The Compulsive Copyeditor

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.”

June 22, 2013

The Physicality of Grammar and Punctuation

Filed under: grammar,punctuation,sensory qualities of words — amba12 @ 9:31 am

I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve written on this topic before, and maybe even said the same things. But I’m not going to scroll through old posts to try to avoid repeating myself. This is an obsession of mine, so if you’re my reader, live with it (hell, you probably share it).

The longer I work at this, the more I feel grammar and punctuation in my body. I was born to feel language physically anyway, inheriting (thanks, Mom!) keen and interconnected musical and kinesthetic senses (as someone once said when I told him he resembled Fred Astaire, “You should see me dance!”), but I think having to diagram sentences in what used to be called (not coincidentally) “grammar school” made a large contribution. (Yes, all these undigested parentheses are causing me pelvic pain, too. Sorry. I need a parenthectomy.) Visually seeing the skeleton of a sentence, the connection and dependency or balance of clauses, made it as logical a little mousetrap as a mathematical equation. Then, I studied German, which has 4 noun cases, and later Russian, which has count-’em 6, and the benefits of studying a language that has noun declension, like the once-required Latin, cannot be overstated for shining a light on the secret declension of nouns in English, which are undergoing this alchemy even though it is invisible to the naked eye. In particular, the identification of the subject, no matter where it is in the sentence, is so brightly illuminated by German grammar that you can never unsee it again, which is one reason why a dangling participle or one of its cousins never gets by me, and rarely fails to give me a good laugh on its way to the gallows. Hardly anyone writing knows about this any more. Yesterday I read, in a description of a certain vine, “if not in bloom you might machete your way through it without a second thought.”

The last ingredient of my kinesthetic editing sense was supplied by a freshman English class at Harvard called Humanities 6. They basically told us that the way to read and to study literature was to notice your own physical and emotional response and then figure out what the author did (deliberately or instinctively) to make that happen. That has served me well as a critic, too. I could have dropped out after freshman year; I’d already acquired all my essential tools by then.

I’m so fascinated by this aspect of copyediting that the editors I work for have to put up with pedantic little scoldings in footnotes. Yesterday I also read this sentence:

We humans rely on vision to navigate the world, and to communicate with those around us, we have developed a highly refined vocabulary for describing what we perceive.

I added the words “in order” before “to communicate,” and wrote in a footnote:

I’m not normally a fan of this construction (because it’s so often added when unnecessary), but here it prevents momentary misreading of the sentence as “we humans rely heavily on vision to navigate . . . , and to communicate,” which then requires the brain to shift gears midsentence.

And I wrote to the author of the sentence about the vine:

“If not in bloom you might . . .” grammatically means if you are not in bloom.

Now, punctuation, the subject that originally got me started writing this post (along with, um, procrastination). I had edited a novel for a writer who, reading proofs, suddenly panicked and wondered whether she wasn’t using too many colons. Looking at the examples she flagged, I was able to assure her that her use of colons was not only appropriate but poised and calming:

It’s as if I’m watching him go through a typical day with his family as a boy of twelve or thirteen: quiet and off on his own, not really talking to anyone

I wrote to her:

It’s good. Quieter, and gives the phenomenon described more space, than a stickier and more urgent em (long) dash.

That got me thinking of punctuation as the equivalent of interpersonal space. A comma, here, would not stand back and contemplate the phenomenon described in the same way; it would hurry past the pause-to-look in an everyday, inattentive way. A colon is like two eyes: it stands still, hands off, and gives the phenomenon its space, lets it have its moment, unmolested, in full attention. It’s respectful. (Re-spect meaning to take a second look.) An em dash, by contrast, grabs the phenomenon by the throat. (Sometimes that’s what you want.) And in this example

I picture one of the candles’ flames being extinguished: it’s that fast that my excitement turns to sadness

you could use a semicolon, but I physically feel a semicolon deflecting attention, turning it aside, the way you’d turn your shoulders to squeeze past someone on a crowded sidewalk. A semicolon gives the phenomenon the cold shoulder.

Okay, I have a book to edit.

June 12, 2013

Hurry up please its time

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,punctuation — amba12 @ 9:16 am

“Join us as we sample through different styles of rum while learning about it’s rich history and exciting future.” Thus the e-newsletter of the New York City University of Chicago Alumni Club. One can take this* as a sign of the end of the world, or, as I do (with a deep sigh), as a sign that a not illogical change in the language is well on its way to being anointed by Webster’s. *And how many of you already haven’t got a clue what “this” even refers to?

February 26, 2013

What Oft Was Thought, but Ne’er So Clearly Expressed

Filed under: punctuation — amba12 @ 9:05 am

Punctuation is like track switches on a railway line. It tells the brain which way to go, and sometimes it tells it to go in two directions at once, which makes it slam on the brakes.

