Tag Archives: Copyediting

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!

Copyediting for Fun and (Maybe) Profit

The lack of posts this week isn’t because of depression or laziness. (I am lazy, of course, but that doesn’t happen to be the reason.) Rather, I’m studying to be a copyeditor.

What the hell is a copyeditor (and why does Chrome insist, with enormous irony, that it’s not a word)?

A copyeditor reads a manuscript carefully, checking for the “little” things: grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, word usage, biased language, consistency, clarity, tightness of expression, etc. Sometimes fact-checking is included too. This is in contrast to a substantive editor (or just “editor”), who is more concerned with the big picture: large-scale structure, pacing, which sections are interesting and which aren’t, etc.

A copyeditor can work on almost any kind of text where details matter, including novels, non-fiction books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly papers, and all sorts of websites.

I used to be a computer programmer. It’s what I went to school for. So why in the world would I want to be a grammar guru?

For one thing, I’m doing it already, whether I want to or not. My internal editor automatically yells at me when I come across language errors in anything I’m reading. I’m doing the work anyway, so I might as well get paid for it.

Also, it’ll make me a better writer, and I won’t have to spend as much time wondering about the little things. Is it A.M., AM, or a.m.? Should I use “toward” or “towards”? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Is it “I feel bad” or “I feel badly”? Are sentence fragments “wrong”? (By the way, the answers are, respectively – they’re all correct, “toward” is American and “towards” is British, it depends on the sentence, it’s “I feel bad,” and sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable in formal writing if used sensibly.)

Besides, programming and copyediting aren’t all that different. Both require a careful eye for small textual details while staying mindful of the larger purpose. Both require a technical understanding of syntax and semantics. Both are populated by professional geeks.

Most importantly, this stuff is actually fun for me. Reading The Chicago Manual of Style, scouring Grammar Girl’s website, finding out which rules are legitimate and which (like “don’t split infinitives”) are nonsense, learning the difference between “confidant” and “confidante” – I really get a kick out of this stuff.

The question is: can I get paid for it? Stay tuned, Hypothetical Reader!