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Monday, January 25, 2016

Obscurest Scandals of a CMoS Independent Contractor

Here I am with a manuscript I don't have to edit. 
I first got into editing via fiction. I worked with authors on content—characterization, plot, and other lofty ideals—and then did another pass for usage and punctuation. As the years have gone by, I've gained a lot of acuity on the proofreading side. I now catch not only obvious typos, but also transgressions no one else would ever think about in daily life.

When you're a copyeditor, you have to make the text conform not to what you personally think is correct and would say in any circumstance, but to rules laid out by the smarties who wrote or added to the official style guides.

For example, when I started out—and long after—I had no idea when I was supposed to use "which" or "that." We didn't distinguish between them at all in the dialect of English I learned growing up. Reading the rule, it seems intolerably nit-picky. Once I realized I was having so much trouble because I spent twelve months in England trying to write in a manner as British as possible, and I do read some books printed in Great Britain, and it turns out that they don't have the same "which" versus "that" rule as we Americans do, it started to make sense. Now I see that the writing is better when the roles of those two words are clearly defined.

Another norm I had considerable issue with was comparatives and superlatives. I became aware of this rule when in "The Residents of the Inn," I used the phrase "more lush." The editor claimed the construction was wrong and could not stand: it must be "lusher." Well, "lusher" happens to rub me the wrong way. Like, the "Omigod, I would never use that word" wrong way. I checked the rule in the Chicago Manual of Style and was disappointed to find it to be true. Because I couldn't tolerate the correct comparative of "lush," I chose a different word. I also adapted my editing and writing from then on. To this day, when my husband reads over my cover letters (always have someone read your cover letters!), he asks, "Shouldn't it be 'most obscure'?" And I have to reply, "No. Unfortunately, 'obscurest' is the form I'm obliged to use as a faithful Chicago-style copyeditor."

The rule I still cannot believe is a rule is probably one everybody but me has mastered without even thinking about it. "Awhile" is a real word with an appropriate time and place to be used. This blows my mind. Why should "awhile" be allowed when "alot" is not? Should we also write, "Jonny stayed at Pat's house anhour"? Would a southerner ask me to "sit aspell"? Is there any other example of this kind of "a" being an acceptable prefix? This is incredible to me, and astounding in its smallness. I get an unreasonable pleasure when someone writes, "for awhile," because then I get to jam the cursor between the "a" and "w" and insert the space I feel should always be there.

My lucrative life is now based on these tiny rules almost exclusively, although I never asked or expected to learn them.

I imagine this post is full of errors in rules I'm still not familiar with. Perfection is impossible, but we must strive for it.