Tuesday 17 December 2019

Family Names and Apostrophes

The annual family card can be a minefield of misspellings. Should it be signed from the Jones’s? From the Jones’  ? From the Jones’s family? The answer, of course, is none of the above.

Victorian Christmas Card featuring chicken-headed sledders

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Let’s say you live next door to Dr. and Dr. Smith, their daughter Aya, and their cat Spot. Collectively, they are the Smiths. Like any noun, a surname is made plural by adding s or es.

  • The Chens live in a duplex.
  • The Miłoszes live in Saskatoon.
  • The Davises live in doubt.

Album cover for the Smiths' Complete Works

In the construction “the [name] family,” you would write the Smith family, just as you’d write the raccoon family or the Jedi family. Like raccoon and Jedi, Smith is describing family—it’s a noun acting as an adjective.

  • The Chen family grows vegetables in their yard.
  • The Miłosz family grows Christmas trees.
  • The Addams family grows stranger by the day.

Surnames and the Possessive Case

Now let’s move on to things that belong to the Smiths. Normally, to form a possessive we add ’s to the noun: Aya’s filmography. To make a plural noun possessive (assuming it ends in s), we add just the apostrophe: the twins’ filmography. (For more on apostrophes and possessives, see Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.)

  • The Chens’ barbecue.
  • The Miłoszes’ time machine.
  • The Addamses’ penchant for the Gothic.

Of course, a single family member would—like Aya above—take ’s:

  • Dr. Chen’s Honda.
  • Professor Miłosz’s lecture.
  • Mrs. Addams’s headless roses.

Some style guides use a different possessive rule for names that end in s: they would write Mrs. Addams’ roses—or Charles’ Pomeranian, or Jesus’ sandals. However, the 2017 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style uses ’s in such cases. Since this system is the simplest, it’s what I follow too.

Painting of three Pomeranians

A Person and Their Place

It probably doesn’t help that we tend to drop the place noun when referring to people’s residences, as in I’m going to Mayumi’s [house]. We do this with stores, too: I’m going to the butcher’s [shop]. On the other hand, you might write that you’re going to [consult with] the doctor, rather than going to the doctor’s [clinic], depending on whether you’re thinking of the person or the place.

  • Can you pick up some eggs at the grocer’s?
  • We’re going to the Chens’ to watch the fireworks.
  • A day at the Addamses’ usually involves at least one brush with death.

Another Reason Family Names Are Confusing

Back when English was a younger language, Jones was a way of saying John’s; that is, it identified someone as a child of John, much like Johnson. A surname that identifies you by your father’s given name is called a patronymic. Lots of languages have them: MacDonald, ap Rhys (Anglicized as Price), Fitzwilliam, and ibn Ali are all examples of patronymics.

So when you write Addams’s (as in Wednesday Addams’s guillotine), in a sense you’re writing a double possessive—something of the person who is of Adam. It’s enough to confuse anyone.

Medieval illustration of Habsburg family tree

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Thursday 18 April 2019

Latin Phrases

Writers often confuse e.g. and i.e. The first means “for example” and the second means “that is.”
  • My parents think I should pursue a more practical career, e.g., bookkeeping or beekeeping.
  • Georg and his daughter always dress up for their favourite annual event, i.e., the Maskbeard Carnival.

Illustration of adult and child in costume from Schembart Carnival in Neuremberg, 1590

Both e.g. and i.e. are abbreviations of Latin phrases: exempli gratia (for the sake of example) and id est (that is). As you can see in the examples above, they should be surrounded by commas. But before you ask yourself if you’re using them correctly, ask yourself whether you need to use them at all. The Chicago Manual of Style argues that e.g. and i.e. should be avoided in formal writing (except in parentheses or notes, where brevity is a plus).
  • Many animals are adept at communicating with humans; for example, llamas will spit in your face if annoyed.
  • Professor Gurira handed out “comestible incentives” (i.e., cookies) to participating students.

