October 23, 2018
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Got grammar? You better have a good editor

FORT KENT, Maine — I’ve been thinking a lot about typos this week, and the long-suffering editors who save us writers from our own grammatical and spelling foibles.

It can’t be easy and goodness knows, having made my living as a writer for close to 30 years now, I’ve had more than my fair share of creative spellings, sentence structure and word usage.

At times, I imagine my editors must have felt like they were looking at something akin to Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical “Jabberwocky” poem when reading my submissions.

And it’s not like I wasn’t trained in the art of word craft.

Raise your hands if you remember grade school composition classes that included the dreaded sentence diagrams.

Was there any walk longer or more devoid of hope than the march to the blackboard, in front of the entire class and armed only with a stubby piece of chalk, to determine the present participle form of a transitive verb?

I’m pretty sure I still suffer from post traumatic gerund disorder.

But after eight years with the nuns in Catholic school, some pretty good English teachers in public high school and a solid writing regime in university, I felt prepared to enter the world of work as a functioning scribe.

Until I became a reporter.

Because at that point everything I had learned and committed to memory with regards to grammar and sentence structure got tossed out the window in favor of the journalist’s bible — the Associated Press Stylebook.

Simply put, AP style is everything you learned in school tossed out the window.

Which is why you will never see any self respecting, working and published reporter ever use an Oxford comma.

It’s also why we get down on our knees on a regular basis to give thanks to all copy editors.

Years ago, back when this paper published court news, but before the days of commonly used digital technology, we bureau reporters would pay weekly visits to the court clerks and carefully transcribe by hand all of the court’s activity from the preceding week.

It was thanks to a copy editor that we did not publish an individual charged with allowing “an unattended chile on a snowmobile.”

That, one would assume, is legal. Unattended child, not so much.

That was just one letter. Other times, an entire word has gotten me into some hot water — or would have if not for the intervention of an editor.

Writing years ago about a local school district’s budget shortfall, I inadvertently left out the word “not” from a quote by the superintendent, thus having him say he was confident taxpayers would support a major rate increase.

Other times, I’ve not been so lucky.

When I was editor of the local weekly, Tuesdays were always our busiest day of the week.

Deadlines were nearing and the paper had to be on the press by the afternoon, so it’s understandable things could get a bit frantic.

Which is my only explanation as to why, when having to do a quick re-write to shorten the headline announcing “Local beauticians support breast cancer awareness,” I removed the word “cancer.”

And it was published as such.

Safe to say, for weeks afterward I was reminded that many people, not just local beauticans, support breast awareness.

This week I was reminded of my two favorite typos, both stemming from my time at the local weekly.

In another example of how a single letter can make all the difference, a hapless classified advertiser found himself selling a “heavy duty wench,” instead of a winch.

The second, and a near miss as it was caught before going to print, involved a local fundraiser in which people bought tickets to toss pies at members of the Rotary Club.

Unfortunately, the ad was taken over the phone, the reception may not have been the best and what was written for publication was, “Throw up high in the face of your favorite Rotarian.”

Sound it out and you’ll get it.

All this to say, as writers we try our best, but we are only human.

Which is why it’s a good thing those who edit our work are super human.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.


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