How do I know the color blue to you is the color blue to me? I suppose I don't. But I know that such questions lose their allure by the time one turns 20 or sobers up.
But long after doing both, I've come across another question worthy of burrito-fueled midnight philosophy sessions: How do I know the text you see on a page is the same as the text I see on a page? True, to most people, the idea would seem adolescent, inebriated or both. But for a copy editor, it's a valid question. The stuff I see in print, I'm pretty sure, is quite different from what most readers see.
Take, for example, this sentence about a restaurant recently opened by a husband-and-wife team. "Less than a year old - they opened their doors this March in Melrose Shopping Park - John and Jane Doe have recreated the experience of being in Piazza San Marco."
I'm not sure what normal people see when they read that sentence. But my first thought is: Pretty impressive that two babies could open a restaurant. My second thought: Why were they wasting time recreating when they had work to do?
Thanks to years of too-close reading, I got hung up on a dangler ("less than a year old") and a hyphen (re-create).
Sure, there's a lot to be said for the type of reading that scrutinizes every word, thought and punctuation mark, but only if you can turn it off when you want to actually enjoy your reading material. That part of my brain died years ago, succumbing to a raging case of hyper-typo-distraction disorder, an incurable ailment I just made up.
It's a gift, it's a curse, but more so a curse. So I'll try to use it for good by sharing some fruits of these super-awful-powers.
Danglers are modifying phrases like "less than a year old" that aren't positioned next to the nouns they're supposed to modify. In our passage above, the writer was trying to say that the restaurant, not the owners, is less than a year old.
As for "recreate": Whenever a hyphen is needed to distinguish one term, like "re-create," from another, like "recreate," we copy editors believe you should use it.
After penning that last paragraph, I took a break to skim some news sites. A Huffington Post article about a particularly gruesome crime caught my eye. But could I even bask in the shock value? No, I was too hung up on the words in the headline: "police hone in."
To "hone" means to sharpen. What the headline writer meant was "police home in."
Things at the finance page of Yahoo News weren't much better. There, I was assaulted by a link to an MSNBC article with the headline "Look at who's the real winner of the elections."
Look at who's? That one's not so much about grammar as it is just plain odd. "Look who's" seems the more idiomatic phrasing. And because we copy editors love to chop out unnecessary words, I say the word "at" should have been chopped.
Then, still reeling from that oddity, I saw a sentence about a hotel proclaiming, "No two rooms are the same at this long-time favorite" and another line about the outgoing Blackberry CEO's "multi-million-dollar payout."
Neither of these is wrong exactly. But in professional editing, when there's a word already in the dictionary, like "longtime," we don't pull out a hyphen to cobble together a new one. And unless it's absolutely necessary, we never use a hyphen to attach a prefix like "multi."
So all I see in "multi-million-dollar payout" is a failed attempt to write "multimillion-dollar payout" - at least until medical science finds a cure.
June Casagrande is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.