I’ll take the big stick

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht
Funny things, graduations. I like wearing silly hats as much as the next person, but it does make you wonder. Whoever came up with the outfit? In the good old days, students wore full academic regalia every day. These days gowns are usually reserved for graduations, but if you decide to make a career of academia, you can still collect quite a number of silly outfits. UM professors, for example, wear red gowns at official ceremonies. The usual colour is black, but, so the story goes, the original Executive Board didn’t want its professors looking like priests. Another surviving tradition is the registrar’s staff; a big old stick that the registrar carries during the cortège, or procession of professors. It was originally intended to keep the unwashed hordes away from the genteel academics. Now that’s useful.

Prescriptivists go home

I’m a member of an editor’s group in the Netherlands that has an email forum, where members can post questions or comments on issues that have come up in their day’s work. Recently, one of the members was editing a scientific article written by a Dutch academic. The academic in question had consistently used a word in a way that would be strange in general (i.e. non-scientific) English. The editor was wondering what to do about it.

Before I got to the thread, a whole series of other people had answered. Unanimously, they agreed that the usage was wrong, sourcing dictionaries and Wikipedia. It surprised me to see that not one of them seemed to have considered the possibility of field-specific jargon. Now, I’m not saying that jargon is my favourite thing in the world. But when you’re editing a scientific paper and you see a peculiar usage not once but many times, this is when alarm bells should start going off. This is when you should STOP ‘correcting’ it, and go check on it. And by ‘check’, I don’t mean look in a general dictionary. That’s a world away from scientific terminology. I also don’t mean look in Wikipedia, much as my life is better for it. I mean look at the field in which the paper is going to be published – google around for academic articles on the same topic, or, better yet, published in the same journal your client is aiming for. In this case, it was plain to see that the usage in question was common in scientific papers.

If you’re still not sure, check with the author (shock horror, I know). I’d simply leave a comment in the text, saying the usage is strange in general English and asking if it’s typical of the field. This means all the client has to do is think ‘yes, you ignoramous’ and delete the comment, rather than laboriously re-correcting all your erroneous corrections. If the client turns out to be unsure about the word – which, in my experience, is never the case with academics – then THAT is the time to try to come up with a better option together.

Now, this to me seems self-evident. Scientists know the jargon of their field better than I do. But the folk on the forum begged to differ. By ‘allowing’ this sort of thing, we as editors are just compounding the ‘error’, they said. Wrong. Wrong in two ways, in fact.

First, if an entire speech community (in this case, the members of a specific scientific discipline) uses a particular usage, it is not an error. By definition, because it is then no longer deviant. Scientific English is not general English, and within that, medical English is not microbiological English is not marine micropaleontological English. Just because something is wrong in general English (however ‘wrong’ is defined) doesn’t make it wrong in a specific field. What’s more, if the client is an established academic AND uses the term repeatedly, chances are that it’s right.

Second, the whole attitude is way off. As editors, we are not employed to ‘allow’ and ‘disallow’ things, to sweep in with our white horses and red pens to ‘safeguard’ English somehow from hordes of non-native speakers with their mangled jargony English. That’s not what we are paid for. We are paid to ensure the academic gets published in the journal they want. Well, more specifically: we are paid to ensure that the target journal cannot reject their submission on the basis of their English. Some clients want to be made to sound more or less like native speakers, but essentially this is the crux of it. You’re not the saviour and protector of the English language, there to impart your all-knowing editory native-speakerness on their texts. You’re there to make sure their English reflects the English of their own academic community. So do the job, take the money, and put your prescriptivist cross away.

But wait, there’s more

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

Reading study books all the time makes me a bit cross-eyed. So I wanted to rediscover the enjoyment of reading. Of course, I should have opted for a nice, easy English book. But I like to make life hard, so instead I chose a nice, ‘easy’ Dutch book. My first ever, since Jip en Janneke doesn’t count. And sure, I translate Dutch all the time, but that’s work. I’ve never tried to simply enjoy reading Dutch. The book was Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding, by Paulien Cornelisse. Not only did I read it, but I also understood, enjoyed it, and found it funny. I finished it en route to Amsterdam last week with a great sense of accomplishment. Finito! Only to discover in the airport bookshop the aptly titled sequel, En dan nog iets

I’m now in one place … here.

Until now my PhD research, my freelance work and all sorts of other writing have been separate on the web. I’ve now migrated the whole lot here: because it felt messy before, and because, after all, the two things are closely related.

You can now find all the main information from my old work website, TheWordSpot, here (under Language services). And the same goes for the posts from my previous blog on Dutch English, now posted below (and in Research) along with lots of other miscellaneous writing. Sadly, this means I’ve lost all the comments and discussions that were posted on that site (I may be a computational linguist, but that I just didn’t have the energy for).

But all is well: everything is now in the one spot, and I promise – I swear, on my life and the life of the puppy dog I don’t own yet – that I will post regularly here, and keep this site up to date on anything and everything to do with my work and my research.

Awaiting the Academic Spring

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht
Ten thousand academics have now signed the petition to boycott journals by Elsevier, the Dutch publishing giant now widely seen as the pin-up of profiteering. In a move that could kick off a revolution in the spread of scientific knowledge, the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of medical research, recently announced that it will force the academics it funds to publish in open, online journals. Now, the Economist magazine has jumped on board too, with an editorial calling for all taxpayer-funded research to be freely available. And what of Elsevier, the bad boy of Dutch business? It originally supported the Research Works Act, which aimed to prevent the US government from being able to legislate in future that all taxpayer-funded research must be freely available. The pressure of public opinion has since forced Elsevier to drop its support. Bring on the Academic Spring.