Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


June 26, 2011

Pulpfiction Books: 20% off Canadian list price

If you live in Vancouver, make sure you visit Pulpfiction Books. I’ve been dropping in on them from time to time and I’ve always liked their selection. They have an excellent selection of used books, and they sell their new books and special orders for 20% off the Canadian list price! I also see from their website that if you order $50 in new books in one order they’ll deliver them for free.

Read the Pulpfiction Books Blog and follow @pfbvan on Twitter.

June 19, 2011

(In)elegant variation

In a recent BBC News article about a company’s way of rewarding its salesmen, I ran across the following: “The prostitutes had worn colour-coded arm-bands . . . and the women had their arms stamped.” Gosh, I thought, were the prostitutes all men? No—I had been suckered by an elegant variation.

Henry Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to describe the unnecessary use of different words for the same thing. You see it a lot in journalism: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist,” continues as, “The mother of four also enjoys fishing, knitting and swimming.” We often see “blaze” for fire, “blast” for explosion, “slay” for kill, and sometimes “temblor” for earthquake. Vancouver Magazine is fond of referring to restaurants as “rooms,” although this is probably due to hipness as much as to fear of repetition. Writers pull out the thesaurus to keep from repeating themselves: Fowler’s Modern English Usage gives an example where “have” becomes “possess,” and then “own” as the sentence progresses. This technique can really call attention to itself and make a sentence anything but elegant.

But elegant variation isn’t just annoying; it makes your writing less clear. When I come across “mother of four,” it takes me an extra fraction of a second to think back to “Jane Smith” and connect the two. In most contexts, readers make the connection without any trouble, but sometimes they will think you used two different words because you are talking about two different things—as I did when I read the BBC article quoted above—and that can cause serious confusion.

Other ways to avoid repetition

Bryan Garner suggests that the rule of thumb is to avoid repeating a word in the same sentence if it can be done felicitously. What’s a felicitous fix? I suggest:
  • Use a pronoun: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist. She also enjoys . . .”
  • Leave the word out: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist and also enjoys . . .” Or after “A fire broke out in Oak Hills last night,” instead of saying “Three people were killed in the blaze,” consider “Three people were killed.”
If there’s no good way to remove the repetition, leave it in. It’s better to repeat the occasional word than to bend your sentences out of shape with clichés or confusing changes of name.

More about elegant variation

June 1, 2011

Google searches as a quick and dirty way to answer style questions

Google’s full-text search provides not only a highly efficient way to find information, it’s also a very easy way to search through a giant corpus of writing. Some people use Google as a spell-checker: just try both spellings of the word and let the number of results decide. The problem with this approach is that you don’t always want to use the spelling or usage that appears most often—after all, the web is not known for being the home of the most careful and polished writing. You’ll get more useful results by narrowing your search to a specific part of the web.

Limit your search to one specific domain

Certain magazines, like the New York Times and the Economist are often used as style standards. When I run into an expression that I’m not sure is standard, or a capitalization or hyphenation question that doesn’t quite match any rules in the style I’m using, I’ll often search the New York Times or Economist websites to see how they handle it.

To get results from a specific site, use “site:” and then the name of the domain, followed by a space and then your search term. For example:

site:nytimes.com "raise his game"
If you forget this syntax (“site:”), you can get the same search by clicking on “advanced search” from the main Google site, and then entering the site under “Search within a site or domain.”

How to use Google Scholar to help you with scientific and academic writing and editing

Google Scholar is extremely useful for editing scientific and academic documents because you can limit your search not only within the academic literature, but within a particular area like biology, chemistry, physics, or medicine.

Let’s say you’re editing a chemistry paper and you come across an unfamiliar use of the term “headspace.” If you just do a regular Google search for headspace, you’ll get references to meditation. Not helpful.

Instead, try the search in Google Scholar and get much more relevant results. You can even search within a specific journal (click “Advanced Search” in the options menu at left.

If you’re writing, you can check your phrasing this way. Maybe it’s late at night, you’re getting tired, and you’re not sure whether to say that the samples were “relatively dilute” or “relatively diluted.” If you plug each phrase into Google Scholar (put quotation marks around them so that you’re searching for that exact phrase, not the two words separately), you’ll see that “relatively dilute” clearly had more hits than “relatively diluted.” That gives you a quick answer to go on with.