Archive for April, 2011

Copyediting Tip of the Week: Beyond apostrophe basics

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011


bullet-glyph21Beyond apostrophe basics

If you follow Copyediting on Facebook, you may have seen a new photo album, Words Behaving Badly: pictures of headlines, signs, and other public writings that need a copyeditor’s loving attention.

One popular offense is the grocer’s apostrophe (using an apostrophe s to create a plural noun). But we copyeditors know better, don’t we? We can rattle the basic rules of apostrophes off the tip of our tongue:

  • It shows possession for a noun.
  • It shows the omission of some letters in a word or numbers in a year.
  • It shows plurality of single letters, single numbers, and abbreviations.

But there are more advanced rules for using the apostrophe, ones that even copyeditors could use a reminder of once in a while. This is that once in a while.

More cases for using the possessive apostrophe

  • Double possessive (or double genitive): In some cases, you can use of and apostrophe s in same phrase. The double possessive is sometimes seen as a mistake, but it isn’t. The usage dates back to Middle English and has become idiomatic:

    a cousin of Mary’s
    a sister of mine

  • Joint possessive: Use the apostrophe on the last item in a series of elements when the elements own something together. This rule came up recently in my Copyediting II class. A student wanted to know if joint possession was restricted to two nouns or could it encompass three or more. The short answer is that the joint possession rule can be used for more than two nouns:

    Bill and Erin’s car (they share one car)
    Bill’s and Erin’s cars (they each have a car)
    Bill, Dave, and Tim’s father-in-law (they have the same father-in-law)

  • Possessives of possessive names: If the name of a company or other thing is already a possessive, you do not need to add another apostrophe s. Either recast the sentence or use the original possessive name:

    Sean and Duncan love going to Friendly’s. Friendly’s ice cream is the best, they say.
    Sean and Duncan love going to Friendly’s. The ice cream at Friendly’s is the best, they say.

  • Possessives of inanimate objects: Despite rumors to the contrary, an inanimate object can form a possessive:

    The car’s engine is overheating.
    The laptop’s hard drive is fried.

  • Set phrases: A couple of set phrases take an apostrophe s in an idiomatic way:

    father-in-law’s truck, not father’s-in-law truck
    anyone else’s room, not anyone’s else room (the same holds true for other else phrases)

  • Units of measurement: The unit gets an apostrophe when it modifies a noun. Note, however, that the phrase 7 months pregnant and the like do not take the apostrophe. In this case, pregnant is an adjective, not a noun, and the phrase means being pregnant for the stated time (e.g., 7 months):

    15 years’ experience
    two weeks’ notice
    5 yards’ worth of material

The omission apostrophe

The apostrophe is also used to make contractions:

po’ boy

The plurals apostrophe

Finally, the apostrophe is sometimes used to make single letters, single numbers, and abbreviations plural. The New York Times follows this rule:

Sean got all A’s on his report card.
Disco was popular in the 1970’s.
The CEO’s are meeting after the VP’s.

Whether you use the apostrophe to form plurals in these cases depends on your style guide. Here are some of the popular ones:

And there you have it: a handy list of some of the more intricate uses of the apostrophe. If you have photo examples of words behaving badly, you can share them with your fellow copyeditors in our Facebook album!

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Tip of the Week: The new dictionary in town

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011


bullet-glyph21The new dictionary in town

There’s a new website that can not only serve as a tool for copyeditors but also provide a little fun and learning along the way.

Officially launched last week, dictionary site offers definitions and pronunciations for each of the 150,000 words in The World’s Fastest Dictionary. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of the explanations and the Choose Your Words features and some of my articles are republished there.) Many words also have a plain English, sometimes sassy explanation and real-world usage examples. From a word’s definition page, you can add the word to one of your word lists, include it in your Challenge (more on that in a minute), like it on Facebook, and look up its synonyms on Visual Thesaurus. Not all functions are available yet for all words.

From the Dictionary tab, you can use the advanced search feature to find a specific word. Perhaps the word is on the tip of your tongue. You can search for it by parts of speech, number of syllables, rhyming words, and more. You can also limit your search by a known synonym or antonym or with a partial definition.

