My mom used to say (in a loving, sisterly way) of her brother—my late uncle—that he was “stuck in his ways.”  Hmmm, that’s funny, because that’s how I sometimes describe (in a loving, daughterly way) my mom.  And yet, to put a Wisconsin twist on an old phrase, the grated cheese must not fall far from the brick of cheddar, because I’ve recently noticed that I’m somewhat stuck in my ways, too.

Stuck in my ways.  Averse to change.  Inflexible.  Unmoving.

Yep, that pretty much describes my attitude once my just-finished online copyediting class got underway.  It’s been a good many years since I’ve both worked full-time and gone to school part-time.  Before the class started, I told myself that there would be a lot on my plate for the ten weeks of the course, but that I could handle it.  In fact, I did handle it, but not without a whole lot of griping.

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I’d forgotten just how tiring it is (and how tiresome it becomes) to come home from a day of work and sit down to listen to lectures, complete assigned reading, engage in online discussions, do homework assignments, study for tests, and agonize over tricky questions on midterms and finals, especially while the husband is reclined on the couch, flipping through the channels, and sipping G&Ts (or mopping his brow from suddenly having to shoulder all the housework, depending on which of us you’re more inclined to believe).  I was reminded that even if the topic is generally interesting, various subtopics can be tedious and cause a flood of second-guessing of one’s life choices.  I think I uttered my first “Good grief.  What have I gotten myself into?” during our week on hyphenation.

Yes, a whole week.

There are SO MANY RULES about hyphenation, but of course some of them vary depending on which style guide you’re using.  UC San Diego—the institution that is pocketing my money in exchange for specialized, and in some cases quite arcane, knowledge—uses the Chicago Manual of Style®, or CMoS. 

Humble and insignificant punctuation mark? I think not. CMoS dedicates twelve pages of tables to the little smudge of ink.

Ah, but at least hyphens have something to do with words.  Words are the reason I started contemplating a copyediting side gig to begin with.  Numbers?  Not so much.  If the unit on hyphenation made my head swim, the unit on numbers, numerals, and other math-like concepts threw it in the deep end with its arms tied behind its back.  In a lead trunk.  Attached to an anchor.  And it’s not about editing horrors like this . . .

f(x)=a_0+∑_(n=1)^∞▒(a_n cos⁡〖nπx/L〗+b_n sin⁡〖nπx/L〗)

. . . because there’s not enough money in the world.  It’s that even simple things had me beating my breast, such as the rules for dealing with page ranges, which made me want to laugh and cry in equal measure:  For a number with two digits, show all digits; for a multiple of 100, show all digits; for a number that exceeds 100 and ends in 10 through 99, show at least the last two digits and show all digits that change.  (If I have to apply these rules to roman numerals, we may have a violent situation on our hands.)

Fun fact: page numbers are separated by an en dash, not a hyphen.  (I lost a point on the final for that one . . .  as if anyone gives a crap about an extra millimeter of ink.  Oops.  Sorry.  My bad attitude hints at a lack of “editorial precision and care.”)

Even the famously anal-retentive Travel Architect doesn’t much care how her page numbers are separated. Ok, the 3-em dash would be a bit extreme: pp. 142———49.

And we didn’t even touch on copyediting footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographies, a topic lurking menacingly in a future course and so potentially boring it makes watching Canadian parliament on C-SPAN seem thrilling.

My original plan was to bang out the three copyediting courses (imaginatively named Copyediting I, Copyediting II, and Copyediting III) in one school year—fall, winter, spring, done!— then hang my little shingle next summer.  This middle-age back-to-school experience, though, has me changing my mind.  Instead of the pedal-to-the-metal approach, I’m going to take my foot off the accelerator and coast for a while.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve enjoyed much of the experience.  I’ve gained many skills and learned a lot of information, the most important being that place mat is two words. (I lost a point on the final for that one, too, leaving it as a closed compound—placemat—because dammit, it should be!)

