Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Confessions of a repatriated editor


Confessions of a repatriated editorFor more than 20 years as a journalist and editor in Australia I worked hard to purge myself of the Americanisms that sometimes crept into my work. I was eager to adapt not only to Aussie English, but to the metric system as well.

In the beginning I was perhaps a bit too eager: as a junior sub-editor at The Canberra Times I once converted nautical miles to nautical kilometres. The check sub leaned over to me and said gravely, 'Nautical miles are nautical miles.'

Now, when I’m finally starting to get the hang of it, I find myself living again for a while in my native US, and for the first time in more than two decades, doing some freelance editing here — for Yale University.

It’s a bit like learning to drive a car on the right (that is, the wrong) side of the road again. Years ago I learned to drive on the right side, then moved to Australia where I had to learn how to drive on the left side. Since then I’ve been back and forth between the two countries many times, and have become reasonably proficient in switching driving styles.

But I’m not sure it will be that easy to make the switch in my editing. Once-familiar American spellings and abbreviations now seem foreign to me. I’m so used to dropping the periods (sorry, full stops) from 'US', for example, that U.S. looks a little too busy. And years of reading 'per cent' as two words have made me want to pull out my blue pencil every time I see it here as one, 'percent'.

In my first US editing job I had to constantly remind myself, as I did when I first began driving in Australia, just which side of the language I was supposed to be on. All those years in Australia of coming to terms with '-re' and '-our' suffixes have made finding the 'center' of an American document more 'labor-intensive' than it used to be.

And then there is the problem of '-ise' and 'ize'. It’s taking a while to reacclimatise/reacclimatize to that one. At least they’re pronounced the same in both countries, unlike some words. (If you’re shopping for basil here, ask for 'bayzil', not 'bazzle'.)

Confessions of a repatriated editorBy the time I’d made my way through the first edit of a document here my head was spinning between the two hemispheres and I was in need of some calming herbal tea – and I mean some strong 'herb', with an aspirated 'h', not one of those quieter American 'erbs'. On second thought, I passed on the tea and poured myself a drink.

Certainly not to condone drinking and driving, but to return for a moment to the driving analogy, it occurred to me that even harder than learning to drive on the left side of the road in Australia was relearning to drive on the right side when I returned to the US the first time. I nearly got creamed in downtown Honolulu attempting to make a left turn into the right lane of oncoming traffic. Those drivers were pissed (in the American sense of angry, not drunk). I was mainly pissed off with myself.

After that near miss, I settled down. But now, no matter which country I’m in, whether driving or walking, I look left and right two or three times before crossing the road or changing directions. In editing, that’s called double- and triple-checking, and while it slows the process down considerably, it probably prevents lots of noses from being smashed into the curb (sorry, kerb).

It might help if I had a different computer in each country, one with a left-hand drive here and one with a right-hand drive in Australia, so that when I’m starting to veer onto the wrong side of the language a little bell would ring, warning me it’s time to pull back across the line.

Come to think of it, that’s probably what my computer is trying to tell me every time it underlines some word that looks fine to me and automatically changes the spelling of another, such as 'realise', to 'realize'.

It seems to think it knows which country we’re in; I’m not yet so sure.



submit a comment

Existing comments

What are the "+" marks for, alongside some of the words in the box? And do you know that American scientists have agreed to use "aluminium" (which is at least analagous with "sodium" &c) in exchange for the rest of the English-speaking scientific world agreeing to use "sulfur"?

Michael Grounds | 20 September 2007  

Interesting point about aluminum/aluminium. The longer I was away from the US, the weirder the former looked. It still looks weird. As for sulfur/sulphur, I still refer to the stylebook of the particular publication I'm working for to determine which it prefers, as its usage seems to be traveling/travelling all over the place! Sorry I can't answer your question about the "+" marks alongside some words in the box. Maybe the editors can enlighten us both on that one.

Robert Hefner | 22 September 2007  

What a delight, or is it delite. To find that culture differences work in both directions is most soothing. Especially after being told by a crossword compiler in a major metropolitian daily that 'to cheat' was 'to hornswoggle', a verb last used in a Zane Grey Western of the 1930's.

Jock McQualter | 22 September 2007  

Similar Articles

Passive aggressive Pilger hurls well-aimed stone at his Goliath

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 19 September 2007

With his shag of grey hair and weather-worn face, Aussie journalist-cum-documentarian pits his astute investigative mind and radical's spirit against no lesser rival than the American political empire.


Local anti-hero

  • Ian C Smith
  • 19 September 2007

Writing music and busking now, abstinence and rice have rendered him thin. / The film industry's movers and shakers must seem a long way behind now, his days of editing, a retrospective haze.