Dots on the Page

When I teach my copyediting class, I begin with the story of Dick Dick and Judy Dick. I tell this story because it is one way to explain the roots of my interest in the tiny details of language as they sit on the page. I want my students to reflect on the roots of their own interest in language on the page, and thus, on what brought them to this class in the first place. And I want them to do it right away. So here is my opening story:

When I was just learning to read, I had a book about a brother and sister named Dick and Judy. Not Dick and Jane—I always say— but Dick and Judy. One night, I sat on the couch in my living room, attempting to read this book. I must have had the concept of words by then but not the concept of sentences, because this is more or less what I saw:

Here comes Dick Dick is a boy

Here comes Judy Dick is her brother

I read these words again and again, and they didn’t make sense. Why did the boy have the same first and last name? And why was Judy Dick someone’s brother? And the more I tried to understand—the repetitive names, the odd relationships—the more frustrated I became. I must have screamed or thrown the book across the room, because one of my parents came to the rescue and asked what was wrong.

“Why are these people called Dick Dick and Judy Dick?” I demanded. “None of this makes sense.”

The rescuing parent recognized the problem and explained punctuation: The little dots on the page are important. Each marks the end of a unit; when you see one, you pause and then go on to the next idea, like this:

Here comes Dick. Dick is a boy.

Here comes Judy. Dick is her brother.

When I heard that, I felt a warm glow of understanding—and wonder—that a tiny dot of ink could unlock meaning on the page.

When I finish telling this story in my copyediting class, I let the students sit with these thoughts for a few moments, and then I go right on to another story—about an editor I heard speak at a meeting of women in the publishing industry. When this editor was a little girl, she told us, she gained a reputation as the only person on her block who could untie knots in a necklace chain. The neighbors all came to her with their knots.

As she told her story, I noticed her long, slim fingers and the intense focus of her eyes, and I pictured her poring over a thin gold chain, rolling, analyzing and then teasing out the knot. She told this story because she thought it foreshadowed her career as an editor—one who unties knots in the chain of words. And this in fact offers a good partial definition of copyediting. Here’s another one, which I wrote for the brochure that advertises my course:

Copyediting is a process of close reading and editing with a focus on the mechanics of language, the author’s and publisher’s style and the manuscript’s substance. Like the ballet dancer’s six positions and the musician’s scales, the copy editor’s techniques provide fluidity and consistency in the finished work.

And here’s another, as presented in the mighty Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, the 921-page text from the University of Chicago Press:

The editorial function is in effect two processes. The first, because it is concerned with the mechanics of written communication, may be called mechanical editing. The process involves a close reading of the manuscript with an eye to such matters as consistency of capitalization, spelling, and hyphenation; agreement of verbs and subjects, and other matters of syntax; punctuation; beginning and ending quotation marks and parentheses; number of ellipses points; numbers given as numerals or spelled out; and many similar details of style. The second editorial process may be called substantive editingrewriting, reorganizing, or suggesting other ways to present material.

So together, the two stories—of Dick Dick and Judy Dick and the knots in the chain—describe the two parts of the process, mechanical and substantive.

Copyediting is not appropriately respected in this world—not even by me—as evidenced by the fact that I always quickly point out to my class that “I don’t do much copyediting anymore.” Though of course I do. It’s a foundation for everything from evaluating a manuscript to writing one.

I once heard Ray Charles interviewed on “All Things Considered” —in honor of his 67th birthday. Robert Siegel asked him whether he still practiced piano, and Charles answered yes. Then the conversation went something like this:

“Do you practice songs?” Siegel asked.

“No no no no no no no no no,” Charles answered. I pictured him shaking his head back and forth vigorously.

“I take it the answer is no,” Siegel noted.

Charles laughed, then explained: “The songs I already know,” he said. “What I practice is my scales.” It’s the scale practice that keeps his fingers nimble enough to play the songs. The scales aren’t exactly music, the ballet positions aren’t exactly dance, and the mechanics of language aren’t exactly literature, but without them, you’re naught.

