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Victoria Neufeldt

What’s an Editor to Do?

Hand writing question mark

Hand writing question markThe vagaries of language can cause even the most experienced editors headaches. Editors as a group are more attuned to the whims and ways of language than the average speaker, but many strange and challenging usages regularly fly under the radar and pass into public text, despite our best efforts.

When should an editor accept what seems to be careless or ignorant usage? I have no definitive answers; usually, editors follow their sense of the acceptability of a given usage in the linguistic environment they are working in.

We have to remember that a living language is never static. At the same time, a language must meet the needs of its speech community to, at the very least, communicate, so we must naturally fight many kinds of errors (sorry: changes) — it’s our job.

Often troublesome are subtle grammatical shifts that happen without most speakers being aware of them. For example, conjugation patterns of verbs may change so that a “weak” verb, influenced by old “strong” verbs of similar form, acquires a strong past tense. An example is dive; today, dove is more common for the past tense than the original dived. Although I use the past tense dove probably as often as dived, I can’t imagine how I would carry this strong conjugation into the past participle. (“She had never dove from the high board before”? One almost wants to say doven or diven, but that sounds even odder than had dove.)

Changes in conjugation aren’t all in the same direction, either. Strong verbs can become weak. Weave has retained its strong conjugation in its literal meaning: “She wove/had woven the mohair shawl herself.” But the figurative use is another thing. I would probably say and write “He weaved his way through the crowd” because it seems more natural than “He wove his way….” I have also found myself using mowed as the past participle of mow in speech: “My lawn was mowed yesterday.” But I would not write it. And although I have seen showed as a past participle in edited text, I do not use it myself, even in speech, and would correct it in editing.

Sometimes it’s a matter of individual words. Should I accept extraneous both, as in “Now here’s what connects both cases” (Maclean’s, May 3, 2010, p. 23, by Paul Wells)? Or, worse, as in “both Cheryl and Kevin had an equal hand in picking the accessories” (Canadian House and Home, December 2007, p. 70, by Lisa Murphy)? Redundancy can of course be effective in certain contexts, but such wanton use of both, which has become very common, seems to reflect careless thought and writing.

What about forecasted? This is no longer rare, but makes me grit my teeth! From The StarPhoenix, Aug. 9, 2013, p. A3, by Joe Couture, I find the following: “Krawetz said better prices for oil and natural gas have helped offset the forecasted drops in revenue from potash royalties.” But the writer seems ambivalent, because a few paragraphs further on in the same article, I read, “Overall general revenue fund (GRF) expenses are forecast to increase.”

I am still fighting the gradual, seemingly inexorable disappearance of the verb lie, as in “lie down,” as a verb that is distinct from lay. A sentence beginning with “Soldiers who have laid in unmarked graves” makes me weep. (Yes, that was published.)

Also becoming more common is the misunderstanding and misuse of prepositions and two-word verbs, sometimes with unintentionally funny results (italics are mine): “Forgotten in all this, too, is the decision by the previous council that caved into union job-protection demands in 2005” (The StarPhoenix, Dec. 6, 2006, p. A10, editorial).

Negatives can also ensnare the unwary writer: “There’s little reason to doubt that the Conservatives wouldn’t maintain their 13-seat status quo in Saskatchewan” (The StarPhoenix, Sept. 5, 2008, p. A10, columnist Murray Mandryk). I think the writer meant “would maintain.”

My habit of collecting odd, funny, annoying, puzzling and truly weird examples of writing has entertained me for years. I will sign off with this gem of a headline from a Land Rover ad I have kept since 2006: “If eight airbags seem like too many, it’s because seven seemed like too few.”

I would love to hear about the kinds of things other editors cope with in trying to maintain a civil (written) tongue, while avoiding curmudgeonliness.

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2 Comments on “What’s an Editor to Do?”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Glad you mentioned «avoiding curmudgeonliness.» This is probably the most important thing you said in this article.

  • Jean Galt


    I also despair about «lay» and «lie» usage. I’m afraid we’ve lost the battle. I blame that children’s prayer «Now I lay me down to sleep…» learned at an age when the child couldn’t tell the difference.between transitive and intransitive.

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