The Bloody Red Pen

“Renown?” Um, No

Okay, kids, it’s time for another fun-filled episode of Copy Editor Pet Peeves with your charmingly curmudgeonish host, me.

I was just reading an article on “bad movies that are fun to watch” (you know the type) and I saw this sentence referring to the iconic Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House:

“…let’s act like America is a country where club bouncers are revered and renown like celebrities…” [emphasis mine]

Um, no.

No, no, no, no.


The word is not “renown.” Not in this context, anyhow. I’ve been seeing this error a lot recently, almost as if it’s just suddenly and spontaneously become a thing, and it’s driving me nuts. For the record — and write this down, you will be graded — it’s “renowned” with an “-ed” at the end. RenownED.

“Renown” is a noun meaning “acclaim.” It’s something you possess or are given. If you are fortunate enough to have someone give you renown, then you are renowned, just as you are “acclaimed” when you receive acclaim. Simple, right? And yet people are blowing it all the time… even in a sentence where it’s preceded by the correct past participle “revered.” Didn’t it look strange to have one action-word ending in “-ed” but not the other?

Sigh. “Renowned,” not “renown.”


The Latest Bit of Biz-Speak: Enterprise with a Capital “E”

Here’s the latest thing that’s making me crazy in my professional capacities: business writing that capitalizes the word “enterprise,” as in “a very large company,” thusly: “We make products for Enterprises that require products.” And you want to cap that… why?

I don’t know about you guys, but anytime I see the word “Enterprise” with a capital E, this is what I think of:




Today’s Example of Tiresome Biz-Speak I Need Never See Again

Any permutation of the construction “ever-hyphen-whatever”: ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-challenging, ever-tightening, ever-expanding… you get the idea. Yes, it’s a useful construction that handily conveys the idea of unremitting, implacable forces that are constantly on the brink of spiraling out of your control (unless, of course, you buy Product X or Service Y right now to help you get a handle on it all!). But I’m seeing it everywhere, in just about every document I proof lately, and it’s really getting old…

That is all. Now back to your regularly scheduled Internet.


Why I Loathe Corporate Jargon

I’ve done a lot of griping over the years about the “bizspeak” I encounter in the materials I proofread, weird stuff like “leverage” and “dialogue” used as verbs instead of nouns; weasel words designed to obfuscate unpleasantness, like “downsize” and “rightsize” instead of “layoffs”; and stuff that in any other context would just sound creepy, such as “thought leader.” (I can’t help it: whenever I read that one, I immediately picture some kind of mind-controlling alien monster from Doctor Who manipulating a bunch of zombie-slave humans.) I’ve always assumed the awfulness of this stuff was self-evident, but weirdly enough, I’ve found myself more than once trying to explain to others why it offends me so much. Many people don’t seem to mind it, and some even champion it, and nothing I’ve said on the subject ever seems to sway those poor misguided souls who’ve let The Man so thoroughly indoctrinate them with his mediocrity. Me being me, I naturally blame myself. My meager talents obviously haven’t been up to the task of articulating the deep cosmic wrongness of corporate jargon.

Perhaps all I need, though, is a little help from a fellow traveler, another true believer in just saying what you mean instead of trying to sound smart or cool or whatever it is these people are doing. Here’s one of Andrew Sullivan‘s readers from earlier today:

Whenever a colleague uses “deliverable” in my presence, I am seized
with a strong desire to bring the meeting to a shrieking halt and demand
an actual, specific description of the thing he expects to be

Imagine if we used these sorts of meaningless, reflexive nouns to
describe all the objects in our lives.  This apple in my lunch?  It’s
actually just an eatable, just like everything else I consume today. 
I’m writing this sendable to you on a typeable.  When I’m done, I’ll
lean back in my sitable and use my thinkable to imagine a world that
doesn’t turn me into a suicideable.

Consultants use words like deliverable because it saves them the
trouble of actually explaining what they do, because the meat of our
work is so often complicated, imprecise, and poorly conceived.  This
problem, though, is precisely why consultants (and lawyers and other
people who traffic in ideas instead of concrete physical products)
should avoid vague, meaningless words.  If your goal on a project is
complicated and imprecise, your first step should be to think hard about
those goals, identify and name them.  When you rely on “action items”
and “deliverables” to get you to the end, you will most likely produce
something nearly as meaningless and useless as the words you’ve used to
describe its creation.

Amen, brother, whoever you are! (I regret that this writer was not identified in the blog entry I ganked his words from…)


Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall Were Married to Merle Haggard?!

Well, that’s what you may think reading the following photo caption from a story about the legendary country singer Haggard:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

You see the problem there? The way the second sentence is punctuated, it appears that Merle’s ex-wives are named Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. Anything’s possible, of course, and I’m certainly an open-minded guy about such things, but I tend to think it’s more likely the caption writer meant that the documentarians interviewed two ex-wives, as well as Kristofferson and Duvall, for a total of four people interviewed. But that writer is apparently one of the type of people I bicker with almost daily, the ones who think the serial comma is an outmoded and overly fussy affectation favored only by grammar snobs and professional pedants. I wish I could just let such arguments go and say that it’s their business if they want to live dangerously. But I’m afraid such things are actually my business. I’m a proofreader, you see, and I’m all about preventing misunderstandings that conflate two innocent women with two grizzled celebrities. Behold, and see the difference a simple little comma can make:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

Now, was that so difficult? There really is no excuse for putting up with a major case of ambiguity simply because you don’t like the look of an extra punctuation mark in your sentence, or because you’re too lazy to punch that key one more time, or whatever the reason is. I’ve heard them all, and none of them fly when it comes to plain old-fashioned clarity.
Serial commas, people. They were invented for a good reason.