Still, copyediting is one of the lower-status tasks in the publishing house (just above proofreading) and one of the lowest paid. It’s the workhorse of literature. And yet, some people do want to learn and practice the discipline of copyediting, so they come to my class. They come for various reasons: They want to gain a practical skill they can use to earn money; they have a job in which they need the skills; they are writers and wish to polish things up in their work. So, despite my ambivalence, I argue for the importance of these small matters of language and how they add up to something very grand.

But now it’s time for my students to do some hands-on work, so I ask them to turn to our first exercise: a list of 20 simple sentences, each with at least one error, that we’ll study together. I want them to detect the error, say what kind of error it is, and suggest an improvement or correction. The students like this, although some are better than others at finding the errors, and most find it difficult to give them names. I want them to be able to name the errors for a few reasons: (1) they may have to name them for the author whose work they edit, to justify a suggested change; (2) knowing the name (redundancy, misplaced modifier, punctuation, lack of parallelism) will help them find support or guidance in a style manual—that is, they’ll know what to look for in the table of contents or index; and (3) knowing the names is a way of deconstructing the skills of the copyeditor, of recognizing what it takes to do the work. But after we’ve gone through all 20 sentences, each illustrating another potential trap, some students are wondering whether it’s time to drop out of this class, so I try to elevate them.

I read them a letter to the editor from Poets & Writers, the July/August 1997 issue:

Flaunt or Flout?

I hate to be cranky and anal [copyeditors and upholders of language rules and standards are often accused of both], but as a writerand one who teaches English composition for a living…I would like to be able to depend on P&W for, at least, accuracy and reasonable correctness, and in your March/April issue, I find neither.

Specifically, on page 61 you quote interviewee Octavia Butler “On Other Writers”: “As a kid, I also read a lot of Felix Sultan.” Now, Butler may have spelt the name incorrectly to, or for, your interviewer, but surely someone at the office checks these things?

The author of “Bambi” is Felix Salten: SALTEN I enjoyed the rest of the interview (and consequently, do plan to read Butler’s oeuvre) but still…

Again, on page 81, an otherwise interesting and informative article on poet Robert Law notes that “Merton and Law, admirers of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ regularly flaunted rules of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.” The confusion of flaunted with flouted is perhaps the result of a culture-wide imprecision of language, and not necessarily of ignorance, but again, unless Law and Merton were holding up placards emblazoned with such legends as “I before E except after C” and “Never Use a Comma to Connect Two or More Independent Clauses,” I believe flouted is the correct choice in this instance.

I leave you with this thought, courtesy of Edwin Newman: “Those for whom words have lost their meaning are likely to find that ideas have also lost their meaning.” Thank youand keep up the (mostly) good work.

Gina Logan

Northfield, Vermont

This matter of Sultan versus Salten reminds me to tell my students another story—one on the subject of checking things and the self-discipline needed by the copyeditor. I sometimes copyedit for River Oak Review, a literary magazine published in Oak Park, Ill. Once, I got a story to copyedit—a really good one—that included the names of both Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. I loved this story, especially its bizarre characters and weird, dreamy tone, and it almost lulled me into a trance.

Gradually however, I became aware of an annoying seed of anxiety sprouting within me. I ignored it until the feeling took shape in words:

“Now hold on,” it said. “You don’t have any idea how to spell those violinists’ names.”

Which was true. And begrudgingly, I confessed that it was, after all, my job to make sure they were right. So I got out my Webster’s 10th Collegiate dictionary, turned to the biographical names section at the end (students are rarely aware that this section exists), and discovered that both names had been spelled wrong (Jascha misspelled Jasha, and Menuhin misspelled as Menuin).So. Though I had the frustration of detaching from the story to nitpick at it, I also had the satisfaction of what some copyeditors call “a good catch” and what others call “a fix.”

I hate to be cranky and anal (or do I?), but even if only one reader noticed the misspelled names, that would be too many. And for that person, the credibility of the whole journal might be undermined.

Now I take this story of Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin apart for my students and show what’s involved: the instinct to know what you don’t know, the discipline to stop, the awareness of what resources you have for finding the answers. The first two I teach through stories and exercises; the last one, the resources, we’ll cover in a later class on style manuals and dictionaries.