April 6, 2012


Filed under: grammar,punctuation — amba12 @ 12:55 am

Ah, the art of hyphenation. It is an art, not a science.  Compulsive hyphenation is in deserved disrepute, but no two authorities agree on which compounds in their noun forms are closed (dataset), hyphenated (data-set), or open (data set), and even more contentious, which ones to hyphenate when used adjectivally. Words seem to evolve from open compounds through the ambivalent hyphenated version into closed compounds, but lately, hyphen-allergy has been driving the evolution both ways. Open compounds are not hyphenated when one has a gut feeling they should be. I don’t know how many articles I’ve worked on that say “in vitro studies” rather than “in-vitro studies” (note to those who think it should be italicized: once a word’s in Webster’s, it has joined the English language and achieved roman citizenship).

Sometimes such “open” adjectival stylings, even when they don’t create any ambiguity, feel ponderous and floppy to me. They slow a sentence down, burden it, make it blank-faced like someone on Haldol and less nimbly expressive. The hyphen, by hitching the two parts of the compound together, lightens it up and make it move faster. (This stuff is all visceral and kinesthetic to a copy editor. Or should that be copyeditor? The former sounds slower and more deliberate, as copy editors should be, even though we should also work quickly to keep costs down; so I’ll stick with it, except in my blog title, where . . . oh, never mind.)

That’s an example of my ambivalence about the hyphen. Looked at more closely, it’s not really ambivalence, it’s context sensitivity. We are told as copy editors to be consistent: either all hyphens in a given grammatical (e.g. adjectival) situation, or none.  But too many hyphens looks cluttery and fussy and Victorian; too few gets blank-faced and sometimes leads to impermissible and hilarious ambiguity. What I find myself wanting to do is hyphenate, or not, on a case-by-case basis. (Here, “a case by case basis” would make me feel as if I was talking in slo-mo, a 45 played at 33, for those old enough to get the reference.) But then it gets too subjective.

Here’s an example—a passage from what I was copyediting tonight. (Unlike the noun, the verb is usually a closed compound, which enables us to be deliberate yet work fast.)

But beginning in the 1980s, peppered moth experts including Majerus began noting flaws in Kettlewell’s experimental designs. The most serious of these was that limited research into peppered moth behavior seemed to suggest that tree trunks were not the insect’s preferred resting place. That alone threatened to put a serious dent into the validity of Kettlewell’s setup, as well as the bird predation theory itself.

In his 1998 book, Melanism: Evolution in Action, Majerus discussed these shortcomings along with a critical dissection of all the peppered moth case evidence that had accumulated.

The compound at issue is “peppered moth,” used adjectivally. I have argued elsewhere on this blog (it’s late, I’ll find the link another day) that compound common names for animal and plant species become units in our minds and thus should be treated like “lowercase proper nouns.” For example, despite its admitted grammatical ambiguity, “bald cypress swamp” will not be taken for a bald swamp with cypresses in it, and should not be hyphenated simply because if you once start to hyphenate things like that there’s no end to it.

But in this case that didn’t feel right to me. Going by feel alone, here’s how I wanted to edit the passage, and the footnote presents my case for it:

But beginning in the 1980s, [1]peppered-moth experts, including Majerus, began noting flaws in Kettlewell’s experimental designs. The most serious of these was that limited research into peppered moth behavior seemed to suggest that tree trunks were not the insect’s preferred resting place. That alone threatened to put a serious dent in the validity of Kettlewell’s setup—and in the bird predation theory itself.

In his 1998 book, Melanism: Evolution in Action, Majerus discussed these shortcomings in the context of a critical dissection of all the peppered-moth case evidence that had accumulated.

[1] (CE) My reasoning is to use a hyphen where there is grammatical ambiguity, which, even if it doesn’t confuse us as to meaning, makes us feel funny. There is no such thing as peppered behavior, so that doesn’t call for a hyphen, but there could conceivably be a peppered expert on moths [as well as a peppered moth-case, before you even get to the evidence]. That grammatical form exerts a pull strong enough to rival the habitual bond between “peppered” and “moth.” In my opinion. If you think it reads as inconsistent, and “peppered-moth behavior” should be hyphenated too, go ahead. The trouble with that is that one then feels a compulsion to hyphenate every occurrence, and it becomes a nuisance.

As I look at this I realize that, another layer deeper, whether a hyphen feels needed or superfluous has something to do with how the sentences move and sound, where the stresses fall: “peppered móth expert” seems to throw “moth” and “expert” together, which is perfectly appropriate in the case of “peppered móth behávior,” but in the case of the expert, leaves “peppered” too equidistant from the two animate nouns, attracted to them both. (So why does this not apply to “bald cypress swamp”? Do I contradict myself? Or is it that the accent on “cy” juts up so high, like a cypress knee, that it shoulders “bald” and “swamp” far enough apart? No need, to my ear, to give the words a hit of helium and make it “baldcypress,” as some do.)

I think this probably goes too far into editorial prima-donnaism. After all, let’s get real, copyediting isn’t Beethoven’s late quartets, even when you have been doing it that long. Really, the problem is that I’m drunk on sleep deprivation. Consider this a rare glimpse into the place deep in an editor’s mind where language meets music and dance.

October 25, 2011

I’m Possessive . . .

. . . but I know when to let go.

My older (not older than me, I mean, but probably older than you) editor colleagues are appalled when I tell them that the neuter third-person possessive “its” is definitely on the way out, and that while I still loyally use “its,” I have resigned myself to its (it’s) disappearance, and even to the logic of its disappearance.