As you build your search, watch the search box above and make notes of the commands used to find your word (a list of search commands can’t yet be found on the site). For example, if you’re looking for a word that means a loud sound, your search might look like this: text:loud + typeof:sound. Results include cacophony, clamor, and din. How’s that for helpful?

On the fun side of the equation is The Challenge. The Challenge presents you with a series of vocabulary questions. The type of question varies, and there are currently 40,000 questions for you to attempt. Each correct answer earns you points. Points earn you bragging rights in the form of achievements. The Challenge keeps track not only of your score, but also how well you are learning words. Click on the My Progress tab, and you will see how many words you’ve gotten correct and how many you’ve mastered. (You’ll have to play for a while to get mastered data.)

Not sure of the correct answer? Get a hint. If you answer correctly from the hint, you still get points. Get a word wrong, and the game will give you a brief description of the word. At the end of the round, you’ll get another opportunity to answer correctly—no points, though. The question will also come up again in future rounds.

After you’ve played for a while, click on the Magazine tab. Here you’ll find a collection of articles by executive producer Ben Zimmer, other linguists, vocabulary teachers, and more language experts, including yours truly. might not replace your house dictionary, but it can be a welcome addition to your resources. You can follow on both Twitter and Facebook.

What language-related sites do you use for education and entertainment? Share them in the comments section below.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Get the most out of your resumé

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011


bullet-glyph21Get the most out of your resumé

When you apply for a job or contract, the employer or client has a checklist that the right applicant will fulfill: years in the industry, relevant experience, skills, and so on. Your resumé and cover letter detail how you stand up to that checklist while offering a broad view of your experience and education.

Given the state of transition in the copyediting business, I thought it would be useful to offer some feedback on the cover letters and resumés I’ve received for our open contractor position. Don’t worry: I’m not going to name names, and I didn’t discount anyone because of these issues. These are my thoughts on what could help put you in the best light with potential employers and clients.

The resumé

I received many resumés in PDF files; this was a godsend for me. All issues of operating system program incompatibility were swept aside by this one move. Plus, the PDF resumés just looked cleaner and were easier to read. I’ll admit, though, my own resumé is in Word (but not for long). I only recently purchased Adobe Acrobat, and I hadn’t thought before about using PDF to avoid incompatibility issues.

Even if you don’t have Acrobat, you can make a PDF file from your Word file. With the newer versions of Word (2007 and 2010), the capability is built in. Older versions of Word require a third-party application, such as what Adobe offers. Do your homework before using any PDF converter.

Once the resumé is opened, it has to persuade me to hire you. Your work experience is still the most important component for that. Be sure to include the dates you worked for each job. The job description should tell me what you did and what kind of skills you have.

This section is harder for freelancers, especially if they’ve been freelancing awhile. I preferred seeing a list of services the freelancer offers, with some details that told me about the person’s skill set. A partial client list is helpful, because it tells me more about your experience. If you’ve taken on long-term projects, you could list them separately as you would a traditional job.

Some people included an objective in their resumé. To be honest, I skipped over the objective. If you sent me your resumé, your goal is to win the contract I’m offering. The objective has its uses in some instances, but if space is at a premium, you can skip this section.

Listing your education and the years of graduation was also important to me. It let me know what your background is and, perhaps, how stale your information is. Language changes constantly, and a good editor has to keep up with the changes. If you’ve regularly or recently attend classes, workshops, or conferences on a relevant topic, listing them let me know that you’re keeping your skills up to date.

The cover letter

Several cover letters just repeated what was in the resumé. More useful was information that wasn’t in the resumé or that pointed out something of particular interest in the resumé. Do you have some skills or experience that isn’t in the resumé that makes you the perfect candidate? Does a past job make you the right fit for the contract? How so? I want more information about you that would persuade me to hire you.

Although it’s good to be personable in the cover letter, be wary of being too personal. Be professional and focus on the task: persuading me to hire you. Reviewers have a lot of applications to read and evaluate for each position. You don’t want to risk turning someone off by being too casual or too intimate. It’s a great excuse for the reviewer to stop reading.

