A Q&A about my job and science journalism

A couple weeks ago, some students from a university in South India got in touch to ask a few questions about my job and about science communication. The correspondence was entirely over email, and I’m pasting it in full below (with permission). I’ve edited a few parts in one of two ways – to make myself clearer or to hide sensitive information – and removed one question because its purpose was clarificatory.

1) What does your role as a science editor look like day to day?

My day as science editor begins at around 7 am. I start off by catching up on the day’s headlines and other news, especially all the major newspapers and social media channels. I also handle a part of The Wire Science‘s social media presence, so I schedule some posts in the first hour.

Then, from 8 am onwards, I begin going through the publishing schedule – which is a document I prepare on the previous evening, listing all the articles that writers are expected to file on that day, as well as what I need to edit/publish and in which position on the homepage. At 9.30 am, my colleagues and I get on a conference call to discuss the day’s top stories and to hear from our reporters on which stories they will be pursuing that day (and any stories we might be chasing ourselves). The call lasts for about an hour.

From 10.30-11 am onwards, I edit articles, reply to emails, commission new articles, discuss potential story ideas with some reporters, scientists and my colleagues, check on the news cycle every now and then, make sure the site is running smoothly, discuss changes or tweaks to be made to the front-end with our tech team, and keep an eye on my finances (how much I’ve commissioned for, who I need to pay, payment deadlines, pending allocations, etc.).

All of this ends at about 4.30 pm. I close my laptop at that point but I continue to have work until 6 pm or so, mostly in the form of emails and maybe some calls. The last thing I do is prepare the publishing schedule for the next day. Then I shut shop.

2) With leading global newspapers restructuring the copy desk, what are the changes the Indian newspapers have made in the copy desk after the internet boom?

I’m not entirely familiar with the most recent changes because I stopped working with a print establishment six years ago. When I was part of the editorial team at The Hindu, the most significant change related to the advent of the internet had less to do with the copy desk per se and more to do with the business model. At least the latter seemed more pressing to me.

But this said, in my view there is a noticeable difference between how one might write for a newspaper and for the web. So a more efficient copy-editing team has to be able to handle both styles, as well as be able to edit copy to optimise for audience engagement and readability both online and offline.

3) Indian publications are infamous for mistakes in the copy. Is this a result of competition for breaking news or a lack of knack for editing?

This is a question I have been asking myself since I started working. I think a part of the answer you’re looking for lies in the first statement of your question. Indian copy-editors are “infamous for mistakes” – but mistakes according to whom?

The English language came to India in different ways, it is not homegrown. British colonists brought English to India, so English took root in India as the language of administration. English is the de facto language worldwide for the conduct of science, so scientists have to learn it. Similarly, there are other ways in which the use of English has been rendered useful and important and necessary. English wasn’t all these things in and of itself, not without its colonial underpinnings.

So today, in India, English is – among other things – the language you learn to be employable, especially with MNCs or such. And because of its historical relationships, English is taught only in certain schools, schools that typically have mostly students from upper-caste/upper-class families. English is also spoken only by certain groups of people who may wish to secret it as a class symbol, etc. I’m speaking very broadly here. My point is that English is reserved typically for people who can afford it, both financially and socio-culturally. Not everyone speaks ‘good’ English (as defined by one particular lexicon or whatever) nor can they be expected to.

So what you may see as mistakes in the copy may just be a product of people not being fluent in English, and composing sentences in ways other than you might as a result. India has a contested relationship with English and that should only be expected at the level of newsrooms as well.

However, if your question had to do with carelessness among copy-editors – I don’t know if that is a very general problem (nor do I know what the issues might be in a newsroom publishing in an Indian language). Yes, in many establishments, the management doesn’t pay as much attention to the quality of writing as it should, perhaps in an effort to cut costs. And in such cases, there is a significant quality cost.

But again, we should ask ourselves as to whom that affects. If a poorly edited article is impossible to read or uses words and ideas carelessly, or twists facts, that is just bad. But if a poorly composed article is able to get its points across without misrepresenting anyone, whom does that affect? No one, in my opinion, so that is okay. (It could also be the case that the person whose work you’re editing sees the way they write as a political act of sorts, and if you think such an issue might be in play, it becomes important to discuss it with them.)

