HOW TO OBTAIN a king from a cockroach when you’re copyediting and they slip a bug into the pages of a 700-page tome to see if you’re awake! The actual context follows below, having occurred in the midst of perfectly coherent prose. If you can’t tell the difference, read the rest of this article and then check into the nearest English 101 THAT WILL ACCEPT YOU.

And I quote:

I have chosen the example of religion to show as drastically as possible the extent to which citizenship meant to the Greeks belonging inseparably to a community which recognized you as a member, and sharing with that community every aspect of one’s life. Citizenship was neither a right nor a matter of participation, it was a matter of belonging, of knowing one’s identity not in terms of one’s own personal values but in terms of the community that was yours and whose you were. Aristotle stated a profound reality of Greek society, when he defined man as a zoön politikon.

     The Greek term at the end is fine; it means “political being,” part of the famous quote from Aristotle’s Politics so often mistranslated as “Man is a political animal” when in fact, so are women and children. So backspace a few steps and we find one related issue, the use of man to mean “humankind.” Most editors would mark that. Some would edit on the spot to “humankind.” Once you try for a smoother, plural construction (the usual solution to eliminate gender bias, because the plural is so much more enlightened than the singular in our language - try it out and see for yourself), you lose the direct quotation from the Greek, which would also have to go into the plural, zoa politika, which has less impact. The problem with humankind, though, is that it is a collective noun, singular in syntax but implying the entire clump of animate homines sapientes, a definitely plural concept. So the astute editor won’t stop there. I might ask the author to recast the sentence altogether. Something like “every human being is a zoön politikon” is a possibility. Or else “…when he [Aristotle] asserted that every member of the human race is a zoön politikon.” Giving the author something to work with is helpful in a fairly challenging situation like this, especially if you think the author is not particularly interested in solving or even addressing the problem of gender bias in contemporary written language. 

What is wrong with the first sentence in this extract? It is ponderously verbose. Too many words. One can say the same thing with considerably less verbiage. First we have to figure out what the author means here.  I would say, something like

      We have gone from 43 to 16 words, from 4-1/2 single-spaced lines to 1-1/2. But most importantly, we have lost none of the gist. With all due respect to social scientists and the very important windows of perspective on society that they provide us, they tend also to represent one of the more verbose sectors of the authorial establishment - I know not why but am fascinated. I speak from personal experience. I wish I could recall the exact context of a 5-line statement I once compressed into one word, in amazement. And this was for a 2nd edition of an already-published and popular college textbook.

     Whatever else is strained out of the first sentence you will find reiterated more clearly in what follows. The first sentence attempts to encompass too much. The author is very considerately attempting to recap a chapter or chapter section for the reader but the didactic purpose fails where imprecision and verbosity intrude. Something else besides verbosity and excess is also apparent in the first sentence. Notice how the perspective of the sentence shifts from “I” to “you” to “one’s”: 1st to 2nd to 3rd person singular within 4 lines. The writer might say that the subject matter far exceeds the diction in importance and he/she has succeeded, after all, in communicating the point. Why dwell further on verbiage? Because if an idea is unclear and could be expressed in 1/3 the amount of words, efficiency is lost, the reader will be forced to reread the lines several times and will then waste time finding the same notions re-expressed more clearly below anyway and meanwhile may prefer to spend precious reading time on an author who is far more concise. Who knows? Many factors enter in, but in general, the more clearly a writer writes, the more efficiently the reader will read and more likely come back to the same source for more information. I think that generality holds more often than not.

     Note that the rewrite I suggest maintains a single perspective: the objectively distant 3rd person singular “omniscient author.” The challenge from here on is to rewrite the other inconsistent variations effectively. But first, there is an important principle to note in the next sentence. I will attack the usage was, as I grow editorial shackles every time I come across a misused copulative (i.e., forms of the verb to be and any other expression whose function is no more than predication, equation, otherwise replaceable by an equal sign) or auxiliary. English is rich with verbs, action words, but writers so often resort to nouns or “weak” verbs or periphrases like “make use of” for “use.” In general whenever I see a weak verb like “make,” “do,” forms of “to be,” or “have”; “have to do with” for “relate” (itself overused these days as a result of pop psychology and the “Me” Generation!), I immediately think rewrite/edit. The latter tend to be colloquial, an academic author’s attempt to reach more of the public, whose literacy level may not be what it used to be due to varied emphases within an educational system that is alienated from the study of traditional grammar, which is boring after all and so very rote and seemingly irrelevant to the worldly issues teaming around us in exigent priority. Actually, grammar is one of these issues - neglect of the study of traditional grammar, that is, which results in indifference to the finer aspects of linguistic expression, some of whose consequences are exemplified in the rewrite above.  But back to specifics. For the was in question I would choose a more active verb like meant, or even more finely, implied, which takes us back to the question raised in the first sentence. I would say something like

Citizenship implied neither a right nor participation, but instead, in and of itself, belonging: identity determined externally by the community rather than internally according to individual, personal values. The community belonged to the citizen and the citizen, in turn, belonged to the community.

