Mighty Red Pen

November 19, 2012

I saw the sign

Filed under: Pop culture,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:08 pm
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This sentence is possibly one of the most tortured pieces of writing I have come across in a long, long time. It appeared in an article about a recent performance Aerosmith gave outside the Boston apartment building they used to live in back in the day.

“Across the street from 1325 Commonwealth Ave. is a sign that Aerosmith band members wrote in a book they would see when they walked out the front door of their apartment building during the early 1970s.”

Here’s the problem: this poor little sentence is trying to do too many things at once. Is it a sign they wrote in a book? Is it a book they would see when they walked out the front door of their apartment building? Or is it neither of these? My red pen is itching to get at it.

From the rest of the article, we find out that it’s a sign they would see when they walked out of their apartment and that they wrote about in a book. But that’s a long way to get there from here. With a little editing, this sentence could be pared down and reordered to reflect that, something like this (for example):

“Across the street from 1325 Commonwealth Ave. is a sign that Aerosmith band members would see when they walked out the front door of the apartment building, which they lived in during the early 1970s. They wrote about seeing the sign in their book.”

But unfortunately, that’s a lot less interesting than the idea of them writing a sign in a book they would see when they walked out of their apartment. And hey, it was Aerosmith, and it was the 1970s. Anything was possible.

February 7, 2012

As time goes by

Filed under: Grammar goddess — mighty red pen @ 5:38 pm
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H/t to Wiley for reminding us of the timelessness of our struggle as editors.

H/t David.


November 3, 2011

Not your mother’s editing marks

Filed under: Uncategorized — mighty red pen @ 7:36 pm

There are the editing marks we editors all know and live by. Then there are the ones we wish we had so we could really and truly express our reaction to a piece of writing. Here, Eve Corbel gives us what we want in the form of “Lesser-Known Editing and Proofreading Marks.”

August 1, 2011

Uniform for the fashionable grammar soldier

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:18 pm
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Although the blog Arrant Pedantry is more generally known for its word-related gems, it is also bringing us several sartorial gems in the form of these t-shirts for word nerds. What else can I say but I wants it!?

Here is the t-shirt Stet Wars.

And the t-shirt Battlestar Grammatica.

These are great for those days when it seems as though correcting even a simple misplaced comma or dangling modifier is just an uphill battle. Which can be, you know, pretty much every day.

H/t Copy Curmudgeon.

June 8, 2010

The mighty red pen

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:36 pm
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Here at Mighty Red Pen, we obviously believe in the power of the red pen. That’s why this blog is called as it is—because the red pen is mightier . . .  than all the other pens.

So I read with interest (as I so often do), Jan Freeman’s recent column, “Redlined: Correction Isn’t the Most Important Thing.” Here’s what caught my eye:

For schoolchildren, the red pen has long been a fearsome weapon, blazoning the marks of failure on once pristine writing assignments. And in recent years, many teachers have turned down the volume, switching from red’s loud rebuke to gentler purple pens. Now research has illuminated another aspect of the red-pen effect: A study published last month reveals that teachers armed with red pens actually grade more severely than those using blue.

These days, I don’t use a literal red pen very often since I do most of my editing on the screen using tracked changes. But when I do edit by hand, I’m always using a red pen. And Freeman is right, I think: whether I am literally or metaphorically wielding that red pen, I do feel a certain responsibility to find errors, make corrections, and overall improve the piece I am working on.

As editor of my college paper, we had a hierarchy of pen colors. The editor in chief actually used purple, which I was sort of disappointed about. At one job I had, I remember clearly a conversation with my new boss about the color pens I wanted. She suggested I consider ordering purple or green pens because she had heard that people tend to be intimidated by red pens.

I stuck to my red pens.

Freeman covers a lot of other interesting bases, including teachers’ grading habits and why students write poorly. And she touches on the always fascinating (well, to me anyway) topic of peevology with this zinger:

But even if the peevers were always right — which is not even close to true — the zero-tolerance approach betrays a misunderstanding of language learning (as well as a dim view of human nature). . . . Making prose, like making art or music, is a process of experimenting, revising, and remodeling; the errors that peevers love to pounce on are often the least important (and most fixable) of all the ways writing can go wrong.

So whether you sit in the editor’s seat in reality or just in your own mind:  Do you wield a red pen or do you eschew that in favor of a kinder, gentler approach?

February 2, 2010

Now that’s the value of a public school education

Filed under: At home with MRP,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 5:31 pm
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Scene: La Casa de MRP. MRP and S. (age 6 1/2) review a packet of materials that he’s worked on recently in his first grade class. Among them, this:

MRP: What’s this?

