Editing for Liberty #8: Prefixes, Ellipses — and Squirrels?

Can You Spot the Error?

    1. I hope the book serves to help turn the tide against the destructive antihuman-progress thinking so prevalent in today’s world.
    2. Jon and Mark . . . found a box! . . . Jon had nothing to say about it.
    3. Enjoyment is not as an important function for courting as it is for dating.

Read on for the solutions!

When Not to Close a Prefix

Our trusty Chicago Manual of Style tells us that normally compounds formed with prefixes are closed, that is, there’s no hyphen between the prefix and the rest of the word. For example, we could talk about the “antihuman sentiments of the aliens.” But last week we saw that sometimes we need to keep the hyphen to avoid confusion (as in prostate vs. pro-state).

In this week’s sentence #1 we have a prefix (anti) before a compound term (human-progress, which is hyphenated because it’s a compound adjective modifying thinking). In this situation, the compound formed by the prefix should not be closed. CMoS 7.85 (section 3) tells us that

[a] hyphen should appear, however … before a compound term, such as non-self-sustaining, pre–Vietnam War.

This means that sentence #1 should read

I hope the book serves to help turn the tide against the destructive anti-human-progress thinking so prevalent in today’s world.

Chicago Style vs. Publishing on the Web: The Problem of Ellipses

Technically, sentence #2 is correct according to Chicago style. CMoS has you put a space before each ellipsis point (see CMoS 13.51). But this system can cause problems on webpages, because it means that an ellipsis could get broken up between two lines:

Jon and Mark . . . found a box! . .
. Jon had nothing to say about it.

Therefore, instead of using three dots (“. . .”), we use the single-character ellipsis symbol (“…”). That way, the wrap on websites can’t break it up.

Note that, for the same reasons, we put no space between a sentence’s closing punctuation and its ellipsis. So for web publication, sentence #2 should be

Jon and Mark found a box!… Jon had nothing to say about it.

Trimming and Rephrasing

Sentence #3 is clearly wrong. Believe it or not, it comes from a Chicago Q&A. The person who asked the question knew that the sentence was clearly wrong but had been staring at it for ages and felt like it had addled her brain. Her correction — which the Subversive Copy Editor (who writes the answers for the Q&A) agreed with — was to move the “an” (and to change it to “a”) so that the sentence reads

Enjoyment is not as important a function for courting as it is for dating.

You may have easily made that correction while reading the sentence (because you hadn’t been staring at different versions of it for a while), but the obvious change is not, in fact, what I want to focus on here. After agreeing with this correction, the Subversive Copy Editor points out that the “as … as” construction “is not always clear or economical. It would be better to trim and rephrase.” She changes the sentence to

Enjoyment is less important for courting than for dating.

Speaking from recent experience, I think this advice to “trim and rephrase” is really pivotal. When you are faced with a sentence that leaves you feeling like your brain has turned into pudding, it’s time to copy and paste that sentence onto a blank page so that you can trim and rephrase it. I suggest flagging the sentence in the manuscript, finishing your copyediting, and then going back to the sentence later — once your brain feels more like its gray-matter self.

Just for Fun: Are There Squirrels in the Manuscript?

Though as copyeditors we may think that our main job is looking at spelling, grammar, and word choice, we often get surprised by weird formatting in the books and articles we are preparing. I could begin a rant here about how some authors format (or don’t format) their manuscripts, but that would be hypocritical of me. I cringe at the thought of what my dissertation formatting must have looked like: tabs at the beginning of paragraphs, headings that aren’t really headings (just lines bolded and put in a bigger font), em dashes made of double hyphens, two spaces after the end of sentences, etc. When I was writing it, I had no idea what a powerful friend MS Word could be (when it wasn’t crashing on me and losing pages of my thesis).

All this is to say that the Subversive Copy Editor’s amusing 2010 blog post on this topic, “Checking for Squirrels,” still really speaks to me and might speak to you too.


Is there something you’d like to contribute or see covered in Editing for Liberty? Post a comment! Contributions to “Spot the Error” are especially welcome.

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