A "dumb copy editor" story from George Lakoff

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The party to have been at last night, I mean the place for a linguist to be seen, was Larry Hyman's house in Berkeley for the gathering that welcomed the faculty of the Linguistic Institute that the Linguistic Society of America is running on the Berkeley campus of the University of California for the next six weeks. Mingling in this star-studded cast of what seemed like hundreds and was certainly scores of the finest linguists in the world, I ran across George Lakoff, who told me the best Dumb Copy Editor story I have ever heard. I like Dumb Copy Editor stories, as you know; but this one is so good I think it takes the prize. I will reveal all below the jump.

I guess you need to know that the book by Lakoff and Johnson called Metaphors We Live By, published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press, was a huge seller for them, and is now famous around the world, virtually a classic. And you need to know that many, many Americans still live in terror of a rule invented by an essayist called John Dryden who died well over 300 years ago.

The copy editor used on the Lakoff & Johnson book was a senior editor for the Press, and he recommended large numbers of changes in grammar and style. The first of the changes concerned the first four words of the book — its title.

And yes, you guessed it; those of you who are saying under your breath "Oh no, he didn't…", you are ahead of me, because he did. Lakoff swears this is true. The man actually proposed that the title should be changed to Metaphors By Which We Live. No stranding of prepositions at the University of Chicago!

Isn't that hilarious?

Lakoff wrote a 23-page single-spaced blast against this man's recommendations, showing in detail and with clear arguments the nature of the hole up which the editor's head was. And then unusually it turned out to be all happy endings: the linguists won, the editor resigned from the project, the editing changes were not made, the title was kept, and the book was a huge hit.

So was the party. Huge. The sun sank slowly in the distance behind San Francisco skyline and disappeared down beyond the Farallon Islands, much wine was drunk on the deck but nobody fell off and plummeted down the precipitous slope of the Berkeley hills below; much excellent food was consumed (thanks, Larry!); and I chuckled for a long time over the Lakoff story (thanks, George!).

Now the real work of the Institute begins: classes started today. Much important linguistic business to transact and many students to teach. More news from Berkeley as it happens. [— GKP, July 6, 2009.]


  1. Stephen Nicholson said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:22 am

    As a recovering undergraduate, it makes me happy to hear stories like this.

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:35 am

    That 23-page blast should be posted, indexed for easy reference. Imagine defending your own text against such depredations by citing Lakoff Memo chapter and verse.

    (It's good to have you here, Prof. Pullum. Here's hoping California continues treating you well.)

  3. HP said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    As someone who once made a very precarious living as a copyeditor, you would think I would be defensive about this story. But I'm not. I'm petty enough to take some satisfaction in knowing that I wasn't nearly as big a dick as some people who made a slightly less precarious living as a copy editor.

  4. HP said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:34 am

    Nota bene: The dangling modifier in the previous comment is included purely for the enjoyment of others. Also, get off my back. I'm an author now, dammit.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    I'm no fan of Dryden, but calling him an "essayist" is a bit harsh. I mean, he's the most famous poet and playwright of the late 17th century, on top of his misguided linguistic prescriptivism.

    [Quite so, and no insult intended. Essayists are people too. Wikipedia's summary of Dryden is: "influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden." I do not mean to denigrate any of his literary achievements; but it was in his capacity as an essayist writing literary criticism that he delivered himself of the (entirely unjustified) opinion that stranded prepositions were somehow improper and that Ben Jonson had erred in writing phrases like "the bodies that those souls were frighted from". His role as the author of that essay was his only relevance to my theme. —GKP]

  6. Ben said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I'm currently making a slightly precarious living as a copyeditor, and perhaps I too should be defensive, but I think the real lesson is that senior editors shouldn't do copyediting.

    Perhaps John McIntyre can find a good reason to be defensive. Or a good reason not to be. Either way, I'm curious to see what he has to add.

  7. Shannon Noelle said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Ben, I don't think the problem was the editor's job title so much as it was his rectal-cranial inversion.

  8. bfwebster said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Great story!
    I've had editors who have improved my prose, and I've copy editors who have damaged it, though I usually have caught the gaffes before publication.

