The Drive to Correct

One of the Substacks I subscribe to has a huge readership that comments prolifically, intelligently, and sometimes with a daunting knowledge of the subject at hand. So after I read the column, I skim some of the comments. Since I invariably arrive several hours after the column has posted, there are hundreds more comments than I can read without taking the day off, so I start with the ones at the top: the ones that have garnered the most “likes” from other readers.

The other day, that top comment was particularly interesting, so my eye moved down to see what the responses had been. The very first one took the commenter to task for mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible.” This had indeed blipped my editorial radar, but it was 100% clear what the commenter meant so I kept reading.

The grammar cop, however, stopped me dead in my tracks. I’d never read anything like this in this particular Substack, or in any other I follow, and it’s pretty damn uncommon even in the free-for-all of the newspaper comment sections I frequent. A few people had commented, some apparently OK with the usage correction and some definitely not. I joined the latter group with this reply:

[Male commenter], I hope you see how your need to be right has hijacked the discussion and become a subject in itself. I’ve seen this happen a lot over the years, and it often has the effect that [female commenter] points out: people leave the group rather than subject themselves to possible humiliation by language know-it-alls. In my experience, the worst offenders are English teachers and copyeditors. (I’m a copyeditor as well as other kinds of editor, so I can say this.)

Most of us don’t do this, needless to say. We’ve learned over the years how many English-speakers are insecure about their spelling, usage, and/or punctuation, even when their writing proves them extremely capable. I want forums like this to welcome everyone who has something to say, even if they aren’t professional writers or editors or teachers, even if English is their second, third, or fourth language.

So please, all you English teachers and copyeditors and every other perfectionist out there, ask yourself “How important is it?” Errors of fact and genuinely confusing statements are worth questioning — tactfully, please! But most readers aren’t likely to be confused by mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible,” or “affect” and “effect,” or many of the other little booby-traps that English is full of. Thank you.

The know-it-all defended himself, as such know-it-alls usually do.

I thought back to my early experiences in e-groups, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Most of the groups I participated in consisted of word people: writers, editors, journalists, librarians, and so on. A few were devoted to either horses (usually Morgans) or dogs (especially Alaskan malamutes). At first I used the same sig for all of them, giving my name and indentifying me as a copyeditor and proofreader.

In the horse and dog groups, sometimes a participant would apologize for her spelling or grammar, even though there was nothing wrong with either. A couple of times I sensed a certain defensiveness in the apology.

Finally I got it: My sig was making some people self-conscious about their written English. I started using a different sig for the horse and dog groups, using just my name. The defensive comments stopped.

I connected this with conversations I’ve had over the many years with other writers and editors — people, most of them women, who make their living in the word trades. A startling number of us seem to have gone through a stage where we couldn’t write, didn’t write, thought we were no good at writing. Some traced this back to an ill-met English teacher, usually in junior high or middle school. For others it started with college professor, or in a writers’ workshop taken as an adult.

The common thread was an authority figure, teacher or professor, who taught that when it came to grammar, usage, and writing in general, there was only one correct way to do it. Every other way was flat-out wrong or, at best, substandard.

Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I get it. As an apprentice editor, I learned the which/that distinction — that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive — and immediately started using it to separate the initiates from the ignorants. Within a few years, however, I’d realized that the which/that distinction doesn’t seem to exist in British English, and users of British English nevertheless manage to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Most U.S. trade publishers I’ve worked for over the years either require or strongly recommend it, and I can apply it if it’s called for, but I know that it’s a style thing, not a matter of good/bad or right/wrong.

So what to do when you spot an error in a public forum, on social media, or in the local newspaper? Here are my guidelines.

  • First, make bloody sure that it is an error. Many words have variant spellings. The rules you may have learned in junior high aren’t as iron-clad as you were led to believe.
  • Ask yourself how important is it. Errors of fact and misleading statements are way more important than spelling mistakes and subject-verb disagreements.
  • Check your motives. Are you genuinely trying to clarify something or make something better, or are you just showing off?
  • If there’s a way to communicate with the writer privately, use it. Let them take care of correcting the error, if error it is. (To be fair to the jerk in my example above, there was no way to do this. To my mind, though clearly not to his, this was reason enough to STFU.)
  • If you decide to go ahead with a public correction, be tactful. Good editors and good teachers know how to do this, because goddess knows we spend a lot of time correcting errors and fixing unclarities and if we don’t learn how to do this without humiliating people, we’re in the wrong trade.

So here’s a real-life example. The other day I spotted a poster for a local theater production on the bulletin board at the supermarket. My proofreaderly mind registered the typo a mere instant after the name of the play, even though the latter is much more prominent.

Top of Cinderella poster

If you’re at all familiar with musical theater, you know that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein has a “d” in it. So far I haven’t done anything about it, except call it to the attention of a friend who, like me, was involved with this particular organization long ago and who, also like me, notices typos in the wild.

