Words, UnLtd. May 2000







ny editor shivers at the formidable mention of Jacques Barzun, the authority who undermined our profession back in the eighties by taking the viewpoint of authors who have suffered from one end of our spectrum, the incompetents. As a result of this pummeling, most of us hesitated to touch red pencil to paper ever again, since a few incompetents had been stupid enough to attempt to reword needlessly, contradicting our bottom line, which is to take the back stage and never inject ourselves into the prose; rather, to nurture the style of the author, though it may be verbose or too lean or too effusive. It is their book not ours. We are hired to find embarrassing slips and grammatical faux pas. We are the backup singers, enhancing in harmony but never taking over or even threatening to. If we wish to do more, we can do our own writing, as I do, every day of my life.


     Mr. Barzun highlights some embarrassing editorial slips and by the end of his article one wishes never again to encounter an editor, which he evolves to synonymy with the devil and every other undesirable concept in our language. I learned his lesson at nearly the beginning of my editing career and early became very conservative, red penciling only when the omission would be worse than my intervention, or so I thought. So I revere and respect his worse-case scenarios, not frightened out of the field myself but very aware of the warped attitudes of non-editors who read this essay and as a result contracted this phobia, as if all editors followed the pattern of Barzun's worse-case specimens.


     I was delighted to come across the book  Modern American Usage, which he edited and completed, along with others, for the author Wilson Follett in 1966 (published by Hill and Wang). I found it on the sale shelves of my local public library, priced at 25 cents. I grabbed it, eager for more insights and if necessary, more black eyes, from this guru of the English language. What, to my chagrin, do I encounter in the Introductory (p. 16) but shoddy editing? I went through the sample a few times, a passage Follett himself dissects, in disbelief. It is a jacket blurb written for an encyclopedia, and he was criticizing inconsistency between initial rubric and bulleted modifiers, which strayed away from logical, syntactic parallelism at the end of the list. I quote the first three items, though, which themselves needed more editing than there was evidently time to give (was use of Barzun's name an honorarium rather than more authentic acknowledgment? I hope so!).



              would eliminate the colon here]


              EVERY proper name in the Bible, with

        reference to passages where they occur.

              EVERY incorporated place in the

        United States with a population of 1,000 or

         over, as well as many smaller places

         of historical interest.

              EVERY U.S. President, every Supreme

         Court Justice since 1908 (plus many

         earlier ones), all outstanding Senators,

         Representatives, and Cabinet members.


         And now for the black eyes: in item 1, we would want "it occurs" rather than "they occur" to refer back consistently to "every," a collective singular; according to the entry in the lexicon portion of this book at "each, every," "each and every thus call for singular verbs and are to be correlated with singular nouns and pronouns, generally pronouns in the third person."


          Item 2: "over" is used here very loosely where "more" would be the grammatical alternative, and then the predication is inexact between "smaller" and "population of…" because the entire island of Greenland has few inhabitants and it is very large (the largest island in the world that is not a continent, Kazakhstan has just interjected). We should rather edit to "many less- populated places. "[O]f historical interest" is an extremely vague suggestion of what we might actually read this to mean, something like "place where events important to U.S. history occurred." I always say that history is happening anytime anyone spits or gets into a car.


         Item 3: why is the year 1908 so important, when some of the most dynamic Supreme Court justices held tenure earlier than this? I would go find another encyclopedia after reading this. As to capitalization of the officer nouns, style in the sixties differs from ours in 2000, which would lowercase all. I would prefer to repeat "U..S." in each context, because supreme courts exist at lower  levels also, as do senators and what we then called representatives. Another imprecise word (Barzun hates imprecision) is "outstanding," whose complimentary definition (listed last in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed.) is looser and more colloquial than its actual meaning, something like "left over, yet to be accomplished, standing out for any reason at all." We need a more precise, complimentary modifier here, something like "whose accomplishments were significant to the progression of democracy and freedom." Then to use the modifier "every" followed up by "all" in the last rubric obeys a stricture long abandoned, that repetition in language is to be avoided and this sort of useless and confusing variation is the preferable alternative. If we again refer to Follett''s lexicon at the entry "each, every," we find out that the usage singled out here, i.e., that "all" can be synonymous with "every," is incorrect; that is, "every" functions to "imply, in logic and in numbering, more than one, but…taking the members of the plurality one at a time."


