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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Newsletter musings, part 2

September 27, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Newsletter musings, part 2

Two weeks ago, I reviewed some queries raised in the editing of the October-November Copyediting newsletter. Today, I’ll share a few more items that were raised by Copyediting’s stellar copyeditors.

Suppressing that

One way editors trim copy is by cutting unnecessary thats, yet sometimes a that is needed. Here’s an example we batted around in this issue:

This is not to say [that] the situation is hopeless.

Garner’s Modern American Usage states that it’s OK to drop that when it’s a relative pronoun or conjunction, unless you’re dealing with formal writing. Garner’s also recommends keeping that after such verbs as ask, say, believe, and claim. Copyediting’s writing style is professional rather than formal, but in our example that follows say.

To further complicate the issue, at Copyediting we try to balance our writing style with the author’s. So do we take a hard line and keep that after a verb like say?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) offers another opinion. When we omit a that, it calls the results a contact clause: “a dependent clause attached to its antecedent without benefit of a relative pronoun.” MWDEU notes that contact clauses have been common in English for over 600 years; even Shakespeare used them in his writing. Yet 18th-century grammarians knew that contact clauses didn’t exist in Latin, so they outlawed them in English. As a result, formal registers of speaking and writing eschew contact clauses.

Certainly there are situations where suppressing the relative pronoun would result in a miscue or ambiguity. If suppressing a that would result in ambiguity or miscue, keep it. If you’re editing formal writing, include all your thats. Otherwise, you can safely omit a that acting as a relative pronoun or conjunction.

Problems with parallelism

Here’s a sentence from the newsletter that has a parallelism problem. See if you can spot it:

For most of us, either someone above us or before us has already made the choice or has decided to follow the dictionary that the chosen style manual uses.

The phrases between either and the second or should be grammatically identical, creating parallelism. Yet if you break down the phrases, you’ll see that the first phrase has a subject (someone above us or before us), a verb (has already made), and an object (the choice), but the second phrase has only a verb (has decided to follow) and an object (the dictionary that the chosen style manual uses).

There are two easy fixes for this sentence. We can move either to follow the first has and delete the second has, creating two verb phrases that share a subject and a helping verb, or we can move either to precede the first has, creating two phrases that share one subject but that have separate verbs. (You’ll have to check the issue to see which we finally went with.)

Why is it webmail?

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has adopted the lowercased web, webmail, webmaster, and so on, though it retains the caps in World Wide Web. Why? According to the manual, “generic terms that are capitalized as part of the official name of a system or an organization may be lowercased when used alone or in combination. … Chicago now considers web to be generic when used alone or in combination with other generic terms.” Copyediting follows Chicago and, frankly, this is where styling for web-related terms is headed. The AP Stylebook follows this style (I know, many of you are still grumbling about its change to email), as do APA’s Publication Manual and many others. The AMA Style Manual and The Gregg Reference Manual are holding the line, however.

What questions stump your editing team? Share your questions in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: National Punctuation Day

September 20, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21National Punctuation Day

This Saturday, September 24, is National Punctuation Day. Founded by Jeff Rubin, the holiday seems readymade for copyeditors. Rubin’s site offers a few ways to celebrate his holiday, but for word professionals, the best way is to correct punctuation in your editing every day—not just on Punctuation Day—and instruct your writers on better punctuation usage. Gently, of course. Here are a few resources for punctuation lessons:

If you want to read more about punctuation, check out:

Here’s one more way to celebrate the holiday: send Copyediting an example of a punctuation error found in your editing travels. We’ll publish some of our favorites in an upcoming blog post and choose one entry at random for the winner’s choice of one of these audio conference CDs:

  • Punctuation Bugbears, Part 1: Colons, Semicolons, Dashes, and Hyphens
  • Punctuation Bugbears, Part 2: Commas/Possessives
  • Punctuation Bugbears, Part 3: All About Quoting
  • Punctuation Bugbears, Part 4: Capitalization/Trademarks

E-mail your entry to editor@copyediting.com. One sentence per entry, one entry per person. Names and personally identifiable information should be changed to protect the guilty.

Happy Punctuation Day!

