Archive for February, 2011

Does This Number Make Sense?

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Last week, Mark Allen helped copyeditors become a little more comfortable with one of our greatest nemeses: numbers. If you missed the audio conference, here are some highlights:

The biggest lesson Mark taught us was not to fear numbers. Mostly, we need to slow down and think: does this make sense? If we try to relate large numbers to a human scale, we’ll pick up on an error that The Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton, Australia, missed when it reported that 30,000 pigs floated away down Dawson River. In fact, the farmer told the reporter that 30 sows and pigs floated away. An easy mistake to make when you’re listening, but an easy mistake to catch when you’re editing. Think: what would 30,000 pigs look like? Wouldn’t 30,000 pigs floating downstream be a front-page story?

We also learned to recognize the kinds of things millions and billions measure, so that we can easily spot a mix-up. Municipal governments spend millions in budget line items, while national governments–even small ones–spend billions.

Other items Mark shared with us:

  • How to calculate percent increase and decrease
  • The difference between mean average, mode average, and median average.
  • Math tips he has tweeted as @EditorMark.

Having a sense of numbers and proportions can help you recognize number errors without a math degree. It’s not too late to gain that sense. You can still order the audio conference CD recording and the PDF. Listen to the talk on your computer or transfer it to your iPod to listen to it anywhere. Download the PDF and have a reference at your fingertips, on your desk or on your hard drive. Hear it all and never again say, “I’m not a numbers person.”

Become a Numbers Person with Mark Allen

Upcoming Audio Conferences

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  • Copyediting Tip of the Week: “Of which” as the starch in your collar

    Thursday, February 17th, 2011


    bullet-glyph21Of which as the starch in your collar

    I read an article recently on Visual Thesaurus (subscription required) in which the authors, Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner, advocated for never using whose for inanimate objects. As in:

    As the Houston show was being announced, another [Norton] Simon show was at the Princeton University Art Museum, complete with a catalog whose cover featured Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother.

    Although the writers acknowledge that using of which for inanimate objects is sometimes awkward, they say, “That’s when you put on your thinking cap and reword the sentence (or even split it into two sentences)” (emphasis in the original).

    I often agree with what Glickman and Rubiner say on Visual Thesaurus, but not this time. Their argument for not using whose for inanimate objects is that doing so would “risk that the reader stops reading altogether, responding, however subconsciously, to a fundamental failure of logic.”

    Do readers really pause when they see or hear whose representing an object? My guess is that those who are on the lookout for grammar errors, as we copyeditors are (and that includes Glickman and Rubiner), might pick up on it, but the rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t bat an eyelash. Why? Because using whose to represent an inanimate object is not grammatically wrong and has been correct English for over 600 years.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) lists the third definition of whose as “in reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract)” and notes its first use this way was in 1382 in Wycliffe’s Bible. The OED offers examples as recent as 1981 (the text is from the 1989 edition), in case you’re tempted to think things have changed.

    The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and Merriam-Webster Online also allow whose to be used for inanimate objects. Says AHD in its usage note for whose:

    There is extensive literary precedent for the use of whose with inanimate antecedents, as in The play, whose style is rigidly formal, is typical of the period. In an earlier survey this example was acceptable to a large majority of the Usage Panel.

    Usage experts agree. Bill Walsh states in The Elephants of Style, “Whitchse isn’t a word, so there’s nothing wrong with using whose to refer to things in addition to people.” H. W. Fowler accepted it in his Modern English Usage in 1926, and Bryan A. Garner lists the use of whose for things as at stage 5 in his Language-Change Index in Garner’s Modern American Usage. Stage 5 is defined as “universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentric).”

    Is it wrong to use of which instead of whose? Not at all. As Glickman and Rubiner point out, there’s more than one way to say a thing. But copyeditors should use caution before changing whose to of which. If whose sounds out of tune with the rest of the sentence, by all means edit it, whether you pop in of which or recast the sentence. But if whose fits with the rhythm and style of the sentence, we should keep the author’s original wording.

    “In the starch that stiffens English style,” says Fowler, “one of the most effective ingredients is the rule that whose shall refer only to persons; to ask a man to write flexible English, but forbid him whose ‘as a relative pronoun of the inanimate’, is like sending a soldier on ‘active’ service & insisting that his tunic collar shall be tight & high; activity & stocks do not agree.”

