7 myths about working with words

dictionaries and language resource materials

Words, punctuation, grammar—these are a few of my favourite things. I’ve worked as a proofreader, writer, transcriber and editor, and, throughout my career, I’ve come across some misconceptions about what it takes to do this type of work. Here are seven myths about what it takes to be a professional word nerd.

Myth 1: You work best on your own.

This is true for a lot of word nerds for at least some of the time. But editors, writers and proofreaders really thrive when they have a network to turn to. We don’t always know the best way handle a situation, or maybe we’ve spent so much time on something and could use a fresh set of eyes on it. It can be helpful to get another opinion (or a few).

Myth 2: You feel strongly about the serial comma.

When you work with words, people often assume you feel passionately about the serial comma. But the value of this tiny mark has been blown out of proportion. What’s important is being consistent and clear with your communications, and this is possible whether or not you use the serial comma.

Working as an editor or writer means you will likely work with style guides maintained by someone other than yourself. You need to be flexible. You’ll probably use the serial comma for some work and you won’t for other work, and you’ll realize that either way is fine.

Myth 3: You are (or could be) a spelling bee champion.

You don’t need to know how to spell every word in the English language, but you definitely need to know to look them up. Yes, having a large vocabulary is helpful, but no matter how much you know, you should continue to consult your trusty dictionary. With this type of work, paranoia can be a good thing, because it’s when you get too confident that you start to miss stuff.

Myth 4: You won’t stand for people breaking language “rules.”

You might hate seeing “they” used as a singular pronoun, or maybe you can’t stand comma splices, but you understand that how we use language evolves. Maybe you’re proud of knowing how to use “whom” properly, but you also realize the word is rarely used now. Keeping the reader in mind is more important than showing off.

Myth 5: You love detail.

It’s not necessary to love detail, but it’s necessary to notice detail. It’s something hardwired in our brains, and it doesn’t mean we actually like it. It can be a bit of a curse sometimes. We can pore over a small detail that maybe no one else will notice, but we do it because we can’t rely on “maybe” and because we strive to create the clearest writing possible.

Myth 6: You enjoy correcting people’s grammar, spelling, etc.

A good editor or proofreader isn’t going to correct friends during a casual conversation. Corrections are saved for written work and only when that’s what we’ve been asked to do professionally. Even then, we don’t like pointing out inconsistencies or errors. Our goal is to make the piece the best it can be.

Myth 7: You don’t make mistakes.

I’ve had co-workers, friends and relatives tell me they get nervous emailing me because they think I’ll judge them if the message contains errors. And, yes, if there are so many errors that I can’t understand what the email means, I am likely to notice. But we all make mistakes sometimes—even the best copy editors. So try to make the best written communications possible, but it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect yourself.

A soft spot for the semicolon

I bought a pair of glasses last week, and my new frames have punctuation marks on them. Specifically, there is a colon on one side and a semicolon on the other. SAMSUNG I have a bit of a soft spot for the semicolon. It’s misunderstood. A lot of writers are afraid to use it. Other writers do use it but use it incorrectly, often placing a semicolon where a comma should be instead. Even the name “semicolon” makes it sound as if it is a lesser point of punctuation than the colon.

Since semicolons aren’t the most commonly used punctuation mark, readers don’t see much of them. This creates a vicious cycle. I’ve heard that some publishers avoid the semicolon because the punctuation mark can be “distracting” to readers. I’m not sure I believe that, but even if it’s true, readers wouldn’t be distracted by the semicolon if they were more used to seeing it.

I love the semicolon for the sort of outsider persona I’ve imagined it having, but of course I also love it for what it actually does. The semicolon helps avoid confusion by separating listed items that contain commas. For example, “I’ll be going with Carl; Carl’s mother, Sheila; Jennifer; and Pat.” The semicolon tells the reader that Sheila is the name of Carl’s mother and not a separate person. The semicolon has been very helpful here—thank you, semicolon!—but this is not the only way to use this punctuation mark.

I like using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses; that’s my favourite way to use it. In the previous sentence, the two clauses would work fine as two sentences, separated by a period. But the semicolon ties them together so neatly. It offers a pause that’s just long enough—not too long, but not too short—that illustrates the link between the two statements. (Want more information about how to use the semicolon? Check out this post.)

A text can’t be read properly by concentrating only on the words. Just as music notation helps a musician understand how to play the notes, punctuation tells the reader how to read the words. So even though the semicolon might be my favourite punctuation mark, I love them all; they’re all equally important. But I’m happy to help give the semicolon a little more exposure.

Different ways of speaking

Have you ever had difficulty understanding someone because of their accent? As the above clips demonstrates, even the wonderful Stephen Fry has run into this problem. And it makes sense. If a person speaks in a way that you’re not used to hearing, it can be hard to comprehend at first. But does the way that someone sounds affect your perception of that person?

