Secret Vice Revealed
I have proofread and edited hundreds of books: novels, biographies, histories, technical, legal and some which defeat categorisation. I have ghost-written a few and penned a couple all by myself. Nor have newsletters, magazines and newspapers escaped my blue scrawl.
And in all this time, both as a freelancer and in-house editor, I have kept a secret, a prejudice which may mark me out as small-minded, narrow and obsessive. Prejudice in a copy-editor is a pernicious trait; it clouds vision and weakens the ability to do the best job for that most important of beasts, the author.
So the admission of this prejudice is no small matter. It comes after careful thought. It is time, as some say, to fess up, to make a clean breast of it, to lay bare my guilt.
Authors for me as a copy-editor fall into three categories:
- Those who never use semicolons (please note the lack of a hyphen!)
- Those who use them and have no idea how they work.
- Those who use them well.
Well, in my book, the first and third types are all right. No one needs to use a semicolon; they’re not compulsory. But the second sort of author is without hope of redemption. I am immediately prejudiced against them and their work. I labour on, of course, and do my best, but I am pained by the knowledge that they use one of the most precious tools of composition without having bothered to learn how it works. Can their book be trusted in any other respect?
So, there it is. Some confess to greater secrets, I suppose: the body under the 1970 Yorkstone terrace, the systematic theft of small treats from an old Woolworths’ sweet counter, the love-child in Norwich or the forged reference from a dead academic. But for a man of limited scope like me, a man who has led a sequestered life of books and grammatical niceties this admission runs to the core. So please share it with compassion rather than a sneer. The small vices of small people are to them great enormities.