Heavy Petting

April 2, 2015

It’s true, copy editors are not all just a bunch of stuffy would-be writers taking out the frustrations of failed ambitions on those who would surpass them. Perhaps even more surprising is the note from Emmy Favilla explaining that hanging out with a roomful of paid professional pedants is actually “really, really fun, in case you were wondering”.

When the American Copy Editors Society gathered in Pittsburgh last month for its three-day annual conference, Ms. Favilla and her BuzzFeed colleagues decided to ask the obvious question haunting news websites and high school yearbooks across the nation: “What’s your grammar or word pet peeve?”

I had not known “impact” was so problematic, then again I sympathize. While I had, in fact, noticed far too much impacting going on in the bowels of American political rhetoric, it had not occurred to me that “impact as a verb” was giving editors such pains. Using “transition” as a verb is what brings the urge to set fire to a manuscript, newspaper, or even the unfortunate web browser whose job includes reminding me how many paid professional writers can’t actually write.

Meanwhile, some ACES conference members seem to think it is time to, “Accept the singular they!” There is a subtext to the debate about split infinitives, and is it finally time to do away with whom? With whom, is it time to do away? Never mind.

Picking a favorite, of course, is another yearbookish exercise, and in truth I am torn. She who notes the problem with “would of”? Or the point about “try and”? And there is always a question of efficiency; do we need the “reasons why”, or are the “reasons” sufficient to explain why?

PITTSBURGH, PA, March, 2015: At the annual conference for the American Copy Editors Society, an attendee holds a sign explaining her pet peeve: "Using en, em dashes, and hyphens interchangeably".  (Photo: Emmy Favilla/BuzzFeed)In the end, though, there can be only one, or something silly like that. And in this case that would go to one of the most obscure but functionally explicable declines in contemporary writing: “Using en, em dashes and hyphens interchageably”.

There is a reason for this outcome. Just like there is a reason why the four-dot ellipsis is disappearing, just as with style sheets now advising a single space after a full stop. These are not evolutions of the language brought about by need and function; rather, they are marketplace limitations.

The reason we are to omit the second blank space after a full stop? Software.

Yes, really. That’s the reason. Proportional spacing, such as we see with variable-width fonts (e.g., Times New Roman, Georgia, Arial) effectively makes those two spaces look like one. And even now, twenty years since the rise of the information superhighway, the markup cannot accommodate two blank spaces.

Yes. Really. Those are the reasons: proportional spacing and the internet.

Software is also the primary reason even those who would otherwise use en and em dashes just use hyphens.

Look on your keyboard. You see the hyphen key, right? How do you make a longer dash? If you use an Apple computer, you’ve probably figured it out already; the Option codes (OPT+SHIFT+[character]) are fantastic shortcuts such that one must control the temptation to go out looking for reasons to create bullet points and long dashes. Windows users have Alt codes, which I have never executed, but they operate similarly to Unicode, opening the function with a keystroke combination and indicating the character with numeric code. Alt codes do not correspond to Unicode, though, because Mircosoft did not wish to confuse its customers by using a standard process that required letters to act as numbers. Alt codes are decimal; Unicode, as with most such things in computing, are hexadecimal.

Generally speaking, learn these codes; they are helpful, and do in fact help the aesthetics of your written product.

Consider the em-dash. Do you use two hyphens, instead? Does your autocorrect take care of the conversion for you? What about those journalists we see at various newspaper websites using two hyphens bracketed by blank spaces?

Count how many writers you encounter who either don’t know or simply refuse to type Option+Shift+hyphen in order to create an em-dash on their Apple. The Alt codes in Windows are long an object of complaint from Microsoft users; those who have attempted to use the “character map” palette might well have endured that occasion of wondering why their operating system is so hostile to reasonably proper writing.

And perhaps it might seem troublesome to type Control-Shift-U, and then a four-character hex code, but in truth it gets easy after a while. Using Linux, it’s a lot faster than calling up the character map. And once you learn the basic codes that work best in your writing, it gets a lot easier and a lot faster: u2014 (en dash “—”), u2015 (em dash “―”), u2020 (dagger “†”), u2021 (double dagger “‡”), u2022 (bullet point “•”).

A handy Unicode table can seem imposing, but it covers as many alphabets and character needs as possible; there are even―somewhere in there―Unicode emoticons.

And there is, of course, a three-dot ellipsis: u2026 (“…”).

We’ve all seen it; many are frustrated at the number of applications in which they need to tinker with the autocorrect, but at the same time it is also amazing how many paid professional writers simply give over to that function.

There is no four-dot horizontal ellipsis.

That would be the reason we so frequently see a three-dot ellipsis followed by a full stop (“….”) We might also take a moment to enjoy the spectacle of other writers trying to work around it; I use alternating italics, since it’s a string of dots: (em).(/em).(em).(/em). With proper brackets, that renders reasonably well (“....”).

There is, for the record, a four-dot vertical ellipsis, but good luck trying to convince your editor to go Mongolian in the middle of a hard-boiled whodunnit. And there is no guarantee you have the font software to display it.

And that, after a manner of speaking―or writing, as such―is why the four-dot ellipsis is disappearing. It is a software issue, a market demand.

It is true that language evolves, but what about the evolutionary dynamic should seem so regressive? It is true that we might suggest the dodo “evolved out of existence”, but that would be a bit like suggesting a terminal-stage patient is about to “evolve”. To be certain, these market-driven adaptations within the rules of writing also require interpretive changes, as well. Can they really be seen as evolutionary progress, though?

The internet has not brought us a New Golden Age of Letters, but instead a growing information overload in which there is no requirement for the information to have any significance or meaning. And as we learn to be tolerant of what seems deficient communication skills, we are also learning to cope with all manner of variation on the English language. The German use of commas, for instance, will drive Americans nuts, especially those who disdain the Oxford comma.

An interesting contrast arises, but it is also best experienced directly. Consider a word that has worked its way into fairly common English usage, apparently deriving from Italian, and for most of us introduced through stories of the mafia. The standard spelling is, “capiche”.

Once upon a time I bit, and wondered at the word “koppish”, and was promptly denounced for my bigoted pedantry. You know, the evolution of language, man. Get on the trolley. And I lost the argument, though to this day I still shake my head at recalling the ferocity. Then again, I never learned to play the zilapun, either.

Yeah. Get on the trolley.

Or perhaps we might pause for a moment to wonder if market demand―that is, the primacy of reducing expenses―really is a proper driver of linguistic evolution. On some level wilful apathy seems no better an excuse than prideful ignorance.

Denigration of essential function is almost never evolutionary progress.

Or so says my two cents.



Image note: At the 2015 conference for the American Copy Editors Society, an attendee holds a sign explaining her pet peeve: “Using en, em dashes, and hyphens interchangeably”. (Photo: Emmy Favilla/BuzzFeed)


Favilla, Emmy. “30 Copy Editors Tell Us Their Pet Peeves”. BuzzFeed. 2 April 2015.

“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”. The Chicago Manual of Style Online. 2010.

SA•Design. “Unicode Character Table”. UnicodeTable.com. 2011.

“Alt Codes”. Alt-Codes.net. 2007.

“Apple Macintosh Keyboards Typing Diacritics And Special Characters”. Washington State University. 2015.

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