Superstitions and fetishes make for bad writing and editing

Scientific editors are a hard group to deal with. Most of them are either bad writers or not experts on the topic they’re editing at a given time, or both. Either shortcoming often leads them to make unnecessary, unwise, or even actively incorrect changes or recommendations in a text. Being unfamiliar with the jargon of a field is one thing, and can only be overcome with time and experience, but being bad writers and grammarians who adhere to baseless grammatical superstitions, force their fetishes on others, and judge themselves protectors of formal prose who provide anything of value to others is inexcusable in a scientific editor.

I deal with, and am myself, a scientific editor who corrects the language, grammar, and style of biomedical research papers written by non-native English speakers to improve them to the level of native English speakers’. This might mean my job entails much different functions from an editor who works for a scientific journal, who might do more copyediting than language, grammar, and meaning editing. It also means we often have to go a little above and beyond how typical American scientists would write because these, too, are notoriously bad writers and grammar users! Consequently, I have had opportunities to witness self-appointed grammarians making simply awful, perplexing grammatical changes to perfectly correct, clear sentences all because they think it’s their job to force their 3rd-grade grammar fetishes on their customers—and, unfortunately, on their underlings.

As an independent contractor who according to the IRS is self-employed, I don’t exactly have a boss, but I do have managing editors who run the company for which I do contract work, who judge and approve of my work, and who set either de jure or de facto house styles. Therefore, you might conclude that it’s frustrating to be supervised by, judged by, and have my ability to make a living partially determined by superstitious nincompoops who enforce certain rules only because they heard somewhere that they were rules or who enforce certain styles only because they don’t know any better. You would be right.

I think it’s possible to divide most of their mistakes and misconceptions into two rough categories: turgid scientific formality and ignorant grammatical superstitions. Their fixations on both could rightly be called fetishes. Dictionary.com gives this as its second definition of fetish: “any object, idea, etc., eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect, or devotion”. Turgid is also a perfect word to describe the style of most academic writing and all of the editing that these fetishists perpetrate. It means bloated, overblown, and inflated with self-importance and bombasticness.

The most prominent and most easily identifiable form that turgid fetishism takes in scientific editing is replacing short words with longer ones and Germanic English words with Latinate ones. Thus we have then being replaced with subsequently, tried with attempted, by with via, rest with remainder, about with approximately, made with generated, before with previously, learn with ascertain, have with contain, seen with observed, show with demonstrate, now with currently, explain with elucidate, got with obtained, done with performed, check with investigate, et cetera ad nauseam. (I will say that the last three changes mentioned are usually improvements, but not every time.) To emphasize, I have seen editors replace each of those shorter words, written by the authors in their original manuscripts, with the longer words. I have seen, in an edit of mine, a managing editor replace two instances of so far with thus far for no reason other than it suited that editor’s fancy (i.e., they were in separate paragraphs and were the only two instances of so far in the entire document, so those changes weren’t made to inject some variety in the midst of a bunch of other so far’s or so’s). I’ve got news for you: as a writer, using thus far instead of so far in any type of document doesn’t make you sound more educated or formal; it makes you sound like a clueless twit who thinks longer is better and who is so lacking in a knack for language and so unconfident in his ability to impress readers with the content of his writing that he feels compelled to write as pompously as possible. As an editor, going to the effort to change somebody else’s so far to thus far looks even worse.

Some scientific editors also seem to have a bias against the conjunction so itself, such that in the middle of sentences they change “, so…” to “; therefore,…”, “; thus,…”, or “, and as a result,…”. Where in the world did that prejudice come from? If the conjunctions and, or, and but are fine in the middle of a sentence to introduce an independent clause, what the hell is wrong with so?

The other category of inanity I’ve encountered, the enforcement of baseless grammatical superstitions, is surely a cousin of the desire for utmost formality and propriety, but separate enough to warrant a separate classification. This category includes mainly old prescriptivist grammatical pseudo-rules that never were valid, aren’t valid now, and shouldn’t have been taught. I think the best-known of these are the pseudo-rules against ending sentences in prepositions and against splitting infinitives. I don’t think anyone really follows these rules anymore, but—I kid you not—in an edit of mine, a managing editor rearranged a perfectly good verb, which I had left alone, to avoid splitting an infinitive. I was stunned that anyone would go to the effort to un-split an infinitive in someone else’s writing in this day and age. I don’t communicate with them about the changes they end up making (can you see why, by now?), and they leave no note about why each change was made, but I can only guess that infinitive was un-split because of a stupid superstition, not because it sounded more natural or flowed better. When I saw that, I thought, “Oh, no, honey. Oh, you poor thing. No, that’s…that’s just stupid. I feel bad. You’re an awful writer.”

