Bah Humbug Apostrophes

Season’s greetings and all that crap. It’s not actually Christmas yet, so let’s get down to business. Apostrophes. Come on, people! It’s pretty simple really. I’m not going to explain it to you, as it’ll just fall on deaf ears. It would be far more effective, I thought, to just give you punctuation-abusers out there some examples you might remember. OK, like hell you’re going to remember, but at least I can get it off my chest and enjoy my mulled wine unburdened. So pay attention.

• You’re eating a lot of mince pies, you greedy bastard. (You’re = you are.)
• Your festive jumper isn’t ironic, it’s annoying. (The festive jumper belongs to you, hence your – not you’re. If you say you’re festive jumper, you might as well be saying, “You like jump up and down at Christmas time?”
• It’s fucking freezing out there. (It’s = it is.)
• The sodding tree has pissed all its needles all over the floor. (Its not it’s. I can’t be bothered to explain why. Just ask yourself would the tree piss all it is needles? That doesn’t make sense, so restrain yourself and don’t stick an apostrophe in here.)
• Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet? (Your – not you’re. If I say you’re Christmas shopping, I’m stating that you are Christmas shopping, as in right now, when in fact you’re probably lying on your backside eating more mince pies.)
• Thanks for the leg-warmers, Auntie Cynthia. They’re so 1980s. (NOT 1980’s for crying out loud. Get it right.) (Don’t get me started on they’re, there, their. On second thoughts, I’ll come to that in a minute.)
• Don’t even think of putting that Christmas compilation album on again. (Don’t = Do not.)
• Do they know it’s Christmas time again? (According to The Guardian, they do. And they also probably know there’s an apostrophe in it’s in this instance – unlike you.)
OK, deep breath. Count to 10. Time for the big one.

• There were six mince pies in this packet. Now they’re all gone. Whoever stuffed them down their pie-hole is going to get their arse kicked.

OK. I think that’s enough for now. (That’s = that is. There’s no such word as thats.) Happy Yuletide. (Yule not you’ll.) May the new year bring you peace, happiness and a deeper appreciation of apostrophes. (Apostrophes, not apostrophe’s.)

Slasher on the loose

The other night I was in the pub with a group of women, when someone asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I’m a copywriter, and that I used to work as a sub-editor. Like many people, she wasn’t too sure what a sub-editor did. I joked that sub-editors are like the distant cousins of axe-murderers – that there’s a lot of hacking and slashing involved.

Everyone knows what an editor is, of course, and people often assume that you are the editor of some publication or other, inadvertently pegging you further up the career ladder to a slightly more impressive position than the one you actually occupy. But in fact, sub-editors are usually a few notches below the editor, doing the dogsbody work of axing, lengthening, re-writing, fact-checking, spell-checking, proofreading, headlines and captions, while making the text look tidy, consistent and presentable.

I like to think of sub-editors as the unsung heroes of journalism, that behind every great journalist is a team of great subs, whipping that copy into shape, giving it an attention-grabbing (sometimes misleading) headline, axing a lot of unnecessary waffle and leading it towards a neatly tied-up conclusion.

Subs also have the power to change the tone of a sentence and take words out of context (surely the bane of every celebrity’s life). This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a 1000-word article has to lose 500 words in order to fit into an appointed space and leave room for pictures. A sub decides which 500 words must go. Sentences will get skimmed down, losing words here and there, sometimes with the result that a light-hearted remark ends up sounding brusque.

Sub-editing is definitely a geek’s job. You get apoplectic about apostrophes, and you appreciate a sentence that has the words apoplectic and apostrophe in it. You weigh up ‘the staff is helpful’ versus ‘the staff are helpful’, knowing the former is correct but the latter sounds more natural. And of course, you are as smug as a bug in a rug when you spot a typo such as this one: ‘The lightweight screen shits comfortably on top of the hard drive’, which I’m relieved to say I spotted when working on an IT magazine years ago. (Although I’m pretty sure the editor planted it there just to keep me on my toes.)

Subbing is also a creative job. Thinking of the right headline to match the article is one thing, but getting it to fit into the allotted space with the given font size is another challenge. This was particularly tricky working at The Sun TV Guide years ago: Most headlines for the soap pages were only three or four short words long, and there was only so many times you could have ‘Mum’s the word’ or ‘Kat’s got the cream’.

But there are also disadvantages to working as a sub-editor. For example, I am now programmed to always think in puns when trying to come up with a headline, strapline, caption or title. A deluge of corny, cheesy, inappropriate ideas will always come gushing out before anything vaguely on the money.

But by far the worst disadvantage: I am not allowed to make a mistake. Ever. Dare I send a text or email to a friend abbreviating ‘you’re’ to ‘your’ because I’m in a hurry? No, I dare not, lest they think I don’t know the first thing about the English language. If I’m proofreading, I cannot miss a single forgotten full stop or misplaced apostrophe, even if my eyes are bloodshot from staying up way past midnight ploughing through a box set of The Killing.

No, there is no mercy for the sub who makes a mistake (despite eradicating hundreds). So I raise my glass to subs and copywriters everywhere: “Pats you’reselfs on the bak, u lot. U is all doin a gr8 job:-)’