Mind the Gap

Looking at the spaces between vertical railings on my friend’s just-built deck, I could only say, “This can’t adhere to any code.” The spaces were a good two feet apart, so any child under the age of six could easily walk right off the deck.

Needless to say, my friend had words with her contractor.

The existing railing might even have been worse than no railing at all, because the illusion of safety might have given a false sense of security, whereas if there were no railing whatsoever, people (presumably even children) would be afraid to go near the edge.

Editing can be like that.

I’ve noticed that the more professional the design, whether that means typesetting of the text or pictorial or illustrative elements surrounding the text, the more likely the editor is to have a false sense that everything is okay.

It rarely is.

I’ve seen good editors miss what should be obvious mistakes on book covers in part, I have to think, because the design looks so nice that it’s hard to believe there could be an error.

A corollary is that editors can easily fail to fact-check something because of the thought that the writer intended a piece of information to be there and must know what he or she is talking about.

Trust in editing is a dangerous thing, while skepticism more often than not saves the day.

But editors should be skeptical of their own impulses as well. Before making any change, editors have to counter the little thrill of making a correction by asking themselves whether there’s any way that the original instance could in fact be correct. Young editors especially can be so fired up with confidence in their abilities that they introduce errors by misreading a usage and making a bad edit.

So we have to always be skeptical of the text, of our writers, and, perhaps most particularly, of ourselves. As always, do no harm!

And don’t go stepping off any decks, metaphorical ones or otherwise.  


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A Big Nerd

“You’re a big nerd, Dad.”

That is what my daughter told me as we sat in folding chairs and waited for the reading / book signing to begin. But let me explain.

My fourteen-year-old daughter and I had driven from Southern Maryland into Washington, DC, to attend an event featuring Kelly Link and Juan Martinez at the Politics & Prose bookstore. After enjoying a bite to eat in the store’s basement-level cafe, my daughter and I headed upstairs to grab a couple seats for the reading.

While waiting for the event to begin, I took the opportunity to explain the singular they and its increasing acceptance. As any fourteen-year-old might, she then hit me with the abovementioned assessment of my coolness.

And of course she was absolutely correct.

All of that aside, we had a hell of a time at the reading. Nothing makes me more proud than my daughter’s love of books (if not the finer points of grammar), and I took great joy in introducing her to the works of Kelly Link (and being introduced to a new author myself, having been unfamiliar with Juan Martinez before the signing).

A few notes from the evening:

  • Reading from her collection Get in Trouble, Link drew laughs with the line “Florida is California on a Troma budget.” As a fan of low-budget horror, I was glad to see so many people appreciated the reference!
  • When asked about their favorite rules to break, Link answered “show don’t tell,” while Martinez mentioned placing action on the page (employing, for instance, five pages of dialogue to power a story).
  • Link reported to be enjoying work on her novel, and both authors talked about how writing a novel, with more room to spread out, was in many ways easier than working on a short story. Both seemed to agree that the novel’s form is far more forgiving than that of the short story.

All in all, the night in DC (with my daughter, two wonderful authors, and a good crowd at one of my favorite bookstores) was immensely enjoyable.

Even if my daughter thinks I’m a big nerd.


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Grief and the Present Tense

Last week I was pleased to come across the following piece about the present perfect. Posted by Jiwon Lee in the ITBE Link quarterly newsletter, the article has played on my thoughts and prompted me to think about tense in a whole different way.

A new way of teaching the English present perfect

Most of us learned about perfect tenses in elementary school, and the past tense learned is probably appropriate here. The learning we’re talking about likely occurred in the past without subsequent, continued thought on the matter. But the reasons why we might in one instance choose the past tense (I went to the store) and in another instance choose the present perfect (I have gone to the store) are worth investigating.

When we speak or write, we choose our words largely on feel (and with the idiomatic nature of English we’d likely drive ourselves crazy otherwise), so it’s no wonder we don’t spend an overwhelming amount of time questioning why we might decide unconsciously on one of two seemingly appropriate options.

When we choose the past tense, however, we’re suggesting that something occurred and was isolated as an event in the past. But when we choose the present perfect, we’re suggesting that while something happened in the past, the effects of the action are still active in a circle of time surrounding the immediate present.