    Case in point: many years ago, I wrote a book called The Art of 'Ware (reinterpreting Sun Tzu for IT product development and marketing). In the book, I talked about having your firm "go quiet" just before product launch to create uncertainty in your competition as to what you're releasing and when. When I got the galleys back, I saw that the copy editor had changed "go quiet" to "go quietly", which not only changed the meaning entirely but rendered the sentence largely nonsensical ("Go quietly shortly before launch…").. There were a few other similar gaffes in the galleys that suggested the copy editor did not have a broad grasp of English usage and idiom.

    On the other hand, my acquisitions editor on that same book caught an embarrassing typo on my part. In a preface to one chapter, I quoted a Chinese commentator on the original Art of War who, referring to a 5th century BC general, wrote "His civil virtues endeared him to the people; his marital prowess kept his enemies in awe."

    Debra, my editor, dropped me an amused e-mail and said, "Don't you mean martial prowess? Of course, his enemies could have been in awe of his marital prowess as well…" ..bruce..

  9. language hat said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    As a copyeditor myself, I am not about to defend the editor involved in this story — he was clearly overreaching and out of his element — but to call him "dumb" is simply wrong. He was applying the rules he knew (and which he was paid to enforce). Authors are perennially at war with copyeditors, because they have conflicting interests, but you shouldn't use your bully pulpit to attack people who can't fight back. Why should copyeditors be au courant with linguistic theory?

    [Hat, really, I love you (we all do), but don't bring out the Nuremberg defense for this piece of utter silliness. Only following orders, "applying the rules"? The whole point here is that there never was such a rule. Everyone who has taken a serious interest in issues of usage knows that. Altering a title that had been chosen by two language specialists, changing it from normal to pompous (and from snappy to clumsy), was more than just presumptuous; it was a fine, true, burnished, copper-bottomed piece of arrant dumbness, and it should be celebrated as such. For heaven's sake, it was thirty years ago and I didn't name the offender. Oh, and your final question about why editors should be expected to be familiar with linguistic theory, baffles me. Nothing about linguistic theory is relevant here. This is common sense about simple facts of pompous vs. normal style. —GKP]

  10. language hat said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    (By "can't fight back" I mean "don't have a similarly prominent outlet for their views"; obviously they can leave comments here, but that's like writing a letter to the newspaper — it doesn't cancel out the original story.)

    [If the worldwide availability of free blogging software and free email delivery plus free open comments at Language Log and most other blogs is still unfair because it leaves people unable to "fight back", I don't know what we can do, other than censor all stories about extreme dumbness. Which wouild have rather drastic effects on politics, wouldn't it? —GKP]

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    @ LH, one would think that copyeditors ought to be au courant with actual English usage, if not linguistic theory. I took down from the shelf my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (13th ed., 1982, so slightly after-the-fact for this anecdote) to see if it possibly had some bogus rule in this area and was instead reminded that it quite sensibly offers essentially no guidance on split infinitives, passive-avoidance, or anything "stylistic" like that, but rather focuses on spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, italicization, citation form, and other areas where it may indeed make some sense for a given publisher to have a uniform "house style."

  12. David Kidd said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    I think that the views of editing in general, if not copy-editing in particular, do have "similarly prominent outlets for their views"–the world in general. Their views are not marked. They can go around with their views and most people will say that at worst they're being anal-retentive, not wrong.

    Also, copyeditors are the enforcers of (a) linguistic theory. The decisions they make are informed by a theory, even if that theory isn't necessarily acknowledged or codified. If that theory is based on ignorance, then there is a problem. If the tenets of that theory are held to be true by most educated people, then there is a crisis.

    That being said, I agree that the copy editor wasn't necessarily dumb. The system from which he applies rules is dumb. That's what's tragic and terrible about this–he's a victim not of a brutish writer, but of an educational system that isn't informed by linguistic theory at all.

    I would also contend that copyeditors are the people most in need of being au courant with linguistic theory. My degree is from an institution where Linguistics is part of the English department. I love that Linguistics gets to show up in so many different places (English depts, Foreign Language, Cognitive Science, etc.), but it's in the English academy that it most needs to show up.

