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Spotlight on Punctuation

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Punctuation, Spotlight on Punctuation by Sally Evans-Darby on 20 May 2012 | No Comments

Spotlight on Punctuation: Curious Commas

This week’s spotlight on punctuation takes a closer look at the comma (,). Don’t let its diminutive appearance fool you – it’s a contentious little punctuation mark that can make the difference between a well constructed sentence and one that limps along like a wounded animal.

Some commas run riot across otherwise healthy sentence structures, lurking unwanted in the strangest places; others are entirely absent, leaving sentences bereft. The trick is to get the balance right between a sentence that’s cluttered with commas and one that’s aided by them.

Let’s start with a definition…

The OED defines the comma as ‘a punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence or separating items in a list’. The explanation in the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation sheds a little more light on the matter; the use of the comma is clearly set out in the following five ways:

  1. To separate items in a list
  2. To parenthesise sections of a sentence
  3. To divide the clauses of a complex sentence
  4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it easier to read
  5. To introduce or end a piece of direct speech.

These explanations sound simple enough, but comma usage is not completely clear-cut, however unambiguous the dictionary definitions might seem.

The problem with commas

The use of commas is often down to a particular author’s or editor’s personal taste, and as taste changes over time, often what was acceptable comma-wise a hundred years ago seems unacceptable now.

Take, for example, this passage from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853):

The fellow, by his agent, or secretary, or somebody, writes to me, “Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, presents his compliments to Mr Lawrence Boythorn, and has to call his attention to the fact that the green pathway by the old parsonage-house, now the property of Mr Lawrence Boythorn, is Sir Leicester’s right of way, being in fact a portion of the park of Chesney Wold, and that Sir Leicester finds it convenient to close up the same.”

The style in the 1800s in literary texts of this kind was ostensibly to pepper sentences liberally with commas. There is nothing wrong with this usage-wise – each comma in this passage has a correct place as defined by the Oxford A-Z. But nowadays the trend is for starker, sparser punctuation: today’s editors might well be inclined to divide up the sentence with full-stops to make it more digestible and less in need of such frequent punctuating.

Of the five points set out by the Oxford A-Z above, the second, third and fourth points are, I think, where usage becomes confused. Take, for example, this sentence here. It uses commas as parentheses – ‘for example’ is enclosed between two commas because it is a separate interjection to the thread of the sentence. But you might see a sentence like this written in any of the following ways:

Take for example, this sentence here.

Take, for example this sentence here.

Take for example this sentence here.

Take, for example, this sentence, here.

As an editor, would you make alterations to any of these? Personally I would say that comma usage is incorrect in all of them – in the first one, there should be a comma before ‘for example’ to make this a complete parenthesis. The same applies in the second example, where there is a comma missing after ‘for example’. The third example contains no commas and feels ‘rushed’. The final example contains an erroneous comma before ‘here’ – it is not doing anything here except splitting the sentence up unnecessarily.

To edit, or not to edit…

Commas can be a thorny issue. Often it is down to your good judgement as an editor or proofreader in deciding whether to insert a comma where you think one is needed, or to get rid of ones that you deem superfluous.

You have to make sure you’re not being too interventional and changing the author’s voice by taking away too many or inserting them where they aren’t wanted. The thing is, the presence or absence of commas can unmistakeably alter the voice of a piece of writing. Take the following minimally punctuated passage:

When making scrambled eggs you must try to get the balance right between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on especially when you have other things cooking at the same time or are perhaps making a cup of coffee too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery yellowish mess while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy and slightly burnt around the edges resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

The above example uses no commas. You might think this reads perfectly well, or you might find it rather ‘bare’. Compare it with the below example:

When making scrambled eggs, you must try to get the balance right, between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on, especially when you have other things cooking at the same time, or are, perhaps, making a cup of coffee, too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery, yellowish mess, while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy, and slightly burnt around the edges, resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

It might be the author’s preferred style to punctuate sparsely as in the first example, in which case you might be best to leave well alone (though personally if I could only insert one comma in the passage, it would be after the word ‘edges’). Similarly it might be the author’s style to use lots of commas as in the second example, though personally I would say the commas after ‘right’ and ‘coffee’ are examples of incorrect usage.