Of course, the matter of getting one’s point across is very subjective, and as a news organisation we must ensure the article is edited to the extent that there can be no confusion whatsoever – and edited that much more carefully if it’s about sensitive issues, like the results of a scientific study. And at the same time we must also stick to a word limit and think about audience engagement.

My job as the editor is to ensure that people are understood, but in order to help them be understood better and better, I must be aware of my own privileges and keep subtracting them from the editorial equation (in my personal case: my proficiency with the English language, which includes many Americanisms and Britishisms). I can’t impose my voice on my writers in the name of helping them. So there is a fine line here that editors need to tread carefully.

4) What are the key points that a science editor should keep in mind while dealing with copy?

Aside from the points I raised in my previous answer, there are some issues that are specific to being a good science editor. I don’t claim to be good (that is for others to say) – but based on what I have seen in the pages of other publications, I would only say that not every editor can be a science editor without some specific training first. This is because there are some things that are specific to science as an enterprise, as a social affair, that are not immediately apparent to people who don’t have a background in science.

For example, the most common issue I see is in the way scientific papers are reported – as if they are the last word on that topic. Many people, including many journalists, seem to think that if a scientific study has found coffee cures cancer, then it must be that coffee cures cancer, period. But every scientific paper is limited by the context in which the experiment was conducted, by the limits of what we already know, etc.

I have heard some people define science as a pursuit of the truth but in reality it’s a sort of opposite – science is a way to subtract uncertainty. Imagine shining a torch within a room as you’re looking for something, except the torch can only find things that you don’t want, so you can throw them away. Then you turn on the lights. Papers are frequently wrong and/or are updated to yield new results. This seldom makes the previous paper directly fraudulent or wrong; it’s just the way science works. And this perspective on science can help you think through what a science editor’s job is as well.

Another thing that’s important to know is that science progresses in incremental fashion and that the more sensational results are either extremely unlikely or simply misunderstood.

If you are keen on plumbing deeper depths, you could also consider questions about where authority comes from and how it is constructed in a narrative, the importance of indeterminate knowledge-states, the pros and cons of scientism, what constitutes scientific knowledge, how scientific publishing works, etc.

A science editor has to know all these things and ensure that in the process of running a newsroom or editing a publication, they don’t misuse, misconstrue or misrepresent scientific work and scientists. And in this process, I think it’s important for a science editor to not be considered to be subservient to the interests of science or scientists. Editors have their own goals, and more broadly speaking science communication in all forms needs to be seen and addressed in its own right – as an entity that doesn’t owe anything to science or scientists, per se.

5) In a country where press freedom is often sacrificed, how does one deal with political pieces, especially when there is proof against a matter concerning the government?

I’m not sure what you mean by “proof against a matter concerning the government.” But in my view, the likelihood of different outcomes depends on the business model. If, for example, you the publisher make a lot of money from a hotshot industrialist and his company, then obviously you are going to tread carefully when handling stories about that person or the company. How you make your money dictates who you are ultimately answerable to. If you make your money by selling newspapers to your readers, or collecting donations from them like The Wire does, you are answerable to your readers.

In this case, if we are handling a story in which the government is implicated in a bad way, we will do our due diligence and publish the story. This ‘due diligence’ is important: you need to be sure you have the requisite proof, that all parts of the story are reliable and verifiable, that you have documentary evidence of your claims, and that you have given the implicated party a chance to defend themselves (e.g. by being quoted in the story).

This said, absolute press freedom is not so simple to achieve. It doesn’t just need brave editors and reporters. It also needs institutions that will protect journalists’ rights and freedoms, and also shield them reliably from harm or malice. If the courts are not likely to uphold a journalist’s rights or if the police refuse proper protection when the threat of physical violence is apparent, blaming journalists for “sacrificing” press freedom is ignorant. There is a risk-benefit analysis worth having here, if only to remember that while the benefit of a free press is immense, the risks shouldn’t be taken lightly.

6) Research papers are lengthy and editors have deadlines. How do you make sure to communicate information with the right context for a wider audience?

Often the quickest way to achieve this is to pick your paper and take it to an independent scientist working in the same field. These independent comments are important for the story. But specific to your question, these scientists – if they have the time and are so inclined – can often also help you understand the paper’s contents properly, and point out potential issues, flaws, caveats, etc. These inputs can help you compose your story faster.

