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When I am Copyeditor General ...: April 2008


Jaguars will not be in charge of punctuation

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the mysterious "no live parking" command posted outside Stone Zoo.

More recently, I noted the apparent employment of monkeys as signwriters at Franklin Park Zoo.

This weekend, we made our first trip of the year back to Stone Zoo, in part so The Boy could visit his foster son. And we found this errant apostrophe:

And this question (asked so enthusiastically that the formalities of punctuation become unnecessary):

Copyeditor General's ruling: There seems to be a pattern here. Do all zoos allow the animals to copyedit their signage, or is it only in Massachusetts? This requires more research.


No one will love Prais in the springtime

I'm not deliberately trying to find fault with The Guardian; they just make it so easy for me to do so.

From the April 28 homepage:

Copyeditor General's ruling: I suppose things could be worse; at least they don't call it the City of Lights ...

Update: I think The Guardian has a crush on me. That's the only possible explanation.

From the above article:

This is either the publishing equivalent of insulting me to get my attention, or it's an act of deliberate debasement ("Correct me, please! I need to feel your red-ink wrath!").

Either way, it's a little embarrassing, don't you think?


Why Copyeditor General?

Recently, someone asked me about the origins of the name of this blog. Why Copyeditor General? Where did it come from?

The urge to correct grammar mistakes and typos has long burned in my veins. I've spent more than 20 years writing and editing. And I've learned that copyeditors don't just take their work home with them: they take their work everywhere. No menu, no store window display, no flyer goes unproofed. It becomes an obsession.

For a while I carried a red pen with me (because you never know where language abuse might occur). But it became increasingly clear that there was only so much correcting a five-foot-three chickie could do.

And then, in 1997, Apple introduced a new ad campaign.

Remember "Think Different"?

It was clever. It was dramatic. It was everywhere. And, of course, it was grammatically incorrect.

Perhaps the campaign's omnipresence offended me the most. When major corporations were flouting basic grammar rules, how were ordinary people supposed to learn (or care about) correct language use?

Every day, as I walked through Kendall Square in Cambridge, I'd pass a billboard with the offending ad. Every day, it made my red-ink-stained fingers twitch. I imagined it was staring down at my helpless street-level frustration and laughing.

And I realized what was needed: the intervention of a higher power.

There should be a government office, I decided, whose role is to correct such large-scale grammar errors.

When I am Copyeditor General, I shall tour the country with an enormous red pen, fixing typos. Like this:

Copyeditor General strikes again!


Cute kids will not go barefoot

Is this what we've come to? Clothing companies, under fire for exploiting children, are now going around stealing the shoes from their feet? And not only that, but they're also specifically targeting adorable tykes?

Spotted on Facebook:

Copyeditor General's ruling: If you see a cute kid wearing a single green Doc Marten, tell him I know where the other one is.


The New Yorker will not test my faith

I love The New Yorker for many reasons, chief among which is their renowned attitude toward accuracy. Every word is proofed; every fact is checked; every quote is verified with its progenitor.

The graceful writing, the clean editing, and the backbone of truthful reporting allow me to read without fear of encountering typos and grammatical foul play. (Though they also make every Seymour Hersh article about the Middle East extra-depressing, because it's all true.)

So when The Boy said to me last week, "I think I found an error in The New Yorker," (and yes, he said the title in italics, because that's how we work at CGHQ) my heart sank. How could such a thing happen?

It was in the April 7 Financial Page column:

(I'm doing this slowly, because it's so painful. Okay, here goes):

But is it an error? First glance suggests there's a preposition missing from the second sentence: it should read "That will probably mean that we end up with fewer business failures ..."

But this being The New Yorker, which doesn't let me down ever ever (right?), I'm willing to believe (read: hope) that the meaning of the sentence is "That means we, as a society, can self-identify as failures on fewer occasions."

Copyeditor General's ruling: What do you think? Does the sentence make sense without the preposition, or is this a test of my faith in the infallibility of my editorial role model?


Cute animals will not be used as distractions

From the homepage of April 18's Guardian website:

Awww! How adorable is that otter? The nose! The ears! The whiskers!

Waaaait a second: what's that in the sentence above?

Copyeditor General's ruling: If you insist on having typos on your homepage, you shouldn't try and distract your readers with images of furry animals. What is this, Cute Overload?

Update: Not long after posting this, the offending typo was corrected. Probably by someone unaffected by the soul-owning stare of a baby otter.


Purveyors of words will read their own


I notice you sell books. Lots of books. (Also bacon salt. That's cool.) I was wondering: do you ever get a chance to read the books you sell? Or are you too busy maintaining and expanding your vast online empire? It would be ironic, wouldn't it, and sad, if you spent so much time shipping novels and dictionaries and DIY manuals out to the world that you were too weary to cast an eye over a sentence or two?

