one might wonder if there is a real need to devote a separate day to punctuation, but given the important role it plays in written communications, I think that it doesn’t hurt to address the topic officially once a year.

Smoking pets and bicycles?

Smoking pets and bicycles?

Punctuating a document correctly is not easy, and ferreting out the punctuation errors contained in a text is one of the thorniest parts of a copy editor’s job. Often the concentration required to even think about the subject causes a writer to let other infelicities contained in a document fly by unnoticed. Several days after the Huffington Post ran a short slide show prepared by William B. Bradshaw, the author of The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors, to mark last year’s National Grammar Day, it dutifully published an erratum noting that the author had inadvertently used the word “explanatory” in a slide about exclamation points rather than “exclamatory.” This kind of thing can happen to the best of us.

needs punctuationAs an American translator and copy editor who grew up reading The New Yorker and consults The Chicago Manual of Style on a daily basis, I naturally advocate the use of the Oxford (also known as the serial) comma. For the non-grammarians out there, this is the comma often placed before the conjunction at the end of a list. Apart from the Oxford University Press, most British authorities weigh in against it, and one of the last things I do before delivering a document to a client who has requested that I follow British grammar rules is scan the text to detect any superfluous serial commas I might have subliminally inserted. However, there are situations in which the serial comma is absolutely necessary for clarity. One of the classic examples trotted out in its defense is the hypothetical “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” which without a final clarifying comma gives the impression that the parents of the author writing the dedication were, in fact,  Ayn Rand and God. Misplaced commas can do as much damage or more. In her often hilarious book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss provides  a good example in the form of a joke:

“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Original_New_Yorker_coverHarold Ross, founder and long-time editor-in-chief of The New Yorker magazine, was so fond of commas that E. B. White, who had many run-ins with him about comma placement, once quipped, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with a precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” On the other hand, Gertrude Stein considered commas to be “servile” tools and avoiding using them. Both Oscar Wilde and Gustave Flaubert complained that they often spent their mornings putting commas into a text only to spend their afternoons taking them out.

When in doubt about the placement of a comma, it’s a good idea to consult a guide. If you don’t own The Chicago Manual of Style or the Modern Humanities Research Association’s Style Guide, the Grammarly Handbook is a good online resource.

Finding just the right word

vocabulary notebook indology info site“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”  Emily Dickinson

Arriving at a quantitative estimate of the total number of words in any language involves a subjective process of deciding what counts. Should foreign loan words be included? Medical, legal, and scientific terms as well? And how about abbreviations and acronyms? In English, it is often difficult to establish a consensus as to whether certain concepts should be expressed as compound words, hyphenated words, or separate words. Arriving at a qualitative estimate is no easier. New words are invented every day and many old words fade away into oblivion. Editors are forever adding neologisms and dropping words considered archaic from standard dictionaries. While conservative authorities estimate that the English language contains between 200,000 and 350,000 words, the Global Language Monitor claims that English vocabulary passed the one million mark at 10:22 am on June 10, 2011 with the introduction of “Web 2.0” and estimates that a new additional word is introduced every 98 minutes.

 Spanish, on the other hand, has a much smaller vocabulary. Experts estimate that the vocabulary of the English language is about twice as large as the vocabulary of Spanish. For translators working from English to Spanish, this gap infers a tricky process of reduction, and for their counterparts translating Spanish into English, it supposes overcoming the temptation to use the same words repeatedly, a practice that is perfectly acceptable in Spanish but is almost guaranteed to make a text appear sluggish and boring to an English-speaking reader.

armor-with-descriptions-helmet-pauldron-gardbrace-Terminology, defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the technical or special terms used in a business, art, science, or special subject” makes up only a small part of any language’s vocabulary. That fact should be a comfort to translators who feel like contemporary incarnations of the legendary steel-driving John Henry every time a client presents them with an analysis of fuzzy matches contained in a text to be translated. Over half the words contained in the second edition of the twenty-volume Oxford Dictionary are nouns, a quarter are adjectives, a seventh are verbs, and the rest fall under such categories as exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, and suffixes. Even if all those nouns could somehow be classified as terms, a translator would still be faced with the daunting but stimulating task of picking through a rich trove of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, which properly woven together, bring a text to life for the reader. As the eminent translator Edith Grossman points out, “every competent translator has to be a writer, because that is what we do. We write in the guise of the person we are translating.” So translators need to constantly work on their writing skills and broaden their vocabularies. They should also never forget that, like the author of the source language text, they must adjust vocabulary and style for specific target audiences.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” Ernest Hemingway