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Newsletter musings, part 1

September 13, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Newsletter musings

Each issue of the Copyediting newsletter grants me a view into other copyeditors’ minds. The newsletter is fortunate to have two rounds of copyediting with two editors reviewing it in each round. I get to peek into three different editors’ minds (one person looks at both rounds), seeing how issues can strike several people differently. Here are a few questions that arose during a recent round of editing the newsletter.

When to use a colon to introduce a list

I want to use a colon to introduce a list that’s on a separate line than its introductory sentence, even when the introductory sentence isn’t a complete sentence. I’m not sure where I picked up this habit, as it’s not something many style guides recommend. Copyediting has followed this practice in some places in the newsletter as well.

But one sharp-eyed copyeditor noted that this shouldn’t always be the case. According to The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), you don’t always need a colon before a series or a list. “If a colon intervenes in what would otherwise constitute a grammatical sentence—even if the introduction appears on a separate line, as in a list (see 6.121–26)—it is probably being used inappropriately.” This is a style choice, however, so check your style guide for its ruling on colons and lists. We at Copyediting will try to follow Chicago’s rule a little more closely.

A vs. per

Often, editors will change a to per or vice versa, but I’ve never noticed much difference between the two. The question came up with this sentence:

The project saves the company $8 million to $9 million a year.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) shows that since the 19th century, usage experts have rejected per because it was “a mystical sort of word,” not English. In the intervening time, however, people have increasingly used per anyway. Garner’s Modern American Usage (Garner’s) notes that using a is more formal (likely because of the centuries of usage experts saying it’s the right choice) but that per has become idiomatic.

As usual, it doesn’t matter what the experts say. If people consistently use a word to mean a certain thing, that word comes to mean that certain thing. Unless you’ve got a good reason for making the change one way or another, leave the author’s preference. He probably wasn’t even aware of the choice and used the one that sounded natural to him.

All vs. all of

Choose the correct word:

Even if a dictionary could capture all/all of a word’s current uses, language doesn’t sit still.

The choice between all and all of is a small point because including or excluding of doesn’t change the meaning. But it’s a point that many copyeditors think about—and that language mavens have argued about for centuries. Garner’s notes that all of is more common, especially in American English, but all is considered more formal. Says MWDEU: “The all users seem to be a bit stronger on the literary side. The choice is a matter of style and it is likely to turn on the rhythm and emphasis of your sentence.” Again, unless you have a good argument for one form or the other, leave what the author wrote.

I’ll review a few more newsletter queries in a couple of weeks. Next week, I’ll do something special for National Punctuation Day.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: More one-or-two-word confusables

September 6, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21More one-or-two-word confusables

In July, I examined a dozen pairs of words that make copyeditors ask, “Should that be one word or two?” I asked for suggestions from readers for additions to the list, and you didn’t disappoint. Today, I look at another half-dozen word pairs that you wanted to know more about.

Note: not all of these word pairs’ definitions are listed here. When in doubt, check your house dictionary.

all right, adjective. OK; acceptable. adverb. Satisfactorily; certainly.

alright, adjective (nonstandard). OK; acceptable. adverb (nonstandard). Satisfactorily; certainly.

Is it all right to park my car here?
Everything will work out all right if you just have patience.

Many dictionaries and usage guides have entries on alright, and they mostly say the same thing: it’s a nonstandard variation of all right. Even though already for all ready and altogether for all together have become accepted words, alright has not. Bryan Garner puts it at stage 2 of his Language Change Index: “The form spreads to a significant portion of the language community, but it remains unacceptable in standard usage.” That significant portion includes journalism and business writing, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which includes many citations, as does the Corpus of Contemporary American English (1,913 at press time). Your best bet is to use all right and only use alright where it is already acceptable and when you can’t talk your author out of it.

any one, noun phrase. Whichever person.

anyone, pronoun. Any person.

Any one of us could take the call.
Anyone could take the call.

how ever, adverb + adverb. An error for however, although Oxford Dictionaries Online notes, “When ever is used as an intensifier after how, what, when, where, or why, it should be separated by a space,” as in “How ever did you find her?”

however, adverb. In whatever way; on the other hand; despite. conjunction. In whatever way.

I would like to see that movie; however, I doubt I will have time.
That painting is ugly however you look at it.

left over, past participle verb + adverb. If something is left over, it is extra.

leftover, noun. Remainder of something; in the plural form, usually the remaining uneaten food. adjective. Related to remainders.

