Critical Concepts

"Microscopic revision":

spotting & revising idiom glitches

[OR:  Why proofreading is really important]


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Students often think of proofreading as a kind of "spiffing up" or "polishing" of the expression of their thoughts. And, indeed, part of its job is to catch typographical errors - misspellings, double words, punctuation glitches, and the like. But the main business of proofreading is something far more essential, and goes on constantly, throughout the process of composition.

Consider the following sentence, which appeared in a student paper on the role of advent in the traditional Christian picture of history, written for the Introduction to Humanities Course "Baroque and Enlightenment":

(Ex. 1)  God will intervene with the happenings on earth as a way to carry out His plans using his omniscience (all knowing), omnipotence (all power), and omnibenevolence (all good).

If we scrutinize this carefully, we will notice that there are lots of ways in which the parts of this sentence don’t fit together. That is: there are a number of problems with the relationships between different ideas that are brought together to make the whole.

(1)  For one thing, the concepts in parentheses don’t fit with the concepts to which they are appended. <Note 1>  Parentheses here signify equivalence, yet the ideas inside the parentheses in each case are adjectival, whereas those they are invoked to paraphrase are substantive or nominal.

"All-knowing" is not a synonym for "omniscience."

The synonym for "omnipotence" is "all-powerfulness" or (perhaps more felicitous) "unlimited power"

"All-good" would be a synonym for "omnipotent."

(2)  God, it is said, "will intervene with the happenings on earth...." Test your ear on this. Does it the expression ring right? If you come to English from another language, you may not be able to tell. But if you grew up with English, you’ll probably register somewhere that this "somehow doesn’t sound quite right." And you’re right: it doesn’t.

But here’s where lots of novice writers make a big mistake:   they dismiss their intuition and read on. There are lots of rationalizations at hand that may make this seem the appropriate thing to do.

You can tell yourself that this awkwardness is just a property of writing in general for you:  "When I write," you may be tempted to say, "I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable, as opposed to when I just talk, which I’m used to.  This must just be because I’m reading what I’ve put in writing, rather than saying it spontaneously."  But think:  does this sound any better when you say it?  No, it doesn’t.  So something must be wrong with the explanation in this case.

You can tell yourself that the reason this idea sounds strange is that its simply new:   you haven’t thought it before, and novel ideas often sound odd on first acquaintance.  But ask yourself: is this indeed the first time you’ve heard of the idea you’re bringing forward in your paper here?  It may be, but it may also be that this is just a formulation you’re trying to devise of an idea that’s come up in class or in your readings that needs to be brought forward at this particular juncture in your analysis.

A better habit to cultivate is to take your ear as a native speaker seriously.  (I'm conceding, remember, that non-native speakers who haven't yet thoroughly saturated themselves in the language mau well not have registered the "glitch" in the first place.)  Perhaps you’ve learned to mistrust it because you know you speak one or another special dialect of English that varies from the standard English suitable for academic papers. Lots of us grew up saying "I ain’t" for "I’m not" and "He don’t" for "He doesn’t" and "He done screwed up bad" for "He screwed up badly." We may, for a while, be a little self-conscious when we have to appear "in new clothes," as it were. But it’s pretty simple to catch on quickly to the small number of features that characterize the dialect our head was formed in from the one we are expected to pick up for communicating on these other occasions.  And, besides, many people find it easier, in writing, to compose things in the dialect with which they are most intimately familiar, and then to go back over the whole thing in a separate phase at the end, to "translate" their particular idioms into the standard equivalents.

Be that as it may, in the case at hand, I’ll bet all of us <Note 2> have picked up the difference between the following pairs of cases:

(Ex. 2a)  The lawyer intervened with the authorities to obtain his client’s release.

(Ex. 2b)  Jim intervened with Billy to get him to quit arguing with Jane.


(Ex. 3a)  The lawyer intervened in the on-going case in order to get his client included as a plaintiff.

(Ex. 3b)  Jim intervened in the fight between Billy and Jane.

It’s unlikely that any of us have ever been taught in a formal way the rule that distinguishes these two sorts of cases. But almost certainly we will have internalized it nevertheless. That’s why we register a twitch when we process any of the following:

(Ex. 2c)  The lawyer intervened in the authorities to obtain his client’s release.

(Ex. 2d)  Jim intervened in Billy to get him to quit arguing with Jane.

(Ex. 3c)  The lawyer intervened with the on-going case to get his client included as a plaintiff.

(Ex. 3d)  Jim intervened with the fight between Billy and Jane.

If pressed, we could probably formulate the rule that distinguishes the kind of case where one intervenes with from the kind in which one intervenes in<Note 3>  We intervene with people, and we intervene in situations or processes or chains of events. But the point to emphasize here is that we don’t have to formulate a rule before we conform to it. With language, in fact, it is usually the other way round: when we do try to formulate a rule, it is a rule that has already been internalized by speakers of the language community. And they internalized it not by having it pointed out to them in an explicitly formulated rule, but by picking up that this difference between these sorts of situations is marked by that difference in vocabulary or idiom.