But now, since the students are looking glum about all those landmines scattered across the pages, I turn to volume 22 of the Missouri Review, the “Altered States” volume from 1999, to an essay called “A Yankee Fan in the Floating World,” by Melanie Hammer. I read from the second paragraph:

I had majored in English, hut it turned out to be even more useful that I had excelled at typing in junior high. I landed a job as an editorial assistant at a university press and set about the business of becoming a grown-up. My two bosses treated me as if I were bright enough, one in particular reminding me that she had started off as an editorial assistant herself. They acquired books, and I typed their correspondence with a variety of authors. They had interesting jobs, but I liked it better over in copy-editing, a warren where women in glasses polished text like old silver, working in the intricacies of language until they brought it to a shine.

When I came across this passage the first time, I got the same warm glow I got from my Dick Dick and Judy Dick experience. This time it came from the spotlight that Hammer focused on the intricacies, the caretaking, the devotion to keeping something beautiful.

Not everyone may like the image, though. First, many people don’t like to polish silver. I don’t. I have a fabulous art deco tea and coffee set, inherited from my mother, but I store it in the basement, wrapped in special soft cloths, because I can’t keep up with the job. The gleaming surface tarnishes almost as soon as I’ve finished polishing.

Second, the image from Hammer’s essay is both domestic and female, an uneasy alliance for many these days. It is true, however, that most copyeditors are women. And most of my students are women. Here, I think about but don’t read from the insightful but troubling essay by Megan L. Benton, from the July 1992 issue of Scholarly Publishing. The essay is called “A Voice from the Margins: Women, Editing, and Publishing Education.” Listen to Benton:

The diminishment of editing is also diminishment of women’s work, perhaps in part because it is women’s work. Manuscript editing is predominantly done by women, of course; in fact, it offers an almost classical profile of both the sociological and the psychological aspects of so-called women’s work. In the latter sense, young girls are commonly groomed for the kind of subordinate, silent task of “tidying up” another’s work that editing entails, for work whose “only aim is to make the writer look as good as possible” [endnote omitted]….Most standard textbook introductions to copyediting caution novices to suppress their taste, their style, their opinions.

So. Not only cranky and anal, but self-effacing, nurturing silver polishers—engaged in an art and a craft that the world rarely recognizes or acknowledges. And while it’s the women who do the work, it is the men—H. W. Fowler, William Safire, Theodore Bernstein, Edwin Newman—whose names we know best.

But enough of this storytelling and philosophizing. The students have come to learn copyediting, so let’s get on with it. Then, notice that although I spell copyediting as one word, Benton (or her copyeditor, most likely) spelled it as two. Which is right? The answer is neither. None of this stuff, I assure my students, is decreed by God (and even if it were, people might disagree). It’s not like Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin, where the violinists themselves (or their parents) can declare the one true spelling. So it depends. Which spelling does the publishing house prefer?

We hope it has rules for such matters, with specific examples, set out in a house style manual or style sheet, or that this style manual will tell the copyeditor where to refer for such questions. If the copyeditor is using the Chicago Manual of Style, she is told to refer to Webster’s 10th for questions regarding spelling. So I do, and uh-oh, I see that in Webster’s, copy editor is spelled as two words, but the verb copyedit is spelled as one. And now I look back to the index of the Chicago Manual and see that both copyediting and copyeditor are spelled as one word (or closed up, in copyediting lingo).

You may now say, “Who cares?” But if you do care—as do Gina Logan, Melanie Hammer and Megan L. Benton, here’s what you do: You make a decision (copy edit or copyedit) and stick with it. Consistency, to the extent that it’s possible without forcing a square peg into a round hole, is one goal of copyediting.

And some of the guidelines for establishing consistency are found in the Chicago Manual, in chapters 5-8: “Punctuation” (the tiniest ink dots on the page), “Spelling and Distinctive Treatment of Words” (more about this in a moment), “Names and Terms” (capitalization) and “Numbers” (whether you use numerals or spell them out).

