What Is an Error, Anyway?

One of the reasons to invest in professional copyediting for your book is to publish a work that is as free of errors as possible. But what is an error, anyway? Who makes the rules, and what is the logic behind them?


Image copyright the More Good Foundation.

Image copyright the More Good Foundation.

There Are No Golden Plates

Here’s a dirty little secret of copyediting: the rules are a lot murkier than you might think. When you hang out your shingle as a copyeditor, you aren’t given a set of golden plates listing all of the indelible rules of the English language. (Cue Book of Mormon soundtrack, which I will not link to for reasons which will become obvious if you search for it.)

Why not? Well, there isn’t such a thing. For one, the English language is an unruly, logically inconsistent beast. For another, the language is constantly changing, throwing out new growths and developing strange side branches.


When Dictionaries Disagree

As an example, let’s look at dictionaries. Spelling should be straightforward, right? Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Take the word “backup,” which I look up frequently because many authors spell it “back up” or “back-up,” and I can’t seem to get the correct version to stick in my head. Check the word in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the standard reference for most copyeditors working in American English), and you see one spelling for the term used as a noun (“backup”) and another spelling for the term used as a verb (“back up”).  There are two different spellings, but the decision about which to use is straightforward:

I decided to back up my computer’s hard drive yesterday. (verb form)

It was a good thing I did because today I had to use the backup to restore a file I accidentally deleted. (noun form)

Here’s a slightly more complicated case. Several weeks ago, I looked up the term “V neck” and was surprised to see it spelled without the hyphen. But Merriam-Webster had spoken, and I entered the term on the style sheet and went on my way. Fast forward a few weeks, and I encountered the word again in a different manuscript. Imagine my surprise (and consternation!) when I checked again, only to find that this time it was listed as “V-neck.” How had I gotten this wrong? 

After some sleuthing, I realized what was going on. The first time I looked up the word, I used Merriam-Webster Unabridged and the second time I used Merriam-Webster Collegiate. When you have an online subscription to the Unabridged, a search that doesn’t turn up anything in the Collegiate will give you results from the Unabridged – and then that version is the one you are searching in unless you change back to the Collegiate

Is it distressing that two versions of the same dictionary don’t agree? Well, maybe, until you understand that the Collegiate is generally the most recently updated of the two versions. (I do wish Merriam-Webster would provide more clarity about this.) When the two versions disagree, follow the Collegiate. (Or look for clarification in another source, such as Garner’s Modern English Usage.) The meanings and spellings of words are changing all the time: sometime at a glacial pace and sometime much faster. It’s a Herculean task for lexicographers to stay on top of these changes.


When the Style Guide Is not Designed for Fiction

Now let’s take a look at the other authority copyeditors rely on extensively: the Chicago Manual of Style. This exhaustive style guide covers topics as abstruse as the “advent of subtrahends,” but, because it is designed primarily to guide writers and editors of academic nonfiction, it is an imperfect and incomplete style guide for fiction.*

The Chicago editors often admit as much in their witty and illuminating Q&A feature. In response to a question about whether an editor is justified in following an author’s style in leaving out commas when the word “then” joins a compound predicate, the Chicago editors proclaim: “There are various kinds of writing where cleaving to the CMOS rules would suck out all the life and character. There’s no shame in avoiding that.”

An issue I ran up against this week while editing was whether to follow Chicago’s guideline to spell out numbers when they are used in dialogue. (Chicago already recommends spelling out all whole numbers from one to one hundred in any kind of text.) The thinking is that it looks more natural on the page to have a character speak in words rather than in numerals. Here is their example:

Jarred’s answer was a mix of rage and humiliation: “For the last time, I do not have seven hundred thirty-seven dollars and eleven cents! I don’t even have a quarter for the parking meter, for that matter.”

The case I was puzzling over was whether to follow this rule for the term “World War II,” which looks odd when styled as “World War Two.” Chicago, as in many of its rules, notes that this one “requires editorial discretion.” In other words, editors and writers should use their best judgment. Here, because I thought the appearance of “World War Two” would be distracting to readers, I chose to leave it styled “World War II.”


Editors Are Human Experts, Not Robots

Here’s another secret: professional word nerds disagree all the time. Witness the dustup between Mary Norris, longtime member of the famously thorough New Yorker copyediting staff and author of the delightful memoir Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, and Ben Yagoda, English professor and author of How to Not Write Bad, over what Yagoda termed The New Yorker’s “nutty” use of commas. Editors can’t even agree on whether they are “copyeditors” or “copy editors,” let alone agree on much knottier issues like comma conventions.

It is also worth pointing out that editors are ordinary mortals who have become experts because they have taken the time and made the effort to learn. Bill Bryson, in the introduction to the enjoyable Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, says, “This book might more accurately, if less convincingly, have been called A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently.”

Editors are also humans who make mistakes, just like everyone else, and live in fear of the grammar trolls lurking in the dark recesses of the internet, who love nothing better than to pounce on a fat juicy error made by a professional. I write a new blog post every week, often at high speed and at odd times that are crammed into my day alongside my work for clients. I try my best to make sure they are error-free, but they are not edited by another eye, and I am sure that mistakes slip through. It requires an effort of will to hit publish in the face of that knowledge. And I am not alone. Read editor Molly McCowan’s excellent blog post on the topic.

What Is an Author (or an Editor) to Do?

So, I hear you crying in despair, if the rules aren’t rules at all but mushy guidelines, and even editors can’t agree or get things right, what is an author to do? The answer is to educate yourself and then follow your judgment. As an editor, I find that sticking to the following three practices keeps me on the right path.
Read, read, read and then read some more, with extra time given to bestsellers and traditionally published books in your genre. Invest in an up-to-date writing guide (I recommend Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference) that explains the mechanics of English grammar and read it. Listen to the Grammar Girl podcast or follow the videos put out by the delightfully acerbic John E. McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun. We are living in a golden age of well-crafted grammar advice that is packaged to go down easily.

As you’ve learned, there are often multiple correct choices. How do you decide what to do in that situation? Or when the rules are murky? Base your choice on whatever will be clearest to the reader. Ideally, the creaky mechanics of your grammar and usage should be completely invisible to the reader, allowing them to focus on the more important aspects of your book.

Often, your specific choice is less important than making sure you consistently apply that choice. (This is where your style sheet comes in handy.) A reader will understand the meaning of both “V neck” and “V-neck.” However, many readers will notice if it is “V neck” in one sentence and “V-neck” in the next. You want the reader to pay attention to the character wearing the V-neck, not the presence or absence of a hyphen.


* And for those you with a burning desire to know what a subtrahend might be, here is Chicago's pronouncement on the subject: 

The use of subtrahends (back counters) was introduced during the Renaissance. Note that IIII, not IV, still appears on some clock faces. The Romans would have expressed the year 1999, for example, as MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII. A more modern form, approved by the US government and accepted (if reluctantly) by classical scholars, is MCMXCIX (not MIM, considered a barbarism).