Maybe it's a sensitive subject, in which case, forgive my forthrightness. It's just that I was browsing recently, and I noticed this:

And I thought, Isn't it a shame that a business centered around the written word would allow such things to happen on its own doorstep?

Copyeditor General's ruling: Amazon, you work too hard. Take a break; you stretch yourself too thin. See what happens when you try to do everything?


Online forms will submit to basic language skills

In my previous rant perfectly reasonable argument, I drew your attention to examples of the ways the web was becoming a breeding ground for new and completely incorrect verb forms, which were appearing with alarming regularity on commercial sites.

Why does this bug me? Two reasons:

  • I believe a company's lack of attention to detail in language is a reflection of its attitude to its customer base.
  • I'm concerned that constant misuse of grammar spreads, virus-like, among the population. Consider the number of incorrect uses of the word cliché.

But perhaps I'm being unfair. The web is still young(ish), after all; it's a Wild Westy frontier, where every business, non-profit and dog park is expected to have a presence. It would be unfair of me to expect everyone to understand the finer points of grammatical subtlety.

However, I'm pretty sure I can get on my high horse over this:

Or this, from Sony Thailand:

Or this, from Hartwell Elementary School, Harwell, Georgia:

Or this (extra points for getting it wrong when the correct word is 30 pixels away):

It's not as though "submit" is an unusual word. Anyone who has watched Law and Order or Perry Mason (or Matlock, for that matter) has heard someone submit something into evidence at some point. Anyone who has applied to college has submitted an application. Anyone who has ever watched a WWE match has seen at least one orange-tanned, spandex-clad wrestler sell a submission hold.

So how is it that mistakes like these make it into a public forum? I can only assume it's one of the following:

  • The writer of the original content doesn't know what the word means.
  • The site designer or coder doesn't know what the word means.
  • No one who reviewed the finished product knows what the word means.
  • Someone realized that the word was incorrect but assumed customers were too dumb to notice.
  • All of the above.
Copyeditor General's ruling: The only time I should expect to click "summit" is on an interactive map of Everest.


We will not login, lookup or checkout

Lest you suspect I'm the kind of gal who insists language be frozen Walt Disney-style, fixed and unchanging, allow me to set the record straight. Language is fascinating because it changes; it's the constant evolution, the regional variations, the historical transitions, that make it so much fun.

In the last couple of decades, technological progress has been highly instrumental in changing the way we speak. Think how recently email, podcast and blog entered the vocabulary; consider the way apple, windows and mouse now have completely different meanings. (For that matter, try to remember the last time you listened to a cassette on your Walkman.)

The web is a particularly rich field for new words to germinate, as online tools revolutionize everything from buying groceries to finding a life partner. The problem, however, is that there are so many sites, and so little standardization, that mutant weed-words are starting to take root.

The ones I notice most often (read: the ones that bug me the most) are unnatural mashups of verb and preposition: login, checkout, signup. As adjectives, they're fine; I have no problem with providing my login name or following the signup process.

But as verbs, they constitute language abuse. This isn't evolution; it's laziness.

Consider the following:

The Golf Channel's logout button

Both of the above are fabulous(ly horrible) examples of the basic lack of understanding at play, using the verb+preposition in the right way in one place (Member Login, "Logout" button) and then, apparently, handing the reins over to a bunch of monkeys to finish up.

Then there are sites on which perfectly fine, commonly used words are tied together in what I can only assume is an attempt to cause me personal pain:

Seriously, when was the last time you had to lookup a word? Huh? Ever? And why didn't they just go all-out and label the button "Lookupit!"

This next one makes me sad because I believe the grapes should be freed. But still, the big purple button suggests either that someone considers both fedup and signup to be perfectly legitimate, or that one is correct and the other has been modified for fun.

It's not the modification that bugs me, you understand; it's the fact that both possibilities suggest a disappointing lack of professional writing ability.

Copyeditor General's ruling: As a lookout for lapses in language, I look out for this kind of thing all the time. And I try to follow up with problematic grammar, though my followup might not be immediate. I just hope there's an eventual breakthrough in web language standardization, which will allow us to break through to more elegant online communication.

(And if you know of examples of verb+preposition verbs that will completely disprove my argument and will make me look like a buffoon, please feel free to set me straight.)


English will stand up straight

Oh, English, I know you must be tired. The constant abuse and negligence you suffer would cause the most stalwart language to slump in resignation. It's hardly surprising that I keep encountering signs of your weariness.

(I won't link to the next one, as it's a right-wing anti-immigration site. Of course, that makes the typo in the discussion about Hispanics who don't learn English all the more hilarious.)

Copyeditor General's ruling: Think about your posture, English. No one likes a slouchy language.
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