I shouldn’t have to say this to copyeditors, but check your work! One or two applicants really made me question their ability to fix errors. It’s frightening to think that someone wanting a copyediting position would submit a cover letter with major errors in it.

Have someone else read your work, especially your resumé. Be sure your writing is clean, your meaning clear, and your thoughts well organized. Check for all the usual culprits: typos, spelling mistakes, grammar and usage errors. Don’t worry too much about which style you use, just use it consistently.

Other resources

  • Avoid submitting an unasked-for edit of the employer’s copy. Some people will take your action well, while others will find it insulting. Wait until you’re asked to edit something.
  • It’s the digital age. If you have any sort of a web presence, tell me about it. This is an easy way for me to learn more about you that goes beyond the usual job history and skill set. A website or blog is great, but even a free profile on LinkedIn, MediaBistro, or a professional organization’s site can help me form a clearer picture of you.

Open position update

I’ve received many wonderful resumés for our contract position, so many that I am no longer accepting new applications. I must now go through them all and decide who whom to contact for an interview, which I will do in the next couple of weeks. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and your patience.

What tactics have won you a job, or at least a foot in the door? Share them in the comments section below.

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Macbeth’s mind

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011


bullet-glyph21Macbeth’s mind

A few weeks ago, this sentence appeared in Copyediting Blog’s National Grammar Day Contest:

Macbeth’s mind was constantly imagining horrible things, and that frightened him.

The sentence came from an old English composition book that I picked up at a used book sale. I’m terrible at making up example sentences, so I grabbed this book from my shelf. I wanted something that wouldn’t have the answers available online, and I didn’t think to question the book’s age or prejudices. I know language changes over time, and so does our understanding of it and our theories about it. Yet those things didn’t cross my mind when putting together the contest.

The problem with the sentence, at least ostensibly, was that him could not refer back to mind or Macbeth’s. A couple of readers questioned it, and I resolved to look into it. Here’s what I learned.

Structural vs. notional agreement

Many language references will tell you that a pronoun’s antecedent cannot be an adjective, and a possessive, such as Macbeth’s, is an adjective. Therefore, a personal pronoun cannot have a possessive as its antecedent (a possessive pronoun can, though). It makes a kind of sense. In our sentence, we know that a mind cannot be a him and that by him we really weren’t referring to Macbeth’s but Macbeth, which is not present in the sentence. Or is it?

In “Toni Morrison’s genius puts her in the grammar/usage spotlight” (PDF), Arnold M. Zwicky*, visiting professor of linguistics at Stanford University and distinguished university professor emeritus of linguistics at Ohio State University said, “Possessives are neither adjectives nor adjectivals, but NPs (a syntactic category) serving as determiners (a syntactic function). As NPs, they are perfectly good antecedents for pronouns.” That is to say, possessives are noun phrases acting as adjectives. Linguists refer to this issue as possessive antecedent proscription (PAP).

You probably weren’t confused by the original Macbeth sentence, understanding that him referred to Macbeth. But what kept tripping me up was how did him refer to Macbeth? According to Zwicky, “Pronouns can pick up their referents from ‘within’ adjectives and adjectival.” Meaning that Macbeth is present in the sentence—it’s within Macbeth’s. Ah! Now I begin to understand.

There’s another way to look at the argument, however. In Macbeth’s mind, mind is the head of the noun phrase. We can all agree that a mind is an it, not a him. If we follow structural agreement (that is, the strict grammatical structure of the sentence), him refers back to the head of the noun phrase, which we know is an it, not a him.

But under “Synesis” in Garner’s American Usage, Bryan Garner says, “In some contexts, meaning—as opposed to the strict requirements of grammar or syntax—governs subject-verb agreement.” Garner is referring to notional agreement, that agreement that lets us say A number of dogs were running through the park because we accept the notion that dogs are doing the running, not number. With notional agreement, you could argue that although mind is the head of the noun phrase, the notion of the noun phrase, the context of it, is actually Macbeth.

Where does that leave us?

