Monthly Archives: March 2007

To Hyphenate or Not, That Is the Question

Emily Alfson

Technical editors are often faced with the question of whether or not to hyphenate a word with a prefix.

Sometimes following traditional grammar rules is enough to make the decision, but in the world of technology where new words are formed every day and the audience spans the globe, the answer to the question of whether or not to hyphenate a word with a prefix has become more complex than ever. The contributors to the STC Technical Editing SIG discussion list recently pondered the issue of hyphenating words with prefixes and came up with two ways of approaching the issue.

The Grammarians

The grammarians take the more traditional approach to the issue. If the word in question can be found in a standard reference dictionary, these editors will most likely tell the writer to follow the hyphenation used in the dictionary.

These editors are more likely to place a hyphen between a prefix and a word if the meaning of the word is likely to be confused by the spelling. For example, re-sign and resign have very different meanings, as does coop and co-op.

The Intuitives

The intuitive editors tend to show a little more sensitivity to non-native speakers of English and use hyphens more often than not, even if the meaning of the word may seem clear without the hyphen. These writers and editors are more likely to check a variety of sources to see what the most common spelling of the word. They might also check other documents within their technical writing group and see how the word was used in the past to see if there was a trend towards one spelling or another. Then, these editors can draw a conclusion based on what the writers have used in the past and what is used by popular sources of information.

And in conclusion…

As with many of the decisions an editor must make every day, the decision of whether or not to hyphenate a word with a prefix should be based on grammar, an understanding of the audience, and the common usage of the word. No matter what decision you make, just be consistent with each word and clearly define your guidelines regarding hyphenation.

Podcasting: Entercation or Edutainment

John Martin

What do you think about someone you see walking around, or riding the bus, with earbuds in? I’ve wondered: What song are they listening to? What kind of music are they listening to? I wonder how loud that music is in their ears!

There’s a name for that “tinny sound that leaks out of somebody else’s iPod.” NPR producer Neva Grant calls it “ear spray.” But I digress…

Personally, I listen to about as many podcasts on my iPod as I do songs. Often, on a bus, when I literally “LOL” at something in a podcast episode, I wonder if people are wondering what could possibly be so funny about a song. And then I realize that what they’re really thinking is, “It’s not the song that’s a looney-tune.”

My newest podcast series subscription is to one called “Grammar Girl,” which I found addictive (or is that addicting—see episode no. 16 for the answer) after hearing the first two episodes. What’s great about them to me is that they address issues that even the most experienced of writers and editors think about, and they are presented in a most concise manner.

According to her website, “Grammar Girl quietly hides in plain sight as the real-life science writer Mignon Fogarty. She makes her living writing highly technical documents for large biotech companies (e.g., Applied Biosystems) and health articles for websites (e.g., the Stanford Cancer Center). Mignon earned a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and a M.S. in biology from Stanford University. … Grammar Girl believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. She strives to be a friendly guide in the writing world.”

Her average podcast is less than five minutes in length, and some topics covered so far in the series include:

  • Overuse of the word “of”
  • “i.e.” vs. “e.g.”
  • “Who” vs. “that” when talking about companies
  • “Which” vs. “that”
  • “Who” vs. “whom”
  • “Effect” vs. “affect”
  • “Among” vs. “between”
  • Split infinitives (She calls this a “grammar myth.”)
  • Style guides (Don’t work anywhere without one!)
  • Fighting wordiness and investigating idioms
  • “If I were there” vs. “I was there”
  • Which words in a title should be capitalized
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition (Times have changed!)
  • Redundancy with acronyms (e.g., the HIV virus)
  • The difference between acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations
  • Helpful tips for effective proofreading
  • Single quotation marks vs. double quotation marks
  • Generic singular pronouns (e.g., “he” vs. “she” vs. “one” vs. “s/he,” etc.)
  • When to use dashes
  • When to use colons
  • How to identify sentence fragments
  • “Its” vs. “it’s”

Grammar Girl is big on mnemonics, and whenever possible, she offers them as a way to remember a certain rule or tip. Here’s one she gives to remember the difference between effect and affect: “The arrow affected the aardvark,” and “the effect was eye-popping.” There are a words in the affect sentence, and e words in the effect sentence.

