What it means to be a copy editor

Marooned boat in a drought

The worst drought in living memory? Picture: Luis Paredes, freeimages.com

Copy editors have many things to worry about (think commas). And making sure that language is used with precision is one of those things.
In a recent a television programme, the presenter said that a particular place was experiencing the wettest winter “in living memory”.
Since such declarations about the weather happen often, and because there is, these days, always a hidden sub-text about how the observed phenomenon proves or disproves climate change theory, I started to ponder: what does “living memory” mean exactly?
The online Collins Dictionary says:

“If you say that something is, for example, the best, worst, or first thing of its kind in living memory, you are emphasizing that it is the only thing of that kind that people can remember.”

But which people? To a ten-year-old child, memory only goes back seven or eight years to when he or she is two or three. And for someone who has reached the age of 90, memory goes back many decades.
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Why I am a grammar cheerleader

The Twitter list I have for people who post about editing and grammar this morning alerted me to the fact that the United States celebrates March 4 as National Grammar Day. Grammarly, in particular, is very excited:

Though I don’t really hold with awareness days, my Friday morning thoughts meandered to grammar, and why it has such a bad reputation (even though Grammarly is working so hard to make it sexy).

When I was at school, South African education was going through a phase when children were not taught formal grammar. The only reason I know anything about grammar is because I did Latin in high school. My son, who has spent much of his primary school career being taught about things like subjunctive tenses and gerunds, would probably envy my school career. There’s no way round it, grammar as taught in school can be dead boring. And once you’ve made it out of school, there’s always the awful chance you may encounter someone who corrects your grammar for you, as you speak. For most people, the mere thought of grammar is a complete turn-off.

Speech bubbles

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. Picture: ilker, freeimages.com

But grammar is important. My job for many years consisted of editing the writing of others, and that sometimes involved correcting their grammar. They didn’t like it – but in the end, good relationships were forged around a central understanding: writers and editors are working together towards articles and books that communicate with clarity and elegance and beauty.

And grammar (in any language) is the bedrock on which communication is founded.
An interview by Andy Bechtel with Lisa McLendon, co-ordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas and author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English”, expresses this very clearly:

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?
A. I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing. Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.
But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

So tomorrow, March 4, I will be raising a glass to grammar and to being a grammar cheerleader.

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Enter key

Picture by Artur Cimoch, freeimages.com

Long ago, at school, there was probably an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, the idea was that one thought meant one paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign to hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for easy, fast editing and writing, and there is nothing wrong with that. Continue reading

House style… just a waste of time?

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, they are called sub-editors. They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful. Because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.
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A sock draw? Surely not

In a week of processing copy, I spotted this in a Daily Mail story:

‘Then there were other non-essential tasks such as watering plants and
sorting out the sock draw which suddenly became urgent priorities
ahead of the essential task they really should be concentrating on.’

Thing is, you reorganise your sock drawER, not your sock draw.
Looked at in context, it’s possible that the mistake was contained in
the original statement from the source of the story, and somehow
slipped past the usually excellent Mail subbing system.

Moral of the story: just because it’s in an email from someone else,
doesn’t mean it’s right.

* First published on Grubstreet

Editors make mistakes, too

I mis-spelt a word on Twitter today – conumdrum, instead of conundrum. Not the end of the world, and in the Twitter flow no one but me noticed (I hope). But it makes me unhappy when I  get things wrong (especially when I do know the right spelling). And that is one of the foundations of editing, I guess: the striving to make things right.