Monday, June 24, 2013

Goddamnit! plus thoughts on Barry Cunliffe

Barry Cunliffe is a wide-ranging scholar, an eminent archaeologist, a stimulating thinker, and a fluent and engaging writer. But he (or his editors) doesn't know what mitigate means. Here's a sentence from Britain Begins, his history of the peopling of Britain and Ireland, boldface mine:
"A genetically conditioned predisposition to be mobile is, however, balanced by a sense of territoriality which mitigates against wandering."
I knew a professor at the Univerity of Pennsylvania who similarly misused mitigate for militate. Mitigate means to ease, mollify, or alleviate: A nip of schnapps mitigated the surgery's painful aftereffects. Militate means to have an effect, to weigh (against), or, loosely, to conspire or work (against): His insistence on correct word usage militates against the possibility that he will ever be promoted. Militate takes a preposition (against). Mitigate does not.

I don't know what Cunliffe's copy editor was doing the day that sentence came across his or her desk. Dreaming of citizen journalism, self-publishing, and the benefits of overthrowing gatekeepers, maybe.

Cunliffe, meanwhile, is even more impressive than I thought. I'd known of his work on the big-picture issue of population origins, but he's also a nuts-and-bolts archaeologist. I have just learned that he was involved in excavating Fishbourne Roman Palace in England, one of the most moving, because most human, of all Roman remains. This knowledge mitigates, if only slightly, my annoyance at his book's misuse of a word.
*
What misuses of words have driven you nuts in your reading?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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14 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

"Further" and "farther" are among my pet peeves. However, when I read student writing, things like "there" and "their," and "its" and "it's," and "then" and "than" are so often confused, that I think Strunk and White--at a minimum--ought to be reqired reading for everyone.

BTW, one of my earlier careers--in military courtrooms--taught me the meaning of extenuation and mitigation, so I have no trouble distinguishing between mitigates and militates. Were it not for that career experience, I might be less alert to the differences.

But enough for now.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elements of Style must surely be available as an "app"? And it's short enough that even today's youth, with more choices and more information and fewer gatekeepers than ever before to tell them what's true and accurate and spelled correctly, could read it without taxing their attention spans.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

To my mind, S&W's EoS is--word for word--the best investment any writer can ever make. When I tried to require it for English composition courses a few semesters ago, the newly hired EC director in the department vetoed my choice and insisted that I require a larger, more expensive handbook instead; although there were also other factors involved, that was the point at which I stopped teaching English composition.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Without khowing which handbook you suggested, I can't offer a final opinion. But I would not want to suggest that the official in question was getting kickbacks from publishers or was afraid of being labelled a politically incorrect gatekeeper.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Oh, feel free to suggest such tawdry ethics. They are epidemic in academia. In fact, the department had a deal with a publisher (which shall remain nameless) for a custom edition for the university's English department (which shall remain nameless), so the department was on the hook for several years of that text.

I now teach only literature, drama, and script analysis courses, and I answer to no one (except students) about the text selections.

As for your example in your posting, it remains a mystery to me that so many people in the editing, proofing, and publishing process can miss so many errors in books published in recent years. Perhaps that fault lies in the education that has prepared those editors, proofreaders, and publishers. Does this problem occur in one country more than another? One publisher more than another?

June 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The only generalization I can make is that editing is absolutely worse in self-published books and in short stories and novels issued by small start-ups. One exception is Hard Case, where Charles Ardai, in a labor of love, does (or did) the editing himself and does a fine job of it.

One day when everyone involved is dead, I'll publish here some of the writing that comes across my desk and talk about how complaints about such writing are received.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its been heavily railed against but still people mix up infer and imply.

June 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Imply is to infer as kill is to die.

One of my verification words is: Holmes

June 24, 2013  
Blogger Fred said...

Writers imply; readers infer.

June 25, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or so the writer hopes, I suppose.

June 25, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Here is the Strunk and White explanation:
Farming implies early rising.
Since she was a farmer, we inferred that she got up early.
Hey, you can never go wrong with S&W.

June 25, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have always thought that English ought to include exply, a verb meaning "to express what is explicit," as imply is to implicit.

On second thought, I take that back. English does not need another verb bad writers can use instead of said. Noted and pointed out, to name just two I absolutely never encounter at work, do just fine, not to mention the traditional
averred.

June 25, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I read a horribly-edited (read: non-edited)self-published monstrosity recently that described a starving woman as appearing "emancipated."

June 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

She was probably a Hindu emancipated from the bodily desire for food.

I would not assume the manuscript was published entirely unedited. Your evidence suggests that someone may have run a quick spell-check before publication.

June 26, 2013  

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