Value added

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From Eric Baković:

A paper of mine that was just published included the following sentence in the abstract, helpfully "corrected" by an overzealous copy-editor:

The focus [of this chapter] is on two main goals of phonological description and analysis: the establishment of generalizations about which members of a set of posited phonological constituents are irreducibly basic and that are derived, and the establishment of generalizations about the contexts in which phonological constituents are and are not found.

Interestingly, virtually the same sentence is repeated in the introduction, with "which are derived" intact.

In the published context:

Eric's conclusion:

Value added, my ass.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 2:39 am

    Much to my chagrin, I have had many professional editors systematically change all of my which's to that's.

  2. JS said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 3:16 am

    My guess is the copy editor was undone by garden-path-ish "about which," where I first went in the direction of a relative clause — not that there turns out to be any actual ambiguity, but this misreading could have resulted in failure to understand > panic > arbitrary correction…

  3. Irina said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 3:36 am

    I'm also somewhat unimpressed by "The purpose of this chapter provide an overview".

  4. Yerushalmi said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    I too read it at first as "about which", and I couldn't figure out at all what the sentence was trying to say (until GP's next post clarified it for me). I am an editor, and I'm actually very prescriptive about "which" and "that" because I actually see it as a valuable distinction – but if I don't understand the question at all, as was the case here, I would've left it untouched with a comment asking what was meant.

  5. Yerushalmi said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 5:47 am

    Follow-up: after receiving the author's explanation of the meaning of the sentence, I would have replaced the word "about" with "that describe" or something similar, and thus eliminated the confusion.

  6. Martin Ball said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 5:53 am

    I once had a copy-editor replace Chicano with Chicago …. ;)

  7. iching said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 8:01 am

    Native speaker (Melbourne, Australia) here. I sympathise (sic) with Eric since I had no difficulty understanding the abstract as originally worded but found it incomprehensible with the copy-editor's correction.

    For me, the only grammatical reading is to take the first "which" as interrogative not relative. Hence, "…which members…are X and which are Y" clearly means "Which members are X? Which members are Y?".

    Perhaps one reason I was not tempted down a "which as relative pronoun" garden path was that my eyes caught a glimpse just ahead of the basic(=X) vs derived(=Y) contrasting pair of words.

  8. languagehat said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    And since most published research findings are false, let's do away with scientists. It's fun mocking other people's professions! Other people, after all, are not allowed to make mistakes, whereas our own are rare and forgivable and thoroughly understandable.

    /professional copyeditor

  9. Brett said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    @Yerushalmi: The original phrasing seems very clear to me. Although I am used to reading a lot of scientific prose, I don't think this particular phrasing would seem out of place in a more literary work. Your proposed correction feels much weaker, and may subtly alter the meaning.

  10. Bloix said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    The copy editor didn't realize that "which are basic" and "which are derived" is supposed to be either/or – he thought the things that are basic are being derived. That doesn't make any sense, obviously, but the sentence is unnecessarily abstruse. Once Baković had introduced his "two main goals," it would have added clarity to say, "first, the establishment of …; and second, the establishment of …

    BTW, I would have edited "the focus is on two main goals." You can't focus on two different things. Here it's a dead metaphor to mean "this paper addresses," which would be better. I have to say I was slightly confused by the idea of a focus on two things; maybe that tripped up the editor, who saw "focus" and unconsciously tried to make what followed into one thing.

  11. chh said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    I can't think of a reason that any sense of 'focus' would be restricted to a single object. Multiple objects can be (and often are) in focus in an image, multiple elements can sometimes be focused in the syntactic sense, and more generally, I don't think it's weird at all to think of someone focusing on two central goals in phonology to the exclusion of the many other goals that motivate people to do research. What makes you think you can't focus on two things?

    Even in the strict geometric sense a parabola has a pair of foci :)

  12. Steve T said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    @Language Hat: Agreed. But this is not just a simple mistake. If the copy editor hadn't been trying to change relative which to that, there would have been no chance for error when he or she encountered an interrogative which. It's the activity that is the problem, not the occasional mistake.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    If I were to speak a sentence like this one, I would most probably put "which ones" for the second "which," and so would, I believe, most fluent English speakers. I don't see why this can't be done in writing.

  14. Eric Baković said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

    My message was privately circulated around the LLog water cooler; it began with "Not really worth a post…", but @myl appears to have disagreed. :-/ Anyway, here we are.

    @languagehat: my intent was *not* to suggest that we should do away with copy-editors, and reading my message over several times I don't see how you could jump to that conclusion — much less why you felt the need to "strike back" in your response.