In the present context this means that we don’t have to consciously discover or recover whatever principle we are violating when we put words together in ways that don’t ring right. All we have to do is fiddle around until we hit upon something that does sound right.

(3)  There is a misfit, too, in the final phrase of the construction we are examining. The sentence has God "using his omnipotence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence." But these are not the kinds of things that we can "use" - or, alternatively, "using" is not the kind of thing that can be done to them. That’s why logicians and grammarians have developed the term "category error" or "category mistake" for referring to the kind of illogical or ungrammatical combination that this is an instance of.

Before returning to the particular idiom we are focusing on here, though, let’s take the time to get a bit more clear about what is at stake in general with this kind of fractured enjambment.  A category mistake is a special instance of category violation.  You should take the time now to work through the discussion of category violation.

Whether a category violation counts as an error depends on whether it is justified by higher considerations -- for example, wit or poetic figuration.  The category violations that frustrate clarity in writing are almost always inadvertent, and thus count as instances of category mistake.

Now here are some far more subtle category errors - "live" instances, in fact, actually committed by native speakers of English in papers I have read. I’ve mixed them in, though, with perfectly legitimate idioms. Can you tell which combinations work and which don’t? There’s no need to try to formulate a rule. Just listen to your "ear for English."

(Ex. 4)  He was unable to answer my question.

(Ex. 5)  Jim undertook to solve the question of waste disposal.

(Ex. 6)  The City Council took up the question of waste disposal.

(Ex. 7)  Mr. Jackson taught us how to solve various trigonometry problems.

(Ex. 8)  Legalizing marijuana is one solution to the question of crowded prisons.

(Ex. 9)  Before we can solve the problem of unemployment, we need answers to a number of questions.

(Ex. 10)  Before we can answer the problem of unemployment, we need solutions to a number of problems.

(Ex. 11)  Before I can answer your question about your financial position, I need to solve a number of math problems.

(Ex. 12)  Before we can answer that question, we need to resolve a number of conceptual issues.

If you are a native speaker of English (or one who has mastered English as a second language), you will have no trouble picking out the combinations that work from the ones that don’t.  Neither would the people (all native speakers of English) who put them to paper and let them pass.  Their own "English-equipment" tells them (unconsciously) that questions have (or don’t have) answers and problems have (or don’t have) solutions - and that "wires have gotten crossed" in Exs. 5, 8, and 10, above.  It is just that they found a way to ignore the signals their equipment sent them that something wasn’t right. This is something we want to teach ourselves never to do.

Let’s now return to the passage with which we are working. Up to now we have tinkered it into the following form:

(Ex. 1a)  God will intervene in the happenings on earth as a way to carry out His plans using his omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

As you can guess, the following re-formulation was not reached in a single leap!  It involves three changes, and each of them was arrived at by trial and error.

(Ex. 1b)  He might, in His omnipotence, carry out the plan that He has formulated under His omniscience as an expression of His omnibenevolence.

Note that the yoking concepts (is, under, as an expression of) are different, for the different properties, and that they connect the properties in turn to different other elements within the overall claim. Here’s an alternative worth considering. Which would be preferable would depend on exactly what you wanted to say and (perhaps) on which rhythmically fitted in better with the preceding and succeeding sentences.

(Ex. 1c)  He might, in His omnipotence, carry out the plan that, in His omniscience, He has formulated as an expression of His benevolence.

Or even:

(Ex. 1d)  He might, in His omnipotence, carry out the plan He has formulated in His omniscience and benevolence.

The point I want to make by taking you through this excursion is that it takes some care and reflection to figure out exactly what you must want to say in such cases. And this is not because you are an inexperienced writer, as if experienced writers were not plagued by these matters in the first place. On the contrary, the difference between experienced and inexperienced writers is that experienced ones know that they can arrive at the point they really want to make only be a process of tinkering their way through successive revisions. There is no other way.

It is only at the end of such a process that we recognize an idea that we can accept committing ourselves to.  This we declare "what I wanted to say all along."  But it is not true that all along we knew what it was - or at least not in any sense of "knowing" that involves conscious explicitness. <Note 4>  That is something we can discover only along the way.

The problem in writing, then, is not "learning to express our ideas clearly" - as if we already had a clear conception in mind and only needed to find words for it! <Note 5>  The problem is rather

to learn how to recognize when a formulation (an idea) is unclear, or inaccurate, or nonsensical  <Note 6> or inconsistent in its implications with the implications of something we’ve said somewhere else, and

to get used to experimenting with formulations in order to remedy features of the formulations in front of us that strike us as unacceptable.

In other words, the road to becoming a better writer lies in becoming a more demanding reader, and in accepting that ideas are arrived at in the process of writing itself.  Thinking is not something "prior" that writing expresses.  Writing is something that enables us to arrive at thoughts - thoughts we would want to have - better thoughts than the ones we have to begin with.  As the novelist E.M. Forster once shrewdly remarked:  "How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I’ve said?"  If we don’t like what we see, that only means we don’t like what we thought.  And that puts us in a position to discover, by tinkering, a thought more suitable to claim for our own.


