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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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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.

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.