Sunday, May 24, 2015

Correct, But Still Wrong

                                                                           Milton C. Toby photo
by Milton C. Toby


It's one of the few tidbits of useless information I still recall from a miserable semester of college German--a course I passed by swearing to never take German again. The word is long and unpronounceable, but what does it mean?

Roughly translated, verschlimmbessrung refers to an improvement that makes things worse.

"New Coke" comes immediately to mind. The "improved" soft drink represented the first change in Coke's secret formula in almost a century and was introduced with much fanfare on April 23, 1985. New Coke promptly bombed in spectacular fashion. Other examples abound, but the application of verschlimmbessrung that matters for our purposes as writers involves copy editing. Whether editing our own work, or working with a professional copy editor, a devotion to "correctness" can be a disaster.

The apparent contradiction that an editing change can be both correct and wrong at the same time occurred to me when I came across an article about copy editing in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I love The New Yorker, in part because of the quality of the writing and in part because the magazine is one of the few places where you can find a lengthy article about the history of commas. (The ubiquitous comma was invented--as much as a person can invent a punctuation mark--by an Italian printer named Aldo Manuzio. He apparently was looking for a way to separate items in text without ending a sentence, and added a tail to a period around the year 1500.)

I had the good fortune of working with a excellent copy editor on my manuscript for Canonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby's Most Improbable Winner. She knew her job and her changes generally made the book better. Our only disagreement, and it was a significant one, involved how to refer to a horse in a sentence when the animal's name is not used. Was a horse a "he" or an "it?" My editor opted for the latter and made changes throughout the manuscript, leading to many awkward sentences like this one: Hoist the Flag finished the year unbeaten in four starts, although it (not he as I originally wrote) was disqualified in the Champagne Stakes for causing a serious traffic jam during the early going.

Canonero II received dozens of "good luck" cards before his start in the 1971
Belmont Stakes. His fans clearly did not consider him an "it."
Collage by film producer/director Salomon Gill
A flurry of emails ensued, with both of us citing various sections of The Chicago Manual of Style for support. (If you are not familiar with the CMS, it is the bible of style for writers and editors. It has a spot within easy arm's reach of my computer.) Her argument was that "he" referred to a person but not to a horse; mine was that even if using "it" rather than "he" was technically correct, the usage violated well-established tradition and would offend every reader.

We eventually settled on an exception in Section 5.49 of the CMS that allowed gender-specific pronouns such as "he" or "she" to be used "as if the antecedent represented a male or female person." It also helped that "he" and "she" rather than "it" were used to refer to horses in my two previous books for that publisher.

Some improvements actually do make things worse.

Happy Verschlimmbessrung!




  1. Milt, I chuckled when reading this, because I write lots of fiction with animals, and most of them, bless their hearts, are referred to as he or she ( and not it.) But in certain cases, such as when a human character is referred to as he or she in the same paragraph, I've had to use the pronoun "it" for the animal, to make sure things were clear to the reader. Another case is when the gender of the animal is clear or unclear in the story ( which sometimes happens) then those pronouns become important. But in most cases, when we become attached to an animal and begin caring about it, we show it with the right pronouns!

  2. If a ship is a "she," a horse is certainly not an "it." Loved your post. You have such a witty style of writing. I also take exception to the new trend of no longer capitalizing Thoroughbred, but I recently lost that battle with an editor from Baltimore magazine.

  3. I occasionally use it for a horse if the protagonist doesn't know whether it is male or female. For example if seeing a horse from a distance. Or in dialogue as people sometimes use "it", again often if not sure of the sex. Like "it's a nice jumper, that one". But if the horse is an established character, or in the case of Milt's sentence when referring to a known, specific horse, using "it" would drive me crazy!