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.

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?

 

The changing landscape of language

The Toronto skyline is constantly changing.

The Toronto skyline is constantly changing.

My neighbourhood is changing. For one thing, a building is going up next to mine. It won’t directly obstruct my view, but if I stand at my window and turn my head to my right, there it is: a large piece of concrete staring back at me.

I used to be able to see the CN Tower in its entirety when I looked in this direction. I liked seeing which colours lit up the tower each night before I closed the curtains and got into bed. But it’s almost completely gone from view now.

Why do I care so much? After all, the view is the same when I look straight ahead. And, really, the CN Tower can be seen pretty much anywhere in this city.

It might just be nostalgia. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for more than five years, and very little seems to stay the same. You get used to something, and then it changes. The city never takes a break. It never just lets itself be.

The historic St. Lawrence Market with the not-yet-finished L Tower in the background.

The historic St. Lawrence Market with the not-yet-finished sleek L Tower to the right.

It’s similar to language. New words are added to our lexicon all the time, and when they are added to the dictionary, some people find it harder to accept than others.

Recently, Oxford Dictionaries announced a list of words that were added to OxfordDictionaries.com (which is different from the OED). I know some people who are having a hard time accepting that words such as adorbshumblebrag and mansplain have become a part of our lexicon. (Personally, I’m happy to have a more reliable source than Urban Dictionary to define some of these terms for me.)

If you’re someone who is uncomfortable with these additions, don’t worry. If you want to say crazy instead of cray, you can. Because even if there comes a day when people stop saying crazy, there will still be a place for it in the dictionary where its definition can be looked up. When words are added into the dictionary, nothing is taken out to make room. There’s space for both the old and the new.

Conversely, changes in our physical settings come and go. Buildings are knocked down, turned into parking lots and then built upon again. It can be difficult to keep track of everything. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what stood in one place before something new came in.

When I look out my window and see that changing view, I’m watching something being built, but I’m also watching something disappear. Maybe there will come a day when I forget about my ritual of checking the colour of the tower’s lights. I suppose I’ll have to rely on photographic evidence to remind me of what I once saw.

It’s all part of a bigger picture, I suppose—just as language is fluid, so is the city. And like our lexicon, the city will forever be reinventing itself, always developing, never complete.