When I first became an editor, chapter 6—“Spelling and Distinctive Treatment of Words”—was the oddest to me. I thought spelling was something you learned in grade school, and that was it. I knew that plenty of words are hard to spell, but then you look them up in the dictionary or use the spell check on your computer. But no. The Chicago Manual has just under 40 pages on the subject, full of concerns you never realized were concerns until they pointed them out to you:

A chapter on spelling in a style manual may disregard most of the dozens or hundreds of questions about spelling that arise in the course of writing or editing a serious book, for the answers may be found in a standard dictionary. There are some spelling matters, however, that a dictionary does not cover or on which its guidance is obscure [e.g., plurals (sergeants-at-arms, courts-martial), possessives (Kansas’s not Kansas’), word divisions (democ-racy not demo-cracy)], and it is to these that the present chapter is addressed. The chapter ends with a tabulation of some rules for spelling compound words.

That little “tabulation”—13 pages on proper use of hyphens— makes most people very uncomfortable, so I tell a story. I got my first job as an editor because I was a friend of the boss, and he knew I’d work hard even though I didn’t know anything about editing. To prepare for the job, I studied a stack of grammar and editing books. In the process, I came across the concept of the hyphenated unit modifier, as in low-income family. In that phrase, the hyphen holds the first two words together and makes them into a unit that together modifies the third word. In some cases, I read in my books, the hyphen is essential to meaning, as in light-blue hat versus light blue hat. In the phrase with the hyphen we are clearly talking about color, a light shade of blue. Without the hyphen, the phrase is ambiguous: We could be talking about color or weight—as in a blue hat made of straw or cotton as opposed to wool or felt.

Perhaps the hyphen is not the best way to let the reader know (Substitute straw or cotton if that’s what you mean? the editor might query diplomatically from the margin), but this concept made some sense to me. So in my first weeks on the new job, I used lots of hyphens, to show that I knew my way around.

One day, an editor down the hall—she’d been checking my work when I was done—came into my office, closed the door, and took a seat. She placed her fingers on her temples.

“Susan,” she said, “You’re killing me with hyphens.”

I keep this quote in mind not only because I like it so much but also because it’s so broadly relevant—especially in the context of being a beginner, overapplying a rule, and then being reined in. The Chicago Manual’s tabulation can rein in the beginner who takes the time to penetrate its dense mysteries, and as I finish this story, I notice that my students are flipping through it, trying to do just that.

This can be a good time to mention the funny essay by Nicholson Baker from “The Best American Essays, 1994,” called “Survival of the Fittest,” which is in part about the history of punctuation. Baker is a writer who is preoccupied—okay, obsessed—with the details of modern life, and I like to read my students a few paragraphs from his essay, to show that we’re not alone in our copyediting concerns.

American copy-editing [note the hyphen] has fallen into a state of demoralized confusion over hyphenated and unhyphenated compounds—or at least, I am demoralized and confused, having just gone through the manuscript of a novel in which a very smart and careful and good-natured copy-editor has deleted about two hundred of my innocent tinker-toy hyphens. I wrote “stet hyphen” in the margin so many times that I finally abbreviated to “SH”but there is no wicked glee in my intransigence: I didn’t want to be the typical prose prima donna who made her life difficult.

On the other hand, I remembered an earlier manuscript of mine in which an event took place in the back seat of a car: in the bound galleys, the same event occurred in the “backseat.” The backseat. Grateful for hundreds of other fixes, unwilling to seem stubborn, I had agreed without protest to the closing-up, but I stewed about it afterward and finally reinserted a space before publication….Therefore, mindful of my near miss with “back seat,” I stetted myself sick over the new manuscript. I stetted re-enter (rather than reenter), post-doc (rather than postdoc), foot-pedal (rather than foot pedal), second-hand (rather than secondhand), twist-tie (rather than twist tie), and pleasure-nubbins (rather than pleasure nubbins).

As I finish reading this excerpt, I’m pleased because some students are flipping through their Webster’s to see what it has to say about backseat, and they find that indeed it is listed as one word, and Baker’s copyeditor was “right.”

“Nicholson,” she might have said, if she was a scrappy one, “You’re killing me with hyphens.”

But as you know, the copyeditor’s job—and often, her nature— is not to be scrappy. Also, Baker was the author, so his preferences generally override. The copyeditor retreats, “lets him have it” (his way, that is) and moves on. The point is not so much to win or lose any particular match, but to raise consciousness about the stylistic decisions one makes.