S. : That’s editing.

MRP: What’s editing?

S.: It’s when you cross out a mistake and write the answer above it.

Did you hear that, everyone? They are teaching the children editing. In school.

I can’t wait for the next lesson, which I’m certain is going to be “How to Wield Your Red Pen.”

July 23, 2009

Across the lifespan

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:31 pm
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Laurie from Oregon has so much enthusiasm that I think I can only do justice to her observation by sharing what she wrote. It’s not so much a question as an extended comment on this little tidbit she spotted in a Reuters article about the world’s oldest man, Henry Allingham (who has passed away since the time that Laurie sent in this submission):


Her comments are concerning the use of the word span. In part, she writes:

I spotted a delightful whopper on Reuters today. “Allingham’s life has spanned three centuries and six monarchs…” Oh, really? Damn! That’s OLD, folks! Pause. Uh, oh! This is much worse than I thought!

The Concise Oxford American Dictionary says that, in this instance, “spanned” means “extend across (a period of time or a range of subjects).”. . . Doesn’t the phrase “has spanned three centuries” actually mean that this man’s life began in the first instant of one century and ended exactly three hundred years later? Yes, I think so. The object of “spanned” is “three centuries.” Centuries are whole units, so that part works grammatically. But, even if the “three” were changed to a more realistic “two,” the sentence is still incorrect. Human lives just don’t “span” centuries. They may span one century, but not, I think, two or more. To make matters worse, the poor guy was born in 1896. If he was born at the end of that century, can his life really be said to have “spanned” the time before his birth? It would seem that the author is intent on sternly calling this poor guy into being years before he actually existed and then ferociously condemning him to an inordinately long life.

If the author were to say instead “his life has spanned parts of two centuries,” what then? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just skip that all together and simply state the length of time spanned? Sure enough, a second foray into the dictionary confirmed that all definitions of “span” and its relatives clearly state that the entire distance or range or object or whatever is included when “span” is used. So, in order to use this word correctly, the amount spanned should be stated in its entirety and referred to as one unit. For example, we could say without blushing, “his life spanned 110 years and 227 days.” The period of time is one unit and it is spanned. End of confusion.

But there’s MORE! One can only guess how said monarchs felt about being “spanned.” Oh, I say! Her Majesty the Queen (‘specially not Victoria) would certainly disapprove. . . . Perhaps disaster could be avoided if the sentence read “…and the reign of six monarchs…” without our recklessly applying a spanner to the monarchs themselves.

If this sentence came across my editorial desk, I probably would have left well enough alone regarding spanned three centuries, my sense being that we generally understand that we are not saying that he lived for three centuries from end to end. My reading (perhaps imprecise) of the definition of span that Laurie mentions—“to extend across”—allows a bit of leeway in terms of whether the thing doing the spanning is, strictly speaking going from one end to the other. However, another definition of span—“an extent, stretch, reach, or spread between two limits”—speaks more directly to what Laurie is talking about.

Now regarding those six monarchs, it’s the sort of thing that I would probably skip over at first, then notice, and thenfeeling a bit nitpicky but wanting to be precise—I’d edit as Laurie is suggesting: “His life spanned the reign of six monarchs.” What do others think?

Thanks to Laurie for a spirited letter!

June 24, 2009

Is this some kind of joke?

Filed under: Pop culture,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:39 pm
Tags: ,

Hmm, I dunno. This tidbit appeared in the Onion, so I guess it’s meant to be a joke, but raise your hand if this actually happens to you.

Friendly Note To Coworker Undergoes Eight Revisions

WILMINGTON, DE—A brief note from United Family Insurance employee Martin Schatz to a coworker regarding storage-closet office supplies went through eight rewrites Monday. “I wrote it pretty quick and was about to drop it in [Al Miesner’s] box when I noticed I used the word ‘stapler’ twice in the same line,” Schatz reported after delivering the final version. “It read kind of weird, so I changed the second ‘stapler’ to ‘it.’ But then it read even worse, so I changed it back.” Schatz also changed “Thanks!!!” to “Thanks…” fearing that the original punctuation was “a bit too much.”

Now, here’s the thing: I’m not saying I do this, but I’m also not saying I don’t.

February 6, 2008

Stop or I’ll edit!

Filed under: Pet peeves — mighty red pen @ 8:23 pm
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Although, as the name suggests, Design Police is primarily geared toward designers, their pre-printed tabs useful for pointing out errors and peeves may come in handy for editorial types as well. For example:


Comic Sans got you down lately? You’re not the only one. Design Police even has a couple of tabs for calling out illegal use of that font. You can also check out Ban Comic Sans for additional support.

Hat tip to the cinetrix and Moondog.

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