There were many reasons to enjoy the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) last September.
Hobnobbing with editorial mates and making new ones. Singing with the Linnets editorial choir. The opportunity to see two of my most admired writers on language speak on the same day. Oliver Kamm, “The Pedant” columnist in The Times and scourge of language sticklers everywhere. [“You at the back, Humphrys, concentrate!”] And Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at Edinburgh University, co-author of the best English grammar book there is, and evidence-based language realist and scientist beyond surpass.
At this point I have to make what amounts to a confession, in light of the previous paragraph.
I am one of millions who has enjoyed, been influenced by, read and re-read, quoted, referenced and taken to heart George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. I even wrote my first Prism-Clarity blog on it. The same essay that Oliver and Geoff are on a conscious mission to debunk, rebut and vilify, on grounds of intellectual dishonesty, stylistic inconsistency and – on the linguistics front – naivety at best, incompetence at worst.
Hmmm. How to reconcile these conflicting life forces? Satan and God. Sun and rain. Oliver, Geoff and George.
The question of whether to use one character space or two after a full stop is controversial for such a mild and unimportant topic.
It is also generational: kind of ‘baby boomers vs millennials’, as so many inter-generational disagreements are.
Don’t ask the Gen X-ers: they will probably just roll their eyes and shrug, as they do with all other disagreements between baby boomers and millennials.
In all seriousness it doesn’t matter too much. Although some advocates for each would argue that the other looks untidy, it is really a matter of fashion. Not grammar certainly, not usage, and barely style. Just fashion.
Which is not to say it is trivial. Content professionals can take it very seriously. Style guides carry opinions on it. It is worth knowing chapter and verse so you can make an informed decision.
But if someone who has decision-making authority over a piece of content – which could be a writer, a content director, an editor or even a publisher – really holds to the other one, let them. It really doesn’t matter. As long as they hold to it consistently and it is an unequivocal feature of their house or individual style guide.
‘Readability metrics are not worth the paper they’re not written on.’
This was a quote from Professor Geoffrey Pullum at the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference in September 2017, and it’s the only thing Geoff Pullum has ever said that I disagree with.
In November 2016 I wrote a blog explaining the main readability metrics, Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid and the like, and making a case that there is value in these metrics for writers and editors. They’re not sufficient, they’re not even necessary, but they are useful – in context, and if their limitations are understood and accepted.
I put forward this opinion in a 5-minute lightning talk at the same SfEP conference where Geoff had earlier expressed his less complimentary view.
The rest of this blog outlines some of the thoughts behind my SfEP talk, and goes on to propose a new simplified metric (‘the Pix’) to use alongside Flesch-Kincaid. Pix is derived from three measures which are routinely used by Yoast SEO but are not in the Flesch family of metrics.