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When I am Copyeditor General ...: December 2007


Thanks for the invitation

But I'm going to have to decline.

I think we all know why.


Online newspaper editors will lay off the nog

Yes, I know yesterday was Christmas, and today is Boxing Day, and between the mince pies and sherry and the hourly renditions of "Merry Xmas Everybody" (you know, this one), it's hard to know for sure: was the headline's painful apostrophe in the copy you gave to the designer, or did he throw it in there without thinking?

And why didn't anyone check the finished graphic?

Copyeditor General's ruling: It may not be culinary, but it's certainly one of the year's lowlights, Guardian Unlimited.


Small birds will be monogamous

I don't know what disturbs me most about this caption: the fact that these three bluebirds have been shacking up for the last two decades, or the fact that this report of avian immorality comes from the BBC News website ...

Copyeditor General's ruling: Hey, BBC online editor! Your participle is dangling!


Your Christmas gift will not be returnable

Copyeditor General knows what to give you for Christmas (or equivalent). Even though America would probably love Guitar Hero, there are many practical items that the country could really use. Think of them as the grammatical equivalent of tube socks.

To prevent paradigm shifts
Business jargon has slithered its way into everyday language. But new and frightening examples are always being spawned, as this business jargon dictionary demonstrates (facipulate, anyone?).

People who use such words to appear smart (it doesn't work) are getting a business jargon protest gift. Because they need a daily reminder that "our alliance stands alone in demonstrating the extensivity of integrated partnerships with other collaboratives" is meaningless.

To save the future from illiteracy
Between Teletubbies and text-messaging, the Kids of Today are surrounded by painful examples of language use. So Santa CG is bringing them How to Speak Politely and Why, the updated version of Munro Leaf's 1934 Grammar Can Be Fun. It isn't just for Lil' William Safire, but for any kidlet who stands a chance of learning to regard "ain't" and "gimme" with disdain.

The advice is offered gently and charmingly, and the illustrations are in that great '30s pen-and-ink style. Plus, Leaf was the author of Ferdinand, the story of the bull who preferred to sniff flowers than fight. So getting the kids to enjoy Leaf might lead to world peace. Oh, come on, it's Christmas. I can dream.

To show solidarity with other word nerds
They snort when TV talking-heads say mediums instead of media. They redline typos on menus. They reply to your email with the victorious observation that (dammit!) you misspelled a word ("What, exactly, is proofimg?").

They need something that weaves their derision, precision and Schadenfreude into a soft cotton garment, like this "Urge to Edit" shirt with Arthur Evans's (marked-up) quote: "Nothing, not love, not greed, not passion or hatred, is stronger than a writer's need to change another writer's copy."

To reduce confusion on the cheap
The Plain English Campaign's mission is to eradicate gobbledygook, jargon and misleading language, especially in content created for the general public (example: a sign at Gatwick Airport that reads "Passenger shoe repatriation area only").

Their A to Z of alternative words (PDF) is a handy reminder that "often" is just as clear as "on numerous occasions," and that "quickly" can replace "with the minimum of delay" with no loss of meaning. It will be printed, bound and dropped down the chimney of every bureaucrat, office manager, consultant and communications professional. Ho ho ho.

Copyeditor General's ruling: It turns out you already know what you want for Christmas! According to's review of top searches for 2007, the second most common search term this year was "dictionary." I'll leave aside the disturbing news that people are also searching for MySpace and Google (why?) and just say how proud I am that you're making an effort to check spelling and definitions.

American Heritages for everyone! It's going to be a happy Christmas after all!


Word nerds will always get what they want

As I was coming out of the subway station the other day, I heard a street musician playing the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Actually, playing isn't really the right word. Moidalizing (said in Bronx goon voice) is more like it.

I'm not the biggest Stones fan, but still, this guy's ineptitude really bugged me. How can anyone claim to be a musician and not know the words to the chorus, fer pete's sake? It's not that hard; the song turns up on every oldies station at least hourly. You don't even have to pay attention; you can absorb it, osmosis-style.

I wasn't annoyed that he was ruining my favorite song; I was annoyed because he just. Didn't. Care.

And then I realized I was experiencing the same emotion I feel when I see a poorly constructed sentence, or a heinous typo. And that led to the following revelatory analogy, which may offer insight into my reasons for ranting, and which I encourage you to share with those who claim that good grammar is unimportant:

Think about your favorite song by your favorite band.

Got it? Good.

You've listened to it a thousand times. You'll listen to it a thousand more. It hits you in just the right way. It's perfect.

Now imagine that everywhere you go, you hear cover versions of your favorite song. In stores. In cafes. In the subway.

But every version is just ... slightly ... wrong.

Sometimes the verses are in the wrong order. Sometimes the singer makes up the words--or forgets them altogether. Sometimes the chord changes are out of synch, or go in the wrong direction. Sometimes there's a completely pointless drum solo right in the middle of the most important passage.

You hear it in every supermarket. In every elevator. In every taxi.

Wouldn't that make you a little sad, a little angry? Frustrated that this beautiful, meaningful song was held in such low regard that people couldn't even get the chorus right? That they couldn't take the time to track down the lyrics, listen to the CD, buy sheet music, learn the damn song before they plugged in their guitars?

That's how I feel about misuses of grammar: every time someone writes "perspective" when they mean "prospective," or "cliché" instead of "clichéd," or makes up words (such as "empt" when they mean "apt"--true story), or admits, with a giggle, that they "never really got the hang of punctuation"--also a true story--I feel sad.

Because there are countless methods for learning the tune, endless opportunities to hear it played correctly, a wealth of resources for keeping the beat and hitting the right note.

And yet so many people are content to thrash though a song they can't be bothered to rehearse.

Copyeditor General's ruling: This one goes out to the Davis Square T guitarist: If you can't always get what you want, how is it possible that if you try sometimes you just might find you can't get what you need?
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