The Compulsive Copyeditor

June 17, 2018

English is a Mac

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 10:10 am

I was having a conversation with a friend who appreciates grammatical precision and finesse. We both feel the skeleton of grammar, its articulation of meaning, under the flesh of expression, and feel pain when it is broken or dislocated.

She’s a little older than me and it turns out that in junior high and high school she studied Latin for eight or nine years!! That was the last gasp of a world in which everyone who learned had to learn Latin — and I don’t doubt that it clarified their thinking. It made me think about how much I learned about the hidden grammar of English by learning German, an explicitly inflected and declined language (and a bit of Russian, which has 6 noun cases and 2 verb . . . voices?? I get grammar viscerally but I still don’t know the terminology). English has all that machinery of meaning too, it’s just submerged.

Which made me think that English just has an easier, simpler user interface — like a Mac in a world of PCs. All the complex programming is still there, but the user doesn’t have to engage with it.

Whether a Mac, like English, is therefore easier to abuse, and whether English, like a Mac, is somehow more expensive may be taking the metaphor too far.

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December 29, 2017

An Almost Exact Analogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 8:59 pm

Copyediting a book, I realize that punctuation marks ARE traffic signs and signals, with a soupçon of GPS or WAZE.

They direct your attention along the correct path of meaning, making sure you don’t take a wrong turn, or come to a fork in the road and not know which way to go. (Much writing today adheres, rather, to Yogi Berra’s quantum-absurdist rule, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”)

They also instruct you when to speed up and slow down, pause, stop, wait, look sharp, or sail ahead.

That makes reading like driving, with the guidance of the one who designed and signed the streets. If an editor is (ideally) the Department of Public Works, making sure the streets are well laid out and drivable, a copy editor is like the bureau of traffic control or Department of Transportation, responsible for signals and signage to prevent accidents and aggravation.

(In practice, of course, the copy editor often winds up hauling trash off the street and redirecting traffic.)

UPDATE: Punctuation marks are also like joints. They “articulate” the flow of words and signal the reader how to reassemble the writer’s meaning correctly in his/her own brain, so that it moves like a living thing—hopefully, with grace.

December 11, 2016

“Both” Abuse . . .

. . . committed in The New York Times:

“There are splits both within the intelligence agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them.”

“Both” splits a sentence into two streams that have to be equal and parallel. At first glance, either of the following would have been correct:

“There are splits within both the intelligence agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them.”

But no, that wouldn’t have worked because “both the intelligence agencies” can be misread as “You mean the CIA and the NSA?”

So the only correct option (short of rewriting the whole sentence), redundant as it may seem, is:

“There are splits both within the intelligence agencies and within the congressional committees that oversee them.”

Actually, I should refine the rule above:

“Both” splits a sentence into two streams that have to be equal and parallel. The split must be executed by a correctly placed “and.”

A family member of mine who committed this related form of “both” abuse in print—

“sharing their stories online was both an attempt to sort out what they were going through but also to . . . help other[s]”

graciously changed “but” to “and” after I apologized for being so pinheaded as to point it out.

Next, I’ll tackle “between” abuse, if I haven’t already. But I need to assemble some good examples. Like “both,” “between” requires “and,” and you wouldn’t believe the exotic substitutes writers come up with. (Yes, we are now allowed to end a sentence with a preposition, though some friends of mine who are made of sterner stuff still refrain and disapprove.) Scientists in particular seem prone to writing the likes of “Between 5 to 24 seconds . . .”

Stay tuned, fellow pinheads.

August 24, 2016

Me Meme: Pedantry of the Day

Filed under: grammar,language degenerating,pedantry of the day — amba12 @ 10:33 am

Me, me, me.

We have banished this little word. Sent it to its room for an indefinite time-out.

Maybe it’s spiteful overreaction to too many stern corrections of “Joey and me went to the store.” Or maybe it’s that “me, me, me” is used to mock and shame selfishness in children, to the point where the word itself sounds piggy, whiny, grabby. We think we sound more dignified and grown-up when we say “Joey and I” — in ALL contexts.

But in some contexts, it’s just wrong. “Me” serves a grammatical purpose. Technically, it’s the dative and accusative form of the first person singular, the form that is the direct and indirect object of transitive verbs.

Huh? (I know. I wouldn’t know a dative from a dating app either if I hadn’t studied German in high school with a very stern, authentically German teacher.)

Well, just as (after age two) you wouldn’t say “Me went to the store,” you wouldn’t say, “Make sure to visit I next time you’re in town,” or “Mom is throwing I an anniversary party.” But that’s exactly what you’re saying when you say “Make sure to visit Joey and I” or “Mom is throwing Joey and I a party.”

