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Posted by on Jan 29, 2008 in Uncategorized | 15 comments

Frustrating bloody copy-editors

Just want to get something off my chest.

I have just received a hard copy of my forthcoming book The Great Philosophers. I always receive these new books with trepidation, because I know I’ll quickly stumble on something that’ s slipped through the editorial net.

The problem with writing philosophy books for trade publishers is the copy-editing.

Philosophy text is extremely easy to screw up. Miss out a quotation mark, change “a” to “the” etc. and you turn very carefully written philosophical prose into gibberish.

Copy editors make literally hundreds of such little changes (I guess more than 500 in this one). And they don’t flag them up.

In both the DK book and, to a lesser extent, this one, the copy editor, by trying to “improve” my writing, has turned it into embarrassing crap. Most of the crap I spot in the short time I am given to proof read the text (in this case, a week, while on family holiday in foreign country).

Inevitably some of the crap slips through.

In this book, for example, the section on Wittgenstein talks about ‘the way in which “pain” functions’. i.e. the way the word ‘pain’ functions. Talking about a word requires putting it in quotation marks. The copy editor obviously thought there were too many quotations marks, so just randomly took out half of them. Including from headings.

So here’s my new year’s resolution – from now on I am going to insist that copy editors flag every single last bloody change they make. Even cutting a quotation mark. I recommend anyone writing similar books do the same.

(Having said that, I’m otherwise quite pleased with the book)


  1. I’ve had the same problem. Copy editors are illiterate cretins. In one of my books, they removed ALL the quotation marks I’d deliberately put around words to indicate their mis-use. I gave up…The only thing to do is to insist that there is a clause in your contract stipulating that no editorial “corrections” are made except those you yourself insert or approve when proof-reading.

  2. Stephen – I am trying to include a hyperlink in my response to you but cannot figure out how to do it. Can you or anyone spare the time to help? Thanks

  3. I feel your pain. I’m leaving the office in ten minutes for the launch party for my first novel. I’ve been rehearsing a reading today and discovered that the book’s hero, Brother James, now grabs the Mexican villian, Pointing Student, and screams “so psycho, so psycho” at him rather than “soy psycho, soy psycho.”

  4. Hasty generalization.There are good and bad — and everything in between — copy-editors. You apparently are dealing with a poor one. Like any professional we need to deal with, the good ones make life easy, the bad ones make life hell.Same with philosophers. 😉

  5. Hi IbrahimI have never figured that out either. I am not sure you can.Terence is right – they are not all crap. In fact some have been very “light touch” (Routledge was excellent and Orion and Headline good too).The DK book was the most stressful. Every page has its illustrations chosen and positioned and the text boxes laid out BEFORE A SINGLE WORD OF THE BOOK HAS BEEN WRITTEN. You must then write the text, one designed page at a time, TO FIT ROUND THE PICTURES. It never does fit exactly, so they cut it, or bulk it out (yes – they actually add text).

  6. Hey Dr Law, I have time to read either your book or Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Why should I read yours?

  7. Is this book being serialised in the Independent today – or is that a different thing?

  8. different thing – bit of a coincidence though.

  9. The punctuation on the Amazon site is a treat. Who knew that the book would include an entry for James Nietzsche?

  10. I’ve just put an order in at my bookstore for this book. Is it possible for a complete list of the errors to be put on this website so that I can make corrections as I read it? Perhaps you already have a scribbled list that could simply be scanned and put up here?

