Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Just When I Thought I Knew Every Possible Reason to Dislike Merriam-Webster ...

... I learned that, according to Merriam Webster, we copy editors don't copy edit. We copyedit.

I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm just saying it's gross, unseemly, disorienting, and disturbing. Other dictionaries let me copy edit, why can't Merriam?

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9 comments:

8'FED said...

Some general observations that I wish to share.

First of all, I want to follow up on a threat. For the context, see this item on John McIntyre's copy-editing blog, and particularly the item beginning "in a weak moment" which contains this link, and see my comment on the blog post (right at the end).

I couldn't resist. Here we have one copy-editing blogger who, impersonating a fictional character I've never heard of, says "dammit" to another fictional character I've never heard of who shares a not-very-common first name with another copy-editing blogger. My brain can't help connecting the dots and being amused by the incongruity.

In other news, yesterday at work a co-worker handed me some pamphlets to proofread, most of which were fine apart from some punctuation issues. One of them, however, contained three instances of really bad grammar. (Not my co-worker's bad grammar, I hasten to add, but the client's.) It wasn't actually my job to fix the grammar, so I just wrote the following comments in the margins: "Very dodgy grammar", "More very dodgy grammar" and "Still more very dodgy grammar". Each error was worse than the one before, and if you're interested I'll tell you what they were. But for now, this comment is long enough.

June Casagrande said...

Someday, I will no longer have an old lady name. I'll have a dead lady name.

Is it wrong to look forward to that day?

I liked your comment about cleaving wards. And, I have to say, I find it kind of delightful that not everyone in the whole damn world is steeped in every tiny detail of American (pop) culture.

You're not missing much, but you are missing something. Here's the background: Back in the black-and-white, cornball TV days in which housewives wore girdles and hairspray as they vaccuumed, there was a show called "Leave It To Beaver." The show was before my time, but the reruns done run right into my own generation.

Anyhoo, it was about a sassy little boy who was nicknamed Beaver. His perfect, suit-wearing, lovingly paternal father was Ward Cleaver. His coiffed and completely asexual mom was June Cleaver.

The show's only worthwhile contribution to American culture: one of June's lines from the show that is recited to this day, usually in the form of a punch line: "Ward, don't you think you were a little hard on the beaver last night?"

(P.S. I would be curious about the bad grammar you caught in proofreading. If you don't want me to post it, you can just say so. We can't have folks saying you were a little hard on the writer last night.)

8'FED said...

The errors:

The first one ("very dodgy grammar") was a misplaced "both", concerning how support groups "alleviate [loneliness] felt by both people with [...] disorders and/or their carers." That's four people, right?

The second ("more very dodgy grammar") explained about giving "understanding and acceptance to the struggles" that people experience. No, you give understanding and acceptance to the people experiencing the struggles. The struggles themselves are not self-aware.

The third ("still more dodgy grammar") was the worst of all. It explained about: "guidelines that the group decides upon together. These include agreeing to keep [things] confidential, and to allow equal share time for [everyone]."

This one contains:
1. Too many verbs (nobody decides to agree to keep anything).
2. Parallel clauses that are hard to match up (I think that "allow" is supposed to parallel "keep", giving us "decide to agree to allow", but this is by no means obvious).
3. Tense problems (I really doubt that the support group spends part of each meeting discussing whether or not to give people equal time to speak on that particular day.)

I think I've disguised all of these well enough to make sure they're not searchable. I'd be particularly interested in what you would do with the third, because I think fixing it would be a challenge.

June Casagrande said...

Yeah. Those are very interesting.

And you're right that "fixing" the third one is difficult, but only if your goal is to fix the grammar. Luckily, we copy editors are instead tasked with fixing the readability, which gives you some creative license.

" ... guidelines that the group agrees upon together. For example, group members might agree to keep things confidential or that everyone gets an equal amount of time to share."

Your original sentence had no human subject. Simple human-subject+verb structures are a life-saver in copy editing. You just ask yourself who dunnit and what they done dun. Any sentence that lacks a human subject and especially one that relies on gerunds for objects/other noun phrases is -- well, just icky by copy editor standards.

Or, I should say, by compentent copy editor standards. I know a lot of copy editors -- a lot -- who couldn't have spotted the problems you found in that sentence. I swear, stuff lands on my desk -- after some other editor has read it -- that says, "After considering whether wanting the floral arrangements was the right choice, she decided on the orchids."

That's a whole lotta nuthin' getting in the way of the only piece of real information: She decided on the orchids.

I get why people write like that. I write like that. But I try to spot such evidence of my clumsy thinking before anyone else sees it.

Ditto that for poor uses of "both." As a writer, I do that, too. But as a reader, I'm more vigilant. Anytime a both appears before a plural noun that it's not directly modifying, it can get ugly. Usually, you can chop it right out.

As for "giving understanding and acceptance to the struggles" -- I think that one would have slipped by a lot of editors. But I agree with you completely. One doesn't give understanding to a struggle.

Are you lingusitics/academic types okay with the term "nominalization"? (I've heard some people object to it, but I can't remember why.)

Anyhoo, "understanding" can be more interesting when it's expressed as an action instead of as a noun. "Acceptance" is more justifiable as a noun, but hinged on a participle this way -- well, the whole thing is like a half-hacked-off limb just hanging there bleeding.

How to fix that one? Probably trash the whole sentence and start from scratch. I think that one could do better than to say that they "give understanding" and "give acceptance." But, without seeing the whole sentence, I'm not sure how.

Bottom line: All very dodgy grammar indeed. And very perceptive of you to see it!

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. Above, I made it sound as though human subjects are necessary in sentences. Obviously, they're not. But human-subject+verb structures are a good go-to solution for fixing weirdo sentences with gerund and/or abstract subjects.

(See? I told you my thoughts can come out all clumsy-like.)

Brian Els said...

Say, that's interesting about how a writer and a reader notice different things about the same language.
Just an observation, but a lot of writing without human subjects or that "relies on gerunds for objects/other noun phrases" tends to be sleep-inducing. Maybe with sensitive subjects, that could be intentional. (Passive voice is used by some writers for the same reason perhaps)
Anyway, as to the phrase, "giving understanding and acceptance to the struggles," as a writer, I'd'a put it different (with the proviso here: I don't know how the whole sentence is worded):
"...understanding and accepting the struggles,..." Now, interestingly enough, I notice, again without knowing the context, those verbs could be regular verbs or gerunds.

June Casagrande said...

"Sleep-inducing." Exactly.

But I have to be so careful when I say so, because so many grammar myths come from good advice stated or interpreted as absolutes.

"Passives often bad" = true
"Passives bad" = false

So I was just a-clarifyin'!

8'FED said...

I've not been at my best over the last few days. Killer of a sore throat, etc. But just to answer questions and tie up loose ends:

I'm not aware of any reason to object to the term "nominalisation".

The first two sentences were bullet points, more or less as follows. "Support groups help to: (a) Alleviate [loneliness]; (b) Give understanding;" etc. I doubt that saying any more about how they were worded would be all that enlightening.

Speaking of clumsiness, does "would be curious about" really work for you? Personally, I'd prefer either "am curious about" or would be interested in".

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, "would be curious about" is none too elegant. Both your suggestions are better.

I hope you feel better soon! I'm looking forward to the end of this flu season!

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