Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kory Stamper's Proof of the Dictionary

Today you get a wonderful post by my favorite lexicographer, Kory Stamper, who since 1998 has spent her days at Merriam-Webster telling people she'll never meet what things really mean. Most recently, she’s gained some notoriety for being one of three editors who write, edit, and appear in the “Ask the Editor” video series. She also travels around the country as a representative for Merriam-Webster, occasionally giving talks and lectures on things that only other word nerds would be interested in.

She's the Tina Fey of lexicography.

You might see her professional work every day you open a dictionary, but for a more personal look at who she is, what she does, and how much she hates particular letters of the alphabet, you need to read her blog, harm•less drudg•ery and/or follower her on Twitter at @KoryStamper.

Zen and the Art of Dictionary Proofreading

It's no surprise to hear that the sexy bits of lexicography get all the coverage. Writing definitions, researching etymologies, arguments with Times columnists on points of grammar: SO HAWT. They all get their due. A lengthy discussion on proofreading does not make for scintillating copy. This is rather unfortunate, particularly for you and especially right now.

Imagine picking up a dictionary, flipping to the entry for "shoplift," and reading, "to steal displyed goods from a store." An error! And a sloppy one at that! What would you do? Throw the dictionary across the room, possibly, or sit down and write a long letter to us telling us that we are complete idiots, more likely. Regardless, the damage has been done: you will distrust anything and everything this book has to say. It is supposed to be an authority! You think you may just stop using dictionaries altogether, as your word processing program has a spell checker and that is infallible!

To prevent this sort of thing from happening — and, really, to keep me from wandering into our President's office and whining about how the mean editorial correspondents don't appreeeeeciate all the hard work we dooooo — we proofread. Every single one of us, every single book we write.

Proofreading dictionaries is almost as delightful as it sounds. It's often one of the final steps in making a dictionary, which means it's done under a crazy deadline and after a long, slow editorial burn. There you are, bleary-eyed and pale (senses 1, 2, and 3), having just devoted two years of your life to rewriting everything from "a" to "zymosan," when a senior editor comes by and hands you a stack of proofreading galleys for the letter A. The stack is a foot high, the font is four points at most, and everything looks vaguely familiar. You squint up at the editor. "Haven't...haven't I already gone over this?" Then the editor sweeps her hand behind her, inviting you to gaze upon 20 other editors, all squinting up at her with the same dejected mole face that you are wearing, all of them saying, "Haven't...haven't I already gone over this?"

Eastern mole or common mole (Scalopus aquaticus)
Haven't I already gone over this\?
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On top of the stack is a note from the Director of Defining reminding everyone of the basics of this book's style. The note is 15 pages long and includes entries like, "Due to an algorithmic error in the printer's datafiles, the boldfaced colons that mark the beginning of a definition have been converted to roman colons. There is no need to mark these as incorrect; they will be corrected programmatically. However, this does not apply to colons found after a sense divider. They should be boldfaced, as you recall." You look at the very first entry and realize that, in four-point type, you can't tell when a colon is boldfaced or not.

The editorial secretary informs you that, no, she has been out of magnifying glasses for weeks now. As you shuffle back to your desk, you bitterly wonder why there's no vision coverage in your benefits package.

There are those who are above this petty bitching: the Master Proofreaders. The Master Proofreader simply accepts the galleys with a nod and gets to work. As they move forward in their batch, time seems to slow. They evince none of the frantic hopelessness the rest of us are wallowing in, but calmly sluice their way through sheaves of galleys, wind through wheat, carrying the chaff away.

They make it look simple, but good proofreading is like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. Veer too far in one direction, and you will drown in the list of things to check for (errant commas, end-of-line breaks, alphabetical order, diacritics in etyma, loose lines, pronunciations, extra spaces, and slightly off-set lines, to name a few). Steer too far in the other direction, and your readers will quickly find your sloppy work and pick you and your book apart at lightning speed (generally through poorly spelled yet hubristic letters that touch on your terrible proofreading, your overwhelming idiocy, and your inability to tie your own shoes without a federal assistance program).
Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis ( Se...
Dictionary proofreader negotiating Scylla and Charybdis.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The safe passage through is known as "the zone," and this is where Master Proofreaders live. When you are in the zone, you are able to see an astounding number of errors and fix them without bogging down the production schedule. In fact, Masters often come out ahead of schedule — and then go through their batches a second time. Getting in the zone requires concentration, inner and outer stillness, and potentially lethal doses of caffeine. Here is an exercise in preparation:

Place your proofreading galleys before you, then rest your elbows on your desk on either side of the galleys. Gently press your forehead into your upturned palms while exhaling. This is known as "Drudge's Hunch." While in Drudge's Hunch, empty your mind of all your grandiose plans, dreams, and career aspirations. Feel them drain into your hands, down your forearms, and eventually onto the floor, where they puddle and seep into the carpet. Imagine that your skull is now a white, empty room, swept clean. Now visualize the hands of your heart (or your liver, or whatever) placing the style guide on the pristine floor of this empty room. The style guide is now your be-all and end-all, and as it inhabits you, so you inhabit it (or use it, or whatever). Carefully shift the weight of your head into your non-writing hand and pick up your grease pencil. You are now ready to begin.

I have only been in the zone once, while helping proofread one of our paperback dictionaries. The deadline was not just looming, it was starting to climb the building and paw around inside for hostages. There were six of us proofreading, and we had just started S.

S, in case you are curious, happens to be the longest letter of the alphabet. It also happens to show up near the end of the alphabet — a cruel joke, since by that point in time, you are lulled into a false feeling of confidence about where you are vis-à-vis the production schedule. S is a heartbreaker, a real bastard of a letter.

I was working my way through one sixth of S and struggling with the style guide ("Due to an algorithmic error in the printer's datafiles, all em-dashes have been converted into en-dashes," &c). The Director of Editorial Operations popped by my desk to ask if I was done yet. A quick glance at my desk was all the bad news she needed.

"I'm trying to go as fast as I can, I promise."

"Well, catch as much as you can and keep moving through it."

Catch as much as you can. In that instant, I grasped the Zen koan that Master Proofreaders live with: that no matter how hard you look, no matter how much time you have, no matter how hunched, friendless, and myopic you will become in pursuit of Absolute Correctness, you will never, ever catch every error in this book. That's why we keep track of all those e-mails complaining about our idiocy and hygiene: we will fix those errors — the errors that even the Master Proofreaders miss — in subsequent printings.

Enlightenment. I finished the letter on time. The typo you found at "shoplift" was likely mine, and yes, we fixed it in the second printing.

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