Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” and the Hazards of Copyediting
Every profession has its hazards, some more serious than others. Professional drivers know that if they drive too long, they risk falling asleep at the wheel and causing an accident.
Last week, a few examples of the hazards of being a professional copyeditor were on display. I don’t mean there were copyeditors charged with vandalizing public signs. Instead, there were cases of editors missing the forest for the trees and of editors judging harshly without thinking or researching.
Copyeditors are trained to focus on the details: Is that comma necessary here? Does that word mean what you think it means? We’re so used to looking at the details that we sometimes miss the big picture. We look at individual word choices and miss the context the words live in.
One missed context last week was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s new song “Word Crimes.” Copyediting bloggers Dawn McIlvain Stahl and Mark Allen both wrote about it. You can read Grammar Girl’s opinion on her site, Ben Zimmer’s over at Language Log, and Andy Hollandbeck’s at his blog. Check your favorite editor haunts, and I’m sure you’ll find more.
Unarguably, the song’s lyrics are mean and not all the rules are correct. What I think some people miss is that the song is a parody. It helps to be familiar with the original song and video, but even so, Yankovic is known for parodies. As Dan Hirschman pointed out in the comments on Language Log, we don’t think Yankovic is in favor of binge-eating because of his song “Fat”; why do we think he’s in favor of all the rules he sings about in “Word Crimes”? Do we really think he believes language correctors should abuse those they correct?
Do Your Homework
Another hazard we copyeditors are prone to is correcting without thinking or researching. We’re used to correcting what we read so much that we forget to turn the function off. We’re ill-informed when we thought we had the facts. We’re hurtful when we mean to be helpful or humorous. This hazard was sadly on display in an editing forum last week. The person who was harshly criticized responded with grace and professionalism, which is to be commended.
In some regards, we’re no different than any other language user. How often are language professionals rankled by opinions of people with no training in the complexities of language? Yet we’re all language users, so we all fall prey to presenting personal preferences without stopping to consider whether what we’re presenting is actually a preference or a rule.
When you disparage a person’s choice of words, you disparage the chooser. You don’t have to like every word. You can say you don’t like the word. But to call the word a nonword or a disgrace of a word without doing any research first is unprofessional. To challenge a person’s word choice with only your personal preference as evidence is unworthy of what editors try to accomplish in their work. We should all know better.
Think Before You Speak
Copyeditors are human. We make mistakes, rush to conclusions, and look for shortcuts, just like everyone else. We intentionally or unintentionally hurt others’ feelings, even our colleagues’. I’ve made my share of mistakes. And, in fact, some of what I observed last week was professional behavior and an openness to others’ ideas—something we should all strive for.
But we have to be aware of the hazards of our business, hazards that might not be as clear as they are in other professions.
Before you react emotionally and pass judgment:
Look it up.
Question your assumptions.
Remember that we’re all fallible.