In which, the proofreader must bite his tongue.
The proofreader glares down at a manuscript that is positively swarming with red ink and vows never to accept an assignment from a ‘budding novelist’ ever again.
The budding novelist in question is Gary Draper, the proofreaders wife’s cousin. The novel is entitled The Pirate. The plot, insofar as there is a plot, concerns a serial killer, with an eye patch and a hook for a hand, who is whittling his way through a cast of unconvincing characters in a holiday resort in the Caribbean. No motive is given for these slayings aside from the fact that The Pirate is deranged. All The Pirate’s victims are young women who have made the fatal error of looking great in swimwear. Gary has entirely overlooked the fact that a novel requires a protagonist or, indeed, a point.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the writing itself was competent. It isn’t. It would be inaccurate to describe the author’s attitude to grammar as ‘rule breaking’ because that would suggest that Gary knew the rules in the first place. He very clearly doesn’t. There are more split infintives and dangling modifiers than you can shake a stick at, and the entire thing appears to have been written in the passive voice. The proofreader finds this latter point almost funny, that such an unpleasant and aggressive piece of prose could be described in any way as passive.
But split infinitives and dangling modifiers are as nothing compared to some of Gary Draper’s grammatical atrocities. The word ‘have’ seems to have been abandoned in favor of the increasingly popular and utterly unacceptable ‘of’. In Gary’s particular iteration of the multiverse, the apostrophe has been rendered extinct. And spelling, it would seem, if Mr Draper is to be believed, is for losers.
All of this, however, is tolerable. These kind of errors are meat and drink to the intrepid proofreader. Obviously, it is not typical for there to be quite so many of them but they are not, in and of themselves, unusual. What is really driving the proofreader in the general direction of the kitchen sink (beneath which is stored the emergency brandy) is the fact that Gary’s writing seems intent upon summoning the proofreader’s inner editor.
He is not an editor. He has never been an editor. He has worked with many great and talented editors in his time but he does not count himself among their number. He is a proofreader. He has been a proofreader all his working life. He will be a proofreader until the day his lips turn blue and they pry his red pen from his cold, dead hand. But Gary Draper’s awful writing has him critiquing instead of proofreading; it is forcing him to leave the objective world of right and wrong, and taking a few awkward steps into the subjective world of the editor. He doesn’t want to waist valuable red ink telling Gary that an adult novel can’t contain the expression “He was as crafty as a fox” and expect to be taken seriously, and yet he feels compelled to do so.
To find out if you've spotted all the mistakes, click on 'Read More', below.
Too late, the proofreader realizes he’s made a terrible mistake.
He thought it was Wednesday. He was wrong. Its Thursday. If he’d known it was Thursday, he wouldn’t have left his car parked in front of the house. If he’d known it was Thursday, he would have parked his little Audi in the next street, just like he has done for the last seven or eight months. Why does he park his car in the next street on Thursdays? Because Thursday is the day his sister, a sales rep for a soft drinks company, visits a number of customers in the proofreader’s area. Thursday is the day his sister drops by in search of coffee and conversation.
It isn’t that he in any way dislikes his sister; not at all. In fact, he loves Bonnie; she’s fantastic. He couldn’t hope for a better big sister. It’s just that once she starts talking she just can’t seem to stop. This would be fine if it was a Friday evening or a Saturday afternoon. But it isn’t Friday evening, and it isn’t Saturday afternoon. It’s Thursday afternoon. And not just any Thursday afternoon. It’s the last Thursday afternoon of the month, which means he’s currently proofreading the latest edition of Botanical Bulletin, which is due to go to press in just a few days time.
The proofreader loves and hates Botanical Bulletin in equal measure. He loves the fact that he gets paid handsomely to proofread it. He loves the fact that it’s regular work. He loves the fact that he gets on extremely well with the publication’s editor, Joanne Kirby. He hates the fact that, thanks to the likes of Theophrastis, Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, Leonhart Fuchs and Linnaeus he has to hack his way through the dense forest that is botanical nomenclature.
Botanical Bulletin is a serious publication. Every plant, algae or fungi must be identified by its ‘correct name’ in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. This means that the common daisy must be referred to as Bellis perennis, the sweet briar rose must be referred to as Rosa rubiginosa and the common dandelion must be referred to as Taraxacum officinal.
Spell-checking software is of absolutely no use in this situation. The proofreader must lean heavily on his now-battered copies of The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms and Plant Names: A Guide to Botanical Nomenclature, as well as a host of online resources. When none of these prove helpful, he calls Joanne who refers him to one of the many botanists who contribute to Botanical Bulletin. It is, quite frankly, a colossal headache.
