The Compulsive Copyeditor

May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?


January 24, 2014

Metaphor Deafness

This kind of thing bothers me perhaps more than it should, and I wonder if it bothers anyone else:

Even though the rules may be simple, the pathway through the cosmos to you or me is laden with twists and turns.

(Never mind that the author had originally written “the pathway . . . to you or I”; that’s a whole other topic.)

“Laden with twists and turns.” Laden? That means loaded, burdened. I don’t know about you, but this sentence makes me visually see a person carrying an armload of curved segments of toy-train track, or a bundle of sinuous slides from the old board game “Chutes and Ladders.”

There are metaphors hidden, often not very deeply hidden, in the etymologies of lots of our words, especially verbs. Most of those metaphors are physical, and boil down to a simple repertoire of objects and actions. We “weigh” a decision, we “grasp” an idea. The metaphors are a little more hidden in Latinate words than in Anglo-Saxon ones — “comprehend” — but it’s just a translation of the same thing. A monkey has a “prehensile” tail; it grasps.

Language is very physical to me, and I see and feel a kind of cartoon of these actions within abstractions. So when someone writes something like “laden with twists and turns,” it bothers me.

Another example: After looking at pond water, Antony van Leeuwenhoek looked under his microscope at some scrapings from

the fascinating, but rarely embraced, nooks and crannies of the human mouth.

I know what the writer is trying to say: that no one (except a dentist or dental hygienist) exactly rushes to meet the yucky inside of the human mouth with . . . er . . . open arms. But how exactly would you embrace a nook, or put your arms around a cranny?

I call this “metaphor deafness.” A writer is using language as pure abstraction, amnesic about its origins, cut from its corporeal roots. It hurts in a Frankenstein’s-monster kind of way, dragging along severed body parts, stitching together a mental action out of mismatched physical ones.

Am I crazy? Sometimes I think I drive writers crazy, making them use not just any abstraction with the right meaning, but one that also has the right action in its bones.

Other examples? I regret now that I haven’t been collecting them, but I will from now on.

June 22, 2013

The Physicality of Grammar and Punctuation

Filed under: grammar,punctuation,sensory qualities of words — amba12 @ 9:31 am

I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve written on this topic before, and maybe even said the same things. But I’m not going to scroll through old posts to try to avoid repeating myself. This is an obsession of mine, so if you’re my reader, live with it (hell, you probably share it).

The longer I work at this, the more I feel grammar and punctuation in my body. I was born to feel language physically anyway, inheriting (thanks, Mom!) keen and interconnected musical and kinesthetic senses (as someone once said when I told him he resembled Fred Astaire, “You should see me dance!”), but I think having to diagram sentences in what used to be called (not coincidentally) “grammar school” made a large contribution. (Yes, all these undigested parentheses are causing me pelvic pain, too. Sorry. I need a parenthectomy.) Visually seeing the skeleton of a sentence, the connection and dependency or balance of clauses, made it as logical a little mousetrap as a mathematical equation. Then, I studied German, which has 4 noun cases, and later Russian, which has count-’em 6, and the benefits of studying a language that has noun declension, like the once-required Latin, cannot be overstated for shining a light on the secret declension of nouns in English, which are undergoing this alchemy even though it is invisible to the naked eye. In particular, the identification of the subject, no matter where it is in the sentence, is so brightly illuminated by German grammar that you can never unsee it again, which is one reason why a dangling participle or one of its cousins never gets by me, and rarely fails to give me a good laugh on its way to the gallows. Hardly anyone writing knows about this any more. Yesterday I read, in a description of a certain vine, “if not in bloom you might machete your way through it without a second thought.”

The last ingredient of my kinesthetic editing sense was supplied by a freshman English class at Harvard called Humanities 6. They basically told us that the way to read and to study literature was to notice your own physical and emotional response and then figure out what the author did (deliberately or instinctively) to make that happen. That has served me well as a critic, too. I could have dropped out after freshman year; I’d already acquired all my essential tools by then.

I’m so fascinated by this aspect of copyediting that the editors I work for have to put up with pedantic little scoldings in footnotes. Yesterday I also read this sentence:

We humans rely on vision to navigate the world, and to communicate with those around us, we have developed a highly refined vocabulary for describing what we perceive.

I added the words “in order” before “to communicate,” and wrote in a footnote:

I’m not normally a fan of this construction (because it’s so often added when unnecessary), but here it prevents momentary misreading of the sentence as “we humans rely heavily on vision to navigate . . . , and to communicate,” which then requires the brain to shift gears midsentence.

And I wrote to the author of the sentence about the vine:

“If not in bloom you might . . .” grammatically means if you are not in bloom.

Now, punctuation, the subject that originally got me started writing this post (along with, um, procrastination). I had edited a novel for a writer who, reading proofs, suddenly panicked and wondered whether she wasn’t using too many colons. Looking at the examples she flagged, I was able to assure her that her use of colons was not only appropriate but poised and calming:

It’s as if I’m watching him go through a typical day with his family as a boy of twelve or thirteen: quiet and off on his own, not really talking to anyone

I wrote to her:

It’s good. Quieter, and gives the phenomenon described more space, than a stickier and more urgent em (long) dash.

That got me thinking of punctuation as the equivalent of interpersonal space. A comma, here, would not stand back and contemplate the phenomenon described in the same way; it would hurry past the pause-to-look in an everyday, inattentive way. A colon is like two eyes: it stands still, hands off, and gives the phenomenon its space, lets it have its moment, unmolested, in full attention. It’s respectful. (Re-spect meaning to take a second look.) An em dash, by contrast, grabs the phenomenon by the throat. (Sometimes that’s what you want.) And in this example

I picture one of the candles’ flames being extinguished: it’s that fast that my excitement turns to sadness

you could use a semicolon, but I physically feel a semicolon deflecting attention, turning it aside, the way you’d turn your shoulders to squeeze past someone on a crowded sidewalk. A semicolon gives the phenomenon the cold shoulder.

Okay, I have a book to edit.

April 26, 2012

The Subtle Shadings of Spellings and Synonyms

To those of us who are almost synesthetic about words, two different words with one dictionary meaning (denotation), or one word with two different spellings, become completely different animals.  If denotation is a word’s DNA, then connotation, the waft of resonances and associations around it, is its epigenetics.  Two such words are like identical twins who have grown into very different individuals.

Two examples I’ve recently come in contact with:

1. grey vs. gray. The only difference is that the first is the British and the second the American spelling.  But how different their tone colors are.  Grey is grim, yellow, and sallow. It speaks of London industrial grime and gaslight, maybe even gaol (there’s a hollow spelling for you!) and gallows. Gray is blue-gray—softer, more open (the vowel isn’t pinched), less hopeless, a color you might feel drawn to touch, like some clouds or feathers. (Interestingly, neither spelling, to me, seems right for gray hair, which is more metallic—steely, pewtery, silvery, until it goes snowy.)

2. persistent versus persevering. Do these words mean exactly the same thing you?  To me, “persistent” has a more active and interpersonal connotation than “persevering.” “Persistent” could be a kid pestering its parent for an ice cream cone (the alliteration between “persistent” and “pestering” is probably one of the keys to my reaction), or Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out the Watchtower, or Martin Luther nailing the theses to the cathedral door—sort of repeated attempts to get the world’s attention. “Persevering” means not quitting, just keeping on going. One is head up, one head down; one insistent (another sound clue), one stoical. A dog jumping over and over at a closed door versus a tortoise plodding doggedly (!) along.

Is it just me?

Blog at