    The teaching of grammar is left to the English departments of the world, few of which are really informed by linguistic theory. That's a problem. This blog is the most prominent outlet of the view that there is a crisis, and something should be done. I think that that "something" is a reform of English education.

  13. John O'Toole said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Not a few uses of true passive voice in your piece above, Mr. Pullum. Are you trying to bait us?

    [Ooh! Readers, are we actually in the presence of someone who sincerely believes the passive construction should always be avoided? Does Mr. O'Toole honestly think the passive construction has survived down the centuries only because, like bedbugs or head lice, it has been permitted to thrive through our own lack of hygiene? —GKP]

    As an ill-paid drudge in the book dodge, working as a translator and sometime copy editor (or copy-editor? Damn, gonna have to look that up…again), I nevertheless think the story is great–to a point. The senior editor in this case was an ass. But this shouldn't go to any writer's head. I have had to go over work turned in by academics that, had it been submitted by an undergraduate in their class, would have been, or should have been dismissed as a waste of time, a bit of an insult, a piece not worthy of a serious university. I am sure that such academics grumbled and huffed in highest dudgeon about having to deal with a crank after being called on their shoddy work. I have a rule of thumb: after the third or fourth simple spelling mistake _that I've caught using the spellcheck function on my computer_ (ital definitely mine), I conclude that the person who has written the piece in question isn't taking me seriously. After the second or third jargon-mined sentence that is a real struggle to understand, ditto. And since I'm being paid to continue reading the thing in question and am no longer especially well disposed to someone who is playing me for a fool, my sunny nature tends to cloud accordingly. Yes, many of us, too, are incompetents and fat-headed fools. But the best of us are paid to be amiable sons o' bitches. I thank Language Log, by the way, for making me a better, more informed son of a bitch. Remember authors, we translators and editors are often your first readers. Not seldom your only readers. I hope, too, your best readers ("Metaphors by which We Live" is indeed a stunningly bone-headed suggestion).

  14. Ben said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Kudos, Hat! Now my proverbial dander is up. It's true, we have very little discretion. We just apply the rules we're told to apply, whether or not they are the rules we would choose to apply. One style guide I was given, though, said we could ignore the "which/that" nonsense if the author was a "master prose stylist." I liked that.

    Shannon: Oh, the rectal-cranial inversion (ass-headedry in the vernacular) was indeed apparent. My quibble wasn't exactly with the job title, but with the job itself. Senior editors have a different skill set; copyediting is best left to dedicated freelancers and production editors. And the beauty part about freelancing is you're shielded from the ire of the authors that you invariably provoke.

  15. Philip said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    What David Kidd said: "The teaching of grammar is left to the English departments of the world, few of which are really informed by linguistic theory."

    I still encounter students–and not just a few–who believe that they should never start a sentence with "however," and that the pronouns "I" and "me" are forbidden in academic English.

  16. language hat said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    I agree that the copy editor wasn't necessarily dumb. The system from which he applies rules is dumb.


    I would also contend that copyeditors are the people most in need of being au courant with linguistic theory.

    Not really. Their job is not to enforce the true rules of English (which are, after all, automatically followed by native speakers), it is to enforce essentially arbitrary rules of style that ensure consistency. You don't like serial commas? Too bad, if you're publishing with OUP you're going to have them. The rules followed by copyeditors have nothing to do with the rules discovered by linguists; that's a feature, not a bug.

  17. vanya said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Who cares about the rules? Ironically Metaphors By Which We Live is arguably a better sounding title. It has more rythm and it sounds stronger to end with the world "live" than the word "by." Do you really think "Metaphors we live by" is a good title? Blah. The editor should have stuck to his guns.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    With all due respect to LH, I would say that if you can't see the qualitative difference between conventions about comma usage and conventions about the range of permissible word orders within syntactically well-formed sentences (in particular with respect to the arguable desirability of consistency across separate works put out by the same publisher), you must be . . . well, perhaps a copyeditor. A book publisher needs, I would say, even less house style on substantive/aesthetic matters than a newspaper or magazine. The latter sort of publication might, for example, think it desirable to pick a convention for what to call that country known variously as Burma and Myanmar and stick to it throughout all of its news coverage and possibly even its opinion columns, regardless of byline, but anyone who would see it as a problem that the University of Whatever Press had some titles in print using one name but some the other (reflecting the personal preference and perhaps political point of view of the respective authors) would be . . . well, again perhaps a copyeditor.

