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More art than science

Posted on 03 October 2016 by James Cowan in Proofreading

In earlier blogs I have talked of the weirdness of the English language. In this one I want to talk of the “art” of the proofreader’s role.

To recap, English is not a rule-based language, in the way a programming language is. There is a structure, a template, but there are rarely instances where English is wrong — unlike German, where a verb has to be at the end of a sentence, for example. English is a language based on conventions, not rules, and the conventions can be flouted at any time, provided it fits the context.

This is where the proofreader’s art and experience come in. Obviously, if you are going to dispense with a convention, you have to do so with care, or else your meaning may not be well expressed. For example, I saw “He doubted that Peter would not get it wrong” recently, and I still have no idea what it was supposed to mean. Luckily, I was not being paid to correct it, or I would have tried to rewrite it into something recognisable — or at the very least, highlighted it and asked the author to fix it. But by the time a book gets into print, it has been edited more than once, so such weirdnesses are curtailed. Generally. (This example was indeed in a published book, but I am going to protect the guilty.)

When I am proofreading, I work on the basis that I should be able to understand the author’s thinking immediately. If I can’t, when I have a “hang on” moment (“Hang on, what did I just read?”), then it is up to me to alter it and make it a straightforward read. This implies that an unusual construction may well be acceptable if it conforms to the conventions being used in the work (legal documents, for example).

Assuming that by this time the spelling and punctuation and the other mechanical aspects of the things have been addressed, one thing that I am really hot on is word usage. The occurrence of a significant word or phrase too soon after another of the same has to be fixed (unless it is clearly deliberate, as in poetry). For example, when I find that the author has used an entity’s name in full twice in a sentence — or even in a paragraph — I try really hard to replace it. Thus in “The Auckland Blues are meeting the Hurricanes this weekend; the last time the Auckland Blues played the Hurricanes it was a disaster for the Auckland Blues”, I would rewrite the second bit as “the last time these teams met, the Blues were humiliated”, or something similar (but without repeating the “Auckland”). I recently came across an instance where the name of an organisation was replaced by an acronym, perfectly acceptably, except that the acronym was six characters long, and its presence in a sentence was obtrusive. So I had to invent an abbreviation — “the Group”, or some such — to render the document readable.

At all times when I am proofreading, the essence is the “reading”, and while I don’t read aloud, I do hear it in my mind, and if it rings false, I fix it. I don’t know if I would always make exactly the same fixes, as each time I tidy up a document I learn, and returning to an earlier one might well be affected by subsequent experience.

To return to the title, I think the difference between an art and a science is that a scientific test should always get the same result, whereas in art, each episode will be unique. In proofreading, I am confident that although the results will be similar, they won’t be identical.

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