The situation is manageable as long as the proofreader is able to give Botanical Bulletin the benefit of his full attention. This will not be possible if Bonnie sees his car parked outside and decides to invite herself in for caffeine and company.
The proofreader lays down his read pen on the proofs for Botanical Bulletin and starts toward the front door. Maybe there’s still time to move my car, he thinks.
He thinks wrong.
The doorbell chimes.
Click on Read More below to find out what the mistakes were.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Punctuation is "the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and the correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts."
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this, slightly drier, definition: "The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”
Neither of these definitions is correct. Or, at least, neither of them is true. If they were, we would be taught to punctuate only when ‘understanding’ is in jeopardy. The rest of the time, we would write with the propulsive energy and joy of a Jack Kerouac, a William Burroughs or a James Joyce. Our job application letters would nod and wink in the general direction of e e cummings. Or E. E. Cummings. Every proofreader would have a copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson on her desk to be used as a vital reference tool. But we don’t write like that. Well, most of us don’t.
No, we use punctuation all the time. We use punctuation whether understanding is in jeopardy or not. We use punctuation because it’s the rules.
The fact of the matter is we should be able to adopt a fairly take-it-or-leave-it approach to punctuation. Take a look at the hyphens in that last sentence. Were they really necessary? And what about the question mark, there? Did it help you understand any better. Did the missing question mark in that last sentence leave you all at sea and discombobulated? I doubt it. The lack of a question mark may well have irritated you or caused you to feel something approaching anxiety but it wasn’t as if a crucial aid to understanding had been cruelly withheld.
So now that you and I are totally in agreement that punctuation is in fact an oppressive bunch of largely unnecessary dots dashes squiggles and whatnots lets get onto what this blog post is really about shall we
(And I promise not to do the no-punctuation thing again because, let’s face it, it makes you uneasy.)
I really just wanted to talk about how much I love the fact that punctuation has escaped the confines of grammatical despotism and upped and flown away.
Not only do I love the fact that most emails and text messages tend, almost intuitively, to eschew the use of punctuation unless entirely necessary, I also love the fact that punctuation is regularly used in emails and text messages to create a whole host of expressions; the fact that you can emote using just a colon and a closing bracket is fantastic. Swap the colon for a semicolon and that little face is giving you a cheeky wink. How great is that? A colon, dash and lower-case ‘o’ gives us a surprised face. Replace the ‘o’ with a capital ‘D’ and you’re laughing your ass off. Easy and powerful.
I don’t believe these little ‘punctuation doodles’ represent a dumbing-down of language. I don’t even think they’re a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, the linguistic equivalent of a Tamagotchi. I think they’re an evolutionary step, a new gizmo in language’s extensive and fascinating toolbox. In the rapid back-and-forth of a telephone text conversation, these gizmos are crucial. If somebody makes a funny remark, it’s actually quite difficult to respond in a way that can’t be misinterpreted as sarcastic. If you text back “Very funny” how does the recipient know the comment isn’t intended ironically? Besides, “Very funny” sounds… well, a bit lame, doesn’t it? But at least it’s not as bad as the half-demented “ha ha ha ha!”. No, a colon, a hyphen and a capital ‘D’ work perfectly.
And then there’s the trend for punctuation tattoos: question marks, exclamation marks, brackets, parentheses, ellipses and the semicolon. The semicolon is particularly interesting. Whilst other punctuation tattoos appear to be employed largely for their typographic and aesthetic value, the semicolon tattoo has a deeper meaning.
The application of a semicolon can be seen as a writer’s decision to continue a sentence that might otherwise have been terminated with a period. And so, the semicolon has come to represent the choice to continue living rather than bringing your life to an end. The meaning has expanded to represent the impulse to keep going in the face of adversity and, as such, has become a symbol of the fight against depression and, more broadly, mental illness. The semicolon is often seen together with phrases like ‘Be Strong’.
Initiatives like Amy Bleuel’s Project Semicolon and Jenn Brown’s and Jeremy Jaramillo’s The Semicolon Tattoo Project, have taken what was something of a trend that had bled out of social media and turned into something very much like a movement.
Punctuation has left home and is developing an exciting new life of its own.
As a proofreader, it’s my job to ensure the rules are followed. I don’t have to like it, though. It would not work out well for any proofreader if they started neatly circling punctuation marks with their trusty red pen and writing in the margin “Do you really need all these crazy little squiggles?”