  19. John O'Toole said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Humor, GKP, humor. Me pullum leg. I've been reading LL far too long to fall for that, voyons. I'm disappointed in you that you fell for it. Tell me you didn't.

  20. John O'Toole said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    Actually, the best title would be "Metaphors By Which We Live Bi." Covers all the bases, thank you. Or maybe, just maybe "Metaphors We Live Bi By"…

  21. Michael said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    Hmmmm … seems like I remember a copy editor making this change: The story was about a father whose son had been taken away in a domestic dispute ten years before. The lede said something about the last time he had seen his son, the boy was wearing Velcro shoes … The lede that got in the paper had the boy wearing shoes with hook and loop fasteners.
    Anyone who can't ignore dumb rules when they are inappropriate is dumb. As it says in the New Testament, "Man was made for the sabbath, not the sabbath for man." So it is with the rules of grammar, they were made for clarity and communication. When they get in the way of that, then they should be ignored.

  22. Mark P said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    Come on, "Metaphors By Which We Live" is ridiculous. The "live" needs to be next to the "by." That's the way we say it.

  23. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    I've taken the occasion of this posting to assemble an inventory of postings (on Language Log and my blog) about stranded prepositions, here.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    Actually, maybe I was too kind to even limited copyediting aimed at enforcing uniform compliance with arbitrary conventions. Given the economically parlous state of the publishing business for serious books, every dollar/pound/Euro spent on obsessively/compulsively making a MS conform to some particular approach to comma usage is a dollar/pound/Euro not spent weeding out embarrassing factual blunders. Example: I love love love Ostler's Empires of the Word, but it contains the bizarre and credibility-undermining claim that German is still commonly spoken in parts of rural New England. I eventually devised the charitable hypothesis that Ostler, being a Brit, must have been under the misimpression that "New England" encompassed the whole northeastern United States, and in particular Pennsylvania. (If the shoe were on the other foot, I'm not quite sure precisely at which shire boundary the "Home Counties" stop and the "Midlands" begin.) This is exactly the sort of thing where a competent editor could have added value by saving the author from himself. Now, EotW was published by HarperCollins, not an "academic" house like OUP or U of C Press, but I don't have too much confidence that they would have done any better. Too busy worrying about comma placement.

  25. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    "there never was such a rule."

    Of course there was such a rule. You just told us that there was. As you explained it, a great poet and essayist, whom you denigrate by pretending that your readers have never heard of him, invented the rule over three hundred years ago. Your point is that the rule is arbitrary has never achieved universal acceptance and should therefore by ignored by all right-thinking readers and writers. You sneer at those who follow the rule by saying that they "live in terror" of it – thus confirming your understanding not merely that the rule exists, but that there are many people who follow it.

    [It might be worthwhile for me to clarify what's going on here. Sometimes I speak of the rules of English as if they actually exist — the real rules, the ones that actually make Standard English what it is and differentiate it from Dutch and so on. In that sense, I claim there is no rule barring the placement of a preposition at the end of a relative clause, and there never was. Other times, I refer to Dryden's implicit recommendation (don't ever place a preposition at the end of a relative clause) as a "rule", though perhaps a different word ("edict"? "ukase"?) should be used for these. Bloix is nitpicking me on an ambiguity in the word "rule". But I think he knows what I meant: English never really forbade stranded prepositions; it was an idiosyncratic personal prejudice of Dryden, but it seems there are people who still live in terror of crossing him. The (few) copy editors still trying to edit out all stranded prepositions are not doing it in the cause of any genuine regularity in the structure of the language. I hope that's clear enough. —GKP]

    It's fine for you to oppose observance of the rule. But it's not fine for a copy editor to do so. A copy editor is not a crusader in the usage wars. He or she is in the business of making prose that does not offend readers. The job is to search out the words that may get in the way of the ideas, and change them. It does not matter whether a usage is actually erroneous, or whether it will incorrectly be perceived as erroneous. If it will impede the flow of thought for any substantial number of readers, then the copy editor is obliged to suggest a substitution.

