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Comments from Norman Moss, author of a British-American dictionary

I received an email today from an author named Norman Moss, who had read my letter in the UK Society of Authors magazine, The Author. He has kindly given me permission to post his email here. Yes, we are now on first-name terms.

Dear Ms. Christensen,

I have only just come across your letter in The Author. I don’t know how I can contribute anything, but I am British with an American background, I have written several non-fiction books all of which have been published in both Britain and America, and I recognize what you say about the different styles of writing.

Some years ago I wrote a British-American dictionary, which went through several editions and which I revised several times. It was a light-hearted affair, not a serious scholarly work, but nonetheless intended to be useful. It included many words that are known only on one side of the Atlantic, and some that have different meanings in the two countries that can cause confusion and sometimes have, like cot, dumb, football and pants. (I was present once when an American at Cambridge described how he found himself locked in a laboratory building at night and had to climb over the railing to get out and tore his pants. Someone asked, “But how could you tear your pants without tearing your trousers?”) I still slip up sometimes. In my last book I sent that freak cold weather paralysed the railways because the points were frozen, and an American pointed out that he did not know the word points. (The copy editor missed that).

As for over-intrusive copy editors, I came across an example just yesterday. I was reading a biography of Joseph Rotblat. In talking about the run-up to the Iraq war, the author referred to a book, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, I know the book. It is an account of the lies told by the Bush Administration to support the Iraq war, and is called The Greatest Story Ever Sold. I am sure the author wrote it correctly and the copy editor helpfully changed it.

Norman Moss

And here’s a bit from his second email, also relevant to our efforts:

Oddly enough, I disagree with Mary Bagg’s answer to the question about the second comma. This seems to me to break up the thought at just the wrong point.

Maybe I have been lucky, but I have not had the experience others seem to have had with American editors. No one had ever changed my copy without consulting me. I would have been outraged if they had. I have been a journalist all my life, writing for newspapers, magazines and radio. There one is at the mercy of others and a system. Often, I felt like saying, I really would have liked to have told this story in three thousand words or two thousand, or fifteen minutes instead of five minutes, or not started with that or put in something else that the editor cut out. Often a story is cut brutally in the process of rapid editing, inevitably. But when I write a book I feel I can say, “This is what I wrote and meant to write, for better or worse. No apologies, no excuses.” One can’t do that if someone else has stuck their spoon in the pot.

I am going to add a category for Authorship, because I can see that some authors have a thing or two to say about those who have edited their work.

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