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Editorial Survival Kit

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar, Proofreading, Punctuation, Spelling by Sally Evans-Darby on 27 January 2013 | 5 Comments

Editorial Survival Kit: 6 Things I Can’t Live Without

Ask any freelance editor, proofreader, or other form of word-wielder: there are some things in the world of editorial freelancing that we just can’t live without. They make up the editor’s survival kit: often a mish-mash hodge-podge of stowaway items that make life just a little bit easier. The editor/proofreader’s desert island miscs.

As an editorial freelancer, there are a few things that I would be pretty lost without, and I’m curious to find out what would go into others’ survival kits too. Here is a top 6 list of mine; leave a comment below and let me know what you can’t live without.

1. OED, King of dictionaries

This one has to come at the top of my list because without its reassuring bulk I would feel ever so slightly bereft. It sits at the left of my computer and I’m forever thumbing through it looking for Oxford’s view on a particular stylistic issue or to find out, say, if premiss really is an alternative spelling of premise. (Turns out it is. I still prefer –mise.) It can also be a source of pleasurable procrastination, between jobs for example: open the dictionary at random and see how many new words you can learn.

Of course any editor worth her salt needs more than one dictionary to reference depending on the client and style guide, but the OED happens to be my personal favourite, even with its penchant for ‘-ize’ endings.

2. Helpful references

As well as my trusty OED I have a collection of editorial and language reference books, which I’m constantly adding to. Such texts are a must-have if you need to quickly check the received wisdom on hyphenation or gather a consensus on whether it is okay to use ‘different than’ as well as ‘different from’ (it is). Plus there’s simply something pleasurable in surrounding oneself with books on the subject you are interested in.

My favourite go-to books at the moment are: the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005), and the Penguin guides to punctuation (R.L. Trask, 1997) and grammar (R.L. Trask, 2000).

3. Googling away

Okay, so this might not be the most fashionable thing to say, but I love Google. I love that it allows me to quickly check facts with minimum fuss. For things like checking the state abbreviation for Maryland (it’s MD, but I always think it’s MA) when editing a reference list, it’s immensely helpful.

And no, I don’t mind that ‘to google’ is now a verb listed in the OED. It’s a nice word and there’s nothing wrong with it being there (such a travesty must rest heavily on the minds of those like Simon Heffer).

4. Wordly wisdom

Word has many features that seem specifically and helpfully engineered for the jobbing editor (macros, format painter, and the most obvious: Track Changes). But the one that really comes in useful for me is its customisable dictionaries. When working with more complex or scientific texts, customising the in-built dictionary so that it lets me know that ‘gluecopyranosyl’ should be ‘glucopyranosyl’ is pretty useful. It’s much easier to read and spot the errors in a verbose document without red squiggly lines under every out-of-the-ordinary word.

5. Perfecting it

I was rather sceptical about such software at first, but I can now admit that I am a PerfectIt convert. PerfectIt is a nifty little Word add-in that performs a last-minute consistency check of your document, pointing out things that are easy to miss (especially in longer texts) such as use of capitalisation, hyphenation, how bullet lists are formatted, etc.

My first reaction to such a whizzy idea was along the lines of “but it’s my job as editor to spot those things; I shouldn’t be relying on a bit of software to do it for me”. The thing is, as long as you don’t come to rely on it, it can be a very helpful quick last check of a document before sending it off to the client.

Some might feel their editorial egos will be punctured if a computer programme is doing this for them, but I prefer to look at it this way: I do all the work, spotting inconsistencies and incongruities down to crossing the last tee – then, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything (I am human after all), I perform a PerfectIt check before sending it off. Why risk missing something out of pride? Also, it’s rather gratifying to perform the check and have it return no inconsistencies.

6. Caffeine ahoy

Finally, coffee is something that I just can’t live without. I know, it’s probably bad for me (on the other hand, maybe it’s really good for me). But in those first few hours of a Monday morning fug, nothing beats it.

So what would you put in your editorial survival kit? Let me know by posting below.

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Spotlight on Punctuation

Posted in: Blog, Punctuation, Spotlight on Punctuation by Sally Evans-Darby on 1 July 2012 | No Comments

Spotlight on Punctuation: Excitable Exclamation Marks

This week’s spotlight on punctuation takes a closer look at the exclamation mark (or point). It’s rather an exciting punctuation mark, as punctuation marks go. It immediately demands attention. It insists you sit up and take notice! (See what I did there?)

I think it’s safe to say that no-one really knows when or how the exclamation mark came into existence. There’s some rather spurious speculation that it was born from the Latin for ‘joy’ – ‘io’ – by writing the ‘I’ on top of the ‘o’. Possible, but unlikely. It comes with a wildly varied nomenclature; as well as being interchangeably a ‘mark’ or ‘point’, it’s also been known as a bang, a dembanger, a screamer, a gasper, a shriek and a startler. Not bad for what is essentially a vertical line with a dot beneath it.

The use of an exclamation mark can mean several things. It can indicate shouting in dialogue (‘It’s over here!’), an imperative (‘Fetch my coat!’), or, most usually, an expression loaded with emotion (an exclamation). This emotion might be excitement, anger, surprise, dismay. Consider the following examples and how in each instance the mark is used slightly differently:

Get away from me!
That was brilliant!
I can’t believe you said that!
Someone ate the last Rolo!

All these legitimately use the exclamation mark to convey the emotion of the sentence, and help to drive home to readers the significance of what is being said.

Interestingly, there is one more use of the exclamation point that has come into vogue the last decade or so, and that is using it as an indication of sarcasm. An exclamation mark in brackets at the end of a sentence denotes that whatever is being said is meant with a degree of irony, like a symbolised ‘…not!’, as in:

Gee, that’s a beautiful sweater you’re wearing (!)

This is used frequently in subtitles to help convey meaning, and, unsurprisingly, can most often be found in British English.

In Britain, there is even a place name whose spelling officially includes an exclamation point (Westward Ho!).

There is, however, one way to use an exclamation mark that will do nothing more than drive your readers up the wall. That, of course, is this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That’s an extreme example, but in my opinion it is never acceptable or necessary to use more than two exclamation points together. Even two is pushing it, and should only ever be used in the very rare circumstances when one isn’t enough. That’s the crux when it comes to exclamation points: one is nearly always enough. One on its own can convey so much power that using more simply dilutes that power.

To go further, even using one exclamation point should be approached with caution. Always bear in mind who your potential reader is: is an exclamation mark really necessary or will a full-stop suffice? Consider the following sentence, expressed with and without an exclamation mark:

I can safely say, after much consideration, that today’s roast dinner was the best I have ever tasted.

I can safely say, after much consideration, that today’s roast dinner was the best I have ever tasted!

Which would you believe was less of a hyperbole, the first or second? I would argue that while the first rings with a grave and credible sobriety, the second loses its credibility by sounding exaggerated. And that is all down to that mischievous mark.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it: ‘An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes’. So, this week’s punctuation lesson: don’t let an exclamation mark make a fool out of you.

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.