LABELS: COPY EDITING, WORD CHOICE
When I copy edit an article, it’s always after another editor has read it. But that editor has a different job. He or she isn’t supposed to know every little thing about language and punctuation and word choice. Instead, he or she oversees the whole section – deciding what the stories will be, assigning them to writers, getting photos, and so on.
They’re not supposed to know everything about copy editing, but they know a lot. Or, I should say, most do. I have, in the past, worked with a couple (I’m thinking of one guy in particular) who weren’t really qualified for the job. And it showed. For example, the one guy I’m thinking of would send me an e-mail to let me know whenever a story was ready for me in the “cue.” He meant queue. He should have just said “folder.”
But even the good ones don’t know everything a copy editor does about word use, which is clear in the little errors they let slip by.
Here are a couple mistakes that editors -- good editors -- have missed recently.
“Forego” in place of “forgo.” If you’re talking about doing without something, do it without the E. The version that’s correctly spelled “forego” is so rare that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it used. Somewhere between 99% and 100% of the time, you want “forgo.”
“Eek” out a living. This error sneaked past several editors, including the one at my job who probably has the best copy editing skills there. Worse, it appeared in an article that we were reprinting from a well-known national magazine. So that "eek" had already showed up in print, then it got past my editor at work. It should have been “eke.”
“Alter,” “altar.” The publications I edit cover a wide and ever-changing range of topics, sometimes including wedding trends. I’ve seen confusion about "alter" and "altar" go both ways, with wedding stories that talk about a church’s “alter” and other stories that say you should “altar” your plans. Those are both wrong. The one in the church is an “altar,” to change is to “alter.”
“Palette,” “palate.” Confusion about these two is so common that I don’t expect anyone but copy editors to know the difference. “The menu is filled with creations to delight the palette.” Nope. That should be “palate,” a part of the mouth. The other one is about colors and color schemes, like an artist’s palette. A third spelling, pallet, is a wooden platform used to stack and move merchandise in a warehouse.
LABELS: VERBS, WORD CHOICE
The first time I heard someone fuss over the difference between “bring” and “take,” I figured he was talking about a serious error people make in their speech and writing. It took me years to figure out that, really, they’re micro-nitpicking – zeroing in on the tiniest and most insignificant shades of two words with no reason other than a chance to say “gotcha.”
It’s not like they’re being helpful. I doubt anyone in the history of time has gotten drenched in a storm for not knowing whether to “bring” or “take” an umbrella.
Still, if you want to steer clear of the bring-vs.-take police, here’s some advice I’ve doled out before.
"Take" suggests movement away from the speaker. “Take this raincoat with you.” “Bring” suggests movement toward the speaker. “Bring me my raincoat.”
Of course, when the motion isn’t in relation to the speaker, this isn’t useful, as illustrated in the examples “My father used to bring/take bags of groceries to my mother” and “If we are going to the zoo, should we bring/take the camera?”
In my opinion, this proves that the stickler rule is almost as useful as no rule at all. People don’t really have problems using these words. A case-by-case sense on which one sounds better usually gets you better results than all the fussing and parsing in the world.
LABELS: SUBJECT VERB AGREEMENT
There are some bits of advice that I’ve been dishing out for so long that I can’t remember where I picked them up in the first place.
A particular subject-verb agreement issue is an example. I’ve been saying for so long that “a team of rivals” can take either a singular verb or plural verb that I don’t remember how I arrived at that conclusion. Did I read somewhere that the verb can agree with any noun in a noun phrase? Or did I deduce it myself through a process of elimination? (That is: Research shows there's no rule against it, therefore it’s okay.) Either way, it’s a little unnerving when I realize I can no longer remember the basis of something I’ve been saying for years.
That's why I was so happy recently to rediscover a passage from Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court”:
"The issue of agreeement that most often comes up has to do with whether phrases like ‘the committee of one hundred’ and ‘a crowd of well-wishers’ are singular or plural. Fortunately, this is fairly easy to finesse, because such constructions may go either way, depending on meaning.
“Start by assuming that the main, singular noun (committee, crowd) is what should be agreed with. If that results in something illogical or terribly peculiar, switch to agreeing with the plural object of the preposition (one hundred, well-wishers).”
I’ve been reading a self-published e-book. I didn’t realize it was self-published when I bought it. If I had, I would have thought twice before buying. I know lots of great books are self-published. But books vetted by agents and publishers are more likely to be good.
In this case, there’s no doubt a traditionally published book would have been better edited. This one was riddled – absolutely riddled – with errors, averaging a major boo-boo every page or two. After some soul-searching, I decided not to mention the title, mainly because Amazon customers have already ripped the author for the mistakes in their reviews and the author herself replied. She apologized to readers wrote that the book went through six different edits and she has no idea how all those errors got in. Her best guess is that the wrong file got sent to the publisher. And whether or not that’s true, she’s had enough humiliation.
But I bring it up today because the types of errors were interesting. Some were the careless mistakes everyone makes while writing. Missing punctuation. A wrong word (“no suck luck” where she clearly meant “no such luck”). A “your” where it should have been “you’re.”
Anyone whose mind is preoccupied with dreaming up story and dialogue and characters can easily make those mistakes. But other mistakes were more damning. They were made not in haste but because, quite clearly, the writer didn’t know any better. Even if the author had cleaned up all the typos, these errors would have tipped her hand that the book wasn’t professionally edited. They’re the stuff editors know and most other people don’t:
1. “Everyday” as a noun phrase. The one-word “everyday” is an adjective, “everyday values.” The noun phrase is two words: “We’ll visit every day.”
2. Repeated instances of “door jam” and no instances of the correct “door jamb.”
3. She “would pour over maps for hours.” This is one editors watch out for. It should be “pore.”
4. Consistent use of one-word “awhile” after “for.” The one-word form is an adverb and, as such, can’t be used as a noun that’s the object of a preposition. So you can “stay awhile” or “stay for a while,” but you can’t “stay for awhile.”
To me, those mistakes are a dead giveaway that no professional editor was involved – at least not in the version I paid good money for.