'With regularity'?

Here’s a before-and-after, but not necessarily in that order, from the world of editing. See if you can tell which phrasing for a light feature article was penned by the writer and which is the edited version.

If you fly United with regularity …

If you fly United a lot …

I suspect your inner editor cringed at “with regularity.” It’s stuffy. It’s wordy. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a laxative commercial.

If you had this reaction, congratulations: You have a better sense of language and communication than the real-life editor who changed “a lot” to “with regularity” — much to the writer’s chagrin.

I know this because I’m the chagrined writer.

In this column, I usually share experiences from my work as an editor. In that role, I have a bird’s-eye view of many common writing problems and how to spot and fix them. It’s the job. And it produces a lot of useful examples for anyone who wants to write better or just understand good writing.

But sometimes I wear the other hat, the writer’s hat. And in that role, I am, from time to time, the victim of editorial malpractice. “With regularity” may be the worst assault against my prose yet.

So what’s so bad about “with regularity”? A number of things.

For starters, skilled editors know that, in publishing, conciseness is a virtue. Every word that can be cut, should be cut. Why? Because, as PlainLanguage.gov puts it, “unnecessary words waste your audience’s time.” The prepositional phrase “with regularity” contains more words and syllables than you need: “a lot,” “often” or “regularly” would be more efficient.

Another problem with “with regularity”: People don’t talk that way. Feature articles are supposed to meet the reader on her own turf. As PlainLanguage.gov puts it, “Great writing is conversational.” Know who shares this belief? The very organization that employs that editor. Here’s a line from that company’s own editing guide: “Always edit for tight writing. Aim to be as succinct as possible while telling readers what they need to know.”

Also, “regularity” is a nominalization. Most editors I know are not familiar with this term, but they don’t need to be. They understand it instinctively. Harvard professor and linguist Steven Pinker explains in a 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why Academics Stink at Writing — and How to Fix It: “English grammar is an enabler of the bad habit of writing in unnecessary abstractions because it includes a dangerous tool for creating abstract terms. A process called nominalization takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like -ance, -ment, or -ation.”

I would add “-ity,” to Pinker’s list of nominalizing suffixes and note that you can nominalize adjectives as well as nouns. For example “actuality” is a stuffy noun form of the adjective “actual.” “Curvilinearity” is a silly derivative of the adjective “curvilinear.” And “regularity” is a clumsy nominalization of the adjective “regular.”

Why are nominalizations bad? Here’s Pinker again: “Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. Helen Sword calls them ‘zombie nouns’ because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.”

One final problem of “with regularity”: By searching Google’s Ngram Viewer, we can see that “regularly” is about 20 times more common in published books and articles than “with regularity,” meaning professional editors and writers consider “with regularity” bad form.

So why on earth would a professional editor change “a lot” to “with regularity”? I’m not sure. But in an age when ranking high on Google searches counts more than quality writing, it seems fewer and fewer editors know how to edit. In my experience, some seem to think that editing means just putting the writer’s words into your own words, without regard for whether they’re better.

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