     I would question the author whether citizen was an effective edit, since the term was limited in ancient Greece and scholars debate the extent that it applied to women, among others. I would offer other options, like “individual” (redundant, though with the previous sentence), “subject” (too jargonesque?), “person” (too vague), “subject/person in question” (too verbose since it needs to be written twice): but at least among all these options the author would have something to work with. Often what they do with this sort of suggestion field is create out of it something far more elegant and I feel completely foolish until I recover and realize that I’m still the sheepish source of what I believe is improved text. But back, for a minute, to the edit. Note that in this case I have expanded the sentence rather than contracted it, because I have found something expressed elliptically, i.e., in too compressed a fashion. I therefore add words to clarify. Editing is not always a matter a cutting. The phrasing “community that was yours and whose you were” contains a witty compactness but also, note even within the compression the reiteration of the “weak” verb “to be,” which we have found is almost invariable expressible in far more active and illustrative language. I think that this original wording is more classical in syntax, which works well in Greek or Latin and sometimes works well also in English, but not here.

     Please note the other pleonasms I have automatically weeded out in this process: more shifting in reference from 3rd to 2nd person singular; expressions like “matter of” and “in terms of.” In the 1st instance, we can easily edit from “it was a matter of” to “it meant,” eliminating the weak verb and at the same time reducing text from 5 to 2 words and articulating more clearly to the reader.

     “In terms of” need occur only once if at all, and can be edited to the slightly more elevated “according to,” if we do not decide instead to recast the entire sentence.

     Re the last sentence, an editor immediately grows hackles at expressions like “interesting,” “profound,” even the whittled down judgmentals “quite” and “very.” Whenever anything is “interesting to notice/observe/add/point out/whatever,” it is sufficient for the author to state the point; were the point not interesting Princeton Press probably would not be publishing the book. And what is the difference between “interesting” and “very interesting” or “quite interesting,” pray tell? But authors often use devices like this to begin paragraphs, in need of transitions. We have all been taught in composition courses to relate what follows in a discussion to what proceeds. In the case of the sentence we are considering, “profound” signals strong closure of a sort; after all, the subject is an immortal statement that is close to household words for many of us. It may or may not be labeled as actually “profound,” another overused word. Is politics, the inevitable presence in any assembled group of people, “profound,” a “profound reality,” or simply an unavoidable fact? Here I would suggest very gently (being a political creature myself in a very awkward situation of slashing apart an entire paragraph) that what Aristotle really accomplished here was verbalizing a very salient aspect of existence for the first time in all of written history. Ouch. I have often in such situations, believe it or not, waited cringing for the author’s response and when the reviewed manuscript was returned, nothing was changed at all and four letters instead occupied the space: “stet.”

     I learn so much from these instances. I have grown in so many ways, whether or not the editing is accepted. I learn as much about the author at least (viz., the vagaries of human nature) as I do about Aristotle. And both areas of endeavor, I might add, are subject to as many perspectives as there are readers and authors.

     To recap, then: our rewrite accomplished reads:

Religion provides perspective on the meaning and importance of belonging to a community in ancient Greece. Citizenship implied neither a right nor participation, but instead, in and of itself, belonging: identity determined externally by the community rather than internally according to individual, personal values. The community belonged to the citizen and the citizen, in turn, belonged to the community. Aristotle discovered one of the most important basic principles of “civilized” reality when he defined the human individual as a zoön politikon.

     Still verbose? Predication also a bit imprecise in that first sentence, I think. Note how I choose to address it by adding back a bit, at the expense of the symmetrical compactness I was striving for (influence of Sophists and classical rhetoricians at least partially responsible for that!). The astute editor cannot sit back and gloat until she attacks the problem like a laser beam. Note the repetitious “belonging” and edit! Very quickly, wits so sharpened by “profound” involvement by now in the paragraph at every level, she will recreate the passage anew (the ultimate arbiter of even this careful rewrite, within grammatical limits, of course, is the author, far more the political scientist than this particular editor; note also that another editor might approach this in a completely different manner and recast entirely differently - I am hoping to provoke any number of responses to this passage):

Religion provides perspective on the meaning and importance of belonging to a community in ancient Greece. Citizenship, neither a right nor a matter of simple participation, implied belonging: identity determined externally by the community rather than internally according to individual, personal values. The community belonged to the citizen and the citizen, in turn, belonged to the community. Aristotle discovered one of the most important basic principles of “civilized” reality when he defined the human individual as azoön politikon.

The astute reader might note here that repetition still exists in the rewrite. To this I say, tried and true: some repetition is as effective as most repetition is worse than useless. Experience teaches us the difference, as might also a sense of rhetoric, poetry, and/or music, where repetition is a basic artistic principle that holds together the fabric and creates its artistry as much as verbal eloquence in writing is essential to its effective communication. But that is another issue: parallelism in general, a fascinating topic we may pursue as our next issue.

Copyright (C) Marta Steele, 1999, 2010. All rights reserved.