    All of these problems are overlooked in favor of the list items that follow, where parallel syntax is abandoned, a valid object of criticism, and perhaps the most salient error, but surely Mr. Barzun and the distinguished others are aware of the dictum "Where there's smoke, there's fire," and that editors should avoid the complacency inevitable with the discovery of a major flaw like this one. The corollary is that others in such environments are inevitable and the ones most often overlooked!


     I'd say to whoever took his prior essay very seriously, beware the professional who steps out to criticize a few rotten apples as if representative and typical of the entire harvest. Beware his motives, rather than his victims! I cite yet again a review I wrote a few years ago on Hanson and Heath, Who Killed Homer? In the process of deriding so many of their colleagues, these two classicists did enormous damage to the field and scared away many prospective students and classicists-to-be. Their hapless colleagues are still attempting to clean up the debris of this misdirected and anachronistic stereotyping.


      Severina Stylistica, admittedly in     

        shock over this betrayal by an icon










ince my last admittedly scathing commentary on something Mr. Barzun allegedly edited, I have had another go at the guy: this time at something he wrote, the essay that for all time instilled the fear of God in my profession, to wit, the fear of blemishing words written in stone by St. Author: "Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity?"


     As an editor/writer (a variation on my profession he extols in the last page of this essay) /translator/classics scholar, I have earned most of my yearly income by means of that loathed pursuit, copyediting (he deplores the more dignified variant we prefer, "manuscript editor," on page 1), for the last twelve years at least. One trifling monosyllable would have clarified what Mr. Barzun said fifteen years ago (1985), enormously: for each invalid, pejorative generalization he has fired at my colleagues, all he should have added was "bad." The examples he lists of editorial gaffs (Bless us, Father, for we have sinned…) comprise lousy editing, period. But I would wager my life and limb that what he also says of his own profession is equally true: there are many, many lousy writers. What to do? Eradicate both professions that are, after all, so symbiotic?


     Rarely, if ever, have I been accused of "Barzunism," mainly because, perhaps, he sounded the alarm (to wit, the above-named essay) just about the time when I entered the profession full-time for the first time, in 1986. I have to say he helped me greatly to define my mission, which I still profess. I, we also, are hired to help authors deliver their message as clearly, concisely, and effectively as possible. The ideal editor is neither a freelancer from home looking to collect some coins for the cracked cup nor the recent college graduate. She is rather a highly educated person convinced of the importance of correct grammar and not at all in it for the "ego trip," but rather a lurker, a backstage type, a bookworm who loves what she does and learns immeasurably from each book and author she is assigned.


    Barzun, on the last page of his essay, extols that ideal combination, writer/editor, as if a rara avis, but how many real editors are not  writers also, and vice versa? Much of my editing skill stems from my writing experience. To edit my own writing is the toughest thing of all, but also most rewarding. The editor writes and then self-edits and finds things to edit and the same faults in her own writing as in that of others, and in a way, what a joy it is. I always tell my authors: "If you didn't make mistakes, I would have no job,  and if I did not make mistakes, there would be no reason for you to read through page proof, which would be a ghastly error to be avoided at all costs - something like that." Errors define human nature. This possibility governs so many of our actions and reactions. To heap this trait as if solely in the lap of us editors is, to put it mildly, destructive to the pursuit of perfection, which is the other end of what defines and enriches our lives: pursuit of the unattainable and infinite enrichment in that process. It has been shown us, what is good, and what the Lord requires of us: perfection, and the closer we reach it, the more gratified we are, in any endeavor.


     Let him who has not erred, Mr. Barzun, cast the first stone. In the case of my profession, the caster was you, and I refer you back to the previous essay on Mr. Follett's fine book, as a good argument for you to refine and recast the thoughts in the present lethal, venomous piece of work. As an editor, despite my regressive, introverted nature, I have won all sorts of unsought recognition at all levels from regional to international. For this I am gratified, but more than that, each time an author accepts or rejects a change I propose - and rarely do I exceed proposition in the editing process - I grow and learn and, despite your accusation, feel no guilt for wasting the author's precious time, because usually, in all this process, we compromise, reword more clearly, add something or take something else out, and what emerges but a finer piece of work? That in itself is worth all the time in the world. What more can either author or editor seek than writing that says the most, most compactly, elegantly, grammatically, communicatively -- not to show off but to share and teach and involve?


