Monday, March 23, 2015

Everybody Needs an Ediotor

             I am not a big fan of copy-editors.

            On one occasion, relatively early in my career in the Ed Biz, I sent a letter to the "Commentary" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a letter coming in just over their 300-word limit. But there was an easy fix: I had the phrase in it "hold in contempt," and I just changed that to "contemn" and saved two words. "Contemn" isn't exactly a common word, but it's only two syllables, and it's not difficult to figure out in a context where it replaces "hold in contempt." Besides, "to dis(s)" hadn't been invented yet, and "to disrespect" hadn't returned to White English (according to The Oxford English Dictionary, "to disrespect" has been in and out of fashion since the 17th century); given those limitations, "contemn" was as accurate as I could get.

            The copy-editor (of course) changed "contemn" to "condemn."

            I was not pleased. "Condemn" would work in the sentence, but that wasn't what I meant to say; "contemn" was what I meant, and s/he could've just looked it up and see (1) it's a word, and (2) it was the right word.

            A bigger deal was when my co-editor and I were driven up the wall by apparently random changes by the copy-editor of "that" to "which" and "which" to "that" in an anthology of essays we were editing. We called the publishers and asked to talk to the copy-editor and were told they wouldn't put through that call. So we asked for her, or less likely his, name and were told they didn’t release that information.

            As the received wisdom of the time advised, we "got in touch" with our feelings about the copy-editor and guessed quickly why the publisher kept copy-editor names anonymous.
            I was in a department of English and asked around, and one colleague looked at the corrections (?) and said, "Oh — it's an East-Coast affectation."

            I replied with my usual, sophisticated "Huh?"

            And my colleague explained, "Remember the comment in Strunk and White" — Elements of Style (1918 f.) a classic writing guide — "that it wasn't a rule of grammar or anything like that, but it'd be nice if writers used 'that' with necessary, 'restrictive" modifying clauses and '[comma], which' with nonrestrictive clauses ….' As in, "The car hit the bump that jutted up in the street" as opposed to, "The car missed the dangerous bump, which jutted up in the street."

            Ah, yes, I remembered it well, that rule of thumb, since the one question I missed on some State-mandated high school grammar and punctuation test involved "that" and "which" and the misunderstanding by the test-makers that "useful advice" isn't the same as "a rule of grammar."

            Brits especially use "that" and "which" pretty much interchangeably, and the copy-editor had corrected the English of, among others, Brian Aldiss, who may not have had a college degree (perhaps not even a high school diploma) but did live in Oxford, England, and occasionally taught at the university they keep there: a guy who had already or was soon to write some notable fiction and scholarship, work with Stanley Kubrick and then Steven Spielberg on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and get letters after his name like "OBE" and "FRSL" ("Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" — no shit on the full title — and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature), et bloody cetera.

            So I've had my complaints about copy-editors and had a fantasy or two about throttling them.

            Still, I mourn the passing of copy-editors and proofreaders; we, all of us, need them.

            For example …
            For example, I once wrote a letter that I signed with the relevant notice of my editing something or other, and very impressively, I'm sure, typed the job title as "Ediotor." I also once addressed one of my editors as "ediotor." It was a standard Freudian typo with me, for reasons that should be fairly clear from what I wrote above: "editor" + "idiot" —> "ediotor," including when I was doing the editing.

            And my father before me could have used an editor/proof-reader on at least one occasion.

            He learned of it reading an amused note that came with shirts he'd ordered for his credit-clothing store. The note went something like, "Thank you for your order, although we were somewhat surprised you still wanted our product, given the opinion you expressed." Accompanying the goodly number of shirts he'd ordered was his order letter, where he'd omitted the "r" in "shirts."

            Nowadays, of course, we have few proofreaders and copy-editors but depend upon SpellCheck and AutoCorrect. So now our errors can still include "this" instead of "his" or writing "shits" when we mean "shirts" — "shit" is certainly a word I've taught SpellCheck — but also utterly random and/or grotesque mistakes.

            Here I'll leave the reader to fill in examples, since I've repressed the memories of most of them. What I find is that apparently The System decided that my "wrung out" — or the typo I made for that — wasn't acceptable, but "rung out" was fine; or is perfectly willing to refer someone to "seen 122" rather than movie "scene 122."

            More serious, of course, is if you don't check autoCompletion or autoFill of, say, an e-mail address and an important e-post that is supposed to go to one address goes to an address the intended recipient hasn't used for years, or a confidential note for "Mike K." ends up going to "Mike L."

            Well, and so forth.

            I've argued before that "Spelling Counts"; that's still true, but nowadays one pretty much needs to know only how to spell approximately. If you use a computer, tools are available to check your spelling, to suggest spelling, and to define words for you to ensure that what you're correctly spelling is the word you want (e.g., I once wrote that I'd be discrete [ = "individually separate and distinct"] when I meant discreet [= "careful and circumspect"; there's a difference). What we need now is greater care and a good eye.
            And we can't always exercise that care for our own writing, and all of us have our areas of ignorance. If the writing is important, we need to get it checked.

            Now and then, anyway, everybody who writes needs an editor. 

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