Note 1:  For one thing, the concepts in parentheses don’t fit with the concepts to which they are appended   --  A separate question is whether much is gained here by inserting these clarifications anyway.  Do we really need them?  Why not save the alternative vocabulary for elsewhere in the essay where a variant expression might come in handy?   Return.

Note 2:  all of us   --  Well, almost all of us.  Again, I have to stress that I'm not including those of us who did not grow up speaking English or who have been hearing and speaking English for only a short time.  Those of us who are still in the process of picking up English as a second language are naturally going to take a while to "tune our ears" to such details.  Prepositions (really, verb + preposition idioms) are notoriously tripping points for anyone trying to learn a foreign language.  English-speakers find it odd that, in Spanish, one "dreams with wealth" (sueña con riqueza) instead of dreaming of it.  And, in trying to navigate in German, they go through a period in which they can't remember whether ich freue mich über dein Geschenk or ich freue mich an deinem Geschenk or ich freue mich auf dein Geschenk -- whether, that is, they "are ever so pleased with" your present, or "derive a lot of pleasure from " it, or "are looking forward to receiving" it.  Return.

Note 3:  If pressed, we could probably formulate the rule that distinguishes the kind of case where one "intervenes with" from the kind in which one "intervenes in."   --  Foreign language teachers offer the useful advice that it works better to commit to memory the whole phrase ("intervene with," "intervene in") as a distinct "word" rather than to try to store the verb as an independent item and then to try to remember, as additional pieces of information about it, when one uses one proposition with it and when one uses another.  Return.

Note 4:  The problem in writing, then, is not "learning to express our ideas clearly" - as if we already had a clear conception in mind and only needed to find words for it!  --  There are of course many kinds of tacit knowledge.  In fact we have just been stressing the importance of one kind:  your grammatical knowledge of your native language (and of any other language you have learned to an important degree outside of formal schooling).  Return.

Note 5:  as if we already had a clear formulation in mind and only needed to find words for it  --  The case is different if we are working in what is for us a foreign language.  There, our first formulations may often occur to us in our native language, and we will confront the problem of recasting them in the target language.  We may indeed have to struggle to find some reasonably equivalent formulation.  (Translators know, too, that it is usually a mistake to try to translate even phrase by phrase:  more often it is the whole sentence, or more, for which an "equivalent" must be sought.)  We can genuinely speak here of "translating our thoughts from one medium (the source language) to another (the target language).

       What we need to be clear about here, though, is that it is a deeply false analogy to think of original composition (i.e., within a given language) as a matter of "translating from the medium of thought into the medium of language."  A bilingual helper can ask someone who's having trouble translating what the thought is that he's having trouble putting in the target language.  She will get an answer - in the source language.  But if a native speaker of English tells me his problem is that he has good thoughts but has trouble putting them in English, he's fooling himself.  I will ask him, "What is this thought you're having trouble putting in English?" and he will be tempted to say, "Well, if I could say what it was, I wouldn't be having the trouble I'm telling you about!"  To which I would reply, "Is this a visual thought you have - an image of a scene you're trying to describe?  Or is it a sound you're hearing, like a piece of music, or a noise?"  If he then tells me, "No, it's an idea," I will point out, "Well, you're telling me you have an idea that's not in language.  That's quite remarkable!  Are you sure it's an idea after all?  Isn't it made out of concepts?  And are you telling me you have clear concepts that aren't already in the medium of language?"  In the end, the only advice I can give is:  Why don't you put something down and then we can see what you like or don't like about it."  Once we get something on paper (or on a tape recorder), we can look it over (or play it back) and see if we are satisfied with it.

      Suppose he says, "But that's all fouled up," or "But that's a muddle," or "But that doesn't square with what I said a page back.  So that's not what I had in mind."  I'll say, "Why don't you just say that that was indeed the idea you had in mind, and that you've just seen why you don't want that to continue to be your idea - that your idea (and not just "the expression of" it) was muddled?"  Suppose he then says, "Well, if that's the case, what am I to do?  Start all over from scratch?"  I'd have to say, "That seems a waste of good effort.  Why not start with the idea you've got and fix the feature that you're dissatisfied with.  There's very likely something here tha'll end up being a part of whatever it is you're driving at."  Maybe another problem will arise with the new formulation.  Well, then tinker that one out, when it shows itself.  And so on.  The point is:  we back into the idea we eventually declare to be, provisionally, suitable.  It isn't the idea that we started with.  And there's simply no other way for us to arrive at it than by a process of successive revision.  Return.

Note 6:  when a formulation (an idea) is ... nonsensical - In the present memo, we have been concentrating on a highly localized variety of nonsensical formulation.  Return.

 Analyze some examples of category errors touching on the concept of psychological repression.

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  This page last updated 12 January 1999.