Monthly Archives: January 2014

Apostrophes’ Place

A street sign in Cambridge, where I grew up, has been subject to a bit of guerrilla editing by somebody who cares furiously about apostrophes. I almost suspect my mum.


Scholars’ Walk I see the sense of (unless only one scholar is supposed to walk there), but what’s wrong with Pepys Court? Cambridge also has a Coleridge Road, a Cowper Road, a Jesus Lane, a Hobson Street, a St Barnabas Road, a Sedgwick Street, a Cavendish Road and many more named after people but with no possessive.

The apostrophe added to “Pepys” is completely unnecessary, the act of someone trying to be clever but who isn’t clever enough to think it through.

Which means, I’m relieved to say, that it couldn’t have been my mum.

Unknown search terms

After examining my blog stats, I’m pretty confident that this post’s title will make it the biggest SEO success in the history of the internet.

The worst kind of editorial mistake: not rocking the boat

This is, um, a guest post, from someone who definitely isn’t me, because I’m great and never get anything wrong and you should totally hire me.

A copyeditor can make all sorts of mistakes, and I’ve made most of them.

Sometimes you just miss things. Nobody is perfectly attentive every minute of every working day, and whatever tricks you use to tighten the net so slip-ups don’t slip through, now and again they do.

Sometimes you just don’t know enough about the language. Even if you’re not working in a specialist field, there are obscure words that occasionally pop up in the wrong place. The writer thinks it means something that it doesn’t quite, and maybe you do too.

Sometimes you might even introduce your own errors. If you’re rewriting a sentence with poor grammar, you might make a typo. And you might not notice it. So you end up breaking the Typographic Oath: do no harm. These mistakes are particularly embarrassing, but they still aren’t the worst.

The worst mistakes are not failures of skill or knowledge: they’re failures of nerve.

Sometimes you’ll see something that you’re not sure about. Does this sentence quite fit in that context? Is that statement supposed to be so uncompromising? Do these two paragraphs suggest subtly different things? Does that statistic really support that conclusion? Is this passage’s tone at odds with the rest of the piece? Would a little more information here help the reader?

And, despite the doubt, for one reason or another you don’t query it. Maybe the deadline is looming. Maybe the client is notoriously hostile to any feedback more substantial than typo-fixing. Maybe half a dozen people who know the subject matter better than you have already looked at it and seen nothing wrong.

You don’t want to rock the boat. So you let it go. It’ll probably be OK, you tell yourself.

Often, it is OK. But sometimes it isn’t. And then you’ll know that you could have got it fixed but didn’t.

I can recall a couple of times in my career that I’ve done this. Regrets tend to stick in the mind. If you’re the kind of copyeditor who really cares about getting things right – that is, a good copyeditor – then you will damn well care when you realise you threw away a chance to do just that.

The whole point of a copyeditor is to see things other people don’t, to ask awkward questions other people haven’t thought of. To be ready to make a nuisance of yourself when you think it’s in a good cause.

You are there precisely to rock the boat – because carefully rocking the boat, while it’s still in dock, will show you where it needs repairs. And that’s the way you stop it from sinking after it sets sail.

Lynne Truss’s linguistics lesson

Lynne Truss says:

When I was deeply mired in linguistic debate a few years ago (for which I was seriously unqualified), it became clear to me that the academic study of the English language (and this includes the lexicographers) was entirely concerned with looking cool and broad-minded and “descriptive”, when what was required was some positive action to remedy literacy levels, and so on. A “descriptive” linguist is one that monitors the changes in language, and in case you think there is any other kind of linguist, there isn’t. “Prescriptive” does exist as a term in linguistic circles, but only as a powerful juju word used against bad people who model themselves on King Canute.

… It does seem weird to me that we hear all the time about a crisis in literacy, and at the same time there are well-paid academics just sitting back and enjoying the show. Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.

As it happens, I myself have written a brief introduction to linguistics. Here it is:

Linguistics is the study of language.


Now to get a bit more technical.

In order for you to study something, that something has to exist (or at least have existed in the past). This means that linguists are restricted to studying language the way it is or the way it used to be or the way it has changed. They can’t study language the way they might like it to be in their ideal world, because their ideal world does not exist.

Another little-known fact is that the existence of descriptive linguistics does not prevent anyone from judging any aspect of language, whether they are a linguist or not.

Now, I should point out that I’ve also written a brief introduction to epidemiology:

Epidemiology is the study of where and how diseases appear and spread.

It has nothing to do with treating these diseases; there are other people who do that. But this doesn’t mean epidemiologists are non-judgemental about disease. I think most of them are probably anti. And, for the people who are developing and administering treatments, it’s damned useful to know what the epidemiologists have found.

So descriptive linguists are just like epidemiologists. They observe and analyse what actually happens. Any value-judgements they may have are not a part of this work.

If a linguist or a blogger or a newspaper columnist or anyone else has decided that the language is ill and needs treatment, it’s damned useful to know what linguistic ailments exist, and under what circumstances they appear and spread.

If you want to be a prescriptivist, you need the descriptivists. They have the data you need so that you can decide which prescriptions are the most urgent.

And, if you really think you can succeed, nothing’s stopping you from trying.

But, as King Canute well knew, and as he set out to prove, you cannot turn back the tide.