Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Copyediting the Great American Novel

...But behind these horn-rimmed glasses, there's a woman dreaming big dreams. I won't be stuck standardizing verb tenses in business documents my whole life. One day, I will copyedit the Great American Novel.

Every editorial forum I frequent has posted the Onion Someday I Will Copyedit The Great American Novel. It's on the wall of the office. Approximately seven people forwarded the link to me.

Reactions among editors vary, but seem to fall into a few different categories:

Oh, yes, me too, please!
Most of us do not become editors in order to give the world better punctuated insurance textbooks and annual reports. Yes, we do have "clear eyes and an unquenchable thirst for syntactical truth," and apply them to any copy that comes our way, whether it be a bumper sticker with a misplaced apostrophe, a passive-laden government brief, or a throbbing romance-novel sex scene. But we did not learn the difference between a a restrictive and a non-restrictive appositive merely in order to render turgid financial writing grammatically correct. Nobody becomes enamoured of the written word because of the way a clearly written press released sucked them into a new world. And so, many young editors, identify with Ms. Cohen's desire, which creates a lot of competition among young editors.

Huh. Sadly, I doubt she's qualified.
Several of my more persnickety colleagues (and, in my profession, persnickety is a compliment, as is perfectionist) took a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the errors, overstatements, and Hobgoblins.
Duck Tape® is the brand name of the shiny, sticky, waterproof stuff, and was the original name; "duct tape" is a relatively modern overcorrection (or, in the words of a colleague "Apocope, my a**!"). It is not wrong to start a sentence with "but," doing so is merely frowned upon by overzealous Thistlebottoms. Likewise splitting infinitives. But for the lies to children told by schoolteachers, more people would recall that eminently respectable authors and editors have done so, and that renowned grammarians have cheerfully split their infinitives.

The great "that/which," "restrictive/non-" debate is a grammatical shibboleth, by which the editors of Daniel Webster's tribe know each other. In other, less florid words, it's a matter of style. Perfectly respectable editors ignore the distinction. Perfectly respectable grammarians insist that "that" is only to be as a demonstrative adjective or a subordinating conjunction, never to introduce any kind of appositive. Perfectly respectable editors consider illiterate anyone who fails to use "that" in a restrictive fashion, without parenthetical commas, and which non-restrictively, with parenthetical commas.

...and what's with the capitalized "The" in the title?

That's just plain heartwarming.
More inclusive than the tribe of Daniel Webster is the tribe of Those of Us for Whom Editing Is a Vocation (which needs a snappier name). We can't walk past abused apostrophes without wanting to put them where they belong. Misplaced modifiers distress us. We glory in an aptly applied subjunctive. It bugs us when someone spells "travelling" with two "l"s but "jeweler" with one. And when we encounter a fellow tribe member marking up the flyer for the new take-out restaurant, which proclaims Pizza's and Drinks, or correcting the notice beside the elevator that says "Use stairs too get to 2nd floor," we can smile at them, and know that here is someone who understands.

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