    What I might have said, from your high and mighty aerie, Mr. Barzun, is that in all pursuits, not just editing but sky piloting or playing God or the Devil, the important standard is excellence and striving toward that and we must all avoid the"rotten apples" rather than dwelling on them - a waste of time. It is just as easy for me to list editorial triumphs as gaffs and to use these to teach and improve rather than abuse and demolish.


     I look forward to reading the rest of the book On Writing and Publishing, because my instinct is that I am dealing here with a highly civilized, brilliant, and dedicated scholar and craftsman who would take what I have to say in the most gracious of all possible manners, thank me, and not talk back, simply because in this same breath I salute him for all his contributions to scholarship and culture, which far outweigh this most uncharacteristic, insufficiently considered, dare I add again, in need of better critical readers and editors, piece of work? Here is what il Maestro himself had to say on the subject of being criticized, back in 1950 in his essay "A Writer's Discipline":


     So-called established writers who after years of work still wince at criticism are certainly not established in their own souls. Nor does one have to be callous or stubborn about reproof in order to feel solid and to accept one's errors and limitations with a composure which one can then extend to the errors and injustices of critics. Doing so habitually makes one more and more able to see the work,

which is the prerequisite to producing it, pruning it, and preserving it against the ravages of time.


Marin/Postumus 2/15/00

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A bit more barbing Barzun



aving read further in the delightful On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, I have nothing to say about Barzun's ultraconservative stance on gender bias in language- it's all been said years ago (see Severina on this topic "The Genderless Epicene" in a previous BORING CORNER)- but stopped short in a few other places with even more disillusionment. In one instance, fifteen years before he dismissed the editing profession as hopelessly incompetent, Barzun lighted in on Edgar Alan Poe's disturbingly inaccurate quotations from the French language. The man's command of it was clearly marginal, but that was ok with Barzun, because, because, it was the editors' fault that the less-than-perfect French had nonetheless found its way into print and mostly stayed there between the nineteenth century and now, but for a few astute and brave editors.


     I say "brave" in making the needed changes ("Imagine having to wait a century and a quarter for an editor to tamper with your text!") because, for one thing, Poe may have already been famous by the time the hapless editors were handed the texts in question to edit. Having myself been given the text of a famous author at least once to edit, I can testify to the fact that yes, indeed, it is scary: the thought of being in a position to edit the famous John Updike (I don't think he'd mind this mention). And I did. Barzun may have cheered, who knows - but just a few Danish spellings (to conform them with the series style, administered by people fluent in the language) and beyond that, the experience was a sheer pleasure - the man was such a great writer. At one point, I lifted my (brown) pencil, about to trim slightly a sentence I found a bit sinuous, but then I stopped. This was John Updike, not a junior professor publishing his Ph.D. thesis in return for tenure credit. And what a sigh of relief it was. To lean back and say, this guy can write and I don't have to help him express himself more clearly. He has won international acclaim.


    And does Mr. Barzun know what sort of person Poe was to work with? Might Poe have blown his stack at the hint of correction - some authors do. Surely JB should know that many authors feel very foolish and can make your life quite miserable if you catch them in the sort of error he points out in Poe and feels free to publicize years after that poor miserable man bit the dust. We know JB would take criticism well: such reactions are in print he has signed with his distinguished name (see last month's BORING CORNER).


    How would he react if I ventured to add, after this ambiguous message ("Do, but don't!") spread out between 1970 and 1985… that in his own text published somewhere between 1950 and 1953, he himself allowed the spelling "Unesco" for the acronym UNESCO, within less than a decade of this organization's inception in 1946 so that it would not have had the time to assimilate into our language as vocabulary in its own right. His editor may have found it and been afraid to point it out to this distinguished writer (not that known then, I don't think) or else not found it and therefore been at fault, according to the stricture of the 1970 essay. But what if your author is himself an authority on editing? How much more difficult must it be to correct Barzun than Poe or Updike, except that we have JB's disclaimer, know that the man is pushing 100 and probably mellow as they come, and besides that, if we hold him to the "Poe" stricture and no one else before me has pointed out the "Unesco" error - look, he had only to wait less than half a century for some editing ["tampering"].

 Severina Grammatica, who has a good sense of humor and catches herself in this sort of error all the time…