I brought my dog Mathilda to the vet yesterday for her rabies shot, and as I sat there waiting, I remembered how as a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I wanted to be a firefighter and paramedic because I loved the show Emergency! But in high school I discovered English and grammar and realized what I really wanted to be most of all when I grew up was a copy editor. I wanted to be meticulous with language, to be able to quote the MLA, Chicago AND AP style guides, to red-pen papers all the day long.
Alas, I became a writer instead. I didn’t have the grit for copy editing. That’s why I admire folks like Grammar Girl and Gail Gedan Spencer, who authors The Skinny blog. Copy editors know stuff writers don’t. It’s like a secret society with complicated rules and secret handshakes. I am too impatient to be a copy editor and I lack the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing.
There’s a huge difference between writing and copy editing, although most people assume that because I’m a writer, I know a lot about spelling and grammar. You regular readers know that’s not the truth. While I’m armed with stylebooks, I can’t quote them, and I get lazy and fall into writing the way I speak, using my vernacular rather than my education as my guide. And while I always told my kids to “Look it up!” whenever they’d ask me how to spell a word, I don’t always take my own advice and rely, instead, on the spell checker.
For inept spellers like me, the spell checker really is a godsend, even though it can’t detect how I mean to use “their,” “they’re” and “there” or “confident” and “confidant.” It also doesn’t detect grammar gaffes (NOTE: I’d originally spelled this as "gaff" and Copy Editor/Teacher Doug from SC kindly pointed out that the real spelling is "gaffe". Thanks, Doug, and I appreciate you being so nice about it. :)). Supposedly that’s what spell checker’s bastard twin “grammar checker” is supposed to do, but for me, using grammar checker is torture. It disagrees with my writing style most of the time and argues with me about my use of gender-exclusive nouns and swear words. That’s why I only use spell checker. It doesn’t sass me.
Spell checker also has a great sense of humor. My mom’s name is Ardith, which isn’t in the dictionary, so it suggested I change her name to “Radish.” Mom hates her name, but I think she’d rather be Ardith Haraldson than Radish Haraldson.
Once when I worked at The Clarion News, a writer used the word “velcro” a couple of times in a story. It seemed right to us, but about a week after the story ran we got a letter from a legal assistant at Velcro® Group Corporation telling us we misused the VELCRO® trademark and asked us to, in the future, please refer to the “hook and loop fastener” as the hook and loop fasteners.
Busted by the VELCRO® police.
Our readers liked to play grammar and spelling police, too. Like the time I posted the obituaries on our website and referred to them as “Recent births in Clarion County.” Or the time I wrote about a man whose son had a cleft palate, only I used the word “palette.” I didn’t notice the mistake until a reader emailed me: “In your story, his son, had a cleft palette. Really? I would have thought ‘cleft palate’ is more likely. But then maybe those people don’t like artists either.”
One of my favorite Clarion News mistakes (not mine, thank God) was in a quote by an area school superintendent: “We think we need one more alternative for problem students,” he said. “This is one more step before the more dramatic step of explosion.”
He, of course, didn’t say “explosion” and it should have read “expulsion,” but that’s what happens in the heat of a deadline and no copy editors.
Sometimes grammar mistakes are inbred. We learn them in the course of our language development. I was 25 before I learned the distinction between “loan” and “borrow.” I thought it was OK to say, “Can you borrow me a dollar?” instead of “Can you loan me a dollar?” I still have to think before I use either word, and I still hear people from Minnesota mix them up.
One grammar mistake I don’t make because I didn’t grow up in western Pennsylvania is dropping “to be” when I’m referring to action. My plants don’t “need watered” and my car will never “need washed.” I also won’t “red up” my house or ask if “yinz need coffee.” There was that time, though, I asked my friend Rodney if I could “ride him up” to the courthouse. Even colloquialisms have their charm.
Well, I just finished running this puppy through the spell checker. It all checks out. But I just know there’s a mistake in here somewhere. Be kind in your criticism. I am, after all, just a copy editor wannabe.