The biter bit
I’m a copy-editor. Another way of putting it would be to say that I’m a nit-picker. I do write quite a bit: I write other people’s stuff when they can’t string two words together for themselves, and I write my own stuff too. But essentially I look for the mistakes that other people make in their written work. When I find them, I pounce on them – not with glee; more often with a sense of profound despair – and I put them right. That’s to say, I put them into a version of English that conforms to my idea of how English ought to be written. That’s what I do. I can dress it up, valorise it, say that I test arguments, increase the reader’s apprehension, blah blah … But essentially, I make my living from other people’s mistakes.
I have bees in my bonnet. Writers who cannot grasp the correct way to manage “both” binaries (” … both ‘a’ as well as ‘b’ ″: GRRRR!) test my patience, as do those who have never learned to forget the rule that you don’t put a comma in front of “and”. But it’s often very good for me to realise that I, too, can make mistakes. I do have my own blind spots. For instance, I have trouble with “which” and “that” (“Which is the house that Jack built?”: non-defining relative clauses, anyone?). I tend then to fall back on the teachings of my two “mentors”, Guy Keleney of the Independent and the late Bill Whimster of King’s College Hospital.
To discover one’s own error in a published text is a sobering experience; for a moment, for me, the ground shifts beneath my feet and my whole professional edifice threatens to crumble. But I don’t think I’d ever go to the extreme demonstrated by David Mitchell at the end of this clip.