But before we get back to the world of rules, here’s an extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses, to give you an inkling of just how exhilarating (and discombobulating) a world without punctuation might be:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing suits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats…
For those of you feeling a little queasy after that, don’t worry; normal service will be resumed next post, which is going to be a good, old-fashioned proofreading exercise, where poor punctuation will receive our full opprobrium! Mark my words!
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The Apostrophe Catastrophe
The proofreader does not like to think of himself as a pedant. He doesn’t see himself as some kind of self appointed guardian of the English language. He is not a fully paid-up member of the Grammar Police. He does not count himself among those who behave like the Agents of Syntax. He would be deeply uncomfortable in the presence of anyone who perceived themselves as some kind of Punisher of Poor Punctuation.
He is none of these things. He is a proofreader. Moreover, he is a professional proofreader. His role is not to sneer or deride. His role is to highlight errors in order to transform a document from something that might only be considered a draft into something that is fit for public consumption. His job is to safeguard the reputation of his clients by ensuring they do not publish material that may make them appear foolish or may be unhelpful to their customers. He has also, on occasion, uncovered errors that could have resulted in serious financial loss. For example, he once noticed that an item of jewelry was being sold at a fraction of its value, due to a misplaced decimal point. These are the things that give him purpose. He is nothing if not practical. He is not a snarling Grammar Nazi, using his dictionary as a weapon. He is a helpful professional. Sneering is not his thing.
But the sign drives him mad. The sign invokes a slight curling of the lip that may, in time, become something that might reasonably be described as a sneer. He hopes this is not the case but he is not optimistic regarding the outcome. He has tried to ignore it but it is impossible. It wouldn’t be so bad if he passed it infrequently. Unfortunately, he has to pass the sign every week day morning as he takes his children to school.
The sign is high up on the red brick wall of a building that the proofreader thinks used to be a bank. The sign says Schoolteachers Friendly Society.
Now, the proofreader never takes the absence of an apostrophe lightly. Apostrophes are very important. Apostrophes denote possession. Apostrophes denote contraction; in this role, the proofreader thinks of the apostrophe as a small fragment of debris left over when two words smash into one another. He would never deny the vital function that apostrophes often play.
All that being said, he has, on occasion, looked the other way. He hasn’t felt good about it but he has allowed his head to rule his heart and not the other way round. These occasions when he has had to let these grammatical transgressions pass unchallenged almost always involve signs, logos or other elements were typographical design is a governing factor. He understands that significant design elements must occasionally be considered exempt from the rules that govern the printed word. Apostrophes are awkward little buggers. They are a typographical sore thumb, spoiling the fine line of a neatly designed piece of type.
The proofreader simply can’t make the exception this time. This is the Schoolteachers' Friendly Society. The very name speaks of academia and education. An exception can’t be made.
The proofreader walks past, shaking his head. He reaches up and touches a finger to the left corner of his mouth.
Yes, that curve is definitely getting bigger. Any day now, he’ll have a fully fledged sneer.
To find out what the errors are, click on 'Read More' below.
The proofreader stares at the bifurcated nib of his red pen and tries not to sob. He turns his attention to the manuscript he is currently proofreading. Where he has scored through the word anunciate, there is a distinct doubling of the line. He sighs and returns his gaze to the pen.
Its his favourite pen, a uni-ball Eye Micro. He loves this pen. The nib delivers a beautiful 0.5mm line of fade resistant ink that refuses to bleed, even on low-grade paper. The proofreader is almost certain that the only paper capable of causing the Eye Micro’s ink to bleed is super-absorbent toilet paper. He looks at the ink window in the pen’s barrel and sees that he hasn’t even used half of that clean, bright ink.
Insult to injury, he thinks.
Although he knows he’s wasting his time, the proofreader draws a vertical line down the empty right-hand margin of the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, the mark consists of two distinct elements running in parallel to one another.
“Well, that’s that, then,” he says.
He doesn’t drop the pen into the wastepaper basket next to his desk. Instead, he reaches over his inert laptop and picks up an ornately carved box. The box is made of mahogany or some similar dark timber. The carvings depict an elaborate knot of serpents. It is the kind of box that might hold cigars.
The proofreader opens the box. It doesn’t contain cigars. It contains pens. This is where the proofreaders red pens go when they die. This is the red-pen equivalent of the fabled elephant’s graveyard. There are several Eye Micros, a handful of Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine Points, a trio of Pentel R.S.V.P. 0.7mm Ballpoint Pens and a couple of Sharpies.
The proofreader places the Eye Micro in the cigar box, closes the lid and returns the box.
