In defence of proofreading

I am a proofreader.

I would be even if it wasn’t on my business card. (It is.)

I wake up a proofreader. I go to sleep a proofreader. It’s possible my dreams are pedantic.

I adore abstract art, and messy hair, and long-form improvised jazz, and unplanned weekends. But the methodical neural sequences are always running — as subtle, pervasive and persistent as those that maintain subconscious respiration and the miraculous auto-focus of my blessedly functional human eyes. I don’t switch this part of me on and off as I approach and depart the office each day.

As a proofreader, that’s the way things work, and it’s the way I work (even when I’m not at work). Just as an artist sees the world through creative eyes even in the non-painting, non-sculpting, non-drawing moments. Just as the curiosity that drives a scientist, deep-sea explorer or astronomer isn’t silenced the moment they step away from the microscope, periscope or telescope.


{image via PowerScore}

People are afraid of the red pen.

They fear seeing their writing covered in proofreading glyphs, and they resent the person who made it so.

Some editors use green or purple ink because red is ‘too aggressive’.

But red is also the colour of love, and of passion.

I do not proofread in anger. I proofread with passion. When I scrawl all over the page, I am sharing the writer’s devotion to the words they have coaxed forth. It is with love that I — as gently as possible — nurture and nudge those words just a little bit more, hoping to make them as perfect as we both desire them to be.

So writers? Don’t hate the red pen. Your proofreader actually loves your writing.

Proofreaders, don’t be ashamed to be called a persnickety, pedantic perfectionist. Wear that badge with pride (especially if you couldn’t take it off if you wanted to).

And everyone: go to as many Sydney Writers’ Festival events as you can between now and Sunday (26 May 2013). Let your brain be caressed and your thoughts provoked.

Unsavoury weather?

When the weather contradicts what the season should dictate — for example, by delivering Summer-like warmth on an April day (unexpected in either hemisphere) — we say the weather is “unseasonably warm”.

When savoury food isn’t salt-and-peppery enough, we say it’s unseasoned (and probably unsavoury).

So why “unseasonably warm”?

Hint: it’s not because we can’t improve the weather with salt and pepper.

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The OED lists season (n.) as “any one of the periods, longer or shorter, into which the year is naturally divided by the earth’s changing position in regard to the sun” (and so on). That’s all based on an early version of the verb to sow (thus “sowing time” , from Latin and Vulgar Latin via Old French and Middle English, with variations in Modern French, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian). Humans have been talking about seasons since about 1340.

The concept of seasoning (v.) — “to render more palatable by the addition of some savoury ingredient” — turned up in around 1400, and is based on the same Old French concept: we leave fruit to ripen fully with the seasons, becoming as delicious as possible before we devour it or bake it into a pie.*

So unseasonal weather makes sense to me. But why unseasonable and unseasonably? Unable to be seasoned?

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The construction is literally just season + the able suffix.

Season+able (adj.) means “occuring at the right time or season”.*

Season+ably (adv.) means “in a fitting time; at the right moment; in due season”.

But if you ask me, the real answer comes back to a noun: seasonableness.

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 8.19.30 PM

So if something is unseasonable it’s unsuitable or unreasonable.

When I comfortably wear a sundress in April — or am forced to wear a woollen scarf in December** — I do so because of weather that is unreasonably warm or cold (within the context of the season). I am unable to provide a reason for such inexplicable weather …Except to say that we should consume less, recycle more, and look for alternative sources of low-impact, renewable, sustainable energy.

And all this still has very little to do with salt and pepper, other than the fact that a cold day in Summer is generally thought to be unsavoury.

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As opposed to seasonal (adj.), which means “depending on or happening with the seasons”. In Japan, cherry blossoms appear seasonally; if they flowered all through the year they would be unseasonal — unrelated to or unaffected by the prevailing season. Which means you could talk about an “unseasonally warm day” and still technically be correct, but you lose the element of unreasonableness and incongruity.

** That one is hemisphere-specific.

 

The Oxford comma: dead at the hands of serial killers

I give a #%*^ about the Oxford comma.  I’m known for giving a #%*^ about the Oxford comma. But sadly, this sudden palaver over its threatened extinction (at the hands of its eponymous university, no less) is just a bureaucratic nail in an already-long-buried coffin. As a proofreader in Australia, I must (at least during working hours) adhere to the ‘current trends’ in Australian writing style, and that means NO SERIAL COMMAS EVER (except if absolutely needed for the sake of clarity, which isn’t any fun at all).