A Latin phrase can be a handy substitute for the unwieldy English equivalent—sine qua non, for example, means “the thing without which nothing would be possible” (see below). But sometimes they’re just used to boost snob cred, or to prove in-group status by showing off one’s mastery of, say, legal jargon. Is your use of Latin expressive or just confusing? Consider your readers before you decide to send them, grumbling, to Google.

To Italicize or Not to Italicize

Why do some Latin phrases appear in italics while others don’t? Italics are traditionally used for words in a foreign language, but English has a habit of adopting foreign words as its own (thus its dog’s breakfast of spelling rules). Once, cappuccinos were exotic and only cowboys called people amigo. Now both words are so widely used in English they’re considered part of our language, like emoji, pizza, and eau de cologne.* You can trace this progression in dictionaries: when first introduced, a foreign word is usually italicized, but as its use spreads, the italics disappear. So if you want to know whether to italicize a Latin phrase, check a dictionary (caveat: they may not all agree).

*In this blog I use italics for words qua words, to show I’m talking about the word per se and not what it represents. That doesn’t mean these words should be italicized under normal circumstances. My examples and the entries below use italics only per the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

American print ad for eau de cologne, 1907

Common Latin Abbreviations

etc. (et cetera): “and others of the same kind.” Usually appears at the end of a list. Don’t use it after only one or two items (you wouldn’t write the fish, and so on), and don’t use it with for example or such as (see Chicago 5.250). In the past commas were always placed both before and after etc., but Chicago has recently relaxed its stance and approved dropping the second comma: The colours red, orange, yellow, green, etc. make up the rainbow.

et al. (et alia): “and the rest.” Mostly used in bibliographies. When you’re citing an article with twelve authors, it’s handy to be able to write Kernecki et al. Note that only al. (short for alia) has a period.

QED (quod erat demonstrandum): “which was to be demonstrated.” Traditionally placed at the end of a mathematical or logical proof. Commonly used to say I’ve just proven my point.

q.v. (quod vidae): “which see.” A fancier see also for cross-references.

viz. (videre licet): “it is permitted to see.” Like that is or namely, viz. introduces a gloss or explanation. Beware the hazards of kingship, viz. monkey assassins.

Illustration of a sleeping king, a monkey holding a sword aloft, and another man restraining the sword, from Lights of Canopus, Iran 1847

A Not At All Complete List of Latin Phrases Commonly Used in English

a priori: “from what is before.” Describes a deduction based on theory rather than experience; presumed: a priori assumptions about gender.

ad hoc: “to this.” For a particular purpose: an ad hoc committee.

ad hominem: “to the person.” An ad hominem attack criticizes someone as a person rather than engaging with their arguments.

ad nauseam: “to nausea.” Until you’re sick of it. They discussed hockey ad nauseam.

bona fide: “with good faith.” Genuine; real. In Canada and the US, pronounced “bone-uh fied,” “bone-uh fie-dee,” or “bon-uh fied.”

caveat: “let a person beware.” Used as a warning or proviso.

caveat emptor: “let the buyer beware.”

de facto: “of fact.” In reality, as opposed to the official version. So great was his influence over the tsar, some called Rasputin the de facto ruler of Russia.

deus ex machina: “god from the machinery.” In Greek plays, the plot was sometimes resolved by having a god appear suspended from a crane and wrap everything up by divine intervention. The expression is used for any twist that seems to come from nowhere to resolve the central problem, maybe too neatly. The episode’s deus ex machina, a future version of the Doctor, came and rescued them all from the time loop. Pronounced “day-us ex ma-kin-uh.”

