The Compulsive Copyeditor

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 14, 2014

The Grammar GPS

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 5:12 pm

Here I’d been describing grammar as train tracks for the brain — brain tracks — and accordingly, describing what happens in the case of bad grammar, particularly grammatical ambiguity (where you come to a fork in the track or stray down the blind spur of a misreading), as a derailing.

How 19th century of me! Obviously, it’s time I got with the program. The grammar part of your brain is a GPS, and a bad writer is a bad driver. When he or she gets you lost, you can just hear your brain draw itself up and say in that icy, nasal voice, dripping with contempt and barely controlled patience, “RECALCULATING.”

February 18, 2014

Typo Humor

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 1:07 pm

Find it here.

From The Onion’s horoscopes for the week of February 18, 2014:

An error in last week’s horoscope has probably resulted in you having a chance midnight encounter with a tall dark strangler. The stars regret any inconvenience.

April 6, 2012

Note to Subscribers

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 1:15 am

The drawback to subscribing to a blog is that you get the dashed-off, impulsive first version of a post, which, for starters, needs copyediting, and sometimes more. I recommend also reading the version on the blog — otherwise you might miss something. ;)

January 30, 2010

You Never Know Where That Word Has Been!

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 5:04 pm

TABLOID. You hear it and you think sleazy paparazzi, exposé journalism, tattling for cash. The word itself sounds tacky, phony, and creepy — the “-oid” suffix connotes something that resembles the form of something else but isn’t it, is a little off:  an “android” is a lifelike robot, and a “tabloid” is a newspaperlike scandal sheet. Like a man in a dirty tan raincoat you know you could catch a disease just by standing next to, the word “tabloid” makes you feel the cheap black ink come off on your hands.

Yet you probably know that “tabloid,” applied to a publication, originally meant simply the smaller-format, easier-to-read, workingman’s newspaper that didn’t have an aristocratic fold for infra dig stories to be dismissed below.  Unlike broadsheets, tabloids were democratic, both socially and psychologically:  they had no “upstairs, downstairs.”  No one’s sordid doings were off limits, and the natural human interest in sordid doings was itself lifted up out of the dark basement of the psyche and given space to accord with its power.  If “humiliate” literally means to bring the high and mighty down to earth (humus), the tabs weren’t going to wait for death to do it.  They were the great levelers.

The associations that attach to a word are, of course, in large part a matter of chance and free association, picked up on the word’s seed-on-the wind, tool-passed-from-hand-to-hand travels (though sound plays a nonrandom role).  Only retroactively, through use, do those flavors of experience and milieu become part of the word’s aura.  Yet they are so vivid to our brains that they seem natural, necessary, and permanent.  It’s unsettling to discover how far a word has traveled to arrive at its seemingly self-evident place in our world.  If asked to speculate on “TABLOID”‘s derivation, I ‘d have proposed “tablet,” in the sense of a stone or clay slab with markings incised on it.  I found out by accident yesterday where the word really comes from.  I would never have guessed.


When Silas Burroughs invited Henry Wellcome to join him in business in London in 1879, modern drug production was an undeveloped field. …

Over 20 years previously, the British artist and explorer William Brockedon, exasperated by the poor quality of the graphite in the pencils he used for his sketches, had invented a mechanised method of crushing graphite to a fine powder then compressing it to produce better-quality lead. In 1843, he was granted a patent for his invention, and the drug firm John Wyeth and Brother hired him to make compressed medicines using the same technique.

The compressed pills made by Brockedon’s machine offered a much safer, standardised dose than medicines prepared by pestle and mortar, and soon became popular. Other American manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to improve production methods. …

Across the Atlantic, things were very different. There were few manufacturing drug companies in England, very few medicines were produced on a large scale, and pharmacists still used the traditional, time-consuming and less precise pestle-and-mortar method to prepare medicines. …

Here was a virgin market, and Burroughs – who was Wyeth’s sole agent in London and had been importing and marketing pharmaceuticals since 1878 – realised that he might be able to make his fortune by importing the compressed pills and marketing them in England and Europe. He wrote to Wellcome to invite him to join the venture. …

Heavy stamp duty on imports from America made importing the pills costly, so the partners took another novel step – at a time when there were few manufacturing pharmacists in Britain – in deciding to manufacture their own pills.

