Tuesday 6 February 2007

On being behind the CEEns 2

By Easter 1984 it had become apparent that, if I was to continue with the proposal to write The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (CEL), I had to find more time from somewhere. And I had to continue. The encyclopedia had become one of those projects which fill your mind. Supported by the enthusiasm of the people at Cambridge University Press, I was more convinced than ever that such a book would meet a real need. I wanted to immerse myself in it - but there was no time. I had written just a handful of pages in six months, and there seemed no chance of the university situation ever improving. Indeed, it was getting worse.

British universities in the early 1980s had found themselves in a series of Thatcher-government-inspired staffing cuts. Like everyone else, I had received several letters from the Reading University authorities asking me whether I would like to take voluntary early retirement. There were generous cash incentives. I had never conceived of myself wanting to take advantage of this scheme - but that was while it was possible to preserve a balance betwen teaching, research, writing, and administration. That balance had gone, by 1984. I decided to apply.

And was turned down. The vice-chancellor of the time decided, in his wisdom, that the scheme was not right for people in a department (linguistics) which was actually making some money for the university. That scheme is not for you, he said. But by then I had already, in my mind, made the decision to leave. So I resigned anyway.

It was a risk, undoubtedly. Once you decide to earn a living as a writer, there is a delay before you get a return - and of course there may never be a return! I didn't stop lecturing completely. There was still part-time work around. But I did escape from the burden of administration. And that meant I could get on with the encylopedia - once we'd moved house. By the autumn of 1984 I was working seriously on the project, spending about half my time on it. I carried on in this way through 1985, and by mid-1986 the writing was very largely done - though there were a very large number of changes to be made as proofs came through, and design drafts had to be rethought. The book eventually came out in November of 1987.

It did very well, and after a few years the Press was beginning to think that perhaps a follow-up book would do just as well. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL) wasn't my idea: it was the inspiration of Adrian du Plessis, the director of Cambridge Reference. He suggested it early in 1990, and as soon as he had done so it seemed an obvious project. Moreover, there had been a change of mood at the Press about encyclopedia-type projects which made the project even more attractive. Full colour was on the table.

Rewind a decade. When CUP took on CEL (sentences came to be stuffed with acronyms, as the years passed) they had done so with enthusiasm - but also with caution. As nobody had published such a book before, there was a concern to keep the costs well under control. The price of pictures was phenomenal, for example. To use just one Snoopy cartoon or a single frame from a Star Wars film would cost about £100 each. I wanted one of Yoda for the syntax chapter, to illustrate unusual word orders - well, who better? 'Sick have I become'. It cost the earth. Indeed, it cost so much that we had to get special permission from the Press to use it. And I'm told that one of the governing body, unused to seeing such aliens in a book published by Cambridge University Press, asked (in a critical tone) 'Is this the first time the Press has published a picture of a little green man?' (To which my answer would have been, 'No, you've already published Gawain and the Green Knight'.)

I also wanted the book to be in full colour - maps, for example, can really only be done in four colours - but this was felt to be excessive, and we settled for the limited use of a second colour, red. It did present problems - not least by having to explain in a caption, from time to time, what the colours were in a picture which depended on them for its effect.There's a good example on p. 398 of the first edition, where the colours in chimp communication symbols are missing - compare p. 402 of the second edition.

But CEL had done so well that the market for an English-language equivalent seemed assured, and the press was confident that a full-colour book would be viable. And once you have colour at your disposal, throughout a book, you would be a fool not to make as much use of it as possible. That is why CEEL has so many more illustrations than CEL, and why there are so many full-page illustrations. Black-and-white reproductions often fail to convey the relevant information, especially in historical texts. I remember going through my whole undergraduate career wondering what a page of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle really looked like.