There is also the matter of the Oxford (or serial or Harvard) comma – some styles prefer to have a comma after the last item in a list preceding ‘and’, as in ‘monkeys, jaguars, pumas, and gorillas all lived in the jungle’. Different rules might apply depending on the number of items in the list – while you might add an Oxford comma in a list of four items or more, it might be deemed unnecessary to add one in a list of just three or four items.

The golden rule for commas

I have heard it said that the rule when deciding whether or not to use a comma should be to think of it as a pause in a sentence: try reading the sentence aloud and if you pause for breath, that’s where a comma should be.

In fact I think this is a pretty inaccurate way of knowing whether or not a comma is necessary, if only because spoken words are an entirely different medium to the written word, and different rules apply. If you apply a comma every time you pause for breath you might end up putting them in all kinds of strange places. It is also completely dependent on whether the piece is intended to be read orally or not.

Here is what I think correct comma usage amounts to, taking the Oxford definitions above as a guide. In my opinion, commas should only be used in the following circumstances (don’t forget, there is a wealth of other punctuation marks we can use too – semi-colons, full-stops, colons, brackets, dashes – more on these in the coming weeks).

  1. Commas separate items in a list. ‘When I go to the shops today I need to get milk, juice, bread, washing-up liquid, and ice cream’ (using an Oxford comma in this instance). This clearly reads better than ‘milk juice bread washing-up liquid and ice cream’ because it separates each item and makes the list easy to read and understand.
  2. Commas act as parentheses. ‘A carpeted floor is, in my opinion, much more comfortable’. The rule to remember here is that if you are going to use commas as parentheses in this way, there has to be a pair – never use one without the other. Consider ‘a carpeted floor is, in my opinion much more comfortable’ and ‘a carpeted floor is in my opinion, much more comfortable’. Both lack a comma to mark where the parenthesised clause begins and ends.
  3. Commas act as sentence-dividers. Some sentences benefit from a well placed comma or two to make them easier to read: ‘When I was a young boy, I didn’t like sports at all’ or ‘I wasn’t going to be here for long, but while I was here I decided to look around’. Both split up the sentence comfortably without jarring its overall rhythm.
  4. Commas act as markers in dialogue. “I wish I could have a slice of watermelon,” remarked Susie, “just so I could take all the pips out.” Here, the commas simply aid the flow of direct speech by, in the first instance, showing that Susie still has more to say, and in the second instance showing that the dialogue is about to continue.

My golden rule: don’t use a comma unless you are completely sure you need one.

Discover this week’s WOW

Posted in: Spelling, Words, WOW by Sally Evans-Darby on 10 May 2012 | No Comments

This week’s WOW is diminutive (adj.): small; little; tiny.

Prompting me to highlight this word this week is a spelling mistake I came across on a Trivial Pursuit question card (yes, I admit, it is one of my all-time favourite board games). There on the card, printed for posterity, was diminutive spelled with an extra ‘i’ – ‘diminuitive’.

Trivial Pursuit strikes me as the kind of board game you can trust (even if some of the answers seem implausible), and as my opponent concurred with the spelling when I queried it with him, I made for the dictionary.

Of course I couldn’t help feeling smug when the dictionary confirmed that ‘diminutive’ with only three i’s was correct and both Trivial Pursuit and my rather knowledgeable opponent had been mistaken. But it led me to wonder why there might be an instinct to spell the word with an extra ‘i’ before the ‘t’. On asking a couple of friends the next day, they also seemed to think it was spelled that way. One of them compared it to ‘miniature’, whose ‘a’ in the second syllable seems somewhat superfluous, yet there it is.

The thing is, English orthography (to use the ‘proper’ term) is so full of such discrepancies and so abundantly lacking in universal rules that you almost have to learn how to spell every word individually, rather than being able to apply a blanket spelling method. This can lead to the spelling of words like ‘diminutive’ becoming confused – and once you have that incorrect spelling in your vocabulary subconscious, it can be difficult to shift it (especially if Trivial Pursuit is corroborating it). I remember being astounded to find out that ‘minuscule’ wasn’t spelled ‘miniscule’, which had seemed to me for years the most logical way to spell it.

I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences of the wonderful minefield that is English spelling – leave your comments below.

