Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why books can be read in comfort

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, proofreading, copy editing, memoirs

As much as I occasionally lampoon an egregious typographical error, or a book that seems filled with them, I truly appreciate the careful copy editing that goes into the production of nearly everything we see in print, and books in particular. Copy editing is more than proofreading, more than the ferreting-out of errors by the author, the typesetter, or another editor. It embodies the skills needed to ensure that errors that detract are omitted or corrected, but that usages the author intended, for any reasons whatever, are faithfully retained, even if some might thin them erroneous.

By this I mean much more than the unenviable job of Mark Twain's copy editor, making sure the dialect-ridden text of Huckleberry Finn was as Twain intended it. Not only novels employ "variations" on English usage for effect. Essayists, for example, whose texts require clarity, might employ word order or punctuation in ways that do not exactly fit a journal's preferred rules of style. I've had a couple of battles with copy editors, particularly those in England: one peeve I have is that they want to move every adverb to a standard location in a verb phrase. I might write, "…they were desperately seeking to find…" and have the proof come back, "…they were seeking desperately to find…". Such usage is a hangover from Norman French. It has largely been abandoned in the American language, but is clung to by many copy editors of journals published in England. Then there is the serial comma. Do you prefer to write, "In grammar school I learned reading, writing, and arithmetic", or "…I learned reading, writing and arithmetic"? The former example uses the serial comma, and the latter example leaves it out. There are strong proponents of both usages, just as there are several opinions about the way I placed the question mark in the prior sentence.

Mary Norris has been a copy editor—and worn a few other hats—at The New Yorker since 1978. Her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen drags the somewhat secretive vocation of the copy editor into the daylight for us all to enjoy. She broke into the field when she pointed out an error in something James Thurber had written on his office wall. He was delighted.

Writing and punctuation styles change over time. I learned to use many commas in my sentences, having been taught to "Write for someone reading aloud; show where to breathe." A copy editor set me straight about more modern usage in about 1974, and I've gradually learned to use about one-third as many commas as before. Peruse a few pages of an issue of The New Yorker from about 15 years ago, and you'll see more commas than you might in your daily newspaper. Ms Norris writes of the colorful persons found among the warrens of The New Yorker's offices, none more distinctive than Lu Burke, whose "comma shaker" was famous. It reminded her colleagues to make stylishness subservient to clarity, and not to dogmatically expunge every comma for some doctrinal reason. (Image found at a CMOS review).

Punctuation marks and the foibles of their usage seem to fill about half the book. Chapters treat of hyphens, the other three kinds of dashes (en, em, and long: – — ―), apostrophes, and semicolons as compared to colons and other designators of an author's thought changing direction or focus. In the chapter about dashes, she tells us of Emily Dickinson, who used dashes for nearly everything. A careful student of her handwritten papers could probably find six or seven lengths of dash, and it is quite likely that Dickinson had something quite definite in mind when producing any of them. And there is the question of using spaces around a dash, or not, or whether it is proper to follow a dash with a comma or other bit of punctuation (nearly never in Norris's view). –I just went back and deleted a comma after the word "never"; I still have certain instincts from the 1960's.

And what of the other half of the book? The title illustrates a pet peeve of hers, that people who might usually say, "between you and me," which is proper, tend to say, "between you and I," which is not, if they think they are speaking with someone who has a better education. Somehow, the proper usage takes on a common tinge in their mind, and is therefore suspect, as though "common usage" might be frowned upon by a person of excessive education. Just in case you were wondering, it isn't. Some common usages are certainly incorrect, but most are quite correct. And language changes over time. Today's common usages that are thought to be errors will become standard over a generation or two.

If you can find an edition of Shakespeare that retains his original orthography, you'll find it hard to read. Go back another 400-500 years, and "Old English" is really quite incomprehensible:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod.
The letter þ is the Thorn, and is pronounced as an unvoiced "th". Its companion, the Eth (ð), is the source of the "y" used in faux-colonial signs such as "Ye old Curiosity Shoppe", where "Ye" is to be pronounced "the", with the "th" voiced. Have you figured out the two lines above? Here they are circa 1729:
Our Father, which art in heaven;
Hallowed be Thy name.
That ought to be more familiar. The punctuation of the Old English version is according to the 1729 editing of the King James text of 1611. If the Anglo-Saxons of the 12th Century punctuated the prayer at all, it is likely they used a dash or a comma. If you are familiar with the King James Bible in print today, it is the fourth edition, revised in 1729, not the 1611 version, which is almost as unreadable as Anglo-Saxon to most modern readers. Even the orthography of 1729 is looked upon by today's younger set as a nearly foreign language.

Proofreading and copy editing are a conservative enterprise. Readers are most comfortable with the kind of writing they grew up with, if not in content, at least in form. So most authors write in a style not far removed from that of their formative years, and are quite OK with a copy editor who ensures that the same style is adhered to. But some authors experiment with new forms and have new ideas and want them expressed just so. Emily Dickinson without her dashes would seem enervated; they give a breathless rush to her verse. Ms Norris uses an example handwritten by Jackie Kennedy, complete with dashes among its run-on sentences. You simply get a more intimate feel from it as compared to something shoehorned into the straitjacket of "correct usage".

So words, though their treatment takes up but half the book, are the meat, the nourishment of the mind, and the punctuation marks the bones and joints. There is even a chapter on "curse words", particularly the "f-bomb", and on a competition among certain writers at The New Yorker to see how many they could fit on a page (and say something halfway useful in the process). I was reminded of a Mythbusters episode from a few years back, in which they tested the emotional impact on the speaker of cursing loudly to alleviate pain, compared to shouting more innocuous strings of words such as "kittens, raspberries, elephants!" and so forth. Cussing worked better. There really is some utility to it!

Without saying it directly, Ms Norris confesses to a certain level of OCD. She devotes half a chapter to her love of soft #1 pencils, and her inability to achieve comfort with anything harder, such as the ubiquitous #2. She often can't enjoy something when her eye/mind keep tripping over errors. Other times she'll find it entertaining to see a large printed sign that reads "Hunters's Rest", and wonder whether the sign maker was working with a family named "Hunters", or simply covering all the bases of possessive usage.

As you might expect, the writing style is excellent, easing a reader's enjoyment of her insight, wit, and humor. It is quite enjoyable to peek behind the scenes to see that, at least at The New Yorker, a substantial series of editors and readers awaits an author's prose, to ensure that what the magazine prints is, firstly, exactly what the author intended, and secondly, as error-free as is humanly possible.The author's website for the book:

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