I have enough yarn left over to knit another sweater.
My leftover yarn is threatening to consume my house.

log in, verb. To enter one’s ID and password into a computer system.

login, noun. The process of entering one’s ID and password into a computer system; one’s ID and password for a computer system. adjective. Related to the process of entering one’s ID and password into a computer system or to one’s ID and password.

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Your login was not successful; please check your login information.

on going, preposition + progressive verb. Error for ongoing.

ongoing, adjective. In the process of happening, continuing.

I have an ongoing struggle with my kids to get them to clean their room.

Keep your suggestions coming, and I’ll cover them in a future post. Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Negotiating marketing copy edits

August 30, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Negotiating marketing copy edits

I was wondering if you could cover how to edit marketing materials in an upcoming Tip of the Week. For example, how do you handle punctuation and capitalizations? My company has recently hired a PR guy to create logos and branding materials that get sent to me for editing and, oftentimes, I see broken rules regarding the aforementioned issues. Do I disregard as creative license or fix?

Trish Armstrong
Copy Editor
Performance Impact Inc.

I’ve spent much of my career editing either marketing copy or copy that talks about marketing. As a result, I’ve come to accept that there are things in marketing copy that I must endure rather than correct.

What is marketing copy?

Gregory Wagner, of Leo Burnnett, said in a 2008 Copyediting audio conference, “Advertising is the art of selling, not the selling of art.” Marketing copy is goal-driven copy. It doesn’t exist for itself but, ultimately, to make a sale. To that end, good marketing copy is:

  • Engaging
  • Consumer-driven
  • Benefit-focused
  • Consistent with the brand character
  • Enduring, extendable

To achieve all these things, marketing copy often must break a few rules. A brand might need to sound informal to strike a chord with its audience. Such text should read the way we talk—or the way we expect it to read. For example, pizza is comfort food. How Pizza Hut talks to its audience reinforces that idea:

It’s multi-meat mayhem in there. Stuffed with all your favorites—pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, pork, beef, and of course cheese.

Money, on the other hand, is serious business. Anyone taking the management of its customers’ money lightly will soon be out of business. That’s why T. Rowe Price takes a different tone with its marketing copy; it’s serious and formal. No mention of mayhem here:

T. Rowe Price offers a disciplined approach with a diverse choice of investment options to help you customize a plan to achieve your retirement goals.

What can I edit?

If it sounds like I’m saying good grammar should go out the window, I’m not. I’m not bothered by Sports Authority’s “Time out! We gotta take inventory” headline because it imitates how its target audience speaks. But I am bothered by Old Navy’s “Lets Go” T-shirts. There’s no clever meaning behind Lets Go, and it doesn’t advance the brand in any way. It’s just a glaring typo. However, Old Navy’s reaction to the typo is on brand:

A company’s marketing materials should apply rules consistently and the message should be easily understandable. Any grammar, usage, style, or punctuation rules that are broken should be done so consistently, with purpose, and in a way that the audience will react to favorably.

What you can correct, or at least query:

  • Typos. Spelling and punctuation errors can be big embarrassments for a company. When the audience notices that you used lets go instead of let’s go or Stopables instead of Stoppables, you lose credibility with them. And lost credibility means lost sales.
  • Factually wrong words. Watch for false claims, brand names used incorrectly, and words that don’t commonly mean what the writer thinks they do.
  • Grammar and usage that are incorrect and don’t add to the message. Look for a reason for something to be incorrect before you correct it. Remember Apple’s Think Different campaign? Better yet, flag it and be prepared to listen to why something is the way it is.
  • Unparallel bullet lists. If you can make all the items in a bullet list all verb phrases or all noun phrases, give it a go. If one item ends with a period, end them all with periods. On the other hand, if making the items parallel means rewriting the whole list, query before you rewrite. It may not be worth the effort.
  • Anything potentially libelous or ethically wrong. Any day you can keep your company out of hot water is a good day. Be willing to flag potential legal problems and pass them by the lawyers.

What you can let go of:

  • Odd capitalization or boldfacing. Unorthodox capitalization or bolding is often used for a visual effect or to capture attention.
  • Informal speech. As long as it fits the brand’s identity, let go of gotta.
  • Sentence fragments. Unless they are overwhelming, don’t worry about sentence fragments. Copywriters often use them for effect.
  • Missing words that don’t add to the message. Copywriters will often employ a telegraphic style to their writing. There’s not a great difference between “Offer expires August 31, 2011” and “This offer expires August 31, 2011,” except that the first is punchier and more likely to get attention.