The other two baseless grammar fetishes that I’ll mention are the proscription against using Since to mean “Because/Inasmuch as/Seeing that” and the proscription against beginning a sentence with And or But. As a general prescriptivist (a rational prescriptivist or selective prescriptivist, I like to call myself), I take Bryan Garner as the final word on language issues on most occasions when I need a final word. Garner classifies both of those proscriptions as “superstitions” on the level of never ending sentences with a preposition and never splitting infinitives.

The Since/Because issue came up in the discussion forum of my fellow editors recently. One editor said it was understandable to require editors to avoid using Since to mean “Because” when we add it ourselves, but that it is over-editing to change such usage of Since in the original document if its meaning is clear (which it is about 90% of the time). He cited the editing guide of the company we contract for, which says Since can have both a causative and a temporal meaning, but temporary confusion can result from the causative meaning, so they discourage it. They even discourage leaving it alone, even when its meaning is unambiguous. I never noticed the somewhat-almost-maybe permissive wording of this entry in the editors’ guide; I always assumed it was an absolute proscription and so I happily followed it religiously. It wasn’t until this discussion thread that I decided to look up what actual grammarians say about it and respond to him. Actually, I responded to the person who responded to him; that first responder said the rule bothered her at first but now she agrees with it. I responded that the rule seemed great to me at first but now bothers me! Maybe the descriptivist influence of Geoffrey Pullum and Marc Liberman at LanguageLog is affecting me…

Anyway, I could cite more authorities than just Garner on the Since/Because issue, but that would be pointless because they all agree with him; there is no dissent on its acceptability; it isn’t even an issue anymore. Except in editing circles populated with ignorant, superstitious pedants. Every English dictionary lists “because; inasmuch as” as a definition of since. If it weren’t for overzealous grammar-delusionists who have turned their delusions into fetishes and their fetishes into (pseudo-)rules, there would be no point in discussing this word at all except to occasionally remind people not to use it if there is some chance of confusion between a temporal and a causative meaning.

I decided to put the managing editors’ words to the test recently and see if they really meant what they wrote in their editors’ guide: that causative Since at the beginning of a sentence is discouraged but not wrong. I left it alone at the beginning of a few sentences where there was no chance of confusion to see if they would also leave it. Nope, they consider it wrong and will change it religiously against all evidence, all history, and all sense. If that’s their policy, they should make it a part of an official house style and say, “No dictionaries or grammarians agree with this restriction, but the managing editors have been specifically instructed, on threat of termination, to change Since to Because whenever possible and to dock your editing score if you don’t, so follow this house style because it’s in your job description.”

The sentence-initial And/But issue came up recently in a review article I edited. A review article is secondary literature, i.e., it summarizes and occasionally comments on previously published findings (from the primary literature) and does not report any new findings. Reviews are slightly less formal than primary literature, if only in the sometimes quirky, punny titles that the authors probably spend weeks coming up with. In my opinion, there should be a little more leeway in the formality and stiffness of secondary literature, but some people (surprise) disagree. In the aforementioned review article, the author, who was German and wrote in very good English but not nearly the perfect English we sometimes ascribe to northern Europeans, began a lot of sentences with But. Like, 10 or 12 throughout the 5000-word document. I had deleted or changed all of them to However, except the last or second-to-last one, in the Conclusion of the article. That sentence began with But although, which is fine and correct to any educated English speaker with half a knack for English prose. I knew of their proscription against sentence-initial conjunctions, so I wrote a comment to the managing editor when I uploaded my edit: (paraphrasing) “I had to change a lot of ‘But’ at the beginning of sentences, but at least one near the end of the document was fine. I felt like an overly pedantic, zero-tolerance elementary school teacher deleting them or changing them to ‘However’ every time.”

Nope. She was having none of that. She either doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree that good, formal writing can have sentences that begin with And or But, so she changed it to However. Never mind that her sentence sounds more stilted and awkward than mine; The Rule says sentences can’t begin with But, and that’s that. (Note that this Rule doesn’t actually exist anywhere except in a small minority of English speakers’ minds. It literally isn’t a rule in a single extant grammar guide. And why can an adverb begin a sentence but a conjunction can’t? Conjunctions are only supposed to connect two independent or dependent clauses, not two sentences? Why? Aren’t adverbs supposed to modify verbs and adjectives? Why whole sentences, then? Why am I asking when I know she has no answers to these questions other than “Just because” or “My 5th grade teacher said it; I believe it; that settles it”?)

