Humility: The (By Definition) Unsung Hero of Copyediting

Sometimes, everything you think you know about a word is wrong.

That happened to me yesterday with the word “upfront.” Or at least I thought it was “upfront,” one word, both as an adjective and an adverb. It turns out “up front” is the adverb and “up-front” is the adjective.

  • The newspaper required a month’s payment up front.

  • Her up-front comments placated the students.

As a copyeditor, this kind of mistake is chilling. If I can’t trust myself to have a handle on a simple word (words!) like “up front,” what kind of editor am I?

But every anxious thought deserves a reframe, so here goes: Even copyeditors have blind spots. This doesn't make us bad editors; it's just a side effect of having a brain. When I come across one of my blind spots, I’m reminded that looking up a word you think you know is never a bad idea. Most copyeditors can remember thousands of picayune rules, but we shouldn’t become complacent and believe we have the universe of spelling and grammar firmly under our belts. There will always be new rules, unfamiliar usages, or confusing spellings. And blind spots. 

Staying humble about our ability to ever and always know the right spelling or grammar is important when connecting with authors. It's not easy being an editor, but it's a lot less easy being a writer. When you spend your days polishing other people's creative efforts, you begin to develop, well, a false sense of superiority. Stumbling upon a dumb old spelling mistake you've been perpetuating across dozens of manuscripts is a nice reminder that you're not so special. Humility makes us better editors.

It took my brother, Chris Noel, the other half of Noel Editorial, to open my eyes to this faux pas. I used "up front" incorrectly in an email and he admitted he stopped reading at that point. I objected, said I was sure it was one word. Wanna bet? he asked. But because I just lost $40 to him in a James Stewart-related gamble, I said no, which turned out to be the smart move.

Later, I wrote him this email:

Here’s his response, a reference to a years-long disagreement:

He was talking mainly about separating names from greetings, as in "Hi, Chris," versus "Hi Chris." But some rules cry out to be ignored. I can’t embrace the vocative comma in the name-and-greeting context, and I'm on a one-woman campaign to eliminate it. 

I guess humility has its limits.