    Perhaps you were offended by my closing reference to "value added", which you may recognize as a phrase bandied about by (scientific) publishers in defense of the dominant business model. (I'll admit here that I find this business model absolutely indefensible, but that's a topic for another day.) This closing comment was intended as a shorthand for what were at least two points of failure in the process of publishing my chapter. (I only have my own chapter as a reference here; I don't absolutely rule out the possibility that the remaining chapters of the volume were undeniably improved by the process.)

    Those who want to keep score at home can compare the published version visible above to the version that I submitted to the volume's editors (sans the abstract, which was requested later). There are some errors that I made that were clearly corrected (e.g., I left two citations made in the references out of the bibliography; one of these was caught and added), but other errors were added by the copy-editor (e.g., the error in the abstract pointed out in my message, and the other one on the very first page pointed out by Irina).

    I'm fine with such introduced errors when there are legitimate reasons for a copy-editor to think that there was a mistake to be corrected. I trust that copy-editors are paid to be meticulous and exacting, and that at the proof stage I can spot such introduced errors and have the opportunity to discuss them (and restore them to the original, if indeed the change made by the copy-editor is an error). But in the two cases on this very first page, the introduced errors are plain and the reasons for them illegitimate — and I was never supplied with a proof before the paper appeared online and in print.

    So forgive me for not being as generous in this case as you would like, @languagehat — I'm quite sure my chapter would have been better served with you as the copy-editor. But I would be lying if I said that these kinds of experiences were rare for me. (This is in fact why I decided to format my own book and to implement changes suggested by the copy-editor myself; the last think I wanted to do was go through a book-sized proof hunting for introduced errors.)

    A valid point has been raised in the discussion that I sparked around the water cooler: that copy-editors with relevant domain knowledge are more likely to add (or not to subtract) value than those without. I'm not convinced that this is relevant to the case at hand, but I certainly don't disagree. In fact, I might be a little more sanguine about the dominant scientific publishing business model (which results in a price of $150 for the volume under discussion) if there were a firm commitment made by publishers to train and hire as copy-editors PhDs in the areas where they publish and to commit those with relevant domain knowledge to these important jobs.

  15. languagehat said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    Perhaps you were offended by my closing reference to "value added", which you may recognize as a phrase bandied about by (scientific) publishers in defense of the dominant business model.

    Indeed. Perhaps you are not aware that there are plenty of people who do in fact think there's no point paying copyeditors — just let the author's text go through as is. I am, of course, glad you're not one of them, but you might have expanded your comment just a tad to make that clear. Anyway, no harm, no foul.

    @Language Hat: Agreed. But this is not just a simple mistake. If the copy editor hadn't been trying to change relative which to that, there would have been no chance for error when he or she encountered an interrogative which. It's the activity that is the problem, not the occasional mistake.

    I don't know what you mean. Yeah, if the copyeditor weren't trying to edit, they wouldn't make mistakes. When you change things, you run the risk of doing it wrong. This is absolutely an exhibit in the Copyeditor's Hall of Shame, and I hope I've never made such a wretched blunder in my career, but it doesn't prove any larger point. It's like an outfielder dropping a fly: these things happen. (I am now in the process of editing an incredibly badly written book, with just a few days left on the deadline; I'm sure there will be mistakes in the final product that could have been avoided with another week or two to work on it. Spare a thought for the poor overworked galley slave trying to catch the misplaced commas as they come flying by!)

  16. Eric Baković said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    @languagehat: I have to disagree with part of your response to Steve T. I don't think this case is "like an outfielder dropping a fly" at all; the case of the copy-editor not catching the second of my two missed bibliographic citations is an example of that. I would say that this one is more like an outfielder catching a grounder but throwing it to the pitcher instead of to a baseman ready to tag a runner out.

    Surely you distinguish the misplaced comma that is already in the text (and that you may understandably fail to catch as you feverishly work with a looming deadline) from the perfectly-placed comma that you decide to excise because you remember someone once telling you that commas are bad.

  17. languagehat said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

    I would say that this one is more like an outfielder catching a grounder but throwing it to the pitcher instead of to a baseman ready to tag a runner out.

    True, a much better comparison, and I agree with your point.

  18. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    I have said this before, but what the heck…

    On the occasions I have had my writing professionally copy edited, I have found a pretty consistent pattern:

    About one quarter of the changes are appropriate and helpful. These typically are typos I let slip through, or passages whose meanings weren't as clear as I thought. For these improvements I am grateful.

    A small but critical number of the changes are potentially disastrous. These typically are instances where I am choosing my words very carefully in a manner specific to the topic of the writing, and where the copy editor is not proficient with the vocabulary appropriate to the topic. I accept these as the price we pay for the useful changes, so long as I have the opportunity to catch them before the text is finalized.

