or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 14, 2005

On My Radar

I like Salon.com, and I like their new site design, but I do not like the fact that they clearly do not have one single copy editor on staff.

I also like Patrick Smith, who writes the weekly Ask the Pilot column, but he really, really needs that nonexistent copy editor. (Or perhaps I'm wrong, and there is a copy editor, in which case Salon needs someone a little more on the ball.)

Example 1: Smith mentions a dressing-down he received from a reader about a fine point in physics, and then says, "The above scold (I cleaned and paraphrased it slightly), comes from...". Two problems: that comma after the closing parenthesis doesn't belong there, and "scold" doesn't mean what Smith thinks it does. As a noun, "scold" means only one thing: the person delivering the scolding, which is the noun Smith was looking for.

Example 2: Excusing himself for the tiny physics error, Smith says, "Besides, what do you expect from a math and physics flunky?" I expect a writer to use the word "flunky", if he uses it at all, correctly. A flunky isn't a person who flunked something; it's a person who's subservient and menial. (It likely comes from "flanker", an attendant off to the side--literally, at your flank.)

Example 3: Speaking of math and physics skills, Smith says that their employment is "a vestige, maybe, from the days when airmen carried slide rules and practiced celestial navigation." Two extremely fine points here: first, "vestige of" is better, certainly far more usual, than "vestige from", and "practiced" ought to be "practised", since "practice" is the noun and "practise" is the verb. (I'll concede, though, that Americans generally use only the first spelling for both noun and verb, and perhaps the Salon style guide--I'm assuming there is one--reflects this.)

Example 4: The sentence "And hang on, fumbling over the physics of deceleration wasn't my only mistake:" is what we call a run-on sentence, a.k.a. a comma splice, because it is in fact two separate sentences (or clauses) latched together with a comma, which ought to be a semicolon.

I know for a fact that some people would tell me this is mere hair-splitting, but hair-splitting is exactly what a copy editor does. A piece of writing, no matter how stylish or illuminating, is not complete if any reader has to stop and wonder if an element of the writing is punctuated or spelled correctly, if something is factually accurate, if the piece shouldn't flow better than it does. A copy editor sands off the rough edges, hides the seams, and polishes the whole. Publications ignore this at their peril.


Blogger Tony Pius said...

I read that article this morning and had exactly the same responses (although, being American, it never occurred to me to deploy "practised").

On the other hand, the sloppy "Ask the Pilot" article was an upgrade from the manuscript I've been editing this week, which included this "sentence":
"As almost all of the magic items that [character] facilitates the smuggle of are minor, low level scrolls, weak wands, potions."

Maybe I'll see if Salon has a position open.

Friday, October 14, 2005 3:28:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

"Facilitates the smuggle of"? Good god. I know that one of the fascinating qualities of English is its penchant for breaking down the barriers between parts of speech, but there are limits.

So what do we have in that rubbish heap you quoted? A sentence fragment, for starters, followed by a fairly pretentious use of the word "facilitate", a verb used as a noun, a list that should have been prefaced by a colon, and the lack of the word "and" before the last element in the list. It's like a catalogue of errors--a deliberate attempt to demonstrate a large number of mistakes in a small area.

What do you tell such a bad writer?

As for the Salon column, Patrick Smith is a pretty good writer, informative and entertaining, but perhaps he's been too busy as a pilot to read as much as he should, because it's only through extensive reading that writers become fluent in the nuances of the language. (There can't really be any other reason he didn't know what "flunky" meant.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005 3:31:00 AM  
Blogger Tony Pius said...

What do you tell such a bad writer?

"We're reducing your per-word rate because of the Augean labor necessary to make your manuscript publishable." And then you lose his contact information, because life's too short.

Monday, October 17, 2005 8:27:00 PM  

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