No Mark of Distinction

Over the last two decades, academic [book] titles have become increasingly cumbersome, and it is rare to find an academic book title that is not lashed together with a subtitle and its colon. Some books even boast two subtitles, glued tenuously to the title with two colons. —Jennifer JabsonNo Mark of Distinction (Chronicle)

The title of my dissertation is “Soul and Society in a Technological Age: American Drama, 1920-1950.” When it was accepted for publication, I was told that it would be retitled “Technology in American Drama 1920-1950: Soul and Society in the Age of the Machine.” I was momentarily miffed that nobody had asked my opinion, but they were absolutely right. My father, who for years was a technical editor for the government, spent much of his career prying semicolons out of dense academic reports. He finds the sentences in my book generally too long, but he only found a very small number of mistakes — apparently I left a “the the” in the text somewhere, and there are a few subject-verb disagreements (hidden in strings of semicolons, which is why I and my copyeditor didn’t catch it). So I think I did pretty well.

Oddly enough, one of the handful of general style notes my advisor gave me was: although the writing is clear, the sentences are so short that in places it reads like a newspaper story; I took that as a compliment — nevertheless, I gave my semicolon key and hyphen keys (not to mention the parentheses keys) a quick workout: I wanted to match the diction that my adviser requested.