Do you need an editor? A proofreader?
You tell me.
- Do you spell sleight of hand correctly?
- Do you properly use an en dash rather than a hyphen in phrases such as “pre–World War II”?
- Do you know when to set off an explanatory phrase with commas (as in “Claude Monet, the celebrated French Impressionist, was born in 1840”) and when not to (as in “Celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet was born in 1840”)?
- Do you know whether to insert quotation marks before or after semicolons?
- Do you know what’s wrong with the sentence “I only had chicken for dinner”?
- Do you know the difference between a podium and a lectern?
- Are you aware that if you have two sisters and one of them is named Susie you can refer to her as your “sister Susie” and no comma is needed, but if you have only one sister she’s your “sister, Susie”?
Do you even care?
Hardly anybody does, but there are self-confessed nerds in this world who care far too much. They lurk like trolls under bridges, waiting for a misplaced modifier or a sentence fragment to clump along so they can leap out of the gloom and exclaim, “Gotcha!” They are a miserable lot because they can hardly listen to a commercial without cringing, what with spokespersons’ announcing a sale on “select merchandise only” and “a savings of 50 percent.”
These nerds are called “proofreaders,” and their focus is on spelling, punctuation, typographical errors, and other mechanical problems with a manuscript. A good editor can do all that and more. His or her higher calling is to improve the style, tone, flow, and vocabulary of the piece. Editors also look for “fake facts” and inconsistent diction. They assess whether the work is appropriate for its intended audience, and they edit accordingly.
Even editors need editors. Serious writers put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and when they finish them, they don’t like people messing with them. They become wedded to every word, and an editor’s intrusion feels like betrayal. I speak from experience. I get cross with my spellchecker when it suggests a change, even when it’s right and I’m wrong—which is rare, but it happens.
A lot of writing goes on in this world, and most of it probably does well enough. Who really cares, or even notices, if someone mistakenly uses a hyphen instead of an en dash? I’d venture to say that en dash and em dash aren’t in the general public’s vocabulary. And that’s fine. They’re tools of the proofreader’s and editor’s trade. In fact, some editor probably made them up so that she’d have a reason to say, “You need an editor!”
So who does need an editor? You do, if you’re writing something…
- that’s going to be widely read
- that represents your company or organization
- that you hope to have published
- that for whatever reason needs to be perfect.
Your memoir, your annual report, your article on packrat middens, your speech to the alumni association—these are endeavors worth paying an editor to correct and polish.
P.S. One thing an editor probably can’t help you with is pronunciation, so if you’re giving a speech, read it to someone else first. Taking that step would have saved my good friend Tom McDonald from a lot of embarrassment. It was his job to introduce an emeritus professor to a large gathering of faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Tom was a smart guy—top of his class—but he pronounced emeritus as if it rhymed with hepatitis. I had to be the one to tell him. I still blush when I think of it.
A little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent. Even so, we’ve made some progress in the past few years. Facts are facts. We no longer leap to the defense of erstwhile idols Simpson (O.J., not Jessica), Cosby, and Gibson. We’ve stopped believing that, in this life at least, we will time-travel to King Arthur’s Court, flatten our stomach, or remove Internet Explorer from our computer once and for all.
We deserve nothing
When we meet a self-proclaimed feminist—we have no idea why this happens—we feel as if we’ve done something wrong and look around to see if anybody noticed… as if we were the one who installed the glass ceiling so you couldn’t get the promotion you so richly deserved and we made it difficult if not impossible for you to be elected president… and, as we are writing this in September 2016, we would advise you, private citizen H. Clinton, against claiming any merit whatever in the result of the November 8 election. You will win, but it will not be a victory, any more than if you had competed against a species of invasive but nondescript dryland shrub. It will not be a tribute to you, or a testimony to the dogged determination of the American woman, or even the inexorable result of human evolution. An outcome in your favor will mean nothing more than that the citizens of our great nation chose you over Cheez-Its. Remember this when you’re drafting your acceptance speech.