Your best bet is to have a conversation with your supervisor or the copywriter about what you will let go of and what you’ll enforce and create a detailed style sheet. Being in agreement means you know what to let go of, making your job easier in the long run.

Editing marketing copy can be difficult for copyeditors because rules don’t seem to apply. Every time I proof one company’s press releases, I have to refrain from certain corrections. I don’t agree with what they do. But what they do works for them, and that’s the goal. My job is to see that the copy follows the style they’ve set out as well as ensuring a certain correctness in the language. Letting go makes me a better copyeditor because I’m learning to control my impulses and remember whose copy it is.

Survey follow-up

Congratulations to Ella Wilcox, who won the year’s subscription to Copyediting for filling out our survey on the newsletter. Thanks to everyone who completed the survey. Your responses were very helpful and we’ll use them to guide the newsletter going forward.

Have you had to deal with unusual or unique style rules? How did you negotiate potential land mines? Share your experiences with other editorsin the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: I say copyedit, you say copy edit

August 22, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21I say copyedit, you say copy edit

Never mind the serial comma. If you want to see a group of copyeditors go toe to toe, ask them whether copyedit is one word or two. Chances are you’ll get two very strong opinions, neither side allowing that the other might have a reasonable argument.

This particular issue has been discussed several times in the pages of the Copyediting newsletter. When the newsletter went from being Copy Editor to Copyediting in the October–November 2007 issue, then-editor Wendi Nichols decided to go with the one-word spelling rather than the two. She made her argument for it (subscribers can read it here) and gave space to those who favored leaving it as two words through the voice of Bill Walsh (subscribers can read it here).

No matter which side of the argument you stand on, however, there’s a relevant point that we’re ignoring in our battle to be “right”: two words becoming one word is a natural, if messy, process. Writes Bryan Garner in Modern American Usage, “The normal process in modern English is for separate words used habitually to become hyphenated, then fused into a single word (e.g., to day became to-day in the 19th century and then today in the 20th).”

Language evolves. Even copyeditors, correcting all their peeves to their hearts’ content, can’t stop language change any more than we can stop the ocean tide coming in. In his new book, What Language Is, John McWhorter writes that it is “general silliness” to resist a “language’s moving on as all languages always have … No one in Milan walks around annoyed that people aren’t speaking Latin.”

But copyeditors are paid to make content consistent and understandable to the audience. If language changes slowly and unevenly, and the resources that record them—our dictionaries, grammars, and usage guides—change even more slowly and unevenly, what are copyeditors to do? A word such as copyedit is in flux; it has more than one accepted spelling and insisting that one preferred spelling is the only right spelling doesn’t get the job done.

“If you reject momento as a misspelling, on what grounds do you base your objection?” asks Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in its spelling discussion. “Certainly it is unetymological, but so is confidante, so is island, so is scissors. A better basis for deciding whether to use or reject a variant spelling is prevalent current use; most people spell it memento.”

The trick, then, is discovering prevalent current use. A copyeditor’s first line of defense is always to check the house dictionary or style guide. It’s the easy path: just follow what your dictionary says for any word with variant spellings. If both are listed, go with the first one. Or the most popular one. Or the one that strikes your fancy.

Not satisfied with that, you could go with the spelling that is supported by the most resources—or the most influential resources or your favorite resources. Take a poll. For example, copyedit is supported by The American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and The Chicago Manual of Style. Copy edit is recommended by Webster’s New World Dictionary, The Associated Press Stylebook, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.

Or you could choose to do your own research, which is becoming easier all the time. Sift through raw data in Google News, Google Books (narrowing results to modern day), and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). All aggregate words in their edited context. Each use of copy edit and copyedit was considered by, well, a copyeditor. Choose the spelling that returns the most hits or that returns the most hits within a specific parameter that matches your text.

No matter how you choose, you’re going to have to choose something. Pick a measurement that you feel comfortable defending and go measure. Then be consistent, and tolerate others’ choices.

“Languages are messy,” writes McWhorter, “it’s part of being the end product of sound changes, drifting meanings, and words coming together to make new ones. What’s new in a language is neither a mistake nor subject, in a logical sense, to condemnation as unlikeable. It is inherent to languages to be always gradually becoming other ones—and that, ladies and gentlemen, is never an orderly process.”

