Encyclospeedia Oedilfica

Authors’ Notes and Pronunciation Guides

At the OEDILF there are various reasons to include an Author’s Note (AN):

  • To provide a pronunciation guide (PG) to help people read your limerick properly;
  • To beef up the definitional side of the limerick;
  • To provide further information to help present and future readers make sense of the limerick;
  • To extend the joke in the limerick with another, sometimes in the form of extra lines or verses;
  • To provide further information you feel like sharing.

Only the first three reasons could be considered essential, and even then only in certain cases. Beyond the essentials, it’s up to you to decide how much or how little you want to put into an AN.

Pronunciation Guides

One of the main reasons for including an AN is when you need a pronunciation guide. For unfamiliar words or pronunciations, PGs can be helpful or even essential for readers in figuring out how your limerick scans. Before you add one, though, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. If the word appears at the end of L2 or L5, does the rhyme with L1 already make it clear how it’s pronounced? If the limerick has beautifully clear metre throughout, do its rhythms make it unambiguous where the word should be stressed? Has an editor questioned your pronunciation, but it turns out that yours is the primary pronunciation in the U.S. and U.K. and theirs is the minority one? If so, you might not need a PG at all.

If you do need one, the format is this:

(for ex-AM-pul)

That is, a stand-alone PG has parentheses around it and nothing else. The PG itself has syllables separated by hyphens, with spaces to separate the words of a phrase. The syllables you want to be stressed should go in capitals, while those you want destressed should go in lowercase—remembering that the only reason you’re including a PG is to help people read the line properly. We don’t aim to replace Merriam-Webster’s and the OED’s comprehensive pronunciation guides.

If you need PGs for more than one word, you can separate them by commas or sometimes semicolons within the one set of parentheses:

(for ex-AM-pul, CAT)

How you represent the syllables is up to you, but you should try to avoid ambiguity. Is CA the sound in cat or cake? Joining it to a consonant (CAM, CAT) could indicate the former, while adding a Y (CAY) would give the latter. Would a K be less ambiguous than a C? Is a vowel sound actually a full vowel, or is it a schwa, which we usually represent with U or UH? Writing a PG isn’t a perfect science, because we don’t have access to all the phonetic symbols other dictionaries use. But it doesn’t matter, because its main purpose is to guide our readers in terms of rhymes and stresses.

Some people use parentheses around every PG, even inline ones like “the word is pronounced (ex-AM-pul)”. I find that strange; the parentheses started out as exactly that, parentheses, not as a signifier of “PG-ness”. Treating (PGs) wrapped in (parentheses) as if the (parentheses) have no (effect) on the (sentence) strikes me as (illogical). Some people do it, though, so if you want to you can. The more common approach is to treat an inline PG, for ex-AM-pul, like any other word. They don’t need quotes around them, or italics; otherwise those would logically be in the parenthesized versions too. Their form tells us their function.

In limericks with more than just a PG in their AN, the PG itself can either be inserted (in-SERT-ed) into the text at the appropriate point or be put up front. Early on it was established that up-front PGs would have parentheses with no punctuation after them:

(for ex-AM-pul) Numerous cases have been seen throughout the ages. The most significant was...

Nowadays, you can also have the PG introduce a short fragmentary definition by putting a colon after it:

(for ex-AMP-ul): a phrase to introduce typical or representative cases

If the definition is short, no period/full stop is needed at the end.

Remember, we usually only include PGs to clarify rhymes and stress patterns that could confuse the reader. Including PGs for every unusual word can create problems, even when it’s the defined word. Indicating the stresses of a word out of context may interfere with the stresses of the limerick: for example, a primary stress in a two-syllable word could be in an unstressed position in the limerick. It’s important to make sure readers don’t end up more confused by your PG than they would have been without it.

Definitions and Further Information

How much definition you need in a limerick is a subject for another day—or for a lifetime of OEDILF writing—but sometimes it’s impossible to manage it completely in only five lines, especially when you want those lines to be funny, clever, lyrical, or all three. In cases where a limerick doesn’t define a word well, you would be well-advised to add some supporting material in an AN. If it’s unclear that your limerick is even about its defined word, you’ll almost certainly have to if you want it to be approved—although you’ll be encouraged to rework the limerick too.

But don’t feel that you have to include an AN definition just because your limerick isn’t immediately obvious. It’s okay to make your readers work a little to deduce a definition from your five lines, provided it’s there to be found. I’ve limericked a number of Australianisms, for example, which have been unknown to our non-Australian editors. Although I’ve written ANs to restate some of their definitions in language non-Aussies find more obvious, in other cases I’ve resisted. The challenge of writing definitional limericks that don’t need further explanation was, after all, what attracted me to the OEDILF in the first place. They’re like puzzles with clues in their two-dozen words about what they mean, the answers to which are the definitions of their words.

