Once a piece of writing has been accepted for publication, and the writer and the editor have worked out the size, shape and tone of the piece, how confidently does the Geist copy editor go in with her red pen and fine-tune it? Assuming that she cannot have memorized every rule and convention of diction, syntax, usage, spelling and punctuation, that she has instead accumulated some experience and a six-foot-long shelf of deluxe reference books, should she still have as many questions as answers?
For example, does a puck rebound or redound off the boards, and is the warm weather unseasonal or unseasonable? Does a Canadian snicker or snigger? Wear a tuque or a toque, a t-shirt, T-shirt or tee shirt? Slide down a baluster, a balustrade or a banister? Get caught in a vicious circle or a vicious cycle, ride in a sled or a sleigh, work on a railroad or a railway, bring or take a present, wrack or rack his or her brains—or does he/she wrack “their” brains? What are the connotations of spouse and partner, given that the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (OCD), which the Geist editor relies on every day, defines spouse as “husband or wife,” period, whereas the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (OGCEU), which she also relies on, allows either one, although partner can describe “married couples or unmarried couples, opposite-sex or same-sex couples, impassioned or weary couples”? In the preceding sentence, would it have been cricket to use while instead of whereas, or should while be used only in the sense of “at the same time as”?
Is it still all right to detest the word proactive, which is abhorred by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, but accepted by both the OCD and the OGCEU? Should the editor advise an author to change “He lit a match” to “He lighted a match,” or “She felt bad” to “She felt badly,” or “OK” to “okay,” and is it okay (or OK) to write “the hoi polloi”? The editor can look under “lit,” “bad” and “OK” in the OGCEU for instant guidance on these questions, about which she is not feverish (nor are most of her usage guides), but what happens when she does have an opinion—a strong one? Is she being pedantic when she persists in distinguishing between convince and persuade, although both the OCD and OCGEU acknowledge that the two are used interchangeably; or between imply and infer, when imply has sneaked into the definition of infer (although still “disputed”) in the ocd? What distinctions will be the next to go: evoke/evince, flaunt/flout, prone/supine (already cuspy), insidious/ invidious? Is it churlish to resist such shifts in English?
Given that the language changes constantly, and that a single issue of Geist contains the work of twenty or thirty writers, each of whom deploys English idiosyncratically, and given that the OGCEU says that the verb after a collective noun can be either singular or plural, depending on the context, is it all right to allow “the family is” and “the family are” in two different pieces of writing in the same issue of Geist? In the sentence just gone by, would it have been all right to replace all right with alright, which both OCD and OGCEU list as a “disputed variant,” but about which the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), another pivotal reference work at Geist, simply says “avoid”?
To what extent can the editor ask an author to delete occurrences of I, me and mine in a personal essay? Should the word personal be struck from that sentence, personal essay being in the same category as the silly locutions personal friend and personal physician so loathed by Zinsser and by Jacques Barzun, author of Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers?
Can the editor take Zinsser’s word that “the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep,” and confidently rewrite sentences that are so abstract as to be lifeless (“The common reaction was dismay,” rather than “Most people were dismayed”)? Is it cavalier to forbid the use of false titles—“Housewife-turned-entrepreneur Tina Bisque is back in business”; “The painting was created by artist Emily Carr”—when print, radio, TV and web stories are replete with instances of it, and the editor’s only backup is a mild comment under “attributive nouns” in the OGCEU?
Moments of relief may be found in any reference library; for example, the note under “agreement, grammatical” in the OGCEU that “the principles of formal and notational agreement which operate in English cannot be used to solve usage problems, but only to clarify them,” but shouldn’t the which in that passage be a that?
And what about that relative pronoun? Should the editor go with the OGCEU and the CMS, both of which give the nod to “the man that told me” as well as “the man who told me,” but recommend “the bird that flew”? Would the world be a better place if the editor preferred “the bird who flew,” as allowed by the Canadian Writer’s Handbook?
As for punctuation, should the editor give her blessing to writers who employ the comma splice (e.g. “He read the book, he saw the movie”) only if they are already famous, as advised by Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves), who calls it a “splice comma”? (Should there be a comma after e.g. in that last sentence, and should e.g. be in italics?) When the Geist editor goes on to recommend Truss’s book, which is a lot of fun, especially the chapter “Airs and Graces,” should she put that chapter title in italics or in quotes? If quotes, single or double? And should she hesitate before recommending any book in which the author says to use the apostrophe in plurals such as “Ifs, ands or buts,” when both the CMS and the OGCEU say the opposite? Why does the CMS recommend “Truss’s book” with the apostrophe-s, but “Euripedes’ play” without it—because of pronunciation?
Why is lieutenant-governor hyphenated when governor general is not? On what occasions should the editor suggest fresh water, fresh-water or freshwater? Is there a hyphen in half baked? Grandnephew? Lightly salted? Petit mal? (What the heck is petit mal doing in the OCD anyway, that term having been replaced by absence seizure?)
The editor is pathetically grateful to have the OCD as an authority on Canadian region-sensitive terms, but can she help wondering why float camp and float plane are two words each when floathouse is only one? (Even so, is the OCD not lovable for those place-specific float terms, and for its inclusion of both bunny-hug and hoodie, as well as gaunch, gotch and gitch?)
Is the editor not similarly grateful that Oxford University Press has consigned certain other terms to specialty reference works, so that when the editor needs to double-check an author’s use of, say, angsty, henchvamp, Destructo-girl or hit a major backspace, she can go right to Slayer Slang, a surprisingly extensive repository of Buffyspeak that includes an engaging twenty-two-page section on slay and its forms, including slayground, inner slayer and slayerpalooza?
Is it wise for the editor to admit how much time she spends reading usage guides for recreation as well as for reference? Is it unseemly to arrive at a dinner party and launch into spirited disquisitions on the squinting modifier, the expletive sentence, the copulative verb or the freight-train sentence?
Works cited (and highly recommended): Oxford Canadian Dictionary, ed. Katherine Barber; Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, ed. Marjorie Fee and Janice McAlpine; Canadian Writer’s Handbook, ed. William E. Messenger et al; Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, by Michael Adams (Oxford University Press); On Writing Well, by William Zinsser (HarperCollins); Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press); Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, by Jacques Barzun (University of Chicago Press); Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss (Gotham).