Woodcut of a man in an unlikely-looking flying device, from Through the Air by John Wise, 1873

ergo: “therefore.”

et tu?: “and you?” This is from Caesar’s supposed last words just after he’d been stabbed by a bunch of senators, including his bro Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”) Today it’s an expression of betrayal—the ultimate guilt trip—usually said jokingly. Pronounced “et too Broo-teh” (this isn’t French; there are no silent letters).

ex post facto: from ex postfacto, “in the light of subsequent events.” Retroactively.

extempore: from ex tempore, “out of the time.” Without preparation; off the cuff. She treated her fellow drivers to an extempore performance of “I Will Always Love You.” Pronounced “ex-temp-o-ree.”

habeas corpus: “you shall have the body [in court].” Generally speaking, the legal principle that a person who’s been imprisoned has the right to be brought before the court to hear the charges and to defend themselves. Has nothing to do with corpses.

in camera: “in the chamber.” In private or in secret. The negotiations took place in camera.

in flagrante delicto: “in blazing crime.” Caught in the act of wrongdoing, usually sexual misconduct. The PE teacher and the janitor were caught in flagrante by the soccer team. Pronounced “in fluh-gran-tee di-lick-toe.”

in medias res: “in the midst of things.” Describes a story that begins in the middle of the action. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opens in medias res, just after a robbery gone wrong. Pronounced “in me-dee-us rays.”

in situ: “in the place.” In the original or appropriate place. The archaeological remains were cleaned and examined in situ.

in vitro: “in glass.” Specifically, in test tube, as in in vitro fertilization.

inter alia: “among other things.” The accused was charged with, inter alia, trespassing.

mea culpa: “by my fault.” Usually an acknowledgement (like my bad) but also a noun: The supervillain’s public mea culpas were not enough. Brought to us, unsurprisingly, by Catholic confessional prayer. Pronounced “may-uh cool-puh” or “me-uh cull-puh.”

non compos mentis: “not having control of one’s mind.” Not of sound mind. Usually appears in a legal context, e.g., when questioning the validity of a will.

non sequitur: “it does not follow.” Something that has nothing to do with what came before. In the middle of our conversation he threw in a total non sequitur about sloths.

per (or as per): “through.” In accordance with. I hid the package per your instructions. Per can also mean “for each,” as in per annum (for each year) and per capita (for each head [i.e., person]).

per se: “by itself.” The thing itself and no more. Pronounced “per say.”

persona non grata: “person not pleasing.” An unwelcome or unacceptable person. After the argument over the dog, she became persona non grata with the neighbours.

prima facie: “first face.” At first sight or based on a first impression. Pronounced “pry-muh fay-shee,” or in the US “pry-muh fay-shuh.”

pro forma: “for form.” As a formality or for the sake of appearances, as in a pro forma review or he attended pro forma.

qua: “in the capacity of.” As. She had a beautiful voice, but Medusa qua opera singer left audiences cold.

quid pro quo: “something for something.” A favour in exchange for a favour.

sine qua non: “without which not.” Something essential. A memorable title is the sine qua non of podcasting. Pronounced “sin-ay kwah non.”

sub rosa: “under the rose.” In secrecy. Roses have been a symbol of secrecy since ancient Greece, and they’ve been carved into dining-room ceilings to reinforce the confidentiality of discussions at the table below. For more details, see the Merriam-Webster entry “Sub Rosa and Secrecy.”

vice versa: “the position being reversed.” The other way around. The first word can be pronounced either “vice” or “vice-uh.”

The Impostor

Finally, a word that’s pronounced like Latin, but isn’t: forte. Used in English to mean “a thing at which one excels,” forte is derived from the French fort, meaning “strong.” Going by French pronunciation, forte should rhyme with port, but most Canadians and Americans pronounce it “for-tay.” According to Merriam-Webster, this is because of the musical meaning of forte (loud), which came to English from Italian—in which it also means “strong”—and influenced our pronunciation of the French-derived word. In any case, the “for-tay” pronunciation is deeply entrenched, so there’s no point worrying about it now.