Why not contact the theater company itself? Because it’s unlikely, given the short lead time and the probable cost of correcting the poster, that anything can be done about it, and also because it’s probably been called to the director’s attention so many times that he’s ready to tear his hair out.

It’s a lesson, however, in the importance of proofreading, and proofreading by a proofreader, not just a smart person who knows how to spell.

Say It Loud

“Synechdoche”?

My eye skidded to a halt. I knew it was wrong, I was 99% sure the correct spelling was “synecdoche,” but I looked it up anyway in Merriam-Webster’s Online. I was right: “synecdoche” it is.

Aside: Back in my newspaper days, I was frequently asked why I usually worked with a dictionary on my lap. “You spell better than any of us!” my colleagues would say. And I’d smile sagely or smugly depending on my mood and say, “This is why I spell better than any of you.” This was before and then in the earliest years of the World Wide Web: online dictionaries were not yet A Thing. Now I generally work with two or three dictionaries open in my browser at all times.

Then I clicked the little speaker symbol. I was stunned. Good thing I’ve rarely if ever had occasion to say “synecdoche” out loud, because I would have screwed it up. As a friend later pointed out, it’s like “Schenectady”: the stress falls on the second syllable. In my mind’s ear I’d been thinking something like “syn-ek-DOE-key.”

To this day I remember the moment when my first college roommate realized that the word she pronounced “epiTOME” and the word she spelled “epitome” were one and the same. It was the very epitome of an epiphany. I was grateful to be having my synecdoche epiphany in the privacy of my apartment.

However, once I was secure in my new knowledge, I immediately blurted it out on Facebook: “Lucky me, I was never called upon to pronounce ‘synecdoche.'”

I’m pretty shaky on my figures of speech, but I did remember that during April’s A to Z Challenge, blogger Eva Blasovic’s S had stood for “synecdoche,” so I hastened to her Beyond the Precipice blog to read up on it: “A figure of speech in which the part is made to represent the whole, or vice-versa.” Eva provides several good examples and also compares it to “metonymy” — which you’ll have no trouble pronouncing once you get the hang of “synecdoche” and “Schenectady.”

Applying my new knowledge, I immediately recognized my author’s use of “white-coats” as an example of synecdoche: he uses it to refer to research scientists who spend a lot of time in laboratories.

Moral of story: Look things up, even when you know the answer. Check the pronunciation as well as the spelling. It may save you from making a fool of yourself in public.

 

S Is for Spelling

semicolonAll week, as drew closer in my saunter through the alphabet, I assumed it was going to be “S Is for Semicolon.” I like semicolons; you already knew that, right? I blogged about why I like them (and how I don’t really understand why some people hate them so much) in “Praisesong for the Semicolon.” True, that was almost three years ago, but the post holds up pretty well.

Plus it includes a link to where you can buy semicolon swag on Cafepress. I’ve already got the T-shirt, but I could use some more stickers.

S offered several other possibilities, though not nearly as many as C or P — slash (aka solidus), symbol, signature, serif, sans serif (which I just learned can be spelled as one word), schedule, speech, sentence, style sheet . . .

Spelling! Aha, thought I, that’s a big one!

Almost too big, I think a few minutes later, staring at the screen and wondering where to start, where to start?

With a trip to the dictionary, of course. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) has to say about spelling:

1. a. The forming of words with letters in an accepted order; orthography.
b. The art or study of orthography.
2. The way in which a word is spelled.
3. A person’s ability to spell words: a writer plagued by bad spelling.

English-language spelling is a bear, but I’ve always been good at it, probably because (at least as a kid) I had a good eye and memory for detail. In fifth grade my nickname was Walking Encyclopedia. A few years later I was a killer at Trivial Pursuit, especially when partnered with someone who knew TV and sports a lot better than I did.

Since everyone’s the hero of their own story, including me, I early on assumed that anyone who couldn’t spell well either wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t too bright.

After I learned about dyslexia, I got a lot more tolerant. I also learned that many smart people and some very good writers are “plagued by bad spelling.” You probably won’t meet any copyeditors or proofreaders who are similarly impaired, but I know a few very capable developmental or substantive editors whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is somewhat shaky. They deal with the big picture. Copyeditor and proofreader come in their wake to tend to the details.

AHD refers to “letters in an accepted order.” Right. Even when we spell words wrong, we generally agree on how they should be spelled. If necessary, we consult a dictionary. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spell quite a few words differently, but in nearly all cases an AmE spelling is intelligible to a BrE speaker and vice versa: traveler/traveller, check/cheque, defense/defence, curb/kerb.

So why is spelling important? Is spelling important? Memes circulate on Facebook with the most atrocious spelling, intentionally atrocious spelling, like these:

 

 

 

 

And my favorite of all, this:

And we can read them. It’s true that the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, unless it’s proofreading, of course, but would you want to raed page after page of any of the above? Probably not. It’s exhausting. You put so much effort into deciphering the text that you’re barely taking in what it’s trying to tell you. The texts above are mainly trying to tell you that you can understand short passages of atrociously spelled words.

