Editing for Liberty #7: Prognosis Postcard

Can You Spot the Error?

  1. During the debate, his prostate stance became obvious.
  2. Obama claimed that Kenya’s failure “is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable. One that serves its people and is free from corruption.”
  3. Lack of spending by the private sector is causing companies to layoff workers.

What Kind of Stance Is That?

Sentence #1 should not be commenting on the debator’s anatomy. Normally, following Chicago Style, you should close up words that have prefixes separated by hyphens: prowar, antistate, etc. But there are two circumstances when you should not: (1) if it causes an ugly double i or double a, as in antiimperial or extraabnormal (which should be anti-imperial and extra-abnormal), (2) or if it risks a semantic misreading.

For instance, if you were trying to explain that you have approved of esoteric Greek knowledge ever since you received a certain card in the mail, you should say you were pro-gnosis post-card, not prognosis postcard. And when anarchists denounce their opponents for being prostate, a hyphen is needed to avoid anatomical ambiguity. Sentence #1 should read:

During the debate, his pro-state stance became obvious.

(Special thanks to Mike for flagging this one!)

Misframing a Quote Can Change the Meaning

In our second Spot the Error sentence we have an author who says exactly the opposite of what he meant. Obama was in fact saying that Kenya had shown its inability to create a government that was transparent and accountable, but the way the quote was cut and introduced gives his words the opposite meaning. Removing a little more of the Obama quote and clarifying the introductory sentence helps give the right spin here:

Obama claimed that Kenya’s failure is its inability “to create a government that is transparent and accountable. One that serves its people and is free from corruption.”

Verb versus Noun

Sentence #3 is an example of how a compound noun has become closed but the related compound verb has not. Layoff is indeed the noun — for example, the company announced massive layoffs. The verb, however, is to lay off. Sentence #2 should read

Lack of spending by the private sector is causing companies to lay off workers.

Here are some other cases where the noun is closed and the verb is open:

  • lookup / to look up
  • setup / to set up
  • breakup / to break up

As layoff shows, not all such noun-verb pairs will end in up, but they probably will end in a preposition (or rather, a particle).

Name That Reference

Who is the author of this oft-misquoted sentence?

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.

As Mike points out, this quote has become popular in a distorted, zombie version:

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Can you guess who wrote the original? See our mystery writer’s letter to Thomas Cooper Washington.


Is there something you’d like to contribute or see covered in Editing for Liberty? Post a comment! Contributions to “Spot the Error” and “Name That Reference” are especially welcome.

1 Comment

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One response to “Editing for Liberty #7: Prognosis Postcard

  1. Pingback: Editing for Liberty #8: Prefixes, Ellipses — and Squirrels? | Invisible Order

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