Copy editing seems to be on the way out in newspapers across the country. The number of simple errors that make it into print is increasing in most papers, and some even offer the option to “report a typo” in their online stories.
Here’s the thing: Copy editing matters, and it’s about much more than typos. I normally find myself rolling my eyes at a few silly mistakes in the big papers (don’t get me started on the online only content posted by radio and TV stations), but today I actually had to give up reading a story in the Globe and Mail because the number of errors was so distracting that the content just wasn’t sinking in.
The worst part is that at least two errors were straight typos that even a spell check program would have caught. Surely the Globe can afford to run spell check, even if they can’t afford to keep copy editors on staff?
I thought it would be interesting to compare some of the mistakes in the printed paper with the story online to see how it’s evolved. Many (not all) of the errors have been fixed, and I have to wonder if they were changed because staff spotted them or because readers did. If it was staff who spotted the mistakes, why were they not given the chance to do so before the paper went to press?
Here are just four errors from the print story, and what had happened to them online as of 2:45 Pacific time on Sunday.
||Yes: Changed to “hospital”
|“65% of Canadians die in hospital every year”
||Factual error: If 65% of Canadians died in hospital every year, we’d be in big trouble. The sentence as worded means that 65% of all the people in Canada die in hospital every year.
||Yes: Changed to “65 per cent of Canadian deaths every year occur in hospitals.” Ah, that’s much better. Much less likely to lead to catastrophic depopulation.
|“SAYS Ru Taggar Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive”
||Miscapitalization; missing comma
||Yes: Changed to “says Ru Taggar, Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive
|“when he signs Danny Boy“
||Typo (wrong word)
||No: “Signs” has not yet been corrected to “sings”
I may be pickier than most, but the Globe actually lost me as a reader on this story because I was so distracted by the number of simple errors. Some of these would have been caught by a simple spell check (“hopsital,” “SAYS”). But only a real, live person can catch an error like the incorrect use of a statistic.
Copy editing is much more than catching typos: It’s an important part of presenting a credible story.
I often have to explain to clients why two “versions” of the same word appear in the text I provide to them. To some, it looks like an error to use “login” and “log in” or “backup” and “back up” in the same document. But it’s not an error. Why the differences? “Login” and “backup” are nouns or adjectives, whereas “log in” and “back up” are verbs (or, if you want to get technical, verb phrases). So:
I use my login to log in.
I back up my computer to my backup drive.
That “log in” and “back up” need to be two separate words when used as verbs becomes immediately clear when you think of them in the past tense.:
I logged in (NOT I logined)
I backed up my hard drive (NOT I backuped)
I logged out (NOT I logouted).
So, if you’re adding a prompt or a button to your website to ask people to log in, it should say “Log In,” not “Login” (and ditto for “Log Out”).
Most of the big sites (PayPal, Google, eBay, Facebook) get this right, but many do not. Have you got it right on your site?
Wordplay can be a great tool for the clever writer. A nifty play on words makes your writing more memorable, and can bring your readers a laugh. But sometimes it’s just not appropriate, as in this headline from Global BC, a local news outlet in Vancouver:
Convicted killer convicted of killing killer wife in Surrey
The gist of the story is that two people who had both served jail terms for murder were married, and the husband has just been convicted of killing the wife. But come on. That headline is too cutesy, too playful to be used in a murder case. It’s disrespectful to the woman who was killed, who, regardless of what she may have done in the past, was a human being, and was apparently murdered by her husband. The headline implies that the whole thing is kind of funny. Global, murder ain’t funny. Badly done.
Further, a headline’s main job is to tell a reader what the story they’re about to read is all about. Headlines should be digestible at a glance. This head-scratcher fails on that count, too.
Let me start by saying that I don’t know why Gmail is showing me ads for walk-in tubs (maybe it can tell how hobbled I still am from the major hike I did on the weekend?), but good heavens, this ad has a lot of errors crammed in to one small space:
Safety Walk in Bathtubs – www.PremierBathrooms.ca – Easy Entry, Low Door, Comfortable Schedule a In-Home Assessment
Questions this raises:
1. Why would I want to take a safety walk among bathtubs?
2. How does a bathtub give me a comfortable schedule?
Here’s the corrected version:
Safety Walk-In Bathtubs – www.PremierBathrooms.ca – Easy Entry, Low Door, Comfortable. Schedule an In-Home Assessment
I’d take out most of the capital letters, too, but some people like them.
This post was brought on by a headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which read:
Scotland from coast-to-coast
I could see this headline in my peripheral vision as I drank my morning coffee, and it started to make me antsy. You see, those hyphens shouldn’t be there.
A coast-to-coast adventure, sure. But not simply coast-to-coast.
This is an issue I deal with all the time, and it’s often difficult to convince non-language-nerds that there’s any rhyme or reason dictating when hyphens are used and when they are not. Often, people flag the sometimes-use of hyphens as “inconsistent.”
