Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“Keep/stay abreast of” or “keep/stay abreast with”? (1/2)

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dryly_scratching_head

For my sins, one of the things I do is “quality-check” the work of other editors. I do this for an organization that pays editors to copy-edit academic papers written by non-native speakers.

(I also copy-edit such papers myself, which is often extremely interesting as it opens up whole new worlds never dreamt of in my philosophy, from Game Theory applied to the Torah to assessing the quality of new housing for flood victims in the Philippines.)

Actually, I say “for my sins”, but mostly it is really rather enjoyable: the editors generally do an excellent job, and I only have to make a minimum of changes.

If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad

“I get paid by the word.”

That phrase is attributed, I believe, to an OUP editor. In my quality-checking role I have to take them seriously: of my sanity, only my friends and family can give you an unbiased opinion.

Two recurring issues in what I check are hyphenation and defining vs non-defining relative clauses. On the first, editors often leave out essential hyphens, e.g. “low-level” as a compound attributive adjective. With relative clauses, they often leave out the comma before a non-defining clause, an omission which often changes the meaning significantly.

'I'll agree to a fifty-fifty split, but I get the hyphen.'

‘I’ll agree to a fifty-fifty split, but I get the hyphen.’

One of the other things that editing papers by non-mother tongue (now, should there be a hyphen between “mother” and “tongue”? Opinions differ) speakers is that it tests my English to the limit, if not to destruction.

Sometimes it’s quite clear to me how I should reword; at others, I’m unsure either of whether my native-speaker intuition is going a bit wonky, or of whether I’m being unnecessarily picky. But then, as a lexicographer and translator by training, I’m preternaturally sensitive to the aura of individual words (how pretentious is that phrase?).

Usually, it’s not a question of grammar in the sense of basic word order (though placement of adverbial phrases can be an issue), verb agreement, or use of tenses (though that is a problem for speakers of some languages). Much more often difficulties arise either a) because a word with the wrong connotations is used, or b) because there is an incongruous combinations of words, a pairing that on the surface is as unlikely as Charles and Diana.

It’s all Dutch to me

When I come across a), I sometimes wonder whether the author has used either a not very good dictionary or a thesaurus. However, that cannot be true of one particular author, a Dutch academic – and very few nations are as good at English as the Dutch.

abreast_english_speakers

When they wrote “…were subject to the composer’s artistic ambition, and never on the receiving end of his gifts and affection” it is probably clear to most people what is wrong: you are usually “on the receiving end” of something unpleasant, so there is an obvious linguistic dissonance here, unless the intention was ironic, which is not what the surrounding context suggested.

The phrase has what is known in some circles as a “negative semantic prosody”. In confirmation of that, the Oxford online dictionary defines it thus:

to be the (unfortunate) recipient of some action, event, etc.; to be subjected to something unpleasant.

When the author wrote “In other words, both narratives testify to the common disposition to either sentimentalize or ridicule creativity…”, it was the word disposition that caught my eye. However, this is not such a cut-and-dried case.

It is perfectly correct in that it is a synonym for “tendency, inclination”, so what was wrong with it? I replaced it with tendency without second thoughts. You could say that was unnecessary, but I would maintain that in the interests of idiomatic English it was at least desirable.

Man proposes, God disposes

piv-57-s185-57-r43

Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting of the same title, commemorating the disastrous 1845 expedition to explore the Northwest passage in which all crew members died.

Now, coming back to it, it strikes me that it does not work for several reasons.

Meaning

First, the key difference is that semantically disposition seems usually to be something individual rather than collective.

The handful of examples in the online Oxford Dictionary tend to confirm its being an individual property:

the Prime Minister has shown a disposition to alter policies

the judge’s disposition to clemency

Subsequent lapses in devotion or attitude do not alter God’s disposition to save the individual.

True, the terms of entry were not clearly canvassed, but we may assume a clear disposition to favour New Zealand entry.

Religious reawakening was needed to strengthen people’s innate disposition to distinguish right from wrong.

  • The actors in the first three examples, dear old God included, are single individuals.
  • In the fourth, the actor is not specified, but we can assume that they were either a country or an institution viewed as an “honorary” person.
  • In the fifth example, the actor is a singular noun  with a collective meaning.

There is also something else to do with the meaning which I can’t exactly define, but it’s along the lines of a disposition being something psychologically inherent, possibly innate. That idea is supported by the type of discourse in which the word typically occurs.

Register/domain

From its usually being a property of individuals it follows that a disposition is unlikely to be “common”, as in the quotation by the Dutch academic.

In fact, in the corpus I consulted (the Oxford English Corpus, OEC), the collocation “common disposition” occurs only three times. One of them is in a quotation from  a translation of On The Duty of Man and Citizen According to the Natural Law (1673) by Samuel von Pufendorf, a German Enlightenment philosopher:

…so if we have examined the common disposition of men and their condition, it will be readily apparent upon what laws their welfare depends.

Book 1, Cap. 3, 1

That quotation has the weightiness of political philosophy. In the OEC, well over 60 per cent of the citations for disposition followed by an infinitive were from the Philosophy domain. Another 30 per cent were from Science or the Social Sciences. The preponderance of those contexts for the word provides another post hoc explanation of my decision.

So much for nuances of meaning. But what about odd collocations?

The interweb being what it is, images for “keeping abreast of ” were as you might imagine. As I like my images, this will have to do instead. abreast_mammogram-instagram-breast-cancer-awareness-reminders-ecards-someecards

In a paper I edited recently I was struck by the phrase “to keep abreast with…” With? My reaction was (Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed), as Private Eye would put it.

It’s abreast of, isn’t it? Pondering whether to change “with” to “of”, I had to be sure and checked in my corpus. You could ov knockt me down with a feather when I discovered that abreast of  in the relevant meaning cropped up only 7 times, but abreast with well over 100 times. I started to investigate further. While other corpora showed that the ratio above was far from representative, they also showed that there seem to be major regional differences in the use of the two collocations. This is something I will explore in the next blog.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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