Adding an AN to provide more definition can sometimes be like giving away the answers to a crossword before readers have had a chance to solve it for themselves. I figure it doesn’t hurt to leave a few challenges for the curious, just as I’ve enjoyed figuring out obscure words in other OEDILFers’ work.

Adding further information to help readers make sense of the limerick beyond its definition is also up to you. Sometimes you’ll be happy to, but other times it will come too close to explaining the joke. If you don’t want to do that, don’t. It’s true that certain references that make perfect sense at the moment will need explaining for future generations, but your first audience is here and now, and won’t laugh as much (assuming laughs are your goal) if you follow every joke with its exegesis.

(ek-suh-JEE-suss): an explanation or critical interpretation

When I feel I have to add further explanation, I try to frame it in as pithy and witty a way as possible so that reading it won’t feel like a chore. I resist adding too many additional jokes, though, as they can steal the limerick’s thunder. Why turn your AN into a stand-up routine when you can use those lines as the basis for new limericks?

When adding further information to your AN, there are a couple of formatting points to keep in mind. Any defined word that hasn’t appeared in the limerick itself should be bolded the first time it appears in an AN—not every time, as in limericks themselves, because we don’t want long ANs to end up as a sea of bold.

If you’re dealing with biographical information and want to give a person’s years of birth and death (in parentheses), separate them with an en-dash using the code – (don’t forget the semicolon), and give the full years for both even if they’re in the same century (1914–1983). In other date ranges, for wars and the like, you can drop the century in the end date if it’s the same as the start date (1914–18). Sorry if that sounds persnickety, but we take our lead from Chicago style for these. (I was the one who started using en-dashes, and for all the trouble they’ve caused I wish I hadn’t.)

You don’t have to include a person’s date-range if you don’t want to, even if they’re the subject of the piece, although in such cases it’s usually advisable. If they lived in ancient times, you can use your choice of dating nomenclature, BC/AD or BCE/CE.

Keep It Brief

Now that we’ve discussed what might go into an AN, here’s my preferred kind of AN:

  • No AN.

Why? Because it’s the limericks that attract readers and writers to the OEDILF, and it’s only the limericks that you can be sure everyone will see. We get too used to seeing ANs below our limericks on our My Limericks pages or in workshops. What about the random limerick displayed on the OEDILF’s front page? There’s no AN, only a “See Notes” link. How many people do you expect will follow that link? Only those, I would suggest, who can’t make sense of the limerick itself—and only if they want to make sense of it.

If a limerick is fortunate enough to be quoted or recited by an admirer, do we imagine its AN will be as well? And even if the reader does see your AN right below the verse, how many will read a long one all the way to the end?

So, if you must have an AN (and sometimes you must, of course), my advice is to keep it as succinct as possible: a sentence, if you can, and no more than a few. If it’s particularly witty it can be longer, but don’t wear out your welcome.

Not everyone agrees with this advice. We have longstanding OEDILFers who enjoy putting multiple paragraphs of “did you know” stuff in their ANs. But before you follow their example, think not just about how readers will react, but about our editors whose RFAs and STCs you crave.

In my experience, very long ANs drive WEs away from limericks. They skip them when it comes to setting new ones to tentative, they skip them when it comes to workshopping old ones, and when they do workshop them they end up getting through a fraction of what they otherwise might.

It’s easy to see why: you’re asking them to copy-edit far more than they would have to for a stand-alone verse. Most WEs don’t like to attach their RFA to something with mistakes, whether in the limerick or in the AN, and if it’s going to take ages to check the AN they often won’t bother. It can be worse for everyone if they actually find mistakes there: the longest workshops I’ve encountered have usually been because of back-and-forth over ANs, not the limericks themselves. Our editors can’t ignore the AN and focus only on the limerick when deciding whether to RFA; the ANs are part of the whole, and have to be edited as carefully as the limericks themselves.

I would say a practical limit for ANs is a hundred words—still quite long relative to a limerick of 20-25. If you regularly write three or four times that (as some authors do), then for every ten limericks you’re effectively asking the equivalent of five or more people to assess an essay of 3500 words each. Writing mini-essays on complex subjects isn’t our purpose; that’s Wikipedia’s gig. It’s true that we’re often trying to define complex terms, and that doing so in a limerick is a challenge. But that’s the point: that’s the challenge of our entire project.

So if you must have an AN, keep it as concise as possible unless there’s a good reason not to. If WEs see that every limerick you write has a long AN attached, they’ll suspect that you don’t have a good reason for each and every one. They may or may not be right, but either way it’s your loss: you’re the one who’ll end up feeling neglected if they pass by your work.

Some of our longstanding writers have demonstrated, over time, that their own standards are reliable enough for our editors to trust that workshopping their long ANs won’t involve major copy-editing work for themselves. If you gain this reputation you’ll naturally enjoy more latitude. But if your punctuation, grammar, or understanding of OEDILF formatting standards are at all shaky, you have even more reason to avoid long ANs—or any AN—whenever possible.

Distilled and reworked from forum posts and workshopping comments from January 2006–March 2007.

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