There’s a simple trick for knowing when to say “Joey and I” and when to say “Joey and me”: get rid of Joey. Not for good, of course. Send him to his room for a brief time-out, and try the sentence with just you in it. Works every time.

March 28, 2016

Usage Find of the Day

Filed under: ambiguity,language degenerating — amba12 @ 3:20 pm

 

“Gunfire rang out inside the Capitol Visitor Center on Monday when a police officer shot a man with a gun.”                                                          ~ The Daily Beast headline, 3/28/16

Oh, I thought he shot him with a slingshot.

February 1, 2016

Sigh

Filed under: grammar,shop talk — amba12 @ 1:44 pm

grammarnazi

January 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.

 

January 9, 2016

Usage Find of the Day

From a purported “Dr. Oz” skin cream ad:

On his show he said he was thrilled when after months and months of pain staking tests and research, his team came across 2 products that when combined literally took 10 to 20 years off women?s appearance in just a month.

Ouch!

And while I’m at it . . . the new way of expressing enthusiastic agreement is, “Here, here!” That goes with “tow the line” and “pouring over” — signs of a culture that watches and listens far more than it reads.

January 6, 2016

How Copyeditors Crack [Themselves] Up

Filed under: punctuation,shop talk — amba12 @ 12:47 pm

I had just finished a science book job with lots of endnotes, two or three or more per text page in places, almost all of them referring to scientific journal articles with long, complex titles and subtitles, full of technical terms and sprinkled with Greek letters. They were in bibliography style—lead author’s last name first, periods separating the infobits—and needed reformatting into note style. And they were unnumbered notes, so the key phrases that anchored them had to be located in the text; modified if they were too long, short, or generic; and revised if the text had been revised. At midnight the notes seemed neverending, as if every time I finished a page two more popped up, like sharks’ teeth. At 12:30, unbelievably, the last one came in sight. Then came the proofreading in Final to clean up the bits of stray punctuation that get stranded in strange places when you’re moving things around. You can’t see them all among the blue and red of Track Changes.

It was the kind of work that demands the utmost in self-restraint, patience, and attention. You have to sit. You have to sit still, with your eyes fixed on a screen, for hours at a time. You cannot allow your mind or body to wander or you’ll miss stuff. Yes, I do have the Moon in Virgo but this is not my favorite part of copyediting. What really interests me is grammar and diction, the refinement of expression (i.e. I’m really an editor, not a copyeditor, but I don’t want the responsibility of being an editor—the part that’s a euphemism for “ghost writer”). The next morning I did my “sweeps”—going through the manuscript doing a “Find” on every digit from 0 through 9 to make sure I’ve treated numbers (and anything else in question) consistently. (How did we do this before computers?) Then I organized the stylesheet, under time pressure since the job was a day late.

After it was all in, I kicked back and, in the mindless way you do while decompressing, read the first thing in front of me, which happened to be my own stylesheet.

I was appalled.

  • Spell out 1–99, with exceptions:
    • dollar amounts: $1, $
    • millions, billions: 12 million, 3 billion,
    • percentages: numeral with the word “percent” (“11 percent,” “100 percent”

If you’re a copyeditor (or a copy editor) you will see that I went straight to hell in exactly the ways it was so important to stay buttoned up on the job. Nobody cares about this stuff on the Internet anymore, as long as readers can understand what’s being said (for science nerds only: I just read a WIRED article on the CRISPR-CAS patent dispute that misspelled the name of Jennifer “Dounda”), but if this incriminating document ever came to the attention of a copyediting department, especially someplace supercilious* like the University of Chicago Press (where an editor once made me copyedit my own résumé, then still didn’t hire me), I’d be drummed out of the profession.

I sent an embarrassed apology to the receiving editor, only to embarrass myself further:

The stylesheet itself needed copyediting, but I didn’t take the time. . . .

It’s just littered of unclosed parentheses and quote marks, the occasional missing example, etc. . . .

“littered of”?! How copyeditors crack up. ;)

(In my lurching fatigue I’d gotten only halfway through changing “full of” to “littered with.”)

Reviewing this as I walked through the park to karate class to get the kinks out, I could not stop laughing.

 

*The word “supercilious” derives from the Latin for “raised eyebrow.”

November 17, 2015

Dangler for an Angler

The Coelacanth

“Thought to have been long extinct, scientists discovered these ‘living fossils’ in 1938.”

Coela

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