Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Can a parrot say ‘copy edit’?

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 31, 2008

Here’s a case where actually thinking about what is being said (rather than focusing on superficial things like grammar) would have been helpful.

Language Log has an post about The Economist’s review of a book about a talking parrot. As Language Log points out, one sentence in the review stands out as being not only illogical, but possibly negating the entire premise of the book.

In explaining how the parrot seemed to be able to string phonemes together to create new words (a crucial way humans distinguish their language from that of animals), the review provides this example:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparenlty mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

What’s the problem here? Well, think of the most common things parrots are usually “taught” to say. “Polly wanna cracker” and “pretty bird” come to my mind immediately. Surprise! Both start with a p. Other parrots seem mighty capable of making this elusive sound without the use of fleshy human lips. By taking a simple step back and reflecting on whether this example gets the writer’s point across, a copy editor should have immediately been struck by this fact and realized that the explanation made no sense.

Language Log takes it a step further in pointing out that both the [p] and [b] are articulated with the lips, so if you can make one sound, lips or not, you should be able to make the other sound.

I’m not sure if this faulty information came straight from the book or if the reviewer just came up with an example. The worst part is that anyone who catches this error is going to write-off the content of this book. While I don’t really care that people won’t buy this whole parrot-who-can-talk story, it’s awful for the writer, whose work is probably already criticized enough from the scientific community.

While the blog rightfully blames the reviewer, I am shaking my head about how this got by copy editors. Even if the editors knew absolutely no details about how parrots mimic speech (like that having lips has nothing to do with it), the simple thought that parrots do indeed make the p sound all the time would have served them well.

Copy editors need to question every sentence. They need to wonder if it’s factual, clear, grammatical and  whether it logically makes sense. In this case, the sentence is crystal clear, grammatically intact, and it is factual in the sense that a copy editor could possibly look in the book to find this fact, or just think, “yeah, parrots don’t have lips … moving on.” But that test for logic is missing.


One Response to “Can a parrot say ‘copy edit’?”

  1. Drifter said

    Birds don’t articulate like people do. They use an entirely different organ, a sirynx (two paired passages containing vocal chords, located at bottom end of trachea, that can produce more than one sound at once); this is how they can mimic such a wide range of sounds. They mimic the acoustic effect, not the production.

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