    Do you allow whose to refer to inanimate objects in copy you edit? Do you use it in your own writing? Let us know in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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    Copyediting Tip of the Week: The Typographic Oath

    Tuesday, February 15th, 2011


    bullet-glyph21The Typographic Oath

    For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about copyeditor commandments. First, we looked at some commandments for journalism copyeditors. Then we examined what is probably every copyeditor’s top commandment, no matter which field you edit in: do no harm.

    This week we conclude with Copyediting’s list of commandments, our “Typographic Oath,” based on the conversations we’ve been having. This list is by no means complete or exempt from editing. (It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all.)

    1. Do no harm.

    “Do no harm” was by far the most popular commandment. Stan Carey, author of Sentence first, noted that we might call this our “typographic oath.” (As you can see, I’ve liberated the term for our entire list of commandments. Thanks, Stan.)

    This advice is repeated in many editing books. In The Subversive Copy Editor, for example, Carol Fisher Saller writes:

    It is your privilege to polish a manuscript without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.

    2. Respect the writer.

    Many people reminded us that we should respect the writer. Ruth Thaler-Carter took it one step further on LinkedIn’s STET group: “Respect the author’s voice, but don’t let him/her look like an idiot.”

    “For the working copyeditor, deference is the better part of valor,” says Amy Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook. “If the author’s preference is at all acceptable, it should be respected.”

    FisherSaller gives us six habits we can use to keep that writer-editor relationship healthy:

    1. Ask first, and ask nicely.
    2. Don’t sneak (much).
    3. Eliminate surprises.
    4. Check in.
    5. Keep it professional.
    6. Say “yes.”

    3. Respect the reader.

    Because copyeditors have such a reputation for interfering with a writer’s work, the emphasis was strongly on respecting the writer instead. Still, a couple of people reminded us not to forget our other great duty: to respect the reader.

    We can respect the reader by striving for clarity, conciseness, and consistency in everything we edit. We respect the reader by considering whether she will understand what the writer has written and by asking the writer to clarify or helping him to clarify.
    We respect the reader by doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.

    4. Don’t be a search-and-replace editor.

    In his Lapsing Into a Comma, Bill Walsh recommends that we not be “search-and-replace” editors. Whenever we are tempted to automatically change something, such as impact to effect, we should remember language’s finer distinctions. “These changes aren’t always wrong,” he says, “but they shouldn’t be automatic.”

    Whenever we are tempted to cruise through a document, focusing on our pet peeves and applying rules that on the surface seem simple, we do a disservice to the writer, the reader, and to ourselves—because we are better than a mere software function.
    Other search-and-replace minefields Walsh points out:

    • different than vs. different from
    • hopefully vs. it is to be hoped that
    • compare with vs. compare to
    • which vs. that
    • convince vs. persuade

    5. Look it up.

    Not being a search-and-replace editor often means checking the rule in question. If something in the copy makes you pause, look it up. Your subconscious is probably telling you something. Even if it isn’t, you’ll sleep better knowing that you checked. Said Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copyeditors, “If you’re sure you know it, look it up anyhow.”

    6. Enforce consistency.

    Several copyeditors would have us remember to be consistent throughout a document. Watch for consistency in formatting, diction, punctuation, spelling, and other areas. This is where your style sheet comes in handy. For any project over a few pages, keep a style sheet, advises Einsohn. Record your decisions and refer back to the sheet throughout the project.

    7. He who pays makes the rules.

    We copyeditors serve many masters: the writers whose documents we work on, the readers who will eventually read it, the language rules we seek to enforce. But we must also consider the person who signs our checks, be it the publisher, the writer, or someone else.
    He Who Signs the Checks can dictate which rules we follow—or don’t follow. He can remind us of business concerns, too, if we like getting that check. Sometimes it’s keeping an advertiser, superior, or writer happy. Other times, it’s getting the copy ready to go now. We often have to make compromises.

    Especially in this economy, in which jobs are scarce and pay rates are taking a beating, we should remember He Who Signs the Checks. We don’t have to like the political or business sides of things, but if we want that paycheck, we will at some point have to balance our craft against political and business needs. It’s ultimately our choice to acquiesce or walk.
    What do you think? Would you pledge to honor the Typographic Oath? What would you add to it or subtract from it? Make your voice heard in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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    Copyediting Tip of the Week: Do no harm

    Tuesday, February 8th, 2011


    bullet-glyph21Do no harm

    I had some great responses to last week’s Tip on copyeditor commandments. April Michelle Davis said in the blog comments section that copyeditors should do no harm, and I couldn’t agree more. That sentiment was repeated on LinkedIn’s STET group, where I posted the link to the article.