Putting it all together

Here’s the thing: you can follow a strict structural agreement for personal pronoun antecedents and you won’t be wrong. It may even improve your sentence. As Wendi Nichols pointed out, “I don’t think the real issue in your sentence is the agreement problem but rather the sloppy writing—the redundancy of Macbeth’s mind imagining things instead of just Macbeth himself.” We end up with a more direct, tighter sentence with:

Macbeth was constantly imagining horrible things, and that frightened him.

But you can also follow notional agreement and dismiss PAPs and be correct. As Zwicky found in his research, even those who were dead set against the nominal agreement used them in their writing. However, be cognizant of ambiguity:

Mary’s mother thinks she is admirable.

Zwicky points out that although the referent is ambiguous in this case, the sentence is out of context. The referent might be clear within context, as with:

Mary’s father is hypercritical of all his children, but Mary’s mother thinks she is admirable.

Deciding what’s a grammar error and what isn’t is much harder out of context (something else I’d like to research, but that’s for another day). For the purposes of copyediting, if you run into a sentence like “Mary’s mother thinks she is admirable” and the context doesn’t make the meaning clear, your job is to make the meaning clear.

Further reading

If you want to do more reading on PAPs or notional agreement, check out the following:

By the way, for the next Copyediting contest, I’m taking recommendations for sources of example sentences that don’t have their answers published online. Leave recommendations in the comments section.

*Thanks to Neal Whitman of Literal-Minded for pointing me to Zwicky’s scholarship.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Audio Conference Highlights: All About New Words

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Lexicographer and compiler of Copyediting’s Dictionary Update Grant Barrett dived deeply into an audio conference session on new words on March 24, 2011: what are they, how they’re made, how to deal with them, and much more. If you missed the conference, you can still order the CD and handout. Herewith, some highlights from the conference and a list of references not included in the original handout.

How new words are made

Humans play with language; we create new words all the time. Some stick around, others are gone in an instant. But how do we create them?

  • Combine two or more existing words: nut job
  • Shorten longer words: phone
  • Create a back-formation: zip (as in, I zipped my dress.)
  • Blend two or more words: smog
  • Shift from one part of speech to another or shift in spelling: email (from e-mail and, earlier, electronic mail)
  • Borrow from other languages: umami
  • Create completely from scratch

When new words fail

The survival rate of a new word is extremely small. Most new words are created for the moment and are then tossed aside. Grant pointed out a few ways to tell if a new word will fail to survive:

  • It feels forced. It doesn’t sound right in the text, and you get the sense the writer is trying too hard with this new word.
  • It’s too creative. Strange but true. The unobtrusive, normal-sounding words are the ones that are more successful. If your word is too cute or clever, chances are it won’t last.
  • It’s selfishly guarded. The word’s creator is bent on keeping his or her name connected to this new word. He or she wants to trademark it or control its use. For a word to succeed, it has to be widely used, not tightly controlled.
  • Its definition is too narrow or the word describes a closed or a rare thing. Think jargon. Mainstream words need a bit of breadth to them so we know how to use them and have a reason to use them.

Dealing with new words in copy

Writers usually leave clues that they’re using a new word. One way is they identify the word as new in the text, as in:

There’s an adjective generally shunned by wine connoisseurs that’s commonly used in the wine parlance of regular people: smooth. –The Globe and Mail

Grant also discussed how to evaluate whether to leave the new word in copy as is, standardize it or explain it, or cut it. You can hear that information on the audio CD.

More resources for news words

Grant mentioned a few books that copyeditors might find valuable:

Grant also mentioned Affixes: the Building Blocks of English, a website by Michael Quinion, as a useful resource.

Upcoming Audio Conferences

We’re continuing to add audio conferences to our calendar. Check out our upcoming conferences:

  • Getting to Know The Gregg Reference Manual with Margaret Sabin, Thursday, April 14, 2011, 11:30 am (EST). More than just a (thorough) style manual for business users, The Gregg Reference Manual (GRM) helps you to dig deeper into grammar and usage. Come with your style questions and learn why GRM is a good addition to your reference library.
  • All About Dictionaries with Grant Barrett, Thursday, May 19, 2011, 11:30 (EST). Grant returns in May to teach us why there is no such thing as “the” dictionary and about the depth of information each dictionary contains.

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