The feminists we like and respect are outnumbered by those who make us want to cut and run, or to curl our lip if we thought we could pull it off. Has it escaped your notice that some of the most vociferous protesters are often women bemoaning the paucity of female directors of high-budget Hollywood films—women, it must be said, who have individually made more money in a single day’s work than we have made since the Eisenhower administration? Is it any wonder that we lack sympathy for such celebrities, when once upon a time they defined career success as being cast as the younger of the two women in a Dove-cleansing-bar commercial?
This is not to say that women, as a category, have no legitimate grievances. But golly, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty. We must be very careful when claiming rights. If we got what we deserved—any of us, male or female, infant or octogenarian—we’d all be living in daub-and-wattle huts competing with rodents for wedges of moldy cheese.
We have a memory of a Saturday afternoon when we were not yet thirty, waking from a brief nap and lying very still because a ray of sun illuminating a few strands of hair that had fallen across our eyes had made a tiny miracle of rainbow, and we had never seen anything so beautiful, not in any mountain meadow or marble palace, not even at our favorite scenic outlook, a knoll in the wooded bluffs above a bend in the Missouri River. Our small, personal rainbow should have served as a reminder to wash our hair, since it was almost certainly a layer of oil that had dispersed the sunlight so gloriously. But at the time we could only be grateful for color and light and stillness, and the feeling has never entirely gone away.
And by the way, what’s with the suffix –ist, a half-second’s sibilance that makes you a monster or a devotee? If you’re a sexist, racist, or ageist, you’re to be deplored. If you’re a narcissist or hedonist, you’re self-absorbed. Botanists, philologists, and philatelists are specialists. But if you call yourself a feminist, then you are… what? An admirer of or champion for women? Nothing wrong with that. We’d still rather be a cowgirl.
The suffix –ist … is a word-forming element meaning “one who does or makes,” also used to indicate adherence to a certain doctrine or custom, from French -iste and directly from Latin -ista (source also of Spanish, Portuguese, wetalian -ista), from Greek agent-noun ending -istes, which is from -is-, ending of the stem of verbs in -izein, + agential suffix -tes. —dictionary.com
Solecisms by the dozen
So this evening we went to hear the novelist Geraldine Brooks talk about writing books. Her voice skritched, as one’s voice might when it is put to overuse on a lecture tour, but she was articulate and funny and we minded only a little that she is considered a “women’s author” and that among the thousand people in the audience there were maybe four men. We settled into our seat, anticipating a pleasant and informative ninety minutes—not that we deserved to enjoy ourself, or deserved not to, but we did indeed expect to be happily entertained, and we guess it’s fair to say that we got what we deserved.
She gave a concise, amusing account of her journalism career and the horrors, dangers, conquests, and rejoicings she experienced on five continents. She turned to fiction as a way of lending her voice to women who lived in times and places that denied them self-expression. It was as Ms. Brooks was relating the experience of one such woman—a character in her third or fourth novel—that the fall from grace occurred, with, we would almost say (were literal precision not essential here), an audible thud. The woman was, Ms. Brooks said—these were her exact words—waxing eloquently.
If you are not a well-known author or a serious student of the English language, you may be excused for not grasping the enormity of the phrase waxing eloquently. My mother detested polishing our hardwood floors—something virtually required of all middle-class women of her generation—and she could be quite eloquent on the subject, to the point where my father felt the need to close the door to prevent her eloquence from alarming her young children.
But Geraldine Brooks’s character was not engaged in polishing the floors, the furniture, or the family car.
Often, people who speak of waxing eloquently have heard the phrase “wax eloquent” and mentally added –ly because verbs are modified by adverbs, right? But in this case, wax is what is sometimes called a linking verb, which means that the verb is joining two things that are more or less equal:
My word is my bond. Word = Bond
The song was an anthem. Song = Anthem
The sun appears unusually bright. Sun = Bright
You look nice today. You (that is, your appearance) = Nice
The night was becoming stormy. Night = Stormy
Uncle Steve is feeling poorly. Steve = Poorly. Not all modifiers ending in –ly are adverbs. Poorly, wily, owly—all adjectives.
