By Ann Patty
I was delighted to see the New York Times article last week about Johnny Temple’s success with Go the F*ck to Sleep. In this era of groupthink at the large publishers, it’s cause for celebration when a small house such as Akashic Books not only succeeds with a bold bet, but even manages to hang on to the property when the corporate sharks circle. Alas, my delight turned to consternation when I read the verse quoted in the article.
The cats nestle close to their kittens,
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear.
Please go the ____ to sleep.
Even my Word program, as I typed the above, knows that the second line should read “The lambs have lain down with the sheep.” Such a mistake, with a word whose meter and rhyme is incidental in the line, in poetry!
In my many years as an editor, the most frequent lesson I’ve had to impart to writers — from fledglings to award winners to mega-bestsellers — is about the difference between the transitive verb lay, laid, laid and the intransitive verb lie, lay, lain. Some authors get it; some never do, even after eight or nine books. That’s why there are editors and copy editors and proofreaders, right?
Where was the editor on Go the F*ck to Sleep? Where was the copy editor, the proofreader? How did that laid slip by them? Isn’t it their job to protect the writer from such an embarrassing mistake?
Lest you think it’s the small publisher that may be skimping on careful copyediting, I recently encountered equally egregious blunders in a major title from a large, prestigious publisher. The bestselling writer is highly regarded, much awarded, and taught in English and writing departments at universities. The editor is seasoned, smart, and serious. Yet my enjoyment of the book was ruined by the many sentences that didn’t scan, violated proper usage, and were just plain bad and ugly by any standard. How did these get by the editor, the copy editor, and the proofreader?
I almost phoned that writer’s agent to suggest that writers, when they are “important,” not to mention well compensated, might spend an extra bit of money to hire someone to read the manuscript in galleys to make sure such bad sentences aren’t left for posterity. We know most editors no longer have time to edit; and now, it seems, copy editors don’t copyedit, proofreaders don’t proofread.
Even charter members of the grammar police misspeak from time to time. But there’s no excuse for such slips to appear in print. Isn’t that why the publishing process takes so long, because the words are read by many sets of eyes? Isn’t this one of the important services publishers are supposed to supply?
Students in MFA programs I visit are upset, even outraged, when I tell them that when I was an editor at Harcourt, I stopped reading a manuscript that contained a grammatical error on the first page. How could I take seriously a writer who hadn’t taken the time to learn the tools of her trade? Once, on a panel of editors, only minutes after I’d delivered some version of the above rant, a young editor used the phrase “between her and I.” Isn’t it imperative for editors to know the difference between the nominative case and the objective case?
I know the blame can be laid partly on the instantaneous nature of electronic communications, partly on the defunding of education (especially foreign language classes) in this country, and partly on the ever-increasing workloads of in-house editors. Nevertheless, the written word, when printed and bound, must be held to the highest standards. Editors, copy editors, and proofreaders, please clean up your act, do your job, and learn the f**king rules!
Ann Patty worked in trade publishing for over thirty years, as Founder and Publisher of Poseidon Press, Editorial Director at Crown Books, an Executive Editor at Harcourt Inc. She is now a freelance editor, studying Latin in her spare time. You can find her online at www.annpatty.com.