Monday, June 6, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: M

I'm up to the Ms in this list: the end of the first half of the alphabet, and the first half of this series. And I'm going to make something of it.

Make Certain

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the phrase make certain — and especially make certain that — is unnecessarily wordy and, to my mind, horribly awkward. If you really want to make something of it, make sure is a more acceptable colloquialism, but you can un-make the phrase altogether with double-check, ensure (but not insure), or even just be certain. Sometimes, though, you can just delete the phrase entirely.

As with a some of my other peeves, this isn’t a grammatical issue but a word choice issue. I'm sure someone will make certain to include make certain in a comment to this post. Or maybe not, since I beat them to the punch.

Make Settings

You might never have seen this ghastly phrase if not for this post. (If that's the case, I apologize.) I see it too often, though, in how-to articles about computer software.

Say, for example, that you want to set up your color printer so that, by default, it always prints in grayscale. You go online looking for help, and you find a few articles about how to do just that. An article written by someone whom I didn’t edit might direct you to open your printer’s Preferences menu and "make settings on the Color tab." (I shudder just typing that.)

The problem is, you don’t make the settings. The programmers who designed the software make the settings. You adjust them, customize them, tweak them, or just change them.

Make Use of

Make use of is only slightly better than utilize. I hate them both.

Most of the time, changing make use of to simply use can create a more streamlined, fluid, and understandable sentence. But why stop there? Use is such a dull word; with a little thought, you might be able to create a more straightforward and interesting sentence.

For example, only a lawyer would ask, "Do you ever make use of your computer to watch adult videos?" It’s only marginally better to ask, "Do you ever use your computer to watch adult videos?" Better yet, and more interesting: "Do you ever watch porn on your computer?"

I wrote a little about make use of about a year-and-a-half ago in a post called "Make Use of the Red Pen." It also comes into play a little later.

On the Make

The main problem that I have with both make and use is that, even though they are active verbs, there isn't a lot of action in them. Make and use by themselves don't tell you anything about what's going on; the words around them define what they really mean.

Of course, they can't be completely avoided. Make and use both have active lives in verb phrases ("You should make up with your girlfriend even if she uses up all the toothpaste.") and in idioms ("Use your head, boy! I told you to make the bed!"). But too often they're used just as sentence lengtheners, pushing the actual action farther from the beginning of the sentence.

Not only can weeding out bland, unnecessary makes and uses lead to more fluid, readable prose, but it can help you avoid sounding like an equivocating, double-talking, untrustworthy politician.

Muphry’s Law

No, that’s not a typo. Muphry’s Law, aka Skitt’s Law, aka McKean’s Law, aka Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that whenever you write something that is critical of editing or proofreading (such as this ongoing list of editorial peeves), there will be an editing or proofreading error in what you’ve written. (You can find a big stupid example of Muphry’s Law on this blog by following that link to "Make Use of the Red Pen," above.)

As all blogging editors know, online grammar trolls live on Muphry’s Law. Say you write a well-researched, beautifully written essay about what Chaucer’s poems reveal about the changing syntax of the English language and how it directly relates to how William Shakespeare coined new words. Wonderful stuff. Pulitzer-worthy stuff. You then post that essay to your blog and tweet it to your followers, hoping to spark some interesting conversation, and what’s the first comment that some anonymous troll leaves under your masterwork?

"You used who where you should have used whom . . . "

And they, of course, extrapolate from there:

". . . If you’re going to write about grammar and syntax, you should learn about grammar and syntax. Mistakes like this make me distrust both your facts and your opinions on such topics."

Well, that’s what the trolls mean. What actually shows up in their comments is closer to this:

"its WHOM, dickwad!! learn 2 speak fuckin english b4 you start spouting off with this shit!!! you don’t know what the hell your talking about!!!!"

Oh, the infinite variability of the English language.

But of course, a grammatical or usage mistake in a post about grammar and usage isn’t a sign that the writer is a hack; it’s a sign that the writer is human. Sometimes our heads work faster than our fingers, or vice versa. Sometimes muscle memory takes over when we don’t want it to. (The -tion suffix is so ingrained in my hand muscles that I can’t type the word ratio without first typing ration and then hitting the backspace . . . if I notice the mistake.) And when we edit or proofread our own writing, sometimes we see what we meant to type instead of what we actually typed.

I don’t believe a book has ever been printed that didn’t contain some error in it — from a missing apostrophe to a malaprop. (If you ever do find printed material that is ridiculously error-free, let people know. That book’s editorial team deserves praise, because that is a notable accomplishment.) So we will write on in the shadow of Muphry’s Law, hoping that we can lessen its effect, but knowing that, like the common cold, we can’t really hope to extinguish it altogether.