26-odd years online and many more years engaged in typography later, the single quote that’s been hardest for me to locate is as follows – and required about a year of searching despite telling myself I keep a copy of everything. Apparently not. (Emphasis added.)

In my train book, for example, after a few pages discussing the fate of Italian railways under Nazi occupation, I begin a new paragraph

2,104 railwaymen died in the war.

and find this changed to

A total of 2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.

What is the sense of “A total of”? Surely it’s not a requirement of Americanization. What does it add? The idea of my counting up the dead? To my ear the bare number has exactly the brutal eloquence that such statements demand. And how could the reader get his war wrong when we’d just been talking Mussolini and Hitler? When I cut “A total of” I find the sentence reappearing in the proofs thus:

In the Second World War, 2,104 railwaymen died[..]

One hardly needs to go to a creative-writing class to appreciate that this formulation has less rhetorical force than “2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.”

Seeing this second rejection of my version, and since I can’t imagine the poor copy editor (who is actually a very fine editor, I think) deliberately making his job longer than it need be,

The surprise here is that the editor was male. It is copy-editrixen who try to impose the dumbest rules.

I have to presume that some house style forbids me from opening a paragraph with a number. Why? This whole question may seem a quite different matter from the contrast between Americans Americanizing and Europeans accepting Americanisms, but the truth is that house style is a much more common occurrence in the US and more aggressively enforced, to the point that when one rereads work one has written for the New Yorker it no longer seems like your voice at all. I can think of no similar experience with English or European magazines,

because you haven’t written for the Economist (I have).

And yes, you can begin a sentence with a number, a conjunction, a minuscule, nested quotation marks with thin spaces between them, nested brackets and parentheses (maybe also followed by quotes), an ellipsis, an em dash (not en; indicates interruption), and, self-evidently, an emoji.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2018.05.01 12:19. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

(Values you enter are stored and may be published)



None. I quit.

Copyright © 2004–2024