When words are spelled in “an accepted order,” we can devote more attention to how they’re strung together in sentences and paragraphs and what they’re trying to say. Sentence structure and punctuation serve the same purpose, by the way. They’re not trying to flummox you or make you feel stupid. If you’re trying to tell a story or get an idea across to readers, they’re on your side.

Spelling errors and typos don’t mean you’re stupid, but when you’re trying to make a good impression on, say, an agent or editor who has to wade through dozens of query letters in a week (or even a day), they don’t inspire confidence. They may even create the impression that you’re careless or clueless or less than competent. Take excruciating care with any document on which much depends.

And yes, digital spell checkers can be helpful. I use mine when I’m in a hurry, and when I’m typing on a virtual keyboard. But a proofreader, copyeditor, or careful reader can usually tell within a paragraph or two or three when a document has been spell-checked but not proofread. The spell checker knows that “reed” is spelled correctly, but it doesn’t know that you don’t reed books.

G Is for Grammar

We’re so quick to say that someone “doesn’t know their grammar” that it might be surprising how many of us aren’t entirely sure just what “grammar” is. This would include me. I just had to look it up (again). Here is what Bryan A. Garner, author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style, has to say:

Grammar defined. Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences. These rules, which native speakers of a language learn largely by osmosis, govern most constructions in a given language. The small minority of constructions that lie outside these rules fall mostly into the category of idiom and usage.

In the very next paragraph he notes that “there are many schools of grammatical thought,” that “grammatical theories have been in great flux in recent years,” and that “the more we learn the less we seem to know.”

button: grammar police enforce the syntaxNot to worry about all this flux and multiplicity, at least not too much. A couple of things to keep in mind, however, when someone accuses you or not knowing your grammar or when, gods forbid, you are tempted to accuse someone else: (1) spelling and punctuation are not grammar, and (2) some of the rules you know are bogus.

If you’re not sure which of the rules you know are bogus — well, I just Googled bogus grammar rules (without quote marks) and got 338,000 hits. Bogus rules are the ones we generally don’t learn by osmosis. They are stuffed down our throats by those in authority, often teachers or parents.

At the top of almost everybody’s list are the injunctions against splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition. They’ve both been roundly debunked, but I still get asked about one or the other from time to time so I’m pretty sure they’re not dead yet. Plenty of writers and even editors still get anxious when a “to” is split from its verb or a preposition bumps up against a period/full stop.

The general purpose of bogus rules is not to help one write more clearly; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t. As literacy spread and anyone could learn to read and write, the excruciatingly well educated upper classes confronted a dilemma: how in heaven’s name can we tell US from THEM? Hence the rules — about language, etiquette, and various other things.

Note, however, that the uppermost class can generally get away with anything, so the ones who follow and strive to enforce the bogus rules are often those a notch or two below in the pecking order. That’s how they demonstrate their loyalty to those at the top. Watch out for them.

Orthographic Musing

In the novel-in-progress excerpt I took to my writers’ group last night, one character (Glory’s mother, Felicia, for anyone who’s keeping track) spoke of a onetime band member who had ODed.

That’s the way I spelled it: ODed.

Several of my fellow writers thought it should be OD’d. That made sense too.

At my writers’ group meetings, we bring enough copies for everybody — at the moment we’re seven, with the eighth on sick leave — then the writer reads aloud while everyone else marks up the hardcopy. My Monday morning tasks include opening the active file (draft2.doc), going through the marked-up copies, and making revisions, corrections, or notes as needed or desired.

So I came to “ODed”, remembered what the others had said, and changed it to “OD’d”.

Being terminally curious, I then had to look it up. Being an editor, I had to look it up in three dictionaries, not one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online) gave both “OD’d” and “ODed”.

American Heritage said “OD’ed” — with both the -ed and the apostrophe.

Oxford, both the UK/World and the US editions, had “OD’d”.

This drives some writers and editors crazy. Not me. I love it. The variation reminds me that when it comes to orthography, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to spell a word, but other times it depends. It’s “sceptic” in British English (BrE), “skeptic” in American English (AmE), but neither one is wrong. Newspapers and magazines usually have a house style that, in the interest of consistency, specifies a preference in cases where several choices exist.

Publishers do too, but the better ones generally allow more variation than magazines and newspapers. Books don’t have to be consistent with each other. They should, however, be internally consistent. If “OD’d” comes up more than once, spell it the same way each time. Make your choice, enter it on your style sheet, then stick to it. (Style sheets are a copyeditor’s best friend and secret weapon. Wise writers use them too. For more about style sheets, check out my blog post “What’s a Style Sheet?”)

While writing the above, I took a break to look up “orthography”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition: “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. I see two loopholes I could drive my car through: “proper” and “standard usage”. And that’s OK (okay?). MW calls it an “art”, after all, and in art the right answer is often “it depends”.

So what am I going to do about ODed / OD’ed / OD’d? For now I’m going with “OD’d”, but that may change.