We’re editors: we live to edit things. We’re horrified when we have to leave something we see as wrong. But sometimes the situation demands that we do.
One of my students was editing the final report of a year-long project. The manuscript was a Word file that included images created in another program and saved as JPG files. The images were from previous presentations and reports, so readers had seen them before.
The term socio-economic was used throughout the document, including in many of the images. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the project dictionary) listed only the closed form as a recognized spelling. Indeed, many major dictionaries listed only socioeconomic.
The deadline loomed. Changing the text would be easy. One Find and Replace, and she’d be done. But the images would need to be changed, one by one, in the original software, resaved as JPGs, and re-imported into Word.
Was there a case for leaving socio-economic hyphenated? Consider the following.
Will readers recognize it as an error?
The dictionaries are consistent, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that usage overwhelmingly favors the closed version (4,897 instances). Yet there are a few instances of the hyphenated version (843), almost all from academic works. Apart from preventing an unreadable clump of vowels in a word, do we know why some words are hyphenated and others are closed? I don’t think we do, which bolsters the argument that readers won’t perceive this as a mistake.
Is the error consistent?
As noted, every instance was hyphenated in the manuscript. This increases the chance that readers won’t recognize the hyphenation as an error. Readers notice when something stands out; this would blend in. Further, my student’s manager pointed out that the hyphenated form has been used in related documents throughout the project, so a change now might be noticed.
Will fixing the error risk the deadline?
How much work is involved in fixing the error? In this instance, each image would need to be corrected, making it likely they would miss the deadline if they made this change.
My student determined that since readers likely wouldn’t recognize socio-economic as an error, the spelling was consistent within the document and with previous related documents, and fixing it might mean missing the deadline, she left it alone.
Yes, editors want to make manuscripts as perfect as they can be. But we need to do so within the time we have and within the parameters of the project and in a way that meets readers’ needs.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, November 4, 2016.