Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can peeves really be pets?

Some things that can serve to annoy copy editors

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
A former copy editor colleague of mine recently started a Facebook thread bemoaning some of his pet peeves of misused words in the English language. I joined in the thread — we share some of the same irritants.

Every copy editor, somewhere in his or her professional life, comes across some vile, slovenly form of word abusage that is so revolting — or perhaps just repeatedly irritating — that it takes on a life of its own.

In fact, with good copy editors, this may happen over and over as the years drag on, until he or she realizes there is now a menagerie of these little pests, these irksome, annoying grammatical gaffes that can suck the life out of an otherwise well-written piece.

These living, breathing entities are peeves. These particular peeves are to copy editors what a cockroach is to the Orkin man: targets of annihilation that deserve no mercy.

By the way, most of us copy editors need to get a life. But if you’re still reading at this point, then you already are aware of that.

If I seem a bit over the top, consider this: Copy editors are those folks whose work in publication is virtually invisible — except when they fail to catch a mistake.

And sure enough, someone’s going to find one or two in this blog post. Murphy’s law assures that — so if you see one, leave a comment below or email me. I am thick-skinned — I have no editor who reads my posts before I file them, and any editor will admit that is not a good practice. I’m thankful for those who send messages with corrections — got one last week, and my Dad frequently calls the day I file with his own questions and observations.

Marty O’Mara, who mentored me for years at The Courier-News in Elgin, occasionally would remind those of us who worked the night desk that our jobs were essential to the quality of our publication each day. We were the last line of defense against misspellings, poor grammar, lack of clarity. Ultimately, particularly on police reports or crime stories and on stories of a more sensitive nature, we sometimes also were the last line of defense against a libel suit.

Yet, we received no medals of valor for taking out a mixed metaphor that had embedded itself in a series of paragraphs; nor did we receive any bronze stars for rescuing a sentence from a misplaced modifier. In fact, like as not, the only time most people ever would take notice of our work, Marty would say, was when a mistake made it into print.

And, he pointed out, when people notice that one mistake, they have no way of knowing that perhaps you corrected 500 or 1,000 errors over the course of that shift. From their limited perspective, someone simply was asleep at the switch because a mistake had made it into print.

Marty’s point was not to put added pressure on us to safeguard against mistakes. We were good at our jobs and he knew that. While the exhortation to diligence certainly was understood, I think his occasional reminders were intended more as an encouragement and, in the same vein, to give us perspective.

Back to the peeves.

There are elements of style, rules of grammar or correct word use and spelling that are fairly universal. In the United States, American spellings are preferred over
British — for example it’s gray in America but grey in Britain. An American driver has a license, but a Brit has a licence.

Both versions of the words are in the dictionary and are technically correct, but copy editors seek a consistency in word use to avoid such things, for example, as a story on Page 2 that mentions a gray elephant, and a story on Page 3 that mentions a gun-metal grey car.

Some words, called homophones, sound alike, and as long as that is the case, there will be writers who struggle with them. Some are obvious — their, there and they’re, for instance. Others are a little more subtle — lightening is a shift in hue or an increase in light. Lightning sounds similar but is distinctly different, often accompanied by thunder.

Sometimes a writer uses a word that resembles the intended one, which can be quite amusing. For example, I worked with one writer who probably for years had been misusing this phrase in conversation, “from the get go,” with no one ever calling her on her pronunciation. Probably because the way “get go” and the word she used in speech sound similar.

But one day, I was reading one of her stories and started to laugh — I kept my mouth shut, but my belly was shaking and my sides were getting sore — because I had come across this phrase: “from the gecko.”

After I’d regained my composure, I walked over to her desk and spoke to her quietly about it — I did not want anyone to overhear us because I did not want her to be any more embarrassed than she might otherwise be.

From here, one enters a gray landscape of more correct and less correct words choices, common use, writing styles, personal preferences, and many a rabbit trail.

So we fall back upon the AP Stylebook and a good dictionary as the “bibles” we follow in our work.

Beginner copy editors have a tendency to embrace absolutes, to adopt unbending rules and dictums, sometimes based in reality, sometimes based on preference, sometimes based on an example of a similar use in the Stylebook or a similar word in the dictionary.

Often as not, in reality there is some leeway in these areas. But those who are learning their craft tend to cling tightly to rules until they learn the lay of the land, as it were, and come to understand that some dictums actually are more like guidelines.

Some “rules” are based on misunderstanding or flat-out wrong information.

For example, one of my longstanding pet peeves was the use of the word impact as a verb. In my mind, impact was a noun, never a verb. So when I encountered it in that use, I usually substituted it with affected. But, in fact, impact has been used as a verb since the 1600s, I learned recently. I let go of that peeve at midweek after verifying my notion was mistaken.

Some word choices, in my mind anyway, are more about precision than preference, and I generally act accordingly on those peeves, even though common use in speech would disagree with me.

