Friday, March 4, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Pet Peeves

Today is National Grammar Day, the perfect time to launch a multi-part blog series about copy editing!

Copy editing is as much an art as it is a science. Copy editors do more than just correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; they help create and maintain the style of the written piece. In-depth research analysis in a medical journal, official business announcements for shareholders, and conversational how-to information each require a different style of writing, different usage expectations, and different levels of grammatical rigidity.

A good copy editor knows this and can switch smoothly from one style to another.

Of course, there are certain things — call them expectations, or at least hopes — that the copy editor brings to every piece of writing. Some of them are grammatical rules, some are style choices, and some are the copy editor’s personal preferences. They are grounded in conventions established in the literary classics, in current current popular guidelines, and on the editor’s whims.

The process of copy editing, then, isn’t a matter of black and white. There are infinite shades of gray based on the editor’s experience, preferences, and artistic choices. Every copy editor is different. And every copy editor reacts differently to writers’ choices — especially the mistakes. Copy editors expect to find mistakes, from a missing comma to a paragraph that needs a complete rewrite, but some mistakes are more egregious or more annoyingly common than others.

These are the editor’s pet peeves. Every editor has them. I have mine.

Starting here, and once a week for the next 26 weeks, I’m going to highlight my editorial pet peeves — the mistakes and style choices that I see that make me cringe. Some of them are a matter of good grammar, some of correct usage, and some are just the choices I prefer and that I wish everyone else would just agree with.

And I’m going to do it in alphabetical order. Which brings me to my first peeve:


There are two alphabetization schemes: letter-by-letter and word-by-word. Here, briefly, is the difference:
  • With word-by-word alphabetization, alphabetization stops at the end of the first word, and only when two items begin with the same word do you go on to alphabetize the following words. With this scheme, Old Testament comes before Oldman, Gary, and Top models comes before topless trolls.
  • With letter-by-letter alphabetization, spaces are ignored, and phrases are alphabetized as if they were a single word. So if you’re alphabetizing letter-by-letter, Stargate comes before Star Trek, which comes before star-whacker.
Dictionaries are alphabetized letter-by-letter, phone books are alphabetized word-by-word, and I’ve seen both schemes in indexes.

It doesn’t matter to me that most people don’t know that there are two ways to alphabetize. What bothers me, though, is when people somehow fail to grasp the basic idea of how to put things in alphabetical order.

Please, if you’re putting a list in alphabetical order, go through it twice to make sure you didn’t miss anything.