    In this case, the copy editor saw "… we live by" and presumably said to himself, "some non-negligible number of readers or potential readers will see that phrase and be troubled by it. Let's see if we can change it so that will not trouble them or anyone else." That is what a copy editor is supposed to do.

    A copy editor is not a professor. It is not his or her place to right the wrongs of centuries past. The job is one of making the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth – for all readers, even the most wrong-headed ones. If the author prefers the crooked to the straight as a matter of style, then the author has the right to correct the copy editor. But to conclude that the copy editor's suggested change is a sign of stupidity is to commit a monumental misunderstanding of the nautre of the job. It's a sign of unworldliness that would be surprising, I suppose, in anyone other than a university professor.

    So, for example, in my writing (I'm a lawyer) I don't dangle participles; I don't strand prepositions; I don't split infinitives; I don't start sentences with "however;" I avoid "hopefully." Why? Because I don't want some mis-educated judge to stop reading for meaning and start reading to pick apart my usage. I'm writing to be understood, and that means understanding my reader.

    In this case, the copy editor may have underestimated the audience for the Lakoff-Johnson book, but that merely makes him overly conservative – a far cry from being an idiot.

  26. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    Oh – and I do, before I send briefs off for filing, have someone proof-read them. Notice how, when you got to "nautre," you stopped reading for meaning? Even after you saw that it was just a typo, your mind wandered and you lost track of the argument. That's what a copy editor is supposed to prevent. Right or wrong has nothing to do with it.

  27. jackofhearts29 said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    I would call the "By Which We Live By" dodge a McCartneyism.
    As in, of course, the famous lyric, "… this ever-changing world in which we live in…"

  28. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    Speaking as a former copyeditor and later Ph.D. psycho- and neurolinguist, I think copyeditors should fight for good writing against uninformed house styles. (And no, these don't have to be informed by formal linguistic theory – as if there were any uniformly accepted, broad-coverage linguistic theory!) A magazine I used to work at had an ossified rule that "since" could only be used in its temporal sense. As soon as I started working there, I argued (successfully) that the rule was ridiculous, and that causal "since" should be avoided only when it could be confused with temporal "since."

    I confess that I like to enforce the that/which "rule" in technical writing, because it makes the copyeditor stop and question whether or not a relative clause is restrictive and gives the reader a subtle if not necessary cue to the answer. But I'm not under the misimpression that it's a rule or norm of English grammar, and I don't enforce it when it leads to awkward locutions like "that that." Somewhat similarly, the passive needn't be avoided at all costs, but it's a good idea to notice passive constructions and ask whether converting them to the active voice would make them stronger.

    One of the more egregious copyediting stories I ever heard was from my father, a mathematician. There is an adjective, "nowhere void," that can describe certain mathematical entities (let's say sets, though I'm not sure that's correct). An author had written that a set was "not nowhere void" – which the punctiliously double-negative-avoiding copyeditor changed to "somewhere void" or maybe "void somewhere."

  29. rpsms said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    My first and poorly-considered thought is that "by which we live" and "which we live by" mean two different things. The former implies "required," and the latter implies "useful."

    A pardon from a death sentance could be "words by which one lives," but probably never "words one lives by".

  30. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    @ bfwebster: Debra, my editor, dropped me an amused e-mail and said, "Don't you mean martial prowess? Of course, his enemies could have been in awe of his marital prowess as well…"

    Count yourself lucky. There was one book where the typo wasn't caught in time. It appeared as "The Marital Achievements of the Scottish People".

  31. Mark P said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    @Bloix: "Notice how, when you got to "nautre," you stopped reading for meaning?"

    Not me. I had to go back to your comment to find "nautre." I unconsciously corrected it to "nature" as I read.

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    " I do not mean to denigrate any of his literary achievements;"

    Oh, denigrate away. I can't stand Dryden's literary achievements.

  33. Andrew said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Language Hat:

    You don't like serial commas? Too bad, if you're publishing with OUP you're going to have them.

    Oddly enough, this isn't true. I have edited a book, published by OUP, which does not have serial commas. The copy-editor removed some serial commas on the grounds that consistency was more important than house style (since not all the authors used them). It never became clear to me why the book could not both be consistent and follow house style.