I always ask my clients a number of questions related to the anticipated audience of any text I’m asked to translate: Is the PowerPoint presentation going to be made to a group of potential investors, or is it to be used for internal communications purposes? Will the viewers/listeners/readers be native speakers or people for whom English is a second language? Will a given report be submitted to a particular institution such as the European Commission or European Parliament? What group or groups does a company wish to reach through its website content? Is it meant to attract specific groups of native English speakers or would the company prefer that I use a fairly neutral vocabulary that will be clear and appealing to a wider public that uses English as a lingua franca? What kind of reader is the author of a book writing for? As Patricia O’Connor points out in Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing, “It’s a big world out there, and before you write you have to narrow it down. Once you’ve identified your audience, everything you do—every decision you make about vocabulary, tone, sentence structure, imagery, humor, and the rest—should be done with this target, your reader, in mind.” She suggests that writers draw a mental picture of their target readers and keep it in the forefront of their minds as they write. As stand-ins for the original authors of texts, translators should take the same advice very much to heart.

“There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam.” John Updike

 Adjusting vocabulary to suit a specific target readership

“Words have their own hierarchy, their own protocol, their own artistic titles, their own plebeian stigmas.” José Saramago

Once translators have been provided with basic information about the target audience for a given text, what can they do to ensure that the vocabulary and style they employ will resonate with that specific group? Sector-specific glossaries, dictionaries, and house style guides are obviously essential resources. However, given the two-to-one vocabulary ratio between English and Spanish, I always assume that I’ll have to sift through a wide range of options for words that don’t fall into the categories of house style or insider jargon. 

Castle Ashby NorthamptonshireIf prior experience and the contents of translation dictionaries and glossaries prove to be inadequate for the context I’m dealing with, I look up the word used in the source text in María Moliner’s Diccionario del uso del español. From there, I often compare Spanish synonyms for the word I need to translate to synonyms of the most obvious candidates in English. I then do corpus searches to see which have been used in similar Spanish and English texts. That process at least gives me something to chew on. If I’ve been asked to localize a text, I do keyword searches that target geographically specific publications or digital libraries known for the quality of their writing such as the New York Times, the Guardian, or JSTOR.

However, there are other vocabularies that can only be mastered by constantly perusing information written for, or about, specific audiences. Since I translate texts related to a wide range of subjects that range from education, the arts and humanities, communications, history, humanitarian aid, sustainable development and the European Union to tourism, travel, and luxury goods and services, I try to keep current with sector trends and the vocabulary and style used by the most authoritative and articulate publications and organizations in each community or sector.

This type of reading matter almost always contains unexpectedly useful information. For instance, once a year an online educational bulletin I subscribe to features an article about Beloit College’s “Mindset List,” which provides some very interesting clues about what vocabulary one might want to avoid or need to tweak when translating texts for specific age or cohort groups. According to this Beloit College study, members of the incoming class of 2011 have never “rolled down” a car window. The list also notes that “off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone for members of this group and that they have always known the country older people still call Burma as Myanmar. The class of 2010 is described as never having heard anyone “ring something up” on a cash register and it is noted that the class of 2003 has probably never dialed a phone or opened an icebox and wouldn’t be able to figure out the size of something described as being “as big as a breadbox.” The list also claims that the class of 2002 wouldn’t make much out of the expression “you sound like a broken record” either. It was interesting to know that the members of the class of 2013 have always seen the word “waitperson” in their dictionaries and the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “GM” to a member of the class of 2017 is genetically modified food rather than an automobile manufacturer. These are valuable bits of information for communications professionals (translators included) who need to deal with a never-ending barrage of newly coined words and keep track of current usage as the denotations and connotations of words shift and evolve.

