Archive for November, 2010

Copyediting Tip of the Week: Should you refudiate neologisms?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010


bullet-glyph21Should you refudiate neologisms?
By now you’ve all heard the news: The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) has chosen refudiate as its 2010 Word of the Year (WOTY). Refudiate is a blend of refute, to prove a statement or argument as false, and repudiate, to deny an accusation as true. NOAD says its WOTY suggests “a general sense of reject.” It defends its choice as not being the first blended word or slip of the tongue to become a new word. It also offers an outline of refudiate’s use, noting that it was first used in print in the Forth Worth Gazette in 1891: “It is the first declaration of how the party stands, and in great measure a refudiation of the charges of dickering.” Sarah Palin is only the latest, if most vocal, person to use it.

All that said, if you come across refudiate in copy, should you allow it?

Copyeditors know that our job is not to put our own ideas into the author’s work, and that includes word choice. We can’t say, “I don’t like refudiate. It sounds [put your criticism here],” and then change the word. We can’t replace refudiate just because we dislike Sarah Palin, and we can’t put refudiate in just because we like her. It’s the author’s work, after all, and we must respect it.

Lexicographer Erin McKean encourages the use of neologisms. “If it works like a word, just use it.” A word works by communicating a shared meaning. So we ask ourselves:

  • Does the word in question mean what the author intends it to mean? One problem with neologisms is that their definitions may not have solidified yet. If it hasn’t, copyeditors should ask whether the author has used the word in the same way that others have. Google News is a good place to start asking this question. The search results should return copy that has been written and edited by professionals. Check to see if other writers have used the word in the same manner.
  • Will the audience understand what the author means by this word? Even if your author has used the neologism in the same way others have, consider whether it is familiar enough that the audience will know that meaning. Is the meaning inherent in the sentence? Textual clues can help readers understand what the author is trying to say, even if they are unfamiliar with the word in question.
  • Does the word fit the style and tone of the text? Does the neologism fit the writer’s style or the tone of the text, or does it stick out like the proverbial sore thumb? If the word is jarring when the writer didn’t intend to jar, consider changing it.
  • Is the word acceptable or appropriate for the audience? Some audiences will demand formal language in which buzzwords, slang, and the like have no place. Other audiences will think less of the author if he or she doesn’t use the latest buzzwords or jargon. An unacceptable word draws attention to itself, detracting from the author’s message.
  • Will any connotations of the word inhibit the author’s intended message? Palin is inextricably tied to refudiate, at least for now. Would such a link distract the reader? Perhaps it would enhance the writer’s message. Either way, it’s a question copyeditors must ask.

As copyeditors, we can be passionate about words, investing a lot of emotion in their legitimacy and proper use. We must channel that passion into questions that benefit the writer and the audience. The writer’s goal is to communicate with the audience. It’s our goal, too. Copyeditors do their best work when we keep that goal in the driver’s seat and let our personal preferences sit in the back.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Joining independent clauses

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010


bullet-glyph21Joining independent clauses

Recently, a reader noted that she often saw independent clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction and no comma. She thought such a sentence would need a comma. Today, we’ll review how to join independent clauses. As Amy Einsohn does a fantastic job of laying this out in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, I’ll briefly outline what she says (examples come from the Web or are my originals).

To join two independent clauses, you have a few punctuation choices, depending on the part of speech you use:

  • Coordinating conjunction. If you use one of the coordinating conjunctions—and, but, for, nor, or, so, or yet—to join two independent clauses, use a comma before the conjunction:

    Swift action saves a man’s life, but paramedics fear electric-shock victim may have suffered internal burns to organs.

  • Adverb. If you use an adverb, such as however, nevertheless, or thus, use a semicolon before the adverb and a comma after:

    We expect average subscription prices to stay around current levels in the near term; however, if promotional activities continue longer than expected or new content agreements adversely impact Dish, this could lower our price estimate of $25.84.

    Note, however, that if you use therefore or thus and you don’t need to emphasize the following clause, you can drop the comma:

    The plane took off late due to poor weather conditions; thus we arrived late.

  • Transition expression. If you use an expression such as for example, similarly, indeed, or namely, use a semicolon before the adverb and a comma after:

    After 45 days of no rain, the farmers were worried about their crops; indeed, it was all they thought about.

  • Just punctuation. You might choose to join your independent clauses with just punctuation; in that case, use a semicolon (as this sentence does), a colon, or a dash.

Einsohn offers this summary for the rules (IND stands for independent clause):

IND, coordinate conjunction IND.
IND; adverb [,] IND.
IND; transitional expression, IND.

Did you note the coordinating conjunctions in the first bullet point? Some say and, but, for, nor, or, so, or yet (FANBOYS) are not all equal and using a comma before them is not always right. Check out Ben Zimmer’s “Of Fanboys and FANBOYS” and Brett Reynolds’s “The myth of FANBOYS” for more details. Then share what you think in the comment section below.

