Sic

A Wikipedia list of famous speeches includes this entry:

1873: The “Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” speech by Susan B. Anthony, who in her effort to introduce women’s suffrage into the United States asked her fellow citizens “how can the “consent of the governed” be given if the right to vote be [sic] denied?”

That little “[sic]” there is the pedant’s favorite mark; and it’s always a dangerous one, because the pedant may easily find himself hoist by his own petard (the petard was apparently some sort of Elizabethan hoisting device, probably an ancestor of the modern forklift). The Editor is a card-carrying pedant himself, but years of embarrassment have at last taught him not to be quite such a showoff.

“Sic” is Latin for “thus”; it’s most often used to indicate that a mistake is in the original quoted material, and hasn’t been introduced by the current writer. In this case, however, Susan B. Anthony didn’t do anything wrong. She was using the subjunctive form of “to be,” which in the nineteenth century was correct in a clause beginning with “if.” Besides, the Wikipedia editor has neglected to change the quotation marks around “consent of the governed” to single quotes (since it’s a quotation within a quotation), in one sentence committing an obvious error and mistakenly marking a correct construction as an error.

What’s the moral here? You can avoid embarrassment by using “[sic]” sparingly, if at all. If your quotation has an obvious typing error, just correct it silently. If the quotation is ungrammatical, let the error stand without remark, as long as the meaning is clear. You’ve protected your own reputation enough by putting it in quotation marks.

Which Is the Real English?

Here, from the BBC, is an interesting article on Americanisms. But it ends with a completely incorrect conclusion.

Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version—the original version—of the English language.

Almost everyone makes this assumption: that the British dialect of English is “the original version.” And almost everyone is wrong. Americans did not simply invent a new language on July 4, 1776. They continued to speak the English they had been speaking on July 3—the same English they had brought with them across the Atlantic. Their tradition is as old as England’s. In fact, American English is in general far more conservative than British English, especially in grammar and punctuation. (We do like to invent new words for things, but we put them into what look like eighteenth-century sentence structures to a modern English reader.)

This is merely an observation: it doesn’t affect much of what you actually write. Use good American English if you’re writing for an American audience, and good British English if you’re writing for a British audience. Be aware of the differences if you’re writing for an international audience.

But, if you’re an American, don’t think that British usage is somehow more original or correct than established American usage. It isn’t. They’re two dialects that have evolved in parallel from the same immemorial tradition. Use your own standard American English, and be confident that you’re quite correct to do so.

Memorandum, Memoranda

One memorandum, two memoranda. “Memorandum” is a Latin neuter (it means “a thing to be remembered”), and Latin neuters in -um change to –a in the plural. So this is wrong:

Wrong example: The notebooks were filled with memorandum to himself on things to look further into…

Change it to: The notebooks were filled with memoranda to himself on things to look further into…

Some spelling checkers (including the one the Editor is using right now) recognize “memorandum” but not “memoranda,” suggesting “memorandum” as a correction. Hold fast to your principles and ignore your spelling checker.

“Memorandums” is also possible as a plural, but might get you sneers from the pedants. “Memos” is shorter, simpler, and more friendly. “Notes” is shorter, simpler, and English.

UPDATE: Although the Editor wrote that “memos” would be a good short form for “memoranda,” second thoughts have suggested to him that “memo” in American English has a specialized meaning: it tends to make us think of a message circulated in an office, rather than something written down to be remembered later. “Notes” is probably the best short alternative to “memoranda.”

Vis-a-Vis

There is never a reason to use this trendy phrase in technical writing. In French it literally means “face to face,” and it has a grave accent over the A: “vis-à-vis.” One of its primary English meanings is “in relation to,” and there’s the problem. Executives love to use it to say “A in relation to B” without specifying what the relation of A to B is. It is the business of executives to avoid responsibility, so the term is perfect for them. The business of a technical writer, on the other hand, is to make things as clear as possible, so we avoid “vis-a-vis.”

Some writers use “vis-a-vis” as a synonym for “vs.,” which is simply wrong. The abbreviation vs. stands for the Latin versus, meaning “against.”

The other reason to avoid “vis-a-vis” is that it tempts pedantic types to show off their French pronunciation, and the showoffs usually get it wrong. It’s true that most final consonants aren’t pronounced in French. However, if the next word begins with a vowel, that dropped final consonant attaches itself to the following vowel and ends up being pronounced after all. (Well, usually. Three times out of four.) This expression is pronounced “vee-zah-VEE,” not “vee-ah-VEE,” the way pedantic showoffs often pronounce it. And the fact that the Editor feels superior to those pedantic showoffs probably makes him a double pedantic showoff, but that doesn’t bother him as much as you might think it would.

Phenomenon, Phenomena

One phenomenon, two phenomena. Greek neuter nouns that end in -on change to -a in the plural.

You need to know this because the word phenomenon stubbornly refuses to go completely native. No one has the courage to write “phenomenons” as the plural. But because few of us know classical Greek, writers often get it backwards, taking “phenomena” as the singular. The Editor has even seen overzealous journalists putting a snooty “[sic]” after the correct singular use of “phenomenon” in a quotation.

Once again, as long as phenomenon clings to its Greek heritage, phenomenon is the singular and phenomena is the plural. When it at last decides to apply for English citizenship, the plural will be phenomenons.

Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens, the scientific name of the human species, is singular. “I am only one Homo sapiens,” you would say. It means, literally, “wise man,” or “knowing man” (sapiens is a present participle), which shows you how full of ourselves we are. In Latin, the plural would be homines sapientes, but in English the plural seems to have settled down to Homo sapiens, the same as the singular.

There is no such term as “Homo sapien.” This frequent error comes from our simplistic English assumption that any word ending in an S must be plural.