“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.” A.S. Byatt


The Internet has expanded the horizons of word junkies everywhere. My long list of favorite sites and digital newsletters includes A.Word.a.Day, which the New York Times has described as “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace,” TermCoord, a concise, weekly terminology bulletin distributed by the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, and the Visual Thesaurus’s Word a Day. I get a lot out of the Stack Exchange’s English Language & Usage Weekly newsletter because the Stack Exchange forum connects people searching for just the right word to describe people, things, and concepts with hard-core vocabulary addicts. As participants from almost every corner of the planet submit queries, it’s the perfect place to ponder the options available for transferring cultural concepts expressed in other languages to English. Writers using English as a second language tend to query about the shades of difference between two English words. The answers to questions such as “Is there really any difference between bristle and stubble when the subject is facial hair?” and “What’s a good word for someone who likes to always be different?” can be very useful to a translator looking for just the right descriptive word. This site also dishes up some lively discussions about grammar questions and editing decisions and provides insight into English vocabulary use throughout the world and in different subcultures. I also consult the Stack languages Spanish Language and Usage site for information about Spanish words. Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words Newsletter explores words from an etymological point of view. One of the features I like most about this weekly bulletin is the feedback it generates from readers all over the world. Its website is a treasure trove of knowledge about the ever-changing English language, complete with an entertaining “weird words” section.

“Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.” Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

A brief vocabulary sampler from some of the above-mentioned sources

Scientific words:

 entomophilous (the Visual Thesaurus)

When -phily or -philous appear in a word there’s often a whole lotta love going on. In today’s word, it’s love of insects, and plants are doing the loving. Entomophilous plants are ones that are pollinated by insects. The roots of the word are Greek for “insect” (entomon), and for “dear, friendly” (philos).

Equivalent terminology used by the European Parliament (TermCoord)

EN: European Prosecutor / European Public Prosecutor

SP: Fiscal Europeo

FR: procureur européen

EN: Connecting Europe Facility

SP: Instrumento de Interconexión para Europa (IIE)

FR: Mécanisme pour l’interconnexión en Europe

EN: Botnet

SP: botnet / red infectada

FR: réseau de machines zombies / réseau zombie

Forgotten words:

 swoopstake (A.Word:a.Day)

adverb: In an indiscriminate manner. Alteration of sweepstake, from sweep + stake, originally referring to the winner who takes all. Earliest documented use: 1599.

Usage: “I replied by falling swoopstake and cropneck in love with them all, damn it, them all.” Kathleen Tynan in Tynan Letters published by Vintage in 2012.

(Cropneck is also a nice, forgotten word derived from the expression “neck and crop,” which according to Merriam Webster means to do something with “with brisk dispatch and completeness.”)

Words and phrases with obscure etymologies:

picayune (the Visual Thesaurus)

Though it started life as a noun designating a coin of small value, picayune is today an adjective synonymous with trivial, paltry or petty. The word is derived from Portuguese or Occitan but was introduced to English in the US, from the coin called a picayune being in circulation in colonial North America. The Times-Picayune, a newspaper in New Orleans, is named for the coin.

blatherskite (World Wide Words)

In a nutshell, a word of Old Norse / Scots origin used to describe a person who spouts rubbish or the ridiculous things he says that is now heard more often in the United States than in Great Britain. See the World Wide Words website for the full story.


Question: What is the antonym of the verb to ameliorate? (Stack Exchange English Language and Usage)

Nice answer offered by user 49727: I don’t think there is an antonym that ends with an –iorate because the words ameliorate and meliorate derive from a single stem (see below). The closest etymological antonym is aggravate. Ameliorate comes from French meilleur and ameliorer – the direct French antonym for this word is aggraver meaning ‘to make worse’.


It’s by no means a newly minted word, but I have just been made aware of its existence: obiticide. Treated by some as a joke and others as a lapse of journalistic rigor and ethics, obiticide is the word that journalist and press accuracy expert Craig Silverman has invented to describe the erroneous or malicious publication of someone’s death.

The idea of obiticide fascinates me for several reasons. Apart from my personal interest in the ethical issues related to erroneous reporting, as a translator and copyeditor, I also have a stake in the quality and reliability of published material—including obituaries. I often look up birth and death dates mentioned in a text to ensure they are correct or to verify whether a  person is still alive. If a person cited or quoted is no longer living, I may need to adjust a verb tense or suggest a slight change in the way an author has phrased a statement. I’ve never written an obituary, but I have drafted and edited eulogies, condolence letters, and internal and external statements regarding the passing of someone in particular for a number of clients. It’s a demanding assignment; nothing is more offensive to a person’s family than an erroneous attribution. It may be a gross, but forgettable, gaffe to state that an executive graduated from university X when he actually graduated from university Y while he is alive and kicking, but it’s an unforgivable sin to make the same mistake in an obituary or eulogy. It’s important to confirm all information and consult a number of sources.