    The remainder, which is to say most, of the changes are simply pointless. These typically are silly things like the purported that/which distinction, Oxford commas or no Oxford commas, and so on. These changes are invariably defended on the grounds of house style, which is to say they are imposed by arbitrary fiat. That it is very important to have such a house style is routinely asserted, but I have not seen the assertion adequately supported. When my writing is being edited, I let these silly changes slide, because life is short and they simply don't matter.

    The part that bewilders me is why the copy editing profession is so fanatical about this last category. I have read any number jeremiads about the state of publishing, with the inability to pay for copy editing prominent among the various woes. I largely agree with these jeremiads. So let's cut the cost of copy editing by simply skipping all the silly changes. Think how much more efficient a copy editor could be by not being required to worry about whether that 'which' should be a 'that.' As a bonus, it would improve job satisfaction among those sensible enough to recognize pointless busy work when they see it. Yet every time I make this argument, I am assured of furious defensiveness in response. I find it very weird.

  19. nl7 said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    One of my senior colleagues perpetually switches "which" to "that" in almost all instances. He says "which" precedes information that is not necessary to the sentence. If it's not necessary, then it need not be included. I don't necessarily agree with that interpretation, but the change is almost always aesthetic and so doesn't merit the time to dispute it.

    I used to similarly get corrected by a former boss for using "Further," to open sentences rather than "Furthermore," which was his preferred alternative. I think "more" is redundant with "further" so both sound equally correct to me. But I also like to open sentences with "However," which is apparently another no-no to oodles of people.

  20. Paul Kay said,

    June 25, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

    @languagehat, who wrote, "True, a much better comparison, and I agree with your point." Three cheers for an intellectual who can say, "You're right."

  21. bratschegirl said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 1:54 am

    Victor Mair says, in the opening comment,

    "Much to my chagrin, I have had many professional editors systematically change all of my which's to that's."

    I'm scratching my head over those apostrophes. My layperson's impulse would be that the plural of "which" is "whiches," and the plural of "that" is "thats," but I'm not sure I've ever had occasion until now to wonder what the respective plurals might be, much less actually use them.

  22. Dick Margulis said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    In the dominant publishing model under discussion, a copyeditor's duty is to bring the manuscript into line with house style. Often this means taking perfectly fine English and twiddling with it to the annoyance of the author, such as with the whole which/that thing, but that's what the copyeditor is required to do if she is going to continue getting assignments from the journal's managing editor.

    You may counter that the house style guide needs to take a more tolerant approach and stop imposing silly rules, and I'm sure many copyeditors would agree. But that argument should be taken up with the journal.

    As for the boneheaded error that began this discussion, well, perhaps if editing budgets were more realistic, then more experienced and capable copyeditors could be hired. The dominant model these days seems to be to offer much less money than any qualified professional would consider working for unless her children were starving.

  23. Bill said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    @bratschegirl: When I went to school using an apostrophe s to pluralize numbers and words was standard. It's true that since then there has been a very dogmatic movement to denounce this practice as "INCORRECT". But some of us will stick to it where there is any awkwardness or potential ambiguity. "P's and Q's" is an obvious example.

  24. Alana Forsyth said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    Why weren't you given the opportunity to review the abstract before publication?

    Who is responsible for making the change, the same person who edited the chapter?

  25. Amanda Morgan said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    Here's another thing to keep in mind. Copyeditors work with lots of different authors. Some of those authors sweat blood over every word; others slap down whatever occurs to them first, send it off, and expect the copyeditor to make it seaworthy. When we get your manuscript, we don't know which of (the infinite variations on) the two you are. The good ones among us do our best to triage and will be more invasive with sloppy writers and more cautious with careful ones. In fact, the good ones among us would *rather* leave your writing alone. But we can't read minds. You want your article to roll out like a Lexus, but working conditions in academic publishing are more like a chop shop. ••• In my opinion, the real screwup in that story is that the author didn't get a chance to sign off on the edits. ••• I feel no need to defend an editor introducing errors. Of all the mistakes we can make, that's the worst. But in this messy world it's gonna happen. One thing for writers to keep in mind (it won't save you from a truly bad editor, but it will smooth the process with a half-decent or good one): the more carefully you write — ie, the less we have to intervene — the lower the chance that we'll make a change you hate. Most of us are trying hard to distinguish between baby and bathwater — it helps if the bathwater is reasonably clear and doesn't have too many old tennis shoes and diapers floating in it.

  26. Thomas said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    I scrolled through the first pages book, out of curiosity. Here's what I remember. Page xiv: line space above contributor's name (Tamar H. Gollan), proper name misspelled (Plank instead of Planck). Page xv: missing space (Institutfür instead of Institut für). Plus a few inconsistencies (University of California Davis next to University of California, Davis, Tübingen next to Tuebingen, etc.). Remarkable.

