Copy editing must be the least athletic of occupations and yet, a line in the book The Athletic Brain caught my attention because it said something about how the brain notices grammatical errors even when the listener or the reader is not looking out for them. Detecting such errors is an exercise in pattern matching, something that the human brain is good at. Tests have confirmed our pattern-matching abilities even at the subconscious level: in other words, tests have shown that subjects behave as though they are aware of a pattern even when they are unable to articulate it. Every language has its characteristic patterns, and mastering a language involves using them correctly.
What has all this to do with copy editing? I argue that if we are to be good copy editors, we must be able to spot grammatical errors and then fix them almost on the fly—and merely studying grammar, whether through books or through attending lectures and workshops and so on, will not give us that ability. To develop that ability, to develop a sensitive ear, we must read a great deal. More specifically, we must read books written by good writers whose first language is English: books, because as products they are usually more refined than newspapers and magazines; good writers because we would rather emulate more competent practitioners of the craft of writing; and L1 (which is jargon for first language) because such writing will be largely error-free with respect to two most common categories of errors made by L2 users, namely errors related prepositions and errors related to articles.
Reading good books is all the more important to us because what we read during nearly all our working hours is English that needs to be copy-edited, typically written by L2 writers with expertise in domains other than English—this places us in a situation similar to that of the Red Queen, who tells Alice that ‘here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.’ And reading is a time-consuming activity. Assuming that we can read about 250 words per minute and taking an average non-fiction book to be 60 000 words long, it will take 4 hours to read it. However, to get to the point where we spot grammatical errors almost automatically, we need to log in many hundreds of hours (think of the 10 000 hours of practice to be an expert, the number popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers).
Extensive Reading Foundation offers some useful numbers: to attain near-native proficiency, according to the ERF website, it takes 370 books and 280 hours of systematic reading of progressively difficult texts.
Consider reading as an investment to be made over time: in years to come, you will reap the dividends.
Yateendra Joshi has been copyediting technical and scientific documents for more than 30 years; for more than 15 years he has also been teaching academics and researchers how to write, publish, and present.
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