Top 4 Tips for Writers

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 4 May 2012 | No Comments

How to Get Along With Your Editor

Why you should treat your editor as a fellow comrade, not your worst enemy

Editors are grumpy, difficult people. They’re your primary school teacher incarnate, nitpicking all your errant commas and slapping your wrist for using a split infinitive. They probably tried to be a writer themselves, once, but failed; so now live out their frustrated dreams by telling real writers what to do. They’re likely to make a pig’s ear of your carefully arranged prose by splitting up sentences and replacing your favourite adjectives with simpler synonyms. Right?

Unfortunately, this is how many writers often see editors. Of course, in a good editor none of the above would be remotely accurate. But impressions such as these are what can sometimes make the relationship between writer and editor fraught with tension.

Writers, here are my top four tips for removing that tension and making your writer-editor partnership work for you.

1. Keep communication lines open

Communication is key both for writers and editors. From the word go, talk to your editor, liaise with them, make the communication lines clear. Be available and transparent and they will in return. Answer queries promptly. Don’t go AWOL. Realise that you writing the piece and sending it off to be edited is, generally, not the end of the process. You may need to work in conjunction with your editor to rewrite passages, or to review their work if they are doing the rewriting.

Also it should go without saying that the level of work required should always be set out clearly with the editor before they begin work. Agree payment, deadlines, the level of edit required and so on, and then hand over for editing to begin.

2. Understand why your work is being edited

Realise that all written work will need to be edited or at least proofread in some way. You are not being singled out. Your piece might be brilliant, incisive, artistic – but it will still benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. The more emotionally invested you are in a piece of work you have written, the more it needs an editor. This is because you are too close to it and you won’t be able to perceive flaws that to the reader may be glaringly obvious.

An editor provides you with that fresh pair of eyes, but not just any pair of eyes – a pair of eyes and a brain that have been meticulously trained in the very precise skill of editing. They know what to look for, and they know how your audience is going to see your piece. Remember that the editor’s aim is not to alter your work for the sake of it, but to polish it and make it the best it possibly can be for its intended audience.

3. Leave defensiveness at the door

It’s so easy, as a writer, to get defensive about what you have written. However thick-skinned you are, and however well you generally think you can take criticism, the smallest perceived slight against your creation can make you grit your teeth in resentment.

A Word document that is returned to you covered in unsightly Track Changes can make your hackles stand on end, ready to argue against anything your editor suggests changing.  Their polite suggestion that a Dickens-esque sentence could be simplified can seem like a huge blow to your writerly ego if you take it too personally.

It’s really important to try and take a step back in this situation and see your work dispassionately. Treating the writer-editor relationship like a power struggle isn’t helpful for anyone. Realise that editors have the best intentions at heart for your work and they are here to help, not harangue.

4. Editors are fallible; so are you

Finally, a note about fallibility, both of the writer and the editor. The editor does not know everything. They are not descending from on high to lecture you on participles and gerunds. They sometimes make mistakes. You sometimes make mistakes. You are both human. Try and get along.

Discover this week’s WOW

Posted in: Blog, Words, WOW by Sally Evans-Darby on 25 April 2012 | No Comments

This week’s WOW is grisly (adj.): causing horror or disgust.

I wanted to mention this word because it’s easy to confuse with grizzly, which in fact has nothing to do with things we don’t want to hear (it’s never ‘spare me the grizzly details’). Grizzly is in fact a word all of its own simply referring to something being greyish in colour, and is most often used when referring to the North American Grizzly Bear.

While grizzly has its roots in the Old French ‘gris’, meaning literally ‘grey’, grisly is from the Late Old English ‘grislic’, meaning horrible; which is related to the root ‘grisan’, meaning to shudder. Then of course there’s also gristly, referring to that chewy bit of cartilage you sometimes get in meat.

Grisly is a great word to use to describe something truly awful… ‘the grisly Grizzly Bear, its fur mottled and grizzly, chewed on a piece of gristle: what a grisly sight…’

Top 5 Tips for Editors

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 22 April 2012 | No Comments

How to stay on the right side of a writer

It’s your job as editor to improve the writer’s copy; but do it with a healthy dose of tact and respect

I’ve been meaning to write a blog for a little while on just how easy it is to get on the wrong side of the writer whose words you are editing. As editors, we tread a fine line – while we can’t be treating every piece of copy that comes our way with kid gloves, it is important to be respectful and tactful when it comes to changing what an author has written.

This week, here are my top five tips for striking up and maintaining a good relationship with the writer whose work you’re editing.

