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A Word, Please: In the copy-editing world, there are always new lessons to learn

You learn something new every day.

In most professions, that's a good thing. But for copy editors, it's a kick in the pants. It means there's something you should have learned years ago but didn't. It means that, even as you were getting paid to catch errors, you were blind to some. It hurts.

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For editors — or anyone who wants to use the language well — humility is key. You have to know when to look up stuff, even if it's stuff you've already looked up a hundred times. And you have to accept that after years or even decades on the job, you can still get sucker-punched by your own ignorance.

Yes, I'm talking about myself.

Just days ago, editor extraordinaire and Twitter friend Karen Conlin tweeted the difference between bouillon, which is clear broth, and bullion, which is gold or silver bars, ingots, nuggets or coins.

File this under O for "ouch." I had no idea. I don't even have a good excuse for not knowing. I follow gold markets. I even have in a safe deposit box a wee bit of bullion that I'm pretty sure isn't soup.

These things happen, I suppose. It was pretty late in my career when I noticed "envelope" wasn't a verb. To surround or enclose something, you envelop it. Not long before that, I'm embarrassed to say, I learned how to spell "embarrassed."

Clearly, this isn't a gig for delicate egos. Sometimes, even when I've made the effort to learn something, I have to keep looking it up because it doesn't stay in my memory banks.

"Comprise" is a good example. I know not to use it in place of "compose" in instances like "The salad is composed of lettuce and tomatoes." But usually I just avoid it altogether. As a result, I know how not to use it. I just don't know how to use it. That works out OK in my own writing, but in editing it's not nice to change a writer's words just because I'm too lazy to look them up. So I look it up. Again and again.

In editing style, "comprise" means "to be made up of." The play comprises three acts. "Compose" means to make up: The play is composed of three acts.

Technically, you're allowed to use "comprise" in place of "compose": "The salad is comprised of lettuce and tomatoes." But Merriam-Webster's dictionary cautions against this.

Here's another term I've looked up a thousand times and am sure I'll look up a thousand times more: water ski. It's my favorite example of the capriciousness of hyphenation rules: "A water-skier water-skis on water skis." Notice how one of those isn't hyphenated. It proves that sometimes the only way to know how to hyphenate a term is by checking a dictionary and making sure you note every sense of the word: noun, transitive verb, intransitive verb, etc.

Sometimes, the information I already learned becomes obsolete. Style guides keep changing the rules. For years, Associated Press style insisted you use the Web, the Internet or e-mail. Now, they insist, it's the web, the internet and email.

Until not long ago, a person's age or a salary range couldn't be "under" a certain number. It had to be "less than" that number. No more. You can now say the camp is for children under 12 and that the median salary for copy editors is under $60,000.

You don't have to listen to AP if you don't want to. They're not the boss of you. But they are the boss of a whole lot of news media whose practices have a big influence on what's perceived as right and wrong.

Luckily, you're not expected to be right all the time. But take it from someone who falls short on a regular basis: If you remember to lean hard on your dictionary, even looking up words you've already looked up, you can come close.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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