In 1883, they purchased their first factory at Bell Lane Wharf in Wandsworth, and Wellcome bought the machinery needed for making compressed medicine tablets from Wyeth in America to produce pills for the British and European markets. By 1882 Burroughs Wellcome & Co. were up and running as drug manufacturers, and by his 30th birthday Wellcome was a wealthy man.

The company’s compressed drugs were an instant success in Britain, and Burroughs and Wellcome soon needed a bigger factory. They purchased the Phoenix Paper Mills site at Dartford, and used Thames barges for transport. This site remained the firm’s production centre until the 1980s.

In 1888, frustrated by the limitations of Wyeth’s machine, which was slow and unreliable, Wellcome put together a team of engineers to design a better one. The result was machinery that could produce 600 compressed pills per minute, each pill bearing an unprecedented standard of precision and giving Burroughs Wellcome & Co. a clear lead over their competitors.

The British competition soon woke up to the success of Burroughs Wellcome & Co., and other manufacturers began to make imitations of compressed convenience products.

To eliminate the competition, in 1884, Wellcome registered as a trademark one of the most famous and powerful brand names in business history, ‘Tabloid’ – a word he coined by blending the words ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’ – to denote his firm’s pills.

Over the next few years Burroughs Wellcome & Co. fought and won legal battles to prevent other firms using the same name. In 1904 Burroughs Wellcome & Co. v. Thompson & Capper made history as the ‘Tabloid’ case. The prosecution argued that doctors prescribed ‘tabloid’ products because they had faith in the purity and accuracy of Burroughs Wellcome & Co products. And the judge ruled that ‘tabloid’ specifically referred to the products of that firm.

Not only did the ‘Tabloid’ brand name prevent the competition from taking a slice of the market, its associations with quality and precision also made it an effective marketing tool. The name was applied to the full range of the company’s products, including ‘Tabloid’ first aid kits and medicine chests, the ‘Tabloid’ photographic developer and even ‘Tabloid’ Tea.

The term has now passed into general use to mean anything in compact form, in particular a ‘condensed’ newspaper format. But it is still technically the property of Burroughs Wellcome & Co.

January 18, 2010

The Thrill of Anonymity

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 1:43 pm

When I began working again as a copy editor, it was on a freelance basis, and I was simply — and for all I knew, temporarily — one of several taking turns filling the shoes of a long-timer who’d quit to go back to grad school in her 50s.  So when I was addressed as “Copy” in footnote conferences, it made sense:  the role was being addressed, regardless of who was in it.

But the job and I were such a good fit that within a few months I was “Copy Chief,” on the masthead, and handling nearly all the copy editing and fact checking.  To distinguish between the two roles (which are quite distinct, and cannot be done well simultaneously — when focusing on one, you’ll miss cues on the other), I continued to label my footnotes either “FC” or “CE” (or occasionally “FC/CE”).  Very rarely do I “come out” as myself, AG, and “break the frame,” as actors say when they step out of character and address the audience or camera directly.  The editors, of course, know perfectly well who I am, and they’ll sometimes address me by name in the footnotes.  (They use their personal initials to label theirs, which is useful because each is in charge of specific articles.)  But out of habit and a kind of guild tradition, they often still address me as “Copy” — and it never fails to give me a small thrill.

Why is this?  In our individualistic, attention-craving age, it seems almost masochistic. Well, let’s see.