So as far as I’m (professionally) concerned, the Oxford comma has already been eradicated, or is at least seriously endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction. It lingers only as a ghost, destroyed by a gradual succession of serial killers*: style guides in ruthless pursuit of minimalist punctuation.

R, I, P.

Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams has already said almost everything else I would say on the topic. Most importantly, she a) clarifies the extent to which Oxford University is eliminating its eponymous comma (that is, no more than most institutions already have); and b) embedded the obvious Vampire Weekend video clip.

Now, two things about this video clip: Firstly, its total number of hits must have jumped phenomenally in the past 24 hours. Secondly, IT WAS DIRECTED BY THE WONDERFUL RICHARD AYOADE (of The IT Crowd, of course). And if that isn’t a joyful note on which to end a sombre post, I don’t know what is.

*Yes, I went there.

Inglourious Grammar Nazis

So insensitive, but SO funny


“Me and her buy her milk at the same market.”

“Me and her? Surely you meant to say ‘She and I’.”

“Yes, of course.”

“The trick is to take the other person out the sentence to see if it makes sense. ‘Me buy milk’? I think not.I buy milk’. You see?”


Very insensitive. Very funny. AND ALSO VERY INFORMATIVE.

(I always use the I/me rule.)


And yes, I aware that this is the second [grammar] Nazi-related Proof (v.) post. But in my defence, me didn’t invent the term. Neither did Encyclopædia Dramatica… but it is defined there so very well:

Grammar Nazi is a term given to one who incessantly corrects the spelling/grammar/usage of others. Everyone hates Grammar Nazis because they are the ultimate lulz killers.

(Do yourself a favour and read the whole thing. Again, it’s admittedly offensive, but terribly HILARIOUS).

To boldly split the infinitive*



Yes, Wikipedia uses Star Trek to explain the notion of split infinitives:

A famous split infinitive occurs in the opening sequence of the Star Trek television series: to boldly go where no man has gone before. Here, the adverb “boldly” splits the full infinitive “to go.”

And yes, in ye olden dayes, it was positively UNHEARD OF to split an infinitive (boldly or otherwise). But in these modern times, the ‘rule’ is generally considered ‘more what you’d call a guideline‘ than a fiercely applied rule.

Even the Commonwealth Government Style Manual (my new bible) says that these days, it’s best to do what sounds right, rather than to blindly (and boringly) follow dusty old rules*.

Like the Savage Chickens above, when it comes to splitting infinitives, you’re better off applying grammatical rules with common sense, discernment, and a grain of salt.

And rightly so. “To go where no man has gone before, boldly” is correct, but boring. And “To go boldly…”, while also technically correct, also sounds rather like the application of a font format setting.

*See what I did there?

Love thine Word Nerd

Richard Glover’s column, Revenge of the Word Nerds, in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum section):

The language police have no interest in the content of what is being said; they don’t even have much interest in language itself, in all its slippery, transgressive glory. They just lie in wait, like cats before a mouse hole, waiting for an error to occur.

Then they pounce. And there is much delight in the pouncing…

Full article at  smh.com.au (because nobody actually buys the hulking Saturday paper nowadays).

Thank Gaia I know that Mr. Glover’s ire is all in good humour (he’s a very good-humoured sort of bloke). Of course everyone knows that Grammar Nazis never mean to offend, much less condescend. Sports fans will correct you for saying “points” instead of “goals”(or vice versa). Fashionistas love to commentate when people-watching. A tea lover will happily waffle on forever about Buddha’s Tears (if you let them). And likewise, we linguiphiles just can’t help ourselves when faced with something within our very trivial sphere of interest.


SO PLEASE REMEMBER TO KINDLY INDULGE YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD WORD NERD: She’s not pouncing, she’s just enjoying the small pleasures in a pedantic life.


(And besides, without a keen editor, every newspaper, magazine, book, journal, and other miscellaneous printed reading matter would have met that great pulp-mill in the sky long ago, condemned to death by the dire lack of media’s two most essential requirements: credibility and readability.)

RELATED POSTS: Being a Snark (and some shameless self-promotion)

Vegetarian develops insatiable addiction to Savage Chickens

A flow chart of my relationship with Savage Chickens:

Discovery: “Oh cool. I like Post-its. I like Pythonesque, punilicious quips about Hot Yoga/The Slim Reaper. I like tofu.”

Dabbling: “I’m not going to be able to stop until I’ve seen the entire back archives, am I?”

Addiction: “Just one more…”

Obsession: “Sure I’ll eat/sleep/study/work/listen to my lecturer… after I’ve finished trawling the archives.”