What guidelines do you follow to deal with variant spellings? Share them in the comments section below.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Chasing counter-language

August 16, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Chasing counter-language

I would call slang a “counter-language,” the desire of human beings, when faced by a standard version, of whatever that might be, to come up with something different, perhaps parallel, perhaps oppositional. For me, that is what slang does in terms of language. I believe that such reactions are hard-wired into our species. Humanity, one hopes, will continue. So too will slang. —Jonathon Green, Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Slang can be tough for a copyeditor to deal with: Does the term mean what the author thinks it means? Is it OK to use that slang term in this copy? Will our readers understand it? And on and on.

At least one question can be answered a little easier, thanks to the Internet. We have more resources than ever for determining if a slang term truly exists and whether the author is using it correctly.

The newest resource is Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Released in print earlier this year, this 3-volume, 6,000-page reference by Jonathan Green is a gold mine of historic and modern slang. Linguists, lexicographers, and other language professionals love it. Copyediting’s new Dictionary Update editor Mark Peters uses it frequently in his Visual Thesaurus column on old and new euphemisms, Evasive Maneuvers. His May column listed such gems as sophisticated lady (for cocaine) and have one’s little hat on (for being drunk).

“The gulf between a wiki-like hodge-podge like Urban Dictionary and a careful, researched work of scholarship like Green’s is huge,” says Peters. “On Urban Dictionary and other slang sites, it’s hard to tell a momentary coinage from slang that’s been slung for decades or even centuries. With the historical context and sample sentences, Green’s shows the depth and breadth of slang as we’ve never seen it. It is now the number one authority on slang—for etymology, appropriateness, and social context. If words are your trade, you just don’t have a full toolbox without Green’s.”

Green’s scholarship comes at a heavy cost, though: $525.47 on Amazon when I wrote this column. Not that it isn’t worth every penny, but the price may be a bit steep for copyeditors who wouldn’t use the resource every day.

Now, though, your library or other institution can purchase an electronic version from Oxford University Press’s (OUP’s) Digital Resource Shelf. OUP allows institutions to purchase many reference works like e-books, giving them “complete ownership of the title,” says Erin Fegely, Online Products Marketing Associate at OUP. Titles include The Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, and now Green’s.

In the end, though, we still have to ask if the resource is worth the cost. Certainly you can make a case for your local library or other institution to purchase the electronic Green’s. And the scholarship is excellent, just what you’d expect from the publisher of The Oxford English Dictionary. How often will you dip into it, though? It contains a lot of words, but unless you can take advantage of its historical depth or the breadth of its English variants, you might want to try something else.

I polled Copyediting’s Twitter and Facebook followers for what they use, and here’s what they suggested:

  • Urban Dictionary. By far, responders check Urban Dictionary the most. However, if you’re easily, or even not so easily, offended, you might want to check this site when other resources have failed. Another drawback is that entries are submitted by users and then voted on by all users as accurate or not. The cream rises to the top, of course, but it takes time. I added googlemap to try the site out, and my definition had received only one thumbs down vote as of this writing.
  • World Wide Words by Michael Quinion. I’ve long been a fan of World Wide Words and Quinion’s work. His research is solid and current. The drawback is that Quinion’s just one man and compiling and defining slang can be a lifetime of work.
  • InternetSlang.com for Internet and computer slang.
  • College students, teens, tweens, and other hip language speakers.
  • Google Books.
  • Google. If it’s out there, you can find it on Google, right?

There’s a lot to be said for the last two items. With all the information available online, it’s becoming easier to be your own researcher. You can mine all sorts of edited and unedited content for a specific word or phrase online and draw a conclusion on how it’s currently used—something I’ll try to cover in a future blog post.

How do you verify slang terms? Share your resources with other copyeditors in the comments section below.
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Copyediting Tip of the Week: What do you want in your newsletter?

August 9, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21What do you want in your newsletter?

Copyediting is changing all the time, it seems. More copyeditors are becoming freelancers or struggling to hold on to their jobs as newspapers consolidate production efforts, publishers cut back on staff, and large corporations ship their editing departments overseas. Language changes in microseconds, it seems, and many of our favorite resources keep us updated through blogs, websites, and social media.