So I was keen to get going on CEEL, and worked up a prospectus and some sample spreads in early 1990. Then other things got in the way (in the form of the Cambridge Concise Encyclopedia, which was at an advanced stage of preparation at the time, and the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, which was in its earliest stages of planning), and it didn't prove possible to get on with CEEL until the middle of 1992. These editorial projects meant that CEEL could be only a half-time commitment, more or less, and it took me a good two years before the book was complete.

The book was written 'left-to-right'. I started on page 1 and worked through until the end. At the same time, the spreads, as they were completed, were sent to the press for typesetting, so that the pictures could be sized and the text trimmed as we went along. We had learned from the CEL experience that this was likely to be a more efficient production process - and so it proved to be. But from an authorial point of view, it was trickier. It meant that the content of each page, and the sequence of pages, had to be worked out very precisely in advance. There would be no opportunity to revise the earlier pages at a later stage. It was an unusual experience - to be writing page 150, for instance, while page 1 was in proof and being indexed - and it was a challenge for the in-house production controller to keep up with where everything was. But it worked.

The cover was an interesting experience. It took ages to get right. The 'face' was made of papier mache. The first model looked like a frightening alien. They wanted something placid and not off-puutting, so they tried again. Then it looked too male. Then too female. Eventually they got the right balance. The design was all done before the days of computer typesetting: you could do the whole thing on screen today. In the mid-80s it all had to be done for real and by hand. Each of those letter-bands running across the page was a cardboard cut-out. everything had to be placed precisely so that the photograph worked. It was all done in a studio in Cambridge. The various bits and pieces were precariously balanced on milk-crates!

And then the wheel turned full circle. In 1997 appeared the second edition of CEL. And what is the main difference between the two editions? The use of colour. The appearance of colourful CEEL had immediately made the second-colour CEL seem dull, by comparison. It had been almost a decade since the first edition, and the subject had moved on. So when the decision was made to have a new edition, I was at last offered the full colour I had originally hoped for. All the pictures had to be researched again, of course (every one - it took a year), but the result was most rewarding - and at last the maps look right. Those early green ideas - to adapt a linguistic catch-phrase of the 1960s - are now most colourful, and are no longer sleeping furiously.

The second edition of CEEL wasn't as complex. The main change was the addition of the Internet material. But how to show that on the front cover? The publisher wanted a redesign to include something modern and teccie. I didn't want to lose my Starship Enterprise, which was there to cock a snook at split infinitives. The solution? If you look carefully, you will see it on the screen of the mobile phone.

On being behind the CEEns 1

The question I am asked most frequently concerning my two language encyclopedias, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (known as CEL /sel/ and CEEL /si:l/ for short), is: how long did it take to write them? Surprisingly - unlike most books, anyway - it is an almost impossible question to answer, and in this post and the next I'll explain why.

One thing most people don't know is that there almost wasn't a CEL. The original idea for such a book came about like this. In 1979, a young relative, still at school, was thinking what subjects to study at university. He was interested in languages, so he asked me for advice. Was there an interesting book on linguistics and languages which he could read - something which would be intelligible, encyclopedic - with pictures in it, maybe?

I looked at my shelves, and couldn't see anything. At the same time, while looking, I found splendid illustrated guides to all kinds of other subjects - on mythology, for example, with plenty of accessible text and a liberal use of illustrations. But on language, nothing.

Why not?, I thought. And I sat down at my typewriter (we are in the late 1970s, remember - no computer-processing yet) and put together a one-page proposal. I still have it. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

'I am struck by (a) a massive modern interest in the subject of language, communication, usage, etc., illustrated at popular level by such TV programmes as Call My Bluff and Blankety Blank, and radio series like Speak Out, and (b) the trend in publishing towards illustrated guides, of the Octopus Books, Mitchell Beazley type, the sort of thing that makes excellent Xmas presents. It ought to be possible to bring these two points together.