  34. Amy Einsohn said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    Yes, the copyeditor’s suggestion was wrong-headed and tone-deaf. (FWIW, I have taught copyediting workshops in Berkeley since the mid 1980s, and I have always told my students that “do not end a sentence with a preposition” is pure bosh.)

    But there is something about the genre of “Dumb Copy Editor stories” that bothers me. For one, the label reminds me of what used to be called “Dumb ____ [insert an ethnic slur]” stories. For two, it has the air of Goliath (I believe George Lakoff was already a full professor at Cal when the book was in production) picking on David (underpaid staff editor at U Chicago Press), and still relishing the story of his monumental victory (a 23-f’ing-page memo!!) thirty years later.

    If someone wants to discuss (or bemoan) the kind of training that copyeditors receive, or the kind of instructions that publishers give their editors, or the structure of a system that places considerable responsibility in the hands of copyeditors and production editors—fine, fine, fine. But laughing (“Isn’t that hilarious?” Geoff asks) at the ill-informed wage slave doesn’t seem that sporting.

    Turnabout is fair play? Does anyone want to hear an anecdote from my collection of Dumb Author stories?

    Amy Einsohn
    author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook (U California Press, 2nd ed., 2006)

  35. Amber said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    Still grinning at Sun Tzu's marital prowess.

    Yes, I can be shallow.

  36. Amber said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    Turn out your pockets, Amy. I'd love to hear a few good ones.

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    Greg Laden just last month excoriated an excellent BBC science reporter or her copy editor for a misunderstanding over a which/that substitution and some unfortunate redundant commas.


    DNA can mutate and change imperceptibly every time a cell divides and makes a copy of itself.

    But when one of these mutations causes a change that is advantageous for the animal – for example, rendering it resistant to a particular disease – it is often "selected for", or passed down to the next few generations of that same species.

    Such changes, which create differences within a population but do not give rise to new species, are known as "microevolution".

    (Emphasis added.)

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    I commend the excellent discussion of split infinitives in Ms. Einsohn's book, which part could have been subtitled "How to Tactfully Deal with Fools Who Believe In Zombie Rules." Writing 23-page single-spaced "blasts" is not one of her suggestions. That detail rather suggests that Lakoff was in pari delicto with the editor in terms of poor social skills, lack of judgment, lack of any sense of proportion etc. But of course the editor was (at least in Lakoff's telling of the story . . .) still the initial aggressor. And he wasn't even following a bogus rule against ending sentences with a preposition, because the text in question wasn't even a sentence. It was as bizarre (and this is one of the things that makes the anecdote have a too-good-to-be-true odor about it) as objecting to the title on the grounds that it was a sentence fragment.

    I'm not sure about Ms. Einsohn's Goliath-v.-David analysis, however. Those who believe themselves to have the upper hand in a relationship in terms of relative power or social status do not typically feel the need to generate 23-page single-spaced justifications for their points of view. That is a literary genre more closely associated with the powerless and low-status, e.g., those wandering the streets complaining that the CIA is monitoring their thoughts via their dental fillings.

  39. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

    Published authors and copy editors are natural enemies. The copy editor is the first genuinely hostile reader that the author must grapple with. Your book's been accepted for publication, everyone tells you you're a genuis, and now this anal retentive moron with barely a BA from Nowhere U. is covering your deathless prose with red ink. Every correction, warranted or not, is a tiny stab of a sharpened pen. What a relief it is when the copy editor errs. That's the moment for the towering rage of injured amour-propre. And here it is, 30 years on, and the anger is still fresh.

  40. Craig Russell said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    I'm going to have to agree with one of the commenters above: I kind of like "Metaphors By Which We Live". It's got a beautiful poetic beat to it (would that be trochaic tetrameter?) .

    Certainly I would fight against the assertion that "Metaphors We Live By" is actually WRONG; that's just silly. But it's not as if the suggested correction is so terrible sounding as to be laughable (no, Elvis, you should make that "Love Me Tenderly" and "You Aren't Anything But a Hound Dog".)

  41. Nathan Myers said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 2:25 am

    "Metaphors by Which We Live" might please my ear if the accent were on "phors". As it is, it falls flat.

