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The perils of editing

There are hazards to being an editor, hazards I never faced as a teacher. When I was a teacher, I could ignore a lot. I never demanded of my students writing that was publishable. Indeed, the very idea, to which I held fast, that one writes to learn necessitated that I treat the writing I received as process. For that reason, I could focus largely on what students wrote all the while questioning their reasons and and helping them to develop as thinkers and writers. As far as standard English usage, I expected it but didn’t sweat it: when I could isolate a pattern, I would call attention to it and expect it to improve.

As an editor, though, I don’t have as much luxury to ignore what I see. What leaves my hands goes into the wide world, and it must be pretty close to always right. Nevertheless, when I am buried in the finer points of copy, I see patterns in the corrections I make. Sometimes the patterns are specific writers’, and because I always work with the same writers, I see the same errors—general quirks of proofreading (or lack thereof) that have developed over years into habits. Sometimes they’re one-offs, too. But when I’m buried in line editing, I see those patterns everywhere. Lately, it’s agreement between subjects and objects.

It is good for subjects to agree in number with their objects. There are exceptions, but as a rule students should hand in papers and not “their paper”; likewise, emeritus faculty share offices and not “their office,” and they do so in order to further their scholarly careers, unless they are being discussed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, in which case “they are doing something to further their scholarly career.” Where it can get complicated is when either the object or the subject is being referred to collectively. To illustrate with one of the examples above, “the paper” can mean “the essay assignment on which the class is working” and thereby be of a completely different class than “the essays on which all students are individually working.” It therefore might be legitimate—if a little awkward—to say, “Students should work on the paper today.” Usually, the definite article makes the difference: “the paper” and “their papers,” but usually not “the papers,” and definitely rarely “their paper,” unless of course they are working on one single paper together.

What bugs me about all this is not that the disagreement happens so frequently, it’s that I can’t ignore it anymore. It is clear to me that it’s a disagreement so common that few people register it; therefore, I tell myself, it’s not something to sweat if I see it here or there, or if I occasionally commit it myself, or if it sometimes escapes my notice when I am copyediting. Nevertheless, I find myself changing sentences left and right, and I worry that I will become so prescriptive that, in the interest of being right, I make the language I edit much too wooden.



In Turkish, making the plural conjugation of the verb in the 3rd person is optional, so long as the plurality of the noun has been marked. In fact, it may even be expected as a matter of good style.

The plural and collective for many nouns are constantly in flux, and vary tremendously between dialects. Take heart: you are hacking your way through thick and unexplored jungle.

The journal for which I am the managing editor has a small number of editing/formatting idiosyncrasies that I continue to correct in my own writing and (mentally) in everything I read for at least a month after we get an issue out.

My personal favorite is that we capitalize the first word after a colon when it is followed by an independent clause. I always have to explain it to our assistant to keep him/her from ‘fixing’ it.

I find it hard to avoid just ‘fixing’ what I consider bad writing. It’s not that my corrections are so obsessive (or whatever else they maybe) as to be wooden, but I can be a very heavy-handed editor when I’m not being patient with an author’s work.

1: I would say it’s more thick weeds than unexplored…

2: I don’t have much choice but to be heavy-handed. Our writers don’t get authorial credit. For that reason, all writing that leaves my desk lives or dies by x, for which I work. To that end, I’m more responsible to the communication and the project’s end than I am to the writer’s meaning. I rewrite quite a lot wholesale. (FYI, it’s a mixed blessing to sign over your work to your workplace. There’s a certain standard of quality that comes with it; on the other hand, would that I could bitch as much as I want….) Anyway, the cap-after-a-colon thing isn’t that bad. I know too many people who think that’s the way it should be to be surprised.

I’m curious: what’s your journal, S? (If you don’t want to share links, e-mail. Otherwise, I’ll have to google you more assiduously than I already have.)

That’s also pretty interesting about Turkish, by the way.

