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So that's how they see us

The Baltimore Sun

It is a tipoff when Laura Hale Brockway opens her "What kind of a word nerd are you?" article at PR Daily with an apology for conducting a what-kind-of-X-are-you quiz, as if acknowledging that she is using a stale gimmick includes us in an in-joke.

What follows is an equally stale mixture of shibboleths and inconsequential style points.

I use the serial comma in my own writing, a personal preference, but I omit it in editing Sun articles because that is house style. I am equally indifferent to using or omitting an apostrophe in making numbers plural, another minor point of house style. The hyphen, as you can see in the opening sentence, is not my "least favorite punctuation mark." I endorse the use of the semicolon, but have no favorite punctuation mark; I employ all of them as they suit the purpose. Ms. Brockway appears to think that decimate can only mean "reduce by a tenth," a bogus peeve I do not share, and that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a reputable authority, from which I dissent.

I suspect that Ms. Brockway would be receptive to the comma jockey theory of copy editing: that we obsess over punctuation and spelling and hold fast to a set of usage peeves that constitute the secret handshake of the usage elect. 

For the reputation of my fellow word nerds, let me give you a more reliable picture, if I may use myself as an example.* 

They pay copy editors to know and enforce house style, which is always arbitrary. That's just a job. Some features of house style are not to my taste, but that doesn't matter. My copy of the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook arrived this week, and I did not experience palpitations upon opening it. 

Word nerds are expected to be knowledgeable about grammar and usage. Colleagues consult me regularly about who/whom, subject-verb agreement, and like issues. I am expected to recognize when a writer has fallen into a homonym trap. 

I am also expected to make judgments about tastefulness and appropriateness of language, whether it fits the subject, the occasion, and the publication. And I am expected, when a writer has gone forty-five lines over the available space, to cut judiciously, without sacrificing anything essential.**

In all this, I am expected to be informed enough to be authoritative, which is why I own, and consult, half a dozen dictionaries and more than a dozen usage manuals. I regularly consult Language Log. I follow and am in communication with more than a score of linguists, lexicographers, and expert editors online.

I attend conferences, and it is a sure mark of word-nerdiness that half a dozen people turned out at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning at the ACES conference in Las Vegas to hear Steve Kleineder talk about syllabification. (It was fascinating.) 

And, from time to time, as I would swat flies, I expose trashy, superficial articles about grammar, usage, and editing on the Internet. 



*If I were to produce a quiz to gauge word-nerdiness, I think Ms. Brockway would quail at the prospect. 


**The amount of copy I have excised over the past thirty-four years puts me in the Saul-hath-slain-his-thousands-and-David-his-ten-thousands category. 



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