In my life I’ve lost a large number of people I care for deeply, and of late I’ve been thinking much about grief and the grieving process. In the “going to the store” example above, I can easily understand someone not seeing much of a difference between “I went to the store” and “I have gone to the store.” But there is a subtle distinction, and it’s an important one.

Think about the different connotations between “My friend died” and “My friend has died.” The former relegates the event completely to the past, whereas the latter suggests that the event occurred in the past but in a very real way is still occurring.

As we come to terms with loss the actual effect might not be “My friend died” but rather “My friend has died and is dying and is dying and is dying” until we finally come to terms with and accept the fact of that death. The present perfect therefore implies a greater influence of a past event over the present, and as anyone who has lost someone knows, death has a way of shaping our sense of time in ways that are certainly felt, if not always completely understood.

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Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt

People love to correct other people’s grammar, spelling, and usage. What better way to establish superiority or to discredit someone’s argument! And that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Feeling superior. Or more educated. Or just better. Never mind that a person’s opinion on a matter isn’t more or less valid because that person used an apostrophe improperly or didn’t recognize a difference between eager and anxious.

I edit for a living. I spend most of my days trying to bring out the best in the text before me, but that doesn’t mean I’m rude. An editor can’t stop editing. Try going to a restaurant with one and see if he or she doesn’t point out a spelling error on the menu. That’s worlds different, though, from correcting someone’s speech, online or off, in a shameless attempt to pat oneself on the back.

I believe that most people who obnoxiously correct another’s grammar don’t really care about the language but are simply grasping onto a means to run another down, but for people who do care about the language, I’d recommend John McWhorter’s Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally). (And I apologize for the long lead-in/rant.)

In Words on the Move, McWhorter examines how language has changed through time. He shows readers how it is changing now and why it will always change, and he makes a convincing argument that this is a good thing.

Still, language change is not going to go down easy for people who cringe when they hear someone say, “What’s the ask?” But even so, McWhorter at least reveals the mechanics behind inexplicable, or seemingly wrong, usages. Does pronouncing nuclear in a certain way (we’re looking at you, President Bush) make at least a little more sense if we understand that that pronunciation has been influenced by words such as spectacular and circular (that is, that an already existing pattern of word formation has resulted in an improper pronunciation)? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it does provide a fuller picture.

Elsewhere, McWhorter talks about the Great Vowel Shift and shifts in pronunciation today, the oddness of the phrase “used to,” grammaticalization (great word!), and backshift, which explains why compound words like supermarket are pronounced superMARKET when new and SUPERmarket when their newness wears off.

I understand that it feels good to rail against the way kids speak these days, but Words on the Move provides background and understanding that might make some hold their tongues.

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‘Before’ and ‘Ago’ in Fiction

Does anyone distinguish between before and ago these days? Is anyone else bothered by the nearly ubiquitous use of ago in fiction?

Take your standard third-person, past-tense narrative. Here a storyteller relates events occurring at some point in the past, and from the reader’s perspective, the storyteller is relating these events from the present, or at least the present associated with the time the book was written.

So when the storyteller says something like “Stephen remembered the events that happened three days ago,” the word ago would be associated with the storyteller’s present (three days before the time period in which the storyteller is telling the story), whereas the word before would be associated with the timeline of the character in the story (three days before the events that are being narrated in the story).

The word now is just as problematic, for the same reason, and when I come across it I usually find that the sentence would be just as sound if it were simply dropped.

The prevalence of ago for before in fiction (and, of course, I’m just talking about the particular instances when it wouldn’t be appropriate) is such that I have to believe it doesn’t bother the majority of readers. I can easily imagine that most readers simply pass it by without raising an eyebrow (and, to be fair, readers know what the author means; the intent is almost never unclear). But it always takes me out of the narrative, if only for a moment.

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Define Subversive

After attending a presentation by Carol Fisher Saller at the American Copy Editors Association’s 2016 annual conference, in Portland, I looked forward to reading the soon-to-be-released second edition of her book The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). Now that I’ve done just that, I can happily report that it’s a good addition to any editor’s library.