1. Understand the brief

It’s essential to get your working relationship with a writer off to a good start by making sure you completely understand what it is you’re being asked to do. Nail down the basic details of the job – when does the writer want the copy returned, what format do they want you to work in (if they want you to work in Track Changes, clarify whether they want a ‘clean’ version sent back to them as well as a marked-up version), what are the payment arrangements; but crucially, how much intervention is required.

It may be that the writer would like you just to check for spelling, grammar, and overall fluency. Or, they may be asking you to do a heavier edit requiring some sections to be moved around or rewritten. Make sure you are clear on the level of edit required before you dive in, or you could get yourself in hot water (more on this below).

2. Communication is key

As an editor, there must at all times be a clear line of communication between you and the writer. You need to talk to each other. If you have a query about the piece you’re editing or need to clarify something, don’t try to answer it yourself or ignore the issue. Flag it up with the writer and work on a solution together.

It would be going to the other extreme to call on the writer every time you have a question, so make a list of queries as you’re going along, then put these in an email/phone call clearly and succinctly at an appropriate time in the editing process (perhaps after you’ve completed your initial edit).

It’s also key to let the writer know what’s going on and what stage you’re at with the editing. Don’t leave them in the dark, wondering when they might get their copy back and what state it might be in. Within the deadline they give you, come back to them with an estimated date that you’ll be able to return the copy to them. If it looks like you might not be able to meet this estimate, let them know in advance. At all points of the process, keep them informed about what’s happening.

Also, a note about comments boxes in Word Track Changes. If you need to make a comment or query using these, make sure to keep them brief. You can always elucidate in the covering email or letter if you need to. No-one wants to spend ages squinting at a long note in a comments box trying to make out what you mean and what they need to do about it.

3. Don’t get a superiority complex

At some point on the road to becoming an editor, you will have had the realisation that you have a particular knack for language – maybe you were top of the class at school when it came to spelling, or you could come up with a catchy slogan quicker than your university peers. You will have realised you’re born to work with words and that is why you have become an editor. However, this does not mean that you have the last word when it comes to an author’s piece of writing.

It’s easy, as an editor, to start seeing yourself as an authority on words, spelling, grammar. And while you must have conviction in your knowledge of the nuances of the English language, there’s a fine line between that and becoming an insufferable know-it-all who thinks their job is to clean up after messy, incompetent writers.

Don’t let yourself get into the toxic situation where you are playing the role of the stern schoolteacher armed with a red pen, and the writer begins seeing themselves as the reprimanded pupil. No-one wants to feel like they are back at school being slapped on the wrist for forgetting that ‘accommodation’ has two m’s and two c’s.

Realise that you are not infallible. You are not perfect, and you will sometimes make mistakes. If you start from a place of humility and equality, rather than putting yourself on a pedestal, you don’t have as far to fall if you do happen to make an error of judgement. Strike the right balance – you have expertise, and you’re here to use it wisely and professionally, but don’t let that sense of power go to your head.

4. Have some tact

In fact, this is probably the most important point. Have tact in bucketloads. Apply it liberally and at all times.

You don’t have to baby an author or feel like you’re walking on eggshells every time you point out an incorrect spelling. You don’t have to be genuflecting, subservient (whatever you say, sir!), tip-toeing around the mighty author-boss. But it can’t be said enough that sensitivity and tact are key to working as an editor.

If you’re not a writer yourself, it might be more difficult to see this from the writer’s point of view. They have created something, they may well have spent months crafting and honing it, deliberating over each carefully chosen word. Now they have released it to you, the editor, to improve and polish it. Don’t send it back to them torn to shreds. A few pointers:

  • Advise, rather than instruct. Never say ‘this must be made clearer’ or ‘this section must be deleted’. Point out the problem, then suggest a solution. Suggest changes rather than telling the author to change something
  • Don’t use inflammatory statements/questions. Some inexperienced editors do this more often than you might think. Writing in the margin comments such as ‘this is not clear!’ or ‘what is this supposed to mean?’ are just going to annoy the writer
  • Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It’ll just reinforce the stereotype of editors being irascible grumps. Instead, politely explain the problem and suggest a solution.

Remember, the writer has hired you for your editorial expertise, but if they don’t like the way you work, they can always ignore your suggestions and hire a different editor.