Chapter 7, on capitalization, is one of my favorites in the Chicago Manual, because though dizzying in specificity, it reveals much about the values in our culture and the importance we give to the details of language even without realizing it. This chapter (60 pages) sets out the basic problem:

Questions and differences of opinion arise over what constitutes a proper noun, other than the name of a person or place. It is with this realm of uncertainty that the following rules attempt to deal. They reflect the tendency toward the use of fewer capitals, toward what is called a down (lowercase) style as opposed to an up (uppercase, i.e., capital letter) style.

The pages and lists of names and terms can’t easily be summarized, but to exemplify this down style, I say to my students, “You don’t capitalize president in president of the United States; you don’t even capitalize the pope.” Of course, style and grammar books may differ on this point—on every point, for that matter. It all comes down to a panel of people making the decisions, and the decisions add up to a value system. At U-C Press, for example, the value is that a down style is preferable to an up one:

In few areas is an author more tempted to overcapitalize or an editor more loath to urge a lowercase style than in religion….this is probably due to unanalyzed acceptance of the pious customs of an earlier age, to an unconscious feeling about words as in themselves numinous, or to fear of offending religious persons.

This fear of offending is prominent in many students’ minds, and some tell me about the newsletters they produce at work, in which they have to capitalize everything—the President of the Board, the Assistant Vice President of Operations, the Chairman of the Department, the Director of Safety. If they don’t, people get insulted. And of course, in this context, politics and job security win over U-C rules. But look at the core issue, I say: The appearance and height of a letter at the start of a word affects how people feel about their status and whether they’re getting the proper respect. Any better way to show how important you are? the scrappy copyeditor might whisper from the margin.

Last time I taught my class, one clever student noted that according to the U-C capitalization principles, he should lowercase Dalai Lama (the term itself is not listed in the Manual), but he couldn’t make himself do it. I’m with him. It seems to be a special situation, but I can’t explain why. Words are numinous, at least certain ones.

By now, of course, we’re into the third or fourth session in the copyediting course, and I’ve given the students lots of exercises to do at home. These exercises force them to explore the Chicago Manual, to use the editing marks (the squiggles that editors use to communicate), and to think like copyeditors. Much of the homework is excruciatingly picky and time-consuming, and many students complain about it. But these are all adults; they have the choice to do the homework or not (there’s no grade in the course), and if they want to do it, they’ll get lots of practice (remember Ray Charles) in the thing they came to learn. But I don’t want them to get too down in the dumps and to hate the idea of copyediting, so I keep going with the stories.

One day they come in, and here’s what I’ve written on the flip chart: A jewel returned to it’s owner. I tell them that this is going to be a story about how copyediting skills are practical, and then I tell them that this line is almost the inscription that appeared on my mother’s gravestone.

And, well, they don’t know how to respond at all. First, they’ve just learned that my mother has a gravestone, and they want to respond with sympathy. Second, they’re not sure what the line on the flip chart means. Third, some have recognized the grammatical error and want to point it out. Fourth, they don’t know what I mean by almost; is it on the stone or not? They’re torn between the meaning and the mechanics —good training for the copyeditor—so I push on with my story.

My father lived in Detroit, and he placed the order for my mother’s gravestone after our family had together chosen the inscription. One weekend, my sister and I went to visit him, and he suggested that we go the stonecutter’s to check the template for the stone before the cutting began.

The stonecutter took us into the dusty workroom, where he had a rubbery sheet stretched over the face of my mother’s stone, with all the text drawn in, and then he left us to look at it. I pointed to the apostrophe in it’s.

“That shouldn’t be there,” I said.

My father and sister weren’t sure, so I gave an on-the-spot grammar lesson: It’s is a contraction, standing for it is; here, the ’s does not signal a possessive, as it usually does. The irregularity trips up many people; I’ve seen it in the manuscripts of Harvard professors—easy enough to excise with the editorial pen. Here, however, a cliché taking on literal meaning and about to be carved in stone.

Once my father and sister got my point, we hailed the stonecutter and told him the news. He argued: The apostrophe was needed. I argued back: It wasn’t. He shook his head. I nodded mine.

My sister, tired of the argument, picked up a pen, went to the stone, and drew a big x through the apostrophe. The stonecutter winced— You’ll regret this. But I didn’t, and instead, I felt like some editorial super-woman, swooping in to save the day.

