When in Doubt, Query!


Among the many challenges of secondary English editing, or editing writers using English as a second language, is deciphering meaning in some unclear sentences. A good copy editor should never, ever guess at the meaning. There’s no shame in querying the writer.

FirstEditing.com has a huge client for secondary English editing, largely because of its dissertation editing services and thesis editing services. There are also many writers seeking secondary English editing for their manuscript, and FirstEditing.com does a brisk business in manuscript editing services.

Secondary English editing takes a special muscle in the editor’s brain. Most writers writing in English as a second language actually have a better grasp of English grammar and punctuation than those writing in English as a first language.
Given the quirky nature of the English language, the quality of most of the thesis, manuscripts and other documents submitted to FirstEditing.com by writers seeking secondary English editing is actually pretty impressive. It takes native English speakers years of schooling to figure out the ins and outs of our often illogical language, so some stumbling by those who didn’t grow up speaking English is understandable.
Experienced professional editors find certain pitfalls are almost universal in secondary English editing. Wrong prepositions are almost a certainty. Pronoun/subject agreement and verb tense can also be a challenge. Those are easy fixes. They’re obvious for any professional editor.
But one of the biggest pitfalls in secondary English editing is the sentence that simply doesn’t make sense. The editor is cruising along, changing “of” to “to,” “he” to “they,” when she suddenly comes across a sentence that makes no sense.

Frequently, writers for whom English is not a first language get their words mixed up, particularly verbs. Sometimes that’s why a sentence makes no sense. Sometimes, the problem is worse than that.
The temptation often is to try to figure out what the writer meant. After all, the context is clear. A word of warning. If it is not absolutely clear what the writer meant, an editor should not change the word. She should query. Even if it seems clear and the editor has the perfect verb, a note to the writer asking “Is this change okay?” is always in order.
If it’s less obvious, and the editor is just guessing, leave it alone. Add a note to the writer simply saying “meaning not clear,” or something equally simple.
Sometimes it goes against an editor’s grain to do that. A professional editor wants to be — and is — the authority. But a professional editor is not a mind reader. And the biggest responsibility in the editor’s job is to aid the writer, not to add something that’s incorrect to his dissertation, thesis, or manuscript.
Some editors are afraid that the writer will think the editor is not doing her job if she does not change the sentence. Most writers, however, appreciate feeling as though they’re part of the process. It is, after all, their creation.
So, in secondary English editing, when the meaning is unclear, don’t guess. Query.

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