Friday, December 7, 2007

A crash course in copyediting

This is my 200th post. I got from 0 to 100 in seven and a half months. I got from 100 to 200 in three and a half months. This blog seems to have picked up some momentum.

Anyway, as per Tessie's request in the comments of her post yesterday, I've decided to do a post that might be marginally useful. It's about basic editing and proofreading. I don't know exactly what she wanted us "editors" to post about (proofreading marks?), but I figured I'd discuss some editorial stuff that people ask me a lot.

So, first off, let me say that the most important thing when writing or editing a document is consistency. Many stylistic choices are just that--choices. Different style guides conflict on some basic things, or they say that two different ways of doing something are technically considered correct. So don't worry too much about whether the Chicago Manual of Style agrees with your stylistic choice (just make sure that we're talking about something that's a choice and not something that's a rule). But if you say 1990's with an apostrophe (à la the New York Times) the first time you reference a decade , you can't turn around and say 1990s without the apostrophe (à la the Chicago Manual) the next time. You have to pick a way and stick with it.

Okay, now let's discuss where to place punctuation when dealing with quotes. The basic way to remember how this works is to think about what messes with the way a quote would be read. If the punctuation does not change the meaning or tone of the quote, such as a period or a comma, then it goes inside the quotation marks. If it would change the meaning or the tone, such as a question mark, an exclamation point, or a semicolon, it goes outside the quotation marks. The exception to this is poetry, where every punctuation mark is considered to affect the meaning of the quote and therefore all punctuation goes outside of the quotation marks. Of course, any punctuation that is actually part of the quote stays inside the quotation marks.

Oh! And while we're on the subject of correct punctuation placement, let's briefly discuss parentheses. If the sentence preceding the item in parentheses is its own sentence, and the item in the parentheses is its own sentence, then the punctuation goes inside the parentheses. If not (the more common scenario), the punctuation goes outside the parentheses. I won't provide an example of the latter situation, because I inadvertently included one in the explanation. Here's an example of the former situation. (See, this part is its own independent sentence.) Got it?

Next: hyphens! This is a mistake that a lot of people make. Verbs that are modified by prepositions normally do not take hyphens. For example, if I were to be attending Weight Watchers meetings, I'd weigh in weekly. However, if we're discussing the noun or adjective form, the two words do take a hyphen. So at the WW meeting, I'd have my weekly weigh-in.

Another example of mis-hyphenation is the whole age thing. Tessie's daughter is one year old. She is a one-year-old. Tessie has a one-year-old daughter. In the first case, one year old is a state of being and does not take hyphens. In the second case, it's a noun, so it does. In the third case, it's an adjective modifying a noun, so it does.

This is the last thing I'll say about hyphens. If you're doing a series of different words that would all go before the hyphen, you give each one its own hyphen, and then follow the last one with the end of the term. For example, I have both short- and long-term plans.

Okay, final topic before I lose the three readers who managed to make it this far: proofreading marks. This is what was originally being discussed in Tessie's comment section, which is why I feel compelled to address it. First of all, proofreading marks are nearly useless to any editor who works in a company that is not writing-focused, because whoever sees your proofreading marks will have absolutely no idea what they mean. In a publishing house, they fly. In a public health non-profit, not so much.

However, it's still good to know the basics. The Chicago Manual of Style has a great figure explaining them all, but for your online convenience, check out Merriam-Webster's chart. Those marks are universal, so if you get an edited document back and you don't know what something means, maybe check there first. Just a PSA for overworked editors everywhere.

Okay, I think I've said my piece, at least for now. For my fellow editors (or fussy editor-types), what have I missed? What needs to be added? Tessie, is this what you were looking for?


  1. Whoa, that's a lot to take in on a Friday morning! Brings me back to college, freshman year grammar class. So fun. :)

    Have a good weekend!

  2. YES! I read it THREE TIMES! And now I have the major nervous tummy, because I do all KINDS of those things wrong.

    I'm going to need a couple of examples of the punctuation and quotes thing, because I know FOR DAMN SURE I do that wrong.

    I also need help on the dash versus elipse (sp?) thing.

    Oh, I will think of more.

    Maybe you could do more of these? I mean, or you could just send me a series of tutorial emails. Heh.

  3. Also, what are your thoughts on that Eats, Shoots, and Leaves book? Do I need to read this? (I mean OBVIOUSLY I DO, but SHOULD I?)

  4. Ooh, um, the English nerd in me absolutely loved this post. :)

    Have a super weekend and thanks again for all of your kindness.

  5. yay! i love correct grammar and punctuation! i get into arguments with people who ask me to proof their letter/email/whatever and i'll tell them, for example, that the comma needs to go inside the quotation marks, and they FIGHT me. I AM RIGHT DANG IT. DO AS I SAY.

