Dictionaries Don’t Know Everything

One duty of a copyeditor is to check spelling, including whether a term should be solid, hyphenated, or open. Some terms are open, that is, they are written as two words, e.g., living room. If you search for livingroom (closed) at Merriam-Webster, you’ll be redirected to the page for living room (open).

Some terms vary depending on their usage:

set up (verb) — Help me set up the living room.
setup (noun) — They have a nice setup there.
shell shock (noun) — They’ve got a bad case of shell shock.
shell-shocked (adjective) — They have a shell-shocked look in their eyes.

Terms can vary over time, too. The game originally known as base ball went through a phase as base-ball before becoming baseball.

This Google Ngram shows how base-ball overtook base ball, only to be replaced by baseball.

The problem is, dictionaries can lag behind usage, especially in the case of industry- or genre-specific jargon. I came up against this recently while editing a science fiction novel. The manuscript had view screen where every Trekkie cell of my being said it should be viewscreen. If you search Merriam-Webster for viewscreen, you’ll get “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.”

I’m guessing my client typed viewscreen, Word’s spell checker told him to make it view screen, and he did. The problem is that a science fiction novel in which the characters watch a view screen is going to look positively Vernian in its quaintness. Which would be fine if you were going for that old-fashioned milieu. But in a book with a modern vibe, it would be as much a clunker as a chick-lit story in which the meet-cute happens at a base ball game. Note that meet-cute is hyphenated.

What’s a copyeditor to do? I know the audience expects viewscreen, but the dictionary admits to no such spelling. Here I turned to Google Ngram.

Ngrams don’t search the web; they search all the books in the Google Books corpus, which is a blinking lot of books, compiled from curated library collections of professionally edited books. Here’s my result:

You can see that the open form view screen predominates up until the time of Star Trek, after which the solid form viewscreen takes off.

Looking into the Google Books corpus to see the citations behind these charts reveals a lot of science fiction novels, many of them Star Trek tie-ins.

So here’s what a copyeditor does: she adds a note to the style sheet for this project that because this is a science fiction novel, we’re going to follow genre convention and make viewscreen solid. This will ensure that we (author, copyeditor, and proofreaders) keep the term consistent throughout the work.

This kind of editorial decision is one some authors and editors hesitate to make. Defying Merriam-Webster may feel too rebellious for some. But sometimes the lexicographers are behind genre trends. Serving the reader and adhering to genre conventions are more important than obeying the spelling checker.

What to Do with Hyphens

The guidelines for hyphenation are complex and inconsistent. At least copyeditors are kept in business, but it can be frustrating for a writer to understand when to hyphenate and when not. Hyphenation errors are among the most common spelling problems I see. Yes, spelling. Hyphens are often thought of as punctuation, but matters of hyphenation are correctly classified under spelling, as they are in Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors and The Chicago Manual of Style. At the risk of sounding like your mother, most of what you need to know about how to spell a word can be found by looking it up in a dictionary. Continue reading

Grammar and Spelling Resources

Last time, we looked at the first two parts of PUGS, Punctuation and Usage. Today we’ll look at the others.


In common speech, we often use “grammar” to encompass all parts of writing, including spelling and punctuation. But grammar really refers specifically to the way we assemble words into sentences.

English grammar is very complex, and has multiple registers, or degrees of formality. Many college instructors require the most formal register, so that’s what many businesspeople use. At its most extreme, this register eliminates both first and second-person pronouns, leading to unnatural constructions like “this researcher has found” and “one may notice” instead of “I’ve found” and “you may notice.” In standard writing, there is no proscription against these forms. So you can choose whatever level of formality you’re comfortable with. In a blog, you can be very casual. Continue reading

Yes, spelling counts in novels also

You may write the most brilliant story with the most sympathetic characters, but if your manuscript is full of spelling errors and typos, you will struggle to find readers.

Spelling is correct.

English spelling is notoriously difficult. It is rarely phonetic, as Spanish is, and is not consistent, as French is. Honestly, the only way those kids who win the spelling bees do it is by memorizing. If you’re not entering a spelling bee, just use a good dictionary. The folks at The Chicago Manual of Style recommend Merriam-Webster’s. The abridged version is free, and will serve most of your needs. An unabridged version is available by subscription if you think it necessary.

A less authoritative but still fun source is OneLook, which searches over a thousand dictionaries. It’s useful for highly specialized terms and slang that hasn’t made it into traditional dictionaries yet. Continue reading

Keeping track of plurals and possessives

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com

© JJAVA – Fotolia.com

Errors involving the presence or absence of an apostrophe or the letter s are among the most common spelling mistakes, which is why I mention the problem over on my Services page:

There is some overlap among line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. For example, all include taking care of pesky details like ensuring plural possessives of surnames ending in s are formed correctly.

What does that mean, exactly? Continue reading

When it’s okay to spell okay ‘OK’

Writers and editors may be the only people who get into arguments about spelling. In fact, I think it could easily be said that if you’re inclined to argue about how things ought to be spelled, you’re an editor, at heart if not by title.

OK button

Illustration by 3d_kot – Fotolia.com

I’ve been inclined to spell OK with two letters for as long as I can remember. Maybe I read an article about its origins early on. There’s no telling. But that spelling became deeply ingrained when I worked in the newsroom, because it’s the one endorsed by the Associated Press Stylebook.

So I was surprised when not one, but two critique partners, on two different occasions, told me OK was “wrong” and that the only acceptable spelling is okay. Further shock ensued when they both cited The Chicago Manual of Style as the origin of this edict. Continue reading