Copyediting: Descent Into Madness

As I recently mentioned, I’m studying to be a copyeditor. Of course, to be a copyeditor, you have to be a little bit crazy. But just how crazy are we talking here?

Let’s take a journey.

The latest issue of Time magazine has an article about the capital of Yemen. Here’s how they write it: Sana‘a.

S-a-n-a-(apostrophe)-a. Right?

Not exactly.

The apostrophe (  ) is the same character as the right single quote, which is distinct from the left single quote (  ). Time magazine’s spelling uses the left single quote. Mixing these up is a common error, especially if the apostrophe comes at the beginning of the word, as in ’tis. MS Word automatically (but wrongly) renders this as ‘tis, which means that unless you’re picky enough to notice and correct it (show of hands? anyone?), that’s how it’s going to be.

Of course, all this assumes that you’re talking about smart quotes ( ‘ ’ ) and not the unidirectional quote. If you’re using the latter, then left quote, right quote, and apostrophe are all the same, and the issue is moot. But a publication like Time wouldn’t be caught dead using unidirectional quotes in its printed works.


So Time used a left quote instead of an apostrophe. Was it an error?

At first I thought it must be. I couldn’t imagine a situation where using a left single quote, without its mate, in the middle of a word, could possibly be correct. But every appearance of Sana‘a contained the same “error,” and besides, what word processor would supply a left quote for an apostrophe in the middle of a word? Maybe something else was going on.

I consulted, of course, the Chicago Manual of Style. Not because I thought Time was using it – they appear to favor AP style, with some variations I presume are based on an in-house style guide – but because it has an awful lot of good information about stuff like this.

CMOS didn’t let me down. It turns out that transliteration from Arabic has no universally accepted method, which is why you’ll see Sana‘a in some places and Sanaa in others. But when transliterating Arabic, you can run into two characters, called the hamza ( ʾ ) and the ʿayn ( ʿ ), which are probably hard to see on this page unless you zoom in. Because these characters are unusual, many publications use the left single quote for the ʿayn, and the right single quote for the hamza.

So presumably, the “proper” rendition of the city name – according to this transliteration system – would be Sanaʿa (with the ʿayn), which Time chose to render as Sana‘a.

Whew. So no mistake after all.

Crisis averted – on to the next word!

2 responses to “Copyediting: Descent Into Madness

  1. This sort of investigation seems perfectly normal to me. I’m not seeing the “madness” you mention in the post title.

    Do you mean everybody doesn’t approach these questions like this…

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