Closure: (days later) “Done!… More please?”

Subscription: “DING! You have ONE new Savage Chickens email.”

Twitter: *Tweetdeck ‘new tweet’ chirp*


More blog-appropriate proof (v.) that these Post-it-icisms are truly brilliant:

A minor revision re: lolcats

I may have been rather heavy-handed in my universal (and well-publicised) dismissal of all things lolcat. As of now, I would like to officially revise and clarify my prior stance:

a) I still despise the term ‘lol’ (or ‘LOL’ or ‘lololol’, and so on and so forth), whether written, typed or spoken. Maybe we can still be friends if you choose to use it, but I won’t reciprocate (I prefer ‘BAHAHA‘).

and

b) I still want to fix every lolcats caption so that it has correct spelling/grammar/syntax/everything.

BUT…

c) Lolcats can be … REALLY STUPIDLY FUNNY. Especially when related to the topic of grammar/editing/linguistics/quantum physics.

Humour-wise, I place them in the same league as Man Hiding Out in IKEA by Covering Self in IKEA Bags, and this Male Model Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray From Page One Backstage At NY Fashion Week.

If your moronic, miscaptioned cat photo teeters on the brink of irony, with one lolpaw dipping into metareflexivity, then I am likely to find it snortingly funny. I will say ‘BAHAHA!’. Possibly out loud. (But I still won’t say ‘lol’).


Being a Snark (and some shameless self-promotion)

Word Nerds of the Web, Unite!

Why The Internet Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened To The English Language: Online epiphanies of an inveterate grammar snarkBy Olivia McDowell.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Snarks are not alone. Hence the above article (read it all here), which I wrote last year as part of my Online Journalism course. And now my little rant has been published in No·men·cla·ture, the online fruit of that course, and I feel duty bound to spread the word: Snark is cool! So please, read on.

Haters of lolcats and lovers of grammatical perfection, you will not be disappointed.


A bit more about snark…

  • The word ‘snark’ — which began life as a portmanteau (snide + remark) — now also refers to a nark (informer) with snarking tendencies: see detailed etymology here.

  • Lewis Carroll — widely credited with having invented the portmanteau during Alice’s second trip, Through The Looking Glass — also wrote the fabulous nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark.

  • It’s been said that Snark is the language of losers. Witless, angry, petulent and belittling. That it wishes it were Jon Stewart (who is just awesome, by the way), when it fact it’s more like, well, Bill O’Reilly.

  • To me, a snark is someone with a pedantic eye for detail, and a penchant for picking out minor details — right or wrong — then waffling on about them for no other reason than pure self-indulgence. A snark is cheerily particular: specific, but never angry.

  • ‘Snark’ is also another name for the Irony Mark (؟).

Helmer (n.)?

In my mind, ‘helm‘ is a noun: most basically, the steering wheel of a ship. Hence, to take the helm. The person who does so is “at the helm”, and is called a helmsman (or helmsperson, blah blah blah). This applies literally, when talking about ships (avast!), and also idiomatically, with regard to controlling the direction of something tangible (like a car) or abstract (like a strategy).

But then I saw this:


Apparently the person at the helm is not a helmsman/person, but a helmer. A HELMER? Helmer: Noun. No, really? Considering that this was the Greater Union cinema timetable, I was willing to accept it as a grammatical anomaly unless a reliable second opinion could prove otherwise, so I turned to the most reliable second opinion in existence: the OED. And I was shocked:

Apparently, helmer IS a noun, and a specific one at that: a person who directs a film (etc). But note also, that it is only colloquial, and only in the United States, and the first recorded appearance was only 1974 (to me, half a century at the very least is a good indicator of a well-entrenched word) AND it’s still only a draft entry.

So I say ‘helmer’ is a dumb, made-up, superfluous word. Who says ‘helmer’ anyway? No-one. Because there is no need to.

A movie director is a movie director:


{ Tim Burton via OvationTV }

And a person at the helm can just be called a helmsman/person… er, or a Captain…


{ Captain Jack Sparrow via imdb }

‘Nuff said*, at least on my part.



NB. No honestly, I was inspired by the terribly worded movie timetable. The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp joint appearance came later, and as a complete fluke, which I can attribute partly to coincidence, and partly to a penchant for my favourite director and his favourite leading man.


* Not surprisingly, the phrase ’nuff said’ originated not with Stan Lee, nor with Frank ‘Nuff Said’ Catton in Ocean’s Thirteen, but on the stage of a 19th-century theatre. See true/interesting etymology about halfway down this article.