But in the interest of my sanity, happiness, and marital harmony, not to mention the fact that I technically don’t even need to do this (I have no intention of quitting the lucrative and high-status business that is public education), I’m thinking I’ll take Copyediting II in about a year and Copyediting III . . . I dunno, sometime after that.  So yeah, I’m deviating from my original plan, and deviating sounds a lot like being flexible.

Flexible.  Adaptable.  Open to change.  NOT stuck in my ways.

Or at least, not as much as the Chicago Manual of Style® is.


P.S. If my anti-prescriptivist use of “over” and “done” to mean “finished” gave you pause . . . well spotted!  If it made your skin crawl, even better—you may have the makings of a good copyeditor!  Just know that in both cases it was an intentional style choice. 🙂

23 thoughts

  1. But a hyphen and an en dash look similar enough, right? I was attending a one-hour scientific editing workshop recently (because I work with scientists and my years of learning legal writing helped me be a better writer in some regards but that needs to somewhat be unlearned–or cast aside–for my current situation) and asked which is correct: spaces before and after em dashes, or no spaces? “It depends.” I was rooting for spaces before and after. This sounds like a lot of work but interesting! Several years ago, I took classes for an executive graduate certificate program. I think copyediting looks more fun than biostatistics!

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    1. I agree with you on that last statement. And with the “it depends” part. So much is based on style. There are some hard-and-fast rules, but not as many as I used to think. Even with the spaces before and after dashes. I used to use spaces, now I almost never do with em dashes, but in my recent Christmas letter I put spaces around an em dash in one sentence because, believe it or not, I felt like the sentence read differently depending on whether or not there were spaces around it!

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    1. Ha ha – it’s amazing how many native speakers mix up those three words.
      I’m not one for novelty t-shirts, but I’ve seen that one and I think it’s funny. I’ve also seen one that says, “I’m pro-comma and I vote!” regarding the Oxford comma.

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  2. Once I retired, I developed a kind of love/hate thing with copy editing. I’m aware of the inconsistencies in my blog, and of the things I don’t bother to get 600% right. They bother me. I also don’t give a rip. Both. At once. There’s a certain freedom in shrugging my shoulders and telling myself that it’s good enough.

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  3. Good article.

    I’m a self taught Poet and like Captain Kirk who changed the conditions of the Kobayashi Maru test in order to rescue the crew of the disabled ship.

    I make up my own grammical rules as I go along and write by the seat of my pants.

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  4. I once thought a-bout tak-ing a copy-edit-ing class but fell a-sleep before I could com-plete read-ing the course de-scrip-tion. My newspaper editor dad swore by the AP style book, so that’s what I use for the travel articles that I write or edit. To each their own, but there is no shortage of online options that will gladly take your money.

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  5. I did a proofreading 1, 2 and 3 course with the Society of Editors and Proofreaders a couple of years ago so I know where you’re coming from with the pedantics of grammar! All this hyphen, en dash, em dash craziness is made all the worse as different style guides seem to favour different rules plus the UK and the US have different ideas on their use as well. And then there’s the equally crazy world of speech marks. I commend you on completing the course whilst working full time (or full-time?). It takes a special kind of person (me) to come in after a hard day at work and settle down to a night of studying, or having your weekend decimated because you have to work on an assignment! Well done you!

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    1. Thank you. And to you with your Masters. I’d take Copyediting 2 in mid-summer, but I don’t yet know what travel will be possible, and with so many travel opportunities ruined this last year, I’m not about to let prime travel time slip away unused because of some course!

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  6. Good choices! I went to Dubrovnik in Croatia when it was still Yugoslavia in 1987. I was just a boy but I remember it being beautiful. I think it was decimated by the war a few years later but I think they’ve done a good job rebuilding it since. I’ve also been to the Algarve in Portugal which was lovely as well. I’ve never been to Japan though, and it is right near the top of list.

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