Poster showing strongman Eugen Sandow lifting two men, 1894

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Wednesday 20 March 2019

Inclusive Language: Class and Income

How do we describe people less well off than us without being insulting? The poor smacks of Victorian condescension. Working class is common in the UK, but a recent poll showed that over half of Brits describe themselves as working class, regardless of income, so the term more often reflects political values than level of income or privilege. The US equivalent is blue collar, but that too is something of a misnomer because it suggests manual labour or factory work, when most of today’s working poor toil in the service industry. Currently, the most widely accepted term seems to be lower-income people (or if you want to be more people-first, people of lower incomes). It carries less cultural baggage and implicit judgment—as much as that’s possible, anyway.

Illustration by Franklin Booth for the 1917 edition of The Prince and the Pauper

The Myth of Good English

Of course, a person’s income level doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about their class. Like class and race, class and income intersect in complicated ways. A person can struggle to make ends meet and still reap the benefits of class privilege when it comes to, say, dealing with law enforcement or navigating government bureaucracy. On top of that, class is conceived of differently in different cultures (for example, middle class means something different in the UK and Canada). One marker of class is education, often signalled by “good” English. The problem with this metric is there’s no such thing as good English.

Before you accuse me of writing myself out of a job, let me explain that what you were taught in school as “correct” English is called Standard English. Standard English, written and spoken, is a dialect. It is no better or worse than any other English dialect, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Appalachian English, Chicano English, Cockney, Indian English, Newfoundland English, and so on. (For more on this topic from a linguistics perspective, listen to the podcast The Vocal Fries.)

Certainly Standard English is useful, even necessary. It can be essential for getting a loan, interviewing for a job, or defending a master’s thesis. But nobody uses it all the time, and in some contexts it would be inappropriate (“That goal was very adroitly achieved!”). People of any education level may deliberately choose not to use Standard English in contexts where it would be out of place, like at a family barbecue. As an editor, I don’t correct “bad” English so much as change words that are used in the wrong context. Sometimes that means applying accepted Standard English, and sometimes it means applying a less formal English—by inserting contractions into dialogue, for example.

Illustration from Punch, 1 Sep 1877, of a man at the beach in a striped swimsuit, surrounded by onlookers

Because nonstandard dialects can reveal class, region, and ethnicity, they’re sometimes used in fiction to tell us more about a character. But be very careful when using less privileged dialects not to reinforce stereotypes about any group—especially when that dialect is not your own. (For more about using dialects, read Kai Ashante Wilson’s essay The POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction. For more about avoiding stereotypes when writing characters, see Inclusive Language: Race and Ethnicity.)

Homelessness and Addiction 

Avoid writing the homeless in favour of homeless people, which is more humanizing; homelessness is a condition (one in which any of us could find ourselves), not a type of person. The same is true of mental illness (something that many homeless people are dealing with). Instead of schizophrenics, for example, use people with schizophrenia (see Inclusive Language: Disability and Neurodivergence for more on this).

Since I first wrote this post, another term has come into use: unhoused. A Curbed article from June 2020 calls this a West Coast phenomenon: in LA, the houseless “still have communities and neighbors—and they still have a home in the city”; in San Francisco, unhoused “denotes that people are being pushed out of their dwelling units by inequitable housing policies.” In November 2020 the Oaklandside debated the merits of various alternatives to homeless, using unhoused throughout the article. The most important consideration, they wrote, is what the people you’re writing about want to be called, and when writing in general, to humanize your subjects as much as possible. [Added February 2021.]

Drug addiction often intersects with homelessness, though it is by no means limited to the down and out. More respectful than addicts is people with addictions. Some people describe themselves as drug users or people who use drugs, as in the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). VANDU is a union that was formed to advocate for drug users’ rights; their activism was central to the establishment of Vancouver’s groundbreaking safe-injection site, Insite. Their choice of drug user is unapologetic—it demands they be respected as human beings regardless of what they choose to put in their bodies. The status of their drug habits (using or sober) is irrelevant to their human rights, and their terminology insists that others recognize this.

Collage of photos from VANDU demonstrations

Global Poverty

The poorer parts of the globe used to be called the third world. This term originated in the Cold War: the first world was the West, the second was the USSR, and the third was everyone else. The hierarchical third world fell out of favour and was replaced by the developing world. But this too smacks of condescension, implying that only “developed” countries have reached full civilization.  