    There were also several corollaries to that rule. John Barnes humorously, and accurately, wrote one on the STET group:

    When thou beholdest a place where upon much reflection, no sense is found at all, mark such place and query with an admission that it maketh no sense to thee, and change it not to something else entirely that doth make sense, for the author’s intent shall be thy guide and thy rod, and where it cannot be discerned, thou shalt do naught but ask.

    Quoting a fellow copyeditor, Carolyn Haley wants us to remember that “It’s Not My Book. It’s Not My Book.” She also quoted Susanna J. Sturgis’s commandment:

    Grant me the serenity to recognize the prose I should not change; the ability to improve the prose I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

    And Ruth Thaler-Carter said, “Respect the author.”

    All of which a good copyeditor follows. Which is what makes a situation that Thaler-Carter and a few others pointed to so awful.

    Gender reassignment?

    In “The Facts Behind One Story in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction for 2011,” author Mima Simić describes how a story she wrote was to be included in an anthology of international literature. She originally wrote “My Girlfriend” in Croatian, her native tongue, but she translated it into English—even had native English speakers review it—and sent the translation. She never heard from the editors, never saw any edits. She assumed all was well.

    When she held the printed book in her hand, she said she was “utterly shocked, appalled, and flabbergasted” to find the editors had changed the sex of her narrator. “As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story,” Simić writes, “this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims, and effects.”

    The editor (was it a copyeditor? Someone higher up the editorial chain of command?) changed the author’s meaning. This person came to a false conclusion about the gender of the narrator, and it changed everything.

    This wasn’t the only out-of-bound change, either, though it may have been the worst. Simić offers this example:

    original: Although she is blind, when we go out my girlfriend likes to make herself up. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting, but I suppose I’m just being paranoid.
    edited: Although she can’t see herself, my girlfriend likes to make herself up when we go out. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting with other men.*

    At this point, the reader knows that the girlfriend is blind, but why the change? There’s nothing grammatically wrong with although she is blind and it fits the writer’s style.

    Furthermore, why move when we go out to the end? To my ear, the phrase isn’t any stronger at the end, driving home the author’s point. In fact, the emphasis is appropriate on to make herself up. Bury that phrase in the middle, and we de-emphasize the girlfriend’s action.

    The changes in the last sentence again change meaning. Other men insinuates that the narrator is male, which is never stated in the story. Whether the narrator is male or female, adding other men introduces a fact that the writer never explicitly states. That’s a potential meaning change. Then we lose the narrator’s supposition that she is being paranoid. That’s an important qualifier to her feeling that the girlfriend is flirting. Get rid of that, and the meaning changes again.

    Writers practice a craft: they use word choice, sentence structure, pacing, and other tools to convey their message in the way they intend. We copyeditors practice a craft, too, employing the same tools to help writers make that intention a reality. Ours is not to introduce error, though some inevitably creep in. Ours is not to change meaning, so we query to help prevent it. Ours is to do no harm. Ours is to respect the author.

    It’s not my book. It’s not my book. It’s not my book.

    That’s something we’d all do well to remember.

    *Simić included comments in this example, which were removed for clarity. See the article for her comments.

    How would you have handled Simić’s copy? What questions would you have asked, and what changes would you have made? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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    Copyediting Audio Conferences: Numbers, Words, and Gregg

    Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

    We promised to keep you updated on our upcoming audio conferences so that you wouldn’t miss out on an opportunity to improve your copyediting skills. Remember, the conference cost is per line. Gather your coworkers or colleagues around the speaker phone to brush up old skills, learn new ones, or discover a great new resource.

    Here’s what we’ll explore in the next few months. Sign up today so you don’t miss out!

    • February 17: Become a Numbers Person with Mark Allen. This audio conference will highlight some common mistakes and suggest methods for avoiding them. We’ll look at percentages and proportions, money issues, statistics, graphs, style and usage options, and more. Mark has promised not to test us.
    • March 24: All About New Words with Grant Barrett. In this discussion of new words, we’ll talk about how to have a healthy respect for the usefulness of new language and at the same time have an appropriate level of awareness about how it can be misused or overused.
    • April 14: Getting to Know The Gregg Reference Manual with Margaret Sabin. In this conference, we’ll explore GRM and its approach to grammar, usage, and style, with plenty of time for questions with Margaret, who stood in for her father, William A. Sabin, after his death, during the production of the eleventh edition.

