Posted on

Crossing the Atlantic

It’s fortuitous that the “On Point” blog was going live today, because this coincides with the delivery of an issue of The Author, the quarterly magazine of the UK Society of Authors. I’ve already heard from two people about my letter to the editor, which was inspired by our work on the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing. This blog is an extension of our work on that book, and to learn from our colleagues.
Trollope would have enjoyed the fact that even in the 21st century rural postal delivery is still a reality, with vagaries and inconsistencies not so different from those he tried to sort out in the course of his day job as a postal inspector. I found out that the new issue of The Author was out when Simon Winchester skyped last night to say he’d just read it. Simon lives are in the same general postal area as I (Springfield, MA, is the hub) but his house is in a remote part of the Berkshire Hills while I live in the center of cosmopolitan Great Barrington, population 7,700. How, I wonder, could his mail from the UK reach him faster than mine reaches me?
This morning I heard from Peter Viney:
I was interested in your comments on editing in ‘The Author’. I’ve been writing ELT / ESL books full-time for thirty years, and I’m British. My sales are approximately the same in British and American English, so I had a good few years of working with American editors. There are major differences in attitude to changes to text. American editors don’t ask. They don’t even highlight what they’ve done. They just do it (and get offended if you object). I’ve noticed that British editors of a younger generation think this is a great idea and are following American practice. A Ph.D. in linguistics is a very, very bad sign. The reverse is also true. In the case of a major ELT / ESL publisher, about five years ago they got rid of most of the ESL professionals on the grounds that ‘everybody speaks English’ and replaced them with people who’d worked in educational publishing in math(s) and English for native speakers.Recently I’ve been working on a book on British and American English which is designed to be entertaining rather than academic, and my main thesis is that the differences are nowhere near as great as suggested. This was because one section on my website was getting forty or more hits a day, mainly from Americans, and I decided to turn it into a book. Americans have more difficulties with British English than vice versa.
Here’s what I wrote to The Author:
As an American who got her start in publishing in Britain and who worked for the estate of that most famous of Anglo-American authors, T. S. Eliot (a publisher to boot), I’m more conscious than most of the linguistic pond that divides us. My first book, Home Ecology, was published there, and my first editorial job was at Blackwell Science on John Street. I like to say that I speak both English and American, and I’m good enough at writing English to have once been translated into American.
Today my linguistic obsessions are Mandarin Chinese translation and transliteration. Even so, when I decided, with Berkshire Publishing’s senior editor Mary Bagg, that our instructions for writing, reviewing, and copyediting had grown so extensive that they could be turned into a book, we included a section on transatlantic editorial issues, and even extended the discussion to hemispheric points of style.
Spelling divides us, as you well know, but that is just the beginning. English prose tends to have more qualifiers, more gracious side notes, more clever turns of phrase. It exhibits characteristics Americans generally concede to their English colleagues: verbal dexterity and wit, and the successful use of semicolons. But American copyeditors have been trained to a level of intrusiveness that can offend English authors. As we worked on the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing—the book is now in print and available in a number of e-book formats—I remembered some letters in The Author that had amused me, and Kate Pool was kind enough to dig out copies for me.
In my years as a publisher, I’ve heard plenty of similar horror stories from academic authors (“I didn’t even recognize the sentences”; “I told them to take my name off the article”). I’ve seen the work of over-caffeinated and self-important copyeditors—the worst of whom have PhDs in the subject of the book or article they are working on. Their eagerness to prove their intellectual credentials leads to even worse mistakes than does the merely ignorant and sloppy. I have tried my best to see that the stories authors tell over dinner are not about my own team of editors, and in the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing you can see just how we try to keep a dispersed team on the same page.
My hope is that the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing will show authors some of the invisible stitching that does so much to fashion a piece of prose. I’d love to hear from authors (as well as editors and publishers) who have ideas about how we can make this guide more useful to those who are writing for readers on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the world.
How it is appropriate that Simon Winchester’s most recent book is The Atlantic. Do read it, and do write to us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *