Fixing What Ain’t Broke

I talked a little bit last week about how a copy editor’s job is not as much about commas and grammar mistakes as you might think, or how they’re at least lower on the priority list than is commonly assumed. This week I want to tell you about something I do do that you might not think I would: I fix what ain’t broke.

Copy editors are usually assumed to have a light touch—and we do… sometimes—and fix pretty much only things that are truly errors. But actually, one of the most valuable services we provide is to look at the text through a reader’s eyes and fix things that, while perfectly grammatically correct, are just plain confusing.

For example, here are a few things I changed in just the last two weeks that are wrong without being wrong.

The problem: “Employees can use handheld devices to check customers out in store aisles.”
The fix: “Employees can use handheld devices to ring up customers in store aisles.”
(Note: This solution will not work in England, where “to ring up” also means “to call.”)

There’s nothing wrong with the phrase to check out, meaning to pay for purchases, and I’ve even heard it used transitively (to check someone out) in conversation without any misunderstanding. But in print, without the inflections of speech, it suddenly takes a lascivious turn when you have employees checking people out in the bathing suit aisle. Ring up preserves the idiomatic nature of the sentence but eliminates any confusion, at least for U.S. audiences.

The problem: “Theme park designers strive to recreate the fictional world in every detail.”
The fix: “Theme park designers strive to re-create the fictional world in every detail.”

Context implies that the verb recreate here is supposed to mean that designers are replicating things, not relaxing on them, but recreate does exist as the verb form of recreation. And since the topic is a theme park, it’s totally possible that some readers will think that’s what the writer is talking about at first. A hyphen makes it so there’s only one way to read the verb, but doesn’t alter the writer’s language.

The problem: “CFO so-and-so has done X, Y, and Z since he joined the social network three years ago.”
The fix: “So-and-so has done X, Y, and Z since he became the social network’s CFO three years ago.”

Like everything else here, there’s nothing nominally wrong with this construction, using joined to mean someone began their employment at a company. We use it all the time. But usually when we say someone “joined a social network,” we mean they signed up for it as a user. To avoid confusion, I rephrased the sentence.

The problem: “Subjects in the experiment were shown series of images.”
The fix: “Subjects in the experiment were shown sequences of images.”

Initially, you might think that this is just a straight-up error, that it should say “shown a series of images.” But in fact the problem here is simply that the word series is the same in both the singular and the plural. Subjects saw more than one set of images. Sequences is a near synonym, but recognizably plural.

It’s impossible, I think, for writers to see some of these problems. They know what they mean to say, which makes it hard to see if any other interpretations exist. After all, they’ve written a grammatically correct sentence that does communicate their meaning. It’s just that it can also contribute another, unintended meaning. Even content editors often have their heads too full of questions about the structure and focus of a story to notice these little problems. And that’s exactly why any good publication needs copy editors. We’re here to notice these little ambiguities, and to find a way to repair them that maintains the writer’s intent while clearing up the reader’s confusion.


3 comments on “Fixing What Ain’t Broke

  1. Hmm… I think it’d be even clearer to say “ring up customers’ purchases” in your first example. Or do the clerks in fact scan the customers (sort of like Maggie being put through the checkout in the opening sequence of _The Simpsons_)?

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