Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

How many dictionaries does it take to tell you how to spell "light bulb"?

by Rob - February 20th, 2009.
Filed under: Writing.

The American Heritage English Dictionary says it’s two words: “light bulb.”

Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says it’s two words: “light bulb.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says it’s one word: “lightbulb.”

When a book is being copyedited, the copyeditor must specify which dictionary he or she is conforming to, unless (a) the publisher specifies one, or (b) the author specifies one. But regardless of who chooses it, all spellings in a given book are supposed to conform to a single dictionary’s usage (and, yes, I know: Emerson was probably right when he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”).

I always specify in my notes to the copyeditor the one I’m using, and when I was at Tor I got into the habit of specifying Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (first the 10th edition, now the 11th, known in the trade as Web 10 and Web 11 respectively), which was that publisher’s preference, and I’ve carried that over to the WWW trilogy.

And so in Watch, the one and only reference to an incandescent lighting device is going to be spelled as a single word (even though it looks wrong to me). But, man, you’d think we’d have no ambiguity about such a common term at this late date!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

4 Responses to How many dictionaries does it take to tell you how to spell "light bulb"?

  1. I read your comments about copyeditors ("Notes for the copyeditor") and was interested to see that you don't seem to hold them in high regard. Other authors whose blogs I read, for instance, Shannon Hale ( and Janette Rallison ( have expressed deep appreciation for the editors they've worked with (except in Rallison's case with Cedar Fort editors — Cedar Fort isn't known for careful editing).

    I suppose a second-rate publisher might employ "an English-literature grad student looking to pick up a few extra bucks," but for publishers who take pride in their work, this is not the case. A good editor has at least 10 years of experience in the field.

    Copyediting and proofreading a book is a painstaking, thankless task, and the sole point of it is to make the author and publisher look perfect. A copyeditor's name never appears in the book.

    The truth about the minutiae for which you show so marked a preference — the open/closed compounds, variant spellings, commas, etc. — is that most readers don't really take notice of these things. Copyeditors' biggest service to an author lies not in conforming a manuscript to house style, but in correcting actual errors. My question is, despite your small grievances with copyeditors' work, haven't you ever had the occasion to be extremely grateful for an editor? An oversight in the plot, for instance? An obvious inconsistency? A grossly erroneous typographical mistake?

    If you have a story (or a few) of how a copyeditor saved your life, I (and all the other editors out there) would love to see it on your blog. It wouldn't do other authors any harm either to know that editors have their uses.

  2. Pete, you're referring to this.

    Your note seems to conflate "editor" and "copyeditor." They're not the same thing. I am grateful for my copyeditors (and it's no more a "thankless job" than any other job that people do for money is), but I can't think of any example were one has saved my life, or anything remotely like that. I'm not being deliberately chary with praise; I'm just telling the truth, and only telling it because you asked me point-blank.

    That said, I do acknowledge the considerable value copyeditors and editors bring to the publishing process (and the value that proofreaders, who you did not mention, add as well).

  3. Thank you; that's nice to hear. Editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders are so often undervalued, despite their work calling for a fair level of expertise. Not anyone can pick up a red pen and do a decent job of editing (or copyediting, proofreading, etc.); and most English-lit graduates are sadly underqualified for the job. Their knowledge of grammar is very good, but unless they have taken specific editing courses, they lack a knowledge of most of the other important issues in editing, as well as the very close attention to detail that is necessary.

    I stand by the word "thankless." Pay is not the same as thanks. As an author, if your work is done well, you receive many forms of praise and thanks affirming your skill — good reviews, fan letters, posts on your blog, awards, etc.

    In contrast, it is typical for an editor (copyeditor, proofreader) to get attention only if his work is done poorly. His publishing company expects perfect work from him, because except in the case of more substantive editing, he either catches everything, or he doesn't: his work was up to standard, or it wasn't. So he gets pay from them, but not much thanks.

    The one person in a position to notice and appreciate an editor's (copyeditor's, proofreader's) careful work is the author. Every now and then you meet an author who can't thank editors (etc.) enough for the work they do. Maybe the authors in this category are the ones who've had the embarrassment of seeing a mistake of theirs in print.

    But unfortunately, editors (etc.) also deal with other authors, ones who are always looking for a reason their original text was "right" and who fight each edit down to the last comma — and grudgingly (but silently) accept every good, even excellent catch.

    When I read your "Notes for the Copyeditor," I was afraid you were one of these types. This last post of yours cleared that up, and I'm grateful to you for acknowledging the "considerable value" of editors.

    But I still think you do copyeditors a great disservice by saying they are "often an English-literature grad student looking to pick up a few extra bucks." I wonder if you have any evidence for this. And as far as being "capricious" and changing things "they have no business changing" — every item on your style sheet is a simple matter of house style (at least in the cases of the four publishers where I have worked). If you as an author have strong preferences that absolutely must be followed, it is right (and I must say, very considerate) that you should provide a style sheet so that the copyeditor doesn't have to do needless extra work. But to impugn a copyeditor's work for doing exactly what his publisher asks him to do seems unfair.

  4. Was on a panel this past weekend at Capricon 30 in Chicago (where I was Guest of Honor). Spontaneously, Jody Lynn Nye — a major SF&F author in her own right, and spouse of major book packager Bill Fawcett — made almost identical comments as the ones I'd made, including echoing my observation (borne out by my own experience as an acquiring editor for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a mid-sized Canadian publisher) about copyeditors and English-lit grad students.

    Don't get us wrong: there are good copyeditors, but there are far too many who make the process frustrating and irritating, when it doesn't have to be.

Leave a Reply