Perhaps the most famous response to a precipitously published obituary is Mark Twain’s wry (and often altered) statement “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”  As a copyeditor, I have to admit that its paraphrased version “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” has more punch, but the story goes that this is only an embellished rendition of the original quote. A Wikipedia article about false obituaries claims that derogatory comments contained in a prematurely released obituary prepared for Marcus Garvey so depressed him that he suffered a secondary and fatal stroke. If true, this could be considered a case of literal obiticide. Times and sensibilities have changed. A student newspaper’s recent rush to announce the death of university football coach Joe Paterno on the basis of unconfirmed sources has led the entire American press industry to reflect upon the pressure brought to bear on editors by a never-ending onslaught of tweets and tips from other electronic sources.

The Wikipedia article quoted above features a ghoulish list of people who have survived to read their obituaries, including an unfortunate few who have been forced to go to court to annul their erroneous, but legal, status of deceased person. Twain was not the only writer to read about his own demise. During the First World War, Robert Graves was erroneously reported as a casualty of the Battle of the Somme, causing the Times to unwittingly publish a false obituary and the Peruvian newspaper la República erroneously announced the death of Gabriel García Márquez in 2000.

However, intentionally false obituaries have been used to appropriate the goods and property of hapless victims. The Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh (The Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People) is an Indian organization that fights for the rights of people who have been declared dead by corrupt officials in cahoots with interested parties seeking an easy and definitive way to seize their property. The organization was founded by farmer by the name of Lil Bahari, who was refused a bank loan in 1976 due to the fact that official records listed him as deceased. To his shock, he discovered that his own uncle had bribed an official to register his death in order to win title to Bahari’s land. It would seem that such a crime would be easy to rectify, but Bahari fought bureaucratic tape for eighteen years before managing to annual his official death status in 1994. During that period, he resorted to a number of publicity stunts to bring attention to his earthly existence that included the staging of his own funeral, a public demand for a widow’s pension for his wife, and a run against Rajiv Gandhi for political office.

The very idea of writing obituaries for a living might make you laugh or give you the creeps, but for many journalists, it’s a serious profession. Obituary writers in the United States and Canada even have their own organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, which confers awards for the year’s best obituary writing. More information about the books pictured in this post and others on the subject can be found on the society’s website. Occasionally other journalists are asked to prepare obituaries for distinguished people they have written about in the past. Mel Gussow, a career theater critic for the New York Times, spent the last weeks of his own life helping his colleague Charles McGrath prepare an obituary for Pulitzer prize-winning author Saul Bellow. In 2011, six years after Gussow passed away, the New York Times published an on-file obituary that he had written for Elizabeth Taylor, adding a note explaining that  “Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. William McDonald and the Associated Press contributed updated reporting.” Why did they run a slightly edited version of the obituary Gussow had written years before? According to the Wall Street Journal, NYT obituary editor Bill McDonald told them that Gussow’s work was “too good to throw away.” McDonald was right. Neither too critical nor excessively maudlin, Gussow’s article records the ups and downs of an actress who survived her own legend, from her childhood success in National Velvet to her bouts with addictions and failing health. He records Vincent Canby’s statement  “More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark,” as well as Taylor’s own rye comment to Richard Burton, “If I get fat enough, they won’t ask me to do any more films.” More than just an obituary, it’s a well-written piece of copy that is a pleasure to read over and over again. Economist magazine dedicates a full page every week to the obituary of some distinguished person. So what how do people know that less-distinguished folks are no longer around? The world knows when the rest of us have kicked the bucket if the law requires it or we have generous friends or family members willing to pay. I’m not joking: not all, but many, newspapers treat obituaries as a form of classified advertisement.

If you ever find yourself in the position of being the friend or family member charged with writing an obituary, you can find plenty of advice in the Internet., for example, offers a checklist of things that an obituary should include and advice about how to avoid identity theft (in case you thought all the evil-minded people in the world are located in Uttar Pradesh, think again). However, the deceased’s identity is not the only identity vulnerable to abuse. Some newspapers have very narrow editorial policies concerning what goes into a person’s obituary. Can a newspaper refuse to print what you want to say in memory of a loved one? Yes, it can. In their online Obituary Forum, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers notes a disturbing case of post-mortem obiticide that brings to mind one of my grandmother’s pet phrases: If he wasn’t already dead, this would kill him. I offer the site’s June 22, 2011 post verbatim:

Missing survivors

John Millican died on June 11. To honor his partner of 10 years, Terrance James filled out the paperwork for an obituary notice in the Batesville Daily Guard. But when the obit ran five days later, James was not listed as a survivor. Instead the notice featured the names of Millican’s deceased parents, and his three siblings, with whom he had little contact.