Our goal is to keep Copyediting relevant to you, offering you timely information that you can use in your job and to advance your career. So, as promised, we are launching a survey about the newsletter. Tell us what you think: what you like and what you don’t, what’s missing and what could be improved on. Just as writing doesn’t get better unless copyeditors tell the writer what’s wrong, the newsletter doesn’t get better unless you tell us what to change (or keep). It’s your newsletter; tell us what you think!

And what’s a survey without an incentive? Leave your name and e-mail address in the survey, and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free year’s subscription to the newsletter you’ve come to depend on to do your job better. We’ll use your name and e-mail only for the survey, so don’t worry about spam. Just tell us what you think and enter to win a year of Copyediting. Complete the survey today!Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Word news and style updates

August 2, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Word news and style updates

Last month, I shared some of The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED’s) latest updates. Today, I’ll share some of Oxford Dictionaries Online’s (ODO’s) and the Associated Press’s (AP’s) recent updates, as well as some notes from Merriam-Webster’s newsletter, Word.Com.

Oxford Dictionaries Online

The Oxford Dictionaries Online takes its data from The New Oxford American Dictionary’s database, a different collection from the OED’s. A few notable terms from the May 2011 update include:

  • badware, noun: software that has been installed on a computer without a user’s knowledge or control.
  • crafting, noun: the activity or hobby of making decorative articles by hand.
  • femtoseconds, noun: one quadrillionth of a second.
  • ZOMG, abbreviation, informal: (used especially on electronic message boards as a sarcastic comment on an inexperienced or overenthusiastic poster) oh my God!

You can find the complete list on the ODO site.

The Associated Press Stylebook

The AP Stylebook is the only style manual that I know of that continually publishes updates. Online subscribers have immediate access to the new entries, while those who solely use the print format have to wait for the annual update. Here are a few entries from the July 15 update:

  • Abbottabad (AHBT’-uh-bad): Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces.
  • Abuja (ah-BOO’-juh): Nigerian capital.
  • Cairo (KEHR’-oh): Illinois town at confluence of Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
  • Huffington Post: The Huffington Post news website is affiliated with AOL. It’s HuffPost in shortened form.
  • Pyeongchang (PYUHNG’-chahng): South Korea city hosting Winter Games 2018.
  • slideshow
  • takeout

Note: I’ve avoided HuffPost because I wasn’t sure how widespread the term was. With its inclusion in AP’s style guide, I’d be comfortable using it on second reference. Subscribers can find the complete list on the AP Stylebook site.

Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster publishes Word.Com, an online newsletter, each month (though it’s on hiatus for the summer). In June’s newsletter, the dictionary publisher highlighted hegemony in its “Words in the News” section because of its frequent use in Osama bin Laden news items.

Hegemony comes from the Greek hegeisthai, to guide or lead, according to Merriam-Webster. The OED’s first recorded use of hegemony is from John Maplet’s A Greene Forest, or a Naturall Historie (1567): Keeping ourselves free from blame in this hegemony or suffering of things growing upon the earth (spelling and capitalization modernized).

“The word has historically referred specifically to the political, military, or economic dominance of one country or region over others,” says Merriam-Webster. Anyone familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggen Saga will be familiar with hegemony in that regard.

But Bryan Garner notes in his Modern American Usage that the term has been co-opted by nonpolitical uses, particularly commercial ones. From Garner’s files:

Influential men began to expand the old-fashioned and physiologically specific definition of masculinity into an overwhelming concept implying social and (especially important at Harvard) intellectual hegemony. —Susan Jacoby, “What Makes a Real Man?” Newsday (N.Y.), 15 Dec. 1996, at C36.

Survey update: Congratulations to Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, who won a copy of An Audience with the Editors of the 16th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style for taking Copyediting’s survey of our audio conferences. Thanks to all who responded. Look for a survey on the newsletter soon.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Calculating the cost of typos

July 26, 2011
By Erin Brenner

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bullet-glyph21Calculating the cost of typos

We all know that copyediting jobs are being cut and many copyeditors are being asked to cut corners to get copy out faster. It’s a gloomy outlook for many copyeditors, but Those Who Pay the Bills say it is what must be done to survive. What’s the price of cutting a few copyeditor jobs or pushing copyeditors to cut a few corners? A few typos? “So what?” say Those Who Pay the Bills. “A few typos are no big deal.”

