Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Archive for the ‘editing theory’ Category

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.


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The nounification of ‘fail’ FTW

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 24, 2008

In high school, I used to write in leet speak all the time. When it came to writing on message boards, chatting on Instant Messenger and writing notes to my friends (hand-written notes!), I thought I was about as l337 as a person can get.

I wasn’t so into replacing every letter with a number, but I used the abbreviations, the creative punctuation and the flavor-of-the-week slang. I understood the subtle differences between lol, lololol and LOLZ. In my writing, typos were not only accepted, but encouraged. Punctuation took on totally. different. effects. All that mattered was that other leet-literate people got it.

My casual use of Internet slang and memes is probably the reason why the use of the word “fail” as a noun did not strike me as the least bit strange.

In fact, it wasn’t until I read this article in Slate’s language section that it ever occurred to me that the common online use of “fail” in constructions like “epic fail” was totally ungrammatical.

The fail meme has been around for years, but more recently, the growing popularity of blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger? and the new Failblog has brought it to the mainstream. A look quick look at the Google Trends for “epic fail” shows a steady increase from 2007 to now.

So what does “fail” in the place of “failure” say about us? What do Lolcats and leet speak and Internet memes say about the way we use language online?

The Internet is treated so differently than our other established mediums. The language that flies online is so utterly different from the language we use in print. Of course, tendencies toward leet speak are not universally applied to everything online. No one would expect online publications or news sites to use language this way, but people still feel that they can bend the rules. We especially see the trend on blogs, in chats and on message boards, which are all exclusively online. Because the Web is so fast-paced, the language mimics the medium’s manic tendencies.

I don’t believe leet speak, in any of its forms, has taken anything away from the Internet. People still take the Web seriously. They still use it to get their news and are quick to use Google when they want a quick answer. But language on the Web is definitely more fluid than the printed word and, I imagine, more fluid than the spoken word. Text on a screen is static, and online users treat it that way.

As more people go to the Web for their media fix, I don’t know what this fast-paced evolution of online language will mean for editors or writers. I imagine it will involve a lot more rule-bending, recognition that readers are extremely Web-literate and some creativity when handling the idea that “fail” is in fact a noun on the Web.

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Y spelling cownts

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 12, 2008

Phonetics professor John Wells is calling for a “freeing up” of the English language, the Times Online reports. While I’m usually pretty hip to unconventional approaches to both language and education, I don’t agree with the idea that people should have more freedom to spell as they like. But, as always, there are a few instances where I disagree with the dictionary.

It all goes back to consistency. Consistency from article to article is important to keep the newspaper looking professional. Wells seems to advocate a set of consistent changes to English spelling, but a large restructuring of the language all at once would make it inconsistent with writings from just a few years earlier. Spelling changes occur gradually and allow people to adjust accordingly. An overhaul of every spelling irregularity overnight would raise a generation of students who would have trouble reading a book that their parents read in high school. Spelling is just another form of keeping writing consistent, and as a result, keeping it understandable for the reader.

That being said, there are a few words that are technically misspelled that I choose to use in print. I attribute these misspellings more as changes in modern grammar than simple spelling issues, though. The biggest of these are “gonna,” “wanna,” and “finna,” which in some southern dialects is a shortened form of “fixing to.”

The AP Stylebook doesn’t have an entry on any of these words, and Merriam-Webster Online does not recognize any of them. Obviously, a reporter is not going to use these words in their copy, but what about in direct quotes? It’s a bit misleading to change your source’s utterance of “gonna” to “going to.” They mean the same thing, but I would argue that “gonna” is a different word. The pronunciation is completely different, it has less syllables and judging from its Google hits, people use the written form of “gonna” already.

This question has come up before in the newsroom, usually because “gonna” and “wanna” show up as being misspelled, making a copy editor wonder how to change it. I always suggest keeping them as they are unless they would cause confusion. (Although “finna” has never come up, I’d probably just paraphrase the quote to avoid using an obscure word.)

Do you know of any other misspellings that you feel should be adopted by the stylebook or dictionary?

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Grammar rules are meant to be broken

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 9, 2008

For my first post, I want to explain what “the twist” in my blog title refers to. I’m a copy editor who likes breaking rules. Copy editing is often viewed as this job where editors impose rigid grammar laws and get all hung up over dangling modifiers. Some copy editors may fit that bill, but I, however, do not enjoy following rigid, outdated rules.

I am of the belief that prescriptive grammar (that is, the grammar you learned in school) should not be imposed on writers or readers. The way we write should reflect the way people actually speak.

If you’re familiar with linguistics, this is called a descriptive grammar approach. Descriptive grammarians acknowledge that change in a language is inevitable and no one form of a language is considered superior.

How is this useful in copy editing? A lot of times I see editors become frustrated with rules, not because they don’t understand them, but because they just sound … funny. Trying to decide whether to use “whomever” or “whoever” will not make an article better. It will just distract you from editing for clarity and conciseness.

Bruce Byfield summed it up perfectly:

“By abandoning prescriptive grammar, writers shift the responsibility for their work to themselves. In practice, this shift means making choices that are not right or wrong in the abstract, but, rather, useful in a particular context or purpose.”

Copy editors should take a similar approach when editing someone else’s work. We must really think about the words we use and the grammar we impose. When I’m editing, I ask myself, 1. Is this the clearest and most concise way that this could be written? and 2. Does this reflect the way people actually speak?

So worry less about changing “who” to “whom” and more about the story’s ability to answer those other, more important W’s. If we can think of grammar rules as guidelines and put some real thought into what the writer is trying to say, we can make decisions that better serve both the writer and reader.  Plus, the articles we edit won’t sound so damn stuffy anymore.

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