A former colleague who writes for a newspaper recently posted on Facebook about a reader’s harsh voice mail message pointing out a typo in one of his features. The reader objected to “signer [instead of singer] Delbert McClinton.” As another former colleague commented, that typo isn’t going to be picked up by running an ordinary spellchecker. Almost every comment in the thread expressed disbelief that a reader would take time to call and berate the writer over such a minor typo, but as one who took such calls, I can attest that readers can be cranky to the point of becoming unhinged over typos.
Being a copy editor is like working for the Standards and Practices department of a broadcast network. We know the guidelines for what should be published, and we sound the alarm when we see that acceptable practices have not been followed or when we spot something that should not be published.
Copy editors learn early that, despite diligence and best intentions, writers sometimes get facts wrong. The writers don’t mean to, but they do slip up. They may have their eyes on the big picture and the overall truth but lose sight of small details. Also, writers (and all of us) don’t know what they don’t know, so a thorough reading by someone else, especially someone who might know different things, is essential. A copy editor who has read widely and well for a number of years might have just the knowledge to spot problems, but even more important is that copy editors are trained to check. Copy editors can help writers by verifying the facts, checking the spelling of names, looking up words in the dictionary, locating places on a map, and just generally being skeptical and maybe even anxious about overlooking a error. Copy editors keep their eyes on the little things.
I spent probably too much time overthinking this sentence while proofing an article this morning:
If things just don’t work out for either party, your firm and the agency each have a way to exit the relationship.
The word each in that sentence made me consider whether the verb should have been has instead of have. Each calls for a singular verb. But in this case, each appears after a plural subject, your firm and the agency, so the choice is have.
I have a new Grammar Guide quiz for you to try, No. 74. This one is fill-in-the-blank. You’ll see some images of text (click to view them larger), and your task is to figure out what word is used incorrectly (or, let’s say, not in the standard, traditional way) and to write the answer in the blank. I hope the quiz will be give you useful practice in spotting word usage problems and mangled idioms. I’ve dropped the Flash versions in favor of the HTML5 format, and I hope the quiz works for you, regardless of which device you might be using.
Click here to begin. Please send me email or leave a comment if you find a problem or if you have any thoughts on the format or the questions. Remember, no one will know your score except you—unless you want to share.
I’ve added a share link below if you want to share this quiz on Twitter.