Changing Usage—February Meeting Report

by Grace Seybold

Early in our February 8 discussion of changing usage, the subject of Google’s Ngram Viewer came up. Carla Douglas used the twig’s new “projector” (a.k.a. cheap TV) to demonstrate how to track changes in language usage with this site, which scans a corpus of 155 billion words of English published since 1800 and plots frequency statistics by year. This was the first some of us had heard of Ngram; others had used it before, either to investigate a usage change or to check for anachronisms when editing fiction, since it shows when a word or phrase entered the realm of publication. (We learned, for instance, that “scumbag” only entered general use in the 1960s, with only a very few scattered occurrences earlier—not what fans of gangster movies might have guessed!)


Nancy Wills explained how she confirmed that the use of “scumbag” in the dialogue of a novel set in the 1940s that she was editing was an anachronism. (Its use is plotted on the blue line, which begins to rise in the mid-1960s. The red line shows that the open variant, “scum bag,” remains rare.)

One can specify a particular subset of the corpus; for instance, searching only British English publications for the words “towards” and “toward” shows “towards” to have been the clear favourite for the past two centuries, whereas the American English record begins with roughly the same proportions, but “toward” soon grows in popularity as “towards” declines, the two lines crossing in 1898 and “toward” being the more common term thereafter. (Most style guides agree that there’s no difference in meaning between them, and both are perfectly acceptable.)

It’s a fascinating program to play with, and something that many of us are probably going to be looking into further. Some questions were raised about possible shortcomings; for instance, the corpus is made up of whatever volumes have been scanned into Google Books, so that may tend to weight the data in favour of bound books (versus things like magazines and newspapers) and thus may not reflect actual usage by the population in general, particularly for the earlier sections of the corpus. Copyright issues, in which Google Books is perennially embroiled, will primarily affect which books have made it into the later sections, and may bias the data in unexpected directions. But it’s still an awful lot of words, and there’s a great deal of interesting analysis to be made.


The gang at the February 8 meeting (minus twig coordinator Ellie Barton, who took the photo).

We then talked about some knotty grammatical questions, such as the use of “comprise” and “compose,” and the difference in meaning between “compared to” and “compared with.” (In case you’re wondering, the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage explains that “compare to,” according to many usage commentators, is appropriate in a context where it can be replaced with “liken”: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” It’s used when the focus of the sentence is on one thing that is being compared to another thing in the manner of a simile. “Compare with” is used when the focus of the sentence is on both of the things in question and the relative value thereof: “The critic compared the book with the movie.” “However,” the Guide goes on to say, “Canadians do not appear to observe this distinction, even in formal writing.”)

Another usage issue that most of those present had encountered frequently was the rapid change of group names. The evolving use of Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native/First Nations/First Peoples has left many style guides obsolete almost before they’re published, and likewise the use of LGBTTIA2Q and the many variants thereof. Since there’s no central governing linguistic authority in either case, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what the appropriate term should be; asking members of the group in question is generally the polite thing to do, but may still evoke multiple answers.

The meeting ended with a discussion of style guides, including a plug from Lee d’Anjou for the consistently entertaining Chicago Q&A, and the need for a really up-to-date Canadian dictionary—an issue that Editors Canada has made it a project to address, so keep watching this space!

Association News

  • The Editors Canada conference is in Ottawa this year, June 9 through 11. Accommodations are going fast because it’s Canada’s 150th birthday, so if you’re thinking of going, don’t leave finding somewhere to stay till the last minute!
  • Editors Canada is making this year to marketing and recruitment, with a much more significant budget for this area than in the past, even though it means running a deficit. Editors Canada membership is on the rise after several years of decline and about two years of remaining steady, and the executive feels that, with many new services, a modern website, and improvements to member communications, the organization is poised to grow again in a significant way.
  • Don’t forget about the Editors Canada webinar series! Coming up on February 22 is Microsoft Styles, and on March 4 & 5 From Wordiness to Plain Language: Editing with Style, taught by Editors Canada Fairley Award winner Kathryn Dean.

Coming Up at Editors Kingston

  • Next month’s meeting (Wednesday, March 8) will focus on editing theses, with a presentation by twig regular and experienced thesis editor Angela Pietrobon and one of her recent clients, Reena Kukreja.
  • As a smaller-scale follow-up on the success of our Authors Talk Editing event last spring At the April 12 meeting, Ellie will interview Kingston author Diane Schoemperlen, who has written both fiction and memoir and has also worked as an editor.
  • On May 27, the twig will host a workshop: Word for Editors, taught by Editors Kingston founder and tech teacher extraordinaire Adrienne Montgomerie. It will be a full-day class held at the Tett Centre, with lunch included. Participants will bring their own laptops. Pricing and registration details coming soon!

Coming Up February 8: Changing Usage Round Table


Cuneiform Messenger Tablet

As language professionals, we know that language is always evolving—as it should. Keeping up with the current language in the fields we work in, and making judgment calls about when a particular evolving usage is acceptable, are things that editors do every day.

Bring one or two interesting issues that you’ve encountered to the table for discussion, and any questions about evolving usage that you’d love to have input on from your colleagues.

For example: Has your employer recently changed “First Nations” to “indigenous people” on its style sheet? Have you recently decided “if I was in charge” is okay where you once would have insisted on “if I were in charge”? Do most of the texts you edit (or write or read) now accept the singular “they”?

Have you ever used the Google Ngram viewer to find out how the frequence of a word’s use has changed over time?

What other resources do you turn to for guidance in evolving usage?

