An American Editor

July 27, 2016

On Language: Doing More Than Spell Check

by Daniel Sosnoski

You’ve probably had a family member or friend say something to you along the lines of “Oh, you’re an editor? Well then, I’d better watch my grammar around you!” And no doubt you’ve seen T-shirts and coffee mugs with the phrase “I am silently correcting your grammar” on them. The general public seems to believe that editing is largely concerned with finding and correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. And it is.

Editing has been likened to milling, with each pass grinding finer, so that pebbles become gravel, and gravel becomes sand. You might consider spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues to be something you catch during one of these stages, but there are other fish to fry as well.

Speed bumps

The editor strives to stand in for all imaginable readers. Most guides, like the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style, have sections and commentary about the avoidance of sexist language. Dialing your focus wider, you want to avoid racist, ageist, and ablest language, too. Be on guard for such faults because they can potentially obstruct the flow of the narrative by needlessly offending the reader.

Anything in the text that pulls the reader away from the reverie of following the author’s train of thought is a speed bump in the text and needs to be removed. These are straightforward matters. But some are less obvious. The following will address a range of factual errors that can be corrected in text, although not all editing assignments allow this. Consider this discussion more applicable to developmental and line editing duties.

For example, in two bestselling novels — Stephen King’s Black House and Lee Child’s Make Me — there are references to 9 mm firearms that are revolvers, and rifles that have “clips” — small details that startle the knowledgeable reader because they are factually incorrect. An audiobook discussing findings in psychology is marred by the narrator mispronouncing “affect” as “uff-ect” when it should be “aff-ect” (The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo). These things interrupt the flow of narrative.

An editor I know said that his author wrote that a billion dollars, in a stack of $100 bills, would be as high as “a 60-story building.” The editor did the math and determined the actual height would be between 285 and 320 feet high. As the average building story is 13 feet, the correct analogy would be “a 25-story building.” You can overlook an error of this type and constrain your focus to matters that directly impact plot and intended meaning; the point here is that any general assertion an author makes can often be easily Googled.

And in an article titled, “Is Copy Editing A Dying Art?,” Lev Raphael notes about a book: “I found missing words and ‘phenomena’ used as the singular, a mistake unworthy of the author and his publishing house.” Furthermore: “They’re evidence of systemic carelessness. And though they’re minor, they’re irritating and can momentarily throw readers out of the book.”

Quote, unquote

For whatever reason, quotations tend to be a minefield of trouble. Particularly, the tendency to misattribute quotations from famous persons. For example, in discussions regarding ending a sentence with a preposition, you are likely to read that Winston Churchill said some version of the following:

  • That is a rule up with which I will not put.
  • This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
  • That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put
  • This is insubordination, up with which I will not put!
  • This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.
  • This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.
  • Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put.

Linguist Benjamin Zimmer finds that the first citation was actually, “offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put,” and is marginalia scribed by an unknown government copy writer in 1942. Any time you see a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or any other notable personage, more often than not the quote will be slightly or completely incorrect. A check with Google is mandatory unless you know the quote to be accurate as given.

Some quotes, like Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” also come in several flavors. Being translated from French, there are a few variations you’ll find in print, but the larger issue is that these are the words of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, as recorded by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

In cases where you have multiple renderings of a quote from a foreign language, you can search a bit online or check Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to determine whether there is a preferred or standard translation.

You do the math

Anything involving calculations, units of measurement, math you can check — you should try to check it. Nine times out of 10 it will be right, but occasionally you’ll find a miss. A key area for editors is the expression of numbers with graphics. Is the data best presented as a pie chart or a bar graph? A histogram or line chart? Are the words “percentage” and “percentile” being used correctly?

Also look for consistent treatment among numbers. Are there mixed types of fractions, are decimal points treated uniformly? Can numbers be rounded for clarity? When you start asking these questions, you’ll often find problems that require correction. Here, too, we see that editing is more than checking spelling and grammar.

Out of time

Given sufficient resources, you could try to verify every fact presented in a text. In practice, unless the work is short this won’t be feasible. A sound procedure is to focus the bulk of your attention on checking the kinds of details that, if wrong, would do the greatest disservice to the author and reader. What those items are will in part reflect the type of text you’re handling.

For example: If you’re editing a travel guide, place names and directions will be of paramount importance. In my work with medical material, anatomy, references, and footnotes are critical because they reflect upon the credibility and professionalism of the author. Grammar or spelling mistakes would be unfortunate, but a technical error is awkward because it can call the authority of the entire work into question.

In histories and works of historical fiction, dates are going to be in the “must-check” category, but in the latter, especially, anachronisms can fall into two categories; namely, things in the text that could not have existed at the time in question, and words or expressions that are of the wrong period. For example, Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene i), has the following:

Brutus: Peace! Count the clock.
Cassius: The clock hath stricken three.

Yet mechanical clocks did not exist at this time. Also common in historical fiction are anachronisms involving clothing and foods that appear prior to their invention. And with language, here’s a critic noting an error in Downton Abbey, season five:

“[T]he massive anachronism ‘steep learning curve’ in this week’s episode, a phrase from the 1970s that should have no place in Downton Abbey.”

A certain amount of artistic license can be granted in the service of good storytelling, but when the reader hits on significant errors of fact, he or she is likely to wonder how well the work was edited (or if it was edited at all). This is from an Amazon review by a frustrated customer:

“This impression is not aided by the careless errors that pepper the book (e.g., referring to Microsoft as a cable giant). Didn’t anybody edit this thing before it hit the shelves?”

The sixth sense

If you work regularly with an author and find that his or her work tends to be well-researched, you can reduce the amount of checking you do. Conversely, if you start to encounter frequent mistakes of the type discussed above, you’ll want to look closer. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a phrase or statement that makes you wonder, “Is this really so?” That’s usually a sign you should investigate further.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.


  1. “For example, in two bestselling novels — Stephen King’s Black House and Lee Child’s Make Me — there are references to 9 mm firearms that are revolvers, and rifles that have “clips” — small details that startle the knowledgeable reader because they are factually incorrect. ”

    Dear Sir,
    Perhaps I don’t understand your meaning, or perhaps I don’t agree.

    1 – You seem to suggest that 9mm revolvers do not exist. You seem to suggest that this is an established fact. Conversely, Taurus International Manufacturing claims that they produce a lightweight, five-round revolver, model Taurus 905SS2, chambered in 9mm Luger, UPC 7-25327-34180-2.

    2 – You seem to object to the colloquialism of calling a detachable box magazine a “clip.” Certainly that is an abuse of language.

    Furthermore, you do not elaborate on whether the rifles in question were using detachable box magazines, stripper clips, or some other arrangement. If a writer claims that his character’s rifle uses clips, I would ask whether he means stripper clips. If the writer is referring to the ever-popular Mosin Nagant, a stripper clip is probably intended, not a detachable box magazine.


    Comment by gaikokumaniakku — August 16, 2016 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  2. Dear Gaikoku: regarding point 1, a number of firearms manufactures have attempted to produce 9mm revolvers. These remain rare items, as none have proved popular. Given they are far less than even 1 percent of those available new or used, and as the author in question referred to the make (Ruger), this exemplar would have been derailed by further exposition, And point 2 is likewise a case where the maker (Steyr) uses magazines. These two errors are common in both fiction and non-fiction.


    Comment by Mededitor — August 21, 2016 @ 8:31 am | Reply

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