    There’s more to come. We plan to cover dictionaries in May and hope to dive into APA style over the summer. Stay tuned!

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    Copyediting Tip of the Week: A copyeditor’s commandments

    Tuesday, February 1st, 2011


    bullet-glyph21A copyeditor’s commandments

    Recently former Guardian editor Tim Radford posted 25 commandments for copyeditors. The American Copy Editors Society (ACES) picked up on it, emphasizing a few of the rules in its own post by Sue Burzynski Bullard, member of ACES’s executive committee.

    Reading through both Radford’s and Burzynski Bullard’s posts, I thought that a lot of the rules worked great for newspaper copyeditors. After all, they were written by a long-time journalist and editor and expounded upon by a journalism professor and former journalist and editor. But what if you copyedit academic works? Research reports? Anything that isn’t meant for a general audience? Let’s examine the rules Burzynski Bullard highlighted from the perspective of copyeditors outside of the newsroom.

    “Simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all storytelling.”

    Newspapers–and other media aimed at a mass market–craft their copy so that most people can read and understand it. That isn’t to say they dumb down the text to the point of insulting readers (though some do). Newspapers aren’t teaching rocket science, they’re sharing information, and this rule works well for them.

    For copyeditors outside this tradition, try this:

    • Help your writer find the right word to say what he wants to say. That may mean using a fifty-cent word to describe something complex or using a simple, vivid word to create a feeling.
    • Help your writer clarify his ideas. No one can argue with clear ideas. The point of writing generally is to communicate. If the ideas are unclear, the writer fails to communicate.
    • Vary sentence length. Short sentences are vital in storytelling, but so is variety. You’ll hold the reader’s attention longer and increase comprehension with a paragraph that uses one sentence type several times and mixes in a variety of another (or more than one) sentence type. How much variety depends on the subject and audience. Hence with newspapers, short is better.

    “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.”

    Radford favors simplifying the topic as much as possible. He writes:

    Life is complicated, but journalism cannot be complicated. It is precisely because issues–medicine, politics, accountancy, the rules of Mornington Crescent–are complicated that readers turn to the Guardian, or the BBC, or the Lancet, or my old papers Fish Selling and Self Service Times, expecting to have them made simple.

    But he also says:

    Never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader’s intelligence.

    That’s the trick: if you have to explain something, make it understandable without making the reader feel stupid. As you edit, consider the audience. No one will complain about something being too simple, except academics, CEOs, word snobs, you get the idea. Some circumstances call for a higher level of writing. But no matter what level people read at, don’t talk down to them.

    “The whole point of paying for a newspaper is that you want information that slides down easily and quickly, without footnotes, obscure references and footnotes to footnotes.”

    I consider myself an intelligent person, and I don’t want to be talked down to. But when it comes to news, I admit I’m looking to digest it quickly and move on. Radford’s advice is spot on for the news industry. It also applies to any writing whose purpose is to impart information quickly and accurately: press releases, blogs, advertising and marketing, instruction manuals, and so on. What’s the purpose of the text in front of you? It may be to explain the latest medical research. Footnotes and obscure references might be just the thing in that case. But again, help your writer to craft text that’s only as complicated as it has to be.

    “Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been.”


    “Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon.”

    Radford points out that if you have words like phenotype and isostasy in the copy before you, you might want to use bright instead of effulgent. It’s about balancing the vocabulary to keep readers from drowning in text they don’t understand. If you’re copyediting for a mass audience, this is great advice. Come to think of it, it’s great advice no matter what kind of audience you’re editing for.

    Keep in mind the audience’s general vocabulary level. If the copy necessarily uses lots of words that make readers stretch beyond their level, help your writer balance that stretch with words well within readers’ grasp.

    Jargon is another issue. Consider again the vocabulary the audience is expecting. Jargon can be useful–and expected–shorthand. Business readers may expect to see terms like B2B, supply chain, baked in, and actionable. Jargon tells readers the writer is a member of their language community, earning him credibility and respect. Help your writer earn those things with the appropriate amount of jargon. If every sentence is nothing but jargon, the writer looks like he’s trying too hard. If you eliminate all jargon, he looks like an outsider. Help him sprinkle the jargon throughout the copy, and you’ll help him earn that credibility and respect.

    Radford’s most important point is this: no one has to read anything. As copyeditors, our goal is to help our writers produce content worthy of being read.

    What do you think? Share your thoughts on Radford’s commandments or other copyediting commandments in the comments section below.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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