To be clear, the book is not a grammar or usage guide. Rather, it contains Saller’s thoughts on her approach to copyediting—and a reasonable, even kind, approach it is. Take these thoughts on working toward the perfect document:

The document does not have to be perfect because perfect is rarely possible. There’s no Platonic ideal for that document, one “correct” way for it to turn out, one perfect version hidden in the block of marble that it’s your job to discover by endless chipping away. It simply has to be the best you can make it in the time you’re given, free of obvious gaffes, rid of every error you can spot, rendered consistent in every way the reader needs in order to understand and appreciate, and as close to your chosen style as is practical.

Lest the above be taken in the wrong spirit, Saller is in no way lax with her editing. It’s clear she cares deeply about even the smallest aspect of her work, but this doesn’t mean that she is so rigid that she would allow adherence to a supposed rule to interfere with the ultimate goal of any copy editor: helping the reader. And this is exactly where the subversiveness of her title comes into play. She is subversive because she allows that one should occasionally step outside of the “rules,” that one should accept that style is not always a matter of being correct or incorrect. She is subversive because she doesn’t believe the writer-editor partnership need be adversarial, but that it should instead be a relationship that ultimately serves the reader.

Not so very subversive, at all, you see.

Saller notes that while many copy editors are lucky enough to find a mentor at a newspaper or publishing house, many others struggle to find their own way. With its helpful philosophy, the benefit of Saller’s experience with the University of Chicago Press, and a list of helpful print and online resources, The Subversive Copy Editor is a must-read made all the more enjoyable by the author’s informed, yet often humorous, and even self-deprecating, tone.

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Change Is Good (Sometimes)

Editors pore over text, moving from letter to letter, even looking for extra spaces and judging whether punctuation marks should be italic or roman.

Yes, an editor’s work might seem tedious, but then—BAM!—an editor finds an error and feels an undeniable charge. Editors might not pump their fists like tennis players winning a big point, but there’s a joy there. It’s one of the rewards of the profession.

That joy, though, shouldn’t influence whether an edit is actually made.

Every editor on the planet has probably heard that the first rule of editing is to “do no harm.” Good advice. There’s no greater sin in editing than introducing an error into the text. I don’t want to miss anything, ever, but I can forgive myself for that. I can’t forgive myself, however, for introducing an error because I’m too busy patting myself on the back to realize that a change shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

So once the thrill of finding what appears to be an error has passed, an editor should settle down and ask a number of questions.

  • Is it wrong? A misspelled name is wrong. A subject that doesn’t agree with its verb is wrong. But there are plenty of changes editors would like to make that have nothing to do with the supposed error being right or wrong. All editors have preferences, and some editors feel that their preferences are a reflection of who they are. Serial commas rule! or Down with serial commas! Either attitude is fine, and when editors have a choice, hey, by all means, they should follow their preference. But if you’re editing for someone who follows the Chicago Manual, then you use the serial comma, and if you’re editing for someone who follows AP, then you generally won’t. The point is that preferences over style should be put aside both for client and for audience.
  • Could it be correct if looked at from another angle? Sometimes we’re so sure that something is wrong that we don’t step back and ask whether there’s something we haven’t considered. Yes, that noun is singular and it’s linked to a plural verb. But have you considered that it’s a collective noun and the sense is that the members of that collective are acting individually and not as a whole? Editors should also try to look things up even when they are sure. (How many people are sure that just deserts should be just desserts?)
  • Should I make this edit? Does the edit go beyond the scope of my assignment? Yes, it’s a dangling modifier, but fixing it would mean radically restructuring the sentence. Maybe that’s something I should query before doing any rewriting.   
  • Does it affect other areas of the text? If I decide to write out the number eight and numerals have been used for numbers under ten throughout the document, then I’ve introduced an error where none existed before. What else could be affected by the change I’ve made?

The Halo Effect

Editors also have to consider the halo effect (missing another error close to the error that’s just been corrected). When an editor corrects an error, there’s a feeling that all is well, and that often extends to a few words before and after the error. You don’t want to fix the spelling of the subject and miss that the subject doesn’t agree with the verb. The best way to deal with the halo effect is to back up to the previous sentence and reread the portion of text again.

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