But we know better, don’t we? Typos are a big deal. Entire sites are devoted to poking fun at typos. Just search on “typos,” and you’ll find them easily enough (but be warned: not all are safe for work). Again Those Who Pay the Bills say, “So what?”

Many of Those Who Pay the Bills are more concerned with quantity rather than quality. After all, they reason, quantity is what pays the bills. We copyeditors must educate them about what typos can cost a company in the long term and in ways they don’t readily recognize and how a talented copyeditor with a little time can prevent those costs and even increase profits.

We can start with some recent news articles and buzz from around the web (and not just from copyeditors). Earlier this month, BBC News reported that spelling mistakes can cost millions in lost sales. According to the article, an analysis of e-commerce websites has shown that “misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website’s credibility.” That’s according to Charles Duncombe, an online entrepreneur whose businesses depend on credibility. The article also notes that Duncombe believes that “spelling is important to the credibility of a website. When there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential.”

But perhaps Those Who Pay the Bills point out that you aren’t an e-commerce site. If someone is reading your copy, they’ve already bought it. Who cares if there is a typo or two?

The readers, that’s who.

At the 2011 ACES Conference, Fred Vultee, journalism professor at Wayne State University, spoke about the study he conducted on the value of editing. He had respondents read four edited news stories and four unedited news stories, asking them questions about each and using seven-point Likert scales to measure their answers. He found that readers, especially regular readers, can distinguish an edited news story from an unedited one. They notice errors and are bothered by them.

Sometimes, though, Those Who Pay the Bills persist with their denial. “Well, maybe other audiences care, but not ours. Maybe other publishers are making lots of mistakes, but not us. After all, you’re a great copyeditor, right?”

Yet even great copyeditors can do only so much when overloaded with work or when asked to meet unreasonable deadlines. To prove your point, you may have to get personal and you may have to put your argument into a language they understand: dollars and cents.

If you can get hard data, whether on your own or with the cooperation of those who have it, you can connect the presence of typos with lower sales or readership. For example, Duncombe identified a specific spelling mistake on tightsplease.co.uk. He measured revenue per visitor before he corrected the error and then again after. Once the error was correct, revenue per visitor nearly doubled.

If you can’t get hard data, try soft data. What might indicate that your reputation is hurt by typos? If your content is online, evaluate the comments about your site, both on your site and elsewhere. Are there fewer comments on an article with typos than on a similar article without typos? Even if your content is offline, research what is being said about you online. Are there comments that question your content or the writer’s sincerity, honesty, trustworthiness, or other reputation markers?

Also dig into search rankings. Search engine rankings are a big deal. You can be invisible on the Web if you don’t come up high enough in search results. In “The Price of Typos,” columnist Virginia Heffernan pointed out that misspellings could keep your site out of the top 10 search results listings. “This is because search engines look for strings of characters in sequence,” she says, “and if your site has misspellings, Google is less likely to list it at the top of search results[,] … meaning that even the lowliest content farmer will know that it’s i-before-e in ‘Bieber.’”

Before you bring all these errors and their consequences to Those Who Pay the Bills, put together proof of your value. You don’t want to lose your job because you let these errors slip through. After all, everyone makes mistakes and no publication, not even Copyediting, will be 100% error free. Keep a record of the typos you did catch. Try to connect the dots for Those Who Pay the Bills: if the errors that did get through damaged the bottom line in this way, imagine how much more damage would have resulted if you had let all these other errors go through.

Now to drive home your point. Say, “I could catch even more errors, like those that slipped through, if I had more time to work on copy or more help to edit the copy.” Be specific here, too. How much copy are you editing in, say, an hour? If you had another hour with the copy, how many more errors could you catch? If you had another copyeditor, how many more errors could you catch in an hour? How much would that cost the company?

The bottom line is this: it must be cheaper to either slow down the editing process or add help to the process than to let typos get through. It’s really that simple to Those Who Pay the Bills. Things like quality rarely enter into the discussion (though they should). It’s about how they make money and how much more they can make if they let you do your job right.
Every situation is different. Look at your publishing process and the politics that surround it, and try to see things from the perspective of Those Who Pay the Bills. Then educate them on how they can improve the bottom line and content quality.

Do you have other ideas on how to defend copyediting’s worth in the publishing process? Share them in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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