Mind Your Language
Alex Painter, Marketing and Development Director at Editorial Training, discusses editorial standards and gives some tips – if you’re also a stickler for detail, make sure you read right through to the end…
It’s not easy being a copy-editor or proofreader. Do your job well and no-one will notice. Your changes will blend seamlessly into the author’s writing.
If you really want attention, make a mistake. Preferably a big one.
And some say that’s happening far more often than it used to. This isn’t so much about the more creative, structural side of editing (although this sometimes comes in for criticism too). No, I’m talking about the detail. A comma misplaced. A participle dangled.
While there’s been a backlash against poor English in recent years, there’s still a perception that all is not as it should be, and that this feeds through to editorial standards.
Of course, those standards depend on other things too. The growing commercialisation of publishing may also be having an effect. Perhaps there never was a golden era during which books were carefully crafted at a leisurely pace with no regard for anything but the beauty of the finished product. But pressures on publishers have surely grown in terms of both time and money.
You have to have sympathy for some publishers who are given inadequate budgets to outsource copy-editing. While it’s become relatively easy to get it done on the cheap, don’t be surprised if low fees equate to poor results. This is often a false economy, and some proofreaders find themselves spending extra time picking up the pieces after a poor copy-editing job.
But there’s also that perennial question of the standard of English among people of a certain age. I know from personal experience that this isn’t just a case of an older generation claiming that ‘things were just better in their day’.
Why? Because I’m one of a large number of people who didn’t get much formal English grammar teaching at school.
I have even heard of (usually more mature) freelance proofreaders and editors delivering occasional English lessons to the (usually younger) people who hired them. That’s not to say that I’m advocating a return to the kind of fanatically rigid approach to learning that’s familiar to those educated in the 50s and 60s. [pullquote]Part of the beauty of English is its adaptability, there are always grey areas as one rule vanishes and another takes its place[/pullquote]Part of the beauty of English is its adaptability, there are always grey areas as one rule vanishes and another takes its place Great writing also often takes great liberties with the English language. It’s just that it only really works if it’s done with purpose and not in ignorance.
Things seem to be changing in education, though. These days there is the kind of grammar teaching at school that just didn’t exist for lots of pupils in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Which, as this new generation enters the job market, leaves the rest of us in the unenviable position of having to catch up…
Fortunately, that’s not too difficult. Often, we know more than we realise – it’s just that that knowledge is sometimes buried deep in our subconscious (ever read something and know it’s wrong without being able to explain why?).
So here are three simple tips to finish on:
DO … understand how and when the placement of commas can change the meaning of a sentence (especially when it comes to relative clauses and apposition, etc.). Can you identify the three different meanings of the sentences below?
1. ‘My brother Colin came to see me.’
2. ‘My brother, Colin came to see me.’
3. ‘My brother, Colin, came to see me.’
DON’T … believe everything you hear (or read). Some people can be terribly pedantic when it comes to rules that aren’t really rules, such as the prohibition on split infinitives (of course, if your style guide tells you not to use split infinitives, then don’t use them!).
DO … on the other hand, think carefully about your readership. You might not care about split infinitives, but if your readers will, that’s probably reason enough to avoid them.
Oh … one last thing. I’ve included one major deliberate grammatical mistake in this article. In fact, there are a couple of things you might take issue with. But one absolute shocker… Can you find it?
Alex Painter works for Editorial Training, an organisation that runs courses in proofreading, editing, writing and grammar. Editorial Training will be holding an intensive grammar workshop on 19 May: www.edittrain.co.uk/grammarworkshop.php