09 June 2010

Stupid Editing Rules and "Cognitive Editing"

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log rants over the apparent editorial ban at The New Yorker on placing the subject of a sentence (however complex) after the verb "said" in reported speech; as in "'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter...," which The New Yorker (were this sentence to appear in a prose piece) would probably change to "'I doubt it,' the Carpenter said."

Or, as Pullum's technical description has it, The New Yorker evidently prohibits "subject postposing in a parenthetical report frame for directly reported speech, even when the quoted speech is preposed."  (Say that ten times fast and call the doctor in the morning.)

This leads to such monstrosities as:
"Galleries and magazines send him things, and he doesn't even open them," Zhao Zhao, a younger artist who works as one of Ai's assistants, said. [The New Yorker 24 May 2010 p.56]
"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says. [Larissa MacFarquhar, "The devil's accountant", The New Yorker,
March 31, 2003, p.67, column 2.]
Having worked professionally as an editor, I am painfully familiar with the editorial imperative to formulate and slavishly apply rules, regardless of whether they make any sense. When I was working at the Packard Humanities Institute in Cambridge (Mass) as senior editor of the complete works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing against the knee-jerk application of rules for which there seemed to be no rational ground, and making long arguments supported by copious evidence for the creation of rules that were based in sensible scholarly practice, clarity, intellectual consistency, and usability by the expected audience (musicians and scholars). I actually won quite a few of those arguments (perhaps because I'm like a dog with a bone, and won't let go); but on the other hand, I'm no longer employed there....

In editing my own work, or that of any other writer (I still edit the work of friends and clients as the occasion arises), I've recently come to call my approach "cognitive editing," which is just a highfalutin way of saying: edit (and write) in such as way as to assist the cognitive processes of your readers as they take in what you've written, and avoid or fix whatever may interfere unnecessarily with those processes. And that "whatever" covers everything from consistency of spelling and the use of punctuation, to larger issues of syntax, logic, and argument.

Both monstrosities from The New Yorker are excellent cautionary examples. By delaying the verb "says" until the end, as in the Christopher Hitchens example, the reader is left hanging in an attempt to parse the meaning. The reader expects a verb, but the very mental process of anticipating what the verb might be ("Christopher Hitchens....screams"? "Christopher Hitchens....mumbles disconsolately"? "Christopher Hitchens....sings"?) interferes with the brain's attempt to take in and remember what came before and after the initial cue for the subject position ("Christopher Hitchens").

On the page, we at least have the quotation marks to signal that someone (oh, I see, it's "Christopher Hitchens") is saying something. But imagine the sentence read aloud.  The cognitive complexity of interpreting what you have just heard by the time you get to "says" is so great that you will quite possibly miss the next sentence completely.

(I make no claim here, even implicitly, that there is any reason for the reader or listener to care what Christopher Hitchens says about anything. This simply makes a convenient example.)

I spend part of my week (a good portion of the paying part, as insignificant as that currently is) coaching singers. As I have worked in vocal coaching over the past few years, I have come to apply a very similar principle to diction in singing: the point is not the sound that you think you are singing, but rather what the listener hears.  When the text is cognitively dense or difficult (as poetic texts set to music sometimes are), then projection of consonants and avoidance of undue distortion of vowels (a chronic pitfall for singers) is crucial. On the other hand, when a word is redundantly marked in the text, by repetition, rhyme, and expectation, so that there is little potential for misunderstanding, then the singer has more leeway.

The other day I was coaching golden-voiced Avi in "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, which we're preparing from the full score of the show, not from the simplified sheet music. The last line of the number (sung in the show by the chorus) is "Laden with happiness and tears."  The word "tears" is held for ten quarter-note beats.  As any singer knows, the "ee" sound (i in IPA) is not the happiest one to have to sing for a long time, and it is complicated further here by the eventual alteration to the vowel by the following "r," and the need to project the "z" sound at the end of the word so that the audience can hear it.

But in this case, the audience has already heard the line once earlier on, and the very regular rhyme scheme makes clear that something is coming up that is going to rhyme with "years."  And it is also abundantly clear to the listener at this point that we're going to have a word that contrasts with "happiness." So the listener is very strongly primed to hear the word "tears," and it almost doesn't matter what vowel you sing. Thus as a singer, you can here safely open the vowel to something much more like an "eh" (IPA e or even ε), and no one (except perhaps another vocal coach) will be the wiser. And so, as a singer, you can "cheat" a little, in the service of making a much better sound on a long note, without in any way causing cognitive dissonance in your listeners.

So we might call that "cognitive vocal coaching"....

I have lots of openings in my coaching schedule, and my rates are cheap :-)

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1 comment:

  1. Your note about making no claim re the value of listening to Hitchens made me giggle.

    Fun read, thanks.