'Language is ideally suited for visual and popular treatment. This might sound odd at first, as people often think of language as an essentially oral/aural mediuum - speech - which by its nature isn't visual. The fallacy is to think of language as divorced from the people who use it. Rather, language reflects the society, the people who use it. It has no existence apart from them. To photograph language, you photograph the people and places in which it is used, their products and conflicts, their ways of studying language. You also, of course, include the more obviously visual side of language - written language and its derivative codes.'

My brother-in-law worked for one of the popular-guides publishers, so I sent this in to him, for an opinion. No question, he said. Far too academic. Sorry. I then sent it into an academic publisher, with whom I'd worked for several years on other projects. No question, they said. Far too popular. Sorry. I decided the time wasn't right, and put the proposal into a bottom drawer, joining several other mouldering proposals, and got on with something else. But I didn't forget about it.

Fast forward now to early 1983, when I found myself in a meeting with Penny Carter of Cambridge University Press about linguistics journals. Only at the end did the conversation turn to other possible projects. I mentioned one or two of the things I had lurking in the bottom drawer, and the idea of the language encyclopedia came up. It turned out that various people in CUP had been thinking along similar lines, and she asked me to send in the material I had. I cleaned off the dust.

I was asked to develop the one-page proposal, and it became a 12-page prospectus. We had a long meeting in which we discussed the best way to handle it. Should it be a single-authored work, or an edited book with several contributors? The arguments in favour of the former were individual creativity and stylistic consistency; the arguments against were the dangers of personal bias and the difficulties in covering such a vast field. We agreed on a middle road: I would write the book, but would have available an international advisory board who would read all the material. CEL was finally commissioned in June 1983.

Penny Carter described it as 'one of the most interesting and exciting projects' she'd been involved with. That reaction was crucial, for me. I was well aware that such a proposal would only succeed if it had an enthusiastic press behind it, for the page design and picture research would make major demands on their personnel. It would, in a very real sense, be a collaboration between author and designer.

I decided to use the double-page spread as the chief means of organizing information. I felt it should be possible to treat a topic succinctly, and illustrate it well, within a single opening. Readers should be given the impression that, when they open the book, they can see a topic laid out accessibly before them. So there would be no sentence run-ons as you turn the page. Each verso would present a fresh topic, or a fresh sub-division of a topic.

But working with double-page spreads and illustrations is a pain. The temptation is to write too much text and leave too little space for the picture. I had a terrible habit of leaving only a postage-stamp size for the picture. The designer, Roger Walker, trained it out of me, but it took a while. I paid for it dearly, by having to delete chunks of text from my drafts. And there is nothing worse than having to lose text you have slaved over.

The way the collaboration worked was like this. Roger gave me a grid, which I set up on my word processor (available at last!) - so many characters per line, so many lines per column, two main columns and one sidebar per page, and so on. A main chapter heading would use up 5 lines of text from my column; a sub-heading would use 3 lines. A certain number of lines would be taken up by the picture(s). Eliminate all of this, and the remainder is the amount of text you are permitted to write - usually around 1000 words per page.

It was never possible to get a perfect match on first draft, because the letter-spacing on a word processor is not the same as that on a printed page - so there were always extra lines to be added or taken away, to ensure that the exposition came to an end as close to the bottom of the page as possible. Some of the design sessions were like horse-trading. Can I have two extra lines of text if you crop that picture a bit more? Please!!

I planned a writing schedule with the press, and started on the job in the autumn of 1983. Six months later, and I'd written - a half-dozen pages. The vastly increased levels of university administration in the mid-1980s were taking their toll. There wasn't time to write any more. Stay in the full-time university world, and there would be no encyclopedia, and not much else either, it seemed to me. It was time to choose.

Monday 5 February 2007

On The Archers, whatever

I hardly believed the enquiry that came through the e-ther a couple of days ago. People were apparently getting into a bit of a grammatical muddle on The Archers' message-board and this was a plea for help.

Yes, I said The Archers! The Radio 4 series that began - oh, I dunno, around Chaucer's time. I had read about the series in the press recently, because of the fuss when it included a gay wedding in the script. I can understand listeners getting worked up over the show's politics, sexuality, religion... but grammar?