When I began working with this crew, I took great pleasure in having colleagues again (writing is lonely work, editing much less so), and in the shop-floor talk of the ancient and honorable editing guild, which dates back at least to Gutenberg.  Editing is not the elite occupation you might think; it’s much more like being an auto mechanic.  The nuts and bolts and parts of language are dismantled and handled with an unsentimental focus on their eventual smooth functioning.  Much more than a writer, who (I should know) is often tempted to show off, you want your work not to show.  So there’s a funny blue-collar feel about the editing give-and-take that is very refreshing.  It feels like “real” work, with hands and tools, almost as material and hand-dirtying as typesetting.  (I wonder if the same people used to do both.)

Copy editing in particular is a supremely self-effacing job, and there is a satisfaction in vanishing into the role that feels ancient.  I can only explain by lapsing into medieval craft-guild analogies.

I naturally overstep the bounds of the role at times, straying into the more subjective and qualitative province of line editing.  I’m good at this, but it’s not my job, and thank God — I don’t want the responsibility, just now.  I took real pains to reassure my colleagues that I have zero attachment to my suggestions.  I won’t hold them back in case they might be deemed useful, but I will not get my nose out of joint if they’re not.  The result is that sometimes my fixes are accepted (rather than resented).  When they are, I feel a secret satisfaction in fellowship with one of the anonymous stoneworkers on Chartres Cathedral, looking up and being the only one ever to know, “I carved the left nostril on that gargoyle!”  And put a little extra flair into the flare.

November 4, 2009

Can Poetry Find New Life Online?

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 2:39 pm

That’s the gamble being taken by the multimedia website, which launched yesterday — not so much that poetry might be read again in the old way (the words “dustily perused” come unbidden to mind), but that it has untapped appeal for a postliterate, audiovisual, multimedia culture — that people might even pay for a poem in various formats the way they’ll pay for a song.  This strikes me as a very sharp insight:  poetry is music — word music — and it might catch the inner ear of musically imprinted people in a way that unstructured prose does not.  The launch press release describes as both “a social network for poets and poetry lovers” and “a new business model for poetry”:

On, poets will be able to manage their own information, blog if they wish, explain and display their body of work to their own choosing, and even post their speaking or performance schedules. […] Both interactive and educational, visitors will be able to create their own “favorites,” plus connect to the poets via Twitter and other social networking sites. will also be a business and marketing engine for poets and poetry presses.  There are already three revenue streams, with several others identified and being developed. sells individual poems in different formats (audio, video or text), as well as books, ebooks, DVDs and CDs, and tickets to online performances, slams or readings.

That combination of functions makes the site an agora — one of the most ancient human institutions, a place of inseparable social, commercial, and cultural exchange [wish I could use the German word “Geistlich,” which covers both intellectual and spiritual], where performances, transactions, meet-ups, pick-ups and trysts are all going on in the same spacetime.  All our favorite ingredients fermenting together makes for a heady and fertile brew.  I hope the site takes off and helps poetry reclaim its rightful place among the musics that move us.

And in related newsReading poetry is a good workout for your brain.

Subjects were found to read
 poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with 
prose. Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology also showed greater
 levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr
Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood. She claims the intense imagery woven through poems, and 
techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more
 carefully about each line. “There seems to be an almost immediate
 recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be 
approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in
 poetry,” she said. […]

To study readers’ reactions,
 the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to
 detect minute movements as they read. They found poetry produced 
all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual
 difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long
 pauses. Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem
 format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more
 difficult to understand. Stabler said: “When readers decide that something
 is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to 
think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness
 and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading
 produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult.” […]

The group hopes to use
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people 
listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen. The 
research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in
 schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on 
teaching youngsters poetry.

Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be
 intricately linked with making and recalling memories.

It’s hard not to have rap come to mind, as a postliterate return to humanity’s preliterate mnemonic reliance on rhyme (as the above article notes, “the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics
 is because they have rhythm and rhyme”), and as a bridge from music back to pleasure in poetry.

Cross-posted at Ambiance

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at