I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through her mind when she changed a perfectly clear and sonorous But although to a clunky and discordant However, although. (I mean, honestly. Listen to that clunky, stilted sentence starter. However, although? Seriously? Who thinks that sounds good? What could lead anyone to think that looks, sounds, feels, or flows better than But although?) What was she thinking and feeling? Was there some intellectual consideration or emotional turmoil as her mind struggled to figure out whether The Rule she had been given was inviolate? “Hmm, he’s got a point, but my hands are tied because The Rule says so”? “Yes, ‘But although’ does sound better than the clunky ‘However, although’, but the point of academic writing isn’t to express thoughts clearly and smoothly; it’s to show off how pompous you are and how many syllables you can waste”? “The author didn’t hire us to leave boorish informalities alone but rather to mark up his paper with as many changes as possible”? “It’s not up to me to determine whether anything is grammatical or acceptable; that’s why we have rules: so we can implement them uniformly and move on”? “In theory, a sentence could start with ‘But’, but I’ve never seen an appropriate one yet, so I’m changing it”? “Oh, but what will people think of me and my intellect and my upbringing and my employer if I let such an egregious affront to decency pass? We must all be dutiful rule-followers and never question such basic facts of grammar”? “I’ve always changed sentence-initial ‘But’ to ‘However,’ and I’m not about to stop now”? “Uh, in scientific literature? No way, rookie!”? Or a jaded, “Fuck it, I don’t care what’s right; it’s in my job description to change it, so I’m changing it and moving on”?

So, obviously But although sounds, flows, and feels better than However, although, and obviously people talk that way, and obviously non-scientists begin sentences with But and And all the time. But is it acceptable in formal academic literature? Bryan Garner is yet again a sufficient authority to quote on this matter:

Many legal writers believe that but, if used to begin a sentence, is either incorrect or loosely informal. Is it?

No. But the superstition is hard to dispel. Usage critics have been trying to dispel it for some time. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the great H.W. Fowler dispatched an editor who wanted to change a but to however at the beginning of a sentence:

“It is wrong[, said the editor,] to start a sentence with ‘But’. I know Macaulay does it, but it is bad English. The word should either be dropped entirely or the sentence altered to contain the word ‘however’.” That ungrammatical piece of nonsense was written by the editor of a scientific periodical to a contributor who had found his English polished up for him in proof, & protested; both parties being men of determination, the article got no further than proof. It is wrong to start a sentence with “but”! It is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition! It is wrong to split an infinitive! See the article FETISHES for these & other such rules of thumb & for references to articles in which it is shown how misleading their sweet simplicity is.

When Sir Ernest Gowers revised Fowler in 1965, he treated the question with and:

That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering superstition. The OED gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th c.; the Bible is full of them.

“Faintly lingering” is a good description of what the superstition is doing nowadays. It isn’t supported in books on rhetoric, grammar, or usage—though several try to eradicate it.
[…]
Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage—generally ultrapermissive, but thorough in marshaling previous discussions on point—found unanimity among language critics:

Part of the folklore of usage is the belief that there is something wrong in beginning a sentence with but:

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’’s what you learned, unlearn it—here is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change
–Zinsser 1976

Everybody who mentions this question agrees with Zinsser. The only generally expressed warning is not to follow the but with a comma….

Perhaps we can all agree that beginning a sentence with but isn’t wrong, slipshod, loose, or the like. But is it less formal? I don’t think so. In fact, the question doesn’t even reside on the plane of formality. The question I’d pose is, What is the best word to do the job? William Zinsser says, quite rightly, that but is the best word to introduce a contrast. I invariably change however, when positioned at the beginning of a sentence, to but. Professional editors such as John Trimble regularly do the same thing.

Sheridan Baker, in his fine book The Complete Stylist, recommends that writers choose but over however in the initial position.

Garner then goes on to quote Baker as saying however is best left between commas in the middle of a sentence, which I completely disagree with. I actually think that is less clear, more awkward, and more often leads to confusion than putting it at the start of the sentence. But then Garner cites lots of examples of But starting sentences in very formal writing, to support his (everyone’s) point that it isn’t ungrammatical or informal.

Like just about any matter of style or syntax, too much of anything is…well, too much. So I would suggest that sentence-initial And and But be used sparingly, maybe once every few thousand words in formal writing. This style advice has nothing to do with their being incorrect or informal but rather with the fact very much repetition of anything is unwise. Eliminating them entirely from the beginning of sentences is groundless from every historical, logical, stylistic, or grammatical perspective that can be conjured. Some people just don’t care, and it’s not only to their detriment but to mine as well, since I work with them. I have little doubt that these delusional formality zealots would edit Bible verses to say, “Additionally, God said, ‘Let there be light'” and “Moreover, it was good.”

Fowler was right: The proscription against sentence-initial And and But is ungrammatical nonsense, and only bad writers and editors follow it.

EDIT: God damn, this post is poorly written. It was only 5 years ago, but I hate my writing from back then, at least some of it. This post just sounds so utterly whiny and condescending. I could just take it down, but I don’t like memory-holing things.

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