  6. Awesome post!

    My biggest pet peeve is the period and comma outside the quotation marks - UGH!

  7. Oooh! Fancy grammar lesson. :)
    Even though i am a technical writer, i'm never positive that my grammar is up to snuff. I was never taught formally in school (shitty NY english curriculum) so i usually try to learn as much as possible on the fly. My grammar isn't too bad to begin with, but it's always great to get some tips.
    The hyphen rules were very, very helpful. Thanks!!

  8. Shauna-Oh, man I AM SO SORRY. I don't know how you grammery/punctuation types can even stand to read my blog. Also, this is a little hi-jacky, and I don't know if you are a check-back type, but I would be interested on your thoughts on the Eats, Shoots, and Leaves book too.

  9. Oww, my head! But, you're very good at explaining these things.

  10. Tessie--About the Eats, Shoots & Leaves thing... somebody gave me that book and I have it on my shelf, but to be honest, I haven't read it. I've heard that it's pretty funny but that it's more directed toward the grammar Nazi types, because she makes fun of people who make punctuation errors in a pretty mean way. So it might well give you the nervous tummy. And also, I love this stuff and I'm still not sure I want to sit down and read a whole book about it. If you want an editorial manual, the Chicago Manual of Style (the 15th edition is the current one) is pretty much the editor's Bible. It's totally comprehensive and it has a really thorough index so you can look up pretty much anything. I think it's much better to look up editorial questions on a need-to-know basis instead of trying to read a whole book about that stuff and then actually remember what the author said.

  11. So it's okay to say:

    I couldn't believe it when she whispered, "I love you"!

    because the exclamation mark goes with the narrator's sentence rather than the quotation? Is that what you're saying? Because that's sort of how I write instinctively but I didn't know there was a rule behind it. I always feel guilty whenever I put punctuation outside of the closing quotation mark.

    Also, what are the rules on hypens? ;)

  12. Oh, and I would love more grammar lessons if you're thinking about it. A whole grammar book is kind of a pain, but a quick grammar refresher now and then is nice.

  13. Oh dear God. I need to go back to school.

    Seriously, if you do more of these I will love you forever!

  14. Um, LOVE THIS! I totally appreciate that you spent so much time on hyphens.

    I also loved Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, since I am a punctuation fiend. The apostrophe simply does not deserve the abuse it suffers.

  15. I work in publishing, have edited quite a lot, proof still. I nodded emphatically along with you.

  16. Tessie, don't worry. I don't care if people make those mistakes on their blogs unless they're writing a grammar blog or complaining about other people's poor grammar. Then it irks me.

    As far as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves goes, I honestly haven't read it. I'm going to the bookstore tonight; I might have to pick it up.

  17. I love this post. I am a frequent grammar offender, but I try. I will bookmark this for reference.


  18. My first reaction was, "Whoa!", but then I wasn't sure about the exclamation point and the comma, so I decided to split the difference and put the quotation marks in between. I think I did it right... right? Actually, I'm sort of terrified to even make a comment to this post, since I am now EXTREMELY self-conscious about my punctuation.

  19. Jess - THIS IS AWESOME! I kind of have a crush on you. I hope that isn't weird.

    The chart? Awesome! I am putting one in my colleagues' mailboxes so they know what my marks mean on their copy.

    I SUCK at using hyphens correctly. Also, I always thought it was "one year-old." Suck.

    In England, I was always getting my papers marked for punctuating inside the quotes. Finally, one of my professors conceded he'd never with this particular war with this particular American.

  20. Oh, and Tessie - Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is fantastic!

  21. This was great! If for no other reason than to reassure me that I'm doing a few things correctly. But the punctuation inside the quotations thing bugs me. I actually know the rule, but I think the British way makes more sense and tend to use it. Guess I'm in the minority.

  22. Loved it! Thank you for giving your knowledge to those who... let's just say... might need it. I have a HOW book I keep at work and it is the Grammar/Profreading/Word-Usage Bible! Plus, a big part of my job at work is looking over publications, so, I'm supposed to know my stuff. I am impressed, though, by your obviously-serious-editor status. :)

  23. I love this!! I am really good for putting in proof reading marks on letters that come across my desk at work. My employees typically come back with a big Waaaah??

    This brings out the grammar dork in me though--there was nothing I loved more than conjugating verbs.

  24. Wow, looks like I'm in my journalism class again...thanks for sharing this one...and I will try to remember not to forget to remember to proofread my post...LOL

  25. Too much information. Cannot process. Ha! I'm the worst at anything gramattical. Hell, I think I even spelled that word wrong!