When questioned about the omission, Pat Jones, the Arkansas newspaper’s general manager, told the blog Queerty: “It’s not a gay thing. We don’t list unmarried couples, in-laws, or pets in the free obituaries.”

After receiving numerous complaints, the newspaper in question has stated that it may review its policy. This decision arrives a tad late for Terrence James, but it’s a move in the right editorial direction.

Recent Good Articles About Bad Writing

Recently I’ve read a number of good articles about bad writing. As a large part of my working day is spent making bad writing better (and, hopefully, making good writing a greater joy to read), I have to admit that I love this kind of article.

Many of my clients are non-native English speakers. Even those who are very skilled in expressing themselves in English are apt to run afoul of its devilishly tricky rules of placement. James Harbeck just wrote a very good post on the importance of correct adverb placement. I can imagine that you’re ready to click off this page without reading one more word, but have a little patience and take a look at the ways that adverb placement can change the meaning of a sentence. Harbeck uses the example of what would seem to be the simplest of adverbs: honestly. He asks the reader to compare the meaning conveyed by this adverb when it is placed in six different positions in a sentence. As we read the list, it’s obvious that we should all be more careful about where we insert an adverb in a sentence. Are we really saying what we set out to say?


Honestly, I can’t say what the problem is [I am speaking honestly to you and I say I can’t say what the problem is]

I can’t honestly say what the problem is [I cannot make an honest statement of the problem]

I can’t say honestly what the problem is [I can only make dishonest statements about the problem]

I can’t say, honestly, what the problem is [I tell you that I cannot say – and I am speaking honestly to you – what the problem is]

I can’t say what the problem is honestly [If I try to say what the problem is, I will do so dishonestly]

I can’t say what the problem is, honestly [I say I can’t say what the problem is, and I am speaking honestly to you]

Spanish allows for a great deal of flexibility as far as placement within a sentence goes, and a good number of my clients give themselves the same leeway in English that they enjoy in Spanish. Occasionally my queries to non-native authors look very much like Harbeck’s list—if necessary, in a series of “back” translations that explore all the possible interpretations. However, native speakers also make placement errors. I always get a good laugh out of the errors people send to Michael Quinion for his language website and newsletter World Wide Words. For example, even the writers churning out content for the BBC News website make placement errors. World Wide Words reader Stephen Turner noted that on May 18, 2011, the BBC news let this little howler slip out: “She arrived with the Duke of Edinburgh by her side in a dress adorned with 2,091 hand sewn embroidered shamrocks.” I should hope that the Duke of Edinburgh has more sense than to wear a dress adorned with 2,091 hand sewn embroidered shamrocks, but one never knows. Once another reader wrote in to report that during an ABC24 news program broadcast in Sydney, Australia, the newsreader said that a “motorcyclist was killed when he hit a car not wearing a helmet.” I think that one provides a very clear picture of the importance of where things go in a sentence.

Apart from poets and novelists, anyone writing in any language who has even a modest ambition to share his or her ideas with a larger public should remember to write clearly and simply. I also recently enjoyed Lucy Kellaway’s 2011 “guff” list in the Financial Times. Kellaway keeps track of the most florid and nonsensical business writing she reads all year and doles out annual awards to the worst offenders. As she notes as an introduction to this year’s list, “There is an economic law that says all markets are cyclical save one: the bullshit market, which knows only the bull phase.”

This year’s top award went to Cisco System’s John Chambers for the punchy, but completely meaningless statement “We will accelerate our leadership across our five priorities and compete to win in the core.” In the euphemism department, the kudos went to telecommunication giant Nokia, for stating that the company operations were being “managed for value” rather than honestly saying that management had been forced to fire thousands of people worldwide. My favorite this year was the confession “The challenge for me is to re-aggregate the big picture, while throwing my arms around as much of the density of complexities as possible, distilling them down to their most basic constituents and plugging them back into the picture.” Even the world’s most successful CEOs could benefit from reading a bit of Harbeck now and then.

More links to articles I’ve read recently (in English and Spanish) can be found at Jenni Lukac Linguistic Services at Google+.

English-language Wikipedia Blackout on January 18

I duplicate the entire message as received this morning by email from a colleague.

