The Compulsive Copyeditor

February 1, 2019

Caption Contest

Filed under: ambiguity — amba12 @ 5:17 pm

Please provide a wisecrack to go with the delicious piece of unintentional ambiguity.

  1. Boom: The economy added 304,000 jobs in January — significantly more than the 170,000 economists were expecting

—from Axios, February 1, 2019



November 28, 2018

A Screed against “Need”

Filed under: AI and autocorrect,manipulation through language — amba12 @ 3:20 pm

Copying this from a Facebook post and comments.


I get a notification in my e-mail that someone has messaged me on Facebook. The e-mail says at the bottom, “You’ll need to use Messenger to see and respond to this message.”

Note that word “need.” That word was carefully chosen. Hours were spent chin-stroking and chortling evilly in a conference room placing that word. Meant to activate subconscious anxiety and craving.

No, I don’t NEED to use Messenger. I will never, ever NEED to use Messenger. I NEEDED to throw it out of my phone because the goddamn voracious data-mining implant monster was eavesdropping on me.

Douglas Harper “Need” has been my most-detested word for several years now. “The video that every Trump supporter NEEDS to see.” “Ten things you NEED to do.” “We NEED to solve this problem right away.”
Annie Gottlieb Very manipulative and infantilizing word.
Annie Gottlieb You have to be very alert to all these nuances. Like how Autocorrect default capitalizes certain words that are also brand names. Watch out or you’ll find yourself eating an Apple and opening all your Windows. Capitalize for capitalism.

Annie Gottlieb They seem to count on the fact that it costs energy, time, and hassle to fight these things and so we will be trained and reinforced to capitulate.

Douglas Harper Right. The default setting in the virtual world is to let the machine be in charge, even of your expression. The deliberate infantilization of the adult mind, or perhaps just a reduction to the common denominator. I suspect the mass of internet users wants it this way, and we’re the curmudgeons. Whether the mass was manipulated into that, to some degree, is the third question. My opinion of the species is sufficiently low that I think democratization alone explains it, mostly.

Annie Gottlieb They may think of it as a convenience that’s just in its early stages and so gets it hilariously wrong at times. AI will keep improving until it merges seamlessly with our wishes. But it is in fact a deliberate undermining of our autonomy.

October 3, 2018

The Ize-ation of English

Filed under: language degenerating,sensory qualities of words — amba12 @ 9:26 am

Or should that be the ize-ization?

The example that came to my attention this morning was “acclimatize,” where “acclimate” would do just fine. More examples? Put them in the comments, please. The august yet homey Strunk and White find perhaps the prototype, the Patient Zero of this plague:

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize: summarize, fraternize, harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. Be suspicious of -ize: let your ear and your eye guide you. Never tack -ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say “utilize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word use

This parasitic little syllable, which inserts itself needlessly into good, clean verbs like a transposon into a genome, seems to make bureaucrats happy. It is one of those syllables that makes a word longer and more machinelike (jazz it up with a chainsaw! Not enough noise here!) and so, more important-sounding and intimidating (here come the Hell’s Angels!). That’s the only explanation I can think of for voluntarily making the sound of a word uglier and more technological.

The syllable has its uses, though it is never pretty. I remember somebody once joking that if to put someone in the hospital was to hospitalize, then to throw someone in a canal should be to canalize. But when a verb already does its job just fine in its smaller, plainer, smoother body, why mechanize it? Why add a chrome tailpipe? It’s as if we’re so infatuated with machines as evidence of our own power that we won’t rest until we’ve turned every horse into a motorcycle and every bird into a drone.



August 3, 2018

Beam I Up, Scotty!

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 1:42 pm

That’s it! I’ve finally hit on it—the formula that WILL get through to people who persist in writing the likes of “I’m going to sign my niece and I up for lessons.”

UPDATE: A friend on Facebook responded, “Huh?”

I wanted to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

And this is someone who studied Latin in high school!

I’ll put my reluctant explanation in the comments.



July 18, 2018

“Than” is So Then

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 11:01 pm

The fact that transplanted mini-brains can grow to be more complex compared with in vitro organoids mean they could reveal a deeper understanding of how healthy brains develop.

What is it with this construction?? “More compared with y” has been driving me nuts in science editing for several years. What’s wrong with “than,” a compact little word that all by itself does all the comparing you’ll ever need?

For sheer irritation this is right up there with “between five to ten” and “both but also y” and “he spoke to Jason and I” on the list of things that make me want to scream. But those are just vacuous and tone-deaf. This, this “compared with,” is thick as a cholesterol-choked neck, arteriosclerotic with pompous pseudoliteracy.

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.

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.

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