The speaker waxed eloquent. Speaker = Eloquent
A modifier used with a linking verb is not an adverb describing a verb, it’s an adjective describing the subject.
Wax means grow or become when we’re talking about the moon. A waxing moon is “growing,” getting plumper every night until it’s full. After that, it starts to narrow, or wane. Likewise, when a speaker “waxes eloquent,” he or she is gradually becoming more and more articulate.
Writers know this. It’s taught in How Not to Write Stupid 101, where they also learn to not say “Hopefully, it won’t rain” or “The year is comprised of four seasons.” So at first we thought that our speaker was making a little joke. But she had been funny and clever to that point, and “waxing eloquently” fell short as humor. She didn’t deliver it jokily, and no one laughed. It’s hard to believe that she doesn’t know the idiom or that no one has ever pointed out her error, but that seems to be the case.
In any event, she plummeted in our esteem. That’s on us. Why should one mistake sink her past redemption? And who are we—writer of little note and less fortune, probably committing solecisms daily by the dozen—to judge a famous, rich, and talented novelist for flawed diction, when Shakespeare can write, with impunity, “This was the most unkindest cut of all”?
Woman of mystery wannabe
We are not proud of it, but after ten minutes we gave in to our pique and slipped out of the lecture. Feeling peevish, and peckish (certainly not peckishly) as well, we walked downtown, hoping to find a coffee shop still open at 8:30. We’d almost given up after eight blocks, having passed but one open establishment—a steak house—and the venerable King Fong, closed for renovation.
But we were in luck. We found not just a coffee shop but a Jamaican coffee shop, owned and operated by a Jamaican individual who had a charming manner—eager to please but not obsequious—and whose very speech was song. We wanted to adore his coffee; if only goodwill could have infused the éclair with moistness. No matter. It was the sort of place we would have loved dress up for—in floppy hat and flowing skirt—to waltz into, a bit mysteriously, as if we had an assignation, but perhaps not… to bide a wee and read the Christian Science Monitor, make longhand notes in a lovely parchment journal about our fellow javaphiles… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”
 An editor of a respected business journal warns against starting sentences with “I”—not the letter but rather the word. Evidently it smacks of narcissism. We are testing an alternative herein.
 We might adopt that as our campaign slogan when we run for public office: Mary Campbell, Committing Solecisms Daily by the Dozen, for president. Some will vote for us; others will wonder how a self-confessed grammar predator expects to garner a single vote. (We just broke another compositional rule: No footnote numbers midsentence.)
 Paragraphs are not to be commenced with But, according to the same editor. Goodness me! The number of words with which it is permissible to begin paragraphs has shrunk to 171,476. We should establish a committee to advocate for the preservation of freedom with regard to paragraph-starters.
Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)
In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authors—Kenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”
It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.
* * *
Publish your “little book” in an easy little way
On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.
In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:
♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.
There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”
Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:
♦ Is residence indoors?
Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?
I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
I can live with sloppy grammar—sometimes. Regionalisms and colloquialisms don’t bother me—much. I ain’t got no time to worry over them things.
Here’s what bugs me: imprecise usage, when the words being misused have such distinct meanings. I am particularly annoyed by the following:
- disinterested, when the speaker or writer means uninterested
- alternate, when the speaker or writer means alternative
Disinterested means, roughly, “unbiased.” A judge, for example, is supposed to be a disinterested party in a trial, but you wouldn’t want your judge to be uninterested, would you? Well, you might, depending on the circumstances. Don’t tell me, I’m better off not knowing….
Alternate, as a noun, means “every second one of a series” or, very roughly, “substitute”; as a verb, it means “swing back and forth between two states or conditions.” Alternative, as a noun or an adjective, refers to one of two or more options.