A recently favoured alternative is the Global South, used in contrast with the Global North. This term carries no hint of hierarchy or value judgment. It is geographic (see the map below), but it can also be socioeconomic: the Global South can extend into areas and people in the Global North, and the privileges of the Global North can be found in people living in the Global South. The term’s applications are at once much broader and more specific than its predecessors’.

World map showing North-South divide

Avoid the phrases tribal warfare and ethnic conflict. They’re often used to dismiss foreign fighting as irrational, unsolvable, and uncivilized (unlike national warfare and white conflict, presumably). They ignore any political, historical, social, and economic contributors and implicitly deny the role of outside global forces. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, for example, the division between Hutus and Tutsis was not truly ethnic or tribal: it had been created and reinforced by colonial governors as a means of controlling the indigenous population. To ignore this history, and the other social and political factors that led to the killings, and dismiss it as “ethnic violence” is to seriously misrepresent the situation.

Be aware of your language choices any time you’re writing about a less privileged group—any group. Now that blatant racism is socially unacceptable, there’s a tendency to make fun of white people with lower incomes and less formal education. Criticize unethical behaviour all you want, but don’t mock someone’s dialect or make fun of their teeth because they can’t afford a dentist. Comedians talk about the rule of “punching up,” by which they mean it’s okay to joke about people more privileged than you, but it’s never okay to joke about someone less privileged than you. In other words, pick on someone your own (metaphorical) size.

This is the last post in the Inclusive Language series. I hope you found it useful, and I encourage you to visit the sites I’ve linked to for a more in-depth discussion of these topics than I could hope to provide.

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Friday 15 February 2019

Inclusive Language: Race and Ethnicity

In the introduction to this series, I talked about race and terminology (e.g., African American vs. Black, Indigenous vs. Native American), so in this post I’m going to focus on issues that come up when you’re writing characters of a different race or ethnicity than your own.

Photo from 1911 of a Japanese woman in a kimono writing on a paper roll, by Elstner Hilton

How Not to Write Stereotypical Characters

Stereotypical characters usually happen because a writer grabbed the nearest conception of a particular group without really noticing or thinking about what they were doing. You need an IT guy in your office scene, and you automatically make him South Asian. You want your main character’s funny best friend to be Black, but you don’t bother to give her any goals or motivations of her own. Your high school student is a Type A overachiever, and it just seems obvious she should be Asian. You need some terrorists to thicken the plot, and Muslim jihadists fit the bill. And so on and so on.

This is a really easy trap to fall into, because we’re bombarded with these stereotypes in our media every day. And the more a stereotype is seen, the more it’s reproduced, in a vicious circle of self-replication. As a writer, it’s part of your job to ask yourself questions like, Why did I choose to write that character that way? Was that an informed, conscious decision, or was I just following the path of least resistance? You might not even realize you’re repeating the same assumptions other people have made. Try googling your character’s race and “common stereotypes” to get an idea of what to avoid. Or visit the excellent blog Writing with Color and check out their lists of stereotypes and tropes.

How Not to Describe a Character of Colour

Painting of a man made entirely of vegetables, fruit, and flowers: Vertumnus, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590

So you’ve decided to make your cast of characters diverse—when and how do you tell the reader that the character you’re introducing is a character of colour? Most of us have been trained to treat whiteness as the default setting. You can introduce twenty white characters without mentioning race, but as soon as a character of colour pops up, they’re immediately described in terms of their race; this “others” them from the rest of the characters and from the (presumed) reader. On the other hand, if you don’t mention race at all, you risk readers assuming all your characters are white.

If your narrative is tied closely to one character’s point of view (POV), you can describe other characters in the language that character would use. For example, say your close-POV character is a Chinese Canadian man. He might not mention his Chinese neighbour’s race (especially if they live in a largely Chinese neighbourhood), but he might describe his daughter’s teacher as, say, “a white lady in a sparkly scarf.” However, this approach isn’t a solution if your POV character is white, because then you’re just reinforcing the white-as-default position.

