Columnists > Voices

Confessions of a proofreader

Punctuation, grammar, and other errors need to be overruled

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

I have no confidence in history. I don't mean the stuff Santayana says we should remember, or we're condemned to repeat it. I mean the books-the digested, scripted, packaged and bound authorized version of things.

It wasn't always like this with me. Not that I swallowed great gulps of the Peloponnesian Wars in high school. And I admit it's my fault, not St. Clare High's, that in my 50s I suffer recurring cold-sweat dreams about running out of semester before running out of Palmer & Colton's A History of the Modern World.

I married and my husband liked history. Liked it well enough to write a 600-page dissertation on the 20th-century Korean church, which he had me proofread. Here is where my sordid tale begins.

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The job description was simple enough: "Just fix the grammar."

Even those of us who are French Canadians wed to Koreans should be able to manage that. Or so I thought. Just cross out every place you find "the," insert "the" every place you don't. Change "r" to "l" and vice versa, as in "probrem." (My husband wrote like he talked.)

I wouldn't say I'm an especially trusting person. I tend to test every word my neighbors say, putting out a tentative toe for land mines before offering myself, doing a little excavation before exposing my own foibled personality.

But when it comes to language, to the printed text, I plunged ahead with all the faith of a Calvin, expecting it to hold me up, to lead me where it promises.

Picture a page of print. Suddenly, in a preview of the Apocalypse, all the coordinating conjunctions are raptured. You are left without a compass in the thicket of a history with names like Kwang Suk Suh and Kidok Shinbo and Pasoo Koon. You feel betrayed by dependent clauses that lead you along through a string of commas, then right up against the brick wall of a period.

More flexible people would catch on to the flow of a sentence where just one comma's out of place. But I plead your indulgence:

Losing that, war was inevitable.

Losing that war was inevitable.

More optimistic people would make it a game. A sort of Rubik's Cube. An Easter egg hunt for modes of relationship- Causality? Chronology? Sequentiality? Opposition? Apposition? Contingency?

Not me. I burst into the study, to an unsuspecting spouse, thrust the paper in his hand and challenge, "Here, YOU read that!"-already gloating in my victory. Unruffled, he proceeded. Placidly, he finished: "What's the probrem?"

OK, I go for Rubik's Cube, peppering pages with judicious applications of . . .

"Still, . . ."

"Notwithstanding . . ."

"By corollary, . . ."

"Parenthetically, . . ."

"Nevertheless, . . ."

"Specifically, . . ."

"More to the point, . . ."

And slowly, ever so slowly, flecks of gold emerge from the dross. Inside my husband's head, behold, there is a logic crying to come out.

People who have tried it know there's a fine line between editing and creating content; the one is a respectable service, the other cheating. (I'd better figure out the difference soon: With the café behind me, I'll no doubt be doing more proofreading.) But what do you do, I pray you, when a quoted Dr. Park "says" 150 times in a row? After a while, one is tempted to make him "intone," to "demur," to "report," even (heaven help me) to "pontificate."

I became more daring, positing states of emotion, guessing at personality traits, filling in gaps:

"Jubilantly, . . ."

"Not surprisingly, . . ."

"With characteristic humility . . ."

I thought of all the people who might read this. Would they be word-trusters like me? Would they put too much confidence in my descriptive embellishments and absorb them into their worldviews?

I thought of all the footnotes (there are hundreds), all the authors that my husband quoted, trusted, rested on for his own enlightenment. Every one with proofreaders, every one with deadlines, every one subject to fatigue, ego, and homoeoteleuton. I mean, how does the Fall affect all this, anyhow?

My husband might have been right that I'm neurotic. But I now read Newsweek editorials with a jaundiced eye, not the same person I was. Still, I am weighing what he said. What's in a comma, after all? The divine Being over us will overrule all our errors. Or is it: The Divine, being over us, will overrule all our errors?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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