A new advice column, because our brains need grammar
I’m holed up in my house most of the time. I spend all day in my slippers. I sit for hours at a stretch obsessing over tiny problems that most people wouldn’t even notice.
I’m a copyeditor. This is business as usual.
The copyeditor’s job is to help a piece of writing become its best self. That means looking closely at how that piece of writing works, inspecting the construction of each phrase and sentence. And always the copyeditor is sniffing, like a truffle pig, for the sometimes buried meaning that the author hoped and labored to convey.
Copyediting means identifying and solving any problems that might interfere with the communication between writer and reader. Do the subject and verb agree? Is this modifier firmly attached to its referent or (shudder) dangling? To what does this “this” actually refer?
With a pandemic on our hands and the world in crisis, you might argue that dangling participles are the least of our problems. But you’d be wrong.
In a crisis, we can’t afford to confuse or misinform each other.
To early humans, a saber-toothed tiger in the neighborhood was a crisis. Without some agreed-upon conventions for effectively sharing information about hungry predators and other threats, our species would be nothing more than a long-forgotten dinner.
If you still don’t think grammar is that important, try getting through a whole day without it. You’d have no idea what people were talking about. Your favorite Netflix series would dissolve into boring gibberish. And besides, your head would explode.
Why your brain needs grammar
I’m a hermit at heart. In general, I’m not crazy about people. But I have faith in language.
The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas said the human race, like a huge ant colony, is building something together, and that thing is language. It’s our crowning achievement and our most important tool. Thomas wrote:
Language is, like nest-building or hive-making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.
At the moment, we’re also collaborating on another project: the strenuous, unnatural social distancing that is (for now) our only weapon against this new coronavirus. But while we’re staying away from each other, working and learning from our separate homes, language holds us together.
That means effective writing is more important than ever. The rules of grammar, style, word usage, and so forth exist to make the written word as reliable a form of communication as possible — to help the mind of a writer connect with the mind of a reader. This is no small matter.
But maybe I can help. I’ve been a professional copyeditor for more than 20 years.
What a copyeditor does
A book manuscript used to be a big stack of paper on which the copyeditor marked corrections in colored pencil. The copyeditor also routinely queried (questioned), in the margins or on sticky notes, any point that required a clarification or decision from the author: “Do you mean a ‘palate cleanser’ (like a water cracker)? or a ‘palette cleanser’ (like paint thinner)?”
The author was expected to respond to each of these queries, and the copyeditor then incorporated the author’s answers into the final version of the text. This conversation between copyeditor and author is now typically conducted via comment bubbles in a Word file.
Those sticky notes or comment bubbles can also be used to provide explanations. A professional copyeditor has a good reason for every proposed change, and I always enjoy the challenge of arguing for a particular edit, helping an author understand how my suggested rewording would correct a problem or avoid potential confusion.
I admit, that step appeals to my pedantic desire to have the right answer. But I also genuinely want to help the cause of good writing.
(My rant on “The Homonym; or, Embarrassing Faceplants from Which Spellcheck Cannot Save You” will have to wait for another day.)
So ask me
Language is complicated. As Lewis Thomas said, we work at language our whole lives. No one ever learns it all. In reading, you may run into an odd turn of phrase and wonder: typo? poetic license?
Maybe your job requires you to write, but you’re on your own when you have questions. Maybe writing is an even bigger part of your job now that you’re working remotely.
Maybe you’re just an innocent bystander wondering what the hell a subjunctive mood is.
You should ask a copyeditor.
You can ask me. Use this contact form to send me a question. I promise to respond to all serious queries (concerning nonfiction in English), either by e-mail or in a future article in this column.
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