Proof Positive

Lisa Phillips

Who or whom? E-mail or email? Is it okay (or OK) to split infinitives? Is webisode a word?

It’s impossible for any one person to not only know all the basic grammar rules, but also to keep up to date (or is it up-to-date?) on the ever-evolving rules, especially in today’s fast-moving digital environment.

It’s the writer’s job to convey the intended message clearly, succinctly and accurately. This involves getting it out on (electronic) paper, thinking it through, revising, rethinking, and rewriting it until he is satisfied. Often, several people will collaborate to pull together the content and get it just right. By now, the content is so entrenched in the writer’s brain, as he’s reading through the final draft he sees what he expects to see – what he wrote – and he might miss small but significant errors.

That’s where the proofreader/editor comes in. A fresh, impartial set of eyes with no prior involvement with the content. Someone who’s passionate about grammar, language, and punctuation. Someone who will pick up on important little details, like a letter missing from the Web address at the bottom of the page, or the fact that “Nielson ratings” is really “Nielsen ratings.” Someone who keeps up on all the latest rules, like “website” is now one word, lowercase, but “Web” is capitalized. And email is one word; no hyphen. Health care is still two words. For now.

But what if your product doesn’t involve a lot of text? Surely if you are creating a business card for a client’s new hire and have verified the phone number and spelling of the name, there’s no need to bother with yet another set of eyes, right? Well … that extra set of eyes just happened to notice that the phone number format on the other cards is (555) 123-4567, while this card reads 555-123-4567. Or what if it’s just an ad, with very little narrative? That extra set of eyes noticed that it read “Joe Schmoe & Associates” at the top of the page and Joe Schmoe and Associates” at the bottom. Those eyes will go to Joe Schmoe’s website to make sure we get it right.

There are a number of style guides, and they might not all agree on every point. We primarily use the AP Stylebook but will often consult the Chicago Manual of Style and other online (not on-line; that is SO 2010!) references. But the client has the final say. If they like healthcare as one word, then the materials we produce for them will reflect that. The proofreader will ensure (not insure) consistency throughout the document; she will do a global search for “health care” and unless it’s part of a proper name, will change it to “healthcare.”

A good proofreader will also do a global search for two spaces after a period; that old rule went out well before the turn of the century. However, very rarely will she ever use the global search and replace function, because that will often come back to bite you in the … you know. Back in 2008, a news service called ONE NEWS NOW used a filter that changed words automatically. Thus, Olympic runner Tyson Gay became Tyson Homosexual in their Associated Press news feed. Oops! This illustrates the importance of using both electronic spellcheck and good, old-fashioned human proofreading. Only the human brain can read for context.

OK (not “okay,” according to AP), so were you waiting for the answers on those introductory questions? Use “who” for the subject and “whom” for the object. What – you don’t remember the sentence structures you learned in grammar school? All right, here’s a trick for remembering that one: the M rule. If the response would be “him,” use whom; if it would be “he,” use “who.” Who would answer the question? He would. Whom should we ask? We should ask him.

As for split infinitives, it’s a judgment call, not a hard-and-fast rule. You’re not going to receive a grammar citation for occasionally splitting infinitives. (See how I snuck that in there?)

Webisode is a word. So are webcam, webcast and webmaster. Stay tuned for more.

In case you were wondering, yes, I had someone else proofread this column. And yes, they did find errors.

– Lisa Phillips, Office Administrator

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