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Gael Spivak

Grammar Matters

Internet discussion forum
Internet discussion forum
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Antecedents and gerunds. En dashes and ellipses.

Gripping topics for editors, right?

Well, it turns out they’re not gripping for all of us.

As one of the admins for the Editors’ Association of Earth groups on Facebook, I read almost every post and comment (one group alone had 310 posts and 5,611 comments in a typical 28-day period). I read them to see what people are talking about and to make sure no one is flagrantly breaking the group rules. It turns out reading every post is also an easy way to get a dose of professional development every day.

In every editing forum I’ve been a part of, I’ve always ignored certain topics that have no bearing on me. Things like tax questions or whether to buy a Mac or a PC. And I’ve always skimmed other topics that don’t relate to my work but that are important for me to be aware of. Things like rates or doing sample edits.

But now I find that I’m skimming over a certain topic that used to be of great interest to me. Things like grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Important topics

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are important aspects of editing. I’m not disputing that.

They’re just not as interesting to me anymore.

  • I already know many of the things people ask about.
  • I know that if I ever need the information they’re asking about, I can search the group later or I can look it up in a respected resource.
  • I’m focusing on other aspects of editing now.

One of the great things about our profession is we all have different combinations of skills that draw us to certain aspects of editing and to various types of editing.

We don’t talk about this

But we don’t talk about this disinterest in grammar very much. I have a strong notion that I’m supposed to feel ashamed of my lack of interest in grammar. In fact, I‘ve pretty much kept this to myself because I don’t want to incur judgment from other editors.

One of our colleagues, Amy Schneider, recently mentioned this in a Facebook post. She said:

“I am that rare breed of editor: the kind who does NOT enjoy reading about or studying grammar. Sure, I understand the basics (OK, plus maybe a little more than non-editors), and I know where to look stuff up if I need a technical explanation. But I don’t know how to diagram sentences (or even find it interesting), I often have to look up what part of speech a word is serving as, and I just don’t give a rip about the past pluperfect modal demonstrative participle.”

I was surprised to see how many other editors chimed in to agree with her. There were a lot. I was one of them because I finally had a safe place to admit to it.

Let’s change this attitude

I’d like to see a change in how we respond to the various skills that we bring to our editing. I want to celebrate our differences and talk about how they can make us stronger when we work together.

For example, I know I’m a lousy proofreader and I’m not as interested in copy editing as I once was. So at my work, I do substantive edits and I let someone who is much better at copy editing and proofreading do those steps. We’re a strong team, together. Much more so than we would each be on our own.

What aspects of editing are you not interested in? Or what areas do you love that others don’t seem to care about all that much?

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Previous post from Gael Spivak: Gael Spivak: An Editor’s Top 3

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8 Comments on “Grammar Matters”

  • I’m just wondering what you mean by «grammar». (I think) you enjoy reading my blog Wordlady, but for instance, I have discussed what the past tense of «whet» (and other verbs) is, which is essentially a grammar question. I also often discuss spelling, especially the weirdness of English spelling and spelling variants between N America and Britain (e.g. licorice/liquorice). Are these not of interest to you? Maybe they aren’t.

  • Hi Gael,

    I completely agree with your points. I went through a stage where I enjoyed shocking people with my opinions on apostrophes (sure, a usage might not be standard grammar, but we know what is meant, don’t we) and the Oxford comma (use it where it clarifies; make an exception where it would muddy things). But now, I don’t even enjoy stirring this pot. Clarity is now what gets me responding to posts. And, of course, anything about online meetings.

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    Katherine, I am not as interested in grammar and spelling as I am in other aspects of editing, such as the many items plain language editing goes into. However, I do enjoy your posts because they also go into history. Same thing with The History of English podcast I am listening to.

    My point in this blog post is that there are two things that no longer interest me: the minutia of some of the grammar and spelling posts that are common in online editing groups, and the status that is assigned to those skills (instead of people recognizing that good editors come in a variety of skill combinations). I think assigning status to certain skills and interests fractures editing communities. And it makes people afraid to talk about what they like and don’t like, as evidenced by all the comments on Amy’s confession. No editor should feel embarrassed, afraid or ashamed by what things they are good at (and not as good at).

  • Thanks, Gael! As you already discovered, you are not alone. I still find etymology mildly interesting, but most other mechanical aspects of language fail to excite me. What makes me happy is taking some convoluted regulatory paragraph and reducing it to one or two crystal clear, unambiguous sentences. The lawyers then end up adding maybe another sentence of «clarifying» content to that, but the final result is still half the length and 100% clearer than the original. *That* makes my day.

  • Becky

    says:

    Thanks for encouraging the discussion Gayle. New to the editing profession (I started taking courses last January), I knew right away that my heart belonged to proofreading! I enjoyed the courses that were a refresh on grammar, and am looking forward to the courses on style and structural editing, but for now, I am loud & proud to tell others I want to (and enjoy) proofreading. I think it is important to play to your strengths and I love being one of the final sets of eyes on a project/document.

    • Carol Shetler

      says:

      Hi, Becky, I’m with you in our love of «being one of the final sets of eyes» on a writing project. Are you finding any proofreading assignments on the Editors Canada job postings?
      I volunteer as a final proofreader on Advance Reader Copies for a Canadian mystery writer because I love his books and characters. I have just completed a sixth book for him. I always find items his publishing house editors miss. Have a look (in a few days – I am updating ths week) at my LinkedIn profile to see the titles I have proofed.
      One of my authors calls proofreading «the art of spotting the invisible.» You have this gift, so keep using and developing it.

  • Yup. I echo Amy’s sentiments exactly. I do receive a grammar newsletter, but as soon as I see «linguist language,» I’m turned off by the big words (that I’m guessing no one but academic linguists use). I do focus on plain language and a lot of diversity language in my editing, so those changes in language fascinate me more than grammar.

  • Carol Shetler

    says:

    Hi, i’m a «grammarian» as well as a copy editor and proofreader – the type of editor who would be an ideal partner for you on your next editing project. I love grammar, spelling, word origins, and punctuation. To broaden my structural editing skills I recently did four modules of an online program in Creative Writing via Coursera at Wesleyan University. I also value clarity and help my author clients achieve it in their writing whenever possible. I have rejoined Editors Canada after a long absence, so I’m looking forward to learning about the issues that editors are interested in now. Thanks for your
    contribution to The Editors’ Weekly, and I hope to write my own in the future.

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