In line somewhat with my post on “Zen and the Art of Copyediting,” I thought I’d talk a bit about the process of compounding and how I handle it during copyediting.
First, the rule: Fiction copyeditors are instructed to follow Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (Web11, as we call it in the industry), with regard to compounds. If Web11 says a word we use all the time and pronounce as one word should be two words instead, we are technically supposed to set it that way. If we don’t (and I often don’t, for reasons I’ll go into below), we note on the style sheet the spelling we used so that we can maintain consistency. (I usually put stet marks under these instances, as well, so that the proofreader doesn’t “correct” them.)
Compounds in English usually begin as two separate words, sometimes progress through a middle phase where they are conjoined with a hyphen, and often reach their ultimate form as a single word. Readers read single words as pronounced differently than separate ones. (Compare “a greenhouse” to “a green house” to see what I mean–the stress falls on the first word in compounds.) Dictionaries supposedly take the commonality and pronunciation of a compound into consideration when determining whether the term should be one word or two. In practice, this is simply not true. I’ve never met a copyeditor who pronounced “copy editor” as two separate words, yet Web11 insists the term should be separate. (I prefer it as one word, and this is my journal, so I’m welcome to set it as such. :-)) A more common example can be found in the compound “restroom.” Even Web10, which was in use just a few years ago, still maintained that the compound should be spelled “rest room,” which was simply ridiculous–it is not a room in which one goes to rest, and no one says it that way. I left it as one word if the author had it that way, and Web11 has finally caught up with me.
At this point I should note that my graduate degree is in linguistics (specializing in sociolinguistics), and partly because of that I am very much a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist.* (This is evident to anyone who follows my journal, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.) I know for a fact that every language changes, that the change is inevitable, and that no attempt to force a language into stasis will last. I embrace linguistic change, because it reflects our society.
And fiction, of course, should reflect the society it is portraying.
Compounding plays into this, in my opinion, more overtly than one might believe. By forcing compounds into their current dictionary forms, a copyeditor (or the production editor requesting the change) is forcing the language to reflect our current society. In science fiction and fantasy and historical romance and many other genres I might edit, that is simply not in the best interests of the book.
In a medieval setting, for instance, different types of swords might be so important that the reader may be able to accept their commonality more clearly through a clear indication of pronunciation. You would have broadswords and longswords rather than broad swords and long swords. In a novel set aboard a spaceship you would have an airlock rather than an air lock. (I actually believe we have airlocks now–another item on which I disagree with Web11.) In fantasy worlds, authors compound any number of terms to reflect the world they’ve created, and those compounds should be allowed to do that.
Again, as in my “Zen” post, what it all comes down to is respect for the work in question. Authors know the pronunciation they intend when they compound a term. They may not be consistent in their selection, in which case I have to choose the option I feel best suits their novel, but in making that selection, I look to the society the author is portraying rather than to the dictionary.
*This is not to say that I am unaware of prescriptivist rules or think them useless. I got my start in publishing, fifteen years ago, by editing college textbooks, and strict adherence to grammatical conventions is necessary for that audience. I know the rules of grammar backward, forward, and upside down; I simply believe that copyediting in fiction is more often a matter of knowing which rules to break than a matter of applying said rules with rigidity.
I'm a freelance copyeditor specializing in fantasy and science fiction. SF/F novels I have copyedited have been finalists for (and have sometimes won) the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Endeavour, Golden Spur, John W. Campbell Memorial, Quill, Locus, Philip K. Dick, British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. In 2007 I became the first and only copyeditor ever short-listed for a World Fantasy Award.