Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

My Photo
Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, February 12, 2007

On copy editors, jockstraps and other cosmic questions

Copy editors, bless ‘em. Good ones are hard to find and hard ones are even better to find.

It’s even more of a thrill to find out they’re not pucker lipped crones with flaming red pencils, but a fellow Michigander with a sharp and knowledgeable eye. Such is our latest one, Wendy.

But let's back up a moment. When you write a book, you have only five chances to not end up looking like the world's biggest fool:

  1. Write the best book you can.
  2. Rewrite that book how ever many times it takes to cleanse it of all the cretinous prose, dumb mistakes and smelly cheese.
  3. Have a great line editor who makes you go back and de-cheese it some more.
  4. Luck into getting a great copy editor, who has your back.
  5. And finally, read your galleys carefully

For all practical purposes, your only real last best chance is No. 4. The copy editor. She is the last gas station on Highway 95 between Las Vegas and Searchlight. He is the last butt in the car ashtray after you've just gotten off a four-hour flight. She is the one who tells you your skirt is caught in your pantyhose when you walk out of the bathroom. He is the one who tells you when to zip your fly or button your mouth.

When you get to the galleys, it is too late. The copy editor is all that stands between you and the abyss of hackdom, my friends.

So, we are here today (Kelly is writing this one, too), to praise Wendy the Copy Editor and her unheralded ilk (I think that's the right word...where's Wendy when I need her?)

For our upcoming book A THOUSAND BONES, Wendy corrected our lays and lies without being smug. She knew the difference between Mackinaw and Mackinac. She respected our idiomatic dialogue. She double-checked our French without being snide. (When I was writing romance, I had a British editor who scribbled in the margin of my manuscript: "Considering this author's lack of command in English, I don't think we should trust her French.")

Not only did Wendy help us keep our dates, ages and eye colors straight, she raised a couple plot questions we hadn't thought much about. Once we did think about her polite but pointed questions, we went back in for a final critical rewrite that made the plot stronger.

But copy editors being the eccentric souls they are, Wendy did bring up some questions that we -- or any other writers in their wildest dreams -- would never expect to encounter. Like...

Is underwear plural or singular?

Here is the paragraph as we wrote it:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put them on the heating unit to dry, but they had fallen off during the night and were still wet.

This was her suggested version:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put it on the heating unit to dry, but it had fallen off during the night and was still wet.

This set us thinking...

In almost every Thesaurus reference to underwear, there is an ‘S’ added to the word -- shorts, long johns, panties, drawers, bikinis, undies, woolies, bloomers, flannels, thermals, skivvies, boxers. Despite the fact the clothing in question is, indeed, a single piece of fabric.

Is it because panties have two holes for two extremities that we perceive it to be plural?

"She picked up her panties and put them on."
"He took off his boxers and tossed them to the bed."

This sounds right to us because this is how people think. But that leads us to an even more perplexing question: How come a bra, another single-piece item, which also holds two separate body parts, becomes an IT when we think of it in every day usage? Or what about a jock strap, which is similar but, technically speaking, holds three body parts?

"She took her bra off and laid them on the bed."
"He took off his jockstrap and flung them into the corner."

Whoa, what kind of image does that put in a reader’s head?

Now our particular problem maybe have come from Wendy’s perception that our character had washed both pieces of her underwear, not just her panties. And referring to a set as IT may have been more appropriate, even though we still prefer THEM.

In the end, that’s what we opted for and we’ll see if we won this strange battle when we get our galleys. But here at Cabbages and Kings, (where we do tend to talk about many things) we are here to serve your writing needs. And we writers do love our rules. So we leave you with this:

The Crime Writer's Rules About Underwear

  • Clothing with two sleeves or arm holes are an It.
  • Clothing meant to hold two pieces of the anatomy are an It.
  • Clothing designed for three (or more appendages) are an It.
  • Clothing with two legs or leg holes are a Them.

Except, of course, for a girdle, which is an It. We think.


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

How about:

*Last night she had washed her panties and bra...*

A more specific image, and no more confusion regarding noun/verb agreement.

Just a thought.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"Considering this author's lack of command in English, I don't think we should trust her French."

Ouch, I say (followed by a laugh).

Good undie (s?) question. Yet another perceptive entry in the English Language Is Odd category.

I've been pretty well treated by copy editors and I give them their due. I'm rarely sent out the door untucked.

Mark Terry

9:33 AM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

I love the copyedit stage. Even though I got straight A's in English and was a teacher's pet (except for one year, but we don't have to remember that), my copyeditor sometimes makes me feel like I should be back in seventh grade diagramming sentences.

3:17 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


I actually made my living as a newspaper copy editor at one point. And I was good at catching alot of stuff but at heart I was not a detail person. So I went back to reporting.

For one book, I actually hired a pro to read my galleys for me, I was that paranoid about errors. Even as I write this, my husband (an ex editor) is sitting over there reading my galleys. He catches everything, God bless him!

12:18 PM  
Blogger Cornelia Read said...

I wonder if the it/them with various kinds of underwear correlates to whether or not there's an S on the end of the word, even if it's not an actual plural thingie? Panties=them, underwear=it, etc.?

Maybe she could wash out her undies? That would be an obvious "them," to me.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Finn Harvor said...

I really am not sure that conjugating "underwear" in the singular makes sense, esp when the noun is a synomym for boxer shorts, panties, etc. After all, it forces us to change verb conjugation when we are referring to exactly the same article of clothing. And at least some Brits (and some Americans, too, I imagine) conjugate "underwear" in the plural. There isn't universal agreement among grammarians on this one.

Are you still checking this thread? And are you still in touch with Wendy the copy-editor? Can she explain why "underwear" require this conjugation of the "be" verb? And does every copy-editor she knows do the same thing?

5:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home