Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Vanity? Fair Enough.

A writer I know recounted an exchange that went something like this.

WRITER: "Could we please say '800 residential units' instead of '800 apartments' in that caption? 'Apartments' implies rentals, but most of the units are condos."
COPY EDITOR: "Hmm. Webster's says an apartment is 'a room or suite of rooms to live in'; there's nothing about the method of ownership. I'm going to leave 'apartments.'"

Lesson No. 1: There are truths in this world that are not in the dictionary. Except, perhaps, in New York City, Americans do not use the word apartment to refer to an apartment-style condominium. When we work with language, we need to use our brains to think, not just to clinically process data.

Lesson No. 2 (CONTROVERSY ALERT!): This example isn't anywhere close to a tie, but a tie goes to the person whose name is on the article. My friends and colleagues Philip Blanchard and John McIntyre consistently and eloquently make the point that a newspaper article is a cooperative venture of the newspaper, not a vanity project of the writer, and I agree wholeheartedly -- but that doesn't mean we don't listen when a writer thinks our contributions to the process strike a false note. If we're asking the reporters to check their egos at the door, we must be willing to do the same, and to me that means deferring when the writer has a point or even when the writer has a preference that would make absolutely no difference when it comes to correctness. If I write "horrible" and the reporter would prefer "terrible," I just don't care one way or the other and so I'm willing and eager to humor someone who does care.

Lesson No. 2.5: As I wrote in "The Elephants of Style," editing isn't a game in which you try to make a story publishable in as few moves as possible. Unless deadline is pressing or a change would require replating a page at some cost to your employer, it's always a good policy to just go ahead and do 10 seconds' worth of work rather than spend 10 minutes explaining why there just isn't enough time.

(Yes, I know that residential units has the ring of bureaucratic jargon, but I can't think of a better way to say "800 residences, some of which are condominiums and some of which are apartments.")


Unknown said...

I'm constantly amazed by how many intelligent people really seem to believe that dictionaries are the be all and end all of word definitions. Whenever I try to point out that dictionaries are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and more to the point are written by human beings, not handed down by the Gods of Lanugage, they act as if I'm trying to destroy language itself. I constantly cringe at essays and arguments that begin "Webster's define [term central to my argument] as [blah blah blah]." You'd think a copy editor of all people would know better...

Jeff said...

I didn't realize until after reading this post how much I missed the word "dwelling."

Anonymous said...


1. I live in Pennsylvania. Grew up in Maryland. Don't live, and never have lived, in New York.

2. I call any "residential unit" that's one of many similarly designed "residential units" in the same building, and which individuals or families consider their "permanent residences," an "apartment." The name on the mortgage doesn't change the architecture of the building.

Just a gentle reminder to be cautious with absolute statements, especially when you're going to SHOUT THEM with caps. ;-)

ncaton said...

"Residential units?" ick

Apartment is not the only word for such a dwelling. In SF the dwellings in multiple unit buildings are called apartments if one enters through a common lobby and flats if one enters through one's own personal front door. However, those flats are flats whether condo or not, and the apartments likewise. One only uses condo to impress upon the listener that one is prosperous enough to own the unit rather than rent it.

In the UK, where they also speak English, a flat is ANY dwelling in a multiple dwelling common front door or no. The building itself is called an apartment block if there is a common door for all to use. But nothing in the word denotes whether it is owned by the inhabitants or not.

smatano said...

As my father was fond of saying, "Dictionaries are not arbiters of proper usage, they are merely reflections of common usage." I hated it every time he said it, mostly because I knew he was right.

Brida Connolly said...

Dictionaries aside, I agree completely with the larger point here. I have trained a number of baby editors, and teaching them not to make unnecessary changes can be easily as difficult as teaching them to make all the necessary ones.

Of course, when there are real questions of clarity and accuracy, what the writer wants may well go out the window. But "I don't like it" or -- and this is an incredibly common attitude, though not usually in so many words -- "It isn't said exactly the same way it was said the last 700 times I edited a story on this topic" are not adequate reasons to make a change.

Anonymous said...

As a baby editor myself, I've used a dictionary to win a few fights, even though deep down I knew it was wrong.

Jests aside, aren't they called dictionaries because they primarily aid in pronunciation? I always thought the definitions were just added in for yucks.

As far as prescriptive versus descriptive goes, I tend towards the latter. However, that mentality only goes so far before you have to start throwing down the gauntlet.
People define "angst" as "furious" and insist (angstily, even) that they know so 'cause that's how they've always heard it.

Qwerty said...

I'm in New York. Like David in Pennsylvania, I'd call any of the several residential units in a building an "apartment" (they needn't be "many"; while some buildings have hundreds, mine has eight, and some have fewer).

Here, a "condo" is specifically such a unit owned by an individual or individuals (who may or may not occupy it). If a person or other entity owns the entire building and leases the apartments to their occupants, the units are rentals. If those leasing the units are holders of shares in a corporation that owns the building, that's a co-op; the shareholders are proprietary lessees.

(All of the above are still apartments, except in real-estate ads, where all of them are "residences.")

Bill's right, of course. And seems to me that the main concern is, or ought to be: Do my readers understand what I'm talking about?

shutupproust said...

FWIW, I grew up on the West Coast and spent the last 12 years in Baltimore, and I would always assume that an "apartment" was a rental, and that an owned or leased residential unit was a condo.

I sometimes have to remind myself that playing God looks no better on an editor than it does on a surgeon, and that we have less right to such behavior in the first place.

(Also, hello. Have been meaning to check out your site for ages, and now am kicking myself for not having done so sooner. At last! Conversations about comma placement! Thank Gore for the internet, because no one within earshot of me ever wants to discuss such things.)