Common use says it’s OK to meet someone for dinner around 6:30. But around’s primary uses reflect physical proximity or direction. So I would agree to meet someone for dinner about 6:30, but I might meet them around the corner from the front of the restaurant.

Similarly over is primarily a word of position, so it is more correct to say they spent more than $30 at the movies than the over $30 many would say or write. That is a fairly common copy editing pet peeve. Common use says either way is correct, and I’m beginning to wonder myself if this isn’t another pet peeve I should release. After all, I have to let go of some now and then, or I will have an overabundance of them.

As one matures in the profession and gains wisdom, you find it is as much art as it is about dotting i’s and crossing t’s.

In some cases, the definitions of the words make it very clear whether or not they are used correctly. In recent years, for example, citizen has been used increasingly as a synonym for the word resident. Yet citizenship is conferred by a nation. One by definition cannot be a citizen of Elgin, Ill., of Kane County, or of the state of Illinois.

This one particularly bothers me because those who are learning English might read the word citizen in a notice inviting people to a public meeting and infer that they are not welcome because they have not yet achieved citizenship, even though they are eager to practice good citizenship at the local level.

Then there is the challenge posed by misplaced modifiers, which I’ve encountered most frequently in police reports.

For example, there was a police item several years ago that originally was written along the lines of: “Two masked men entered a store wearing dark clothing and guns ….” The way the sentence is written, the store is wearing dark clothing and guns, which I think would be enough to unnerve most gunmen. Turning it around and it becomes more clear: “Two masked gunmen in dark clothing entered a store …

Misplaced modifiers occur more frequently that you might think, and it took me years to get to a point at which I became fairly good at catching them. What helps me identify them is an old Groucho Marx joke: “I dreamed last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas, but what the elephant was doing in my pajamas I’ll never know.

Capitalization is another pet peeve of mine, because it seems that, following the trend of SHOUTING in email or text messages, capitalizing everything that sounds like it might be a proper noun is becoming commonplace.

For example, there is no grammatical rule requiring the capitalization of city, state, village, town or county when it precedes the word, “of,” yet local and state governments have been doing it for years. It is the city of Elgin, the state of Illinois, the village of South Elgin.

Similarly, there is no grammatical rule that requires one to capitalize a person’s professional title when it is placed after the individual’s name. It’s President Barack Obama, but it’s the president who rides on Air Force One. Mayor John Smith recited the Pledge of Allegiance, but John Doe, the mayor of a nearby town, presented the colors.

As a copy editor, I find these annoying, and pet peeves they will remain. But probably my biggest pet peeve is a trap that is professionally pervasive, no matter what you do for a living.

Every profession has its own language. For example, if I told you to read the third graph of this blog again, you might wonder what a graph is — but it is copy editors jargon for paragraph.

Jargon is the shorthand of the professional yet it is the enemy of the reader, because outside professional circles, there is little meaning associated with it. What’s worse, the term frequently begs for an explanation.

Further, because it is almost like a foreign language, encounters with jargon have been known to cause readers’ eyes to glaze, droop and sometimes close. More frequently, there’s an inclination to stop reading and finding something relevant to do.

Police have jargon: Subject when they mean man, woman or child; in the vicinity of when they mean near.

School districts have jargon. One that immediately comes to mind came into prominence in the 1980s: Learning resource center. As an editor, library remains my preferred word of choice — it is shorter and everyone knows what it is. I would share some other examples, but educators are so notorious for their use of jargon that I try to repress it as much as possible. I probably need extensive therapy particularly in this area.

On a closing note, when I moved to Wyoming in the early 1980s, I encountered this nugget from the U.S. Forest Service: vegetative manipulation. It turns out that the forest service had been taking a lot of heat at the time for allowing logging practices that included clear-cutting of trees and creating roads for the lumber companies to use. Therefore, the forest service apparently substituted the phrase vegetative manipulation for logging in one of its environmental impact statements. In addition, of course it fooled no one.

Therefore, if you are reading this and are a professional writer, perhaps I have offered some nuggets that you can use to improve your writing. If you were starting as a journalist, I would add this two more pieces of advice of which the pro already should be aware.

First, clarity is essential. Marty got that lesson from a man who mentored him and passed it on to me, as well as to the others we have worked with over the years. Therefore, whatever you write, if you do not communicate the information clearly, you have failed.

In some stories, depending on the subject matter, you also might have to convey emotion, hesitation, reaction. Again, clarity is essential.

The second is far more simple but probably less likely to happen: Read the AP Stylebook cover to cover, once a year. This was a piece of advice I’ve encountered several times over the years and for a long time ignored in the mistaken notion that I’d absorb most of it because I used it so frequently.

But here’s the thing: Frequently, readers scan without taking the time to read. Because the AP Stylebook is formatted similarly to a dictionary, there is a tendency to glance through it to find the word of interest, glance at the entry and catch those words that reinforce what we believe we already know. That usually works, but it can fail. Taking the time to read each entry in advance provides a framework that will improve that scanning technique and help minimize mistakes.