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Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am


Punctuation or Chaos

She said I saved the company

No one knows for sure what the above sentence means. It consists of six everyday words, and the first five are monosyllables, yet this simple declarative sentence has at least three quite different
meanings—maybe more, because with no period on the end, the reader can’t even be sure the sentence is complete. As it stands, we don’t know whether “she” or “I” saved the company. We don’t even know who was talking. Look:

She said I saved the company.
• She said, “I saved the company.”
• “She,” said I, “saved the company.”

Without punctuation marks, a sentence is thrown into chaos. So please spend a few minutes assessing your punctuation proficiency by taking the quiz below. The answers directly follow the test.

* NOTE: This quiz addresses punctuation rules and conventions of American English.

Punctuation Quiz

1.
A) The ship arrives at 8 p.m.. Be on time.
B) The ship arrives at 8 p.m. Be on time.
C) A and B are both correct.

2.
A) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye.’ ”
B) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’.”
C) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’ ”.

3.
A) Lamar is a bright, happy, child.
B) Lamar is a bright happy child.
C) Lamar is a bright, happy child.

4.
A) If I may be perfectly frank I think it’s a bad plan.
B) If I may be perfectly frank, I think, it’s a bad plan.
C) If I may be perfectly frank I think, it’s a bad plan.
D) If I may be perfectly frank, I think it’s a bad plan.

5.
A) Ask me Wednesday. We will know more then.
B) Ask me Wednesday; we will know more then.
C) A and B are both correct.

6.
A) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer; Mexico City.
B) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer: Mexico City.
C) A and B are both correct.

7.
A) The four siblings can read each other’s minds.
B) The four siblings can read each others’ minds.
C) The four siblings can read each others’s minds.
D) The four siblings can read each others minds.

8.
A) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
B) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
C) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’ idea of a good time is fishing.
D) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’s idea of a good time is fishing.

9.
A) Our daughter is two-years-old now.
B) Our daughter is two years old now.
C) Our daughter is two-years old now.
D) Our daughter is two years-old now.

10.
A) After reviewing the up to date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
B) After reviewing the up to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
C) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
D) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally friendly practices.

11.
A) These are just words on paper- you can choose to disagree with them.
B) These are just words on paper – you can choose to disagree with them.
C) These are just words on paper—you can choose to disagree with them.
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

12.
A) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?).
B) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?)
C) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that.)
D) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that).

 

ANSWERS

1. B) See Periods, Rule 2

2. A) See Quotation Marks, Rule 7

3. C) See Commas, Rule 2

4. D) See Commas, Rule 4a

5. C) See Semicolons, Rule 1a

6. B) See Colons, Rule 1a

7. A) See “Each Other vs. One Another” (Newsletter of Sept. 29, 2015, tenth paragraph)

8. D) See Apostrophes, Rules 1c and 2a

9. B) See Hyphens, Rule 4

10. D) See Hyphens, Rules 1 and 3

11. C) See Hyphens, intro (first paragraph)

12. A) See Parentheses, Rule 2b

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Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at 9:43 am


The Elusive En Dash

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper,
a dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful WriterWilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.

 

Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 3:40 pm


Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.

 

Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, at 7:55 pm


Thrash the Slash

There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.

And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.

But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.

To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.

It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.

The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.

However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to write all this small stuff out.”

Our GrammarBook.com offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:

• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).

• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).

Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:

They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)

Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)

An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)

I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t addressed to me.)

Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

 

Pop Quiz

This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.

1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at 4:16 pm