I would also say that if you are an editor looking for an article on a newly published research paper, you would be better off commissioning a reporter who is familiar, to whatever extent, with that topic. Obviously if you assign a business reporter to cover a paper about nanofluidic biosensors, the end result is going to be somewhere between iffy and disastrous. So to make sure the story has got its context right, I would begin by assigning the right reporter and making sure they’ve got comments from independent scientists in their copy.

7) What are some of the major challenges faced by science communicators and reporters in India?

This is a very important question, and I can’t hope to answer it concisely or even completely. In January this year, the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India organised a meeting with a couple dozen science journalists and communicators from around India. I was one of the attendees. Many of the issues we discussed, which would also be answers to your question, are described here.

If, for the purpose of your assignment, you would like me to pick one – I would go with the fact that science journalism, and science communication more broadly, is not widely acknowledged as an enterprise in its own right. As a result, many people don’t see the value in what science journalists do. A second and closely related issue is that scientists often don’t respond on time, even if they respond at all. I’m not sure of the extent to which this is an etiquette issue. But by calling it an etiquette issue, I also don’t want to overlook the possibility that some scientists don’t respond because they don’t think science journalism is important.

I was invited to attend the Young Investigators’ Meeting in Guwahati in March 2019. There, I met a big bunch of young scientists who really didn’t know why science journalism exists or what its purpose is. One of them seemed to think that since scientific papers pass through peer review and are published in journals, science journalists are wasting their time by attempting to discuss the contents of those papers with a general audience. This is an unnecessary barrier to my work – but it persists, so I must constantly work around or over it.

8) What are the consequences if a research paper has been misreported?

The consequence depends on the type and scope of misreporting. If you have consulted an independent scientist in the course of your reporting, you give yourself a good chance of avoiding reporting mistakes.

But of course mistakes do slip through. And with an online publication such as The Wire – if a published article is found to have a mistake, we usually correct the mistake once it has been pointed out to us, along with a clarification at the bottom of the article acknowledging the issue and recording the time at which the change was made. If you write an article that is printed and is later found to have a mistake, the newspaper will typically issue an erratum (a small note correcting a mistake) the next day.

If an article is found to have a really glaring mistake after it is published – and I mean an absolute howler – the article could be taken down or retracted from the newspaper’s record along with an explanation. But this rarely happens.

9) In many ways, copy editing disconnects you from your voice. Does it hamper your creativity as a writer?

It’s hard to find room for one’s voice in a news publication. About nine-tenths of the time, each of us is working on a news copy, in which a voice is neither expected nor can add much value of its own. This said, when there is room to express oneself more, to write in one’s voice, so to speak, copy-editing doesn’t have to remove it entirely.

Working with voices is a tricky thing. When writers pitch or write articles in which their voices are likely to show up, I always ask them beforehand as to what they intend to express. This intention is important because it helps me edit the article accordingly (or decide whether to edit it at all). The writer’s voice is part of this negotiation. Like I said before, my job as the editor is to make sure my writers convey their points clearly and effectively. And if I find that their voice conflicts with the message or vice versa, I will discuss it with them. It’s a very contested process and I don’t know if there is a black-and-white answer to your question.

It’s always possible, of course, if you’re working with a bad editor and they just remodel your work to suit their needs without checking with you. But short of that, it’s a negotiation.

Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.

Google Docs: A New Hope

I suspect the Google Docs grammar bot is the least useful bot there is. After hundreds of suggestions, I can think of only one instance in which it was right. Is its failure rate so high because it learns from how other people use English, instead of drawing from a basic ruleset?

I’m not saying my grammar is better than everyone else’s but if the bot is learning from how non-native users of the English language construct their sentences, I can see how it would make the suggestions it does, especially about the use of commas and singular/plural referents.

Then again, what I see as failure might be entirely invisible to someone not familiar with, or even interested in, punctuation pedantry. This is where Google Docs’s bot presents an interesting opportunity.

The rules of grammar and punctuation exist to assist the construction and inference of meaning, not to railroad them. However, this definition doesn’t say whether good grammar is simply what most people use and are familiar with or what is derived from a foundational set of rules and guidelines.