I was travelling at the time, but thanks to the invaluable blackberry I was able to send my correspondent a brief reply. When I got home I looked it up - on The Bull - and there indeed it was: a thread addressing the topic: 'What part of speech is whatever?' You'll find the thread at

'Was it an adverb?' asked the first post. It sent everyone scurrying to their dictionaries and grammars, and finding a variety of answers. Pronoun? Adjective? Interjection?

In fact, as with so many words in English, the answer is 'all of them'. Take round, which can be an adjective (the round table), a noun (it's your round), a verb (we rounded the bend), an adverb (we went round), and a preposition (round the corner). Whatever is just as complicated.

In sentences like Whatever happened? it's a pronoun. Pronouns take the place of noun phrases. Something happened. An explosion happened. This is also the usage when part of a sentence is omitted (is elliptical), as in Whatever next! (= 'Whatever will happen next?')

When this pronoun is used to introduce a clause, we get sentences like I love whatever she writes or Whatever he says will upset me. In the big Quirk grammar, constructions like this are called 'nominal relative clauses'.

When the word is used along with a noun, we can't call it a pronoun any more. Now it says something about the noun. Wear whatever dress you like. Words used like this (whichever and what are two more) were called 'adjectives' in some old grammars, but that isn't a good label because they don't act like adjectives in other ways. Today we would call them 'determiners' (like the and my), because they 'determine' the character of the noun - making it interrogative, in this case. It's an 'interrogative determiner', here.

It's used as an 'emphatic determiner' after a noun when there is a negative word before it, as in: They had no reason whatever to leave. Whatsoever and at all do the same job.

In informal speech, especially in recent years, a usage has grown up in which the relative clause has been shortened, so that only the pronoun is left. We'll go by bus or train or whatever (= 'or whatever else might be available'). This then evolved further into We'll go by bus or train - whatever! Other words were being used in the same way. We'll go to Paris or Vienna or wherever (= 'wherever we can get cheap tickets'). Eventually, the wh- words came to be used on their own. Whatever! Wherever! And at that point, the distinction between pronoun (whatever) and adverb (wherever) became blurred. In a sentence like We'll go whatever, which I heard the other day meaning 'We'll go by bus or by train', then the force is adverbial.

Now when a word loses its original grammatical identity, and starts being used in an independent way, it no longer makes sense to talk about it as a part of speech. Lots of words are like this. What part of speech is Thanks? or Hi! or Hello? They are really acting like mini-sentences, but without the sort of grammatical structure we usually find in a sentence. Modern grammars sometimes call them 'minor sentences'. Dictionaries have to give them some label, so they do - but it's a bit of a cheat, really, to talk about such words as parts of speech at all.

Whatever is one of the most recent words to achieve independent status in this way. It tends to be used as an exclamatory sentence with a summarising or dismissive force avoiding further explicitness. It's mainly a young person's usage - but not exclusively (I use it myself, and find it very useful at times). Because it often expresses an attitude, similar in effect to such words as phooey! it's actually very close to what the old grammars called an interjection.

All of this applies to speech. In writing there's an additional complication. When whatever is used as an intensifier (along with whoever, however, wherever, and all the -soever words - whatsoever, wheresoever, etc), there has been a trend to separate the ever from the first part: What ever did he mean? I think it was Fowler who first thought this was a good idea, suggesting that it drew attention to the emphasis, and several people followed his lead. But I've just looked at three modern dictionaries, and they all recommend that the word be set solid. Usage remains divided, though, thanks to Fowler!

Whatever is a complicated little word, with lots of uses (I may not have thought of them all!), and I'm not surprised people got into a muddle. But I'm delighted to see the issue surfacing in a series like this. This is real life, indeed. Archers' script writers, take note. Religion? Politics? Sex? Violence? Give 'em some grammar. That'll keep 'em listening.