Look, we make possessives by adding “apostrophe s.”  The only reason we break that rule in the case of “it” is to avoid confusing the possessive with the contraction of “it is” (“it’s going to be a long day”).  But why are we suddenly so phobic about confusion?  We constantly distinguish between homonyms on the basis of context alone.  When we “peer” through a mail slot we don’t think of forcing a member of the House of Lords through the aperture.  Or for a better example (because both are verbs), we know that it’s one thing to “tear up” and another to “tear up your Kleenex.”  People who form the possessive “it’s” may be ignorant of the niceties of grammar, but the niceties—especially, God knows, in English!—are often arbitrary, and in this case the ignorance is logical.

I believe that sooner than later, the dictionaries will accept “it’s” first as an acceptable alternative, and then as the correct way to form the neuter third person plural.  And why not?  (Ironically, I’d be willing to betcha “his” started out as “he’s.”) Language changes because usage is the ultimate authority, or as William Safire used to call her, “Norma Loquendi.” (In this case, actually, her cousin, Norma Scribendi.)

There is one problem, and that’s that when people are uncertain about where apostrophe’s belong, they multiply like fleas.  As in the preceding sentence (I actually typed that unintentionally!), they are attracted to any terminal “s” and thus they start infecting plurals, which is beyond the pale.

And . . . here’s what prompted me to write this . . .

Today I actually saw           you’r

January 29, 2011

Two-Spacer’s Lament

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,punctuation — amba12 @ 2:54 am

Long time no post, but when I heard rumors of Farhad Manjoo’s Slate diatribe against “the two-space error,” I knew I would have to track it down and respond.

Farhad, two spaces after a colon or period is not an error.  It is a custom, a gracious custom that is passing away, like ironed handkerchiefs and hat-doffing and saying “You’re welcome” instead of “No problem” and starting a business letter to a total stranger “Dear Miss Welty” instead of “Hi Eudora.”  I freely grant you that two spaces after a colon or period is an anachronism.  I grant you that it is quaint.  But that is different from an error.  Farhad, you are so presentist. G.K. Chesterton would even say you are undemocratic.

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. . . . Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it . . . along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. . . . Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

But two-spacing is not that venerable a tradition.  As Manjoo points out, it was an accommodation to the peculiarities of a late-nineteenth-century invention that dominated the first half of the twentieth:  the manual typewriter.  Because typewriters used “monospaced” type, granting the same width of space — defined by a keyhead — to both fat and skinny letters, the spacing in a line looked spotty, and it was harder to tell where sentences ended.  Now that our computers automatically insert proportional spacing, as typesetters do, there is no need for two-spacing. The typewriter remains an object of some nostalgia — some living writers can only write on them (the persnickety pace and companionable clackety-clack suit their muse), some people even play music on them, and the funky font Courier pays tribute to them — but it is, on the face of it, odd that the custom of two-spacing should have a momentum that propels it beyond the technology that launched it.  Isn’t this just mental inertia?

I don’t think so.  Two spaces after a period or colon represents, to me, a pause to take a breath.  In a time when there seems to be less and less time, it is an insistence on a tiny space of time, if not around then within the high-pressure flow of information — a pinprick, a pore, just enough to keep an air-breathing animal from drowning in viscous data.  Two spaces give a stubbornly stately, unhurried rhythm to the succession of sentences and clauses, more like moseying musing than the jabber of a teenager on T-Mobile, more like a promenade or paseo than a bullet train.

Punctuation is part of the musical notation of language — something I learned, not from anyone of G.K. Chesterton’s vintage, but from the Beat poets.  They laid out their words like a musical score on the page, showing the reader where to rush ahead like rapids, where to hesitate tactfully, where to take a breath like a clarinetist so that the next arc of notes might be unbroken.  Of course a period or colon by itself means “take a longer pause,” but to us two-spacers there’s something pleasing about seeing that pause on the page, in a small way making a visual image of the rhythms of thought.

I have a hunch that the real reason two spaces are not just unnecessary, but to be damned, is that they trip up computers.  And computers are our masters now.  Especially your generation, Farhad.  God forbid you inconvenience a computer.  It might (gasp!) slow down.

May 6, 2010

Usage Find of the Day [UPDATED]

Filed under: language degenerating,punctuation,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:02 pm

Subject line of an e-mail received tonight from the University of Chicago Press:

Its coming! The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

Not soon enough, alas!

UPDATE: Apparently it was a machine’s fault!

Dear Ms. Gottlieb:

Many apologies for the error. Please be assured that the text of our original email message had “It’s coming!” in the subject line, but our email software accidentally stripped the apostrophe in the process of sending the message.

All the best,
The CMOS Team

Well, that’s a relief!  It’s only the young folks who program the e-mail software who are confused about apostrophe s!

February 11, 2010

A Rule Is to Break . . .

Filed under: punctuation — amba12 @ 7:39 pm

. . . as long you do it as well as Gertrude Stein:

And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.

So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …

(from Lectures in America)

That should awaken you from your comma . . .

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