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I hear what you're saying: sometimes what we hear and what we put on paper are entirely different things.

One of the best pieces of editing advice I ever got was to make sure I heard what people were saying. I was working at a midsize daily newspaper, and it was my first real editing job out of college. There was one editor, a gruff but goodhearted old-timer right out of central casting, who had taken on the task of educating the "newbies" in the finer points of newspaper editing. One of his pet peeves was reporters and editors who didn't take the time to clarify (or delete) the malapropisms and colloquialisms that occasionally made their way into the reporter's copy.

What did he mean? Everyone has at least a smidge of a regional accent. You likely don't notice yours, but if you're from New York and you visit Chicago, you know you stand out when you ask for directions. And vice versa. The newspaper where I was working was in New England--which has a boatload of regional accents. And sometimes, said my boss, those accents made it into the paper in ways that were at the very least amusing, never mind potentially embarrassing.

For instance, a reporter had submitted a story about a number of horses that had been relocated because of a bonfire. A bonfire? What was so unusual about a bonfire, and what was the connection to the horses? Turns out the reporter (who was not native to the area) got the story from a local resident who dropped his r's--the fire was in a barn, i.e., a barn fire.

Fortunately, an editor asked the question and got the real story before it made its way into print--and likely evoked chuckles and maybe a few phone calls from readers. But there are plenty of other examples--the kind you end up seeing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

You say potato, I say po-tah-to

It's easy to make mistakes--just read an unedited transcript of an interview and see how many times similar-sounding words appear in the text, never mind the typical misuses of it's and its, your and you're, there and their, and so on. People rarely speak in clear, complete sentences, so not only would you read a transcript looking for those types of errors, you would also delete those distracting um's, uh's and well's, and change or delete commonly spoken non-words like irregardless that keep the speaker's point from coming through. As that editor told me, you need to hear what people are saying and make that connection with what's on the page. Sometimes it means paraphrasing instead of using a quote.

Idioms can be especially tricky to put to paper. In everyday speech, these little phrases are usually understood, but they can get garbled in print. One of the most common I've seen is for all intensive purposes. It should be for all intents and purposes, but it's amazing how often it appears incorrectly. The the line or tow the line? I suppose you could tie the line to your car and drive off, but toe the line is correct. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, this expression dates from the 1800s and refers to "runners in a race placing their toes on the starting line and not moving until the starting signal." Even a word like sightseeing can cause problems--you could argue that you are seeing the sites, but they're actually sights.

Of course, if you're writing for a global audience, you probably should avoid using idioms completely. Like puns, idioms involve a level of familiarity with the language, and sometimes their meaning is lost in translation.

Terms in other languages are potentially troubling too. Is it per se or per say? (Per se, from the Latin, meaning "intrinsically.") Ad nauseam or ad nauseum? (Ad nauseam, from the Latin, meaning "to an excessive degree.") Say la vie. Say what? It's c'est la vie.

Did you hear that?

Editors don't just edit print, they also edit speech (albeit silently, in the privacy of their own homes, although I know a few who have no qualms about correcting grammar or pronunciation in person). Do you cringe when you hear someone mispronounce a word or use a term incorrectly? June Casagrande, in her book Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, picks up on one grammatical misuse that's not unheard of in the towns north of Boston: I should have went. (I thought I was the only person who had noticed this while I was living there, but apparently not.) Of course, it should be I should have gone.

In today's world of 24-hour news, sports and weather channels, it's not unusual to hear someone trying to fill airtime and coming up with the wrong word. Or too many words. I once heard a sportscaster ask a former baseball player, "Did you frequent the Polo Grounds a lot?" Twitch. Another reported that the players were rewarded "not only monetarily, but also financially." Double twitch. The good thing (if there is such a thing) is that these little verbal snafus usually go unnoticed, and even when they are noticed they disappear just as quickly into the air. On paper you won't be so lucky.

on the bookshelf

* The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms is an excellent resource for editors and writers who want to make sure they're using idiomatic expressions correctly.

* Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (McGraw-Hill, 1987) covers more than 1,500 troublesome words and phrases.

the wrong word can be so malapropos

A malapropism is the incorrect use of a word that is similar in sound to the one intended but has a different meaning, usually with a humorous result. The term comes from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th-century play The Rivals, in which one character, Mrs. Malaprop, was prone to mix up her words. These days, U.S. President George W. Bush is a renowned malapropist; some memorable gaffes include "We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile" and "We need an energy bill that encourages consumption."

In Malaysia, poor speech will cost you

If mispronounced words and poor grammar drive you nuts, you have company. According to the Associated Press (AP), officials in Malaysia will begin fining individuals who incorrectly use the Malay language.

To help enforce the rules, the government is setting up a special division to "weed out offenders who mix Malay with English," the AP reported. While most Malaysians speak Malay, English words have made their way into the language, and "Manglish"--a mix of Malay, English and other dialects--is commonly used.

It's not the first time an institution has tried to maintain the integrity of its native tongue in our increasingly global world--the Academie Francaise has made efforts to prevent the influx of English words into the French language, with some success--but this may be the first time fines have been assessed on offenders!


Sue Khodarahmi is managing editor of Communication World.
COPYRIGHT 2007 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:editor's angle
Author:Khodarahmi, Sue
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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