Thanks to colonialism, imperialism and industrialism, English has become the world’s official language, but thanks to their inherent political structures, English is also the language of the elite in postcolonial societies that exhibit significant economic inequality.

So those who wield English ‘properly’ – by deploying the rules of grammar and punctuation the way they’re ‘supposed’ to – are also those who have been able to afford a good education. Ergo, deferring to the fundamental ruleset is to flaunt one’s class privilege, and to expect others to do so could play out as a form of linguistic subjugation (think The New Yorker).

On the other hand, the problem with the populist ontology is that it encourages everyone to develop their own styles and patterns based on what they’ve read – after all, there is no one corpus of popular literature – that are very weakly guided by the same logic, if they’re guided by any logic at all. This could render individual pieces difficult to read (or edit).

Now, a question automatically arises: So what? What does each piece employing a different grammar and punctuation style matter as long as you understand what the author is saying? The answer, to me at least, depends on how the piece is going to find itself in the public domain and who is going to read it.

For example, I don’t think anyone would notice if I published such erratic pieces on my blog (although I don’t) – but people will if such pieces show up in a newspaper or a magazine, because newsrooms enforce certain grammatical styles for consistency. Such consistency ensures that:

  1. Insofar as grammar must assist inference, consistent patterns ensure a regular reader is familiar with the purpose the publication’s styleguide serves in the construction of sentences and paragraphs, which in turn renders the symbols more useful and invisible at the same time;
  2. The writers, while bringing to bear their own writing styles and voices, still use a ‘minimum common’ style unique to and associated with the publication (and which could ease decision-making for some writers); and
  3. The publication can reduce the amount of resources expended to train each new member of its copy-editing team

Indeed, I imagine grammatical consistency matters to any professional publication because of the implicit superiority of perfect evenness. But where it gets over the top and unbearable is when its purpose is forgotten, or when it is effected as a display of awareness of, or affiliation to, some elite colonial practice.

Now, while we can agree that the populist definition is less problematic on average, we must also be able to recognise that the use of a ‘minimum common’ remains a good idea if only to protect against the complete dilution of grammatical rules with time. For example, despite the frequency with which it is abused, the comma still serves at least one specific purpose: to demarcate clauses.

In this regard, the Google Docs bot could help streamline the chaos. According to the service’s support documentation, the bot learns its spelling instead of banking exclusively on a dictionary; it’s not hard to extrapolate this behaviour to grammar and syntactic rules as well.

Further, every time you reject the bot’s suggested change, the doc displays the following message: “Thanks for submitting feedback! The suggestion has been automatically ignored.” This isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that the bot doesn’t learn. For one, the doc doesn’t display a similar message when a suggestion is accepted. For another, Google tracks the following parameters when you’re editing a doc:

customer-type, customer-id, customer-name, storageProvider, isOwner, editable, commentable, isAnonymousUser, offlineOptedIn, serviceWorkerControlled, zoomFactor, wasZoomed, docLocale, locale, docsErrorFatal, isIntegrated, companion-guest-Keep-status, companion-guest-Keep-buildLabel, companion-guest-Tasks-status, companion-guest-Tasks-buildLabel, companion-guest-Calendar-status, companion-guest-Calendar-buildLabel, companion-expanded, companion-overlaying-host-content, spellGrammar, spellGrammarDetails, spellGrammarGroup, spellGrammarFingerprint

Of them, spellGrammar is set to true and I assume spellGrammarFingerprint corresponds to a unique ID.

So assuming further that it learns through individual feedback, the bot must be assimilating a dataset in the background within whose rows and columns an ‘average modal pattern’ could be taking shape. As more and more users accept or reject its suggestions, the mode could become correspondingly more significant and form more of the basis for the bot’s future suggestions.

There are three problems, however.

First, if individual preferences have diverged to such an extent as to disfavour the formation of a single most significant modal style, the bot is unlikely to become useful in a reasonable amount of time or unless it combines user feedback with the preexisting rules of grammar and composition.

Second, Google could have designed each bot to personalise its suggestions according to each account-holder’s writing behaviour. This is quite possible because the more the bot is perceived to be helpful, the likelier its suggestions are to be accepted, and the likelier the user is to continue using Google Docs to compose their pieces.

However, I doubt the bot I encounter on my account is learning from my feedback alone, and it gives me… hope?