It’s interesting in a lot of languages – the rules of noun/verb agreement – as well as the evolution of collective nouns and plurals. It’s one of the most fluid and dynamic areas of linguistic difference/change. Every lanugage does them a little bit differently. Hell, even the same languages do them differently, which is why you are encountering this problem so frequently.

I don’t know much about the managing editor’s job, but as a reviewer and, now, editorial board member some of this is important. My graduate student and myself are influenced by what we read. Thus, patterns of expression can unintentionally become reinforced over time.

Further, it does influence a journal’s credibility. As a reviewer I treat this in a section of each review. I tell them to fix it and make publication approval contingent on the edited copy.

Simply put, if it’s not worth thier time to communicate it accurately then it’s not woth my time to decipher it.

In principle I agree, ELH, and had I the luxury to refuse a writer’s work, I would. But I don’t. We publish the writers we have and the writers we have number few. The only way that I can do to get those writers to change prior to copyediting is to alter the review process, which I have only recently been allowed to do. Shaun can speak from a more traditional experience: what do you do, S, when changes (not content related, of course) the reviewer requested haven’t been made? Do your refuse the article out of hand, or do you have some luxury to choose?

It would be another post entirely to talk about the things I do to protect my employer’s credibility.

A substantial number of our submissions are requested from symposia that we have on campus or recommended to us by people on our editorial board or members of our sponsoring association. In which cases, we bow to the ‘big name’ professor in order to preserve the relationship.

With regularly submitted material, we will often make acceptance conditional on certain changes as you described ELH. Once accepted though, my editor (who has the real authority in these issues) will make changes he feels are necessary for clarity (especially clarity for our general readership). He will often give authors the right of refusal at proof stage unless it goes beyond his editorial conscience. We’re a small journal so we tend to try to work with authors when they have interesting ideas that may not be as clearly expressed as they should be.

We have had one author who so objected to the changes that we made to his work in the effort to make it even basically readable that we issued a retraction. I have never met that man, but I have a special hatred reserved for him.

It would seem that I’m bobbing around in what’s close to, though not exactly, “notional agreement.” According to W’s usage , notional agreement (also, notional concord) is that subject-verb agreement which claims that, though the noun might be singular, a plural is implied. Notional agreement is what’s in play when you say, “Nobody will do what they’re told.” Grammar nazis will correct that every time to “Nobody will do what she’s told,” but we all know that “nobody” really doesn’t refer to a singular person, so in such a case, the implied agreement is the right one to assign your verbs to.

Of course, I’m not talking s-v exactly, but s-obj. In general, plural persons won’t manipulate singular things, and my insistence on that is OK. I guess I mostly worry that my insistence becomes so dogmatic that I begin to miss the times when a singular noun might rightfully be understood as plural…

I was going to say, with posts like this post and you expect people to comment?

But look at the little conversation it elicited… though, to be fair, most of it was G avoiding work.

I hadn´t thought of the fluid and complicated nature of plurals and collectives… I wonder if this state of affairs is similar to verbs and irregularity of conjugation… irregular verbs are those that are used more frequently

Most of it was me wasting my weekend.

Anyway, you’d have to go back very, very far in linguistic history if you wanted to make a connection with irregular verbs and ambiguity in plurals. I suspect if the connection existed, it’s lost to history.

So I found a good example of the ambiguity I’m talking about. In The Human Condition, while distinguishing between immortality and eternity, Arendt writes,

The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words—which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves. (19, emphasis mine)

The ambiguity is in the italics. Whether mortals find “place” or “places” in the cosmos hardly affects Arendt’s meaning. Had I been her editor, however, I wouldn’t have counseled she change this to plural because the singular offers one thing that the plural lacks: unity.

right, after all, she is writing about the human condition and not conditions

If she were, she’d be writing about humans’ conditions. Because there is a quantitative difference between “human” and “mortals,” I think the question of “place” above is more acute.