    Greg Laden's complaint (referenced in 7:34 above) was that the which/that substitution resulted in an implication that the adaptation involved in microevolution, within a species, was somehow different from the sort of adaptation involved in speciation. He doesn't seem to have twigged that it was just a copy-editing error.

  42. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    Changing a title before a book has been published is one thing; changing the title of an existing book, I would submit, is much worse.
    As a former newspaper copy editor, I can attest that most good copy editors like dumb copy editor stories more than anyone, because they serve as cautionary tales. One of many such stories I heard probably, apocryphal, is about the copy editor working on a review of Bob Hope's autobiography, "Have Tux, Will Travel." This editor allegedly changed the title to "Have Black Dinner Jacket, Will Travel."

  43. Craig Russell said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    @Nathan Myers

    I pronounce it with a secondary stress on -phors, which I find to be the normal US pronunciation (dictionary.com's audio recording of pronunciation says it the same way I do).

  44. Bloix said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Reminds me of the movie "In Which We Serve." Wouldn't have been such a hit if it had been "We Serve In."

  45. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    I cannot confirm this story, and it may well be apocryphal, but the best such story I know is from baseball history. The first president of the American League (and not the leat bit obscure within the field) had the full name of "Byron Bancroft Johnson". In actual practice he was (and is) inevitably known as "Ban Johnson". I have heard the claim that a helpful copy editor got ahold of a book on baseball history immediately before publication and corrected the numerous occurrences to "Ben Johnson".

  46. jamessal said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    I'm going to have to agree with one of the commenters above: I kind of like "Metaphors By Which We Live". It's got a beautiful poetic beat to it (would that be trochaic tetrameter?) .

    Trochaic tetrameter? Here, you tell me:

    DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da (out loud)


    Metaphors by which we live

    Not exactly a snug fit.

    Really, neither title has enough rhythmic regularity to describe it metrically. And I can't see any argument for the copy-editor's rewrite, with its cluster of unstressed syllables ("by which we"), being rhythmically better.

  47. Stephen Jones said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    I have been using two proof readers over the last two years, one my ex-boss. Neither has his head up his 'arse because both are so anally retentive that if they did they'd never be able to get it unstuck.

    I regularly get stuff back, with the comment "I know you think I'm an old-fashoned pedant, but ….", and I reply "thankyou" and don't make any change. I'm overjoyed they're like that, because I have control, and thus get all the advantages of their nitpicking and none of the crap.

    The problem with copy editors is that in many cases they have been given a control over the writers work they should not have. And this has resulted in delusional arrogance, a belief they have the ability, vocation and responsibility to improve on the original writer.

  48. Stephen Jones said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    But laughing (“Isn’t that hilarious?” Geoff asks) at the ill-informed wage slave doesn’t seem that sporting.

    Copy editors are uninformed wage slaves? Tell them! They think they are bloody experts.

    Yet they're the only experts that deny the necessity of actually gaining any expertise, or knowing anything about the field they are supposed to be commenting on. On Bill Walsh's blog I took him to task about claiming there was a specific difference between 'may' and 'might'; I disagreed mentioning the modal verb system in English; various contributors, includung Walsh and John Mcyntire took me to task for being overly technical, and wanting copy editors to know terms that would only cause trouble. Yet the matter is so basic you couldn't get a qualification to teach English to beginners in a decent language school without having studied it.

    In a notorious article Macyntire claimed he followed the dictates of his 5th grade English teacher rather than any hi-fallutin' stuff. He was understandably miffed when I suggested he should go back to the job such training qualified him for, which was chasing goats around the Appalachians, rather than claim to be an expert on the English language.

  49. Christian DiCanio said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    I wish I could have been there. Larry's parties are the best!

  50. Which Tyler said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Stephen Jones: call me an old-fashioned pedant, but I always thought that "old-fashoned" should be spelt "old-fashioned".

    And "control over the writers work"? Wouldn't an apostrophe come in handy there? Maybe you could move the one you put in front of the word "arse"…

    Who is this "John Mcyntire" you mention? Is he the same as the "Macyntire" who pops up in the following paragraph? Or could both of them actually be John McIntyre?

    But hey, who needs copy editors? After all, your writing is faultless.