The other thing that’s great about her is that she is not at all pretentious. She freely admits that she’s there to provide “quick and dirty” tips. Here’s one of them with regards to the use of “who” and “whom”: “Like whom, the pronoun him ends with m. When you’re trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. That’s the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, then use whom, and it’s easy to remember because they both end with m.”

She gives an example for better understanding: “If you were asking, ‘Who (or whom) do you love?’ the answer would be ‘I love him.’ Him ends with m, so you know to use whom. So it’s, ‘Whom do you love?’

“But if you were trying to ask, ‘Who (or whom) stepped on Squiggly?’ the answer would be, ‘He stepped on Squiggly.’ There’s no m, so you know to use who. So, it’s, ‘Who stepped on Squiggly?'”

Before her quick and dirty tip, of course, she does give the actual grammar rule, in this case: “Use who when you are referring to the subject of a clause, and whom when you are referring to the object of a clause.”

Two other things I really like about Grammar Girl’s teaching style are that she provides historical context to rules when it might help in learning, and she uses current events as an impetus for some episode topics.

An example of historical context use can be found in her episode on apostrophes, where she says, “An interesting side note is that it doesn’t seem so strange that an apostrophe s is used so make words possessive once you realize that in Old English it was common to make words possessive by adding es to the end. For example, the possessive of fox would have been foxes, which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the e with an apostrophe to make fox’s in the possessive case. So, apostrophe s for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the e was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone eventually forgot all about the missing e.”

With regards to topics around current events, a recent podcast discussed the use of the word is in the Christmas carol line, “The Lord Is Come,” another addressed whether Saddam Hussein was hanged or hung, and yet another discussed why people are saying, “Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House,” when they would never say, “He was the first man Speaker of the House.”

Grammatically inquiring minds want to know!

There is a transcript of each episode on the Grammar Girl website, though she is currently polling her audience as to the value of this time-consuming activity for her. The transcript usually contains two sections at the end, one called “References,” which basically contains her citations, and another called, “Further Reading,” which contains pointers to articles of interest on the topic, or to the “nitty gritty” of the topic when the “quick and dirty” doesn’t tell the whole story.

Grammar Girl is committed to continuously improving her product. She often polls her audience on various ways to improve her episodes, and she is currently working to add “slides” to her podcasts, so that, depending on what kind of “client software” you’re using to receive her broadcast, you can see written examples of what she’s talking about, which at times would be incredibly helpful. Eventually, she’d like to delve into video as well.

You can listen to Grammar Girl podcasts even if you don’t have an mp3 player! Just go to her website, at either or, and you can listen online!

I, as a technical editor, intend to share this “resource” with the writers for whom I edit. (Even though Grammar Girl says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition these days, some old habits die hard.)

The official podcast name is “Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” All quotes in this article are from Grammar Girl episode transcripts at her Web site at link).

Reprinted from Technically Speaking, the newsletter of the NCSU student chapter of the STC, by permission of the author and editor.


Learning How to Edit

Michelle Corbin

In the middle of September, I posted the following questions to the STCTESIG-L listserv, the Technical Editing SIG discussion list:

  • How did you learn to edit?
  • What courses did you take to learn to edit?
  • Did you take online tutorials?
  • Did you take a local community college course?
  • Did you read a book?
  • Did you teach yourself “on the job”?

The most popular answer to these questions was college courses, community college courses, or certificate classes – in editing but also in writing as well. Many people reported that learning how to write well helped them learn how to edit well, and that understanding the writer’s perspective was critical to being a successful editor.

The most interesting (to me, anyway) answer to these questions was a programming course or a course on the technical subject matter that the text is written about. Understanding the technology or subject matter, at least to some degree, does indeed make someone a better technical editor, and I can definitely see how it helped someone learn how to edit.

