Then we played with the fanboys

I fixed a “then” comma splice just now, and then I played with putting coordinating conjunctions in front of then. (FANBOYS helps us remember the coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.)

  • I went to the music festival, and then I took a hike. (Two activities, equal and sequential.)
  • I went to the music festival, but then I took a hike. (I wasn’t sedentary all weekend.)
  • I went to the music festival, so then I took a hike. (Perhaps I ate too much food truck fare and needed to work it off.)
  • I went to the music festival, for then I took a hike. (Perhaps the music festival inspired the hike.)
  • I went to the music festival, nor then I took a hike. (This sounds profoundly unidiomatic, of course, but nor works in other contexts.)
  • I went to the music festival, yet then I took a hike. (Again, I prove I wasn’t sedentary.)
  • I went to the music festival, or then I took a hike. (Maybe I partook of a substance that makes it difficult to remember.)

If you need a good explanation of the “then” comma splice, this page could help. Scroll down to the box labeled “The Case of Then and Than.”

Keep your resources close

Someone who is part of a LinkedIn group for “grammar geeks” posted this question (slightly edited): What do people think about copy editors and proofreaders using resources while working? The poster was referring to style guides, dictionaries, the Internet, etc. Among the responses, the original poster wrote: “It could be problematic if you have to refer to resources too much. If you are really good you would not have to do that.”

I disagree. Some of the best copy editors I know consult resources often. I wouldn’t dream of answering a question about style, grammar or usage without consulting the best sources for that information, even if I am fairly certain of the answer. I also think any editor, freelance or in-house, worth his or her salt would rely heavily on printed as well as Internet resources.

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Copy editors are not (necessarily) prudes

Copy editors enforce the publication’s standards. They often have to enforce rules that they themselves disagree with or might even find distasteful or silly. That’s why this quote spotted at Jim Romenesko’s site burns me up: “It’s unclear how or why this f-bomb made it past The Times’s prude copy-editors,” writes Rebecca Greenfield on The Atlantic Wire. (The New York Times allowed the word into print as part of a quote.)

I wish to tell all of those journalists and others who have never worked on a newspaper copy desk that the only reason copy editors get the “prude” label is that we are enforcing the standards of the real prudes: our editors-in-chief and the readers they don’t want to take calls from. I might personally shy away from using the notorious f-word in print myself, but that decision was well above my pay grade when I worked on a newspaper copy desk, even when I was a supervisor. We knew the standards and we followed them.

Copy editors are skeptical of everything, and that includes the standards of polite society. Many I have known over the years are the least prudish people I’ve encountered in newsrooms. Even those who consider themselves prudes come to that mindset after a scrupulous examination of reality and their own values.

Copy editors are a diverse bunch in their personal views, but they are professionals when it comes to their work, and they know the lines that their publications won’t cross. I also would bet my last dollar that the decision to allow that word into print was NOT made by a copy editor.

Do you tell publications when they make a mistake?

I saw a factual error in my local newspaper a few days ago. I resisted the urge to email the writer or an editor to point out the error. I thought I’d see whether the paper published a correction in a subsequent edition. The incorrect fact would not cause any real harm.

I was formerly employed by that newspaper, and nowadays I feel a little weird about bringing mistakes to the attention of folks there. But if I were still at that newspaper, I’d want a reader to tell us about a mistake so we could run a correction. I am not sure, though, that every writer or editor feels the same way.

We did hear from readers and the subjects of news stories when we made mistakes in print, but we also heard from readers and subjects that they did not always contact a reporter or an editor when they spotted a mistake, even when the mistake was about them. I always thought that it would be much better for all of us if they had. Accuracy is important, even in the little things.

What do you do when you find a factual error (not a grammar/usage/misspelling/typo mistake) in a publication, especially a website or a newspaper?

We should have no illusions about our allusions

Copy editors often have to be the reader’s advocate. We ask questions and try to clear up muddled prose. And we are the ones who remind writers and other editors that not everyone will understand a pop culture or even a deep culture reference. I needed a reminder myself recently when I tried out my new grammar/usage/word game with a few colleagues.

One of my questions made what I thought was a clever and nearly universal reference to the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.” It didn’t click with my colleagues, all but one of whom are years younger than I and at least one of whom grew up not only in another era but in another country. I loved that reference, but in the end, I had to kill my darling, grieve a little and move on.

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