To my regret, in a lather recently over copyeditors who waste time searching for rules that don’t exist, I failed to acknowledge something important in defense of the offenders: that is, how much credit they deserve for looking up anything at all.
Our ignorance is a given. We all have vast deficits, in countless areas of knowledge; that’s no sin. But to challenge, query, or—god forbid—change perfectly good text without making the least effort to check it is one of the great crimes of copyediting.
Looking things up is easier than ever before. And not having Internet access is no excuse, at least not for professional editors: If you’re taking money for copyediting and don’t have the right tools, you’re a crook. If you have the tools and don’t use them, you’re a fraud.
Last week, Jan Freeman wrote of her surprise that readers would correct her mention of Goober Pyle to Gomer Pyle without checking the facts. Readers of this page regularly question usages without looking up the words first. I love informed queries, and I welcome correction. But here’s a clue for future doubters: I always look up the words I think you’ll challenge.
Scientific evidence demonstrates the focus and discipline required to reconsider mid-edit. Recently radiologists at the University of Chicago Hospitals were able to monitor my own brain functions while I was working. When I encountered the passage “faculty want clear, bright line advice,” their scan revealed the following process:Impulse: Add comma after “bright”?
Doubt: What’s “line advice”?
Impulse: I wish I had a donut . . .
Compulsion: Query author, “Typo?”
I typed “bright line” into Google, where the top hit was a definition of “bright-line rule” at Wikipedia: “A clearly defined rule or standard, generally used in law, composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation.”Decision: Hyphenate “bright-line.”*
With a dictionary and a search engine, you can find most of what you need to know in seconds. Online reference works are easy to find, and some are free. (Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s KOK Edit site has an excellent list of online editing tools.) What’s difficult is to form the habit of looking things up before you expose yourself as ignorant or lazy.
So next time you’re tempted to whinge about some usage or other, stop to look it up. It takes less time to click through your online dictionary than to type a complaint to me.
(And yes, I meant whinge. I looked it up.)
*I tolerated the slight redundancy as a kind of gloss to help other readers; I tolerated the jargon because it suited the book.