  11. Great PhilosophersCorrectionsp. 9 there is missing space line between “against their own experience.” And “On the other hand, those who claim….: 3/4s way down the page. Can one be fitted in?p. 11. 8 lines from bottom. Change “a moral conclusion to draw” to “the moral conclusion to draw.”p. 12. In biog box. Line 3. “Confucious for one. Yuk. Could it be “Confucious is one example”.p.13 4 paras from bottom. “central claims seems just wrong, doesn’t it?” change to “seems mistaken, doesn’t it?”*p17. First line change from “are designed to try to show” to “are designed to show”*p27. Text box. Para 2 from bottom. Can you please insert “Plato denied there are such forms.” Between “…argument that led us to it.” And “In which case…”P 27. Two “in particular”s in final para. Delete second, so final sentence begins “Plato’s thinking on…*p. 29. Para 2 should start, Let’s begin by looking at the distinction between…”*p. 30 line 2 main text. Change from “are likely to confuse and mislead us” to “can only confuse and mislead us.”p. 30. Final line. Would be better if read “”Unlike Plato, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of empirical investigation.”P34. Line 7. Change from “science would regard as false” to “science has shown is false”P34. Line 15 from bottom. Change from “sin ought not to be inheritable…” to “Sin is not inheritable…”*P38. Last line para 2. Change to “If it didn’t exist, it would not be as great as it could be.” (Instead of “…perfect in every way.”P.38. line 1 should end “…to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is.” (i.e. cut “such an island”.P42. 3 lines from bottom. Cut “that” between “interpretations” and “should”.P55. First line of final para. Insert “the” between “challenge to” and “views of many”.*P73. Para 3. Last line. Change “concepts” to “entities” like so: “Locke calls these inner entities that ….”*p. 82. Line 2. Leibniz is not one of the foremost rational philosophers. He is one of the foremost rationalist philosophers. Change rational to rationalist.P116. Para 3. Change “Drawing on the sea analogy, we might say…” to “Drawing an analogy, we might say…”P134. Half way down page. Change to read. “Many Westerners hold this belief, but (though few of them would accept this) there is little evidence to support their belief and…” note I have added a comma after “but” and changed “this” to “their” (to avoid repitition) and also brackets, because confusing.*P141. 2 para from bottom. Change from “…informative, given the natural way of understanding…” to “informative, given a natural way of understanding….”*P 142. Last line should read “captured and communicated by sentences in which…” not “statements in which”.P143. Line 2. Cut “But” so second sentence starts “The latter is not…”P145. Para 2 should start “Husserl’s radical approach… not “Husserl’s original approach (which is ambiguous)*P148. Para 1. Line 2. Change from “Russell considered his description theory” to “Russell considered his theory of descriptions…”THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! If there is not room, I suggest rejig first line so: “Our focus is on Russell’s theory of descriptions and his…”P150 para 2. Line 2. Change from “Sayong, “No one is happy’ is…” to “To say ‘No one is happy’ is…”P 155. Para 2 from bottom contains two “rigorous” I suggest replace second with “cogent” like so” “’Common sense’ deems it to be cogent.”P 155. Final line of page should end. “via a different proof”. Cut this so it ends “…it will be in some other way.”WITTGENSTEIN CHAPTER. This contains the most serious problems. Most have been caused by quote marks being omitted in a random way. Here goes…P157. Line 6 from bottom should read “I use ‘pain’ as the name of….” P158. Header should read “Wittgenstein: the meaning of ‘pain’ is wholly public”P159. Again, header needs fixing like so: “Two views about how ‘pain’ functions”The following line should read “… between Wittgenstein’s view of how ‘pain functions and…”P160. Line 5. Should read “If he’s right, the meaning of ‘pain’ is…” i.e. cut the quote marks round ‘meaning’ and insert them round ‘pain’.The remainder of the cock ups concern ‘S’, which in most, but not all, cases should be in quote marks. There were there in the text, but the editor stripped them all out. Because there are so many, I am pasting the text in below with each occurrence of a missing quote mark highlighted in red. They must all go back, or I look like a fool! THERE ARE FIFTEEN OF THEM, NOTE.But why not? Why couldn’t I do the following? I have a certain private inner sensation. I inwardly focus my attention on this sensation, and say to myself, “By ‘S’ I mean this – what I am experiencing right now.” In this way, I introduce a name the meaning of which is itself essentially private. Necessarily, no one else can peek inside my mind and discover what I mean by “S”. Why can’t I introduce a meaningful term in this manner? Wittgenstein insists such a definition cannot work. I might be under the illusion that, having engaged in this inner act of definition, I have now given “S” a meaning. But its meaning is just that – an illusion.Let’s look at the crucial passage from §258. Suppose that, in order to introduce “S”……I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.