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!

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