Here is the complete list of ways that our SIG members learned how to edit:

  • College courses, as part of Technical Communication degrees
  • Community college courses
  • Educational courses on the technical subject matter
  • As part of a newsletter staff
  • From exercises in books
  • STC conference sessions
    • Sentence diagramming (You can search for many different STC conference proceedings papers on editing sentences and sentence diagramming on the STC Conference proceedings site: link))
    • Rules or Myths: The Changing English language (You can find Karen O’Keefe’s session materials on the STC Conference Web site: link), and you can probably search on each of the conference session materials site for more presentations on editing)
  • On the job, trial and error, internships
  • Mentors, on the job and within professional organizations
  • Being edited, by peers and by professors
  • Reading, anything and everything
  • Practice, practice, practice, consciously and unconsciously
  • Grammar books
  • Style books (Chicago Manual of Style, AP Style, any style book really)
  • Discussion lists
  • EEI Communications, and their selection of courses: link)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture courses: link)

In answering these questions about how they learned to edit, our SIG members often paid homage to their favorite grammar books, style books, or other editing resources that they used. I also compiled a list of those resources, which we hope to publish very soon.

Demonstrating the Value of Editing

Geoff Hart

Like all other technical communicators, we editors must sometimes struggle to prove our worth to employers. We know our value, and the more clueful of our authors understand, but sometimes it takes a bit more work to convince senior managers that we serve a useful purpose. Managers generally require specific examples, usually supported by hard numbers. In this article, I’ve provided a few random facts and figures that I’ve accumulated over the years that you can share with management. My case for demonstrating our worth won’t be truly compelling because of the scattershot nature of my examples. Nonetheless, they are compelling and may inspire you to begin collecting your own examples.

The examples I propose to offer for your edification fall into five broad categories:

  • defense against embarrassment
  • elimination of reprinting costs
  • defense against lawsuits
  • ensuring clear communication
  • reduced translation costs

Without further ado, let’s see some of the ways in which editors have (or could have) saved their employers considerable grief.

Defense against embarrassment

In a previous job, our desktop publisher was handed an important strategic plan to lay out and print, and wisely thought to ask the authors whether the manuscript had been edited. It had not been. The story was familiar: By then, the plan was so late (and I was so busy at the time) that the authors thought it would be better to eliminate the editing stage and simply rush the document into print. Forewarned, I was able to convince them I would drop everything else and stay late if necessary to complete the edit on time, and mercifully, they agreed. This proved to be fortunate indeed: in addition to the usual grammatical and other infelicities, the authors had somehow managed to get the name of a key group within our organization wrong! Since the report would have been distributed to thousands of influential partners and cooperators, you can imagine the embarrassment this error would have caused that group.

Such relatively minor errors may be forgiven by readers, but sometimes the repercussions are far more severe. Several years ago, a colleague reported a simple typo that she noted “could have had international repercussions”: the word assess became asses due to a dropped S. Even more seriously, Randy Cassingham (publisher of the wonderful This is True newsletter) reported egregious errors in Microsoft’s thesaurus for Word in 1996 that forced the company to formally apologize to customers in Mexico and Spain: apparently the Spanish version of the thesaurus offered such suggestions for Indian as savage and man-eater—a serious offense given the number of Mexicans with Indian heritage. The English version was not immune to this kind of problem and contained offensive errors of its own, offering pervert as a synonym for lesbian and civilized as a synonym for western ( link)).

Another colleague reported the time her managers chose to publish an entire symposium proceedings as “camera-ready copy” (i.e., the authors submitted the final page layout to the printer without any editing or proofreading by the publisher) without her involvement. Like me, she was perceived as being too busy to spare the time to do the work, so the manager responsible for the conference went around her. One author, who had spent his entire career butting his head against bureaucratic walls and fighting various political battles with professional colleagues, decided that this was the perfect opportunity to get even for more than 30 years of perceived humiliations, and published a jeremiad against his employer and colleagues. Since nobody edited or even proofread the collected documents, the offensive article was not spotted in time, the author’s rant was published and distributed widely, and the entire proceedings had to be recalled and destroyed when a reader reported the problem.