  27. Thomas said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    And of course, I should have said "of the book."

  28. languagehat said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

    Dick Margulis: Thank you. From your mouth to the publishers' ears.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    The trouble with the just-following-orders defense is that no one compelled anyone to become a copyeditor to begin with. One would hope that most copyeditors personally believe that most (I'm not asking for all) of the rules and policies they impose on manuscripts are desirable or at least benign and inoffensive, just as one would hope that people who choose to become police officers or prosecutors believe that the majority of laws the particular jurisdiction enforces are substantively just. Similarly, a public school (or for that matter private school) teacher may perhaps to be required as a condition of employment to teach particular things (or refrain from teaching other things) not in accord with his own sense of sound pedagogy or objective truth, but if that happens too high a percentage of the time, one might fairly ask why the person remains in that line of work.

    Of course, it may be that from the author's perspective a very high percentage of the changes to the MS are stupid that/which nonsense, but the situation feels differently from the copyeditor's perspective because making stupid house-style prescriptivist changes doesn't actually take up all that high a percentage of the copyeditor's total time and thought on the assignment (once you know the zombie rules well enough, you can implement them with the efficiency of a zombie robot), with the majority of the actual time and effort devoted to the more substantive work that results in the smaller percentage of changes/suggestions/queries that Richard H. finds helpful.

  30. MsKFlax said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    @J. W. Brewer and Richard Hershberger:
    As a copy editor preparing to leave the field, I sympathize to an extent with your arguments. People who notice inconsistencies and infelicities in writing become copyeditors. People who are rigid and fanatical about it become managing editors, often, and drum the linguistic flexibility out of those they supervise. People who have a hard time swallowing and regurgitating arbitrary style rules enforced by managing editors may prepare to leave the field, if they are lucky enough to have other opportunities.

    Why do managing editors enforce style rules, aside from being triumphalist peevers? Two common rationales are that (1) it cuts down on time spent by writers and editors wondering how certain linguistic situations should be handled and (2) it cuts down on the possibility that readers will become so distracted by the handling of language that they will miss the content of the communication. Time and resources are always scarce in publishing, and managers attempting to maximize both without publishing things that may irritate readers insist maximally on rule-based editing. Ironically, an editor's hunting down a rule in the house style guide and then applying it to every seemingly relevant situation in the manuscript may slow the editing process significantly and irritate the writer to distraction.

    I think that another, typically unspoken, reason for rule enforcement is that most editing work is checked by a second editor, and the first editor's enforcement of "objective" style rules is easier to evaluate than her more subjective comments about which word fits best or how to more effectively phrase a sentence or support an argument. And on top of that, authors generally submit to edits made in the name of house style, but often ignore or resist the more overtly subjective kind. So it becomes more rewarding to focus effort on the former.

  31. bratschegirl said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    @Bill: How very interesting! I didn't realize that. Yes, now that you mention it, "P's and Q's" is of course standard, and there's no arguing with the fact that "whiches" looks awkward as heck (Google desperately wanted to turn it into "witches"). I was taught in school that apostrophe-s was exclusively for possessives, never for plurals. When did the change get started, do you know?

  32. Brett said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    @bratschegirl—I love that name, by the way!: I suspect that the use of the apostrophe to pluralize things that are not conventional nouns is as old as the hills. Off the top of my head, I remembered that "P's and Q's" appears in the Just So Stories (published 1902), and a quick check of my copy reveals that Kipling indeed used the apostrophes.

  33. Darkwhite said,

    June 27, 2014 @ 9:28 am


    Consider the verb 'to kick', in the chat room sense of removing someone from a group. Suppose you want to say 'He kicked the bot.' in some other language, such as Norwegian.

    Since 'kick' is jargon and there is no established, Norwegian word for [chat room]-kick, you really want to leave it as is. In casual speech, you will hear sentences like 'Han kick'a bot'en.' all the time. What's going on here is:

    he -> han (direct translation, male third person pronouns)
    kicked -> kick'a (kick unchanged, but 'ed'-ending replaced with 'a', which marks past tense in Norwegian)
    the bot -> bot'en (bot unchanged, but definite article replaced with the equivalent Norwegian ending)

    While this is natural in speech, text is more troublesome. When attaching Norwegian endings to English words, each part using different phonological systems, mashing the two together cause too many problems. While kicked->kicka could work, for instanced liked->likea/lika (?) doesn't. One solution, just as with plural-which, is to use apostrophe to keep word and ending separate.

    I guess you could demonstrate the same sort of problem with borrowed French in English, such as the plural of faux pas.

  34. Len said,

    June 27, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    @Victor Mair:
    Sounds like a which-hunt.

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