When the Copyeditor is Wrong: My Take on “Word Crimes”

Unless you were living under a rock (figuratively, not literally), chances are you saw the new music video “Word Crimes,” a parody by “Weird Al” Yankovic in which he laments the decline of proper grammar in today’s society. The video, set to the melody of Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines,” illustrates several pet peeves of grammarians – such as less vs. fewer, possessives vs. contractions, and the misunderstood “I could care less.”

I watched “Word Crimes” with great joy. And, about one minute into the video, I found something questionable. As nearly every copyeditor knows, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is in its eleventh edition. So, why did the video show a mock-up of the Merriam-Webster logo that noted a twenty-seventh edition? Was it creative license, I pondered?

Several hours after I posted my observation on my Facebook page, I learned from a reader – who was kind enough to contact me privately (thank you!) – that it was not an error. It turns out that Mr. Yankovic places the number 27 in his videos as an inside joke – a way to say hello to his fans.

In other words, the copyeditor was wrong.

Copyeditors are not perfect. As we check for proper syntax, confirm that the punctuation conveys the intended meaning, and verify facts, it is inevitable that we will miss something. And, we almost always have questions for the author if we believe something needs clarification.

So, we are back to the quandary of the dictionary’s edition number in the video. This is a perfect example of the importance of querying. In this case, as my fact-checking of dictionary editions did not provide an answer, I would add a comment to the draft stating, “Please confirm that this should be twenty-seventh edition.”

The example also illustrates the value of an editor who knows your field – and knows it well. Had I known of the connection, the query may have read, “Just checking that the 27 is Al’s calling card.” As this involves less time for the copyeditor, it would also reduce costs incurred by the writer or publisher (assuming an hourly rate of pay).

Finally, to those wondering, the use of quotation marks in the name “Weird Al” Yankovic does not contradict his disdain for using the punctuation for emphasis. They are perfectly acceptable when used as part of a nickname. How do I know this? I know where to look for the answer.