“No time for sentimentality,” he says. “I’ve got work to be getting on with.”
He looks down at the page he has been proofreading. It’s been hard going. It’s a treatise entitled The Death of Received Pronunciation and the Decline of the BBC. He can’t help wondering if he’d subconsciously sabotaged his pen in order to bring this dreary exercise to a premature halt.
“Never,” he says. “I’d never knowingly hurt a pen.”
He opens the top drawer of his desk and reaches inside.
An expression somewhere between horror, astonishment and embarrassment animates his face. He pulls the drawer open as far as it will go and looks inside.
“No pens,” he says, disbelieving. “No pens.”
This is a disaster. This is an unprecedented disaster. He has been a proofreader for the better part of 20 years and, in all that time, he has never been without a pen.
The proofreader wonders what it must mean. He wonders what it must portend.
Click 'Read More' below for the answers.
The proofreader’s office is at the back of the house, to the left of the utility room. It has a small window with a view of the garden. There’s a stone bird table in the middle of a neatly trimmed lawn. There are rhododendren bushes and buddleias at the end of the garden and, down the sides, narrow flowerbeds overflowing with white, pink and blue alpine plants. The view is pleasant but not so pleasant as to distract the proofreader.
His attention is entirely focused upon the typed manuscript on his desk. In one hand, he holds a tatty business card. In the other, he holds a red pen. He slides the business card just beneath the line of text he is reading, moving it at a slow pace. Despite his proffesion, he gives the impression of someone who isn’t altogether very good at reading.
He is about ten lines down the page, when the business card comes to a sudden standstill and the hand holding the red pen swoops toward the text.
The proofreader strikes a line through the word ‘absorbtion’. In the margin, paralell to where he has made his mark, he writes the word ‘absorption’.
Then, to no one, he says, “To be fair, that is a tricky one. Absorption. Absor-puh-tion.”
The manuscript is full of tricky words. It’s a piece of editorial about classroom acoustics. The author is an architect and the piece is intended for publication in the Journal of Architectural Technicians.
The business card recommences its slow tracking until it reaches the end of the page. The red pen is not employed again. The proofreader turns the page over to its blank side and places it on a pile of similarly blank pages. The pages aren’t entirely blank, however; here and there, the blushing ghosts of proofreading marks bleed through from the other side of the paper.
Before continuing to proofread the editorial, he puts down his pen and turns to look out of the window. The proofreader knows it is important to rest his eyes, to focus on something further from his face than the surface of his desk.
There is a robin on the bird table, pecking at the seeds and berrys the proofreader placed there that morning. He wonders what the robin is doing there. It’s late June. He seems to remember a time when robins only appeared in the winter months. He wonders if global warming has interfered with the bird’s biological thermostat and it no longer knows whether it’s coming or going. Perhaps, it can no longer distinguish June from November. He considers the possibility that robins have always been around in June.
“Could be I’ve just never noticed them before,” he says.
He looks at the dark, blank screen of his laptop. It would be easy to fire it up and click on the Google icon on his taskbar. In no time at all, he’d be quite the robin expert. Not only would he be fully conversant with the bird’s migratory habits, he’d be familiar with its diet, natural predators, nesting habits, wingspan, body mass and just about everything else robin-related.
The proofreader resists.
If distraction is the enemy of the proofreader, then Google is the proofreader’s arch nemesis. Google is to the proofreader what Lex Luther is to Superman, what Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes, what Khan is to Kirk.
The Proofreader picks up his red pen and the tatty business card. He gets back down to work.
Click 'Read More' below for the answers.
First of all, allow me to apologize. It's been far too long since I've posted anything on this site.
Well, that changes right now.
Over the next few months, I’m going to be posting a whole series of free proofreading exercises. These will come in the form of extracts from an imaginary novel. This being an imaginary novel, we don’t really need to give it a title. But, in the interest of verisimilitude, let’s call it The Life and Death of a Freelance Proofreader.
Each extract will contain a number of deliberate errors. The errors will be listed at the end each extract, when you click the 'read more' button. As a work of fiction (or pseudo-fiction), The Life and Death of a Freelance Proofreader is written in a slightly informal fashion. This means that there will be things you may view as errors. These may be the conscious deviations from accepted grammar or style that naturally occur when an author writes creatively. Please feel free to use the comments field to highlight anything you feel I’ve overlooked or any occasions when you feel I’ve strayed from ‘informal’ into ‘slapdash’. I look forward to a healthy debate. And I’m more than happy to be set straight.
I'll be posting the first proofreading exercise tomorrow.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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