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.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the helpful information.

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