The Compulsive Copyeditor

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.

 

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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.”

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