Friday, July 18, 2008

Hyphenated prefixes

AMA style says that common prefixes shouldn't be tacked by hyphen to foundation words. Anti- is one such common prefix, so you wouldn't write anti-microbial with a hyphen, as if the prefix carried its own weight or idea, but antimicrobial, a single, elegant word.

This is not, of course, a ban on using hyphens with prefixes. When a common prefix is paired with a proper noun (anti-English), for example, a capitalized word (non-Darwinian), an abbreviation (post-HIV), or a number (mid-1900s), then tack away. But generally the rule is no hyphens with common prefixes: coauthor, deidentify, interrater, midaxillary, nonnegotiable, overproduction, postamputation.

If this sounds too easy, give yourself a pat on the back. It is too easy. Regular readers of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) will have encountered inexplicable exceptions like microRNA, which, based on the AMA rule, should be hyphenated as micro-RNA. And in truth, the hyphenated version can be found on JAMA's Web site too, but microRNA is the (anti)rule.

Post- is another common prefix that deserves mention as an interesting and notable exception. Under the heading When Not to Use Hyphens, AMA lists posttraumatic as an example of the rule that common prefixes are not joined to foundation words with hyphens but combined instead. Right. Got it. The trusting writer or editor applies that rule to posttransplant, postresection, or postsurgery, but it's not always correct to do so. Sometimes it's flat wrong.

It's true that post can appear as a combining adjectival prefix, and when it does you fuse the words and use no hyphen, as in posttransplant recovery. But if you're trying to say that Mr Smith's condition improved post transplant, then post is not a prefix at all but a freestanding adverb. So there are plenty of contexts within which you'd need to write post resection, post surgery, or post partum, where post is its own word, carrying its own content, standing on its own descender.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Translation experience is important for English language editing

Your organization needs to polish your deliverables—really make them shine. You're considering hiring an editor for general QA and language editing.

Recommendation: screen candidates for foreign language and translation experience.

If your company develops programs in English for English-speaking audiences, you probably don't need a bilingual editor, right? What you want is an English language editor who has studied foreign language, unpacked its grammar and syntax, digested its idiom and style.

Translation exercises especially sensitize editors to essential content; translation also teaches editors how to rewrite from scratch, as it were, which is crucial for successful editing in any industry. It's not important if your editor can speak fluent Hindi as a second or third language. What matters is the geeky grit of working over lines of text with highlighters and needle-point pens like the Pigma Micron or the Staedtler .005 mm.

When a writer doesn't have time to polish his work, for example, the text he produces may be full of filler, throwaway lines that were important at the time of writing because they helped him keep pace or maintain momentum. An editor who lacks translation experience may encounter such a text and recognize that there's a problem: good.

What's bad is that such an editor may attempt to solve the problem by tweaking words here and there, trying to smooth the syntax or improve a bit of grammar—a complete waste of time in this case. You don't want an editor who's keen to tweak filler. You want the other editor, the one who can immediately recognize filler for what it is and rewrite sections to cut that filler, foreground the essential content, and preserve what people commonly call flow.

That editor usually has solid experience translating paragraphs of a language X into cool, crisp English.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Obama and the monoglot

The Weekly Standard comments on Obama's speech in Atlanta yesterday.

Of course Obama's right, insofar as citizens of an ideal country in an ideal world would, obviously, polyglot their way through life. But how much practical value is there to speaking more than 1 language?

Well, it depends.

Where do you live? I have a brother living in Dublin, Georgia, for example, but I think it's safe to speculate that learning Irish wouldn't improve his life much. Neither French nor German would help him navigate the quiet lanes or shop the Piggly Wiggly. People speak English in Dublin, Georgia. Why shouldn't they? I can drive from Atlanta to Dublin and never once need anything more than the English I'm still learning after 37 years.

But driving the same distance in some European neighborhoods will mean driving through 3 countries. What makes sense in Europe doesn't always work in Georgia.

What kind of work do you do? I edit texts for a UK-based company and almost never have to consult my French Langenscheidt. Twice, maybe, in 6 years. It's true that some of our materials appear in UK English, which may qualify (depending on who you ask) as a foreign language, but what my employer requires is command of English, not Dutch or Chinese, however smart that might be. Our clients happen to know French and German, Russian and Spanish and sometimes Welsh. The fact that they want materials in English, and we provide them in English, good English, is no indication that we're all a bunch of jingoists. What will grow their business—what will thus grow my career and improve my salary—is deeper and yet more mastery of English. Not Spanish and not Filipino.

I think it's unfortunate to attach shame or ridicule to those Americans who speak only English. The implication ripples out, doesn't it, and similarly condemns monoglots from Las Crucitas to Charancy, right? For some of us, our birth language is the only language that makes any practical sense. That's not a thing to be embarrassed about, really. Even 1 language is enough to keep the most brilliant mind fruitfully occupied for a lifetime.

Anyway, I doubt Obama's a snob. I think it's more likely he's an idealist, and there's a lot of good things to say, in any language, about idealism. I just don't think what he had to say about language was very helpful for most of us.

From InDesign to InCopy

So I've just completed my Adobe InDesign training at Emory, and 15 hours later I'm exploring InCopy as well.

Listen, InCopy promises to replace Microsoft Word, so I feel compelled to look. Word just chaps my hide. And, honestly, while InDesign has robust editing and proofreading capabilities, it's a very serious software. Heavy duty. About the only thing you can't do with InDesign is conjure up spirits, or travel through time I guess, which means InDesign is probably too powerful a tool for most writers and editors. Most, though obviously not all.

So here's Adobe's white paper on InCopy workflow: Link. Impressive... most impressive. I've linked under the blogroll to the right. Once I get the software up and running on my machine and test drive it, I'll report on features.