5. Work in partnership

The relationship between you and the person whose work you are editing should be one of harmonious partnership. Granted, some editor-writer partnerships can be more harmonious than others. But the key point is that you, as the editor, are collaborating with the writer on the piece of work at hand. You are not here with your grammar guides and red pen to lay down the law. You are here to work together with a common goal: making the writer’s work ready for publication.

Don’t think of yourself and the writer as two separate entities, at opposite ends of a spectrum. Remember that editors and writers are both human, and both fallible. What you are sending by email is going to be read, digested and acted upon by another human being sitting at a desk in front of a computer just like you. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

Next week, see things from the other camp: my top tips for writers – how to stay on the right side of an editor.

Discover this week’s WOW

Posted in: Blog, Words, WOW by Sally Evans-Darby on 18 April 2012 | No Comments

This week’s WOW is swasivious (adj.): agreeably persuasive.

I found this in a book I came across in the library today on obsolete words. It’s a great word, describing a very precise degree of persuasiveness – not just persuasive, or disagreeably persuasive (an advert with an exasperatingly catchy jingle comes to mind), but ‘agreeably’ persuasive. Plus, it rhymes with ‘lascivious’, and I’m not sure many other words do.

So why is it obsolete? It seems a shame to let such a useful word drop into oblivion. I couldn’t even find it in my hefty hardback OED. Perhaps there just aren’t very many situations when you need to describe someone/something that persuades, but in a nice way.

As an editor, would you suggest an alternative to the author if you came across an ‘obsolete’ word such as this in a manuscript? Or would you favour ‘stetting’ such words in the interests of keeping the language alive with as many different descriptive words as possible?

Send me your thoughts below.

Does spelling always matter?

Posted in: Blog, Spelling by Sally Evans-Darby on 12 April 2012 | 2 Comments

It’s not like that tiny harmless typo is going to change the world, is it?

The inspiration for this blog is from three public spelling mistakes I saw recently in the same day. I found myself pondering these mistakes more than usual, because arguably they were only minor misdemeanours. Surely the only people to notice them would be people like me – you know, the word nerds, the spelling police – the people who take delight in finding a mistake and correcting it. So if we’re the only people to notice, does it really matter?

To elucidate, I’ll set the examples out below so you can judge for yourself.

The supermarket label

The first was in a local supermarket where I was delving into the freezer section for ice cream. I celebrated with an inward hooray! when I saw that a new flavour of Ben & Jerry’s was on a half-price introductory offer. But then I looked a little closer at the price label.

Half-price for limited period only – higer price from May 2012

Higer. Higger. Hyger. My brain stuttered as it took in the glaring typo. I shook my head in disbelief. (By the way, this is a national mostly respected supermarket chain). But then I found myself thinking, it is just a price label. And it is in tiny writing. And does anyone except me really care?

The train station notice

Later that day I was in a local train station waiting in a queue at the self-service machine to buy my ticket home. As I approached the machine I noticed the following sign typed out on a piece of A4 paper and blu-tacked at eye level:

Due to an electrical fault, advance tickets cannot be retreived from the self-service machines. We apologise for any inconveinence caused.

(It was all typed in caps too, but that particular peeve is another story).

I stared at this notice for a while, my fingers itching to get out the red pen and correct it. The same thoughts went through my head. Sure, I had noticed it, and probably a couple of other nerdy people would too (I could already picture them taking a photo on their phones and posting it on Twitter). But ‘retrieve’ is a difficult word, right? No-one ever remembers if it should be ‘i’ before ‘e’ or vice versa. And the letters switched round in ‘inconvenience’, well that’s clearly just an innocent rushed typing mistake. Again, does it really matter?

The pub toilet sign

Finally, it was the end of the day and I found myself in the pub (don’t we all). As I went to the ladies’ powdering room, I noticed the sign above the door. It said simply, even eloquently:


Loo’s. Why the apostrophe? What had been going through this sign-designer’s mind? What did it stand for? Loo is… what? Or what belonged to the loo? Did the loos belong to Loo? And so on.

Three offensive public sign woes in one day – my head was starting to hurt. But then again I found myself wondering if it really did matter that an errant and uninvited apostrophe had found itself onto the sign. How many other people would notice it?

The answer?

Unsurprisingly (you might say) as an editor/proofreader (and general lover of all things lexical) I have to conclude that the answer is yes, spelling does matter, even in these slightly spurious situations.

