Just look it up
When an article assigned in my editing class contains an uncommon word, I ask my students what it means. The usual response is a row of blank stares. It appears that they just shrug when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. And then I explain to them that if you release an article that contains words you do not understand, you have not really edited it. But you will be held accountable for anything in it that is wrong.
An article on Newswise, “Study Shows Universities May be Failing to Sufficiently Teach Basic Research Skills,” suggests that many students don’t use the library and fail to take full advantage of electronic sources—in fact, don’t have a clear sense of how to begin research.
A salient paragraph: “To manage large amounts of information, the report says, ‘students in both large universities and small colleges use a risk-averse strategy based on efficiency and predictability.’ In other words, students avoid drowning by limiting the sources they turn to and the amount of information they take in.”
There is another side to this phenomenon, the willingness, displayed widely on the Internet, to make assertions or challenge other people’s work without troubling to check. What is a character flaw in civilians is a sin in copy editors, as Carol Fisher Saller explains today at The Subversive Copy Editor. (Check the link to the Jan Freeman column about the readers who snarkily miscorrected a reference to Goober Pyle by telling her she meant Gomer Pyle.*)
As Ms. Saller points out, if you have a decent dictionary and a search engine, the information you need—the correct information—is seconds away.** The only obstacles to your being correct are an apathetic reluctance to check things out, or a hair-trigger willingness to express what you mistakenly think you know.
*I probably shouldn’t start on cultural literacy—you know how I get. But I am regularly discouraged, semester after semester, to discover that vitually none of my students have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie. O tempora, O mores.
**Within arm’s reach at home, I have Garner 3, MWDEU, Original Fowler, Gower-Fowler, Burchfield-Fowler, Corbett on Rhetoric, Chicago Manual 16, AP (yes, for what it’s worth), and more. For dictionaries, American Heritage, Compact OED, Shorter OED, Oxford New American, and the excellent Merriam-Webster online. Not to mention two shelves of additional books on language and the set of bookmarked electronic references.
One more thing: If you are a copy editor, you should probably think about replacing that dictionary and edition of the AP Stylebook that you’ve had on your desk since the Ford administration. Things change.