Via Jeff Weintraub, who agrees with me that serial commas rock.


Quick Tip: “Breath” vs. “Breathe”

Just a note from your curmudgeonly neighborhood proofreader: the words “breathe” and “breath” are not interchangeable, and the one is not an archaic or European spelling of the other. They both have their purpose.

“Breathe” is a verb. You breathe deeply. You breathe more clearly after taking a decongestant.

“Breath” is a noun. You take a breath when you breathe. We say something is a breath of fresh air. You curse pedantic, pain-in-the-butt proofreaders under your breath.

Got it? Good.

I’m glad we had this little chat. Carry on, now.


How Do You Know You’ve Done Too Much Proofreading?

You know you’ve been doing too much proofreading when you’re on your own time, outside the office, enjoying a fun little escapist novel about vampires, werewolves, fairies, and beautiful Southern girls who can read minds, and you come across the following sentence:

Since I was very nervous with Sam’s Blackberry, he entered the totals while I counted…

And you find yourself thinking that “Blackberry” should have an intercap B and a registered trademark, like so: BlackBerry®.
I couldn’t have had adamantium claws or the ability to fly or something cool; no, my superpower has to be “attention to detail.” Sigh…


What Is Success, Anyway?

The following sentence, gleaned from the endless flood of material that’s been flowing through my inbox the last couple of days, is perhaps the most fabulously inane bit of copy I’ve ever encountered:

[The device] will make a successful sound when successfully entering data into a field, and will make an unsuccessful sound when the scan does not successfully enter data into a field.

What the hell is a “successful sound,” anyhow? Is it one that owns a big house on the east side and a summer cabin up in the Uintas? One that skis in Vail every other weekend, and drives a black Escalade that never seems to have mud-splashes on the rear quarters?
What does a successful sound actually, you know, sound like? Is it like a bell? A chime? A bird tweet? The contented sigh of a bikini-clad teenage girl sunning herself on a hot summer day? For that matter, what does an “unsuccessful sound” sound like? The first thing that comes to my mind is the truncated raspberry sound at the end of the opening credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Which tells you an uncomfortable lot about my mind, probably.
Lest you think I’ve pulled this sentence out of context for comic effect, let me assure you that this is the only line in the entire document that addresses these rival sounds. There is no further description — or even mention! — of them.
I think I’m done at the office for today. I’m blowing this pop stand and heading for home… ibuprofen and whiskey await.


Proofreader Humor

Another busy cycle at the office, with frustratingly little time or energy left over for blogging. Or much of anything else, for that matter. Grrrrrr. No matter how old I get, I don’t think I’ll ever manage to resign myself to the wildly uneven ratio of hours consumed by my day job versus how much time I’m able to spend on my “real life.”

Be that as it may, I have to quickly share something I ran across this afternoon. For some bizarre reason, my most heated professional disputes tend to revolve around the lowly comma. Who knew such a tiny little squiggle of ink could provoke such great passion in people? The serial comma, in particular, seems to make creative directors, account managers, clients, and legal teams absolutely crazy. For the record, I’m a fan of the serial. It banishes ambiguity to the dark, frigid hell where it belongs, and anyway the AP Style is obsolete, as far as I’m concerned. It consists largely of shortcuts that were conceived back in the days when metal type was set by hand, and character counts and column width actually mattered. Now that creating more space on a page is as easy as shrinking the font size or shifting a graphic around on a screen, why continue using an imperfect technique that invites misreading?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made this argument, usually to no avail. But now I’ve got one that’s even better, one that simply cannot be countered… commas save lives. Observe:

Commas Save Lives

Yep, nuthin’ more to be said after that…
(Source, via.)


I Can’t Breath…

t’s been a while since I got on my high horse about the routine maiming of the English language by non-English majors whose job descriptions don’t require an in-depth knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style. (People who aren’t me, in other words.) That’s because these proofreading pet-peeve entries are largely dependent on what I’ve been encountering out there in the wild, and it just hasn’t seemed worth my time or yours to call out yet another example of incorrect apostrophe usage. (Good God, I see that everywhere; what’s the matter with our schools these days, anyhow?)

In the last few days, however, I’ve noticed several examples of something a little more substantive: the frequent misuse of the word “breath” when the writer obviously means “breathe,” as in, “I can’t breath because the air pollution is so bad.” Specifically, I’ve seen this popping up on Facebook and also in the comments on the Salt Lake Tribune website, which leads me to wonder if this is perhaps a Utah-ism, like our preternatural affection for Jell-O. (That’s not a myth, incidentally; we eat a hell of a lot of Jell-O in these parts.) Even if it isn’t unique to this state, though, it certainly is prevalent here. Interestingly, this tic doesn’t seem to cross over to verbal speech; people don’t say “I can’t breath” when they’re talking, only when they’re writing. But writing, of course, is my professional purview, and it’s what drives me crazy when it’s done incorrectly.

So, let’s run through it, shall we?

Breath is a noun. It is the parcel of air that you inhale or exhale, as in, “I took a deep breath.”

Breathe is a verb. It is the act of inhaling and exhaling, as in “I breathe deeply.”

See? Easy, isn’t it?

You know, this actually reminds me of another Utah thing I may have written about before, the confusion between “loose” and “lose.” I repeatedly see people writing that they are “loosing their minds” or that they “feel like a looser.” Nope, sorry, kids. You lose your keys; that guy over there is a loser. However, your pants are loose because your diet is working. Get it?

And we have time for just one more thing, a funny typo that I caught at work this morning: someone wrote “protocol” as “proto-call.” As in the evolutionary precursor of a call, I guess, like smoke signals.

Well, I thought it was funny.

Today’s episode of The Bloody Red Pen has been brought to you by the number 1138…