Editor’s note: The Tip will not publish next week, November 23. We will be back on November 30. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Copyediting podcast: LANGUAGE INTROSPECTION—Old advice to writers

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

LANGUAGE INTROSPECTION: Old advice to writers

Copyediting Contributing Editor Grant Barrett browses great stacks of books, online and off, and muses about the durability of advice to writers. (5 min.)


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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Wrestling idioms and losing

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010


bullet-glyph21Wrestling idioms and losing

Idioms have been on my mind a lot lately.

Someone asked me recently to look into in case of rain versus in the event of rain. Were the two interchangeable, or did they mean different things, as the questioner thought? At first blush, I thought they must be different. In case of isn’t the same as in the event of. Which just goes to show why editors should never stop at first blush.

Copyediting’s house dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), lists in case of as an idiom that means “if there should happen to be” under its entry for case. What about in the event of? There it was, under the event entry, listed as an idiom that meant (you guessed it) “if it should happen; in case.”

Then two weeks ago, The Chicago Manual of Style moved a great debate from The Boston Globe to Facebook: Is it couldn’t care less or could care less? Most posters voted for couldn’t care less. In his Modern American Usage, Garner agrees, labeling could care less for couldn’t care less at stage 3 in his Language Change Index: it’s “commonplace even among well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”

On the other side of the debate, AHD labels could care less as an idiom, secondary to couldn’t care less. The Oxford Dictionaries Online agrees with AHD. Interestingly, Grammar Girl deconstructs could care less in a 2009 podcast, advising against using it because it doesn’t make literal sense. However, in her Grammar Devotional, she admits that as much as she dislikes the phrase, it is an accepted idiom. As one debater pointed out on Facebook, “The point is, there’s no debate because the only people arguing are those who reject ‘could care less.’ The other side (a vast majority) IS NOT ARGUING, just continuing to say ‘I could care less’ & being understood by everyone.”

In both cases, that the phrases in question are idioms is key. An idiom doesn’t have to make literal sense, and its grammar is unique to itself (“peculiar,” say both the AHD and OED). Maybe that’s what rankles us editors. We spend our work lives putting words back into line, making them follow the rules of grammar as we know them. No “Get Out of Jail Free” cards from us. Then an idiom comes along and flaunts its apparent meaninglessness before us, daring us to wield our mighty red pens (or pixels, as the case may be). We crumble before it, helpless, because that idiom is accepted language that readers will understand.

No one is expected to recognize and know all idioms, all the time. But it should be a question on our list: Is this an idiom? After consulting dictionaries and our favorite resources, we should then ask ourselves whether idiomatic usage is appropriate for the text. It may or may not be. The question, then, is not about wrestling ungrammatical phrases to the ground but whether something is idiomatic and whether it has a place in the context.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Keep up with language through social media

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010


bullet-glyph21Keep up with language through social media

In my first Tip, I asked for topics you’d like to see covered here and in the newsletter. Many of you said you wanted to know more about social media. It’s a large topic, so I’ll tackle it in pieces both here and in the newsletter. Today, we’ll look at using social media to keep your editing skills up — and I don’t mean by editing other people’s tweets and posts.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms allow you to “follow” people, that is, receive people’s updates in some fashion. Facebook and LinkedIn also allow you to join groups, which offer a chance for longer discussions on specific topics.

Many editing and language professionals hang out on one or more of the big three and they share lots of useful information every day. You might see a tweet from APA_Style on whether to capitalize the first word after a colon or a dash in titles (you do). You could get into a discussion on whether it’s “couldn’t care less” or “could care less” on the Chicago Manual of Style’s Facebook page. You might even jump in to a deeper debate on how you handle minor queries during the editing process when you edit online in LinkedIn’s STET: Professional Copy Editors group.

So where do you start? First, follow people and join groups with members you trust. If you’re reading this, you already trust Copyediting. We offer news and conversation starters on both Twitter and Facebook. See if more of your favorite resources are hanging out on your preferred platform.

When you venture into the unknown, remember the first rule of the Internet: online, no one knows you’re a dog. Before following people, joining groups, or taking people’s advice, check out their profiles and past comments. Evaluate people and organizations online just as you would offline. Do they say things that make sense, or do they offer inconsistent advice? Just as important, do they offer information you’re interested in?

Here are a few of the great resources I follow online and the links.


You can also search through my Language Twitterati list on Twitter to find even more people to follow.



Email me and tell me what you think. Better yet, share with me and other readers what you think by leaving a comment below.

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Copyediting podcast: LANGUAGE INTROSPECTION—Cliches

Monday, November 1st, 2010


Copyediting contributing editor Grant Barrett talks about some of the problems with cliches, and tells us a little bit about the history of the word. (3 min.)


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