Imprecise language feeds my imagination

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

I'm not really a perfectionist, though I do have a hard time living with my mistakes. I'm not really obsessive compulsive, though I do have tendencies. I'm not really anal retentive, but … let's leave well enough alone.

I am, however, as close as Wednesday Journal has to a copy editor. As close as we've ever had. Most people don't really know all of what I do here (some seem to think I'm a full-time columnist), but copy editing is one of my duties and I take a peculiar satisfaction in it — which no one, especially my boss (or me for that matter), ever would have predicted.

At the same time it is borderline maddening.

There is so much … imprecision … in writing the English language. Perfectionists do not make good copy editors because it makes them extraordinarily cranky. And English will frustrate any lover of language as much as golf frustrates a middle-aged male. I don't golf, by the way. Attempting to golf and copy edit in the same life span would destroy my sense of well being (not to mention my opinion of humanity).

But I do admire precision, which is seldom evident in the written expression of most human beings. To be a good copy editor, you need to have high standards but be forgiving. A little humility is also essential. We are such fallible creatures.

So is Spellcheck, by the way, which sometimes changes Santa to Satan. Well intentioned, of course, but no one wants to sign their kids up to have Breakfast with Satan at the community center in December.

Neither does one want to depict a homicidal maniac as a "cereal killer," though I see some potential for a witty murder mystery (killing with bad puns).

"Pedal Oak Park Bile Tours" might be an effective form of therapy, depending on how much bile you're able to bike off.

Calculating "tax rats" is probably not a gag you'd want to try out on the IRS.

There are times when it seems our journalists are reporting on an alternate universe, one where residents, for instance, suffer "needles ailments," needlessly, I suppose. Or where do-gooders work in "undeserved communities." Maybe they're undeserving and underserved. Talk about liberal guilt.

And I can understand, in a peculiar way, how people can long "to restore order in the mist of chaos." Which is poetic or set in London — or both. But it's harder to imagine "teachers who don't waist a lot of time" or how someone could be the "soul survivor."

It's even harder to understand why we need to pay hard-earned taxpayer dollars to a search firm that will assist in the recruitment of the next "village manger." Or how a suspect "turned himself into police." Scary. A criminal who could do that could get away with anything.

So many words in English so closely resemble other words. A person can complain about compliance, but can you be compliant about a complaint? Of course, one wishes to avoid confusion between "recital" and "rectal" whenever possible. Opposite ends and all that.

Imagine my momentary flight of fancy one day recently when I came across the email subject heading: "Hunt for the World's Most Creative Sewer!" Are we talking about needle and thread, planting seeds or the underground home of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

And what to make of notes that "read like a dairy of daily thoughts and activities"? Milking? Cheese making? Sounds udderly awful.

How often are the Brians of this world tempted to legally change their name to Brain? Maybe people would start misspelling it correctly.

Imagine how surprised Margot McMahon would have been to read in our paper recently that "as an Oak Park sculpture, she is honored to be part of the art walk." Probably not the first time she's been objectified.

Yes, linguistic imprecision is the spice of my life. When I mentioned to a friend that I was working on this column, he told of a recent bureaucratic entanglement that resulted in rejection. They were polite about it though. At the end of the note they wrote, "Sorry for the incontinence."

And a while back a friend told him about her mother's vision problems.

"She has immaculate degeneration," she explained.

Don't we all.


Reader Comments

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2012 11:12 PM

Q - Don't tell me what I like or dislike. Good spelling and grammar helps clarity, but does not necessarily enhance a narrative.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: June 30th, 2012 7:37 PM

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois, not a weak attempt at humor, it's a weak attempt to not answer yes or no. You know you expect writers to write correctly, so help them and if they really want to learn, they will appreciate it.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2012 6:42 PM

Neither, it was my weak attempt at humor.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: June 30th, 2012 4:27 PM

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois, you say don't correct Devin Rose, when she continues to make mistakes, but then you say newspapers, etc., are expected to not make mistakes. Which is it John, or are you saying W.J., isn't a newspaper which excludes Devin Rose from expecting to write correctly? It's either yes or no.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2012 3:48 PM

I cringe when readers criticize a writer about spelling or grammar mistakes. Most writers are amateurs, even if they had nuns and brothers breathing down their neck for twelve years of their life. The nuances of spelling, grammar, and word selection are not easy for many amateur writer. The emphasis on writing rules have left a lot of clever thinkers hesitant to send a written message. That's a shame. The purpose of writing is not to become an expert in the rules, its is to become a writer that has clarity and succinctness. Writing is an art, not math where perfection rule. Of course, Newspaper publishers, editors, columnists, and reporters are excluded. They are expected to write with the rules of writing and math. BTW: I never read the correction boxes in the NYT.

Brent G Borgerson from Oak Park  

Posted: June 27th, 2012 10:57 PM

Ya gotta read: "Eats,Shites and Leaves", if you already have not! (Can one "already ahve not")?

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: June 27th, 2012 2:39 PM

Joen Kinnan, read the first paragraph and you will know what Ken is writing about.

Joen Kinnan from River Forest  

Posted: June 27th, 2012 1:54 PM

As a fellow writer and copy editor, I absolutely loved this column! It reminded me of a recent e-mail I got from a friend who told me she was going to "pour" over something I'd written. Milk or cream, I wondered, or possibly maple syrup? My favorite improperly used homophone, though, is one in which a guy claimed that it was a "crap chute" as to whether a certain bill would pass Congress. (Given the current dissatisfaction with legislative inaction, perhaps that wasn't a mistake after all.)

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: June 27th, 2012 11:57 AM

Fun column, Ken. Maybe your writers will take note. On that note, maybe you will find out why, the village used tax payers money to build the 5 million dollar street and gave the cheese store the right to build on the public sidewalk. What's the relationship between Pope and Mary Jo? Are taxpayers sharing in the profits? Maybe you can stop in and ask for your share of the profits, or a free sample of cheese.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: June 27th, 2012 11:39 AM

I have found that many typos are the result of that tiny box you have created. I worked with a copy editor many years ago, she explained that misspelled words seemed to jump off of the page and structural problems vibrated. I don't know how she did it but I never found a miss in any of the reports she read. The original Lake Street Mall (Barton Aschman Associates, 1965 ?) was one of those documents.

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