A friend of mine posted a series of four photos on Facebook the other day, showing pages in a book she’d checked out from the library. (The book was Sue Grafton’s N Is for Noose, which I haven’t read.) Someone who’d read the book previously had taken it upon her- or himself to (ahem) re-edit the book.

Yes, friends. A big book from a big author with a big New York publishing house (Henry Holt and Company)—and some yahoo out in Arizona believed he needed to do a little copyediting. Sure, errors sometimes slip through the editorial process, but—as you’ll see—these weren’t errors. They were “corrections.”

My friend, who is not in the publishing industry, drew my attention to it because she thought these corrections were legit. She thought perhaps she was learning something. “I wonder if any editor or English teacher has ever been banned from a library for doing this?” she asked, only half joking. “The combination ‘if/was’ seems to be frequent error in this book.”

Umm … OK. I set aside my knee-jerk reaction (how dare anyone mark up a library book?) and took a look. I’m including the photos here so you can see what I saw.

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The corrections here look like our editorial expert is correcting the dialogue of someone speaking a rural vernacular. “Send her the bill direct” and “the ground gets tore up”—these both sound like the speech of a character who is less well-educated. Remember, dialogue is one avenue by which a character is revealed.

As I was writing this article, I sussed out the plot of N Is for Noose on Wikipedia. And guess what—the setting of the murder investigation is a small (pop. 2,356) coastal California mountain community. So it fits that perhaps this is a small-town, rural, remote speaker. Our amateur corrector, though, doesn’t recognize the concept of character voice. He’d prefer “the ground gets torn up” and “send her the bill directly.” He wants all the characters to speak in grammatically correct sentences.

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This, too, is an error on the corrector’s part, not on the author’s part. It’s clearly dialogue, and we’ve already established the milieu to account for a less sophisticated speaker. Moreover, the quick in “quick as I could” is what’s called a flat adverb. (Examples: Drive slow. Run fast. The moon is shining bright. Stand close to me. Hold on tight. I came as quick as I could.) Flat adverbs are perfectly legit, and the person who marked up this book should be embarrassed.

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This photo got a lot of comment from my friend’s group. My initial reaction was “gold” (as opposed to “golden”) is a perfectly acceptable word choice; there’s nothing wrong about it. However, let’s take a look at the sentence:

The fields in between were gold with grass and tufted with weeds.

On a second read, I understand how a reader who fancied himself a better writer might have wanted “golden” in that sentence. It’s essentially a parallel construction issue—although in this case it’s more about rhythm: two two-beat words in side-by-side clauses: golden with grass and tufted with weeds. But I like gold. If you’ve spent any time in California (I grew up there) you know that California has a lot of gold—which is to say dead—grass. Hills and hills and hills of it.

The other folks commenting all leaned toward golden, for one reason or another. But my friend said, “At first I found it amusing; now these presumed corrections are taking away from my reading experience. All that thinking about something where I normally would have just been caught up in the moment ruined the read.” And then she added, “But it is strange and tantalizing to enter into your world. Makes me appreciate a good book that much more when I think of all the agonizing choices that writers and editors make with every word.” And she warmed the cockles of my cold little heart. 🙂

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My friend noted that the if/was combination was corrected throughout the book. And she said, “Actually, the further I get into reading this, it’s becoming quite annoying. Like a know-it-all person—after awhile you just find them exhausting.” Yep.

But in the example we see here, our library corrector is wrong. (Again. See a trend here?) Notice in the sentence before it, “If you were questioned as a witness …” doesn’t bother our corrector, but he/she wants all instances of if/was to be if/were. However, this usage depends on context. We say, If you were questioned as a witness because we are suggesting something that’s not really possible or not going to happen. It’s hypothetical, imaginary. (Think of the premise of that old song: “If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady …” The singer here, is a rich man wondering if his lover would still be true without his money.) The Chicago Manual of Style calls this concept “contrary to fact.” CMOS also calls these types of sentences by their real names—subjunctive versus indicative mood—but I’m not going to get into all that; it’s 5.124 if you want to read it.

This corrected sentence here, though, isn’t positing something that’s contrary to fact. Look: “If he was like the other law enforcement officers of my acquaintance, he was capable of being implacable …” It’s in past tense, and it’s saying if he is like the others I know, he’s implacable, sarcastic, and relentless. So the author and her editors were, again, correct, and this pedantic correcting person is wrong.

• • •

The conversation on Facebook went on for several days, as my friend continued to read through the book. “At first I found it amusing,” she reported, “but now these presumed corrections are spoiling the reading experience.” Another friend commented, “Writing in a library book is a sign of an over-inflated ego, by my thoughts.” I couldn’t agree more. And it’s defacing someone else’s property, for the love of Pete!

Here’s a reminder: Sue Grafton’s books no doubt received the very best copyediting money can buy—and experienced copyediting, probably someone she’d worked with for years who knew her well. After the pages were typeset, proofers were hired to catch typos and anything the copyeditor missed. This process is tried and true and catches most errors.

But some do sneak through. If you think you’ve caught one and want to (ahem) complain about it, make a note of the page number, take a snapshot, and send an email to the publisher. You’ll get a polite thank-you … and if the book ever goes to reprint, the error (if it’s legit) will no doubt be corrected.

What you should not do, ever, is mark up your local library’s book.

Tweet: Editing a library book? The person who marked up this book should be embarrassed. Grade: F.
Tweet: Sure, errors sometimes slip through the editorial process, but these weren’t errors. They were “corrections.” And this pedantic correcting person is wrong.