  51. fiddler said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Wow. Linguists can be snobs, too!

  52. Craig Russell said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Trochaic tetrameter? Here, you tell me:

    DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da (out loud)


    Metaphors by which we live

    Not exactly a snug fit.

    Really? Maybe I just have really unusual pronunciation, but to me this meter describes this phrase perfectly (except that final -da is omitted–is the phrase for the cataleptic?):


    As someone else mentioned above, maybe the difference is that others are saying "MET-uh-firs" while I pronounce it "MET-uh-FORS" (rhyming with "met a horse"), which, again as I mention above, matches the pronunciation recorded at dictionary.com and one of the pronunciations described in the OED.

  53. jamessal said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 3:16 pm


    I guess the title could fit once you'd already established a trochaic meter, but when you've only got four feet and two of the ostensible stresses are a partial ("phors") and a pronoun ("which" — usually not stressed), the rhythm just doesn't have enough regularity to establish a meter. And the original title would actually fit a trochaic trimeter more easily: MET-a-PHORS we LIVE by. Not that I think that matters much. The original title is just more idiomatic, and the open-ended feel of ending with a preposition is, I think, appropriate for a title about living.

  54. Piers Kelly said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    I am an editor turned linguist.
    My two cents: LH is right. Editors do not go around 'correcting' an author's text until it conforms to their own prescriptivist predilections. They simply make sure that the usage is consistent throughout so that the reader doesn't have to do all the hard work. In a well edited text you don't notice the editing.

    House Style must be adhered to, even when it's wrong. This isn't the Nuremberg Defence, this is simply a professional reality. On the other hand, editors contribute to the formulation of house style and this is where a knowledge of linguistic theory is useful.

    The use of editors has declined sharply in the past 30 years, but the quality of editing (in my humble view) has improved markedly as editors have abandoned quaint superstitions about language.

  55. language hat said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    Piers put it better than I did, and I heartily endorse his comment.

  56. mollymooly said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    "Metaphors we Live By" is clearly some sort of passive. I suggest something active like "Let's All Go Live by the Metaphors."

  57. Baldrz said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    jackofhearts29 said: I would call the "By Which We Live By" dodge a McCartneyism. As in, of course, the famous lyric, "… this ever-changing world in which we live in…">>

    It sure sounds that way, but it's actually "… this ever-changing world in which we're livin'…" Rest easy.

  58. Baldrz said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    Amy Einsohn said: "…and still relishing the story of his monumental victory (a 23-f’ing-page memo!!) thirty years later." >>

    My thoughts exactly, Amy! If he needed 23 pages to explain why his title was better–to persuade editors, of all people, that idiom trumps faux grammar–and still considers this event worthy of mention, perhaps he's not as effective a writer as he imagines. Then again, "much wine was drunk," and perhaps he was too.

  59. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    What Geoff Pullum said: "Lakoff wrote a 23-page single-spaced blast against this man's recommendations, …"

    That is, against all the recommendations about the manuscript, not just the title. Presumably, the stranded/fronted preposition issue about the title was just one of a great many issues.

    Note the plural, recommendations.

  60. Baldrz said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    mollymooly said: "Metaphors we Live By" is clearly some sort of passive. I suggest something active like "Let's All Go Live by the Metaphors.">>

    Or let's be totally modern and go with "We [heart] Metaphors!" ;)

  61. johnshade said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    I've been working for years to recast the last line of "The Hokey-Pokey" to avoid the ending proposition. The best I've been able to do is "That's that all about which it is." Or maybe "That's that about which it is all," or "That's that about which all of it is."

  62. johnshade said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    Make that "preposition." Ending a sentence with a proposition is an old Mae West joke, I think.

  63. Aaron Davies said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 8:11 am

    @Baldrz: the really modern way to say it is "We <3 Metaphors!".

  64. Michael said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    July 7 J. W. Brewer said that the copyeditor should've caught the fact that German isn't widely spoken in New England. I just want to point out that maybe the copyeditor did catch this, flagged it, and no change came from the flag. You can't know, and granted that I can't either. But because of the production process most publishers adhere to, copyeditors have little to no control over which edits are made and which comments addressed and which are ignored. Correct or no.

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