Working as a copyeditor: How to look up language questions

Working as a copyeditor: How to look up language questions

April 21, 2020 By Erin Brenner Resources

Editors spend a lot of time looking things up, even—no, especially—when we think we know the rule. It’s not that we aren’t well trained but that we know it’s a very human trait to misremember a rule or advice.

No one can know every grammar rule, every nuance of usage, every style point. Even if we could, something would change as soon as we learned it. Living languages are always changing: just keeping up with the changes can be a full-time job, never mind the time it takes to decide how the change or rule applies to the manuscript at hand.

In copyediting, it’s always better to know. To be certain. Because when we misremember, we can introduce errors into the text, and that’s a no-no.

So it’s critical for copyeditors to know how to look things up, where to look for them, and how to judge what we find. And yet, over time, we can forget the basic lessons of how to look things up. Far too often, we rely on opinions from our colleagues rather than on time-tested reference works.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a time for asking our colleagues. Generally, it’s when we need to gather opinions rather than rules or when our research hasn’t turned anything up.

Before we usurp our colleagues’ time, however, let’s get back in the habit of looking things up. When it comes to language-related questions, we should follow a pyramid of references.


At the top of the pyramid are references customized for the manuscript or publication: the project style sheet and the house style guide. These documents were created specifically for the manuscript and (should) contain any exceptions to any commercial reference works the project follows.

Most editors know to check these resources first. But if they don’t yield results, it’s time to broaden the search.


Moving down the pyramid, we next consult what I think of as the “big three” of copyediting:

  1. A style manual
  2. A dictionary
  3. A usage manual

These, too, should be consulted in a defined order. Every project should have an assigned style manual and dictionary to use for most language questions. The style manual will give you information not only on style but also on grammar, word choice, voice, and tone. The manual may depart from dictionary advice, so to maintain a stronger style in the manuscript, consult this first.

With matters of spelling, of course, check the assigned dictionary. And if your style manual doesn’t answer your grammar or usage question, check the dictionary.

On matters of current usage where the style manual and dictionary fall silent, check out a usage guide, such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern English Usage. A usage guide describes how common words and phrases are actually used and often advises on what’s acceptable usage in specified situations.


But what if the big three don’t answer your question? Perhaps you’ve got a grammar or usage question that’s just not covered. Maybe you’ve got a new word, a regional dialect, jargon, or slang on your hands. Or maybe you have to come up with a new style rule for your publisher.

Now you have to break out other resources—and this is where having a good library, both physical and digital, can help you shine as a copyeditor. You’ll want references on language and writing, as well as subject-matter references.


You can get reference works on grammar, linguistics, vocabulary, and editing, among other topics. Be certain to choose materials written by reputable authorities. There are lots of peevers out there who throw around their (often misguided) opinions as grammar rules. Do your homework when choosing the references you’ll rely on in your work. Some trustworthy language resources include:

To research current real-world usage, check out:


Even if you don’t write, you can still benefit from reading about writing. Such resources can help us understand how and why words work the way they do. They can help us understand what it is our writers are trying to do and teach us how to get them there. The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing is a great resource, as is anything written by Roy Peter Clark.


Identify the experts in the fields you edit in and become familiar with their published work. Seek out primers on your niche. For example, I have a collection of books about marketing on my shelf and plenty of marketing blogs in my RSS feed reader. The deeper you dig into a subject, the better you can edit it.


Are copyeditors better off investing in print resources, jumping to digital, or mixing the two? It’s really a personal decision.

We’re comfortable with our print resources and we know how to judge them. We can read the recommendations on the jacket; if we’ve heard of the recommender, we might trust them more. Or we can take into account what they say and ask ourselves if it fits our situation. And we can flip through the book, looking at things we’re already familiar with to see if they match up. We know how to judge print.

But there’s so much more available in the digital world, and many items that just aren’t available or affordable in print. Digital resources are also:

Cost is another factor to consider, however. Print books may not be updated as frequently, but you don’t have to purchase updates as often, either.

When you’re deciding between print and digital, ask yourself:

Print or digital, the reference works we purchase for work are (generally) tax deductible. You’ll want to consult your tax preparer for specifics, but reference works, like training, can qualify as business expenses, whether you’re an employee or a freelancer. That may make annual subscriptions a little more doable.


Editors spend a large portion of our work time looking things up—or we should. Following a structured approach using vetted references can help ensure quicker, more accurate answers.

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

This article was originally posted on on 9/20/18.

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