But it isn’t. Here’s why: When used as an adjective that precedes a noun, descriptive phrases like “coast-to-coast” are hyphenated. That’s what’s happening in the example “coast-to-coast adventure” I used above. Otherwise, hyphens are a no-no — which is one reason why “Scotland from coast-to-coast” is wrong. (The “from” makes it even *more* wrong, because once hyphenated, coast-to-coast essentially becomes one word, and therefore does not have the necessary “from” and “to” for this phrase to work — it makes about as much linguistic sense as simply saying “Scotland from coast” — but that’s a whole other problem.)
I edit a lot of accounting educational material, in which the ugliest example of this is the lower-of-cost-or-market-value rule, which dictates that companies must disclose the value of their inventory at the lower of cost or market value. When these two uses appear often in one document, it can be difficult to convince non-editors that they hyphens are really there (or not) on purpose. But it’s true!
So feel free to go on a coast-to-coast adventure, but afterward, please write about how wonderful it was to see a country from coast to coast.
Note to Businesspeople: Hiring an in-house “writer/editor” who will also make bank deposits, do data entry, answer the phone, “design” your web site, make the coffee, clean the floors, book your travel, and pick up your dry cleaning will *not* result in very professional written materials or a very happy/long-term employee. Instead of hiring someone and tacking on unrelated tasks, why not contract out your writing/editing so you can only pay for the time you need but get a quality product?
I used to manage a staff of writers and editors. One of my least favourite parts of the job was scanning through the hundreds of resumes I’d receive in response to a job posting. (Really, hundreds. And that was before the economy tanked. Just imagine how many people are competing for new jobs these days.) It didn’t take much for me to eliminate a candidate. A spelling error in a cover letter, a misused semi-colon, or (worst of all, and surprisingly common) the misspelling of my name or the company’s name might get an otherwise decent candidate overlooked. Hiring managers simply don’t have the time to give you a chance if you don’t put in the time to send in a perfect cover letter and resume — especially for writing or editing jobs.
A recent article from the Telegraph offers some tragically funny examples of how poor punctuation and grammar can send your resume straight into the “no” pile. Here are some of the worst blunders:
– My interests include cooking dogs and interesting people.
– I am a pubic relations officer
– I was responsible for dissatisfied customers
– I have excellent editing and poof-reading skills
– I am a prooficient typist
– I was responsible for fraudulent claims
– While working in this role, I had intercourse with a variety of people
You can see more resume errors in the full article, available here.
I’ve posted before about the terrible grammar, spelling, and punctuation I’ve seen on signs. The problem does not seem to be going away.
Exhibit 1: The bizarrely specific
On the door of a fast-food joint, a sign read:
“No live animals allowed”
I’m not sure why they felt the need to specify that only “live” animals are banned. Perhaps dead ones are okay?
Exhibit 2: The wrong conjunction
My father spotted this on the garage door of his condo complex:
“Please ensure the door is closed when you enter”
If the authors of this sign have figured out a way to walk (or drive) through closed doors, the sign makes sense — and they should be marketing their discovery! I suspect, however, that they want residents to make sure they door is closed after they enter.
Exhibit 3: Just plain bad English
My boyfriend caught this one at our local drug store, next to a bottle of hand sanitizer:
“For customers use. It is recommended to sanitize your hands.”
This has three problems. One: a pretty nasty use of passive voice (“it is recommended”). Two: even if passive voice was appropriate here, it would still be wrong. The correct passive construction would be “it is recommended that you sanitize your hands” (rather than “to”). Three: “For customers use.” That should be “For customers’ use.” But why use three words when one will do? This sign should be rewritten as:
“Customers: Please sanitize your hands” or “Customers: Management recommends that you sanitize your hands”
Have you seen a particularly awful sign? Post your thoughts about it in the comments.
I caught this headline on Reuter’s today:
Retailers’ holiday sales plummet 4 percent
Now, I’m sure that a 4 percent drop in sales is painful for retailers in these tough economic times. But sales can’t “plummet” 4 percent. Dip, drop, fall, slump, sure. But to plummet is “to drop sharply and abruptly” (Merriam-Webster), and 4 percent is just not that sharp a drop.
I’ve said it before: I understand that the Internet is not a medium known for its focus on grammatical correctness. Still, you’d think a site claiming to offer job opportunities for freelance writers might try a little harder than most. That’s why this is a little distressing:
I can almost forgive the wonky capitalization and inconsistent use of end punctuation. But a question with no question mark and a contraction with no apostrophe are really beyond reproach — never mind the missing hyphen.
This ad could have benefited from a once-over by a “natural born” editor. If you’re spending money on advertising, it only makes sense to invest in a quick proof-read to make sure you’re not embarrassed — or even driving potential customers away.