Some writers use physical description instead of baldly stating a character’s race. This can work well, but there’s a lot of “chocolate skin” and “cafe au lait complexions” out there, not to mention “almond-shaped eyes.” Food terms are objectifying and carry creepy connotations of consumption. And Asian people’s eyes come in lots of shapes besides “almond” (have you ever seen almond-shaped used in any other context?). (Besides, the fixation on eye shape as a defining racial characteristic seems to be more of a Western thing; historical Asian art is full of Westerners with big noses.)

Portrait of Jan Cock Blomhoff, the director of the Dutch trading colony in Nagasaki, and his infant son in the arms of a Dutch nursemaid, by anonymous Japanese artist, 1817

Even worse, from a craft point of view, these foodlike descriptions are all tediously clichéd. They tell us nothing about the characters as individuals. Are they tall or short? Plump or lanky? Do they wear glasses? (What kind?) Is their posture hunched or regal? Do they have tattoos? Acne? Freckles? Piercings? All of the above?

Other Descriptive Options

There are better ways to clue in your readers without stating a character’s race outright (though some readers will insist on picturing white characters unless explicitly told otherwise). Afros, braids, dreadlocks, and other hairstyles can tell readers a character is Black. Skin colour can be mentioned as long as you avoid food metaphors (wood, gemstones, and other natural elements are usually acceptable) and you give white characters parallel treatment. Characters’ names can show they’re Asian, Jewish, South Asian, or Hispanic (but don’t forget Hispanic people can be white too). On the other hand, a biracial character or a woman married to a man of a different ethnicity might not be revealed by their surname.

Characters’ dialogue can also be a cue, but be careful when using a language you don’t speak yourself. The interaction between language and identity is complex, and if you’ve never lived in a bilingual household, you may have misconceptions about how other languages are used, whether instead of, alongside, or mixed with English. (The Vocal Fries podcast has discussed this in several great episodes.)

Use “bad” or “broken” English judiciously; it’s easy to slip into stereotypes. If English is your character’s second language, consider letting them use their first language sometimes—as the author, you can “translate” it into English. When using in-group slang or dialects, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), for example, be sure you don’t veer into cultural appropriation territory. Are you choosing words authentic to who the character is, or just trying to sound cool? (See also author Kai Ashante Wilson’s excellent post on Tor.com about using dialects in fiction as a writer of colour.)

Writing About Racism

Is it okay to show bigotry in your stories? Yes, but recognize there’s a difference between showing bigotry and replicating it. Are you dwelling on degradation for its own sake, or are you showing your characters’ reactions to it? Even when writing about historical atrocities, you still decide what part of the story, and which people, to focus on. There is never oppression without resistance: the history of slavery is full of slave rebellions, many successful; plenty of Jews fought the Nazis, and some WWII concentration camps had uprisings and mass escapes. My point isn’t to make light of oppression but to warn against casting oppressed groups as helpless and passive. People, no matter who they are, have always fought to have agency over their own lives. Don’t deprive your characters of agency in their stories.

A painting of the Haitian Revolution: Battle of San Domingo by January Suchodolski, 1845

Also, beware of making your character’s story only about dealing with racism (or homophobia, sexism, ableism, etc.). Not only is it reductive (nobody’s life is about just one thing), it would be presumptuous of you to think you can encompass a type of oppression you’ve never experienced. Don’t build your story on another group’s struggle. It’s okay to include it, but if it’s the heart of the story, then that story is probably better told by someone else.

As with all the posts in this series, my advice boils down to 1) do your research, and 2) ask yourself, Am I the right person to tell this story? Once you’ve done what you can, write your story. People may criticize your choices; listen to them. If they have a point, apologize and do better next time. That’s all any of us can do.

This is the fourth post in the Inclusive Language series. The others are the introduction, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Disability and Neurodivergence, and Class and Income.

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