Elimination of reprinting costs

As the previous example illustrates, embarrassment can also have a significant financial cost: the need to reprint an entire print run of a publication. The Grand Haven Tribune reports ( link)) a recent example of the infamous pub(l)ic typo. In this case, the offending document was the Nov. 7 election ballot for Michigan’s Ottawa County, and the missing L cost the county more than US$50,000: they were forced to reprint 170,000 ballots at a cost of roughly US$0.30 per ballot. Although “about five or six people proofread it,” clearly none of them was a professional editor. Ironically, the Tribune article stated that the cost to the county was US$40,000, which is clearly incorrect if the stated number of ballots and printing cost are both correct; miscellaneous setup and other costs may account for the missing US$11,000, but my 20 years of experience working with scientific authors suggest this really is a simple arithmetic error. This illustrates that even editors are human and subject to error—but as outsiders, we are less familiar with the original writing and are thus less likely to simply accept the author’s assumptions and let such errors pass.

Similarly, several proofreading errors cost the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) US$75,000 and cost at least one employee’s job. As CBS Chicago reports ( link)), CTA incorrectly printed the Belmont station name as Bemont (what is it about the letter L that makes it so easy to miss?), omitted the Fullerton stop, and provided the wrong telephone number (for a private individual’s cell phone) at the bottom of the signs. These errors required the reprinting of 3,000 signs for CTA’s trains. In addition, the person responsible for proofreading the signs was fired.

Defense against lawsuits

It’s interesting to speculate how much a good editor can save a newspaper or television or radio station annually in libel charges, thereby also reducing fees for libel insurance. Similarly, one wonders how many editors have saved the literary careers of their authors, or have saved publishers from messy lawsuits. Undoubtedly, a legal scholar could provide a great many examples of cases where foolhardy cost reductions (i.e., eliminating one or more editing stages) caused precisely such problems. This would make for a fascinating case study for STC. (Am I hinting too broadly?)

When I asked colleagues for specific examples of this kind of editorial benefit, several colleagues provided good ones, including “several examples of poor wording in environmental reports that left the author/company open to lawsuits”; as I was told these were confidential, I cannot present them here. One colleague who contributed her example in the copyediting-l discussion group ( link)), noted how she came across the phrase “Eat shit and git!” in a set of review comments and author’s responses for a contractor’s report that was about to be submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The phrase had somehow made it through the previous stages in the review and revision process, and because the finished report was due by the end of the day, there was a serious risk that the phrase would have made it into print without the editor’s oversight.

Ensuring clear communication

Though we’re often tempted (or even requested) to confine ourselves to copyediting, good editors understand that despite the importance of punctuation, sometimes the meaning is too important for punctuation alone to carry the full burden. As NPR recently reported in the story “Million-Dollar Comma May Aid Canadian Company,” ( link)), sometimes the subtleties of punctuation are simply too subtle. A recent Canadian contract dispute centered on the problems posed by a single misplaced comma that may save one of the signatories an estimated Can$2 million. In this case, Rogers Communications signed a contract with Bell Aliant to use Bell’s telephone poles, and when Bell Aliant sought to end the deal, they noticed the following clause: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” As the government regulator that ruled on this dispute noted, the second comma makes the “and thereafter” phrase parenthetical rather than a crucial part of the concluding phrase. The result is that the contract is valid for 5 years unless Bell gives 1 year’s notice. Presenting this as two separate clauses would have eliminated the confusion.

Editors can also contribute to the peer review process by polishing manuscripts to eliminate the usual range of punctuation and grammar errors, thereby improving the manuscript’s ability to communicate with the reviewer. This kind of work is appreciated. Over the years, I’ve received a great many thank-you letters from journal editors for helping them make the review process go more smoothly; indeed, I now earn a comfortable living helping authors for whom English is a second language publish their research in English journals. One of my proudest moments was when one journal actually named me “associate editor” to reward my efforts on their behalf!

When I worked for the Canadian federal government, I found that manuscripts I edited before submission to a journal were almost never returned for a failure to follow the journal’s formatting guidelines—and when it did happen, it was usually my fault for not doing a better job of policing my authors and reviewing the corrected manuscript before submission. Back in the pre-Internet days, such rejections cost us the price of one courier delivery plus a week or more of lost time. Now that we use e-mail, a rejection doesn’t cost us any money and we can resubmit the manuscript within hours rather than losing a day or two while the courier package makes its way to the journal. Nonetheless, why not do the job right the first time? But we also rarely received significant copyediting comments from journal reviewers. This is important because it meant that the journal reviewers were focusing almost exclusively on the scientific content of the manuscript rather than on points of grammar and style. The implications are clear: my authors were communicating highly complex material so clearly that reviewers could concentrate on the technical and scientific content, not the writing. Unfortunately, I never collected any statistics on the results of the reviews: the difference between the reviews of edited and unedited manuscripts was so dramatic I never felt motivated to do so.

