Some editors and proofreaders complain that their everyday lives outside work are ruined by their professional eye for detail. They can no longer peruse a restaurant menu without noticing a spelling error. Relaxing with a novel is fraught with problems. And as for browsing social media…
I’ve been editing and proofreading professionally for over 26 years. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more tolerant of errors spotted ‘in the wild’. Yes, of course I notice mistakes, and of course these can be a bit of a distraction. But I’ve realised I’m a ‘coin-operated editor’: unless I’m being paid to check something, I’m unlikely to invest time and energy in trying to correct it. I don’t even get annoyed about mistakes any more (unless they make whatever I’m reading misleading or difficult to understand).
When it comes to professionally published texts:
Clarity and plain language
But there are times when a piece of writing is rather confusing – and I certainly notice when that happens. This sign at a local petrol station had me scratching my head a little and made me wish I could have helped with the wording.
And it appears I’m not the only language lover who has an imaginary red pen. Linguist Lynne Murphy photographed this sign at a conference venue recently and couldn’t resist annotating the image (though not the sign itself). Lynne’s version is much clearer than the original!
Misplaced modifiers can be another source of confusion (and sometimes amusement), and they’re something I do notice when I’m off duty. I think my favourite example is from a biography of Roald Dahl.
With some of her new money she also bought a very early black and white television set. Mounted in a grand wood veneer cabinet, her grandchildren clamoured to come over and watch it.
(It surely wasn’t the grandchildren who were mounted in a grand wood veneer cabinet, was it?)
So, of course I spot errors. They’re sometimes funny and sometimes confusing – but I wouldn’t normally dwell on them (other than sometimes to think ‘I wonder how that happened…’).
What else do I notice?
On a more positive note, my editorial eye often catches examples of creative language use, and these often give me great pleasure.
This is the formation of a verb from a noun, adjective or other word. It’s been happening for many years (centuries, even), but it’s always interesting to come across new (or new-to-me) instances. This slogan on the window of an English language school in Malaga, Spain, is a great example.
Questions of style
Style points often jump out at me, too. Sometimes that’s when text has been styled in a particularly elegant (or inelegant) way, or when the author has used a technique I don’t often come across.
For example, in some US styles guides (e.g. the Chicago Manual of Style) an en dash (–) is used to join an open compound and an adjective. In UK style we don’t have such a neat solution! So when I recently came across ‘Third World–style’ and ‘anti–Viet Cong’ in Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, I was delighted. I enjoy seeing such examples of things I know about but rarely see, whether I’m reading for pleasure or in my editing work.
Last but not least, I’m a huge fan of bizarre or misleading headlines on news websites. Headline writing is a real skill, and coming up with just a few words to sum up a story must be very difficult. But sometimes the technique does raise issues.
Tricky hyphenation problem
(Perhaps a Chicago Manual of Style en dash would have helped here?)
Issues with homonyms ('bodies')
Noun stacking – too many nouns?
Bizarre headlines (for bizarre stories)
If you’re an editor or proofreader, what do you notice when you’re off duty?
[With thanks to Laura Ripper for comments and proofreading.]