To: English Wikipedia Readers and Community
From: Sue Gardner, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director
Date: January 16, 2012

Today, the Wikipedia community announced its decision to black out the English-language Wikipedia for 24 hours, worldwide, beginning at 05:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 18 (you can read the statement from the Wikimedia Foundation here). The blackout is a protest against proposed legislation in the United States—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate—that, if passed, would seriously damage the free and open Internet, including Wikipedia.

This will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it’s a decision that wasn’t lightly made. Here’s how it’s been described by the three Wikipedia administrators who formally facilitated the community’s discussion. From the public statement, signed by User:NuclearWarfare, User:Risker and User:Billinghurst:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

On careful review of this discussion, the closing administrators note the broad-based support for action from Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States. The primary objection to a global blackout came from those who preferred that the blackout be limited to readers from the United States, with the rest of the world seeing a simple banner notice instead. We also noted that roughly 55% of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations.

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently,

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.

But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

The decision to shut down the English Wikipedia wasn’t made by me; it was made by editors, through a consensus decision-making process. But I support it.

Like Kat and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation Board, I have increasingly begun to think of Wikipedia’s public voice, and the goodwill people have for Wikipedia, as a resource that wants to be used for the benefit of the public. Readers trust Wikipedia because they know that despite its faults, Wikipedia’s heart is in the right place. It’s not aiming to monetize their eyeballs or make them believe some particular thing, or sell them a product. Wikipedia has no hidden agenda: it just wants to be helpful.

That’s less true of other sites. Most are commercially motivated: their purpose is to make money. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire to make the world a better place—many do!—but it does mean that their positions and actions need to be understood in the context of conflicting interests.

My hope is that when Wikipedia shuts down on January 18, people will understand that we’re doing it for our readers. We support everyone’s right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We think everyone should have access to educational material on a wide range of subjects, even if they can’t pay for it. We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA—and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States—don’t advance the interests of the general public. You can read a very good list of reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA here, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Why is this a global action, rather than US-only? And why now, if some American legislators appear to be in tactical retreat on SOPA?

The reality is that we don’t think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond SOPA and PIPA: they are just part of the problem. We want the Internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.

On January 18, we hope you’ll agree with us, and will do what you can to make your own voice heard.

Sue Gardner,

Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

The Year in Words: the good, the bad, and the trending

It’s time for the inevitable roundup of the year in words: 2011’s crop of neologisms, buzz words, clichés, most frequently misused, misunderstood, misspelled, and abused words, and as wordsmith Richard Nordquist puts it, even words that inspire logomisia—the strong, dislike of a word based on its sound, meaning, usage, or associations.

Nordquist has collected a list of “200 words that ticked you off in 2010.” If readers don’t see their personal linguistic bêtes noires of the year in the ample glossary he has compiled, he invites them to add their own in the comment section of his blog. Nordquist’s list addresses a wide range of irritating linguistic errors and excesses that includes spelling gaffes (writing cold slaw instead of cole slaw, wax paper instead of waxed paper, and ice tea instead of iced tea), comprehension failures (for instance, substituting “for all intensive purposes” for “for all intents and purposes,” or saying something is a mute point rather than a moot point), pronunciation (FYI, it’s birthday, not birfday), and relentless reliance on expressions of the moment such as “thinking outside the box” and “the perfect storm.” According to his list, a few of the hackneyed phrases we should be steering clear of in 2012 are “come on board,” “win-win,” and “you guys.” Briticisms are not popular with Nordquist either; the list decries the rise of at least two popular British expressions in American discourse: “gobsmacked” and “gone missing.”

The American Dialect Society has yet to publish their list of the words that best captured the zeitgeist of 2011, but “occupy” and “bunga-bunga” appear to be front-runners. The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “squeezed middle” and the Global Language Monitor, an analytics firm based in Austin, Texas, has chosen “occupy” as this year’s top word, “Arab Spring” as this year’s top phrase, and Steve Jobs as this year’s most bandied-about name. The Global Language Monitor  uses its proprietary “Narrative Tracker” that analyzes vocabulary and topic trends in the Internet, the blogosphere, social networking sites, and the world’s top 75,000 print and electronic media outlets to provide an ongoing picture of what’s trending in the English language. They even keep track of Google Analytics’ constantly revised total of words currently in use in the English language at even given moment. Another recent trend is the use of “word clouds” to visually illustrate the number of times specific words crop up in a given discourse. Earlier this year, the Spanish newspaper el País provided a word cloud of the resignation speech given by beleaguered president of the Community of Valencia Francisco Camps, who was forced out of office by his own political party following his indictment of bribery charges. While they may be seen as superficial page fillers on a case-by-case basis, word clouds can be used to visually grasp the shifting linguistic elements of political rhetoric over time.