More importantly, the quality of the reviews improved. It seems logical that if reviewers aren’t focusing on correcting the writing style and don’t have to use all their concentration to understand what the author is saying, they can devote more of their finite supply of mental resources to critiquing the science. Similarly, there’s considerable anecdotal evidence from the technical writing community that providing well-edited drafts for review by subject-matter experts helps those experts catch a greater number of substantive errors. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any studies that specifically collected statistics on how editing shifts the review process from copyediting to substantive review. If you’re aware of any such studies, please send me details—and if not, perhaps this represents an opportunity for STC’s academic members to do the research.

Reduced translation costs

One colleague in Toronto told me about the results of “a confidential internal study,” in which one of his larger clients demonstrated how careful editing of their publications was saving tens of millions of dollars in reduced translation costs. Because I was unable to contact the company to obtain specific details, treat this as purely anecdotal evidence. However, you can see the possible benefits using a little simple math. Here’s a personal example.

In my own work, I do French-to-English technical translations of documents sufficiently unique that translation memory tools don’t help much: many phrases are reused, but so many differ between manuscripts that we haven’t been justified in implementing full-scale machine-assisted translation. In many cases, I was asked to edit the manuscripts before they went for translation, and authors or their supervisors would ask me to cut the length of a manuscript by 25 to 50% to reduce printing and mailing costs. For a typical manuscript of about 2,000 words, that means a reduction of 500 to 1,000 words. At a rate of Can$0.20 per word, the going rate for these translations in our area, this word reduction amounts to Can$100 to Can$200 in savings per manuscript. Given that the editing work necessary to reduce text by this much typically took me a maximum of 1 to 2 hr (for 25 and 50% reductions, respectively) for documents of this length, the cost of the work amounted to Can$65 to Can$130 at my standard hourly rate. The result? A savings of Can$35 to Can$70 per manuscript—and often more. That’s not enough to cover the cost of the editing, but it does greatly reduce the net cost. The reduction in printing costs from a 50% reduction in the manuscript’s length are likely to be far more significant; for a large print run, they would more than cover the cost of editing.

You can easily extrapolate these figures to other situations. For example, in areas such as software documentation, where there is considerable repetition within any given text, translation memories let translators automatically reuse standard translations for repeated words and phrases, thereby eliminating the need to retranslate this text for each new document. As a result of this automation, translation costs are much lower—typically nearer to US$0.01 per word. Let’s use that figure to simplify the calculations. Using the same length reductions I reported in my personal example, the savings per manuscript (500 to 1,000 words per 2,000-word manuscript) would amount to savings of US$5 to US$10. It’s easy to modify this figure using your actual translation cost per word and the actual length of the document; for example, the savings for a 100,000-word software manual at a translation cost of US$0.05 per word would equal US$1,250 to US$2,500.

It’s possible to come up with similar estimates for cost savings for printing costs, and if your work is published in a forum (most commonly, peer-reviewed journals) that charges authors a fixed fee per page of text, the savings can be substantial at a cost of US$100 per page (not an unusual cost).

A call to action for STC and STC members

These kinds of examples are compelling, but not finally convincing: several of my examples are neither well-documented nor supported by data on how common the problems are. As I noted above, a skilled law student or journalist should be able to turn up numerous case studies of lawsuits resulting from a lack of editing; indeed, such studies may already exist. It would be nice if STC awarded a research grant to someone with better research skills than I possess to document the costs of these and other problems and publish the study results in an influential business journal such as the Harvard Business Review. In the meantime, it would be an interesting project for STC’s Technical Editing SIG to begin collecting my examples and better-documented examples submitted by other SIG members in a database. Continuously updating this database, and possibly even publishing periodic summaries, would be a great way to demonstrate the value of our profession.