Mind Your Language

Alex Painter1 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

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  1. Editorial Standards:

    I think you’ll find that “less than 5 bullet points” should be, if we are applying editorial standards,”fewer than 5 bullet points”
    To discover this, I had to read beyond the second paragraph which does support the premise that fewer than 5 bullet points would be noticed!

  2. There are several errors in this piece of writing and finding the “absolute shocker” might depend on one’s level of pedantry or even grammatical upbringing. Examples of full stops (implying a sentence) in
    “A comma misplaced.” and “A participle dangled.” are wrong. Beginning the sentence “Which, as this new generation…” is clearly a shocker since conjunctions are for joining ideas within a sentence. And as for “Here are three simple tips to finish on”, I feel it should be “finish with” and I would not have ended the sentence with the preposition anyway: “Here are three tips with which to finish” would be preferable.
    All in all, this is a very dangerous article to write in that it attracts much pedantry which we pedants love!

  3. The only thing I would take any issue at all with is

    Part of the beauty of English is its adaptability, there are always grey areas as one rule vanishes and another takes its place.

    I would put a semicolon between clauses.

    But I doubt that’s the “absolute shocker”

    Good job I’m not in editorial lol

  4. Thanks John! Impressed with the pedantry 🙂 Think SJ might have nailed it! Alex, editorial guru – what’s the verdict?

  5. “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.”

    Missing full-stop between ‘place’ and ‘Great’…

      1. Yes, this was just an unintentional typo that crept in during a bit of copying and pasting after the article was posted. Think it will be corrected later. Well spotted, though!

  6. Thank you very much for the responses, which are really rather interesting, and it’s useful to have the traditional point of view so eloquently put by John.

    One difficulty with English is that it does change over time, and there’s no one authority that can give definitive rulings. The idea that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition has a dubious pedigree but was drilled into people with tremendous fervour for many years. It’s now largely fallen out of favour, although many people stick to it as a matter of stylistic preference.

    Similarly, the traditional role of conjunctions, such as ‘and’ and ‘but’, is to link ideas within a sentence. However, people have been starting sentences with conjunctions for years. It’s something we routinely do in spoken English (‘But why is that?’). In written English, too, starting a sentence with a conjunction is often used as a device to heighten impact or enhance readability. The same can be said when relative pronouns, such as ‘which’, are used in a similar way.

    So it probably makes more sense to change the standard definition of conjunctions than it does to hope everyone will avoid starting sentences with them!

    You could certainly object to sentence fragments, such as ‘A comma misplaced’, on grammatical grounds, although this kind of construction is commonly used to help emphasise phrases, especially in informal writing. This is a broken rule, but it’s one that’s been broken for a reason.

    No, for me the worst offence is the ‘comma splice’ highlighted by SJ. A comma splice is what happens when you string two independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as sentences) together using only a comma.

    Why is this so objectionable?

    Well, this time the rule is broken without good reason. Instead of enhancing readability, this kind of error usually decreases it, since it often leads to an unnecessarily long sentence. And, with nothing more than a comma floating between the two ideas, it’s all too easy to lose track of what’s being said. How could this example be corrected? There are three options.

    1. You could add an ‘and’ after the comma. This shows that you’re starting a new idea that adds to the last one.

    2. Alternatively, since there are two complete sentences here, you could replace the comma with a full stop. Grammatically, that would be fine, but the result would be a little stilted.

    3. The final option, as SJ suggested, is to replace the comma with a semi-colon. This is a little better than the full stop in this example, and it suggests a slightly closer relationship between the two clauses.

    So yes – SJ – well done and thank you!

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