We’ve all seen the articles on spelling mistakes that truly do cost millions and those that, believe it or not, change the course of history. But that’s not really what I’m driving at here. In each of the instances noted above, my impression was significantly lowered of the individual service or product being offered – respectively, the supermarket’s wares, the train station’s handling of my rail journey home, and the pub’s interior directions.

Each of these are service providers, their reputations key to keeping their business going. My opinion had been altered about each of these because of the typos. And I know I would not have been the only one.

The fact is, wherever words are in the public domain and where they are representative of a business or company (as each of these instances was), the way these words are presented has an undeniable effect on how people view that company. Letting these obvious typos out into the big wide world without checking them makes the company look slovenly, ill-informed, and like they’ve got too much on their plate to pay attention to the small details.

Small details matter – they make the difference between a company who looks fit and ready to run a marathon and one that can’t even tie its own shoelaces.

What are some instances you’ve seen of small typos that have changed your impression of a company? Or do you think small mistakes such as these don’t really matter in the long run? Send me your thoughts below.

What’s the big idea, anyway?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar by Sally Evans-Darby on 25 March 2012 | 4 Comments

This week I look at what makes a copyeditor want to be a copyeditor – are we in it for the fame, or just the glory?

Naturally, working as a copyeditor comes with a promise neither for fame nor glory. But of course, if you’re a copyeditor, you’re unlikely to hanker after either of these things.

That’s not to say that all copyeditors are mousy, back-office types who just want to be heard and not seen. On the contrary, you’ll probably find that most are boisterous, forthright and opinionated (and those aren’t all just euphemisms for ‘rude’).

So what is it exactly that makes the average person – who otherwise appears well adjusted and, well, normal – yearn to don the editor’s cap? Freud might say it’s to do with a deep-seated need to gain approval from peers, the old pat-on-the-back feeling. I don’t know about that, but here’s my two-pence worth.

You do it because you’re a stickler for detail

You like things to be just so. You’re a lover of symmetry, of sense, of aesthetic equality. Things need to look neat, precise, measured. This goes beyond the simple need to correct the typos in a piece of writing in the name of ‘getting it right’. It calls to a deeper desire for the way that piece of writing is presented to ring with truth and clarity.

That rogue apostrophe in ‘for your children’s’ children’ isn’t just breaking the rules of English grammar, it’s offending your instinctive sense of linguistic beauty. It makes you, as the reader, stop dead in your tracks, splutter, and eventually toss the piece of writing aside with disgust. Reactions can be that extreme when you’re a stickler for detail.

You do it because you are in love with language

Consonants. Vowels. Declaratives. Elisions. Homonyms. Syntax. Adjectives. Vituperations. You are a logophile: you love language and always will – perhaps it was even your first love, when you learned to talk, read and write, even before that first crush in primary school. It’s not hard to see why so many people love language. It is our method of communication; it allows us to express ourselves, convey an idea, make a joke, describe a memory.

So to work with language every day is, to you, the perfect vocation. To analyse morpheme by morpheme, to pick sentences apart and put them back together so that they work even better than before, then to send them off into the world like perfectly oiled machines. This is one of the primary reasons I got into copyediting, and I’m sure editors and proofreaders the world over must share this passion for the endlessly curious, endlessly surprising, shape-shifting creature that is the English language. If they didn’t, it would be like someone with a nut allergy working in a peanut factory.

You do it because you are a language gate-keeper

You don’t just proofread a piece of writing because the author has requested a quick once-over for typos and you’re not too bad at spelling. Change that ‘your’ to ‘you’re’, ‘i’ after ‘e’ in ‘receipt’, and job’s a goodun. No, you see it as something higher, something far more important – you are a gate-keeper of the English language.

You’ve been charged with a sacred duty: protect and promote proper use of the language at any cost. To you, it’s about much more than just spotting the odd spelling mistake or inserting a missing full-stop. You’ve been given the gift of a good head for grammar and a knack for language usage, and you’ll stop at nothing to use those gifts to the max. Why spray-paint over the chipped paint on your bonnet when the whole car needs a repaint? You are the repainter, you take your duties seriously, and any written text that passes your way is much the better for it.

So there we have it – the stickler, the logophile, and the gate-keeper. Of course most copyeditors are bound to be a delightful mixture of all three; personally I think I’m majority-logophile. What made you get into editing or proofreading? What keeps you working in the field if you’ve been at it for a while? Send me your comments.