The Case of the Extra Word

Let me tell you how Ben Yagoda and I met. Or sort of met, anyway: We’ve never seen each other, or spoken: It’s a purely Internet-based relationship, though closer and more voluntary than my relationship with Scott Reed.

In February 2003 I read a delightfully whimsical piece here in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations.” It was a cunning excuse for reciting a series of treasured family quotations: eminently quotable lines that would never appear in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations because they were uttered by family or friends of the Yagodas, and the Bartlett’s editors weren’t there. One came from an anecdote about a man who (a long time ago, when there were still telegrams) suggested to his lover that 2 a.m. was, for him, not a good time to discuss their relationship, which of course sparked a big 2 a.m. fight with her. Yagoda relates:

The next day he received a six-word, six-syllable telegram. It read: “You can sleep when you are dead.”

Now, the article is still here on The Chronicle’s site, so you can go count the words for yourself. As did Robert P. Burke, director of the Research Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, who wrote a letter to the editor (you can see that online too), stating solemnly: “The telegram has seven words and syllables, not six.”

I noticed that. But instead of writing to the editor, I wrote to Yagoda. I was sure someone whose writing was so smart would be smart enough to count, at least in the single-digit range. I suspected copy-editor interference: a contracted you’re uncontracted to comply with formal style, without regard for the quotation marks or the preceding text. So I asked Yagoda what had been in his manuscript. And he told me that not only was his original copy correct (he had “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD,” in small caps), but — mysteriously — the page proof had also been correct.

I was actually rather disappointed. I had been collecting dumb copy-editor stories, fueling a stereotype-laden view of a world where eloquent professorial Eloi were harassed by mindless and inferior copy-editing Morlocks. For example, I treasured the story of a sociologist colleague at UC Santa Cruz, who found at his book’s proof stage that the long passages of oral testimony by illiterate Central American peasants, carefully translated into colloquial English, had all been “corrected” by the publisher’s copy editor into formal academic written English.

The innocence of the Chronicle editors did not mesh with my developing view of the world. And indeed, I have since come to appreciate that it was a little simplistic. There are intelligent and perceptive copy editors who improve the academic writing they work on. People like Carol Fisher Saller, who writes for this blog, or Heidi Landecker, who edits it, or the excellent John McIntyre, of the Baltimore Sun. (There are also ham-handed professors who can’t write to save their sorry lives, but let’s not even go there.)

Anyway, I investigated further at The Chronicle, and learned that the solution to the mystery of the botched word-count lay in night work by the production staff. It was found when the page was being readied for printing that the small caps didn’t work well with the column width, so they decided to switch the telegram to ordinary lower-case. And for some reason, at that late stage, it couldn’t be done by just changing mark-up but necessitated retyping the phrase. The person charged with the retyping (perhaps long accustomed to a style without contractions) simply slipped up. But it wasn’t a crass and deliberate intrusion of house-style fascism or prescriptive nonsense; it was just a random mistake by a tired compositor.

Of course, it humiliated Yagoda in front of the entire profession, making it look as if he couldn’t count up to numbers that even birds and monkeys can manage (and, of course, ruining the conversational rhythm and plausibility of the telegram text). I would have been furious if such a thing had happened to me. Yet he just shrugged it off. A real mensch. Now that we’re colleagues here on Lingua Franca, I’ve started trying to learn from him about how to be a better human being. So when he recently drew an analogy between me and a notorious short-tempered rabbit-hating psychopath, I just calmly took it in stride.

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