- I take tuba lessons on alternate Tuesdays.
- Francesco and I alternate as Richard III in Richard III.
- There are rest rooms on alternate floors [that is, on every other floor].
- We could drive to Walla Walla, or, as an alternative, we could roller skate.
I get pretty irked, for me, when I read (as I just did, in Nora Roberts’s Ceremony in Death), “Alban—no known alternate name—born 3-22-2020….” Roberts also consistently, tediously, and infuriatingly uses disinterested when she means uninterested. (Ceremony in Death is published under Roberts’s alternative pen name, J. D. Robb. Alternate might be marginally appropriate here because, as far as I know, she has only two pen names and she goes back and forth with them, in a manner of speaking. If she had several pen names to choose among, “J. D. Robb” would be one of the alternatives.)
Strictly speaking, a thing can have only one alternate. Thus if I work at the popcorn counter every three days, taking turns with Betty Sue and Napoleon, we do not (strictly speaking, as I said), alternate. But that usage wouldn’t make me rip out my eyeballs, as I do frequently when reading Nora Roberts, though she does write a fine tale… where was I? Oh. That usage (re Betty Sue, Napoleon, and me) isn’t as troublesome because there’s no good alternative verb. “Take turns” doesn’t quite work; it sounds too playful.
Okay, that’s it. Thank you for allowing me to purge here in print. The only alternative is to rip out my eyeballs, and I’ve exhausted my supply.
EFT: The Possibilities Are Acronymical
The “rule” regarding the use of punctuation with (a) acronyms and (b) abbreviations consisting of initials is as follows: If the abbreviation is not an acronym but is pronounceable (as in U.S.A.), each initial should be followed by a period. Most writers disregard this rule. You might read that John Doakes received his BA at Harvard, his MBA at MIT, and his Ph.D. at Stanford. (Quite a guy, that John.)
Per the “rule,” only MBA is correctly rendered in the preceding sentence. If you were to read the sentence when you were extremely fatigued or otherwise addled, your brain might “hear” it as, “John Doakes received his bah at Harvard, his MBA at mitt,…” and so forth. But it’s more likely that your brain would make the necessary adjustments, allowing you to read BA as “B.A.” and MIT as “M.I.T.” With or without punctuation, you would probably not read Ph.D. as “fd.”
Accordingly, the placement or nonplacement of periods in such abbreviations doesn’t matter much, usually. When your eyes see USA, your brain is unlikely to “hear” “OOsa.”
I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, however, about an alternative-healing method called EFT,* which stands for “Emotional Freedom Techniques,” and, I’m not sure whether to pronounce EFT in initials (E-F-T) or as “eft” (a sort of newt, as anyone who does a lot of crossword puzzles can attest).
EFT or E.F.T. sounds too good to be true and probably is, but I have tried to keep an open mind about such things since that management-training class I took in the early 1990s at which I described a woman’s ex-husband’s combover and his house and his two Irish setters without her having told me anything about them.
In any case, inasmuch as proponents of EFT or E.F.T. tout it as a quick and comparatively easy way to banish chronic fatigue and procrastination, I created an EFT or E.F.T. page on my website, consisting of several YouTube videos and some text from the official EFT or E.F.T. manual, by Gary Craig, who originated EFT or E.F.T. You are welcome to visit the page at your leisure.
The EFT or E.F.T. healing method consists mostly of tapping the “meridian points,” as defined in acupuncture, or the chakras, or both, possibly, or maybe some of them are the same, but in any event you won’t want to try EFT or E.F.T. in public unless, perhaps, you are riding a bus and you would rather not have anyone sitting next to you.
If you have tried EFT or E.F.T., or if you plan to, please let me know how well it works for you. Thanks!
* Not to be confused with “electronic funds transfer,” whose abbreviation, EFT, is always pronounced “E-F-T.”