- But what is this ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. – Well, that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. – But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about “rightness”.The argument presented in this passage is notoriously difficult to decipher. Some philosophers are convinced that Wittgenstein here shows that we cannot introduce meaningful signs in this manner. In which case it would seem to follow that “pain” cannot function in this way either.But other philosophers remain unconvinced. Let’s take a closer look at the argument.No “criterion of correctness”Wittgenstein insists that after I define “S” by focussing my attention on my private sensation, I possess no “criterion of correctness” by which I might check whether I apply the term correctly in future. This does seem to be true. If, later on, I have another sensation that I think is S [NO QUOTE MARKS HERE, NOTICE!] again, there’s nothing available against which I might check whether my memory of how to apply “S” is correct.There is an obvious contrast here with public terms. If I am unsure about whether I have remembered, say, how to apply the term “puce” correctly, I can always go and consult a colour chart. At the very least, I can go and ask others who are more knowledgeable than me about how such terms are applied. But in the case of “S”, no such independent check is available. All I know is that this seems to me like S again. But is it S again? There’s no way to tell.[NOTICE NO QUOTE MARKS ON THE LAST TWO Ss]The final stepAt the end of the quoted passage, Wittgenstein moves from the observation that I possess no criterion of correctness to the conclusion that “we can’t talk about rightness”. The idea here seems to be that, because I cannot check whether I apply “S” correctly, there is no such thing as the “right” or “correct” way to apply it. But if there is no such thing as the “right” way to apply “S”, then surely “S” has no meaning.And so, while I might think I have introduced a meaningful sign, “S” turns out to be meaningless. Many philosophers consider this final step in the argument dubious, to say the least. Why does it follow that if I can’t check whether I apply “S” correctly that there is no such thing as “correct”? Even if I can’t check whether I apply “S” correctly, perhaps I do apply it correctly, all the same.Is Wittgenstein’s argument cogent? I will leave that for you to decide.[TEXT BOX] The beetle in the boxLater in the Philosophical Investigations, (Book 1 §293)Wittgenstein offers an argument designed to show that, whether or not I have succeeded in giving “S” a meaning, the word “pain” certainly does not function in the way “S” is intended to. Here is what Wittgenstein says:]]BACK TO REMAINING CORRECTIONS:P 163. Halfway down page. “interpret” is wrong – makes no sense. Should be “acquire” like so” “explaining how we acquire knowledge of the world.”P166, 4 paras from bottom starts “When we observe someone with a mind, we…” change to “When we observe others, we…”. Also cut quote marks from round ‘behind the scences’. At end of same para.P168. 4 para from bottom last line. Should read: “The fact that zombies are conceivable and involve no such contradiction seems straightforwardly…” i.e. I have added an “and’ after ‘conceivable’, and removed ‘and’ from between ‘contradiction’ and ‘seems’.P177. Para 4. Repeats “over which she has no control”. I suggest replace so it reads “She also treats her hand as if it were a mere disconnected ‘thing’ The truth is…”.The waiter case. First line should read “The waiter plays his role in an exaggerated, clichéd way, balancing his tray and pouring drinks as if he were merely a puppet playing he role of a waiter.”Para 2 from bottom final line insert ‘the’ like so “He pretends that the choice of…”P 180. Para beginning “Arendt thought that..” has two “simply”s. Better to delete second so it reads “…but carried out his orders…”*P188. Last line of text box. Should read “Hence many philosophers have been drawn…” not “are”.P194. Near bottom “In Russell’s analysis” repeats. Better replace second so it reads. According to Russell, the sentence asserts that there is exactly….”*P198. Para 2 from bottom. Should read “…this slight risk does not entail that you are not…” not “say”.I would change final line of page to read “But she is surely correct that, to show that abortion is immoral, it is not enough simply to show that a foetus is a person.”*P199. Kripke attacks the description theory, so would be better if it said “Against the description theory of names.” Sounds like he is for it!P201. Final line should read “synonymous with any of those descriptions.” i.e. “of” not “one”.*P 205. Line 2 contains big error. “where we do” is in wrong place. It should read “…draw the boundary between those who deserve our full moral concern and those who do not where we do – between our species and the rest.”

  12. As Ron Weasley would say, “Bloody Nora!”.Thank you very much for doing this. When my copy of the book arrives in April (I’m in Oz) I will go through and make all these changes, hopefully so they not noticeably distracting, and then start reading from the front cover.

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