Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Betrayed by a comma

This morning I was working on an editing project, zipping along through a lengthy manuscript, working quickly and enjoying being “in the zone.” I’ve been working with this particular client on a number of related projects, and as a result, I’ve gotten to know his style of writing very well, such as how he uses (or mis-uses) punctuation, how he gets its and it’s mixed up, and in particular, how he eschews the “Oxford comma.”

I’m mentioning the Oxford comma not to debate it (there is only one correct answer! Use it!), but because it was the key to unraveling a little mystery that popped up as I was editing.

I was happily editing, working quickly in a nicely-caffeinated buzz, corralling errant apostrophes, inserting lovely and eloquent Oxford commas, (ß like that one right there) and unraveling dangling participles, when I was stopped in my editing tracks by a particular sentence.

After having edited about 50,000 words by this writer in the past week or so, I knew right away that this sentence was not his own. Though I couldn’t immediately identify what made me see right away that this text had been plagiarized, I just knew.

Of course, I searched the sentence in Google, and there it was, in exactly the same form as my writer had used. I refined the search string so that I could determine that this particular text string appeared, in exactly the same form, on 6,190 websites. Refining still further, I was able to track down its first online appearance to a journal article published in 2007.

I highlighted the sentence in the manuscript and added a note suggesting that the author should re-write the sentence or cite the source, and I supplied the citation and link to the 2007 article.

I moved on to the next sentence, and again there was the instant recognition, like a little electric shock, that this sentence had also been plagiarized. Search, check, verify – yup, there it is, this time on “only” 521 websites, also originating in 2007, though from a different source than the first item. Sigh. I added another note to the author: “If there are other instances like this in the manuscript, you might want to address them all before it goes to your publisher.” That’s about all I can do in these cases.

More interesting to me than the act of plagiarism, though, was the fact that I had been able to detect it so easily. I studied the two sentences, curious as to what had made me know, instinctively, that they had been plagiarized.

When, after a moment or two, I figured it out, I laughed out loud: Each of plagiarized sentences included the Oxford comma. This client never uses the Oxford comma, so its presence in these particular sentences was a dead giveaway. Ha!

I’m still laughing over this, but really, I’m so disappointed in this client. Knowing that he stole this content changes the way I perceive him and our working relationship. My trust in him has been eroded a bit, and I will probably be more cautious and careful in all our interactions.

Yes, it matters.

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