The plagiarist

Four-frame cartoon. Frame 1: An editor sits at a desk and an author is in a chair facing the editor. The editor says, "“…and you’ll probably want to make some changes to this section here, or you might face accusations of plagiarism.” Frame 2: The author, panicked, says, “Oh my god. You’re telling me I committed plagiarism?! Are you… are you going to report me to the authorities?” The editor is confused, saying “What? No, I’m—” Frame 3: The author says, “I swear I didn’t do it on purpose!” The author says, “I believe you! Unintentional plagiarism happens a lot. We just have to fix—” Frame 4: The author says, “I CAN’T GO TO JAIL! MY FAMILY NEEDS ME!” And the editor, flabbergasted, says, “I… I just think you need to add some quotation marks and citations.”Last spring Mark Allen asked those of us who’d been guests on That Word Chat to contribute door prizes for the annual Freelancers Happy Hour in conjunction with the ACES: The Society for Editing national conference.

My contributions were:

  • an ebook copy of Midlife (there’s still time to get your hardcover before they’re gone forever!) and
  • a bespoke four-panel cartoon.

The winner of the cartoon was Vee White, and when I contacted them to discuss ideas, they told me about an international plagiarism survey they and Andrea Klingler conducted on a sample of editors, writers, and publishers who work with English-language content.

They’re working on compiling the results, but attitudes toward plagiarism apparently span a spectrum from believing plagiarism is no big deal to, well, the (over)reaction you see here.

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Bad breath

Two-frame cartoon. Frame 1 shows bespectacled editor and curly-haired editor sitting at a table with their laptops open. Bespectacled editor says, “What’s your approach to ‘breathe’ commas?” Curly-haired editor says, “If I see them, I’ll abide.” Frame 2: Bespectacled editor says, “Oh, really?” Curly-haired editor says, “I mean, sighing is a KIND of breathing.”

Frances Peck said it best in Peck’s English Pointers:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary commas for the same reason that a symphony should have no unnecessary pauses. True, commas add rhythm, and more importantly clarity, to our writing. But, if we use too many, of them, our writing becomes difficult, for people, to read, and our ideas end up fragmented, instead of connected.

For years participants in my grammar and writing workshops have magnanimously imparted their golden rule for commas: use a comma whenever you would take a breath. And for years I have regretfully but pointedly burst their bubble. That simple rule, which so many have clung to since their tender years, works occasionally (even often, if you’re a speechwriter or playwright), but it also gives rise to the superfluous commas that pollute our prose, bobbing up disconcertingly like plastic bottles in the ocean.

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