This week the microwave died. I vow, they’re doing this on purpose, those appliances, because they know I don’t have time. This week I have Copy Edit.
According to WORDS INTO TYPE (my style book–and I now seem to be the only person on the face of the planet who uses it), “even the finest writers have occasional lapses, and errors in spelling or inconsistencies in capitalization or usage of numbers creep in.” The job of the copy editor is to correct these errors and inconsistencies.
Yes, even I make these errors. I fail to type in a “the” or type “foul” when I mean “fowl.” I misplace an apostrophe or forget a comma rule.
WIT goes on to say, “There are many cases in which acceptable usage is merely a matter of personal preference, and so long as an author is consistent, the reader scarcely notices whether it is percent or per cent, freelancer or free-lancer.” I don’t know about the other Wenches, but I can’t remember any case in which the copy editor applied the consistency rule. I tend to hyphenate a great many more compound words than is customary in American spelling style because so many of my reference works are from England. The copy editors always go through and unhyphenate them, even though no American reader, I believe, would have any difficulty in reading them with the hyphens. For instance, two of my references works used a hyphen for brew-house and no hyphen for bakehouse. So that’s how I wrote them. And that’s how I explained them on the style sheet I included with my manuscript. The copy editor changed “brew-house” to “brewhouse.”
Who cares? Not me. No big red “stet” in the margin on that one.
I do become incensed, however, when “chaperon” is changed to “chaperone,” because to me that’s just abominable–again, though I seem to be the only person remaining on the planet who agrees with Fowler that “The addition of a final e is wrong.”
I also have nails-on-blackboard reaction to “comprised of”–which to me is awkward and backward. The rule I learned is that the whole comprises the parts, e.g., “His lodgings comprised two rooms.” I agree with Fowler that the “lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.”
Not that I agree with Fowler on everything.
And not that even experts (most of whom seem to be self-appointed) agree on everything. And how, I wonder, does one decide who is an expert and who is not?
Still, all in all, in the last few years I have felt thankful to the copy editors, especially when they make a cuckoo change to my deathless prose. Or when I get a query I find completely insane. Nine times out of ten, this indicates that the deathless prose in question is not going to make sense to the reader. If it did make sense, the copy editor would not have gone all cuckoo and deranged.
A recent example is “tapes” as referring to those narrow strips of cloth that helped hold women’s clothing together–along with pins (not safety pins, mind you) and hooks and eyes and drawstrings. The copy editor queried “tapes,” wondering about the plural form. I scratched my head over this one. Then I finally realized that the usage tends to be found mainly in costuming books, which meant that the average reader might picture something very different from what I had in mind. So I changed “tapes” to “fastenings.” After all, this was not a treatise on early 19th C dress construction but a love scene.
In writing my books, I try to channel the English authors I’ve read. Still, I am a Yank and the majority of my readers are Yanks, so the challenge is not only to try to avoid Americanisms (which, as the comments to Jo’s post indicate, is a tricky task) and blatantly anachronistic language but to also avoid excessive use of British terms that would baffle American readers. I try to remember that British English, is, after all, a foreign language, and it is not my first or many of my readers’ first language. It’s also good to remember that a little 19th C terminology goes a long way. As Susan/Sarah indicated, there are ways of conveying a different time period and language style without becoming incomprehensible.
A couple of books ago, the copy editor queried “bosom bow.” This was a term I’d come across in Regency after Regency. Maybe even in Heyer. I can’t remember. But when I tried to look it up, I found it…nowhere. So I changed it.
Susan/Sarah and Jo have talked about language, and the discussions have been great fun. AgTigress used the word “twee”–and I had to go look it up. That got me wondering how much looking up readers will do or want to do. Since it’s part of my job, I never think twice about looking things up.
But what about you? The copy editor’s job is to improve readability. What do you think makes for readability? To what extent are you interested in looking up puzzling words or phrases or references? Do you think it’s OK to encounter a few such in a book? What words or phrases or references have puzzled you recently? Do you think I should have let “tapes” stand, or was it wiser to use “fastenings”?