*Image: “Cuneiform Tablet: Messenger Tablet by Neo-Sumerian” via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, licensed under CC0 1.0

Come Join Us!

When: February 8, 7 to 9 p.m. Doors open at 6:30.
Where: Ongwanada Resource Centre, 191 Portsmouth Ave.

Editors Kingston members and visitors welcome.

Coming in March—Editing Theses

Self-Publishing Panel ─ January Meeting Report

Three Takes on Self-Publishing

by Gregory Murphy


Stacey Atkinson (just left of screen) discusses the steps of self-publishing a book as fellow panellists Bob MacKenzie and Carla Douglas (right of screen) and Editors Kingston members and guests listen.

This year, Old Man Winter has enjoyed turning Ontario’s sidewalks and roads into hazardous snow-and-ice-encrusted traps. Some of us editors come from afar to take part in our Kingston gatherings, and it would have been reasonable to skip out, planning to go to the next one, if Winter had been at it again on Wednesday, January 11. But he wasn’t. In fact, it was a beautiful day. What a slice of good luck for us, helping to ensure a fantastic turnout!

Our meeting room at Ongwanada Resource Centre was full, and many were jostling for space in any nook and cranny offering a view of our panellists and their presentations. We all came with an appetite to learn about self-publishing from our three knowledgeable panellists: Stacey Atkinson, who travelled from Ottawa, and Kingston’s own Bob MacKenzie and Carla Douglas.

Stacey Atkinson

Stacey has been a word lover for much of her life. After spending several years writing her first book, Stuck, a YA novel, she started her own self-publishing company, Mirror Image Publishing. While on this venture, Stacey found an affection for editing, among many other skills important to self-publishing authors, such as book design, typesetting, and marketing.

At first she wanted to publish traditionally. Then she chose to self-publish because of the control it allowed her to keep over her work. Quickly she realized that self-publishing, though rewarding overall, is no walk in the park. She promoted her work endlessly in person and online on social media, creating several websites as vehicles for promotion. To drive traffic to her websites, which also advertise her editing services, among others, she did her research, learning SEO (search engine optimization) techniques. (In response to a question, Stacey explained that SEO includes finding and using keywords and content that work together to help move her websites up the stack on search engine results pages when curious authors type search queries to find her.) She learned how to use InDesign and how to format manuscripts for sale online as ebooks.

What’s important about knowing all these skills, she said, is that many shtpab_logo-jpeg-largeelf-publishing authors who believe they are looking strictly for editing also need help with the many other processes through which their self-publishing journey will take them.

Stacey is the creator of the online course How to Publish a Book.

Bob MacKenzie

Bob has been self-publishing since his youth, in the sixties. With him he brought his first self-published work, a small white volume of poetry titled Reflections, which came into the world in 1966 and was sold for one dollar. He was nineteen. Bob regarded it fondly, pointing out the volume’s quirks, such as the old plastic spiral binding, which was, as he put it, “new technology” at the time.self-publishing-bob

Then he pulled out many of his other self-published works: more volumes of poetry, short stories, novellas, and novels, all created under his publishing imprint, Dark Matter Press. Bob was not only the writer of these but did much of the other work himself in bringing them to life. But he didn’t hesitate to ask for help from others when he needed it. This was one of Bob’s key takeaways of the night. For example, he acknowledged he isn’t a skilled artist, so it isn’t unusual for him to bring an artist aboard to help a project soar. His advice was to ask for help when you need it: there are many components to self-publishing; trying to do it all on your own, when you’re unfamiliar with something, may work only to the detriment of the project.

Carla Douglas

carla-douglas-headshotx175Carla, along with her colleague Corina Koch MacLeod (who has been part of the Editors Kingston community but wasn’t at this gathering), is an adept self-publisher. With Corina she has written literacy  workbooks. Don’t Panic 2.0: On-the-go Practice for the OSSLT was one such book. The pair wrote and self-published it for sale as an ebook, and formatted it for use on smartphones and tablets. However, they found that students were instead gravitating toward its paper copies. Carla said the lesson learned was that certain projects work better in certain formats; it’s important to know the needs and wants of the readership.

Carla and Corina have also written, produced, and 4164rvcvzjlpublished The Ebook Style Guide and You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Published Authors.

Carla’s tips were to stay informed about developments in the publishing industry; to be aware that the worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing are merging; to learn about fonts, typefaces, ebook formatting, and other essential pools of knowledge; and to be prepared, as an editor, to coach authors through the process.

Coming Up February 8: Changing Usage in Your World

How has the evolution of English affected your work lately? Let’s compare notes and share experiences.

Association News

  • This year the Editors Canada conference will be in Ottawa in June. Keep an eye open for our upcoming webinars:

February 22: Introduction to Microsoft Office Word Styles

March 4 and 5: From Wordiness to Plain Language: Editing with Style

March 6: La correction d’épreuves de manuels

March 15: Good Grammar: It’s More Than Gut Feel

For more information on webinar synopses, scheduled times, and prices, see the Editors Canada webinars page.

  • Editors Canada also recently held a free webinar hosted by Greg Ioannou on maximizing the impact of an Online Directory of Editors profile. (The ODE is a marketing tool that helps Editors Canada members.) connect with clients and employers.) A recording soon be available for streaming.
  • The National Executive Council has struck a task force, led be executive director Paul Yip-Chuck, to explore the creation of a new Canadian dictionary. This is only the very first stages of what would be a huge, long-term project. But it looks like we’re not getting a new dictionary any other way, so we’re going to work on it.