Third: if the bot learns only spelling but not grammar and punctuation use, it would be – as I first suspected – the least useful bot there is.

The usefulness of good grammar

Why is good grammar important?

In the Indian mainstream media at least, it appears that readers won’t penalise reporters and editors for imperfect use of grammar and punctuation. To be clear, they will notice – and many will avoid – bad writing; at the same time, readers are unlikely to credit articles that got their grammar and punctuation pitch-perfect. In short, good grammar doesn’t seem to improve return-on-investment but bad grammar reduces it.

This isn’t surprising: English has always been much of India’s second language, especially among its middle class. The premium placed on perfect grammar is much lower than that placed on simply being fluent with the language at the intermediary level. In most instances, in fact, the value of better grammar is and remains an unknown-unknown.

However, what I like most about perfecting the use of grammar and punctuation is that doing so provides a sort of polish to the text that greatly improves its readability. This is somewhat like the attention Apple pays to the UX of its iPhones: it isn’t just that the hardware-software synergy is excellent or that the designs make the UI look exquisite; it is that, like good grammar, Apple ensures the tiniest details are in line with the overarching experiential philosophy, so that the user moves with equal ease through different parts of the phone. In the same way, without good grammar, the text becomes a bit of a bumpy ride.

It’s the cost of this bumpiness that seems to determine whether or not better grammar is linked to the publisher’s stature.

Within the iPhone metaphor, design perfection is closely associated with the iPhone’s reputation as a premium item, the same way the appropriate use of language is associated with publications like The Baffler and The New York Review of Books (but not The New Yorker, for reasons described here), which bank on literary as well as narrative correctness to appear, and read, classy.

However, this aesthetic is seemingly confined to mainstream publications in the West and, in India, to magazines that are okay with presenting the sort of English that is as classy to the discerning reader as it seems elitist to the one who hasn’t spent a lifetime among books. To the latter, text laden with the uneven use of grammar isn’t bumpy reading at all as much as something that reads just fine. So the publisher that publishes such writing isn’t penalised for it.

Then again, is it fair to judge grammar’s value according to its financial implications? It makes sense with iPhone and design: a flawed UX is quite likely to precipitate a decline in sales, and sales is what Apple – like any corporation – lives for. It also makes sense if you have a publisher like Times of India in mind. But how do things work at The Wire?

As with any nonprofit news publication that runs on donations from readers, good grammar and punctuation offer The Wire a way to render our articles more gratifying as long as the exercise remains cost-effective. But when it comes in the way of a more valuable target, such as higher volume, it becomes secondary if only because our resources are painfully finite. To prevent this from happening in the longer run, we must couple the quality of writing with the notion of public interest itself. So we come to the more important question: could good grammar be in the public interest?

At first, good grammar seems almost unnecessary, indulgent even, until you consider the connections between good writing and thinking. Being able to compose complex sentences anticipates room to compose complex thoughts and allows us to assimilate complex ideas. We may not need language itself to think, but insofar as we wish to instrumentalise the communication of complex ideas as a weapon against anti-intellectualism, we must become and remain fluent with how grammar and punctuation allow us to nearly exactly communicate semantic formations constructed by the mind.

In fact, it would be safe to dispense with the “nearly” as well: we cannot communicate ideas more complicated than what our language affords us. Therefore, the more versatile our language is and the better we are able to use it, the more opportunities we give ourselves to accommodate new ideas and fight against bad ones.

There are limitations, of course, such as with a lot of academic writing these days that is dense for density’s sake. But short of that, not making efforts to improve the way we use the rules of grammar and the opportunities of punctuation could mire us deeper and deeper, in a world becoming more vast by the day, in knowledge that is only becoming more stale and – as many scholars have recognised – in attitudes more anti-intellectual. Of course, not everything there is to learn has to be so complicated and most of us will almost certainly expend our lives still exploring the simpler realms, but in the overarching scheme, exposing ourselves to the more challenging aspects of language will equip us to go wherever we may as a society.

This is also an admittedly circuitous justification for the continued use of good grammar – given humankind’s now-famously short attention span – and one that we may not always remember on the level of the day-to-day. But just as with good grammar, the usefulness of good grammar only shows itself with prolonged use, and this should be easier to remember.

The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of Authory.com):

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.

Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.