Hashtags seem to have occupied a large portion of this year’s collective discourse. This year’s number one hashtag was #egypt followed by #tigerblood, a word plucked from one of the series of bizarre statements made by Charlie Sheen as he publicly plummeted from the dizzy heights of celebrity stardom into an absolute state of pariahood. As usual, politicians’ linguistic blunders also kept the public amused all year. Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” is bound to remain in the public’s mind for a while. Then there is the question of politicians’ communication skills in general. Latin America watchers have been wondering how much longer Chilean president Sebastian Pinera will continue to spice his public appearances with inappropriate jokes. Even his wife protested when he publicly quipped “When a politicians says yes, he means maybe; when he says maybe, he means no, and if he says no, he’s not a politician. When a lady says no, she means maybe; when she says maybe, she means yes, and if she says yes, she’s not a lady.” Although president of the Autonomous Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre is a niece of the late Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, holds the title of Countess of Murillo and is both a “grandee” of Spain and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, she is popularly known for her undiplomatic and less than poetic public pronouncements. A letter she sent to local school teachers in September explaining the budget cuts proposed by her administration was quickly returned covered in red ink by striking educators who delighted in pointing out her grammatical errors. Based on my own experience, I must say that Aguirre’s tendency to capitalize words based on nothing more than a personal whim may well be the most common vice of contemporary Spanish writers, but any letter issued by a government office should be checked for the appropriate use of accents, as the inclusion or omission of an accent is apt to change the meaning of a Spanish word.

If the blogosphere has made everyone on Earth a potential commentator, it stands to reason that it should make at least a few of these good folks potential grammarians as well, although I’m not holding my breath for this to happen. I recently read an interesting post by a young blogger who explained to his readers, “My parent’s generation have a laudable simplicity about them. They are sometimes frustrating, asking us to hook up their internet for fix their computers, but those things are essentially foreign to them. Our parents don’t really belong in the digital world, they just visit it.” An interesting thought, but the author should know that generation is not a plural noun and realize that the phrase “for fix their computers” just doesn’t fly. If information technology is essentially foreign to his parents, the rules of grammar seem to be essentially foreign to him. He goes on observe, “My niece and nephew’s computer skills already rival their parents, and none of them are over the age of six,” a really comic sentence if you seriously try to visualize the situation he describes. I hope his supposedly antediluvian parents gave him a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style for Christmas.

As the Times of London points out, “The Google generation finds it hard to imagine life before the world wide web.” This year, one of professor Leo Enticknap’s cinema students at the University of Leeds proffered the opinion that a certain political group had “used the Internet to publicise their (nominally admissible in British English) cause, just like the French Resistence [sic] during the Second World War.” The same article notes that John Wilson, a placements tutor at the University of Central Lancashire, was sent the following message by a student requesting a reference: “Will you please be a referee for a job for which I am appalling?”  These mistakes should not be entirely blamed on the “Google” generation. As Lynne Truss points outs in her delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, today’s ignorance of grammar and punctuation rules has its pernicious roots in the 1970s, when educators in the English-speaking world collectively decided that “grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression.” Truss insightfully notes, “In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer! . . . People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others.”

Students aren’t the only ones out there butchering the English language. A member of the American Dialect Society recently circulated a hilarious compendium of spelling and grammar gems supposedly drafted by English-speaking Christian parishioners that include “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community. Smile at someone who is hard to love. Say ‘Hell’ to someone who doesn’t care much about you,” “Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered,” and “The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.”

Protest posters are another perennial source of linguistic bloopers. While I have no desire to come down hard on the author of the modest poster informing Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, “We fade up. Go to hill,” pictured above, I would have expected native speakers—especially those purporting to defend the English language—to make fewer errors. People who seek the media spotlight should be aware that bad grammar gone viral reflects poorly on the movements they so vehemently support. If anyone is shopping around for a new year’s resolution, resolving to pay more attention to communications directed towards others might be a good pick. Good grammar and mutual tolerance go a long way in my book, and I’d like to see more evidence of both in the coming year. Meanwhile, a review of some of the funnier bloopers of 2011 offers us the opportunity to end an especially contentious and challenging year with a chuckle and a smile.