The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Long Wait

Okay, I admit it, I’m bored. After four weeks with virtually no work, I’ve tidied my desk, cleared out my email, printed new business cards and almost every other little job on my to-do list you can imagine. Now at this point, some of you snowed under and stressing about deadlines will be sighing and wishing you had the same problem, but believe me, the time is really starting to drag now and the worries about my bank balance along the line are starting to mount.

As a freelancer, you always have peaks and troughs, but this particular lull is a bit different. I have work, at least in theory, but it’s just all been delayed. I currently have no fewer than four projects which I’d expected to be working on by now that have all been put off; some by weeks, others months. Delays, of course, are nothing new in publishing, but this year really does seem to have reached new highs, or should I say lows, in terms of shifting schedules. And I should say right up front that this isn’t a dig at anyone in particular, the four currently stalled projects are all very different types of work for completely different publishers. So is this a general trend and what’s causing it?

Delays getting started:
I was interested to read a piece over on ELTjam about the apparent slump in work for ELT writers. One of the reasons they suggested was that “a lot of projects [at ELT publishers] have been cancelled or are on hold while in-house training goes on to bring editors up to speed with new ways of working”. I think I’d add to the projects ‘on hold’, ‘projects taking longer to get off the ground/get approved’. As a writer who’s sometimes involved in the earlier stages of a project, I’m sensing a cautiousness around commissioning new products, which from my end sometimes means a very positive, enthusiastic first meeting is followed by long periods of silence or start dates that keep getting moved on by months.

Slippery schedules:
Other work I do involves coming in later on a project (to write components or teachers notes, etc.) and here I'm being affected by schedules that just keep slipping and slipping. Again, of course, schedules have always slipped, but my impression is that the unwieldiness of some ELT projects nowadays with huge numbers of components having to be produced together by ever-expanding teams of writers, editors and developers is getting to be almost unmanageable. 

From my end, that means that I get an offer from an editor, often along with a schedule full of very specific handover dates and deadlines. I book out the time in my diary, then I hear that the material I need to work on won’t be ready for another 2, no 4, no 6 weeks … All of which leaves me with big gaps in my workflow that can occasionally be filled with something else, but often, like now, can’t. 

I’m just about to order my wall planner for next year. I used to write in work on it so that I could see what was coming up when. This year though, I’ve taken to putting stuff on little post-it notes instead so they can more easily be moved. I’m hoping that 2014 will prove to have been a blip, down to bad luck or the wrong choices and not part of a general trend.  In the meantime, I think maybe I’ll start repainting the kitchen …

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Besides, a dodgy discourse marker

I’ve just been giving feedback on a piece of writing by a non-native speaker and came across a common misuse of the word besides in a sentence initial position as a discourse marker/linker. The writer has used it to add another point, in a fairly neutral way, as you might use ‘and’ or ‘also’, or perhaps ‘in addition’.  

I work at a language institute […] Besides, I tutor business students one-to-one.”
(that’s a paraphrase, but it keeps the sense)

It’s a usage I’ve come across countless times in students’ essays and one I always flag up or correct, but generally avoiding commenting on because it’s tricky to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong about it. If you look in a learner’s dictionary, you’ll find a rather neutral definition like “in addition to; also” and sometimes a note which hints at something more:

Macmillan Dictionary: used when you are adding another stronger reason to support what you are saying

Collins COBUILD: Besides is used to emphasize an additional point that you are making, especially one that you consider to be important

OALD: The adverb besides is mainly used to give another reason or argument for something

I don’t think any of them really get to the heart of how this seemingly simple little word is actually used though. That’s not to criticize the dictionaries, which are only trying to be as concise as possible and do show more using examples, but there’s just quite a lot going on. After a bit of thought and looking at quite a few examples, I think you use besides when you’re trying to make an argument, you’ve set out some points, then you want to introduce your final trump card. The besides means something like, “even if you weren’t convinced by everything I’ve just said, this last point trumps all of those and means I win hands down”.

A few corpus examples:
Shelly gave up looking for work. She said that she had too many projects of her own to concentrate on, and besides, she just wasn't "the office type." [COCA]
Your shoes are clean and neat. That is all that matters. Besides, we can't afford [new ones]. [COCA]
After a while, they stopped. There didn't seem much point in continuing. Besides, they were out of breath. [BNC]
I just thought you had enough to be getting on with, what with Jennifer. I didn't want to add to the problems. Besides, there wasn't anything you could do. [BNC]

As I looked through more examples, I also started to get the sense that this usage is fairly conversational, or at least used in writing that’s conversational in style. That led me to take a look at a more formal genre; academic writing in the BAWE corpus (of university student writing). At first I was a bit surprised to find quite a few examples of sentence initial Besides, … . But then when I delved further, I found that the majority of the examples (89%) were from non-native speaker writers, largely with Chinese L1 (that compares with something like 70% native-speaker scripts within the BAWE corpus as a whole). Although they were good writers of English, with good grades for their assignments, the usage still stood out as slightly marked. Perhaps an indication that, like me, no one could ever quite put their finger on what was odd about the usage, so had never corrected it for these writers.

Especially for new academic writers, discourse markers are a real minefield. We’re always telling EAP students how important they are to link their ideas together, but then when they choose the wrong ones, they jar and almost have the opposite effect on the reader (raising doubts about the logic of the ideas they link). I hope that in future, this is one pitfall that I’ll be better at proactively steering my students around.

PS Of course, all this ignores the apparently very similar, but actually very different usage: besides (preposition) + object, but that’s a topic for another day …

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