Last week, CBC Radio One’s The Current aired a fascinating segment on discrimination based on accents, also known as “accentism.” The segment referred to a recent study from Manchester University that found a person’s accent can affect how they are viewed by others. Experts mentioned how some people go to great lengths to hide their accents in order to fit in.
The discussion on The Current reminded me of an episode of the British panel show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry.
The talk about accents starts around the 1:35 mark, when Fry asks the panel what an average World War II fighter pilot would sound like. Because of the portrayal by actors in films, Fry explains, it’s commonly thought that most of these pilots were posh, but this wasn’t actually the case. At 4:15 in the clip, the panel discusses how modern-day pilots may alter the way they speak to mimic an accent that is perceived as more reassuring to passengers.
The more familiar we are with different ways of speaking, the better we will be able to understand other accents. Exposure is key. Living in a multicultural environment can be helpful, as can listening to and watching programs from other cultures. But, in the meantime, if you find yourself in a situation where someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying, you might want to try singing to them instead.

Why we need to stop talking about the serial comma

I’ve avoided writing about the serial comma. I hear about it more than I’d like to, so I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation. But I’ve reached my limit. I need to say something: The serial comma doesn’t make your writing any better, and it doesn’t make it worse. If you’re either a strong advocate for it or a fervid critic of it, you’ve missed the point.

There. I said it. Now let me explain.

Choosing to use the serial comma, which is the comma that’s placed in front of “and” before the final item in a list (e.g. “blue, red, and green”), is a style preference. Some people use it; some people don’t. Stylistic decisions should be consistent, but they’re not right or wrong.

However, there are many writers and editors who give the serial comma more credit than it deserves. I’ve seen some people include their opinion on it in their Twitter bios, and I’ve read various blog posts, tweets and articles by defenders of the serial comma.

Recently, this tweet appeared multiple times in my Twitter feed. It includes a link to a page with the headline, “A Case for the Oxford Comma in One Screenshot” and displays a screenshot of a tweet from Sky News.

Image taken from slate.com (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/10/oxford_comma_sky_news_tweet_suggests_that_obama_and_castro_have_set_a_date.html)

Image taken from slate.com (http://slate.me/1bBZXRu)

The assertion was that the tweet could be misinterpreted as saying presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro had set a wedding date. Inserting a serial comma before “and” would show that these are two separate items. This is true. But it’s not the only solution.

In any type of writing, it’s not the lack of a serial comma that creates the confusion; poor writing does. If the headlines listed in the above tweet were rearranged, there would be no misunderstanding.

Here’s another way to illustrate this. When writers explain why the serial comma is necessary, they often use this example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah.” The problem here is that it’s unlikely the author’s parents are actually Bill Clinton and Oprah, as the sentence indicates.

Placing a comma after “Bill Clinton” is one way to fix this, but it’s not the only way. The author can also change the sentence: “I’d like to thank Bill Clinton, Oprah and my parents.” See? No serial comma and yet no confusion.

In fact, sometimes using the serial comma can make things unclear. Take, for example, the sentence “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John, and Mark.” Is the magician named John? Or has Tina gone to dinner with three people? If John is the magician, the author can change the sentence to something like “Tina went to dinner with John, who is a magician, and Mark.”

If John and the magician are different people, the author can remove the serial comma: “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John and Mark.” To keep the serial comma, an alternative is to rearrange the listed items: “Bill went to dinner with John, Ted, and a magician.”

The point is, there are options. In my career, I’ve been requested at various times to use the serial comma and not to use it, and I’ve never had any strong feelings either way, as long as the style was consistent.

It’s nice to see so many people care about punctuation, but don’t miss the point by getting into a frivolous argument. If you want to write better, stop caring about being for or against the serial comma and start caring more about communicating clearly.

Three writing tips (for after you’ve finished writing)

So you’ve finished writing, and maybe you’ve even read your piece once or twice. But before you post/send/submit it, there are a few other things you should do.

Put it aside  

Hopefully you’ll read the piece a few times before you deem it finished. But when it comes to that final read, looking at it with fresh eyes is best. Fast-approaching deadlines can make it difficult to wait a day or even a few hours. But, at the very least, step away from the computer for a couple of minutes and do something else. When you return, you’ll be more likely to see what you actually wrote, not what you meant to write. If it’s possible, get someone else to read it, too.

Read it out loud

It’s easy to skip over problems when you read silently. Your eyes can trick you into thinking you wrote quite when you actually typed quiet. Reading out loud lets your ears catch these kinds of errors. Other benefits: hearing the words will point out run-on sentences and makes overused words and phrases hard to ignore.

Be meticulous

Attention to detail is key. Check everything, including facts, spelling, punctuation and word choices. Remember, even the most common words are often used incorrectly (know when it should be every day or everyday, or if you mean it’s or its). Confirm you’ve been consistent with style (did you use a serial comma in one place, but not in another?). And while you’re checking everything, don’t forget the main idea. Make sure you didn’t miss any points you wanted to address, and that you’ve followed through with what you set out to do.

What else? Feel free to comment with any other tips you have.