The students are impressed with this story, so it’s a good time to give them something hard to do. On the course syllabus, I promised to tell about the dictionary. So I do. I start with an impossible spelling test. It’s a list of about 30 words like hors d’oeuvres, desiccate, deceased, innocuous, inoculate and millennium, but many of them are spelled wrong (with too many or too few double letters, for example), and the students have to identify which ones and correct them. I don’t really expect anyone to be able to do this. What I want to demonstrate is that spelling is hard, that our language is full of irregularities, and no one can know all of them. I explain also that our language is living, so it changes. That’s why Webster’s is in a 10th edition and will eventually be in an 11th. Words and meanings are added and dropped, and spellings change, or several spellings are acceptable, usually with the “preferred” spelling appearing first. Here’s Webster’s on the subject:

The writing system of Modern English allows for considerable variation, as is shown by the persistence of variant spellings like veranda and verandah, or judgment and judgement and by the fact that many compound words have solid, hyphenated, and open stylings all in common use currently (decision maker, decision-maker, decisionmaker). At the same time, however, it [the writing system] tends to be a force for standardization and unification because recorded language creates a precedent for future language use and provides a basis on which language use can be taught to the younger members of a community.

But who determines the standard? Again, it’s human beings. As invisible as copyeditors, a panel of linguists and scholars stands behind these small official-looking words on the dictionary page. They study and sift, respond to letters from users and do their best to interpret and uphold the trends and traditions.

“Webster’s is our friend,” I say. “I keep it on my desk almost all the time.”

I show the students the dictionary’s useful features—the biographical and geographical sections at the end and (my favorite) the synonym deconstructions and usage notes that follow selected words. Most students have never noticed these. So I ask them to look up, for example, concise. Andthere, they see an exposé of the subtle distinctions between concise, terse, succinct, laconic, summary, pithy and compendious. Once, I tell them, I left an author breathless by instructing him (thanks to American Heritage that time) on the differences between summit, peak, pinnacle, climax, apex and acme. The students are into their dictionaries now, so I move on to the usage notes.

“OK,” I say, “let’s discuss between and among.” Some (usually the younger students) look puzzled, and this surprised me the first time I taught the class.

“You never learned any rule?” I ask.

But those who did (usually the older students) are wedded to the rule they learned. In fact, I’ve found, it’s one of the few grammar rules some students remember. And that’s too bad, because I’m about to snatch their last shred of security. I ask them to read the usage note that appears at the entry for between (“There is a persistent but unfounded notion that between can be used only for two items …”).

Though upsetting to their sense of language reality, once the students recover, they’re empowered. They see where language authority comes from, and they see that rules are both useful and broken. And they start to see this, too:

It’s a wrestling match. In one corner, the great powerhouse: the living language, numinous, fighting for unshackled freedom. In the other corner, the cranky contender: a consortium of steadfast Webster’s, the weighty style manuals and the front-line copyeditors—sparring for standards, consistency, precedents.

The opponents meet. They circle. They become a cycle, a cycloid, a cyclometer, a cyclone, a cyclops, a cyclotron. They collide.

And it’s particles.

And the particles merge.

And they’re dots.

And the dots rally.

They become signs and wonders: letters of many shapes and sizes.

The letters connect, align themselves in neat horizontals.

Spaces nuzzle in, detach units of meaning: words.

And the words cluster.

They gel into sentences, paragraphs.

Marks, short and tall, judiciously intercede to signal pauses, stops, questions.

And long, skillful fingers tease out the flow.

They unsnarl, hone, buff, query.

And meanwhile, in quiet places all across the world, our readers, blissfully unaware of all that commotion, settle in and look to the page.

About the Author

Susan Messer

Susan Messer has fiction and nonfiction published in Glimmer Train Stories, Triquarterly, North American Review, Colorado Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Another Chicago Magazine, Lost,, and others. Awards include an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in prose, an Illinois Arts Council literary award for creative nonfiction, and prizes in Moment magazine’s short fiction competition, Chicago Public Radio’s Stories on Stage competition, and the Jewish Cultural Writing Competition of the Center for Yiddish Culture.

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